The Sabbath, sign of a relationship
The Sabbath is valueless in itself. In isolation it can be only a symbol of legalism. Keeping the Sabbath does not guarantee spirituality. People who kept the Sabbath rejected Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, and ultimately crucified Him. It was simply an empty sign without any experiential meaning. But the Sabbath, if it is truly a sign of our personal relation ship to God, can have tremendous significance and importance. It can represent a true relationship to God in the same way as baptism or the Lord's Supper. It can point to a living, vital relationship with God and Jesus Christ.This relationship emphasizes the transcendence of God and man's creatureliness and dependence. Since the Sabbath is inextricably connected to Creation, and subsequently to redemption, it points to the distance that separates God and man but at the same time to what God has done to bridge this separation.
First of all, the Sabbath is a sign of God as our Creator. "And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation" (Gen. 2:2, 3).* The Sabbath is a sign of God's rest from His creative activity, so it points unmistakably to God as Creator. We who rest on the Sabbath do so in acknowledgment of the fact that God is Creator. We recognize ourselves as creatures, and this distance between God and ourselves prevents us from having any other gods or reducing His likeness to any creature.
People who truly keep the Sabbath in acknowledgment of God as Creator will not be tempted to think of the world as coming into existence through haphazard and unplanned evolutionary activity. The world to such cannot be a mere accident. In a society overcome by the evolutionary point of view, the Sabbath plays an important role in preventing us from falling prey to such a view or to its fruits, such as nihilism and atheistic existentialism. The Sabbath serves as a bulwark against the evolutionary view that life has no absolutes in morality or any meaning whatever because of its haphazardness. In affirming a Creator, Adventists likewise affirm that moral principles are eternal and that there is meaning, purpose, and a goal to life in spite of its great anomalies, enigmas, and chaos. In creating man God had a purpose, and that purpose will be finally realized when Christ comes again to claim His own. The Sabbath for a called church means that we stand at the forefront of those who affirm that life has meaning, that at its root the world has a loving, beneficent Creator who is guiding it to its final destiny. It means that we reject the view that life has no meaning and will someday disappear by accident as it one day began by accident.
The Sabbath points to God's creative activity, but it also points to God's resting from His creative activity. Properly speaking, it is not a memorial of God's creative activity as such, but of His rest, for it is on the Sabbath that God rested from all His work. As a sign of God's rest it points to His setting aside a time when He and man could come together in communion, fellowship, and friendship. As a sign of His rest He asks us to rest, so that we would have time for God. Man enjoyed this perfect face-to-face fellowship with God until sin entered and disrupted their communion. Even then the God who created the Sabbath for fellowship with man put into action a plan whereby this fellowship might be restored. The disruption caused by sin did not cause God to abandon man. He sought to fellowship with him through His presence in the sanctuary.
In Jesus Christ and His incarnation we find God again, in a modified manner, coming to renewed fellowship with man and through this fellowship creating the means whereby man and God would fellowship together throughout eternity. His Holy Spirit was sent among us after the departure of Christ, so that we could still know His presence in this world of sin. He would come again, and when He did so this perfect fellowship of man and God would be perfectly restored. Thus we find in Revelation 21:3. "'Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them."' And then in verse 22: "And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb." In the new earth the fellowship begun on the Sabbath at Creation will be restored again. The Sabbath for a called church is an affirmation that God and man shall again have face-to-face fellowship.
Second, the Sabbath is the sign of God as our Lord. Metitiahu Tsevat writes that the Sabbath is different from day and night, the month, and the year in that it is not connected to any natural phenomenon such as the revolution of the earth, the sun, the moon, or to the changes in the seasons and the agricultural year. It is neutral time, or the arbitrary setting apart of empty time.
