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Sunday and the Sabbath

Is the Old Testament Sabbath law binding on Christians?

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Bible Teaching About God's Day of Rest

WITH the general decrease in religious belief and as society becomes increasingly secular, there is strong commercial pressure to treat every day of the week equally; shops, bars, places of entertainment are open, and sporting and other events are held now on any day from Sunday to Saturday. These moves are welcomed by some people, who see them as the final sweeping away of hide-bound traditions. But others see the trend as a great threat and an indication of serious moral and religious decline. When there are such strongly held and conflicting views on the subject, how can we determine what response to make? Where can we turn for answers to the problems that are raised?

Surely this is a religious subject, and we need an authority to tell us what the truth is. The only real and reliable authority is in the Bible-the Word of God for Israel in pre-Christian times, and, with the New Testament, for believers in God and Christ throughout the past 2,000 years. Does the Bible have anything to say about a "Lord's day"? Has God commanded it to be kept by abstaining from all forms of self-indulgence? Is the first, or seventh a special day of the week? Do the Jewish sabbath day laws have any meaning for today's society? Should they be kept by followers of Christ?

This short booklet sets out to show what Bible teaching is on this subject, and to discuss the issues that it raises.

Quite apart from religious belief, most people accept that the pattern of five or six days of work, followed by a shorter period of relaxation or rest, is a healthy one. They would soon complain strongly if their employer suddenly decided to require them to work with no weekly break at all! It is not the pattern of work and rest that creates the difficulty. The question focuses on what men and women can or should do on their day of rest, and which day of the week that should be.

But it is worth noting at this stage that there is a divine basis for the weekly working cycle. In its early chapters, the Bible records the creative work of God, and that He "rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made". Significantly, the record continues, "God blessed the seventh day and hallowed (or sanctified) it" (Genesis 2:2,31. Much of the argument about the significance of this special day is based on what this verse means. Is it God's instruction to the first man and woman, or just a comment on what happened? Was God declaring every seventh day a "Holy" day, or only the one when He rested? Can we on the one hand accept the work/rest cycle for our own benefit, but reject the view that the rest day belongs primarily to God?

So far, all we have achieved is a list of questions, and this list could be extended even further. Let us approach the subject in an ordered fashion. As we started in Genesis we shall continue to look at the Old Testament background to discover the origins of "the seventh day". This will be followed by a consideration of the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ; by how men tried to put this into practice; and, finally, what message the Bible has for people living today.

Old Testament Teaching
We do not know whether the earth's first population organised themselves by means of a seven day week. Whereas other periods of time (the day, month and year) are based upon observable movements of stars and planets, the seven day week has no such basis-that can be found only in the explanation in Genesis.

This introduces an interesting aspect to the subject. By living according to a weekly cycle, man witnesses to the Genesis account of creation, irrespective of whether he believes it.

Even if, in the times before Moses, people organised themselves around weeks of seven days, God did not say they would be punished for not resting on the seventh day. They had total freedom of choice about this. In fact, God gave no instructions about how the seventh day should be spent until after the nation of Israel had been brought out of Egypt and led miraculously through the Red Sea into the wilderness of Sinai. Being a large community, they needed a good and regular supply of food and water, but in desert conditions these were very scarce. The people soon complained, and wished they were back in Egypt. A further miracle brought them their food. Each morning around their camp "there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as the hoarfrost on the ground" (Exodus 16:14). The food was called "manna", and could be collected for six days each week.

On the first five days each week any manna not eaten that day, but kept overnight "bred worms, and became foul". On the sixth day, if a double portion was collected, it would keep fresh for use on the seventh day when no manna was available. In this way the pattern of work and rest was enforced for the nation of Israel:

"Today is a sabbath to the Lord; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is a sabbath, there will be none" (Exodus 16:25,26).

Six days of gathering and one day of rest: God's activity in Creation thus became the example for His nation. For the first time in the Bible, the word "sabbath" is used. It means simply 'to cease', and is used to describe the day when the Israelites rested from their labours, as God had from His.

