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Believing the Gospel is “Sabbath Keeping”"


Of all the Ten Commandments, it’s the Fourth that points more clearly to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

You know, the one where we’re told to “keep the Sabbath.”

I’ve grown more settled over this interpretation across the years, but I was surprised to see NT Wright address it in his massive 1700-page work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, which I just completed.

In a sermon on this subject a few years back, I pointed out that there are three ways Christ-followers might interpret the Fourth Commandment:

The first way is to say, “Everything in the Old Testament is still in force and so we rest and worship on Saturday.”

The second way is to say, “Everything about the Old Testament Sabbath has been transferred to Sunday, and so we rest and worship on Sunday.”

But the third way, the best way to obey the Fourth Commandment in my opinion, is to enter into the rest that God has provided for us in Christ’s work. Contained in the Fourth Commandment is a promise: God has prepared a rest for you and me. Jesus restored our relationship to God through his atoning death on the cross, and as we trust that his work accomplished our reunion with God, we truly enter into rest. This, I believe, is what the letter to the Hebrews is addressing in the discussion of God’s ‘rest’, and the invitation to his people to share it (Hebrews 3:7 to 4:11, drawing on Ps 95:11).

In Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Wright also discusses how the Sabbath command is completed in Christ. He says that Romans 15:7-13 “breathes the air of present reality, the combined praise and worship of Jew and gentile celebrating the Messiah’s completed achievement and his enthronement as lord of the nations; something has happened, something has been completed, and we are now in a time of worship….This is the time of the new creation; the time of the new Temple; the time which, I suggest, constitutes the new sabbath” (page 556).

In our day, says Wright, “‘sabbath’ has been reduced to a generalized ‘day off,’ if that,” and this “may be a reason why the question has scarcely been raised as to what has happened to the sabbath, that vital Jewish worldview-marker, in Paul’s newly-constituted worldview. My proposal here is that his emphasis on ‘the now time,’ the time when the Messiah is ruling in heaven over all things in heaven and on earth, implies within the Jewish mindset at least that the new creation has been accomplished, and that the ‘sabbath,’ not in terms of cessation of work but in terms of God’s dwelling in, and ruling within, the new world has had made, has been inaugurated….God now ‘rests’ in the sense of ‘taking up residence’….As with sacred space, so with sacred time. He [the Messiah] was in himself the new Temple; now he has inaugurated, through his cosmic triumph, the new Time, the great Jubilee, the messianic Sabbath’” (559-560).

He acknowledges that it is a “rather dramatic proposal–the kind of thing wise friends advise one to publish in a recondite journal rather than a mainline monograph.” (560) But he says it gains “oblique support” from the understanding of Sabbath expounded by near eastern expert, John Walton in his Genesis commentary (The NIV Application Commentary on Genesis and also The Lost World of Genesis 1.)

So, Wright entertains “the possibility of understanding Paul’s emphasis on the present rule of the Messiah as the newly constituted ‘sabbath,’ the ‘messianic time’ in which Jesus himself is now ruling the whole world” (561).

If it is right to see the Old Testament Sabbath commands as fulfilled in the rest the Messiah has made available, then the way we “keep the Sabbath” is to enter into that rest and cease our self-salvation efforts.

Review of Martin Hengel’s “Crucifixion in the Ancient World”

In 1 Corinthians 1:23, the Apostle Paul speaks of the Greek reaction to the preaching of Christ crucified as “folly”—the Greek work is mania—“madness.” In his 1973 book, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross, Martin Hengel explains why.

Years ago, watching the classic film, Spartacus, was the first time I saw crucifixion outside of the context of New Testament stories of Jesus’s crucifixion. Hengel’s survey of the use of crucifixion as a penalty in the Graeco-Roman world introduces us to the cultural and emotional background behind the New Testament preaching about a crucified Christ (and intense reactions against the same).

Reading through the book for Good Friday, I was struck by how obscenely common this form of execution was in Rome and even in the surrounding nations of the first century. It was especially useful for political enemies and common as a deterrent to slave revolts.

Hengel surveys the literature of the time that preserves the horror that most people felt about the threat of crucifixion. I was particularly struck by his reference to popular romances of the time, where a cross may be threatened but the hero is always rescued:

Crucifixion of the hero or heroine is part of their stock in trade, and only a higher form of this 'recreational literature', as represented say by Heliodorus' Aethiopica, scorns such cruelty. In the Babyloniaca written by the Syrian lamblichus, the hero is twice overtaken by this fearful punishment, but on both occasions he is taken down from the cross and freed. Habrocomes, the chief figure in the romance by Xenophon of Ephesus which has already been mentioned, is first tortured almost to death and later crucified. Even his beloved, Anthea, is in danger of being crucified after she has killed a robber in self-defence. However, heroes cannot on any account be allowed to suffer such a painful and shameful death—this can only befall evil-doers. Chariton of Aphrodisias, who was perhaps still writing in the first century AD, gives a vivid description of crucifixion as a punishment for slaves: sixteen slaves from the domains of the satrap Mithridates escaped from their lodgings, but were recaptured and, chained together by necks and feet, were led to the place of execution, each carrying his own cross… The hero of the romance is saved at the last moment, just before he is to be nailed to the cross.

