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“Hear this, you who trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end, saying, ‘When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale, that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals and sell the chaff of the wheat?’ The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: ‘Surely I will never forget any of their deeds’” (Amos 8:4-7).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
It is a time of prosperity in Israel, but God’s people completely misunderstand His blessings. The people are greedy, and rather than seeing this prosperity as an opportunity to serve the neighbor, the people see their wealth as proof of God’s approval. Like today’s “prosperity Gospel” preachers, they reckon that riches are a mark of God’s favor, and poverty is proof of God’s rejection. Therefore, they feel no guilt in abusing the poor and taking advantage of the needy.
Nevertheless, they still observe the forms of worship if not the true spirit. They join the religious assemblies when the new moon announces the beginning of another month. They close their shops to rest on the Sabbath, according to the law. Yet all the time their hearts are not in their worship. Rather, they are itching for the days of rest and worship to pass so they can get back to business.
Amos sarcastically voices their concern with words they’d not be so crass as to speak aloud, but which they had most certainly thought: “When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale, that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals and sell the chaff of the wheat?”
Does any of this sound familiar? Do we occupy our minds with thoughts of profit and loss even while our mouths pray and sing hymns? Do we ever go to church reluctantly or participate in public worship halfheartedly because “time is money,” and we prefer to spend it on other things rather than feeding our souls on the Word of God? Do we ever couple such disrespect for the Lord and His Word, with a lack of concern for our needy neighbor? Then we have become like these Israelite merchants, who are caught up in rampant materialism and consumerism.
While this is nothing new, the ones who suffer because of this focus are the poor, the needy, and the outcasts. Those wishing to make a quick buck have oppressed the less fortunate. They’ve cheated with their scales, weights, and measures and they have even gone so far as to enslave their own countrymen… for as little as a pair of sandals. The Lord God is obviously not pleased with them.
Honesty and integrity will be the marks of those who follow the Lord. A Christian merchant will want to give good measure and a quality product for a fair price. He will not package or advertise deceptively and excuse himself by saying, “Let the buyer beware.” God’s Word admonishes us: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).
In Deuteronomy, the Lord declares to His people: “You shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be… You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land’” (15:7–11).
Throughout Scripture, the Lord puts Himself at the side of and in the place of the poor. In Proverbs we read: “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and He will repay him for his deed” (19:17). In Matthew, Jesus tells us that on the Last Day He will say to His believers who fed the hungry, gave hospitality to the needy, clothed the naked, comforted the sick, and visited the prisoners in jail, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me” (25:40). Do our lives show such evidence of faith in Him?
From Israel’s inception, God shows His concern for the less fortunate. The Lord gives everyone in Israel an allotment of land, which is to stay in their family in perpetuity. Israel is to remember that they are an exodus people who must never return to a system of slavery. The purpose of the Jubilee is to dismantle social and economic inequality by releasing each member from debt, returning forfeited land to its original owners, and regularly freeing slaves.
Unfortunately, the influence of Canaanite religion brings with it Canaanite business practices. Corrupt businessmen support economic activity that created upper and lower classes. Israel’s elite confiscate more and more land through dishonest methods. They conveniently forget the mandate in Leviticus 25:17: “Do not oppress each other, but fear your God, for I am the Lord your God.”
The Lord hears the cry of His oppressed people and He feels their pain. Everyone who has been restored to a right relationship with God through His forgiveness is granted the same ears and heart to be merciful to others. But at the same time, deep down, within every son and daughter of Adam and Eve, there also exists an insatiable desire to look at their neighbor’s spouse, manservant, maidservant, ox, donkey, indeed, anything that belongs to their neighbor and long for them all to be “mine!” No, the Israelite merchants are not alone in their greed and covetousness. There is a sickness and madness in Western society called consumerism—the notion that life consists in having and getting and spending and controlling and using. This system stresses consumption and accumulation and believes that meaning and security come by getting and having “more.”
How shall those baptized into Christ live in a world with its titanic desire to acquire? How are the words of Paul in Philippians 4:11 able to make sense: “I have learned in whatever circumstances I am to be content”? And just how do the free people of God live in a society that screams at them daily to buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have to impress people they may not even like?
We live in our Baptism. By the washing of water with the Word, the Lord places His mark of ownership upon you. In giving you His triune name, He makes this promise: “I have redeemed you; I have called you by name. You are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). In Baptism, we daily put to death that old greedy selfish nature through contrition and repentance, that the new man may arise to live in righteousness, innocence, and blessedness forever. In those belonging to God the Father through the redeeming work of Jesus, the Holy Spirit empowers a life that combats greed, covetousness, dishonesty, and vice. A life that loves the neighbor and looks out for the weakest and most vulnerable, the poor and lonely.
