Scripture portrays a clear picture of the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath
Roy E. Gane
Is literal rest on the seventh-day Sabbath a part of the “new covenant” experience to be enjoyed by Christians today? An answer to this question leads to the following interrelated sub-questions:
1. Is the seventh-day Sabbath a universal institution, or was it only for the literal Israelites?
2. Does the seventh-day Sabbath have an ongoing literal application, or was it a temporary type that lost its literal significance when it met its antitype?
3. Does the seventh-day Sabbath have theological significance for the present phase of the divine covenant, i.e., the “new covenant,” or did it have theological significance only as part of the obsolete “old covenant”?
A Universal Sabbath
The seventh-day Sabbath is universal because it was instituted at Creation for the benefit of all human beings—before the nation of Israel existed. Genesis 2:2, 3 reads: “On the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (NKJV).1
God rested. The Hebrew word translated “rested” here is from the verb that means “ceased,” “desisted,” or “rested” in the sense of desisting from labor. God ceased His work at the end of the Creation week because His work was complete, not because He was tired. On the seventh day He stopped to celebrate what could be regarded as the “birthday” of the world.
There is evidence that God intended not only to celebrate, but also to provide an example for human beings. Exodus 31:17 refers to God being “refreshed” as a result of His rest on the seventh day of Creation. The verb translated “refreshed” here is used only three times in the Hebrew Bible (Ex. 23:12; 31:17; 2 Sam. 16:14). In 2 Samuel 16:14, it describes David and his people recovering from fatigue from their flight from Absalom. Exodus 23:12 reiterates the Sabbath command given in the Ten Commandments (20:8-11).
In this context, rest on the seventh-day Sabbath clearly relieves the fatigue of human beings and animals and refreshes them. Now the question arises: If rest describes relief from fatigue in Exodus 23:12 and 2 Samuel 16:14, why does Exodus 31:17 use the same word with reference to God being “refreshed”? The answer lies in the purpose of Exodus 31:12-17, which is to have God’s people follow His example by resting on the seventh day of the week. Even though God did not need rest from fatigue, the Bible here speaks of Him anthropomorphically as receiving some kind of refreshing benefit to show people how to rest on the seventh day, as a result of which they would gain relief from fatigue.
Lest it should seem strange that God would do something as an example for human beings, consider two similar cases:
● In the Israelite ritual system, the blood of a sacrificial animal was drained out and applied to the outside or horns of the altar in the courtyard (Lev. 1:5; 4:25) or to the area of the outer sanctum and the horns of the incense altar (4:6, 7) with the remainder disposed of by pouring it out at the base of the outer altar (vs. 7). The blood did not go up to God in smoke along with the meat as a “pleasing aroma” (1:9). Why not? Because the meat constituted a “food gift” to God (Num. 28:2), and God had commanded the Israelites not to eat meat without draining out the blood because the blood represents the life (Lev. 17:10-12; Gen. 9:4). By not eating blood with their meat, the Israelites acknowledged that they did not have ultimate control over life. But God did have such control. So why didn’t He show it by accepting blood with His meat? Apparently, because He wanted to be an example to His people, thereby practicing what He preached.
● Jesus asked John the Baptist to baptize Him, but John recognized that Jesus did not need baptism (Matt. 3:13, 14). Baptism symbolizes purification from sin (Rom. 6:1-5), but Jesus was sinless (Heb. 4:15). Nevertheless, He insisted that John baptize Him, saying: “‘Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness’” (Matt. 3:15).
So Jesus went through the process of baptism because it is part of a righteous human life, even though the righteousness which He already possessed transcended the fallen state and did not require baptism.
God’s rest also served as an example for human Sabbath observance. But did this example begin to operate thousands of years after Creation, or did God intend for human beings to follow His example from the beginning? Jesus succinctly answered the question by declaring that “‘the sabbath was made for humankind’” (Mark 2:27, NRSV). He viewed the original purpose of the Sabbath as providing benefit to human beings. This means that when God rested on the seventh day of Creation, He did not simply intend to benefit Himself.
It is true there is nothing in the text of Genesis 2 explicitly stating the Sabbath was made for human beings, as Jesus later declared. Nor does Genesis state that the Sabbath is to be an ongoing, cyclical event, occurring on each seventh day. Genesis did not need to explicitly state these things, however, because the context makes them clear.
Consider the following contextual factors:
1. According to Genesis 2:3, God blessed the seventh day and made it holy. Thus, God must have endowed this day with a special relationship to Himself, who alone is intrinsically holy (1 Sam. 2:2). But how can a day be holy? A day is a unit of time, which is not a material substance, so it cannot be made holy by application of a holy substance, such as anointing oil. It must be consecrated in relation to beings who are affected by it.
