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A Sabbath-Rest for the People of God

A Sermon on Leviticus 23 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA 01267, 2/28/99


What is the most fundamental form of evil? What is at the heart of all the manifestations of evil you can imagine -- murder, rape, hatred, terrorism?

Recent news offers us some choices: Perhaps the most fundamental form of evil is dragging a man to death because of the color of his skin, as happened in Texas, or wholesale slaughter of one ethnic group by another, as might happen in Kosovo.

This week we want to turn our attention to Leviticus 23. This chapter has been called God's calendar, because it describes festivals God planned for the people of Israel

Most of us turn to calendars to plan or check our agenda for the next few days or months. We don't often turn to calendars to find the answer to deep questions of life. But I would like to suggest that God's calendar does answer such questions, as God through these festivals pictures the proper Christian life. God mandates that the people of Israel perform particular rituals on specific dates as a way of acting out truths that you and I need to take to heart.

In the course of this morning, we will see that God uses His calendar to focus our attention on the dangers inherent in one particular form of evil: Self-righteousness. God shows through these pictures that His people are only truly His when they have abandoned self, when they trust fully in him, when they are able to fall at His feet and pray, "Lord, without you I am nothing, but by your grace you have lifted me up."

In our survey of Leviticus, we have seen that each of the rituals God ordains for the people of Israel contains a picture of New Testament truth. Early in the series we noted that interpreting Leviticus is more akin to interpreting Jesus' parables than interpreting a letter of Paul. When Jesus talks about a farmer sowing seed, he's not giving lessons for how to plant crops; he is giving spiritual lessons through the picture of the sower and the seed. Just so, as we read about different requirements for the people of Israel, our job is to learn the spiritual lessons pictured by each. Let's briefly remind ourselves of some of those lessons:

The first seven chapters of Leviticus describe the five offerings God establishes. Recall that each of these offerings portrays a different provision for God's people, granted through Jesus' death on the cross.

Chapters eight through ten describe God's plan for a priesthood. We saw that, today, God intends each and every Christian to serve as a priest. The clothing, the ordination, and the requirements for the Levitical priests contain rich images that help us to understand our role before God today.

Chapters eleven through fifteen present the laws of cleanness and uncleanness. These show the necessity of preparation prior to entering God's presence, and His provisions for cleansing after being defiled by the world.

Chapter sixteen describes in detail one of the festivals, the Day of Atonement. This ritual emphasizes the efficacy of Christ's death not only in satisfying the requirements of God's justice, but also in doing away with our own guilt.

Then in chapters 17 to 20, God presents His holiness code, a set of laws which answers the question: What does it mean to be holy, to be God's own sacred possession? We saw that holiness is a result of our relationship to God, not a prerequisite for that relationship. Our obedience, our becoming like Him, is a logical consequence of His choosing us as His people. We also saw that the laws which reveal God's character still hold for us today -- because we are to become like Christ. Those laws, however, which were picturing New Testament truth do not hold for Christians -- we fulfill them by living out the pictured truth.

This brings us to Leviticus 23, and the outline of the Israelite festivals. Once again we need to ask the question: As Christians, should we obey the specific requirements listed here? Should we avoid work on the Sabbath? Should we celebrate each of these feasts at different times of the year? Or is all of God's calendar a picture of the Christian life, and so we fulfill the calendar by living out the Christian truths pictured in the festivals?

The Sabbath

Please turn with me in your Bibles to Leviticus 23:

1 The LORD spoke again to Moses, saying, 2 "Speak to the sons of Israel, and say to them, 'The LORD'S appointed times which you shall proclaim as holy convocations--My appointed times are these: 3 'For six days work may be done; but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation. You shall not do any work; wherever you live, it is a sabbath to the LORD.

God begins the description of the feasts by discussing the Sabbath, for all of the feasts to be described later in the chapter are special forms of the Sabbath. Note a few characteristics of the Sabbath that we can glean from this brief description:

Consider also Exodus 31:15, which reads:

For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall surely be put to death.

What is God picturing in the Sabbath? Why did he institute this weekly observance of a day of rest? Why such a heavy emphasis again and again on the absence of work? And what possible reason could God have for instituting such an extreme penalty for engaging in work on the Sabbath?

As always, we need to use Scripture to interpret Scripture. There are many New Testament passages that help us to understand the Sabbath; this morning we will look at two of the most relevant. First, please turn with me to Colossians 2:16-17. Paul deals with a legalistic heresy in the Colossian church by writing these words:

16 Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day-- 17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.

