“It was not man who implanted in himself what is infinite and the love of what is immortal: those lofty instincts are not the offspring of his capricious will; their steadfast foundation is fixed in human nature, and they exist in spite of his efforts.”
Alexis de Tocqueville
Eternity has long been a subject beyond man’s comprehension. We use terms like “timelessness” “immortality” and “infinity” and “pure bliss” to try to draw the lofty concept down to a practical definition, but we are left confused and angry by our lack of coherency. If we really understood eternity (and our place in it) then we could better orient our decisions, actions, and feelings towards this world.
As de Tocqueville reminds us in Democracy in America, eternity is a concept that is beyond us while simultaneously inside of us. King Solomon confirms de Tocqueville’s assertion in Ecclesiastes 3:11 in writing that God “has put eternity in the heart of man.” Therefore, man is inextricably bound to the eternity question and has a responsibility to search for answers.
Jesus uses the concept of the Sabbath, another oft-misunderstood term, to connect eternity with the present. In his confrontation with the Pharisees in Matthew 12, Jesus illuminates three essential concepts for our dealing with the Sabbath.
First, Jesus states His dominion over the Sabbath. As the Pharisees accuse Him of breaking God’s law, Jesus states that “He is Lord over the Sabbath” and goes a step further to say “that in this place is one greater than the temple.” Not only does Jesus reign over the Sabbath, but He reigns over the entirety of God’s law.
Secondly, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for the idol of false piety: “But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless.” In doing this, Jesus radically asserts that God’s sacrificial law is fulfilled in His presence and mercy reigns in its stead. The Pharisees’ hardened hearts seek supremacy over fellow man through religious piety, yet Christ confronts their restrictive Sabbath views by tying freedom and mercy to the Sabbath. In defending his disciples for gathering grain and healing a man’s withered hand, Jesus does not abolish the Sabbath but redefines it.
Thirdly, Jesus merges the Sabbath with the “Lord’s Day” in Revelation to give us a weekly glimpse of eternity. Jesus’ actions reveal to us that the Sabbath consists of reconciliation, healing, and faith. Jesus does not abolish the association between “rest” and “Sabbath” but notes that “rest” is not “idleness.” Jesus’ definition of rest looks more like reconciliation, like “Shalom” – a peace that extends to all people and places – which directly relates to our picture of eternity, a time when God says “the lion will lay down with the lamb.”
Furthermore, Christ shows us that the Sabbath is a time for healing, which stands as subtly different from reconciliation, as healing is God directly making man whole again while reconciliation is God making man at peace with fellow man. Jesus’ healing actions on the Sabbath explicitly point to humanity’s redemptive healing – the joining of body and soul – on the Day of Judgment. As all of us have felt the sting of earthly sin and decay, the joy of the Sabbath rings through eternity as we picture Jesus’ healing power.
Jesus gives us a final picture of the power of faith in Matthew 12 as a call to action. We learn that Jesus healed the man’s withered hand because of his faith (v. 13), but we must not miss the context of this claim. This man believed so fervently in Christ’s power that he risked humiliation in front of the Pharisees to plead his case; eventually, he shamed the proud Pharisees because of this faith.
When our faith is as bound to our Savior as the poor man’s, we too can approach the world, and its Pharisees, with fearlessness. I believe Christ healed this man to inspire His followers to replicate such boldness, which may not fit into our picture of eternity if we only view it as a blissful, distant concept. The man’s faith reemphasizes Jesus’ statement in the previous chapter: “the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.”
Jesus commands us to live with a fearless faith in His power in order to do His will and glorify His name. C.S. Lewis tells us that “the present is the point at which time touches eternity;” meaning that our actions each day affect “eternity.” When Solomon tells us that eternity is in our hearts, we feel the insatiable yearning for something deeper than we find in this world. Lewis felt it too. We do well to recognize such need; but if we look closer, we find that God has given us the powers of eternity: reconciliation, healing, and faith, to discharge in His name on earth.
Our obsession with eternity ought not to focus on our state of being after this world but on the eternal powers that Jesus brings to His people when we recognize Him as Savior of the world. The beauty of eternity may not lie as far off from man’s comprehension as de Tocqueville suggests. If we cling to Jesus’ definition in Matthew 12, we can see eternity everyday as we experience Jesus’ reconciliation, healing, and faith. Every Sunday, we are reminded of these traits in community as we gather to celebrate Christ’s eternal fulfillment of the Sabbath.
Will Thompson is a graduate of the 2015-2016 Capital Fellows Program.