The Ten Commandments
Shortly after the manna was first provided, God gave through Moses laws to control the activity of the nation. The framework for these laws, known as the Ten Commandments, was written by God on two tables of stone. The fourth commandment was:

"Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour, and do all your work: but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God: in it you shall not do any work . . . for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth ... and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it" (Exodus 20:8-11).

As for the manna, so for all of Israel's activities the pattern would be six days of labour followed by one day of rest. The use of the word 'labour' is important as this was an aspect of man's life that did not exist in his early days in the garden of Eden. Only after Adam and Eve had been disobedient to God's commandments did He sentence them and their descendants to hard toil in order to produce their necessary food. When the Psalmist refers to this, he speaks of man, who "goes forth to his work and to his labour until the evening" (104:23). Man's daily work, therefore, is a constant reminder of his mortality; the certainty that he is "dust, and to dust (he) shall return" (Genesis 3:19).

We can now see the significance of the introduction of the Sabbath commands being associated with the provision of manna. The nation's experiences in the wilderness where God freely provided their daily food were forcible reminders of the punishments brought upon the world as a result of Adam's disobedience. By resting on the sabbath, man would identify himself with God, and with the completion of His creation, when He was able to review "everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good" (Genesis 1:31).

The Sabbath Enforced
The Jewish day commenced at sunset, so the regulations governing the sabbath operated from 6 p.m. on Friday to 6 p.m. on Saturday. This national law was to be strictly enforced. The penalty for breaking it was severe: any transgressor was to be put to death because they would have "profaned" or defiled the sabbath (see Exodus 31:14). On one occasion, while the children of Israel were still in the wilderness, there was the case of a man found gathering sticks on a sabbath day. Presumably he wanted them to make a fire for cooking. Although the sabbath law and the punishment for breaking it had been given, the people were not certain whether the man's activity had broken it, so they placed the problem before the Lord. The answer was categoric: "The man shall be put to death" (Numbers 15:32-36).

The punishment was very severe for what seems to us a minor offence. It suggests that the man set out deliberately to flout God's law, but it also confirms the importance of the sabbath day provision in God's purpose. God is not revealed in the Bible as an uncaring despot, so the enforcement of this law by a strong penalty suggests that there were significant benefits to be obtained from keeping it.

The Sabbath Blessing
When the details of the law were being repeated for the generation that had been born in the wilderness after leaving Egypt, the following information was added by way of explanation:

"Your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day" (Deuteronomy 5:12-15).

There was thus a clear social benefit for everybody in the nation, but also an important underlying reason for the law. By keeping the sabbath there would be a weekly reminder of the nation's redemption from Egypt. They were to be merciful to their servants, because God had showed great mercy to them when He freed them from slavery to Pharaoh. To reinforce this point, even animals were to benefit from the sabbath law! As well as allowing servants to rest, the ox and ass could rest too (see verse 14). When the Apostle Paul commented upon another aspect of the law where animals were mentioned, he said: "Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake?" (1 Corinthians 9:9). Whilst not denying that God is interested in all His creatures, the main benefit of the sabbath was for men and women, not animals. They were involved purely to emphasise the importance of the command.

Servants would obviously be pleased with the law, but what about their masters? Unscrupulous masters, like unscrupulous employers today, would surely try to find a way round it. But there were great benefits for them too. God told them that the sabbath was "a sign between me and them, that they might know that I the Lord sanctify them" (Exodus 31:17; Ezekiel 20:12). If they wished to continue to receive blessings from God when they were in the land, as they had received them in the wilderness, they needed to keep His sabbaths.

The Objective
All of these provisions should have had one result; the formation of a people who were God-centred, not selfcentred. If they had been prepared to organise themselves according to His laws, they would have been blessed above all other nations and peoples. Instead of being a burden to be endured, the provision of the sabbath could revolutionise their lives:

"If you turn back your foot from the sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honourable; if you honour it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth" (Isaiah 58:13,14).

