The sabbath and salvation

Insights into how Old Testament Sabbath typologies evoke images of God's redemptive work in Christ

Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph.D., is professor of theology and church history at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

The human heart longs for a constant reassurance of divine forgiveness, acceptance, and salvation. We want to know, "Has God really forgiven and saved me?" In the Scripture, the reassurance of divine forgiveness and salvation is communicated not only verbally but also through types and symbols.

Circumcision, the sacrificial system, baptism, the Lord's Supper, and the Sabbath are all symbolic institutions established by God to help believers conceptualize and experience the assurance of salvation.

The Sabbath occupies a unique place among the various God-given institutions. It is unique in its origin, nature, survival, and function. It is unique in its origin because it is the first institution established by God to invite His people to enter into the joy of His rest and fellowship (Heb. 4:3-10). It is unique in its nature because it is not a material object or a place accessible only to few, but a day (time) available to all. Being time, the Sabbath invites the believers to experience divine fellowship, not through "holy objects," but in time shared together.

It is unique in its survival because it has survived through the centuries inspite of repeated attempts to do away with it. It is unique in its function because it has helped Jews and Christians to conceptualize, internalize, and experience the reality of God's creative and redemptive accomplishments.

In this two-part article I wish to explore how the Sabbath relates to salvation in the Old and New Testaments. The first part ex amines the Sabbatical typologies of Messianic redemption in the Old Testament and Jewish literature. The second part (to appear in July) will consider the redemptive meaning and function of the Sabbath in the New Testament.

The Sabbath and salvation in the Old Testament

In Old Testament times the Sabbath served not only to provide personal rest and liberation from the hardship of work and social injustices, but also to nourish the hope for a future Messianic peace, prosperity, and redemption. The latter function was apparently inspired by the role of the Sabbath in God's original creation.

Genesis provides no information on the actual observance of the Sabbath by Adam and Eve before their expulsion from the Gar den of Eden. Yet the picture of perfection and satisfaction (note the sevenfold repetition of the phrase "it was good" in Genesis 1) it portrays, especially through the divine blessing and sanctification of the seventh day (Gen. 2:3), could easily offer to believers the basis for a vision of the Messianic age.

The parallels and equivalences between the Sabbath of Genesis, Adam's first day after his creation, and the last days of the Messianic age, though not always explicitly made, are implicitly present in the biblical and extrabiblical sources.

Sabbath peace and harmony

The peace and harmony that existed between Adam and the animals at the Creation Sabbath will be restored in the Messianic age when "the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid and the calf and the young lion and the fading together; and a little child shall lead them" (Isa. 11:6). At that time, according to the same prophet, "the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (verse 9; cf. Isa. 65:25; Hosea 2:20). This vision of the earth full of peace and of the knowledge of God in the last days may well have been inspired by the view of the first days, of which the Sabbath is the epitome.

The latter is suggested by those rabbinical Sabbath regulations that prohibited killing in sects or carrying weapons on the Sabbath be cause the latter represents a foretaste of the world to come. Such a vision of the world to come was inspired by the primordial Sabbath, a day of peace and harmony between the hu man and subhuman creation. 1

Sabbath delight

The delight and joy of the Edenic Sabbath also inspired the prophetic vision of the Messianic age. Theodore Friedman notes that "two of the three passages in which Isaiah refers to the Sabbath are linked by the prophet with the end of days (Isa. 56:1-7; 58:13-14; 66:20-24)... It is no mere coincidence that Isaiah employs the words 'delight' (oneg) and 'honor' (kavod) in his description of both the Sabbath and the end of days (58:13: 'And thou shall call the Sabbath delight ... and honor it' 66:11; 'And you shall delight in the glow of its honor'). The implication is clear. The delight and joy that will mark the end of days is made available here and now by the Sabbath."2

Sabbath delight is expressed in the Jewish tradition by kindling lights on that day—a prerogative of the woman of the house. The redemptive role of the primordial Sabbath in the Jewish tradition is impressive. Being viewed as the symbol of primordial redemption from chaos to a perfect cosmos, the Sabbath could effectively typify the future Messianic restoration. The tradition of kindling lights on the Sabbath was symbolically linked both to the supernatural light that shone during the first Sabbath upon Adam as an assurance of salvation and the extraordinary light of the Messianic age.

The prophets envision the appearance of refulgent light during the latter days: "Moreover the light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold, as the light of seven days" (Isa. 30:26). The comparison with "the light of seven days" is presumably an allusion to the seven days of Creation, which, according to an ancient Midrash, were bathed by extraordinary light more brilliant than the sun.3

The prophetic vision of the extraordinary light of the Messianic age (Zech. 14:7) most probably derives from the notion of the supernatural light experienced by Adam on the first Sabbath—light that, according to Jewish tradition, disappeared at the close of the Creation Sabbath because of his dis obedience, but that is to reappear in the Messianic age.4

Sabbath rest

The theme of Sabbath rest (menuhah) which to "the biblical mind," as Abraham Joshua Heschel explains, "is the same as happiness and stillness, as peace and harmony,"5 has served as an effective typology of the Messianic age, often known as the "end of days" or "world-to-come."

In the Old Testament the notion of "rest" is utilized to express both national and Messianic aspirations. As a national aspiration, the Sabbath rest served to typify a peaceful life in a land of rest (Deut. 12:9; 25:19; Isa. 14:3), where the king would give to the people "rest from all... enemies" (2 Sam. 7:1) and where God would find His "resting place" among His people, and especially in His sanctuary at Zion (2 Chron. 6:41; 1 Chron. 23:25; Ps. 132:8,13,14; Isa. 66:1).

