The Sabbath Day and the Gospel
by. J. David Newman, D.Min
A. Why Most Christians Do Not Keep the Sabbath
B. Why the Sabbath is Important Today
C. Sabbath Keepers Who Reject the Sabbath
D. How to Make Your Own Decision
I am writing this article for friends of the gospel—those who love grace, have discovered the precious truth of righteousness by faith and never want to lose it, and may even fear that if any other truth is emphasized, it will eclipse the wonderful message of salvation.
I have read several books recently published on the Sabbath and other material discussing whether it is still valid for new covenant Christians. When you boil down everything that is being said, cut through all the verbiage, you can sum up the current discussion in just a few words:
Those who believe the fourth commandment is still literally binding on Christians are legalistic; while those who believe the fourth commandment is no longer literally binding, but the other nine still are, are NOT legalistic.
How can gospel-loving people have such different understandings? I hope the following discussion will help clarify rather than further muddy the issues swirling around the Sabbath. This is not an exhaustive study of the subject, and at the end of this article, I have listed other sources you may want to review.
Organization of this Article
I will cover four big questions that people have recently been asking me:
A. Why do the majority of Christians not keep the seventh day as the Sabbath? If this day is so important, if it is clearly set forth in Scripture, clearly part of the Ten Commandments, why do so many Christians worship on or keep another day?
B. Is the Old Testament Sabbath still relevant for New Testament Christians? Is there something unique or special about this day? Does it only point us back to creation, or does it also symbolize grace, righteousness by faith, and resting in the finished work of Jesus?
C. Why would people who have kept the seventh-day Sabbath stop keeping it and, in some cases, actually become antagonistic toward it?
D. How can I make a decision about the importance of the Sabbath when scholars and pastors cannot agree?
A. Why Most Christians Do Not Keep the Sabbath
Why do the majority of Christians not keep the Sabbath? Can people like Billy Graham and Bill Hybels be wrong? Since they are godly men, why does God not reveal the Sabbath truth to them if it is, in fact, still relevant? Isn't it just a little arrogant of us to think we have more light on the Sabbath than the majority of Christians in the world today?
Godly people have disagreed over many things down through the centuries, such as baptism by immersion or sprinkling, what happens to the soul at death, and the existence of an ever-burning hell. Although there may be far more Christians who believe one way than those who believe another on any given issue, truth is never determined by majority vote.
Fortunately for us, God does not grant salvation based on the correctness of our theology, but whether or not we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior. We are not saved by our knowledge, but by God's grace.
This point is very important in the present discussion. Sabbath keeping never has been and never will be the basis of anyone's salvation. From the time of Adam to the present, people have always been saved in the same way—only by grace.
Psychology and Experience
So why do good people differ in their thinking? Psychology, which is the study of the mind and behavior—experience, if you will—is the answer. Our life experiences, what we were taught, how we were treated by others, all influence our frame of reference—the lens by which we view ourselves, others, the world, and even Scripture. So to a large degree each person's experience in life determines how he or she interprets the Bible.
For instance, suppose two girls grow up in non-Christian homes, and in their late teens both attend meetings where they learn about God. Now suppose one comes from a stable, loving home where both parents have consistently provided nurture and support, and the other girl comes from an unstable home where she has been physically or sexually abused by her father much of her life. When they hear God described as a "Father," the girl from the nurturing home will have a dramatically different picture than the girl from the abusive home.
In the same manner, someone who grows up in a home where the Sabbath is treasured and looked forward to each week will view it in a much different light than someone who grows up in a home where the Sabbath is kept without joy and seen as a requirement rather than a blessing. In each case, the person's beliefs are greatly colored by their own personal experiences.
I give these illustrations to help frame the current discussion about the Sabbath. We like to believe we are totally objective, or nearly so, when it comes to interpreting Scripture. But if this were true, then most of us would agree on the important topics in the Bible; and we do not. Obviously, we each interpret Scripture through our own life experiences.
God speaks to each of us through our individual experiences. He has no other way. If He talked to me in German, I would not understand. That is not my experience. If he talked to me as an African American, I would not understand. That is not my experience. If he talked to me as a Hebrew scholar, I would not understand. I am not well versed in Hebrew.
So God speaks to me in my experience, and to you in yours. Does this mean there is no objective truth? Certainly not. There are absolutes. There are things that are clearly good and things that are clearly evil. But all truth is given within a context, and we neglect that context at our own peril.
Joshua, chapter 9, is a classic illustration of relying on experience alone. The Gibeonites fear they will soon be swallowed up by the Israelites who are conquering Canaan, so they pretend their country is far away, thus removing any apparent threat and enabling the Israelites to enter into an alliance with them. Their delegation comes with worn out sacks, old wineskins—cracked and mended, worn and patched sandals, and moldy bread.
When the Israelites hear their story, they accept it because experience teaches that people who start a journey with new provisions which become old and worn before reaching their destination, have traveled a long time and come a long way.
So the Israelites sign a treaty with the Gibeonites, only to discover a few days later, to their chagrin, that the Gibeonites live just over the next hill. A very telling verse says, "The men of Israel sampled their provisions but did not inquire of the Lord" (verse 14).(1) Without special revelation, the Israelites were deceived. Experience was not enough.
But experience is all we have. The Bible is a special revelation from God, but our understanding and interpretation of it come from our individual experiences. It cannot be any other way. One reason those who keep Sunday are not convicted about the sanctity of the seventh day may be because the only Sabbath keepers they have known majored in the negative aspects of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is known more for what we are NOT supposed to do than for the blessings we may enjoy. Worse still, people are sometimes given the impression that accepting the seventh day as the Sabbath is a salvation issue; and if they don't accept it, they will be lost.
Similarly, non-believers may reject the gospel because of their experience with Christians who practice hate while preaching love, who kill rather than redeem. Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland who fight each other can hardly convince others there is value in Jesus' command to "turn the other cheek" (Matthew 5:39) or "love your enemies" (v 44). I believe the same applies to our witness for the Sabbath.
Now at this stage some of my more theologically-oriented friends may say, "Hold it! Newman is treading on dangerous ground. He is making experience the criteria for interpreting Scripture. This is precarious because experience is subjective, not objective, whereas truth is objective and absolute. And the Bible is truth, therefore, it is objective
Yes, I quite agree. But this is where the tension lies. We arrive at objective truth through our subjective individual experiences. There is no other way.
Agreement through Discussion
Does that mean we will never agree? No, not at all. We reach agreement by comparing our experience with the experiences of others. If the girl from the abusive home finds that many of her close girlfriends know men who are kind and loving, then, hopefully, she will begin to question her own experience —to realize that her experience, true as it may have been, was actually abnormal.
History is replete with Christians who learned new truths while not learning all truths. Martin Luther discovered justification by faith but not baptism by immersion. For centuries, most Christians believed in an ever-burning hell and even considered Christians who did not as cultic. But today, prominent evangelical scholars like John Stott are expressing belief in the annihilation of the wicked rather than everlasting torment.(2)
Seventh-day Adventists did not invent the Sabbath. They learned of it from Seventh-day Baptists, who themselves carried on the long tradition of seventh-day Sabbath observance begun in Eden which has existed among some Christians ever since the beginning of the Christian church.
"Recent studies have shown that Sabbatarians constituted a respectable group at the time of the Reformation, especially in such places as Moravia, Bohemia, Austria, and Silesia."(3)
B. Why the Sabbath is Important Today
As I seek to discover the real meaning of the Sabbath, I find it is an eternal truth—a blessing, in any time, in any culture, and in any place. The fourth commandment makes it clear that the Sabbath blessing was intended for all humans. In his commentary on Genesis, Dr.Fretheim makes this comment:
"Exodus 20:11 and 31:17 (which make sense only if the days are actual days) appeal to Genesis in order to claim that Sabbath observance belongs to the creation as God intended it to be; hence its importance for all peoples, not just Israel."(4)
Before turning to a discussion of why the Sabbath is important for Christians today, let me reiterate the basis upon which our salvation is assured. The Bible is clear that we are saved by Christ alone. Here are just a few texts:
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12 ).
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile (Rom. 1:16).
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus (Romans 3:24-25).
However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness (Romans 4:5).
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:8-10).
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18).
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:11).
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21).
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love (Gal. 5:6 ).
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Gal 6:14).
And through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross (Col. 1:20).
For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (1 Peter 1:18,19 ).
And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood (Rev. 1:5).
I answered, 'Sir, you know.' And he said, 'These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 7:14).
Not only are we saved totally by Jesus' death on the cross, but ever since mankind fell, we have been saved in this same way:
"All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world" (Revelation 13:8).
Whether living under the old covenant (Old Testament) or the new covenant (New Testament), people have always been saved in the same way. There will not be two groups in heaven: one saved by their keeping the law and the other saved by Christ keeping the law.(5)
While Jesus was not actually "slain" when the world was created, people were still saved in anticipation of that "slaying." Adam and Eve deserved to die the moment they ate the forbidden fruit, but God gave them grace and they lived because of Christ's willingness to die for them in the future. They were saved by looking forward. We are saved by looking back. But all are saved by looking to the same event. No one can do enough good deeds to merit eternal life, period.
The good news of the gospel is that someone else has paid the price for us. Someone else lived the life we needed to live and died the death that we justly deserved. He was good enough. That is why we experience such joy when becoming a Christian. All the guilt is gone, all the hard work is pointless.
We are now perfect in Christ, "because by one sacrifice He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy" (Hebrews 10:14). He has made us holy in Him, not in ourselves. Now we work to become what God says we already are in Christ. Work is now the fruit, not the root. It's the result of our salvation, not the basis for it. Work is now the joy, not the fear.
As we clearly see from Scripture, Sabbath observance is not a salvation issue; it never has been, it is not now, and it never will be in the future. God will not take anyone to heaven because they have kept the Sabbath. He will not keep anyone out of heaven because they did not keep the Sabbath. Since a person is saved by grace alone—trusting totally in Jesus, he or she is only lost when that person decides to stop trusting totally in Jesus.
This principle also applies to the other nine commandments. No one is saved or lost because they kept or did not keep the other nine. Our salvation is always totally dependent on the doing and dying of Jesus Christ. Having firmly laid this foundation, we can now consider why the Sabbath is important for the Christian.
"By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done" (Genesis 1:31-2:3).
What did it mean for God to "finish" His work and "rest" on the seventh day? God was not tired; He did not rest because of fatigue. The verb "rest," shabath (from which we get Sabbath), means literally "to cease" from labor or activity (see Gen. 8:22; Job 32:1; etc.). Just as an artist completes a painting and stands back to admire it, so God stood back to admire what he had done. God completed the creation of the world by ceasing to produce anything new, and then He "rested." Since God does not require rest (see Isa. 40:28), His rest was not the result of exhaustion. Instead, it was a cessation from previous occupation.
Allen Ross in his commentary on Genesis describes it this way: "It [shabath] is not a word that refers to remedying exhaustion after a tiring week of work. Rather, it describes the enjoyment of accomplishment, the celebration of completion."(6) This is a very important point when we consider the real meaning of the Sabbath.
When I studied at Andrews SDA Theological Seminary, I spent one year in the bachelors apartments (Phyllis was studying for an MA 140 miles away in East Lansing). Some of my fellow roommates studied so hard during the week that they just crashed on Sabbath, sleeping until noon. When I mentioned this, they replied that the Sabbath was a day of rest, and they were resting. But is this really what the Sabbath is about? Is it a day for crashing?
Sabbath does not mean to cease from ALL activity and do nothing. God did not spend the first Sabbath doing nothing, nor did He spend it in rest and sleep. Rather, he spent the day enjoying the world He had just created. While Sabbath may be just as busy as any other day, God desires our busyness, or business, to consists of totally different activities than those we commonly do on the other six days.
When Adam and Eve kept the first Sabbath, they did not do so because they were tired or had spent six days in toil. Their first Sabbath was also their first full day of life. And it was a day in which they enjoyed God to the full. God had said their joyful task would be to cultivate the earth and care for all the creatures. While thus engaged, they would not be concentrating fully on Him. But on the Sabbath day, God said they were to cease from their normal activities and spend one whole day in fellowship with their Creator.
So, while the fourth commandment tells us to rest on the Sabbath day, it is not talking about idleness or inactivity. It is talking about resting from our normal activities so we may spend time in other activities, activities which our work during the week prevents us from fully enjoying and appreciating.
Sabbath Reminds Us of Creation
"Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. 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).
The Sabbath Commandment begins with the word "remember" because the Sabbath points back to something; and the last part of the Commandment tells us what—creation. The Sabbath reminds us of who we are and where we came from, that there is a God who created the universe, and that this day is for celebrating the creation of our world and getting to know our Creator better.
So the first reason for keeping the Sabbath is to remind us that there is a God. If the Sabbath had been faithfully kept and practiced, there would never have been an agnostic or an atheist.
Memorials are important reminders of the past. Every time you drive through Trafalgar Square, in London, and see Lord Nelson standing on top of a high column in the middle of the square, you are reminded of his victory at the battle of Trafalgar. Every time you visit the Vietnam Memorial, in Washington, D.C., you are reminded of the Vietnam war. And every time you visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., you are reminded of the terrible suffering inflicted upon the Jews by Nazi Germany. Memorials prevent us from forgetting our past. And because they commemorate actual historical events, memorials never loose their significance.
There is no instance in Scripture of a memorial being instituted thousands of years after the event it commemorates. Jesus gave us the Lord's Supper at the time of His death. God gave the Passover at the time of the Israelites' exit from Egypt. And God blessed the seventh day in a special way at the end of the creation week, giving the Sabbath as a reminder of creation. True, the Sabbath came to also commemorate other events, such as the Israelites leaving Egypt (Deut. 5:12), but this neither exhausts its meaning nor limits it.
Commenting on Exodus 20:8-11 in his book The Forgotten Day, Dr. Desmond Ford says this about the meaning of the Sabbath:
"As for man—the Sabbath tells us who he is. He alone of all creatures can worship. He is surrounded by beautiful things, but by the Sabbath he is reminded that while 'without things man cannot live, he who lives for things alone is not a man.' All man's primary questions are answered by the Sabbath institution. 'Who am I? 'From whence did I come?' 'Where am I going?' 'How do I get there?' find their answers in this Edenic ordinance ... Man's work will always tend toward perfection, like the creative work of God. But he is to learn to stop, and find fellowship with his Maker long before his ultimate ideal is realized. Thus, God becomes his God indeed, instead of some 'thing' secured and accomplished. As the first face man saw was that of God, and his first whole day the Sabbath, so the vision of God is the end of life. The Sabbath reminds the creature of his chief characteristic—dependence upon the Life-giver"(7)
Sabbath as Holy Time
Genesis tells us God "blessed" and "made holy" the Sabbath day. He gave it a blessing that He has never given to any other day. It was to be a special day of divine favor, a day that would bring blessing to His creation. Since this blessing was given before sin entered the world, each of the previous six days had already been perfect in itself, so God could not have made the seventh day any more perfect than the first six. And yet the Bible says He "blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it." Obviously, the seventh day has a special significance not found in any other day. Have you ever wondered about this? How can you make one day more special than another?
