The meaning and role of the sabbath

An interview/conversation on the redemptive meanings of the Sabbath and the Sabbath's role in the life of the church

Roy Branson, Ph.D., is the director of the Washington Institute in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Andy McRae is an associate pastor of the Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Charles Scriven, Ph.D., is president of Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, Maryland.

EVA: How would you say Seventh-day Adventists have viewed the Sabbath? What significance would you say we have seen in it, and what have we appealed to as we articulated our reasons for keeping the seventh day holy as the day of rest and worship?

McRAE: Adventists have seen the Sabbath as an evidence or proof of particular loyalty to God. Yet from my point of view, a deeper understanding of Scripture sees that the Sabbath is not only a sign of our loyalty to God, but of God's loyalty to us and God's commitment to our well-being.

Adventists have talked a lot about "keeping the Sabbath," but there is a sense in which the Sabbath has kept Adventists. Any time any of us get together and think about what it is that has held and still holds Adventists together around the world, even with our differing views on a number of issues, it is that underlying sense that we are a Sabbath people, or a people of the Sabbath, that sense of God in creation and redemption, which I believe in some fundamental way has held us together as a people.

BRANSON: We have said that the Ten Commandments include the fourth commandment, which is to keep the Sabbath. We have said that we are a people who observe God's law, and therefore we should observe the Sabbath. For us this is a very clear syllogism.

An important question is whether or not we understand law and the Sabbath as they are expressed in the Bible. There is more to Sabbath than the legal perspective. Another way of looking at the Sabbath that you find in Scripture and also in the history of Christian thought is that the Sabbath is a celebration. The Sabbath is a time when the people of God gather together to remember what God has done on their behalf and to celebrate that.

Celebrating on Sabbath is something like the celebration of the Lord's Supper and baptism. We don't say that observing baptism itself, or the Lord's Supper, is going to save us. The truth is, however, that these celebrations are powerful ways to remember what God has done and to live in hope of what He will do further. In the same way the Sabbath is one of those things that's just as important for Christians as is the Lord's Supper or baptism. Keeping Sabbath is a matter of making vivid for us what God has done in history to save us and what that means to us in the here and now.

SCRIVEN: Our conventional or customary view of the Sabbath tends to forget that every good and beautiful thing in human life is a gift from God. We don't attempt to obey God and please Him by worshiping on the Sabbath just so that we can be saved. Part of the gift of salvation is that we are given wonderful festivals such as the Sabbath. God has given them to us so that the human spirit can be nourished and cheered and hopeful and so that we might engage in life with passion. Sabbath is one of the great gifts that God has given to human beings. It is among us for us to embrace for all kinds of reasons. Not the least reason for embracing it is that in doing so, we embrace the whole history of God's people clear back not only to the call of the Hebrew people out of Egypt, but even to the very beginning of human life (Gen. 2:1,2).

BRANSON: I would like to spend just a minute on the experience of the Sabbath and why even the way Adventists under stand it generally is an appropriate way to remember not just the day, but to celebrate salvation itself. When Adventists wake up on Sabbath morning they know immediately this is a special day. This is a day that is different from all the other days. This is a day that releases us from what is otherwise an interminable obligation to work, to go to the office or the construction site. It releases us from boredom.

Without that kind of interlude, all time simply runs together in meaninglessness. For Adventists Sabbath is always a special day of release from the round of all other activities. It comes to tell us what salvation is about. Christ's death and resurrection came to save us in the midst of the indistinguishable centuries of human history. The Sabbath comes from week to week to do a similar work for us, pointing us to the essence of the salvation that came in Christ and preserving us from being victims of the endless drip of everyday life.

EVA: Are the descriptions of the Sabbath as we are expressing them here what some have called "the new case for the Sabbath"? What do you understand to be the heart or center of this new case for the Sabbath? Comment on this a little more definitively from a biblical point of view.

SCRIVEN: Let me first of all go back to this question of what we have understood with respect to the question of law. We need to realize that for the first authors of the Bible and those who experienced the story the Bible tells, law was not something that evoked the police station or a flashing red light in the rear-view mirror. Law was something that evoked the relationship that God had with the people who had chosen to help God bless all of humanity. To those in Jewish experience, for example, law was seen as a gift. It was and is something beautiful, something good, more along the lines of the way we view Scripture today.