The connection between Sabbath rest and national rest is also found in Hebrews 4:4,6,8, where the author speaks of the Creation Sabbath rest as the symbol of the promised entrance into the land of Canaan. Because of disobedience, the wilderness generation "failed to enter" (verse 6) into the land of rest typified by the Sabbath.

The fact that the blessings of the Sabbath rest were never realized as a political condition of rest and peace challenged God's people to look for their future fulfillment at and through the coming of the Messiah. In the Jewish literature we find numerous examples where the Sabbath rest and the septenary structure of time are used to signify the rest, peace, and redemption of the Messianic age.

For example, the Babylonian Talmud says, "Our Rabbis taught: at the conclusion of the Sabbath, the son of David will come. R. Joseph demurred: But so many [Sabbaths] have passed, yet has he not come! "6 The age of the Messiah is often described as a time of Sabbatical rest. At the end of the Mishnah Tamid we read: "A Psalm, a song for the Sabbath day, a song for the time to come, for the day that is all Sabbath rest in the eternal life." The rest experience of the Sabbath served to nourish the hope of the future Messianic peace and rest. The Messianic redemption came to be viewed, as stated in the Mishnah Tamid, as "all Sabbath and rest in the life everlasting."

Sabbath liberation

The freedom, release, and liberation that the weekly and annual Sabbaths were de signed to grant to every member of the He brew society have also served as effective types of Messianic redemption.

In the Deuteronomic version of the fourth commandment, the Sabbath is explicitly linked to the Exodus liberation by means of the "remembrance clause": "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" (Deut 5:15, RSV).

The connection between the Sabbath and the Exodus deliverance may explain why the Sabbath became ideologically connected with the Passover, the annual celebration of the deliverance from Egypt. In a sense, the Sabbath came to be viewed as a "little Pass over" in the same way as many Christians have come to view their weekly Sunday as a "little Easter."

The Sabbath was a real liberator of the Hebrew society by providing a release from the hardship of life and social inequalities, not only every seventh day, but also every seventh year, on the Sabbatical year, and every "seven sabbaths of years," on the jubilee year (Lev. 25:8). At these annual institutions the Sabbath truly became the liberator of the oppressed in Hebrew society. The land was to lie fallow to provide free produce for the dispossessed and animals. The slaves were emancipated, and the debts owed by fellow citizens were remitted. Though seldom observed, these annual Sabbaths served to announce the future liberation and redemption to be brought about by the Messiah. One reason for the Messianic function of the Sabbath years is to be found in their Messianic features.

For example, the annual Sabbaths promised release from personal debts and slavery. Such a release provided an effective imagery to typify the expected Messianic deliverance (Isa. 61:1-3,7; 40:2). In his dissertation on the jubilary theology of the Gospel of Luke, Robert Sloan shows how the New Testament concept of forgiveness (aphesis) is derived largely from the release from financial indebtedness and social injustices resident in the celebration of the annual Sabbaths. 7 These are referred to as "the release," "the Lord's release," "the year of release" (Deut. 15:1, 2, 9; 31:10; Lev. 25:10). In the Septuagint the Hebrew term for "release," deror, is translated as aphesis" release" which, is the New Testament word for "forgiveness." The Lord's Prayer's phrase "forgive us our debts" (Matt. 6:12) derives from the release from financial indebtedness of the annual Sabbaths. The sabbatical release from financial indebtedness and social injustices came to be viewed as the prefiguration of the future messianic release from the moral indebtedness of sin.

An example is Isaiah 61:1-3 where the prophet employs the imagery of the sabbatical release to describe the mission of the Messiah, who would bring jubilary amnesty and release from captivity. In Part 2 we will see how Christ utilized this very imagery to announce and explain the nature of His redemptive mission.

Sabbatical structure of time

The unique Messianic features of the Sabbath years inspired the use of the sabbatical structure of time to measure the waiting time of Messianic redemption. Some scholars call this phenomenon "sabbatical Messianism" or "chronomessianism."8

The classical place of sabbatical Messianism is found in Daniel 9, where two sabbatical periods are given. The first consists of the 70-year prophecy (Jer. 29:10) regarding the time to national restoration of the Jews (Dan. 9:3-19) and is made up of 10 sabbatical years (10 x 7). The second period consists of "seventy weeks (shabuim)" technically "seventy Sabbatical cycles," which lead to Messianic redemption (Dan. 9:24-27).

This sabbatical Messianism is frequently found in later Jewish literature. For example, the Talmud says: "Elijah said to Rab Judah...: 'The world shall exist not less than eighty-five jubilees, and in the last jubilee the son of David will come.'"9


This brief survey of Old Testament Sabbath themes shows that in Old Testament times the weekly and annual Sabbaths have served not only to provide physical rest and liberation from social injustices but also to epitomize and nourish the hope of future Messianic redemption.

Rabbi Heschel captures vividly the Old Testament Messianic typology of the Sabbath when he writes: "Zion is in ruins, Jerusalem lies in the dust. All week there is only hope of redemption. But when the Sabbath is entering the world, man is touched by a moment of actual redemption; as if for a moment the spirit of the Messiah moved over the face of the earth."10 The Old Testament sabbatical typologies of Messianic redemption will help us appreciate in Part 2 the relationship between the Sabbath and the Saviour.

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Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph.D., is professor of theology and church history at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

May 1997

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