Gordon Wenham stresses that it is very unusual for a day to be "hallowed." Places, people, things, are declared holy, but not time. Then he says:
"The seventh day is the very first thing to be hallowed in Scripture, to acquire that special status that properly belongs to God alone. In this way, Genesis emphasizes the sacredness of the Sabbath. Coupled with the threefold reference to God resting from all his work on that day, these verses give the clearest of hints of how man created in the divine image should conduct himself on the seventh day."(8)
In understanding the Sabbath, Abraham Heschel makes this powerful observation:
"The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world."(9)
What was the first thing in our world God blessed or made holy? A place? A thing? No! It was a specific portion of time. Not just any time, but a specific day, the seventh day (Gen. 2:3). When did God first make a place holy? Not until after sin entered the world. Because people had wandered so far from Him, He finally consecrated a place—the tabernacle, later the temple—that was holy, set apart, a place where people could come especially into His presence.
Places and things belong to people. They can be removed, transferred, changed, bought, sold. But time is universal. It is available to everyone, everywhere. No one has more than anyone else. Time is the great leveler. It cannot be bought or sold.
God knew we would become absorbed in things, preoccupied with things. So He gave us something that cannot be quantified, placed in a bottle, stretched or compressed. God sanctified, made holy, a specific portion of time, thereby making it different from the other six days. He had been busy the first six days indulging all of His creative urges. But now He rested—not because He needed to, not because He was tired, but to revel in His completed work of creation—to stand back and enjoy life, if you will.
God told Adam and Eve that their work would be to rule over and subdue the perfect world He had placed them in. Yet, even before sin had entered the world, God said on the seventh day, in a special way, I want you to cease from your rule, as I ceased from my activities of creation, because I have set that day aside to spend completely with you. Now, of course, I am with you all the time, but I want a day when we can visit together without distractions.
During the week, you are busy tending the garden, caring for the animals, attending to all your different needs. But on the seventh day, the Sabbath day, I want you to take a break from your necessary duties, perfect as they may be, to contemplate who created you, who formed you, who gave you life, who loves you. I want you to enjoy this day as a day of hope, a day of joy, a day of blessings, a day of love, a day of relationships. This is why I have sanctified this day, not for myself, but for you.
God has given us holy time to spend with Him and each other. The seventh day is holy because God said so. He never made any of the other days holy. Time does not change. The need to know God does not change. The need to rebuild our human relationships does not change. God blesses every sincere soul, and everyone who accepts Him by faith is assured of salvation. There will be countless Sunday keepers in heaven, just as there will be countless Sabbath keepers absent from heaven. But God has promised a special blessing to those who truly honor the seventh day Sabbath.
God did not bless an object or sanctify a place. He did not set apart some physical entity. Rather He blessed a specific unit of time, something that is available to anyone anywhere. Time is the most precious resource we have, and God made sacred a special time in the week when we can relax, turn from our stresses, and come together to worship Him.
Moreover, when God set aside that specific unit of time, He picked that which has no astronomical origins. The year, the month, the day, can all be determined through astronomy, but the week is totally arbitrary. A week could be made up of eight days, or ten, or even six. The only basis for our seven-day week, and thus the Sabbath, is a "thus saith the Lord."
Sabbath and Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil
In the Garden of Eden, God forbid Adam and Eve to eat from a particular tree. Now there was nothing wrong with this tree, for God had made all things good. But God selected this tree as a test of their obedience to Him. Their faithfulness would be based not on reason, logic, or science, but on faith—on what God had said. And this is exactly why some try to divorce the fourth commandment from the rest of the commandments. Unlike the other nine, there is no logical, rational reason why one day should be more holy or important than another, except that God said so. Thus, in some ways, it is easy to miss the significance of this commandment.
As created by God, Adam and Eve were perfect. Their world was perfect. Yet even in that perfection, God saw their need for the Sabbath—a change of pace, a break in their routine, a time devoted to fellowship with Him. Some believe there was no need for a Sabbath prior to sin. If one sees the Sabbath in negative terms, it might tend to support this belief. But according to Genesis, God instituted the Sabbath on the seventh day of creation week, while the world was in a perfect state.
Of course, sin made the Sabbath even more important than it already was. If we needed a break before sin, how much more do we need one now? And the blessings imparted by Sabbath observance before the entrance of sin still apply today.
How kind and gracious God is to give us a day when, without guilt, we can forget all the thousand and one things that our regular work week demands. We can relax and enjoy God, our families, and each other. And all this for 24 hours. Why would anyone give up this life-healing practice?
Even from a practical standpoint, people who try to work seven days a week become exhausted, suffer severe health problems, and fall prey to all manner of stress-related illnesses. While most would agree that we need a weekly break, many do not realize that the benefits we derive from such a break are directly proportional to its length of time. Just going to church a few hours each week is not enough for us to fully experience the spiritual and physical blessings God longs to bestow upon us.
Some may say that the Sabbath rest, a literal 24-hour period of time each week, is but a partial understanding of what it means to truly rest in Jesus, that Christians today who understand they are saved only by grace have now entered into a complete or full rest in Jesus—an ongoing walk with Him that pervades and permeates each moment of their lives. Surely we all long for such a relationship with God, but does this mean that setting aside a specific 24-hour block of time to spend with Him each week no longer imparts a blessing?