Now, the traditional or customary view among some Adventists and also some in other faith groups has tended to be that the law is a legal demand that you must commit yourself to and give evidence of taking seriously on pain of damnation. The view of the law that is truer to the overall framework of the Bible is that the law is God's strong yet gracious command that comes as His gift to enhance human life.

Along with this, the new case for the Sabbath is seeing and living the Sabbath as a gift of grace, and not merely a piece of the law. Sabbath is unmistakably grace. When you read what Paul says about law, on a superficial level, it might seem as though he is talking out of both sides of his mouth. But reading more deeply, you realize that he loves the law. To him the law is holy, just, and good. But misunderstood, it is some kind of legalistic requirement on the part of a police-like God in heaven who is looking for ways to damn humanity to hell. Misunderstood, it is awful, but understood aright, it is grace. And this, of course, is true of the Sabbath.

McRAE: Yes, and in terms of a biblical context, the new case for the Sabbath, as we speak of it here, is in some ways the old case. For even in terms of the Old Testament story it is good to ask, Where do the Ten Commandments really begin? They begin with the confirmation of a covenant relationship rather than with the first command itself. Before stating any command, God speaks to Moses and says, in effect, "I am the Lord your God. I have brought you out of Egypt, out of the hand of the bond-master. I have taken you out of oppression and slavery. I have released you and given you lives of freedom," and only then, or just then, the Ten Commandments begin (see Ex. 20:1-3). It is as if there is an unwritten word connecting the redemptive preamble to the beginning of the commandments themselves, and that is the word "therefore." God says, I am the one who brought you out; therefore, have no other god before Me; therefore, you have the freedom to rest from your taskmasters and worship Me on the seventh day. God releases the Hebrew people so that they can rest, even as the Sabbath commandment calls them to do.

BRANSON: Yes, that's true, but we have tended to identify the Sabbath almost exclusively with Exodus 20, while Deuteronomy 5 also talks about the Sabbath in these redemptive, covenantal terms. Deuteronomy enlarges on the fact that the Lord your God brought you out from Egypt, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. That's a reference to salvation, salvation in the sense of being freed from oppression. Salvation is a lot more than simply our relationship to law. Consistent with the Exodus 20 Sabbath command, Deuteronomy shows that the freed Hebrews were to celebrate their freedom by freeing their own servants and slaves to celebrate on the Sabbath, so that their servants wouldn't have to work endless, uninterrupted rounds of seven-day workweeks. They would also have the weekly release of the Sabbath and all it stood for.

EVA: Yes, and isn't the redemptive emphasis we are highlighting in Exodus and Deuteronomy consistent with Jesus' view of the Sabbath and how He lived it out and spoke of it in His ministry? Doesn't this emphasis in the Old Testament prefigure how He would keep Sabbath and what He would underscore in it through the way He lived, worked, and taught? For example, in the Sabbath miracles He performed, He purposely showed, it seems to me, what the essence of the Sabbath is: a day of healing, redemption, and true freedom (see, for example, Luke 13:10-17). He clearly went out of His way to use these miracles to make redemptive points about the Sabbath.

Thus in the hands of Jesus, Sabbath becomes an expression of His redemptive activity as a whole. He invests Sabbath with a meaning that was new to the people of His day. He creates, if you like, a distinctly Christian Sabbath in contrast to the emphasis put on it by the religious establishment of His day. Jesus is the one who really fills out what we have called "the new case for the Sabbath." What do you think about this way of viewing the ministry of Jesus when it comes to understanding the teaching of Jesus about the Sabbath?

SCRIVEN: That's such a nice point. It's possible to say that the healing stories portray the fact that Jesus had no respect for the Sabbath, that in fact He was aiming to remove the Sabbath, when in fact the exact opposite is the case. He was reformulating an entirely worthwhile celebration, not trying to dismiss it. There is no scholar in the world who argues that Jesus did not keep the Sabbath. All four of the Gospels explicitly affirm it. Clearly Jesus purposely keeps the Sabbath as He does because that is exactly the way to honor the Sabbath, to liberate people from hurt and pain, to emphasize its healing and redemptive elements.

BRANSON: One of the other things that we would benefit from is to look back at the Old Testament and see the way in which the people of God celebrated the Sabbath. It was not with the idea that they had to do it, or that they had to stay on the right side of God. Rather they would go into the Temple, and this was the day they would encounter God. They would be in His presence. This was unbelievably gracious and good for them.

I want to read a passage from Nehemiah 8, where, of course, they have come back from Babylon and are reestablishing themselves in Jerusalem. In this setting Ezra gets all of the people together and they read from the Book, from the Law of God, with interpretation and meaning. Nehemiah 8:9 (NIV) says, "Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, 'This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.... Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.'"

Now we look at the law and wrestle with it in the Old Testament, and with the Sabbath in the heart of that law. But in all our wrestling we somehow neglect to identify the Sabbath with all these great celebrations that go on throughout the Old Testament and that Christ, in a sense, brings to life in Luke 4, when He stands up and announces the arrival of the kingdom on Sabbath and quotes triumphantly and joyfully from the Old Testament.

SCRIVEN: There is a famous golf instructor named Harvey W. V. Pennick. He was coaching a woman who went on to win the Texas Amateur Women's Championship. He coached her right up to the minute of her tee time, and at that moment the woman said to Pennick, "Well, I guess I have to go out and play now." And he replied to her, "What do you mean, you have to go out and play? You get to go out and play." And what we as Adventists have got to get hold of is this kind of attitude. It's not so much that we have to keep the Sabbath. It's rather that we get to keep the Sabbath.

This passage from Nehemiah is absolutely wonderful. It's why Sabbath dinners, and Sabbath celebrations, and hymn-singing musical events on Sabbath are so wonderful. Because we get to do it, or we have an impoverished emotional and spiritual life.

BRANSON: The shape of the Sabbath, or however we wish to describe it, is a celebration intimately connected to the completed work of God. Calvin called the Sabbath a sacrament—a concrete, tangible way of coming into the presence of God to make tangible some great, transcendent meaning or reality. Just as baptism and the Lord's Supper have a certain shape in order to continue to convey a certain meaning, so does the Sabbath.

In the history of Christian thought— and here we are talking about Augustine, Luther, or Calvin—the idea of the completed work of God, which is symbolized by celebrating on the seventh day, is emphasized. Although the Reformers kept the first day of the week, as theologians they saw the significance and the meaning of the seventh day, because it was a symbol of the completed work of God, which we can celebrate, just as it was by God in the Genesis story (Gen. 2:1,2). The Sabbath represents being with God and celebrating His completed work.

SCRIVEN: Yes, in the Creation story in Genesis, God creates the Sabbath to be shared with humanity. Not only does He rest from His completed work, but humanity is also to share in that rest. And in the Sabbath we also share our whole life with God. We become, through the work God has given us, through God's work and through the Sabbath experience, partners with God and God's entire project. We are colaborers with God.

McRAE: In fact, it is important to see that the whole matter of the Sabbath reaffirms for us that we weren't created in the same way as the rest of creation. God breathed into us, God created us in His own image, and therefore we have been invited to participate with Him. And an important part of that invitation includes to rest with God on Sabbath. In that resting we are reminded who is the Creator and who is the creature, and also who is Redeemer and who is redeemed. In it we are also reminded of the real partnership regarding the planet and the real nature of the whole created and redeemed order.

BRANSON: Now, it is quite possible for people to create a symbol that emphasizes other things besides what the Sabbath emphasizes. You could have a symbol, such as the first day of the week, Sunday, which talks about beginnings, and reminds us of things, important things, such as the resurrection of Christ. That is something that you could do. The fact is, however, that the seventh day has a certain unique combination of meanings and realities that it conveys and has conveyed from the time of the early Hebrews through to the Christian church. For example, you don't have in Sunday the idea of completion. You know, you don't have the idea of culmination, or really the idea of rest tied to God's resting. Both ideas, completion and rest, are tied not only to the biblical Creation story, but to redemption as it is revealed in the New Testament.

SCRIVEN: That's true. I would like to make another point about the Sabbath day, and it relates to Roy's. This point addresses the fundamental psychology or outlook of the believer by asking the question Are you forward-looking or backward-looking?

The Sabbath experience is not only one that looks backward to Creation and the cross, but also one that nourishes a forward-looking frame of mind. Each week in celebrating or keeping Sabbath, I am working with a view to the capstone of the week—the final celebrative rest day, the Sabbath. This is a parable of eschatology that I, as a keeper of Sabbath, embody in my life every day. I am looking forward.

