At first glance, it appears rather cruel. God had ordered some poor guy to be stoned to death simply for gathering a few sticks for firewood (Numbers 15:32-36). Could this really be the directive of a loving God? Does the God of the Old Testament have a mean streak? Or is something deeper at stake? Perhaps our understanding of this scenario leaves something to be desired.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you. Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. 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. So the sons of Israel shall observe the sabbath, to celebrate the sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant.’ It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed.” Exodus 31:12-17 (NASB)
It is obvious from this passage that God had clearly communicated the importance of keeping the Sabbath—along with the consequences of any potential disobedience. In short, the parameters had been well established and, by choosing to ignore God’s command, this unfortunate soul hastened his own death.
But what about us? What are we to do with this “perpetual covenant”? I did a little wood working in my home a couple of Sundays ago. Should I be in fear of being stoned?
The key to understanding such an extreme punishment for breaking the fourth of the Ten Commandments lies in understanding the nature of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament is full of Biblical types—people, things, or scenarios which foreshadow deeper New Covenant truths.
In this particular case, God was communicating an eternal message that no man or woman can find favor with God by attempting to work for his or her salvation. In other words, none of us can ever be saved by trying to be a good person, and anyone who attempts to meet God’s standards by self-effort will face eternal death (separation from God) as the unquestionable result.
Again, on the surface this may appear to be rather unfair, but if we can grasp the brilliant and loving nature of God’s plan, we soon recognize that no other reasonable way is possible.
Before the Sabbath command was given, ancient Israel had spent centuries in exhausting slavery in Egypt under the Pharaoh’s cruel hand. God then delivered the people by His own mighty hand. This picture represents our own slavery to sin along with the futility of attempting to deliver ourselves by our own good works. It is all very exhausting because we can never be good enough to meet the perfect standards of heaven.
In His mercy, the heavenly Father designed a plan by which the burden of perfection falls upon Christ and not upon us. You see, under the New (and better) Covenant, Jesus Christ has become our Sabbath rest. No need for perfection on our part. No need for constant striving. No need to redeem ourselves when we have failed and done wrong.
Our six days of striving under the unattainable standards of law are ended as we now find ourselves living in the seventh day of rest—finding the full confidence of our acceptance with God, not through our own efforts, but through faith in the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross.
Abiding in God’s rest does not come naturally for us since we can’t help but feel that we need to do something to gain His approval. Some Christian leaders even refuse to communicate these truths out of fear that their people will become lazy and self-absorbed. What they fail to understand is that the true Sabbath rest of the Christian faith will always result in devoted labors of love on the part of God’s people. Ours is not simply to rest from all manner of work, but to rest from an exhausting attempt to gain God’s approval through self-effort.
The more I understand God’s plan for salvation, the more I find myself appreciating the fact that He has left us no wiggle room when it comes to obeying and enjoying His Sabbath rest. When we approach God through faith in the finished work of Jesus, the full favor of heaven smiles upon us–no matter how dark our circumstances may appear.
So there you have it—the rest of the story.