The Sabbath was made for man

One of the insights I gained when writing The Generations of Heaven and Earth was what theologian Claus Westermann wrote about the command given to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. He suggested that it was only the command that made relationship possible between man and God, thus enabling true human freedom. As I summarised it in my book:

“The freedom of this relationship arises only from the command; without the command there would be no freedom.”

Now this is a particularly bold statement in that Westermann has just quoted Gerhard von Rad’s words about the preceding permission to eat from any tree of the garden:

“God begins by allowing man complete freedom.”

It is true that the first words of God’s address, about freedom to eat from any tree, give the man his first taste of “autonomy”—and autonomy is how most people nowadays regard “freedom.” But Westermann argues that because this permission is so utterly reasonable in freeing the man from any risk of privation, it is not freedom at all. It is the “unreasonable” command to abstain from the tree—only intelligible through trust in God that eating it will, in fact, lead to death with no understanding of why or how—that actually creates a meaningful relationship with God. And that is because obedience must be based on trust, with freedom either to bestow that trust on Yahweh or not. And the basis of the trust is that it is placed in the same God who created both Adam and the tree. It is faith.

Jon Garvey, The Generations of Heaven and Earth, p.126

I was reminded of that truth during the sermon in church this morning, which as part of a series on Genesis 1-11 was exploring the whole concept of Sabbath. This is a rich theological vein, in fact richer in the Jewish tradition than in most of the Christian tradition, sadly. It ought to be far more appreciated than it is, given the way that the Letter to the Hebrews, expositing Psalm 95, explains how Sabbath represents our future hope of eternal life with Christ. This in turn helps us understand what Jesus’s own fairly extensive teaching on the Sabbath means, including his claim to be “Lord of the Sabbath.”

This claim does not mean that Jesus is so important that he has the right to abrogate the fourth commandment at will, but that he is the Sabbath that the commandment represented:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29).

You may recall that part of what Jesus said on this subject was:

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27-28)

It’s easy to take this as evidence of Jesus’s rejection of the Law of Moses, and its replacement with a liberal attitude to things based purely on relationship. If we love Jesus, the thinking goes, then we don’t need rules about Sabbath keeping (or Sunday observance – a rather questionable application of the fourth commandment in my view, but that’s for some other time). But when I remembered that first command in Eden – given before there was sin, and hence the need for the Mosaic Law – I realised that Jesus was simply explaining the law, not replacing it.

Now, I believe it’s true that he was indeed condemning the petty and oppressive regulations, the “hedge around the law,” enforced by the Pharisees. But he was not saying that the commandment no longer held good for Jews – after all, he kept the Sabbath himself, supremely in the rest of that sacred sabbath between Good Friday and Easter Day. Rather, I think, he was indicating that even the law of the sabbath was made for man, and didn’t simply represent some arbitrary rule by which God chose to be honoured.

By obeying the law – which sometimes in the Old Testament was enforced strictly – an Israelite opened himself to the blessings of God’s own sabbath rest. These blessings included the reminder of Israel’s release from slavery, the experience of God’s provision apart from his own efforts, and a foretaste of the presence of God which, Hebrews 11 reminds us, was always the hope of God’s people. Willing obedience to God’s commandment, by faith, even in ignorance of the full reason for the command, is therefore a door to the fullness of relationship with the Father, through Christ, that is the promise of the Gospel.

It was the same for that first commandment in Eden. If Adam and Eve had obeyed the command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the resulting freedom of open relationship with God would have led to the fruits of true wisdom and eternal life. Their fault was to trust their feelings and to doubt God’s word – they “saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food, and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom.” And they persuaded themselves that the command was a barrier to freedom, rather than the gateway to it. It would be good if someone explained that to the denominational leaders in the West who are changing the laws of God because they see them as curtailing the well-being of people, instead of being the means to that spiritual rest.

These thoughts have given me a better understanding of Paul, in Galatians 3:24, where he says the law has become “a guardian to bring us to Christ.” The actual word is “pedagogue,” which was a slave given overall charge of a child’s education: he did not do the teaching, but made sure the child got to school by fair means or foul. Rather than sloping off once his charge was delivered to the school gate, the pedagogue hung around both to protect and set bounds for the child. So the biblical law is not just an obsolete stage in salvation history, which perhaps led the Jews to understand Christ, or even nowadays, perhaps, urges the sinner who finds himself condemned by it to seek Christ. Instead, it is as we are taught by the Spirit to obey God’s “pedagogic” laws that this obedience opens us to the blessings that come from a living relationship with God.

Avatar photo

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Adam, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply