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Sabbath: Experiencing and Living the Character of God


As we went back into lockdown, one question we started asking in the conference office was, how can we help build faith when people are at home?

One idea that came to mind was to see how we could encourage people to make Sabbath special, particularly on Friday evening. To be honest, I have felt I had been crashing into Sabbath too often, and as my children have been getting older, I have heard the dreaded question asked more frequently, sometime after Sabbath lunch, “what time is sunset?”

I then thought about Sabbath candles. We often lit candles on Sabbath when I was growing up, but now I was thinking about this from a Jewish perspective. Jewish families normally light at least two candles between 18 and 40 minutes before Friday sundown. The woman of the house lights the candles and then says a special blessing, “Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the light of the holy Shabbat.”

Out of all the things that could be said in a Sabbath blessing, the central idea is thankfulness to God who makes His people holy. This is where we bless God—we express our gratefulness to God who makes us to be like Himself. And this Jewish blessing indicates that this change happens through God’s commandments—highlighted in God’s command to keep the Sabbath holy.

This made me wonder about how we could introduce a ritual of Sabbath candles in my own family, and if so, what would they mean? In the end I got three candles. One candle for the Sabbath at creation when the angels sang for joy, one candle for the Sabbath when Jesus lay peacefully in the tomb, and one candle for the Sabbath in the new earth. Each candle representing the rest of the Sabbath—the rest of God’s completed work for us.

I then began a draft of my own Sabbath candle blessing:

Blessed are you, O God, who calls us this Sabbath to rest in your complete work:

Creator of the world, your rest brings us joy.

Saviour of our lives, your rest brings us peace.

King of the Universe, your rest in the world to come brings us hope.

Before we light the candles at Friday sunset, I lay the table and have the meal ready. Then my family can eat a meal that has been completely prepared for them—there is nothing more for them to do. They only need to sit down and enjoy. Hopefully. 

What has struck me most forcibly is that in all its aspects, the Sabbath celebrates the finished work of God. God has worked. He has accomplished what He set out to do. And then He rests—and He invites me to share His rest because everything that needs to be done, has been done.

Which brings me to the title of the lesson this week, “Sabbath: Experiencing and Living the Character of God.” The Jewish Sabbath candle blessing echoes God’s instructions to Moses, “Tell the people of Israel: ‘Be careful to keep my Sabbath day, for the Sabbath is a sign of the covenant between me and you from generation to generation. It is given so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy.” (Exodus 31:13) 

This verse reminds me that God makes us holy—so on Sabbath we can be grateful that God has been at work this week to make us look like Himself. And everything necessary to make this possible, has already been done.

At first, this may sound a little strange. Many of us have absorbed the rather heretical idea that God justifies us and then we have to sanctify ourselves. Over recent centuries, we have held tightly on to Luther’s affirmation that “the just will live by faith”. In Luther’s day, this was important present truth. But as the years have rolled by, I think we have held on to Luther’s conviction a little too tightly at the expense of the reality that we are also sanctified by faith. As a consequence, we have been trying to grow in Christlikeness, and failing too often, when we should have been resting in the work of the Holy Spirit to accomplish only what God can do.

Which brings me to the thorny issue of obedience. Where does obedience fit into all this? After all, the Sabbath is a commandment which is surrounded by nine more. 

I like to explain obedience as choosing to live according to the laws, principles, values, ethics, and morals, that everyone else in the Kingdom of Heaven lives by. Behaving like this is my choice alone because the Holy Spirit will never force obedience upon me. But my obedience doe not make me holy because only the Holy Spirit can make someone holy—for who can change their own sinful nature? So my obedience is not legalistic. Rather, through my choices to obey, obedience creates the possibility, the space, for the Holy Spirit to enter into my experience and do what only He can do—transform me so I can become “conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). And in this work of God, I rest.

Ellen White pulls some of these ideas together and links Sabbath rest to God’s desire to make us all look like Him:

The Sabbath given to the world as the sign of God as the Creator is also the sign of Him as the Sanctifier. The power that created all things is the power that re-creates the soul in His own likeness. To those who keep holy the Sabbath day it is the sign of sanctification. True sanctification is harmony with God, oneness with Him in character. It is received through obedience to those principles that are the transcript of His character. And the Sabbath is the sign of obedience. He who from the heart obeys the fourth commandment will obey the whole law. He is sanctified through obedience.

To us as to Israel the Sabbath is given “for a perpetual covenant.” To those who reverence His holy day the Sabbath is a sign that God recognises them as His chosen people. It is a pledge that He will fulfil to them His covenant. Every soul who accepts the sign of God’s government places himself under the divine, everlasting covenant. He fastens himself to the golden chain of obedience, every link of which is a promise.

The fourth commandment alone of all the ten contains the seal of the great Lawgiver, the Creator of the heavens and the earth. Those who obey this commandment take upon themselves His name, and all the blessings it involves are theirs. (6 Testimonies, 350)

Gavin Anthony is president of the Iceland Conference in the Trans-European Division.

Photo by Simone Pellegrini on Unsplash

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