The announcement from Moscow was curiously understated. Russian President Boris Yeltsin stood with the presidents of the Ukraine and Belorus, republics that, with Russia, had founded the Soviet Union in 1922, and declared, “The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality, is ceasing to exist.”
At first, the news was hard to grasp. The superpower that millions in the West had feared as “the Evil Empire” ceasing to exist, just like that? But then the world saw the Russian tri-coloured flag rise triumphantly over the domes and spires of the Kremlin.
A new banner flew over what had once been Lenin, Stalin and Brezhnev's empire. And the truth did register; things really had changed—fundamentally and irreversibly—in the corridors of power below.
Of course a flag is just a coloured, patterned cloth—just a symbol. But symbols are far from unimportant. The people of Eastern Europe, who took to the streets at the end of 1989, knew how important symbols are. As they marched, they defiantly waved their flags of protest— flags of freedom. And the dictators staring out of their palaces and bunkers saw those brave flags waving in the streets and knew their days were numbered.
Flags have always been powerful symbols of a people's loyalty. They have moved countless citizens to dedicate their lives in service, and countless young men and women to make the ultimate sacrifice.
So is there a flag that flies over the kingdom of God on earth? Does a banner wave over Christ's great movement of grace and freedom?
where we came from
Flags point back to a people's origin.
They remind us of where we've come from, of the struggles and labours that formed our homeland.
There is a biblical practice that does precisely the same thing. It's part of the Ten Commandments. The fourth command points us back to our origin as children of God—all the way back to Creation: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God... . For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:8-11).
God wants us to remember the Sabbath day. Why? Because it is a memorial in time; it links us to Him as our Creator. As such, it tells us who we are.
It declares that we didn't just evolve out of the primeval ooze by an incredible series of accidents. No, we are children of an all-powerful, caring God. We are created in His image. We are spiritual beings with the ability to remember— and to worship.
The Bible speaks of the Sabbath as a “sign” between God and His people—a sign of the commitment between them.
Here's what the prophet Ezekiel says: “Keep my Sabbaths holy, that they may be a sign between us. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God”
So the Sabbath is a sign, a symbol, a kind of flag. When we wave it above us, we show who is ruling in our hearts: the Creator, our Father in heaven.
Flags usually remind us of the sacrifices others have made on our behalf.
Most flags are, in effect, bloodstained banners, because most nations only become free after brave men and women shed their blood.
When we carry the flag in a parade or wave it above a public building, we are reminded of the cost of our freedom.
We honour the flag because individuals have made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of what it represents.
The Sabbath possesses a similar meaning. The book of Hebrews tells us that the Sabbath symbolises the work of Christ in establishing His kingdom of grace. The author talks about the failure of the children of Israel to enter God's rest; they did not experience the full blessings of the covenant. But, he says, those who believe in Christ do enter God's rest (see Hebrews 4).
It is those who experience the true Sabbath rest, he seems to be saying, who are the genuine people of God. “There remains, then, a Sabbath rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience”
Sabbath rest is a symbol of the rest of faith. Those who believe in Christ's righteousness and rely on His merits don't need to try to buy salvation through their deeds. They accept Christ's great sacrifice, honour it, trust it and rest in it.
Observing the Sabbath is a way to take a stand against legalism—thinking we can work our way to heaven. It's a time each week when we stop working, break from the daily grind and celebrate the great work of Christ on our behalf.
By waving the sign of the Sabbath— the flag of the Sabbath—we proclaim that Christ's sinless life and death on the cross are all we need and that we are resting in Him. Because of Christ's shed blood we stand free in Him.
This symbolism of the Sabbath is further illuminated when God says: “You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy” (Exodus 31:13).
The Sabbath is a reminder that the Lord is the One who makes us holy.
We don't do it ourselves; we don't generate virtue on our own. Righteousness comes as a gift from the Messiah, who laid down His life for us. That's what the bloodstained banner of the Sabbath proclaims.
And God not only forgives us; He also works to make holiness a living experience. We both rest in grace and grow in grace. The Sabbath is a flag, proclaiming our allegiance to the God who saves us—and also transforms us.
When it flies above us, it shows that the Saviour rules within us.
missing the tournament
When I became a Christian, I was playing on a high school basketball team. Our team qualified for the state championship, which was quite an exciting thing for us in our small town.
The elimination tournament was scheduled for Thursday through Sunday.
I had recently come to understand what the seventh-day Sabbath can mean in the Christian life. I was preparing for baptism and observing the Sabbath had become part of my allegiance to Christ. So I faced what for me was a hard decision: to keep the Sabbath as I believed God intended by staying home from the tournament or to play basketball on Sabbath “just this once.”
I wanted to go so badly but my conscience was asking me which was more important—basketball or Jesus?
In my anguish I called one of the godly women of the church where I'd been studying the Bible and asked her what I should do. She put it in simple terms: “Mark, be faithful to God.”
I decided not to go, though I wasn't the most joyful believer in the world at that time! I was just doing what I thought I had to do. And it seemed to me that I had just destroyed the one opportunity I would have to travel and see what the rest of the world was like, that I'd missed my chance to eat in restaurants and stay in hotels.
I look back on that time now and have to smile. I've had the opportunity to travel all over the world while spreading God's good news. I've had the incredible thrill of seeing people come to Christ in Moscow, Chicago, London, Copenhagen, Budapest, Melbourne and more. And, I've enjoyed more than enough hotels and restaurants. Now I find myself praying, “Lord, let me spend a few days at home!”
God has immeasurably broadened my life since I made that first commitment.
Giving up something in order to honour Christ's Sabbath didn't cut me off in some little corner. We may think we're giving up things for God but He gives us so much more in return.
A large part of what I've received in return is the blessing of the Sabbath itself. Believe me, that weekly time of spiritual rest is an essential part of my life. It keeps me going and has helped strengthen my family.
When God gives us a symbol, He gives the very best. When He asks us to rest, it's only because He has done so much work on our behalf. If Jesus calls us to holiness, it's only because He is the One who makes us holy.
land of our dreams
Most flags represent the ideals of a nation. Similarly, the Sabbath symbolises the joy of heaven. The rest in Christ that Sabbath embodies foreshadows the ultimate heavenly rest. Time devoted to God speaks of the time when we will see our Father face to face.
When the book of Hebrews tells us “there remains, then, a Sabbath rest for the people of God,” it's speaking of our ultimate heavenly home. The Sabbath is a symbol of that new and eternal land of promise.
The Bible indicates this Sabbath flag will continue to fly even when we have arrived in paradise. Notice these words from the prophet Isaiah: “‘As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,' declares the Lord, ‘so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,' says the Lord”
(Isaiah 66:22, 23).
The symbol of the Sabbath isn't meant to be a flag flying off in the distance.
It needs to find a home in each of our families.
I hope you will take time out of the weekly rush and find genuine Sabbath rest. The flag that flies above us shows who is ruling in our hearts.