"Since the rhythm of the Sabbath is the only exception to this prevailing natural rhythm, and since the exception in no way derives from time as such or is traceable to any aspect of time experienced in the ancient Near East, it is likely that the dichotomy between the Sabbath on the one hand and nature on the other hand was not unintentional. The intention was, I suggest, to fill time with a content that is uncontaminated by, and distinct from, anything related to natural time, i.e., time as agricultural season or astronomical phase. . . . That contact, displacing the various ideas and phenomena associated with natural time, is the idea of the absolute sovereignty of God, a sovereignty unqualified even by an indirect cognizance of the rule of other powers. As man takes heed of the Sabbath day and keeps it holy, he not only relinquishes the opportunity of using part of his time as he pleases but also foregoes the option of tying it to the secure and beneficial order of nature. The celebration of the Sabbath is an act completely different from anything comparable in the life of ancient Israel. The Sabbath is an isolated and strange phenomenon, not only in the world but also in Israel itself."1
Thus the Sabbath points unmistakably to God's sovereignty over man. Man cannot say that he worships on the Sabbath because it represents one revolution of the earth or the moon or the sun. There is nothing in nature he can give as his reason for worshiping on that day. He can only say that he does so because God commands him. He bows down before the sovereignty of God.
The Sabbath tells us that we cannot dictate to God how we shall worship Him. We can say it is more convenient to worship Him on the first day or the third, but any day other than the seventh is a rejection of His lordship and sovereignty over our lives. In no way is this tendency to usurp God's authority more clearly seen than in the desire to have worship services on a weekday in order to free the weekend for leisure and pleasure. This is to make God into an idol that we create and manipulate to serve our needs. Such a god is not worthy of our worship. The Sabbath stands against any human desire to usurp God's place and to turn religion into a farce. We must accept His dictates for our life not only in regard to what day we must worship but in regard to every aspect of life, including what we eat and drink, what we wear, how we talk, and how we carry on our business. God calls for an obedient church, and the Sabbath is a sign of that obedience and a recognition of His transcendence over us.
Third, the Sabbath is a sign of God as Spirit. In the beginning when God sought to communicate with man, He did not select either a special site where man would meet Him or a special man, a holy man, through whom He would speak, but instead He sanctified a segment of time. Time is appropriate because time is universal, instead of confined to a particular site or person, which would have favored those who were nearby. In selecting time God made it near to everyone, since it is universal. No one stands in a place of advantage. All men are equal, when God selected time. Furthermore, in selecting time God chose something that was not spatial or material. In moving away from a thing or a place, God thwarts man's tendency toward idolatry, man's tendency to worship the thing or place rather than the One to whom these point.
Abraham Heschel writes that "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." 2 Thus the Sabbath points to the fact that the things of matter are not as important as the things of the spirit.
The Sabbath breaks the temporal succession of man's involvement with material and spatial things and continually calls him forth to the realm of the spirit, to the eternal, and to the Person who is Spirit. In this connection then, the Sabbath must be considered from the standpoint of primacy as the first day. It is not the first day of the week in terms of chronology, but it is the first day of the week in terms of importance. For things of the spirit are more important than the things of space. For Adam and Eve the first full day after their creation was the Sabbath. Before their first six days of labor they came apart to meet with God first. And we are to place God first in our experience, in our thought, in our planning, in our life. He must have priority in our life. And if we put the Creator first in our life, then all other things will fall into proper perspective. The things of matter will not seem so important to us, the things of the spirit will transcend them.
By conceiving of the Sabbath as the first day, we confess that the things of the spirit are more important than the things of space. We do this also when, recognizing God's sovereignty over our life, we choose to keep the Sabbath even if it means the loss of a job. Thus the Sabbath points to the primacy of the spiritual dimension in our lives. Paul expresses this thought well when he says: "We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal" (2 Cor. 4:18). Thus the Sabbath keeps us from accepting not only evolution but also materialism. It is important for a called church in this materialistic age to affirm the primacy of the spirit. Matter and things of space occupy much of our attention, but we must never be deceived into thinking that they are more important than the spiritual dimension. The Sabbath serves as a constant reminder that "the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal."
Fourth, the Sabbath is a sign of God as Father. We mentioned previously that the Sabbath points to God as Creator and thus to mankind as creatures coming from the same hand. In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray, "Our Father." Here all Christians are led to recognize that they are truly brothers and sisters, not merely on the basis of their creation, but on the basis of their becoming members of God's family through a new birth. Thus the Sabbath points to the equality of all before God.