The only way for intelligent beings to make/treat time as holy is by altering their behavior. Thus, God altered His behavior on the seventh day of Creation, the archetype of the weekly Sabbath, and proclaimed the day holy. Skinner points out, regarding the Sabbath in Genesis 2:1-3: “It is not an institution which exists or ceases with its observance by man; the divine rest is a fact as much as the divine working, and so the sanctity of the day is a fact whether man secures the benefit or not.”2
But what sense would it make to say that God blessed the day if He intended this unit of holy time to benefit only Himself? Elsewhere in the Creation story, God’s blessings were outgoing, for the benefit of His creatures (Gen. 1:22, 28). So could we imagine that on the seventh day God rested and admired His handiwork while humankind toiled in the garden? The blessing must be for created beings living in the world where the seventh day operated. To receive the blessing, these beings would consecrate the day as God did, by altering their behavior. The blessing results from activity that acknowledges the consecration. As Skinner put it: “The Sabbath is a constant source of well-being to the man who recognises its true nature and purpose.”3
2. God made human beings in His image (Gen. 1:26, 27) and commissioned them to continue the work of creation by being fruitful and multiplying (vs. 28). He also gave them the work of having dominion/responsibility over the earth (vss. 26-28; 2:15). If human beings are made in God’s image and are to emulate God by working on their level as God worked on His, it would stand to reason that they should also emulate God by resting from their work as God rested from His.
3. On each of the first six days of creation, God did something that had ongoing results for our world. Thus, we expect that what He did on the seventh day would also have earthly ongoing results.
4. God set up cyclical time even before humankind was created (Gen. 1:3-5, 14-18). According to Genesis 1:14, God made heavenly bodies, chiefly the Sun and Moon (vs. 16), to mark earthly time as “signs,” “seasons,” i.e., appointed times, days, and years. So when Genesis 2:3 says that God blessed and hallowed the seventh day, this blessing and consecration could be ongoing in a cyclical sense, applying to each subsequent seventh day. In fact, the seventh-day Sabbath provides a plausible explanation for the origin of the week, which is not defined by the movement of heavenly bodies.
The Creation story does not contain a command for human beings to observe the Sabbath. But neither does it contain commands to honor one's parents or to abstain from idolatry, adultery, murder, or any other prohibitions in the Ten Commandments. In Genesis 1–2 God was concerned with setting up the ideal order of relationships rather than commanding protection of existing relationships. For human beings, He instituted the Sabbath, marriage, and work. These three institutions embody principles later expressed also in the Ten Commandments.
According to Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve showed disrespect for God’s lordship by eating the fruit of a forbidden tree (Gen. 3:6), their marriage and work suffered as a result of the curse of sin (vss. 16-19). But there is an important omission in Genesis 3: The Sabbath is not affected by any curse resulting from the Fall. Unlike the other two Creation institutions, the Sabbath remains a little piece of Paradise. As such, its value is enhanced by the deterioration around it. Now that work is exhausting, ceasing from labor on the Sabbath provides needed rest. More importantly, now that human beings are cut off from direct access to God, they need a reminder of His lordship even more than they did before the Fall.
Though the Fall made marriage and labor difficult and reduced their joy, it did not take away human responsibility with regard to any of the Creation institutions or the principles that they embody. When Cain murdered Abel, showing disrespect for the life that had been given by God through the marriage of Adam and Eve, God held him accountable (Gen. 4:9-15). Genesis does not say that the sixth commandment was formulated as such before Cain killed Abel, but Cain was a murderer anyway because he violated the order God had established. Just as we cannot say that the obligation to abstain from murder could not exist before the sixth of the Ten Commandments was given to Israel, so we cannot say that the Sabbath could not exist as a human responsibility before the fourth commandment was given.
It is true that the Pentateuchal narratives do not mention the seventh day as a day of ceasing from work between the time God rested on the seventh day of Creation (2:2, 3) and the time He commanded the Israelites to observe Sabbath in the wilderness on the way to Mt. Sinai (Ex. 16:23-30). But neither do the early Pentateuchal narratives record the specific obligation to refrain from taking God’s name in vain. This is stated in the third of the Ten Commandments and illustrated in a later narrative (Lev. 24:11-16, 23). The early silence does not constitute evidence that God did not expect people to do these things, which were implied by the Creation order.
The context of Genesis 2:2, 3 indicates that when God ceased work (“sabbathed”) on the seventh day of the Creation week, He did not abruptly stop setting up ongoing life for human beings on planet Earth and start doing something ad hoc exclusively for Himself. By His own example, He created the Sabbath as the capstone and delineator of the ongoing weekly cycle for human beings. He had created the world, vegetation, and nonhuman life by speaking. He had created human beings by forming dust, breathing His breath into nostrils, and using a rib. And then He created the blessed and holy Sabbath by “sabbathing” Himself.