The great tragedy is that Israel, having been promised all these things by God, were not prepared to live in accordance with His commands. Instead of honouring the sabbath, they continually defiled it. They did not treat it as "holy", but made it profane. As God's promises to them were conditional on their obedience, eventually He had to bring the punishment He had said would occur if they were disobedient:

"I swore . . . that I would scatter them among the nations, and disperse them through the countries, because they had rejected my statutes and profaned my sabbaths, and their eyes were set on their fathers' idols" (Ezekiel 20:23,24).

Before seeing what the New Testament says about the sabbath, let us summarise the Old Testament teaching:

  1. The seven day week comes from the Creation record, and is a mute witness to God's creative work.
  2. The sabbath was an institution for the nation of Israel, and was not imposed upon individuals prior to the Exodus. They could rest on the seventh day or not, as they wished.
  3. God wanted the sabbath to be a "holy day".
  4. The sabbath (meaning cessation, or rest) was to be observed by the Israelites refraining from everyday tasks in order to enjoy and remember God's blessings.
  5. The six day working week was a constant reminder that all men die and are sinners in need of redemption. Observance of the sabbath shows a man's trust that God has promised a share in His rest. God's response was to shower great benefits on the nation, so long as they continued to obey Him.
  6. Under the Jewish law, the penalty for defiling the sabbath was death.
  7. The sabbath was designed by God to teach Israel:
    1. about their special national relationship to Him,
    2. of His great mercy in freeing them from Egyptian slavery.
  8. It was to be a weekly remembrance of the nation's redemption.

Petty Regulations
Turning to the Gospel records in the New Testament, we soon learn how the Jews applied the law of the sabbath 1,500 years after it was given. Recognising that God, because of their disobedience, had allowed His people to be taken into captivity, and His land to be desecrated and overrun, those Jews who returned from captivity attempted to ensure that the same would not happen to them. The religious leaders at the time of Christ regulated the law according to a complicated set of rules built up over the years. This was not just perversity on their part, but grew out of a strong desire not to displease God. Accepting that no work was possible on the sabbath, they attempted to legislate about what could be done to prepare meals, to look after the sick, or to care for animals. Unfortunately, despite these good original motives, the joy there should have been in the sabbath could not exist alongside the attitude forged by concentrating on relatively unimportant details. Soon they could no longer see the wood for the trees! The purpose and benefit of the sabbath was wholly lost in a myriad of petty rules and regulations.

New Testament Teaching
Against this background, the Lord Jesus Christ commenced his ministry, "preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God" (Mark 1:14). He soon met problems with the legalistic attitude of the Jewish leaders. If he healed on a sabbath day, they complained that he had defiled a "holy" day. So antagonistic were they, that they sought ways and opportunity to destroy him. This raises two important questions: Why did Jesus heal without hesitation on the sabbath day, especially when he knew how the Jewish leaders would be incensed? and, Why do the gospel records attach particular importance to his sabbath day miracles?

Seven specific sabbath miracles are noted in the gospels and one of these was preceded by an incident which placed Jesus' view of the sabbath in direct opposition to that held by the Jewish leaders (Matthew 1 2:1-8). Some of the Pharisees had complained about Jesus' disciples who were plucking and eating grain as they walked through a cornfield on a sabbath day. The Jewish law allowed passers-by this privilege, but did not specify whether it was prohibited on the sabbath (see Deuteronomy 23:25). However, the tradition of the Jewish elders forbade it. They saw the action as no different from reaping and winnowing: activities certainly forbidden on the sabbath.

Old Testament Precedents
In his reply to the Pharisees' charge, Jesus mentioned two incidents from the Jewish Scriptures. He reminded them of the great king David who, when he was in a desperate position ate of the showbread, food specifically devoted to the priests' use (1 Samuel 21:1-6). Speaking of the priests, Jesus also pointed out that they "broke the sabbath" every time it was their turn to perform the temple services on the seventh day. Yet David was blameless before God, and so were the priests. There were clearly some other considerations that applied in these circumstances. If they could be understood, then we may better appreciate Jesus' own attitude to the sabbath.