Adam and Eve walked and talked with God face to face in the garden, and yet, in His wisdom, He gave them this weekly 24-hour period of time to more fully unite their hearts with His. Indeed, God tells us we will celebrate with Him in Heaven from one Sabbath to another. If the Sabbath was a blessing to Adam and Eve in their perfect state, if we will celebrate it in Heaven while dwelling in God's very presence (Isaiah 66:23), then why would it not impart a blessing to Christians today?(10)
This raises still another question. If the literal 24-hour Sabbath of the fourth commandment is but a partial understanding of truth, an area in which we would gain insight and knowledge (progressive truth, if you will), than God's gift to our first parents was uncomplete, imperfect. And why would God give an imperfect gift to perfect humans living in a perfect world? However, it did not become the symbol of salvation until Jesus died on the cross. Then it became an even greater event because now it reminds people of recreation as well as creation.
What's more, to say that every day is now holy makes meaningless the word "holy," since it means "to set apart for a special use." Of course we are to worship God every day, pray to Him every day, live for Him every day. But there is one day God says we are to treat differently. And since this day is so important, God has not given us a list of rules for how to keep it. Because each person's experience is uniquely his own, each will keep the Sabbath a little differently. But God asks us to make a distinction between the Sabbath and the other six days, even though we are to grow in Christ every day of our lives.
Some reason that literal observance of the fourth commandment is not relevant for Christians today since we are saved by grace, not by keeping the law. While we are, indeed, saved by grace, carrying this reasoning to its logical conclusion presents some obvious dilemmas.
First, the Bible teaches that all humans everywhere have always been saved by grace and grace alone. Thus Sabbath never has been relevant to salvation. It was not so before the cross than after the cross; it has not been so since the cross. The relevancy of the Sabbath has never diminished—it is as relevant today as when God first gave it to Adam and Eve.
Now, does the realization that we are not saved by Sabbath keeping release us from obedience to the fourth commandment? If the answer is "yes," then what about the other nine? Are we now free to worship idols, kill, commit adultery, steal, lie or covet, since we are saved not by keeping the law, but by Christ's perfect life?
Paul says, "Therefore, no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law" Romans 3:20. Yet in Romans 7:12, Paul declares, "So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good." How then are we to regard the law? Christ's death for our sin releases us from the condemnation of the law, but does this make null God's will for our lives?
In Matthew 22, the Pharisees ask Jesus which of the commandments is the greatest. He answers, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it. Love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments" (verses 37-40).
Here Jesus underscores the relevancy of the Ten Commandments—not as a means of salvation, but as a reflection of God's will for our lives. The first four tell us how to relate to God, our creator, and the last six tell us how to relate to our fellow man. All ten are guidelines for living. As a revelation of God's own character, they are eternal, everlasting, unchanging. Do the commandments save us? Never! Are they relevant for the Christian? Always!
Some say those who insist on keeping the Sabbath should practice the penalty for Sabbath breaking—death. But these same people do not advocate death for breaking the seventh commandment (which forbids adultery), even though it, too, carries the death penalty. God does not desire obedience from His children based on fear, but on love.
For the Christian, obedience to the Ten Commandments is neither an attempt to gain salvation nor legalistic behavior motivated by fear of punishment. Flawed and scarred as our obedience may be, it is our response to His marvelous love.
We live by love. Love rules the universe. Often sinful humans do not know how to practice love without specific details. But love does not tell us WHAT to do; it tells us HOW to do it. In the Ten Commandments, God tells us how to practice love.
In John 14:21, Jesus puts it like this: "Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me."
Sabbath Reminds Us of Redemption
After dying on the cross, Jesus rested in the tomb on the Sabbath day. He could have risen on that day. There was no need to remain in the grave until Sunday morning. But just as He had rested after His work of creation, so He now rested after His work of recreation, expanding the Sabbath to a magnificent remembrance of God's recreation in us, a weekly reminder of His glorious and wonderful gift of redemption.
As God rested in His finished work of creation on that first Sabbath, so the Christian rests in God's finished work of recreation in him or her each Sabbath. God looked at the world and saw that it was good—nothing more needed to be added. In the same way, each Sabbath, Christians who look to Jesus are reminded that they are perfect in Him—nothing more needs to be added. Just as we had no part in God's original creation, so we have no part in God's recreation except to accept it.
The Sabbath is a time to worship God, our Creator, and rejoice in the good news of salvation through Him who is also our Re-Creator. We need not work or strive for salvation. God has provided our salvation, and He calls us to rest in Him. Rightly understood, the Sabbath rest points not only to creation, but also redemption and even eternal life in Him in heaven.
Dr. Desmond Ford explains the significance of the Sabbath for salvation in the most eloquent language:
"At the close of the record of the Gospels, John was inspired to present Christ's redemptive work as a new creation. He had hinted at that by his introduction with his reference to the coming of the Light 'in the beginning.' But now in the account of the Cross he repeatedly refers to a 'finishing' on the sixth day before Christ entered into the Sabbath of redemption rest. He portrays the second Adam naked like the first, and also like the first Adam, in that He is tested by a tree of the knowledge of good and evil located in a garden. See John 19:28, 30, 33, 41; Acts 5:30. As Adam had his side opened on the sixth day so that he might have a bride, so John tells of the side of the second Adam being opened that He too might have His bride—the church. (See 19:4)."