It is clear that God instituted the Sabbath for all human beings on Earth because He instituted it in the beginning, long before Israel existed, along with basic elements of human life such as marriage and labor. The fact that the Sabbath shows up as one of the Ten Commandments that God gave to Israel at Sinai does not negate the universality of the Sabbath, but rather supports it because the other nine commandments are universal principles applicable beyond the boundaries of the literal Israelite nation.
O. Palmer Robertson, a Presbyterian scholar, wrote: “His blessing of this day had a significant effect on the world. Furthermore, the reference to God’s blessing the day should not be interpreted as meaning that God blessed the day with respect to himself. It was with respect to his creation, and with respect to man in particular that God blessed the Sabbath day. As Jesus indicated pointedly, ‘the Sabbath came into being . . . for the sake of man . . .” (Mark 2:27). Because it was for the good of man and the whole of creation, God instituted the Sabbath.
“Neither antinomianism nor dispensationalism may remove the obligation of the Christian today to observe the creation ordinance of the Sabbath. The absence of any explicit command concerning Sabbath-observance prior to Moses does not relegate the Sabbath principle to temporary legislation of the law-epoch. The creational character of God’s sabbath-blessing must be remembered. From the very beginning, God set a distinctive blessing on the Sabbath . . . God blessed man through the Sabbath by delivering him from slavery to work.”4
God invested the Sabbath with additional significance when He reaffirmed it for the Israelite nation. In addition to its function as a reminder of Creation (Ex. 20:11), the Sabbath became a reminder of God’s deliverance of His people from Egypt (Deut. 5:15). The latter event is thematically related to the former. God delivered His people from Egypt because they were His, by virtue of His creative power, which was displayed in the 10 plagues on Egypt and in His miraculous protection and provision for the Israelites in the wilderness. Thus, God’s deliverance was a manifestation of the ongoing divine creative power that Daniel proclaimed to King Belshazzar: “‘the God who holds your breath in His hand and owns all your ways’” (Dan. 5:23).
Because of its importance, the Sabbath was honored in the worship system of the Israelites. This is to be expected. It would be surprising if the Sabbath were not honored in this way. Additional sacrifices were offered at the Israelite sanctuary/temple on the Sabbath (Num. 28:9, 10). The “bread of the presence” on the golden table inside the sacred tent was changed every Sabbath as “an everlasting covenant” (Lev. 24:8). This bread is the only offering at the sanctuary referred to in this way as an eternal covenant. It is no accident that it was renewed every Sabbath. The only other reference to an “everlasting covenant” between God and the Israelites as a whole during the wilderness period is in Exodus 31:16, 17, in which the Sabbath, the memorial of Creation, is called an eternal covenant. Thus, the “bread of the presence” offering, consisting of 12 loaves plus frankincense, was placed upon the golden table every Sabbath to acknowledge the dependence of the 12 tribes of Israel upon God as their resident Creator-Provider.
The fact that the Sabbath was an important part of Israelite worship does not mean that it was only for the Israelites. It is true that the earthly sanctuary/temple and its rituals have given way to Christ’s glorious heavenly ministry (Hebrews 7–10). It is also true that for most Christians, the Sabbath does not represent the redemption of their literal ancestors from Egypt. But the honored place of the Sabbath in the worship system of Israel at a particular phase of the divine covenant does not change its significance for people living at other times and places.
Ongoing Sabbath or Temporary Type?
The ongoing applicability of the Sabbath, which God instituted at Creation, has not ceased because the Sabbath has never functioned as a temporary type.
If God instituted the Sabbath for human beings before the Fall, the function/applicability of the Sabbath cannot be dependent upon its belonging to the system of temporary types that God set up after the Fall to lead human beings back to belief in Him. The Sabbath cannot be a temporary type because it pre-existed the need for temporary types.
Even if the Sabbath had originated as a human institution when God gave it to the Israelites, it would not necessarily follow that the Sabbath functioned as a temporary type to be superseded by the Christian “rest” experience. It is true that in Hebrews 4, Sabbath rest is used to symbolize a life of peaceful rest, involving all days of the week, which results from believing in God.
Perhaps it could be said that as a microcosm of such a life, the Sabbath in a broad sense “typifies” such a life. This idea is simply an extension of the significance that the Sabbath has had since Creation. But this does not mean a priori that the Sabbath is a temporary, historical/horizontal kind of type like the Israelite sacrificial system. Nor does the fact that human beings imitate God by keeping the Sabbath indicate that the Sabbath is a temporary vertical type like the Israelite sanctuary. As such, the Sabbath is fundamentally different from the Israelite festivals, on which rituals functioning as types constituted the essence of observance.
Sabbath as a Historical/Horizontal Type?