There are some important similarities between the two Old Testament precedents Jesus quoted and his own position. David was being pursued by Saul, the Jewish king, when he came to Ahimelech the priest at Nob, and asked for food for himself and his "young men". Jesus was with his young men -- the disciples -- and the Jewish leaders of his day were keen to pursue him. If the Pharisees had pondered the comparison they would also have learned that Jesus, like David, was "the Lord's anointed", and they, like Saul, had had their day.

So also with the other incident. It was true that the priests did not profane the sabbath if they were working in God's house. But Jesus had said to Mary and Joseph when he was only twelve years old, after they had searched for him for three days, "How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" (Luke 2:49). Unlike anyone else who has ever lived, Jesus lived his whole life in total harmony with God's will. All others, however good they may be, have sinned. Even David, a "man after God's own heart", sinned in the matter of Bathsheba. But Jesus "committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips" (1 Peter 2:22).

Lord of the Sabbath
We wonder whether the Pharisees understood the real impact of these two examples Jesus had quoted. It was an outright claim to his close relationship with God, and his part in God's plan of redemption as the future King who will rule over an earth at peace. His short summary of the sabbath provision is important:

"He said to them, 'The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: so the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath'" (Mark 2:27,28).

Jesus declared what we discovered from looking at the Old Testament: God provided the sabbath to confer benefits on anyone who was oppressed-it was "made for man". How could the Pharisees have witnessed the great works Jesus did, healing the sick and bringing relief to the poor and hungry, and not appreciate that the real essence of the sabbath could be seen in his devotion to His Father's will, and in his concern for his fellow men?

"Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:29).

Truly he was "Lord of the sabbath"!

Salvation from Sin
Just as God had brought the nation of Israel out of Egypt and released them from slavery, the Bible describes how Jesus, by destroying in himself the power of sinful desires, has opened up a way for men and women to have their own sins forgiven, and ultimately to be released from the grip of mortality. Many aspects of the Law given through Moses looked forward to this work of Christ: the tabernacle, the sacrifices, and the priests, for example. But so did the sabbath. It should have taught the Jewish nation of God's concern for His people, and of the blessings He wished to shower upon them. The apostle Paul described it like this: "The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ . . . but after that faith is come we are no longer under a schoolmaster" (Galatians 3:24,25).

The Law taught a lesson about God's purpose through Christ. If the lesson has been understood and adopted, the work of the Law is complete. The sabbath was a weekly reminder of the release from Egypt. Followers of Christ are now commanded to remember the release he has achieved on their behalf. Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus ate a meal with his disciples and imparted a fuller meaning to the bread and wine they shared. The bread, he said, was representative of his body, wholly given to God to bring salvation to his friends; the wine was, like his blood, shed for them for the forgiveness of sins. "This do", he told them, "in remembrance of me". Commenting on this, the Apostle Paul explained that, "as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:26).

No wonder Paul was so upset that some of those he had taught the good news about Christ were insisting that the sabbath (and all the other parts of the Jewish religious calendar) had to be observed: "Now that you have come to know God . . . how can you turn back again? . . . You observe days, and months, and seasons, and years! I am afraid I have laboured over you in vain" (Galatians 4:9,10). Not that following these aspects of the Law was wrong, but insisting that all Christian believers should do so ignored what Jesus himself had taught. In an important and crucial passage, Paul explained that what had earlier been imposed nationally on the Jews, since Christ had come was a matter for the individual conscience:

"One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it in honour of the Lord ... None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself . . whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living" (Romans 14:5-9).

The Lord of Life
After Jesus' death, resurrection and ascension, the early believers soon got into a pattern of worship. As the hope of life and immortality was made sure by his resurrection, they remembered his sacrifice on the first day of the week, the day he came out of the tomb. We read for example of an occasion when Paul was visiting Troas, "and upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them" (Acts 20:7; see also 1 Corinthians 16:2). The information is introduced so naturally into the account that it must have been the practice adopted generally by the various groups of believers in different places.