The Jews had a recognition of this aspect of the Sabbath in a very strong way. Samuel Dresner brings out this point: "Although one Jew may have peddled onions and another may have owned a great forest of lumber, on the Sabbath all were equal, all were kings. . . . The uneven divisions of society were leveled with the setting of the sun. On the Sabbath there was neither banker nor clerk, neither farmer nor hired hand, neither mistress nor maid, neither rich nor poor. There were only Jews hallowing the Sabbath. The carriage driver could not be ordered to wait for his master outside the synagogue to drive him home after the service. Instead both prayed together." 3
So to us also the Sabbath must become a great leveler. The recognition that we have a common Creator and a common Father should help us relate to one another as members of the same family; whether we worship in America, in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, or in the islands of the seas, it should make no difference. No one should feel that he is superior to another by virtue of his race. In a world of racial tensions, in a world where the black and white are pitted against one another, the Christian church must show truly that the meaning of the Sabbath is realized in their experience.
The fact that we are Seventh-day Adventists should make us all the more conscious of the fact that in Christ there is no east or west, but that all are one in Him. There is no room for prejudice in a Sabbathkeeping church. In keeping the Sabbath we placard before the world that we believe in God as our Creator; so must we live before the world the implications of that doctrine in our life. The Sabbath, which points to God as Father, should point to the church as an international worldwide movement with no racial, economic, or educational barriers existing among its members. The Sabbath for a called church is important because it points to the brotherhood of all men, who have a common Father, and especially to the close spiritual fellowship of those who have joined the body of Christ. This insight from the Sabbath is so badly needed in a world divided along so many lines economic, social, national, religious, and racial.
Fifth, the Sabbath points to God as Redeemer. We mentioned earlier that when man rested on his first Sabbath it was the day after his creation, and thus he had no works to present to the Father. He came empty-handed to the Sabbath, and God offered him the Sabbath as a gift. God had done everything. Man simply received what God had given him. In addition, the Sabbath calls for the cessation of our labors, pointing to the fact that our labors are not very important. We can cease from our labors and the world continues on. What we do is not so important as what God does. Human achievements and human efforts must be set aside in the presence of God. The Sabbath also tells us that God takes the initiative. He creates, He acts, He gives, He provides, He invites, He blesses, He sanctifies; man is simply the created recipient, the spectator, the guest of God. From first to last it is God who is everything; man is simply the recipient of His blessings.
In the light of these things the Sabbath then is a sign of God's justification. Man does nothing but receives what God has done for him. There is no room for human boasting with regard to the Sabbath, because there is no room for human work and human achievement. "'Six days you shall labor . . .; but the seventh day is a sabbath. . .; in it you shall not do any work'" (Ex. 20:9, 10). So the Sabbath leaves man empty-handed in the presence of God, without any works and without any autonomy. He has no opportunity for self-justification. In this way the Sabbath points to man's dependence and man's reception of what God has done. The Sabbath points to the fact that justification is by faith alone, without any works.
In Deuteronomy 5:15 we find these words: "You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day." This tells us that the Sabbath should help the Israelites reflect upon their great salvation from bondage; but we too have had our bondage in spiritual Egypt. The Sabbath likewise should help us to reflect upon that great deliverance, that redemption from our own bondage, the bondage of sin. Thus the Sabbath not only points to Creation, it also points to redemption. Thinking of our redemption from bondage should help us also be concerned about those who are still under bondage.
As God finished His creative activity on the sixth day and rested on the seventh, so Christ completed His redemptive activity on the sixth day when He cried, "'It is finished,'" and rested on the Sabbath. As the Sabbath points to both Creation and redemption, so now this Sabbath that follows upon the completion of the redemptive activity of Christ is a symbol of that redemption. But that general redemption must be appropriated by us individually. And when we do that we become a new creature. So redemption is viewed also as a creation; the two are very closely related. Thus the Sabbath memorializes both Christ's general redemptive activity on passion week and the redemption of ourselves as individuals. It deals not only with the objective act of Christ but also with our subjective response to it. This subjective response is sealed at our baptism. The Sabbath then recalls to our mind the time when our re-creation took place, at our baptism, which memorialized this once-and-for-all event.