Paul says here that the Sabbath day is a shadow. A shadow! The Sabbath symbolizes some spiritual truth; it is not the reality itself. Furthermore, Paul equates Sabbath observance with observance of the other Jewish festivals. We as Christians do not need to observe the explicit Sabbath regulations any more than we need to observe the Feast of Tabernacles.

Many Christians are confused here. They think of Sunday as the Sabbath, and believe the regulations for the Sabbath laid out in the Old Testament should be transferred to Sunday. But this is not the case. I can't imagine how Paul could have been clearer in Colossians: The Sabbath is a shadow. What is the reality?

Hebrews chapter 4 makes this clear. The author of Hebrews here is expositing Psalm 95 where God, angered at the hardness of the Israelites' hearts, declares they shall never enter His rest. The author of Hebrews shows that God was not talking about "rest" simply as the entering of the promised land, nor simply as the cessation of work on the weekly Sabbath. He concludes in 4:9-11:

9 There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; 10 for anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. 11 Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.

As Doug pointed out last week, entering God's rest is a picture of our depending completely, totally on the shed blood of Jesus for our righteous position before God. We must "rest from our own work," we must stop trying to make ourselves righteous, for we can't do it.

And this is how we fulfill the Sabbath! Note that the author of Hebrews makes this explicit in verse 9: there remains a Sabbath-rest for the people of God, as they rest from their own work. The Sabbath is first and foremost a picture of our giving up trying to make ourselves worthy of entering God's presence, of our acknowledging that we can never live up to His standards, that we can never approach God on the basis of any accomplishment. That is how we keep the Sabbath! And that is why the penalty for violating the Sabbath is so severe!

Recall that I opened today by saying self-righteousness is the fundamental sin. The self-righteous persons believes, "Because I did X or Y, I am better than those other fellows; God now must appreciate me." A self-righteous person is trusting in his own work, his own faithfulness, his own ability to keep rules and regulations better than other people, in order to justify his standing before God.

Violating the Sabbath corresponds to the sin of self-righteousness. So as God pictures this in the life of the people of Israel, he mandates death for Sabbath violators -- because spiritually a Sabbath-violator, a self-righteous person, will not enter the kingdom of heaven. We must become poor in spirit, broken, crushed, depending on Christ and on him alone, if we are to receive God's gift of eternal life in his son. We fulfill the Sabbath by resting completely and totally on His work in our lives.

Before we move on to the next festival, however, I want to make one last comment on resting. Sometimes we have the mistaken conception that resting means sitting back on our haunches, waiting for God to complete His work and take us to heaven. Sometimes we are even told to do nothing, to "let go and let God." But what does the author of Hebrews tell us?

Make every effort to enter that rest. (Hebrews 4:11)

This is a very strange phrase, a paradox: "Make every effort to enter that rest." This is a little like saying, "Work real hard to go to sleep." What does the author mean?

Recall that throughout the New Testament epistles, the apostles exhort us with command after command:

There are hundreds more. This doesn't sound like our sitting back and doing nothing.

Furthermore, look at the example of Paul himself. Did he sit back and take it easy? By no means! He supported himself financially while devoting himself wholeheartedly to the task to which God called him.

But Paul did enter God's rest, while in this life. He tells us how in Colossians 1:29, where he brings the concepts of work and rest together beautifully:

To this end I labor, -- labor! toil! -- striving with all His energy, which so powerfully works in me.

Do you see what Paul is saying? We are to work hard -- but our work consists of learning to depend on His power! We must turn our thoughts, our will to Him, so we are not deceived by the deceitfulness of sin. We must remind ourselves and each other again and again of the truths of who we are in Christ, of Who is in control of this world. We must depend on the power of the Spirit within us to conform us to His image.

So, we are to rest. Yes, rest! But this is an active rest, an active dependence upon God.

Our task as Christians is not simply to let go and let God. Our task as Christians is not one day to say we believe, then to get dunked under water, then wait for God to perfect us and take us to heaven. We are to regularly turn our focus to God, not allowing ourselves to be distracted by the entanglements and temptations around us.

This is how we keep the Sabbath, and why the Sabbath is a regular event. We must daily, hourly turn away from ourselves and our efforts, and lean on God and on his power. In this way, we obey the fourth commandment, fulfilling the Sabbath.