"It was not by chance that our Lord finished His mighty work of Atonement on the sixth day. It was not by chance that, unlike the thieves, He died on that day. (The legs of the thieves were broken, for they were still alive when taken down from the Cross, but this was not necessary for the lifeless Christ.) It was not by chance that He was placed in Joseph's new tomb before the sun set on the sixth day. And likewise it was no coincidence that led our divine Lord to remain in the sepulcher through all the holy hours—the only complete day He spent in the grave. This was His original rest day (for it was Christ who made the world and who rested on the first seventh day) stamped with a new glory and made the memorial of the second creation, as one day it will also be a memorial of the third (see Isaiah 66:22, 23)."(11)
This is why Satan attacks the Sabbath so vehemently. He does not want us reminded of creation or our Creator. He does not want us reminded of redemption or our Re-Creator. And he surely does not want us reminded of the Second Coming, when our Creator and Redeemer will take us home with Him for all eternity. Except for salvation, the Sabbath, this special period of time which points to our creation, our redemption and our ultimate restoration, is God's greatest gift to us.
Sabbath Rest in Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews
Hebrews 4:9-10 states: "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" (Hebrews 4:9-10). After discussing the many exhortations that the writer of Hebrews gives to appreciate the better ministry of Jesus, Dr. Ford says:
"The full significance of these exhortations is only found by comparing the records of Hebrews three and four when we are told of a Sabbath rest that we can all by faith enter. The word 'enter' is found about a dozen times here. The rest of Eden's Sabbath, the rest of Canaan from the wilderness wanderings, the future rest of heaven, are all used as symbols of the rest of conscience all can have who believe in the efficiency of Christ's finished atonement."
"Whoever enters God's rest ceases from his own labors as God did from his (4:4). These words testify that all who see the meaning of the Cross no longer depend upon their own works. They refuse to be either encouraged or discouraged by their own deeds, and find rest from sin and guilt by faith's entrance into Christ. Believers look to His perfect work instead of their own which is tattered and stained. The physical rest of the Sabbath then becomes an emblem of the rest of conscience enjoyed all week long. By believing the gospel we enter the most holy place, the presence of God symbolized by the sacred rest-day from the beginning of time."(12)
On the Sabbath, we rest from our regular work and we rest in the finished work of Jesus. The Sabbath reminds us of how special we are to God and how important our world is to Him. He made us (for full fellowship with Him), He died for us (to restore the possibility of that fellowship after we had lost it), and He is coming soon (to finally unite us with Him in that fellowship forever). This gives the Christian tremendous self assurance—wonderful peace, hope and joy. Thus, the Sabbath—the sign of God's creation, redemption, and final restoration—is truly a blessing, a gift of love from God to us, the high point of every week.
The Sabbath Given to Build Community
God gave us the Sabbath not only for developing our vertical relationship with Him, but also for developing horizontal relationships with each other. Dr. Ford introduces the idea that fellowship, or community, is a very important part of the Sabbath. "God says, 'I have set this day aside especially for community building, depending upon others in the community. This is a day to spend with me and with each other without concern for the regular activities of the week."
God gave six days in which to earn a living and conduct our normal affairs of life. During that time, we are more task oriented than relationship oriented. Work must be done. But building healthy relationships takes time. In order for relationships to grow, those involved must share together, learn about each other, gain understanding of one another, and develop mutual trust. In the same way, it takes time to build a relationship with God. So God gives us one day each week when we can lay aside our normal pursuits to focus on becoming better acquainted with Him and each other.
Yes, we are to worship God every day of the week. The Christian lives every day, every moment, under the atmosphere of God's grace. Any moment, we can breathe a prayer to God. But during the week, we are not primarily building community with God or each other. We are involved in tasks, earning a living, and caring for our families or ourselves. God says I am giving you a 24-hour block of time dedicated completely to building community with me and with those around you—vertical and horizontal relationships.
Obviously, many things must continue seven days a week. Crime does not take a vacation on the Sabbath, so police need to be on duty. Fires can occur any time, so fireman must be ready. Sick people require care even on the Sabbath, so doctors and nurses must work. Farm animals need care seven days a week, so some farm chores are necessary.
Unfortunately, some must sacrifice in order for necessary things to continue; and, in so doing, they may miss the blessing that comes from worshiping God in community on the Sabbath. Thankfully, most jobs do not require us to work seven days a week. But those whose jobs do require them to work on the Sabbath in service for others have the assurance that what they do for someone else, they do for God, Himself. And to these God imparts a special blessing.
To keep the Sabbath in a positive way, we must live balanced lives during the week so we will not be exhausted when the Sabbath arrives. Although this is easier said than done, the result will be increased blessings for the entire family as we are rejuvenated, refreshed, encouraged, and brought closer to God and one another. It is especially a time for building community between parents and children. It is a time when families can pray together and study the Bible together. But it is also a time to play together, do fun things together, have special meals together, and take trips together. It is a time for families to help and encourage other families. In this way, Sabbath can be the high time of the week for children and parents, alike.
Sabbath and Worship
What is worship? The Hebrew word shachah literally means "to bow down." In the New Testament, proskuneo used is, meaning "to prostrate oneself before." Our English word for worship actually means "giving God His worth." We give God our respect and our love when we worship Him and desire to obey His wishes. The Bible says we are to worship God alone, giving Him our absolute loyalty and obedience (Exodus 20:1-4). As Christians, we seek to worship God every moment of every day because of what He has done for us in Jesus.