The Sabbath weekly reminds us of the completed Creation event, our redemption by Christ, and our new creation. Thus the Sabbath is the sign of God's creative power in us; but it has no meaning at all unless God's creative power accomplishes its result in the life of the one who observes the day. Holiness of being must match holiness of time. Holiness of time must become holiness in time. Then Sabbathkeeping can never become a legalistic or nominal act. Truly the symbol participates in the reality of that for which it stands. The Sabbath does not become an abstract entity, a mere external sign for the Christian, for he keeps it with a realization of the new creation that it symbolizes. The Sabbath for a called church is important because it constantly reminds us of the futility of human works before God and of man's dependence on God for His grace.
Sixth, the Sabbath is a sign of God as Sanctifier. We have mentioned previously that the Sabbath is a sign of justification, of faith without works. It is a gift that is given to man, but it is a gift that man must receive. Ezekiel 20:12 says: " 'Moreover 1 gave them my sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, that they might know that I the Lord sanctify them.'" The Sabbath indicated that God had chosen Israel as His holy people. It did not stand simply for holiness of time or holy time, but holiness in time or holy people. But, as Ezekiel explains further, Israel rebelled against God in the wilderness, did not walk in His statutes, and profaned His Sabbath. The violation of the Sabbath naturally results from rebellion and disobedience.
God can arbitrarily sanctify a temple, but this is not true with people. They must respond to God's initiative. Faith must work through love (Gal. 5:6). Therefore when God says that the Sabbath is a sign of sanctification, He means that it is a symbol that sets His people apart by their exemplary loyalty and obedience to His will and commandments. The Sabbath always points to a new creation and to a life of sanctification, holiness, and obedience. It may be possible on one level "to keep" the Sabbath while living in a way that denies any relationship to Jesus Christ, but this completely rejects the meaning of the Sabbath. It is in reality a complete contradiction of terms like saying one can at the same time be loyal and betray his nation. If we truly understand the significance of the Sabbath, we shall feel the contradiction between our lives and what the Sabbath stands for and we shall seek God's help that our lives may be brought daily in harmony with its meaning.
Christianity today needs to take seriously the meaning of the Sabbath as a sincere call to obedience. The emphasis has centered on justification without sanctification, a spurious faith without obedience, confession without love, and love without cost. In the words of Bonhoeffer, "Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. 4
In our present world the Sabbath confronts us as God's challenge to test our seriousness in accepting Christ. Since a large part of the world structures its life and business around Sunday as its rest day, observance of the seventh-day Sabbath today demands a radical, conscious decision to follow Christ. Some such demand is always present in Christian conversion. We affirm that "only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes." 5 The Sabbath for a called church points to the need for obedience and discipleship, and away from cheap grace. It points to self-denial and taking up the cross and following Jesus (Matt. 16:24), to taking our share of suffering "as a good soldier of Jesus Christ" (2 Tim. 2:3).
The Sabbath for a called church is important because it points to the sovereignty of God, to the recognition of God as Creator, as Lord, and as Spirit, and to His immanence as our Father, our Redeemer, and our Sanctifier. All of these aspects of God, seen in connection with the Sabbath His powerfulness, His greatness, His goodness, His tender fatherliness are appropriately important in the age in which we live.
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1 Matitiahu Tsevat, "The Basic Meaning of the Biblical Sabbath," Zeitschrift fur die ahtestamendiche Wissenschaft 84 (1972): 457, 458.
2 The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Co., 1951), p. 10.
3 The Sabbath (New York: Burning Bush Press, 1970), p. 43.
4 The Cost of Discipleship (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1959), p. 36.
5 Ibid.,p. 54.
* All Scripture references in this article are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1946, 1952 1971, 1973.