The implication is that the sabbath was studiously avoided as the day when the memorial of Jesus' sacrifice was held, and they chose instead the day when he rose from the dead. The sabbath had commemorated God's rest after creation. The first day of the week was a reminder of when God had said: "Let there be light", and of when "the Light of the world" came from the tomb. Death was conquered, and Jesus was the Lord of life.

Though worship on the first day of the week had become part of the pattern of the early Christian congregations, the restrictions of the sabbath had not simply been transferred from Saturday to Sunday. There are no instructions in the New Testament commanding believers to rest from their daily work. The individual has to order his own life as he sees fit: "Therefore let no one pass judgement on you . . . with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath. These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ" (Colossians 2:16,17).

This New Testament teaching can be briefly summarised as follows:

  1. The Jews had forgotten the real purpose of the sabbath, it was lost in a welter of petty rules and regulations which they had devised.
  2. Jesus, in his teaching and by his miracles, declared the real purpose of the sabbath. It should show that God's purpose involves freeing men and women from slavery to sin and death so that they can serve Him. There was no better day for him to do God's work than on the sabbath.
  3. The sabbath was a weekly reminder of these things, but Jesus lived this way every day, throughout his life.
  4. After Jesus' ascension, his disciples met on the first day of the week to remember his sacrifice, but did not make it a matter of command: it was for their individual conscience.

Modern Attitudes
Religious Jews today who do not recognise the work of the Lord Jesus Christ still keep the sabbath traditionally on the seventh day. They sincerely believe that the Law is still awaiting its fulfilment.

Some Christians think that by worshipping on a Sunday they are keeping some sort of New Testament sabbath. We have seen that there is no support for this view in the Scriptures. But this does not mean there is anything wrong in worshipping on a Sunday, or in refraining from the mundane tasks that fill other days of the week. Where Sunday is not a normal working day, it is surely sensible to arrange meetings for worship on that day. Yet it must always be remembered that God does not command it. While Christian believers should meet regularly to remember Christ's sacrifice, there are no commands about exactly when they should do so. The important statement about this is that "as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death". It is more crucial to remember regularly what Christ achieved, than to make an issue about what day the memorial should be kept.

Seventh Day Adventists
Members of this church claim that Christians should keep the seventh-day sabbath. They are right in saying that the sabbath was instituted on the seventh day, and not the first; but their insistence that true believers in Christ should still keep it ignores the New Testament evidence. If the apostles, who wrote under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, specifically stated thatkeeping the sabbath was turning back "to the weak and beggarly elements" from which Christ's sacrifice had freed them (Galatians 4:9), how can true Christians insist upon it? Adventists claim that the sabbath was instituted and kept in Eden, though, as we have seen, there is no Biblical evidence of a sabbath command before the Law of Moses was given.

The New Testament teaching about the Law of Moses no longer being operative for Christian believers is so clear that it may be wondered how the members of that church can maintain their position. They do so by claiming that the Law must be viewed in two parts: a 'moral' law (the Ten Commandments), and a 'ceremonial' law (all the other commandments). They see the 'moral' law as God's eternal commands, and thus still in force for believers today. They accept that the 'ceremonial' law came to an end when the Lord Jesus was crucified. But the Bible never refers to the Law in this way; the phrases 'moral law' and 'ceremonial law' do not occur in Scripture, nor do the ideas the phrases are meant to express.

In fact, there is a specific comment in the New Testament showing that the Ten Commandments were not to be regarded as eternal principles. The Apostle Paul wrote to Christian believers in Corinth telling them that "the written code (the Law of Moses) kills, but the Spirit gives life". He described the Ten Commandments as "the dispensation of death, carved in letters on stone" (2 Corinthians 3:6,7). The high standards of the Law convicted every man a sinner, and the righteous punishment for sin is death. The essence of the teaching of Christ is the hope of forgiveness of sins because of his sinless life and selfless sacrifice.