A historical/horizontal type consists of something that prefigures something in the future that constitutes its antitype. When the antitype commences, the type becomes obsolete. Thus, for example, the levitical priesthood was superseded by the greater Melchizedek priesthood of Jesus Christ (Heb. 7:10). The levitical priesthood functioned as a type in one era and ceased to function when its antitype, Christ’s priesthood, began to function in the next era. Another example is the ritual of Passover, which Christ fulfilled and therefore superseded when He died on the cross. Sacrificing literal sheep at the time of Passover can no longer point forward to Christ’s death because that event is now in the past.
In the case of a historical/horizontal type, the type has significance, and then the antitype replaces it. The type and antitype do not function at the same time. A crucial test of whether the Sabbath functions as a historical type of a God-given life of “rest” is: Can the Sabbath function at the same time as the life of rest? The answer which arises from Hebrews 4 is Yes. In Hebrews 4, God’s “rest” has not suddenly become available for Christians; it was available all along and was not fully appropriated in Old Testament times only because of unbelief. Because the life of rest was available in Old Testament times, at the same time when the Sabbath was in operation for the Israelites, the Sabbath cannot be a historical type of the life of rest.
Hebrews 4 appeals to Christians to succeed where people in Old Testament times failed. The condition for entering and remaining in God’s rest is belief, and that is still true during the Christian era, or Hebrews 4 would not need to make its appeal to “make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs” (Heb. 4:11, NRSV). It is those who have believed who are entering God’s rest (vs. 3). The Christian era does not change the basic dynamic of entering God’s rest through belief.
There is in Hebrews 4 no discontinuity between the Old Testament and New Testament eras that we find in connection with the Israelite levitical priesthood or the sacrifices officiated by that priesthood. Though the idea of divine rest belongs both to the seventh-day Sabbath and the “rest” experience given by God to those who believe, the Sabbath and the rest of believers can function in the same era. If the Israelites had believed, the rest experience and the Sabbath would have functioned at the same time. The fact that this was possible shows that the Sabbath did not function as a temporary type that could be fulfilled only when the Christian era commenced.
The Sabbath and God’s “rest” are not mutually exclusive, but rather, they are complementary. Insofar as keeping the seventh-day Sabbath expresses and helps maintain belief in God, it contributes to the experience of entering God’s rest. Therefore, when God offered His “rest” to the Israelites, He offered the Sabbath along with it. The Sabbath was supposed to be part of God’s “rest,” and there is no indication in the Bible that this has changed.
At first glance, Colossians 2:16, 17 could appear to contradict what has been concluded thus far: “Do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (NRSV). In verse 17, shadow means “temporary type.” So does this mean that the “sabbaths” mentioned in verse 16 functioned as temporary types?
The issue here is ritual observance of special holy days. “Festivals,” “new moons,” or “sabbaths” inverts the order found in Numbers 28–29, where the calendar of ritual offerings on holy days includes offerings on Sabbaths (vss. 9, 10), new moons (vss. 11-15), and festivals (28:16–29:40). These offerings were part of the Israelite worship system. But it was the rituals performed on the days, not the days themselves, that functioned as the types. In Colossians 2:17, the pronoun these identifies the shadowy things as the list in verse 16: “food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths” in verse 16. Along with food and drink, which in this context must be religious in nature because they have typological significance, it is ritual observance of the festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths that constitutes the “shadow”/type; it is not the days themselves. There is no evidence that new moon days, for example, had typological significance of their own; it was the special sacrifices offered on new moon days (Num. 28:11-15) that served as a “shadow.”
In Colossians 2:16, 17, Paul affirms the same basic message decided at the Jerusalem council (Acts 15): People do not need to practice the Jewish rituals in order to be Christians. The rituals were historical types pointing forward to the better, truly efficacious ministry of Jesus Christ, which has already begun and to which our focus should be directed.
So what about the prohibition of labor on the Sabbath, which is part of the Ten Commandments? Was this part of the ritual system that functioned as a shadow of things to come? No. It is true that the ritual system honored the Sabbath, but Sabbath rest itself is not a historical shadow/type, and abstaining from work on the Sabbath existed before any ritual system was needed. Moreover, even for the Israelites, keeping Sabbath rest was never dependent upon the operation of the sanctuary/temple or its services. It could be observed wherever God’s people found themselves.
By recognizing the temporary nature of the Israelite ritual element that had been added by God to the Sabbath, Paul implies an affirmation of the underlying universality of the Sabbath, which can be kept by anyone apart from the Israelite ritual system. Paul did not touch the original function of the Sabbath itself. If he had, we can be sure there would have been a major uproar in the Christian Church, calling for a council like the one in Jerusalem that dealt with the controversy over circumcision (Acts 15).
Sabbath as a Vertical Type?
If the Sabbath does not function as a temporary historical/horizontal type, is it possible that it functioned as a temporary vertical type, like the Israelite sanctuary on earth that served as a copy of God’s temple in heaven above? Could human, earthly rest on the seventh day be a copy of divine heavenly rest?