Of course, in the Bible’s love story, the hero is not saved from the cross, but suffers and dies, vindicated by resurrection 3 days later.

In fact, the resurrection, in this light, becomes a powerful sign of vindication in a culture that cannot imagine such a thing as a suffering, dying divine hero. But even with the good news of the resurrection, spreading a message of a crucified Son of God was no easy job:

To believe that the one pre-existent Son of the one true God, the mediator at creation and the redeemer of the world, had appeared in very recent times in out-of-the-way Galilee as a member of the obscure people of the Jews, and even worse, had died the death of a common criminal on the cross, could only be regarded as a sign of madness. The real gods of Greece and Rome could be distinguished from mortal men by the very fact that they were immortal – they had absolutely nothing in common with the cross as a sign of shame, the 'infamous stake,’ the 'barren' or 'criminal wood,' the 'terrible cross,' (maxuma mala crux) of the slaves in Plautus, and thus of the one who, in the words of Celsus, was 'bound in the most ignominious fashion' and 'executed in a shameful way'.

But wouldn’t the lower classes have been drawn to the message of the cross, comforted that a god so identified with them? No, says Hengel:

An alleged son of god who could not help himself at the time of his deepest need (Mark 15.31), and who rather required his followers to take up the cross, was hardly an attraction to the lower classes of Roman and Greek society. People were all too aware of what it meant to bear the cross through the city and then to be nailed to it and feared it; they wanted to get away from it.

Even in the first century, then, there was temptation to mitigate the offense of the cross:

For Paul and his contemporaries the cross of Jesus was not a didactic, symbolic or speculative element but a very specific and highly offensive matter which imposed a burden on the earliest Christian missionary preaching. No wonder that the young community in Corinth sought to escape from the crucified Christ into the enthusiastic life of the spirit, the enjoyment of heavenly revelations and an assurance of salvation connected with mysteries and sacraments. When in the face of this Paul points out to the community which he founded that his preaching of the crucified messiah is a religious 'stumbling block' for the Jews and 'madness' for his Greek hearers, we are hearing in his confession not least the twenty-year experience of the greatest Christian missionary, who had often reaped no more than mockery and bitter rejection with his message of the Lord Jesus, who had died a criminal's death on the tree of shame.

“Even now,” Hengel observes, “any genuine theology will have to be measured against the test of this scandal.”

The theological reasoning of our time shows very clearly that the particular form of the death of Jesus, the man and the messiah, represents a scandal which people would like to blunt, remove or domesticate in any way possible. We shall have to guarantee the truth of our theological thinking at this point. Reflection on the harsh reality of crucifixion in antiquity may help us to overcome the acute loss of reality which is to be found so often in present theology and preaching.

Thankfully, though the preaching of Christ crucified is still “madness” to many listeners today (1 Cor. 1:23), Paul assures us in the next verse that “to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks,” the message—indeed the subject of the message—is “the power of God and the wisdom of God.”


“Her death was the antidote for all that was wrong”


Gene Fant, reflecting on Disney’s Frozen:

The film’s world had been plunged into the deepest darkness of winter, families were torn apart, evil was sneering and shameless, everything was falling apart and when the young woman dies, it looks like all is lost. Then something amazing happens: We realize that her death was the antidote for all that was wrong. She returns to life. And spring returns. And relationships are healed. And evil is exposed and brought to justice. And joy returns. In our theater, the audience erupted into cheers.

I was dumbfounded by the movie’s final twenty or so minutes. It was an astoundingly clear parable of the Christian Gospel….

For all of the weariness we certainly feel from the worldly admixtures that fill these sorts of tales, where our efforts or our supposed innate goodness solves the problems of an imbalanced world—and the Disney franchises certainly are chief among these offenders—I was reminded that their breathtaking reach is a kind of pre-evangelism that we must mine for the sake of the Kingdom.

Read the rest.

About Tom

ANCHOR COURSE LOGO Tom Goodman is a graduate of Baylor University and Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, and he holds a doctorate from New Orleans Seminary. He has served as pastor in Louisiana, north Texas, and overseas in Grand Cayman before becoming the pastor of Hillcrest Church in Austin, Texas. Diane and Tom have been married since their days at Baylor University, and they have two sons, Michael and Stephen. Tom enjoys scuba diving, watching the latest Netflix DVD with Diane, and chasing mis-hit golf balls.