The Bible also tells us it is important to "not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching" (Hebrews 10:25). People may gather in homes, in small groups, to study the Bible and worship God together on any day. But God has also set aside a specific day to meet with His people each week—a day when they refrain from their normal work and focus on their relationships with Him and each other.
The fourth commandment does not specifically tell us to congregate and worship God together on the seventh day because Sabbath observance encompasses so much more than simply corporate worship. But it does tell us to keep the seventh day holy—keep it differently from the other six days of the week. Scripture says little about how to accomplish this because it is an area where God wants us to each explore our relationship with Him in a very personal way, without a defining list of rules. Each person, each family, decides how they will honor God on this special day; and one person's way of honoring God may be quite different from another's. But because Sabbath is not a regular workday, it is the time when, among other things, we gather together for corporate worship.
Ezekiel develops this concept of worship on Sabbath: "On the Sabbaths and New Moons the people of the land are to worship in the presence of the LORD at the entrance to that gateway" (Ezekiel 46:3). The remainder of the chapter then details how we are to worship on the seventh-day Sabbath. Some may be perplexed by the reference to New Moons. Ezekiel mentions these because the Israelites worshiped God in special gatherings on other days in addition to the weekly Sabbath. But unlike the weekly Sabbath given at creation, these special times did not exist before Sinai. There were six annual Sabbaths which fell on days other than the seventh (see Leviticus 23); and the Israelites also worshiped God on the first day of each month, or the new moon (1 Sam 20:5). They were a worshiping community.
Perhaps there are some lessons here for us, as well. God has placed within our hearts the desire to worship our Creator, and this need can only be met as we spend time with Him. Thus, if we had more corporate time to worship God throughout the week, in addition to Sabbath worship, it could only result in increased blessings. Like His people, Israel, God wants us to be a community that gathers often to worship Him.
Isaiah makes the clearest reference to Sabbath worship in a passage that many scholars believe applies to the earth God will make anew. "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). Apparently, in heaven the New Moon will again have significance, and maybe this is something to consider now.
The discovery of additional truth (or rediscovery of forgotten truth) concerning worship does not contradict, but rather amplifies, previous truth. Rather than detracting from the Sabbath or equating it with the other days of the week, expanding our concept of corporate worship only strengthens our relationship with God and the joy we experience as we truly worship Him.
And Jesus, combines worship with truth like this: "Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks" (John 4:23). May we continue to grow in our understanding of worship, accepting additional truth in all areas as God reveals it to us.
C. Sabbath Keepers Who Reject the Sabbath
While it may be understandable that those who have always kept Sunday are not convicted of the Sabbath truth, why would anyone who has kept the Sabbath give it up and count all days the same or transfer his or her allegiance to another day? The Sabbath was given as a blessing, something to look forward to each week. The prophet Isaiah says to "call the Sabbath a delight" (Isaiah 58:13). I believe some give up the Sabbath because they have never known its blessings, its joys, its delights, and its symbolism of salvation.
Could it be that most of us do not really understood the true meaning of the Sabbath? If we see it as a duty, a sign at the end of time, a day of restrictions, and/or a time to refrain from doing our own pleasure, then we cannot fully experience the Sabbath blessing. So why keep it? We become susceptible to arguments suggesting the Sabbath is no longer valid for new covenant Christians who now live by grace.
But if the Sabbath was a blessing before the cross, why would it cease to be a blessing after the cross? It was Jesus who said, "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). The reason the Sabbath was created in the first place was not affected by His death on the cross. Speaking of the law, Jesus, Himself, said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished" (Matthew 5:17, 18).
In other words, Jesus saying His life and His death will never change the law. God's law is eternal; it cannot be changed. This is the very reason Jesus died in our place—because the law could not be changed and its requirements had to be met. If any part of the law could have been changed or abolished, then His death, itself, would have been unnecessary.
If I grow up with the subtle misunderstanding that Sabbath keeping is connected to my salvation, a prerequisite to my entering heaven, and then discover grace, that I am saved ONLY by what Jesus did for me at Calvary, I will suddenly have a very different view of the Sabbath. I will want to discard it, and I should, as a means of salvation. But the relief of discovering grace can be so overwhelming that it is quite possible to throw out blessings simply because we have previously seen them as "have dos" or "musts" or "shoulds."
Also, some may give up the Sabbath because of loyalty to a charismatic or persuasive leader. They begin to allow someone whom they love and respect to do their thinking for them. When we learn the gospel from someone, we naturally feel a great indebtedness to that person. But this does not necessarily mean he or she will be correct in all areas. A person may be right on one issue and wrong on another. He or she may have great light in one area without having light in all areas. It is dangerous to accept anyone else's interpretation of Scripture without first testing all things for ourselves.
D. How to Make Your Own Decision
Think for yourself. It is human nature to let someone else do our thinking for us, especially if we respect that person. Don't accept another's view, including mine expressed herein, unless you validate it for yourself through your own personal study. When it comes to eternal life, we must each understand for ourselves, study for ourselves, and step back and examine our own experience to determine how much it is coloring our view of the Bible. This is not easy, and that is why group Bible study, as well as individual Bible study, is important to allow us the benefit of others' experiences. Remember, psychology, as well as theology, affects our understanding of the Bible.
The fourth commandment is the only one of the ten to occasion controversy.