1. Just because human beings imitate God in some respect does not indicate the existence of a temporary vertical type. In Leviticus 19:2, for example, God commands the Israelites to be holy as He is holy. The fact that the rest of Leviticus 19 consists of laws governing divine-human and human-human relationships indicates that the aspect of holiness in view is that of character. This call to emulate God’s character is repeated in 1 Peter 1:16, quoting Leviticus 19:2. It is clearly a timeless command.
2. In Genesis 2:2, 3, God rested on the seventh day in connection with His creation of this world. There is no indication that the Sabbath was originally a heavenly institution that was then copied on Earth in the same way that the earthly sanctuary was a copy of an original heavenly temple.
3. If the Sabbath were a temporary vertical type, we would expect some indication in the Bible regarding the end of its typical significance as we have in the case of the earthly sanctuary. The earthly temple lost its significance when the original heavenly temple took the place of the earthly as the location toward which worship should be directed (Hebrews 7–10). But there is no such indication that a similar dynamic applies to the Sabbath.
Sabbath and the Israelite Festivals
If literal observance of the seventh-day Sabbath does not function as a temporary type and therefore should be maintained, should we also be obliged to keep elements of the Jewish festivals that do not function as temporary types?
It is true that not every activity connected with the Israelite worship system functioned as a temporary type. For example, the priestly blessing (Num. 6:23-27) and prayers and music offered at the temple (1 Sam 1:10, 11) were simply part of the ongoing religious experience and did not function as types.
But the rituals, which constituted the essence of observance of the festivals, did function as historical temporary types. According to the Bible, all of the Israelite spring festivals met their antitypes at the beginning of the Christian era. Christ died as the antitype of the Passover lamb (John 19:14). “Christ rose and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20), i.e., as the antitype of the festival wave sheaf (Lev. 23:11). The Feast of Weeks, known as Pentecost, when the first fruits of wheat were harvested, met its antitype in the early Christian harvest of souls through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2).
If the spring festivals were temporary types, it stands to reason that the autumn festivals, when even more sacrifices were offered (Numbers 29), also functioned as temporary types. Unlike the Sabbath, the essence of festival observance is constituted by ritual, which functions as type.
Even if the Feast of Booths (so-called Feast of Tabernacles), which was the last of the autumn festivals (Lev. 23:33-43; Num. 29:12-38), has not yet met its antitype, this does not mean that Christians should be required to keep it today. According to the New Testament, Christian worship is directed toward Christ in the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 7–10) rather than toward the resident Shekinah in an earthly sanctuary having human priests and a yearly cycle of national festivals.
The Israelite festivals were part of and owed their existence to the Israelite worship system. This system was grounded in the experience of the Israelite nation within its historical and agricultural context and limited to that phase of the covenant in which election of literal Israel operated.
We cannot, of course, fully keep the biblical festivals even if we want to because that would require pilgrimages to a temple in Jerusalem, where sacrifices would be offered. Following the destruction of the second temple in A.D. 70, the Jews developed adapted versions of the festivals that do not require sacrifices or pilgrimage. In this way, the Jews can continue to keep the festivals. These observances are based on important elements of the biblical festivals, to which postbiblical traditional liturgical and didactic elements have been added.
If modern Christians wish to participate in a Jewish festival occasion such as the Passover Seder, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), or Sukkot (Booths), they may find personal enrichment and edification. But Jewish postbiblical adaptations should not be confused with the mandatory biblical forms of the ancient Israelite festivals, which no longer exist.
The Israelite festivals have been carried on by the Jews because these observances commemorate the historical events that formed their nation, thereby keeping their heritage alive. As Christians, we share their heritage in the sense that we recognize the way God used the Israelites to reveal Himself and His purposes to the world. However, biblical events such as the Exodus from Egypt, which is remembered in the Passover service, did not happen to our ancestors. Those events were limited to the experience of a particular people. But that limited exodus pointed forward to a universal exodus that belongs to all human beings equally: our exodus from sin and the control of Satan through the sacrificed body and blood of Jesus Christ, our Passover Lamb. To keep this universal exodus alive, Jesus gave all Christians the Communion service, a Christian Passover that replaces the biblical Israelite Passover. Since the Communion service utilizes only bread and wine and does not require a human priest officiating at a temple, it can continue to function following the destruction of the second temple.
Jesus created the Last Supper on the occasion of the biblical Passover, while the second temple was still standing, well before the Jews adapted the festivals for their own purposes. If Christ meant for Christians to keep altered forms of the festivals other than Passover, we would expect Him to have taught us what to do, as He did at the Last Supper.
There is a fundamental difference between Israelite and Christian worship. The center and focus of the Israelite worship system was God dwelling among His people on earth, the resident Shekinah enthroned above the cherubim in the holiest apartment of the sanctuary/temple. The sacrifices, festivals, songs, and prayers of the Israelites were directed toward God in His earthly dwelling place. They knew, of course, that God also lives in heaven (Ps. 11:4) and that an earthly building cannot contain Him, but their worship reached heaven via the earthly sanctuary/temple.