We do not like to take issue with people who are honestly attempting to interpret what the Bible teaches, but we believe that Seventh Day Adventists are seriously misguided on this particular aspect. Their beliefs possibly grew up as a reaction to a very common misconception regarding Bible teaching about the sabbath. This misconception arose within a few hundred years following the death of Christ, and soon became a fixed tradition.

The Early Church
The spread of Christianity in those early times was rapid and far-reaching. It has been likened to a spreading flame, setting alight all in its path. The effect upon the Roman Empire, which controlled a large area of the inhabited world in those days, was very great. Some emperors, seeing the threat it posed, attempted to stamp it out by persecution. But, like pruning a tree, this only made the movement stronger and more determined. In the fourth century A.D. the emperor Constantine saw the political advantages of having the Christian subjects in his empire working with him rather than against him. So he merged some of the aspects of the old pagan religions with features of Christianity. Some pagan festivals were renamed to make them acceptable to both Christians and non-Christians. Recognising that Christians met to remember their Lord on the first day of the week, Constantine issued an edict to the effect that: "All judges, city people and craftsmen shall rest on the venerable day of the Sun". He therefore cleverly merged the old Sun-worship with the "new" religion of Christianity.

It was like the Law of Moses reimposed in a pseudo-Christian way. All the restrictions the Law had applied to the seventh day, by Constantine's edict now transferred to the first day. He removed the freedom introduced through Christ, and made observance a matter of law rather than free will. Just as the Jews had built up their traditions about how the sabbath should be kept, over a period of time misguided Christians began to view the first day of the week in strict Sabbatarian terms. We have only to read some Victorian novels to understand how dull and depressing, how much calculated to remove any joy in worship, these traditions became.

Seven Whole Days
What can we learn from the subject, so that we can put into practice today only those things that are pleasing to God? There are some lines in George Herbert's famous hymn, "King of Glory, King of Peace", that can help us:

"Seven whole days, not one in seven,
I will praise thee ....
E'en eternity's too short
to extol thee."

Our time belongs, not to us, but to God. If we wish truly to please Him, we shall not grudgingly give Him just one day a week, and keep all the rest to spend only as we see fit. We shall try to keep His commands as guides for every aspect of our lives, and thus honour and glorify Him. There is no doubt that there are great blessings to be obtained from a regular weekly release from ordinary, but necessary work. If these blessings are properly used what better than to devote them to worship and remembrance, as a response to a gracious provision, not because some "law" makes demands on mankind. This is how Paul spoke about the subject a little later in his letter to the Galatians:

"Stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery . . . for you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants one of another" (Galatians 5:1,13).

"There remains a sabbath rest"
There is one final aspect. When writing to Jews who had left the Law of Moses behind and become brethren in Christ, the Apostle wrote about the sabbath provision in a fascinating way that draws together all the different things we have discovered in our brief survey of Bible teaching (see Hebrews 3:7-4:10). Meditating upon a verse from Psalm 95, where God declared that those who turned away from Him would never enter into His rest, the Apostle deduced that there was an implicit promise for some to enter it. Who would they be? It could not be the Israelites who, through disobedience, lost the promised blessings. So it must refer to others, who are still waiting for the rest to begin: "There remains a sabbath rest for the people of God; for whoever enters God's rest also ceases from his labours as God did from his" (4:9,10).

The real rest of God is therefore yet to come. It will be a time when His will is done perfectly "on earth, as it is in heaven", as Jesus taught us to pray. Elsewhere, the Bible calls this rest the Kingdom of God. Every day of the week there is an opportunity to show by our lives that we believe in the promise of its establishment.

The King will soon return to call dead and living saints to his Father's eternal rest. Will you be one who has waited for him?

MICHAEL ASHTON

Scripture quotations are taken generally from the Revised Standard Version