But as seriously as the Lord takes the oppression of His people, so is He offended by those who observe the Sabbath in name only. Such hypocrisy is a serious violation of the covenant God had made with His people. It endangers the Israelite community as the people of God and therefore carries the threat of grave consequences. Later prophets cite the violation of the Sabbath as the reason for Judah’s destruction and 70-year Babylonian captivity (2 Chronicles 36:20-21).
The Sabbath is as old as creation. Genesis 2:3 states: “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all His work that He had done in creation.” Notice how the focus in the first six days of creation is on the human world. But on the seventh day no act of creation takes place. The focus is instead on the Lord alone, who is described as resting. This prompts the sacred activity of worship in the human world. The holiness of the seventh day is a sign of the Lord’s own holiness, which distinguishes Him from His entire creation.
Genesis 1 illustrates this distinction. The first two humans are good and blessed, and they even bear the image of God, but they are not called holy. The same is true for the rest of creation. It is good, even “very good,” but it is not described as holy. Holiness is only introduced on the seventh day, as a moment in time, not as an object within creation, a time when God sets it apart as a day of rest, a day for the holy things of God.
The fall into sin produced an enormous gulf between the holy God and His now-dying creation. Yet holiness broke back into creation when the Lord appeared to Moses and called him to deliver His people; God’s appearance created “holy ground.” The Passover and the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread were to be the occasion of a “holy assembly.” Moreover, at Sinai the Lord declared His intention that all Israel be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).
All members of God’s people, regardless of their social status, were to receive the benefits of the Lord’s holy Sabbath. The day was a celebration of both the original creation and the new creation through salvation. It served as a sign of the divine covenant, a marker for holy days, and a reminder of the Lord’s powerful deliverance from servitude in Egypt. Israel was free from slavery to oppressors and false gods and liberated to serve the living God. The benefit of Sabbath rest extended to aliens and sojourners in Israel and even to domesticated animals.
The Sabbath was kept by Old Testament believers as they followed the Lord’s ordinances and offered prescribed sacrifices and as the priests and Levites performed the duties of their offices. Undergirding this was the cessation of all economic activity because the Lord “rested on the seventh day.” The work stoppage emphasized that Israel was not the owner but the beneficiary and manager of the Lord’s gracious resources. The Sabbath was a constant reminder of the answer to Jesus’ question, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25).
Work was to cease so that God’s redeemed could remember that the reason for living is not merely to desire and then acquire. The pattern for those created in the image of God is work/rest, not just rest. And in Amos’ day, he had to preach that it was rest/work, not just work. The Sabbath, therefore, says yes to the value of people while at the same time it says no to the insidious desire for more and the frantic frenzy for upward mobility. But the businessman of Amos’ day would have nothing of this. They were begrudging the holy days. “When will the new moon and the Sabbath be over?” they asked impatiently.
Turning to Colossians 2:14-17, we find a surprising answer. Speaking of Christ’s resurrection, Paul writes, “By canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This He set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in Him. Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”
The ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, such as those associated with the new moon and Sabbath, are gone!—not so that we may now pursue the almighty dollar with abandon but so that we might worship and serve the Lord our God with freedom and with all our heart and soul and mind every day. Those ceremonial laws served a purpose. They foreshadowed Christ. But the Substance, Christ, has come. The shadows are no longer needed. The Substance is here.
Jesus is the fulfillment of the law. Jesus, fully human, like us in every way except without sin, lives a perfect holy and righteous life in our place. He loves the Lord with all His heart and all His strength and all His soul and all His mind. He loves His neighbor as Himself, reaching out and healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, freeing the prisoners, and preaching Good News to the poor. Jesus gives His life on the cross as the fully sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the world.
Jesus is the fulfillment of the Sabbath. After suffering for the sins of the world on Good Friday, He observes the Sabbath by His rest in the tomb on Holy Saturday before rising on the first day of the new week. He offers the free gift of salvation so that all human work that seeks justification before God may be placed aside. Jesus transforms the Sabbath rest in something greater than one day a week or the first of the month. The author of Hebrews explains: “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from His” (Hebrews 4:9–10).
At the time of death, Jesus gives rest to all believers as we await our bodily resurrection into the everlasting new creation with its eternal Sabbath rest. John puts it this way: “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!’” (Revelation 14:13).
Go in the grace of the Lord. Serve His people with joy. Rest in the Lord Jesus Christ each and every day. You are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.