Notice the wording in Solomon’s dedicatory prayer: “‘Hear the supplication of Your servant and of Your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. Hear in heaven Your dwelling place; and when You hear, forgive’” (1 Kings 8:30). So Israelites prayed horizontally toward the temple, and from there the prayers went vertically to heaven. Notice that Daniel prayed horizontally toward Jerusalem even when the temple lay in ruins (Dan. 6:10).
Unlike the Israelites under the Sinaitic covenant, Christians under the “New Covenant” are to orient their worship directly to the heavenly temple, where Christ ministers as their High Priest (Hebrews 7–10). Christians do not need an earthly temple or mediation by earthly priests. By faith in the mediation of Christ, we can send our prayers vertically from wherever we are directly to God’s “throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16).
There is a basic difference between the Sabbath and the Israelite festivals. The festivals were limited to the Sinaitic/Israelite phase of God’s covenant by several factors:
● The essence of festival observance involved rituals functioning as temporary historical types.
● For their full observance, the festivals were dependent upon continuation of the Israelite ritual system.
● The festivals were rooted in the particular national religious experience of the Israelite people.
By contrast, observance of the seventh-day Sabbath is not subject to any of these limitations. It is not a temporary type, it is not dependent upon continuation of the Israelite ritual system, and it is universal in origin. There is no reason to believe that the Sabbath was restricted to the Sinaitic phase of God’s covenant.
Sabbath as Part of the “New Covenant”?
As a sign of the ongoing dependence of human beings upon their Creator and His work, the seventh-day Sabbath continues to have significance for the “new covenant.” The fact that the Sabbath functioned during the “old covenant” period does not mean that the Sabbath became obsolete with that covenant. Rather, there is a sense in which the significance of the Sabbath is restored under the “new covenant.”
When God reaffirmed the Sabbath for Israel, the Sabbath was more than a commandment. According to Exodus 31:13, 17, the Sabbath functioned as a sign of the covenant relationship by which He sanctified the Israelites. This function applied to Israel a principle that had been inherent in the Sabbath since Creation.
On the seventh day of Creation, God sanctified the Sabbath (Gen. 2:2, 3), a unit of time. Why? In order to affect those who observe this special time. How would they be affected? They would emulate their holy Creator and acknowledge their ongoing connection with Him. Because they would belong to God, who is intrinsically holy, they would gain holiness from Him. In other words, the Sabbath would be a sign that God makes people holy, just as He explicitly said in Exodus 31:13 with particular reference to the Israelites. From the beginning, God’s desire has been for all people to enjoy a holy relationship with Him.
The divine-human relationship signified by the Sabbath is one in which human beings are dependent upon God and His work. Thus, those who rest on the Sabbath acknowledge “‘“that I am the Lord who sanctifies you”’” (Ex. 31:13) and that “‘“in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth”’” (vs. 17). The Sabbath is not simply the immovable “birthday of the world”; it recognizes the dependence of the world, and more particularly the human beings who have dominion over the world, on God who created the world. Our dependence on God is based not only upon what He did for us thousands of years ago. According to the Bible, He continues to sustain His creatures (Dan. 5:23; Ps 114:14, 15).
God will always be our Creator and Sustainer. Therefore, the basic meaning of the Sabbath, which encapsulates this divine-human relationship, is timeless; it cannot become obsolete as long as human beings inhabit planet Earth.
It is true that God expressed the Sabbath to the Israelites in the form of a law. It is also true that the Israelite phase of the covenant, which emphasized law, was defective and had to be replaced by the “new covenant.” But this does not mean that the Sabbath became obsolete along with the Israelite “old covenant.” The “old covenant” was defective because Israel’s response to God’s covenant initiative was defective, not because God gave the “old covenant” to Israel as a faulty means of salvation by works.
There was nothing wrong with the covenant God offered to Israel. Like earlier phases of the covenant, it was based upon grace. This is shown by the fact that God first saved Israel by grace, and then He gave His commandments to them. In Exodus 20, obedience to the Ten Commandments (vss. 3-17) is a response to the prior grace of “‘the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage’” (vs. 2).
Earlier Old Testament covenants were also based upon grace. God first saved Noah from the Flood (Gen. 7:1–8:19) and then formally inaugurated the covenant by giving Noah an ongoing covenant promise (8:21, 22), blessings and commandments (9:1-7), and a sign of the promise (9:8-17). God first gave Abraham a military victory, keeping him safe as He saved Lot from His captors (Genesis 14), and then God formally inaugurated the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15, 17).
To Israel, as to Noah and Abraham, God offered salvation by grace through faith, as in the Christian era (Eph. 2:8). There has never been a different way of salvation. The divine covenants are unified and function as phases of cumulative development in God’s overall plan.