In this is embodied the whole theme of waiting, which is a definite theme in Jewish tradition, and of course a clear theme in the Gospels. We await, we look forward to, an end. Sabbath becomes a weekly parable of the whole history of salvation. It implies that human history or destiny has an implied end, an ultimate eschatological rest. This important meaning is lost through Sunday worship.

What I am saying is that there is no tradition for Sunday as a rest day except when we try to marry Sunday to the biblical meanings associated with the seventh day in Scripture. In keeping Sunday much of this kind of meaning tends to get lost, because Sunday is not really pictured in the New Testament as a worship day. And any or all of the commentary on Sabbath in the New Testament, including passages like Colossians 2:16-18, is an attempt to rescue Sabbath from rigid, legalistic perversions. It is not there to delete Sabbath. Nor is it there to create a new day of worship, or to open the way for no particular day of worship. The Sabbath affirms the rest that we enter into when we belong to Christ.

McRAE: Another important role for the Sabbath is raised when one thinks of the differences between Jews and Christians. Jews and Christians both share essential texts of origin, but at some point they nevertheless follow two divergent tracks. It may be said that the purpose of Christians is the salvation of the world, while for Jews it is the sanctification of Israel.

I've come to the conclusion that we have a way of resolving the divergent emphases or tracks that Jews and Christians seem to be on. The Christian idea of saving the world, and also the Jewish idea of making a holy people, is all implicit in the language of the Sabbath. This language goes back beyond Abraham and the early Hebrew nation, to the beginning of things and to the Sabbath story in Genesis 2. A glance at the essence of that story shows that we all belong in the story. It's my story, whether I am Jewish or Christian.

BRANSON: Yes, and this has other implications. Siegfried Horn, under whom I think all of us studied, was a great archaeologist and also dean of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. He was also an anti-Nazi German. I remember him expressing the opinion that if German Christians had been worshiping God on the same day as the German Jews, we might not have had the Holocaust. Now we don't know if that would indeed have been the case, but it is definitely worth contemplating. If German Christians had been going to their churches at the same time German Jews had been going to their synagogues, wouldn't they have been more able to think of themselves as brothers and sisters?

This has implications for today. There are people, including some Adventists, who feel that keeping Sabbath separates them from other Christians. But what about our separation from Jews? It is just as important to realize how keeping the Sabbath could tie us Christians in with Jews.

EVA: We have had a fascinating and enlightening conversation. Do you have a summative statement or a final word about the meaning and role of the Sabbath?

BRANSON: If we understand the Sabbath as celebration, as we heard it described in Nehemiah, it can shape our attitude toward the second coming of Christ. If we observe the Sabbath only in terms of law, that has a way of shaping our expectation of the Second Coming simply as a day of judgment. If we understand the Sabbath as celebration, then we look forward to "the marriage supper of the Lamb" (Rev. 19:7-9). We will then talk of the Second Coming more like a wedding reception, and not only as the great judgment day that it will be.

SCRIVEN: The critics will come along, and there are certain critics of Adventism, wanting to argue that it's a mistake to think of the Sabbath merely as a legal requirement that we must meet in order to benefit from God's grace. The proper response to that point is of course to concede it. But it does not follow that we should concede giving up the enriching, biblical experience of Sabbath celebration.

McRAE: For several years I have been collecting books by people from a number of different religious traditions. As I've done this, I've been intrigued by a renewed attempt to reclaim Sabbath for the Christian world. We live in a world fragmented and harried, our families in tatters, our jobs overwhelming our lives, and our own deepest desires and dreams often haunted by an oppressive kind of clock-watching. In the midst of this there is this attempt to reclaim the Sabbath. It's exciting to see. What's missing in many of these reclamations is that they are trying to fit the reclaiming of Jewish and early Christian Sabbath practice into something that doesn't bear the full weight of the biblical meanings of Sabbath. We Adventists must keep trying to call for a celebration of Sabbath that does not reinvent Sabbath, but that instead ties together the whole sweep of God's great work of creation, redemption, and imminent return.

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Roy Branson, Ph.D., is the director of the Washington Institute in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Andy McRae is an associate pastor of the Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Charles Scriven, Ph.D., is president of Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, Maryland.

May 1997

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