“Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” (Exodus 20:8) I can’t remember how many times this verse was drilled into my head as a child. As the flagship verse for the denomination of my childhood, Sabbath keeping made us distinct from other Christians and ensured our salvation. The Sabbath gave us a sense of corporate pride, knowing that we alone “had the truth.” However, the underside of all this pride was a deep sense of fear. If we did not keep the Sabbath, then we would receive the mark of the beast, which meant going to hell. In addition, we never knew if we were saved. What if our good works didn’t out weigh the bad? What if I didn’t keep the Sabbath perfectly? All this twisted theology led to a bucket load of fear.
I have a friend who is still caught in the tangled web of these ideas. She has accepted Jesus as her Savior but she keeps her distance from God the Father, believing Him to be cruel. After all, what kind of god floods the earth, nukes Sodom and Gomorrah and slaughters all those Canaanites? Is that really the way a loving God behaves? If so, she doesn’t want to get too close Him.
Recently, I read a passage in the Bible that sure looked like one of those passages, the ones about the cruel God.
Once, during those wilderness years of the people of Israel, a man was caught gathering wood on the Sabbath. The ones who caught him hauled him before Moses and Aaron and the entire congregation. They put him in custody until it became clear what to do with him. Then God spoke to Moses: “Give the man the death penalty. Yes, kill him, the whole community hurling stones at him outside the camp.”
So the whole community took him outside the camp and threw stones at him, an execution commanded by God and given through Moses. (Numbers 15:32-37)
Was God just having a terrible, horrible, no good, really bad day? Why should a man die just because he was cold on the Sabbath? I mean, maybe he just underestimated the amount of kindling needed for his fire. (Maybe he should have hired a goy to collect his sticks.) Why so harsh a judgment?
Not having answers for my questions, I stepped back and remembered that God never does anything that isn’t loving and righteous. Maybe all I needed was more information, so I started searching the Bible.
As I began my study, I remembered what Jesus told the two disciples on the road to Emmaus: “Beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures (Luke 24:27 emphasis added). Where in the writings of Moses does it tell us about Jesus? If I could discover that, then it might help to explain the Sabbath stoning.
One of the more obvious places where we see Jesus is just prior to the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt. Right before the final plague, God instructed the Israelites to select a spotless lamb, take care of it for four days and then slaughter it on the fourteenth of Nisan. Then they were to paint their doorposts with the blood of the lamb, thus ensuring their salvation when the angel of death passed through the land of Egypt that night. Thereafter, the Israelites were to keep this feast annually to help them remember their freedom from the bondage of Pharaoh. As Christians, we recognize that Passover also pointed forward to the coming Messiah. John the Baptist announced his arrival: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) Jesus is our Passover Lamb.
Later, during the Israelites wilderness experience, the children of Israel complained about the lack of water. So God instructed Moses to strike the rock at Horeb (Ex. 17:1-7). Water gushed forth and satisfied the people’s thirst. But there was more going on here than just Aquafina. Paul tells us that this rock was Christ, right there in the Sinai. (1 Cor 10:4) Fast forward hundreds of years. When Jesus came on the scene in the flesh, He offered living water to all who came to Him. “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:37-38). Jesus was referring to the Holy Spirit, which would indwell his followers bringing life and empowerment.
Finally, when the Israelites grumbled about their Sinai Desert Diet, God sent bread from heaven. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether or not they will walk in My instruction’” (Exodus 16:4). This bread fulfilled the Israelites’ daily need for food but they continued to hunger day after day. Again, this manna was a picture of the true Bread that God would send. “For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.” (John 6:33) Jesus is this bread sent from God. He said, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger.” (John 6:35)
By now I was getting the idea—Jesus cropped up all over the Old Testament if I just had eyes to see. Jesus was the Passover Lamb that provided salvation from death; He was the Rock that satisfied deep thirst; and He was the Bread sent from heaven bringing life. But I still wondered if the Sabbath had anything to do with Jesus.
First some history. The Sabbath was given to Israel after the Exodus. Prior to this, the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt, toiling every day of the week under Pharaoh’s cruel and harsh taskmasters. No time off. Ever. But after their deliverance, Israel came under God’s protection and He gave them a day off. The Sabbath was His gift to them—no work for 24 hours. As they rested on the Sabbath, they would have remembered their bitter years of slavery in Egypt.
But was there more to the Sabbath than just about having a day off? I believe so. Just like Passover celebrated a past deliverance and a future fulfillment in the Messiah, so did the Sabbath. Colossians 2:16-17 tells us about the future fulfillment:
“Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.”
The weekly Sabbath was a shadow of the reality to be found when Messiah came. So when Jesus arrived, He invited everyone to experience true rest in Him. “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
So back to the Sabbath breaking stick collector. Why was picking up twigs on Sabbath worthy of the death penalty? Wasn’t that a little punitive? Paul tells “now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction…” (1 Corinthian 10:6, 11) so we’d better pay attention.
Here’s the deal. Jesus didn’t just come to forgive our sin. He came to offer us life. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). He came to set the captives free (Luke 4; Isaiah 61). He came to save his people from their sin (Matthew 1:21). But what happens if we ignore or refuse Jesus’ offer? The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were the super spiritual gurus of their culture. No one knew the Scriptures better or tried harder to be righteous than they did, yet they refused to consider that Jesus was the Messiah. So Jesus told it to them straight, “You will die in your sins, for unless you believe that I AM, you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). If we thumb our nose at God’s provision of Jesus, like the Pharisees and the stick collector did, then we are refusing God’s offer of life. If we don’t have life, we are dead. Period. Like a gentleman, God will not force us to accept his offer. But if we have received his offer of Jesus as our Messiah, then we have entered God’s Sabbath rest. “For we who have believed enter that rest… For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His.” (Hebrews 4: 3, 10.)
So is it possible to make the same mistake the Israelite man made when he picked up wood and ignored God’s offer of entering His rest? Apparently so for the writer of Hebrews said, “Let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience.” (Hebrews 4:11) We don’t want to make the same mistake this man did, so how do we enter God’s rest? Jesus told us plainly:
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30)
So my friend should be able to rest easier now that this stick and stone passage is understood. God wasn’t having a terrible, horrible, no good, really bad day. He was just teaching Israel a really important, valuable, very good lesson about finding true rest for their souls in the coming Messiah Jesus.
GENEVA CHINNOCK is a writer and author of Becoming His Beloved: Journey into the Father’s Affection. Geneva has a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and a Master in Business Administration. In her spare time, Geneva loves reading, eating bacon and attending live theater. She lives in Southern California with her husband and blogs about matters of faith at TreasuredbyGod.com.