It is true that Christ has eclipsed the Mosaic law in the sense that He is a more glorious revelation of God’s character (2 Corinthians 3). But this means that Christ’s revelation sheds greater light on the divine principles that constitute God’s law. Christ magnified God’s law; He did not replace law as a means of salvation because God has never offered salvation on that basis.
Though no amount of our own works can purchase our salvation, our works are a necessary part of the faith response that accepts the gift of salvation that God freely gives to us. Real, living faith works through love (Gal. 5:6). If faith does not have works, it is dead faith (James 2:26), not the kind of faith through which we can be saved by grace (Eph. 2:8). Living in harmony with God’s principles results from forgiveness. As Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery: “‘Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more’” (John 8:11).
Doesn’t the idea that obedience to God is necessary contradict the dynamic of salvation by grace (Eph. 2:8)? No, because obedience is a gift of grace. According to Romans 5:5, the Holy Spirit pours love into our hearts. Thus, God gives us love, the principle upon which law-keeping is based (Matt. 22:36-40), as a gift. The fact that the Holy Spirit was available to people in Old Testament times (Neh. 9:20) indicates that the gift of love by the Spirit is not restricted to the Christian era.
Deuteronomy 6 informs us that God wanted the Israelites to respond to His prior grace by having an internalized, heart relationship with him. He commanded them: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart’” (Deut. 6:5, 6). Upon this principle of love for God and upon the principle of love for fellow human beings (Lev. 19:18) all of God’s Old Testament commandments were based (Matt. 22:36-40). Only by accepting these principles and the more specific commandments that flowed from them would the Israelites accept God’s lordship through which they would continue to be saved. This explains why God said: “‘“You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them: I am the Lord”’” (Lev. 18:5).
So God offered to the Israelites a covenant of grace and internalized love. But it takes two parties to make a covenant. The good covenant became a defective “old covenant” because the divine-human relationship became dysfunctional due to human failure to have a heart relationship with God.
This is clear from Jeremiah 31:31-34, which first mentions the “new covenant”: “‘Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.’”
From this passage we can see that the difference between the “old covenant” and the “new covenant” is not the difference between “law” and “grace.” Rather, it is the difference between failure to internalize God’s law, resulting in disobedience, and successful internalization of God’s law, resulting in obedience. It is harder to break the law when it is internalized; sin against law in the heart would be a “myocardial infraction.”
When the Israelites were disobedient and failed to receive sanctification from the Lord, any Sabbath-keeping they did would have been a hypocritical outward form (Isaiah 58). But by accepting God’s grace and internalizing His law, including the Sabbath, the people could become holy as God is holy (Lev. 19:2). Thus the Sabbath could be a true sign of a real sanctification experience (Ex. 31:13; Isaiah 58).
Jacques Doukhan points out: “In obeying the fourth commandment, the believer does not negate the value of grace. On the contrary, the awareness of grace is implied. Through obedience to God’s law, the believer expresses faith in God’s grace. This principle is particularly valid when it applies to the Sabbath, because in it not only the divine law but also divine grace are magnified.”5
By restoring sanctification, the “new covenant” restores the Sabbath to its true significance. Instead of being a hypocritical “tour de farce,” the Sabbath points to a living reality: People who are allowing God to sanctify them keep the sanctified day.
During His ministry, Jesus showed Christians how to live under the “new covenant.” He didn’t wait to begin teaching Christians how to live until He had officially inaugurated the “new covenant” era with His broken body and spilled blood. So Jesus’ example regarding the seventh-day Sabbath has prime relevance for Christians today. Luke 4:16 says: “He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue.”
If Jesus had simply participated in Jewish worship on the Sabbath, the significance of His example would be limited. But the fact that He took so much trouble to restore the Sabbath to its rightful place shows that it was of great importance for Him and therefore should be important for Christians. Jesus risked controversy and danger by healing people on the Sabbath, thereby stripping away hypocritical human tradition and showing by example the purpose of the Sabbath as it was originally created by God’s own example (Mark 2:27).
It is no accident that Jesus made a point of healing people on the Sabbath, thereby lifting their burdens and giving them rest from their suffering. His healing was a manifestation of His ongoing divine creative power. When Jesus was persecuted for healing on the Sabbath, He responded: “‘My Father is still working, and I also am working’” (John 5:17, NRSV). Because of the divine creative work, human beings can have rest.
Moreover, according to Philip Yancey, Jesus’ miracles provided “snapshots” of God’s ideal for the world as He created it and to which He will restore it: “Some see miracles as an implausible suspension of the laws of the physical universe. As signs, though, they serve just the opposite function. Death, decay, entropy, and destruction are the true suspensions of God’s laws; miracles are the early glimpses of restoration. In the words of Jurgen Moltmann, ‘Jesus’ healings are not supernatural miracles in a natural world. They are the only truly “natural” things in a world that is unnatural, demonized and wounded.’”6
Under the “new covenant” phase of the divine covenant, God restores the world and human beings to the sinless ideal He had for them in the beginning (Revelation 21–22). Since the Sabbath was part of the “covenant of Creation,” before human sin arose, it is appropriate that the Sabbath continue into the sinless “new earth.”