With that central understanding of rest, we can now turn more briefly to the other festivals

Passover and Unleavened Bread

Turn back to Leviticus 23:4

'These are the appointed times of the LORD, holy convocations which you shall proclaim at the times appointed for them. 5 'In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at twilight is the LORD'S Passover. 6 'Then on the fifteenth day of the same month there is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the LORD; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. 7 'On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not do any laborious work. 8 'But for seven days you shall present an offering by fire to the LORD. On the seventh day is a holy convocation; you shall not do any laborious work.'"

You remember the first Passover, which coincided with the last of the Egyptian plagues. God determined to kill the firstborn son in every family in Egypt. The Israelites could be spared -- but they were not spared simply because of their bloodline. Instead, they were spared because of the Blood! God gives explicit instructions in Exodus 12 for the slaughtering of year-old, male sheep or goats, and the placement of animal's blood on the sides and tops of the doorframes of each house. Then, the destroying angel passed over any house covered by that blood.

The firstborn sons of the believing Israelites are saved because of the blood. This clearly pictures the role of Jesus' blood in covering us, in saving us from the death we deserve.

Furthermore, recall the day of Jesus' death. Jesus died at the time of the Passover. Jesus himself was the true Passover lamb.

The Feast of Unleavened Bread immediately follows Passover. For an entire week, the Israelites were to avoid leaven, or yeast of any type. Remember that the Israelites did not buy packets of Fleishman's yeast. Their yeast was what we would call sourdough starter: yeast-filled dough left over from the last bread baking. Also, like sourdough starter, this yeast was wild, with a strong flavor.

What does leaven or yeast picture? You may recall that this topic came up when were discussing the present or grain offering. Mixing a small amount of sourdough starter with a whole batch of dough flavors the entire batch. The yeast spreads and grows throughout the dough. Jesus uses this image of a small amount of sourdough flavoring the whole both positively and negatively. The kingdom of God is said to be like yeast, in that a few Christians can have a major impact on our surrounding country or culture (Matt 13:33). More frequently, however, the New Testament uses the image of yeast negatively, referring to errors that may seem small at first but which can grow to destroy an entire ministry. So Jesus refers to the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt 16:6ff): that is, legalism and hypocrisy.

Paul uses the image of the feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread in 1 Corinthians. The church in Corinth was tolerating a man who was engaged in blatant sin. Indeed, they not only were tolerating this man, but they were proud of their tolerance. So Paul writes:

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? 7 Clean out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Cor 5:6-8)

Paul says, "Do not tolerate unrepented sin in your midst. This sin will flavor your entire church, making you ineffective and unproductive. Just as in the Feast of Unleavened Bread, clean out all the yeast that you can find. For Christ is our Passover; he died for us, that we might live to him. So depend on him, live individual and corporate lives worthy of His calling."

Firstfruits

Let us continue reading at Leviticus 23:9:

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 10 "Speak to the sons of Israel, and say to them, 'When you enter the land which I am going to give to you and reap its harvest, then you shall bring in the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest. 11 'And he shall wave the sheaf before the LORD for you to be accepted; on the day after the sabbath the priest shall wave it.

Three of the Israelite feasts correspond to harvest times in Palestine. The barley harvest begins in April, at the time of Passover, Unleavened Bread, and Firstfruits. The wheat harvest begins about seven weeks later, at the time of Pentecost. Then the summer crops -- grapes and other fruits and vegetables -- would be harvested in September, at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles or Ingathering.

The dedication of firstfruits takes place during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Note carefully the day this takes place, as indicated in verse 11: The Feast of Unleavened Bread begins with the Sabbath right after Passover; the day after this Sabbath is Firstfruits.

What day of the week is Firstfruits? The day after the Sabbath is the first day of the week, right? Jesus died during Passover time, and then rose when? One the first day of the week! Jesus rose on the day of Firstfruits!

Paul must have been thinking of this when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:20:

But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.

Christ is the beginning of the harvest, the first human to rise from the dead and receive a resurrection body. We will follow -- the full harvest is yet to come. But the firstfruits are in!

Pentecost

Let's return to Leviticus 23 one more time; we will begin reading in verse 15:

15 'You shall also count for yourselves from the day after the sabbath, from the day when you brought in the sheaf of the wave offering; there shall be seven complete sabbaths. 16 'You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh sabbath; then you shall present a new grain offering to the LORD. 17 'You shall bring in from your dwelling places two loaves of bread for a wave offering, made of two-tenths of an ephah; they shall be of a fine flour, baked with leaven as first fruits to the LORD.

This Feast is called Pentecost because it takes place 50 days later. Firstfruits are offered again, this time of bread, for the wheat harvest is now taking place. And note, curiously, that for this feast the Israelites offer leavened bread -- yeast is used in the baking of this bread.