Regardless of where you come down on the Sabbath question, may we each affirm our love for Jesus, knowing we are saved by grace alone. Jesus asks us to keep his commandments out of love (John 14:23), and because we do love Him. May we each strive to do all he asks of us to the best of our understanding and ability, not to gain heaven, nor to avoid hell, but as a love offering to our God.
I commend to you Paul's counsel to Timothy to study and use the Scriptures wisely and personally: "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15). And with all our breath may we each with Paul declare, "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Galatians 6:14).
1. All references to Scripture are from the New International Version.
2. John Stott, "John Stott on Hell" in World Christian, May 1989, p. 52.
3. Samuelle Bacchiocchi, Divine Rest for Human Restlessness (Berrien Springs, Mi.: Bacchiocchi Pub. 1980), pp. 42-57.
4. Terrence E. Fretheim in The New Interpreter's Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), vol. 1, p. 347.
5. Much has been written about the covenants in Scripture and some people make it seem very complicated. Actually it is very simple. Unless you believe, as some do, that God had different ways of saving people there is only one covenant that God made with humans and that is the everlasting covenant (Gen. 17:13, Heb. 13:20) to provide a Savior from sin. This covenant was given in different forms to Adam (Gen. 3:15), Noah (Gen. 9:12, 15, 16), Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:18; 17:1-7), and the Israelites at Sinai (Exodus 19:5-8; 24:3-8) in a more formal way. The Israelites turned it into a covenant of works which is why God later said it must be written in the heart to be effective (Jer. 31:31-34). The book of Hebrews makes it clear that the failing of the Old Covenant (before Christ) was people's reliance on rules for salvation. The failure was on the people's part not God's. Once the reality came in Christ, God could now proclaim his everlasting covenant in a new way because salvation was no longer anticipatory, looking forward, but reality, seen in the life and death of the God-man Jesus (Hebrews 8:7-13). The covenant became operative in Eden once humans sinned but was not ratified until the blood of Christ was shed on the cross (Heb. 13:20). The "old" covenant, which is one part of the everlasting covenant, was a temporary arrangement designed to enable those bound by its provisions to enter into the privileges and responsibilities of the "new" or "everlasting" covenant and this part of it was ratified at Sinai by the institution of the formal sacrificial system (Exod. 24:3-8).
6. Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing, a guide to the study and exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids,
7. Desmond Ford, The Forgotten Day (Newcastle, CA.: Desmond Ford Publications, 1981), p. 24.
8. Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word Books, 1987), vol. 1, p. 36.
9. Abraham Herschel, The Sabbath, (New York: The Noonday Press, 1951), p. 10.
10. Sabbath before Sinai—There are those who argue that God gave the Sabbath for himself, that Adam and Eve never kept a Sabbath and it was not kept until Sinai. "There is no record between Genesis and Sinai of Sabbath keeping," it is said. That is not true. In Exodus 16, before the ten commandments were given, God gave the Israelites manna with strict instructions not to gather any on the Sabbath. It is evident that the Israelites were aware of the Sabbath before Sinai.
In Exodus 5:5 we read: "And Pharaoh said, Behold, the people of the land now are many, and you make them rest from their burdens." It is significant that the word Pharaoh used for rest is shabath. There are five other Hebrew words for rest but they are not used here. It is evident that Pharaoh was complaining that Moses had instituted Sabbath reform and was encouraging the people not to work on the seventh day. As slaves they had no rights and were being worked seven days a week. So out of six different words for resting, not working, Moses inserted the one that is used for ceasing to work on the seventh day.
God's law while not written down before Sinai was known by His people. Genesis 26:5 says "Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws." It was not until Israel was organized as a nation that God formalized the verbal instructions He had given to His people.
11. Ford, p. 200.
12. Ibid., pp. 202-202.
13. "The Bible, and the Bible alone, is to be the rule of our faith. It is a leaf from the tree of life, and by eating it, by receiving it into our minds, we shall grow strong to do the will of God. By our Christlike characters we shall show that we believe the word, that we cleave to the Bible as the only guide to heaven. So shall we be living epistles, known and read of all men, bearing a living testimony to the power of true religion." Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, May 4, 1897.
For Further Study
Bacchiocchi, Samuele, The Sabbath Under Crossfire (Berrien Springs, Mi.: Biblical Perspective, 4990 Appian Way, Berrien Springs, Mi., 49103, 1998, $15 post paid). This book examines the Pope's latest letter on the Sabbath and also reviews Dale Ratzlaff's book, Sabbath in Crisis.
Ford, Desmond, Clarifying the Covenants (Auburn, Ca.: Good News Unlimited, 11710 Education St., Auburn, Ca., 95602, $1). This excellent booklet which Dr. Ford has just published examines the covenants as they relate to the Sabbath and includes a reply to the charge that GNU, by its loyalty to the principles of the Decalogue, has let the gospel slide.
Ford, Desmond, The Forgotten Day (Auburn, Ca.: Good News Unlimited, 11710 Education St., Auburn, Ca., 95602, 1981, out of print), Available on loan from Good News Unlimited. This is one of the best theological studies of the importance of the seventh day Sabbath.
Strand, Kenneth, ed. The Sabbath in Scripture and History (Hagerstown: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1982). This volume contains 16 articles on Sabbath and Sunday in Bible times and throughout Christianity, as well as a theology of the Sabbath.