Evidence that the Sabbath will continue as a day of worship into the eschatological era is found in Isaiah 66:22, 23: “‘For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain before Me,’ says the Lord, ‘So shall your descendants and your name remain. And it shall come to pass that from one New Moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh shall come to worship before Me,’ says the Lord.”
The context of these verses shows that Isaiah envisioned the Eschaton through the lens of God’s plan to use literal Israel to gather all nations to Himself at Jerusalem. As shown by comparison with the Book of Revelation, God will still gather all nations to Himself (Rev. 7:9, 10). Since the Sabbath was universal from the beginning, there is no reason that it should be regarded as an obsolete element in Isaiah’s eschatological description.
Isaiah 66:23 mentions ongoing eschatological worship on new moon days along with worship on sabbaths. Like sabbaths, new moons were honored by extra sacrifices in the Israelite ritual system (Num. 28:11-15). But this does not mean that new moon days cannot be worship days apart from the ritual system. (See the same point above regarding the Sabbath). According to Genesis 1:14, before sin or the ritual system existed, God created and appointed the Sun and the Moon “to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years.” The term translated “seasons” refers to “appointed times.” In passages such as Leviticus 23:2, 4, 37, 44, this word refers to regular, cyclical times of worship. In Genesis 1:14, the term could not include the Sabbath because the weekly cycle is not marked by movements of the Sun or Moon in relation to the Earth as are days, months, and years. But new moons would fit well into the category of “seasons” in Genesis 1:14. Thus, eschatological observance of regular worship at new moons could revive a potential that was recognized at Creation.
Two qualifications must be made here:
1. Isaiah 66:23 mentions sabbaths and new moons as days of worship. But whereas sabbaths by definition are days of rest, new moons are not. Sabbaths are consecreated as sabbaths by cessation of ordinary weekly activity. New moons are constituted as such by the position of the Moon in relation to the Earth (Gen. 1:14). So Isaiah 66:23 does not indicate that new moons will be observed as days of rest in the New Earth.
2. Since God sanctified the seventh-day Sabbath and instituted cessation of labor on this day by His example, which He subsequently reinforced by His command, the Sabbath is naturally a day of worship. But the Bible does not indicate that we should observe new moons as days of worship in the Christian era. It is true that new moons were honored by additional sacrifices at the Israelite sanctuary (Num. 28:11-15), but that appears to be all the attention they received. In fact, though the cultic calendar of Numbers 28 includes new moons because it lists the sacrifices, the list of cyclical appointed worship times in Leviticus 23 passes directly from seventh-day Sabbaths (vs. 3) to yearly festivals (vss. 4ff), without mention of new moons at all. The implication seems to be that the new moons did not function as special days of worship except for the addition of some sacrifices.
The “old covenant,” as opposed to the “new covenant,” was not a different means of salvation established by God during Old Testament times, but rather, it was a relationship with Israel that was defective due to failure of the human party. So the “new covenant” does not supersede the “old covenant” by abolishing all aspects of what God offered to the Israelites, including His reaffirmation of the Sabbath. Rather, the “new covenant” fulfills the only ideal God has ever had for His people: a heart relationship with Him. As an important sign of the divine-human relationship, the Sabbath is restored to its full significance under the “new covenant.”
The seventh-day Sabbath as a day of rest was given to the human race at Creation, before there was a nation of Israel and before humanity needed redemption from sin. Therefore, the applicability of the Sabbath is not limited to the Israelite worship system or to the period of salvation history during which ritual observances functioned as temporary types. The Sabbath is for all human beings, whether or not they are sinners and whether or not they are Israelites. The Sabbath did not become obsolete along with the elective covenant with Israel, which became dysfunctional due to human failure. To the contrary, the Christian “new covenant” restores the significance of the Sabbath when God’s people have the experience of which the Sabbath has always been a sign: sanctification by God, the Creator who sanctified the Sabbath in the first place.
Roy Gane, Ph.D., is Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Languages at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this article are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible.
2. John Skinner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis, The International Critical Commentary Series (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1930), p. 35.
3. Ibid., p. 38.
4. O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1981), pp. 68, 69.
5. Jacques Doukhan, “Loving the Sabbath as a Christian: A Seventh-day Adventist Perspective,” in Tamara Eskenazi, Daniel Harrington, and William Shea, eds., The Sabbath in Jewish and Christian Traditions (New York: Crossroad, 1991), p. 155.
6. Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), pp. 182, 183.