What day of the week is this feast on? See verse 15: "the day after the seventh Sabbath." So this, once again, is the first day of the week. What happened on that first Pentecost Sunday after Jesus' death? Read about it in Acts 2: the Holy Spirit came down, appearing as flames of fire, and began the church age by indwelling believers in a new way, for the first time. This occasion marked the firstfruits of the gospel message, the firstfruits of the Spirit.

But why is this offering baked with yeast? The Firstfruits offered in April signify Jesus' resurrection from the dead, the first person to receive a perfect, resurrection body. Those bodies will be free of sin, perfect, spotless; they are incorruptible, never to grow old or perish in all eternity. But Pentecost symbolizes the Spirit making us new, with the apostles and their followers in the temple being the firstfruits. These early believers that day became new creations, their spirits were made new -- but they were still sinners! They still contained the yeast of this world. Not until the final resurrection -- pictured in one of the last feasts -- will we be without sin, forever and ever.

Isn't this amazing? Do you see how God planned all these events, so that events took place on exactly the right day to elucidate the meaning of the feasts?

Conclusion

Next week we will consider the last three feasts, which take place in September, and then move on to Leviticus 25 the Sabbath Year and the Year of Jubilee. But we can see even now that all of these feasts declare our dependence on God: our need to be covered by the blood of Jesus, our need to lean on Him to root out the leaven in our lives, our need for the indwelling Holy Spirit.

So where are you? Are you trusting and depending on the strength of Another? Or are you still trusting in yourself -- your abilities and talents? Are you still thinking that God owes you something because of your faithfulness, because of your work for him?

I believe God arranges circumstances so that each of us must face our brokenness -- so that he can then use us. Many of you know how God accomplished this in my own life. As a youth living outside of Washington, DC, I saw the many bad and broken marriages among the parents of my friends. I determined that I would never let that happen in my own life; should I marry, I would make it work.

Once I met Beth, the future prospects for a perfect marriage seemed bright; she and I shared many interests and simply enjoyed being together. I had succeeded in all I had set out to do; I set out to have a successful marriage; there could be no question that I would accomplish the task. I remember in particular attending a communication seminar for those interested in marriage, and thinking, "This stuff is easy! We will have no trouble communicating."

In June of 1982, however, scarcely 30 months after our wedding, our marriage was in shambles -- and there was nothing I could do to save it. Not only had I failed to make the marriage work; I myself had brought my marriage to the brink of failure. Furthermore, this "perfect woman" whom I had chosen and idolized had done the same.

Like Tolstoy's Ivan Ilych confronting death, I was confronted with my sinfulness in a syllogism: All men are sinners, I am a man, therefore . . . . While all my life I had acknowledged intellectually my own sinfulness, now I stared into the horrible, deeply personal nature of sin itself: I was destroying what I wanted, loved, and cherished most.

By God's grace, that day I fell on my knees before Him, acknowledging my own sinfulness and inability to save my marriage. By His grace, he also turned Beth to Himself within the next few months. By His grace, He had arranged for us to be in East Africa, 8000 miles from home, where we would hear the gospel stripped of the common cultural accoutrements of American Christianity, and thus hear it anew. And God through His grace healed our marriage over the course of the next year, teaching us through Scripture and through examples the true nature of this most intimate human relationship.

God had to break me to use me. As long as I thought I could accomplish whatever I wanted by my talent and energy, I was of no use to God.

Ray Stedman states it this way:

That is what God is at work to do. The worst form of evil is self-righteousness. If we think we have something that God needs, and that we can serve him by our dedicated spirit, he will find some way to pull the rug out from under us and to bring us at last to the place where we stand before him without any merit of our own. And with joy filling our hearts we know that this is the way God intended men to live -- to rest in the work of Another.

Resting in the work of Another -- that is how we fulfill the Sabbath; that is how we fulfill all of these Feasts. Here is true rest -- in the Blood of Christ.


This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 2/28/99. I decided to preach a series of sermons on Leviticus after reading Ray Stedman's series, which is available at the PBC web site. I am heavily indebted to him both for his insights into Leviticus, and for all I learned about expository preaching from him.

Copyright © 1999, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

This data file may not be copied in part, edited, revised, copied for resale or incorporated in any commercial publications, recordings, broadcasts, performances, displays or other products offered for sale, without the written permission of Thomas C. Pinckney, tpinckney@williams.edu, c/o Community Bible Church, Harrison Ave, Williamstown, MA 01267.

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