The Sabbath: God's everlasting covenant

Another in Ministry's ongoing study of the faith of Seventh-day Adventists from a Christocentric perspective (see last month's article by Dr. LaRondelle: "Paul, Law, and Covenant")

Hans K. LaRondelle, Th.D., is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

Seventh-day Adventist Statement of Faith #19: The Sabbath. "The beneficient Creator, after the six days of Creation, rested on the seventh day and instituted the Sabbath for all people as a memorial of Creation. The fourth commandment of God's unchangeable law requires the observance of this seventh-day Sabbath as the day of rest, worship, and ministry in harmony with the teach ing and practice of Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a day of delightful communion with God and one another. It is a symbol of our redemption in Christ, a sign of our sanctification, a token of our allegiance, and a foretaste of our eternal future in God's kingdom. The Sabbath is God's perpetual sign of His eternal covenant between Him and His people. Joyful observance of this holy time from evening to evening, sunset to sunset, is a celebration of God's creative and redemptive acts. (Gen. 2:1-3; Exod. 20:8- 77; Luke 4:16, Isa. 56:5, 6; 58:13, 14; Matt. 12:1-12; Exod. 31:13-17; Ezek. 20:12, 20; Deut. 5:12-15; Heb. 4:1-11; Lev. 23:32; Mark 1:32.)

The fourth commandment requires: "Remember the sabbath I day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work.... For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy" (Exod. 20:8-11).*

Sabbath remembrance is founded on the work/rest rhythm of the Creator Himself, as recounted in Genesis 1 and 2. There we learn that "the seventh-day" Sabbath is a creation ordinance, and therefore cannot be abolished by human decrees. From the Decalogue we see that "resting on the sabbath becomes a sign that God's creative order continues to exist in the present," and that it "will once again be complete, will be realized as at the beginning" when all humanity will rest on the heavenly Sabbath.1

The preamble to the Ten Commandments links the law to God's deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (Exod. 20:2). This redemptive covenant relationship lies at the foundation of all Israel's laws. Only those who have received a particular or special revelation of the Creator are able to "remember" what has been revealed to them. Only from the Creation account did Israel know that God made the seventh day holy—that is, "set apart for holy service."

The Creation account is also linked to God's redemptive act, for His redemption aims at the restoration of His original creation (Isa. 65:17-25; Rev. 21; 22). God's works of creation and redemption have a progressive and unbreakable unity (Ps. 8; 24; 104; 136). The New Testament endorses this unity of God's works in their consistent proclamation that Christ was the Co-Creator of all things (see John 1:1-3; Col. 1:16, 17; Heb. 1:1-3; Rev. 3:14; 5:13).

The creation Sabbath: "the Alpha and the Omega" of covenant history

A straight-forward reading of the Creation account in Genesis ties the Sabbath inseparably to God's act of creation (Gen. 1 and 2). The writer of Genesis sees it to be an integral part of Creation. It is the climactic point, fol lowing a six-day work of creation. God "rested on the seventh day," "blessed the sabbath day and made it holy" (Exod. 20:11).

Three acts of God are described in connection with the Sabbath: God rested, blessed, and made it holy. Thus the Creator gave the Sabbath a historical distinctness. God "blessed the seventh day" (Gen. 2:3; Exod. 20:11) and made it a beneficial day for all humankind. Humans were made to live in a loving and joyful fellowship with their Maker on the seventh day, so that "the Sabbath is one of the greatest blessings bestowed upon men by a loving Creator."2

Thus the Seventh-day Sabbath may well be called the "alpha" of God's covenant relationship with humankind.3 The Protestant Reformers overlooked this particular truth, assuming that God had merely blessed His own "rest," which "rest" could be detached from the specific seventh day of the week.4

For the Christian, the critical issue today is the truthfulness and trustworthiness of the Creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2. Christian believers need to take into account Christ's view of the Creation account in order to learn Christ's view of the Sabbath. Jesus accepted the Creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2 as possessing unquestionable authority.5 Hence to Him the Sabbath was of paramount importance. The Sabbath is seen to be of great importance when it comes to restoring true worship in "spirit and truth" (John 4:24), and for saving "what was lost" (Luke 19:10)

To Jesus the purpose of the Sabbath was to be a blessing for the human "from the beginning" when "the Sabbath was made for man" (Mark 2:27).

Among other things, Jesus came to restore what had been lost: human beings themselves and the true worship of the covenant God. The Sabbath is a symbol of that return. Revelation assures the church that the Sovereign Ruler of the universe will restore.paradise on earth again: "Behold, I am making all things new!"

This promise includes the full restoration of the Sabbath rest in the new earth that awaits the redeemed (Rev. 22:1, 2; cf 22:19; Isa. 66:22-24). This ultimate fulfillment represents the "omega" of God's faithfulness to His creation covenant through Christ Jesus (see Rev. 21:6; 22:12-14)!

Sabbath: Creator-Redeemer's everlasting covenant

The Creator made the Sabbath as a "temple" in time, holy to the Lord. Through it He provided the possibility of intimate fellowship with God for His Godlike children. God saw no need to "command" Adam to celebrate His Sabbath, because the Creator's example already had established His authoritative power.

The Sabbath was designed as a holy rest day, set apart as a sacred time for uninterrupted fellowship with the Maker. It was designed by God to be a time for people to contemplate their creatureliness, dignity, and dependence on their heavenly Father and to enjoy the Creator's invigorating and trans forming presence (see Ps. 8; 92). In short, the Sabbath was made as the abiding sacrament through which human beings could sustain their relationship with God. It reminded humanity of the sacredness of life and it renewed in human beings their (our) sense of accountability to the Creator. The Creation account and the Decalogue are inextricably connected through the fourth commandment. The Sabbath commandment in Exodus 20:8-11 leaves no doubt that God rein stated His Sabbath day as a perpetual, identifying sign of His chosen people. God even elevated the Sabbath to the status of a "perpetual covenant": "So the sons of Israel shall observe the sabbath, to celebrate the sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant" (Exod. 31:16), and God based this redemptive covenant "sign" directly on the Creator's work and rest in the beginning (verse 17).

Israel's Sabbath celebrations testify therefore that Yahweh is the same God as the Creator of heaven and earth, who had come to dwell among His people with His saving and sanctifying presence. Thus the Sabbath identifies the one Creator-Redeemer, who seeks to restore humanity to the original covenant relationship.

For Israel the Sabbath was a constant reminder of the continuity of God's work in creation and in redemption. This becomes particularly clear when we compare the fourth commandment in Exodus 20 to Moses' rendition of it in Deuteronomy 5 (see chart at right).

Moses announced that the Creator of heaven and earth had become the Redeemer of Israel. The Sabbath commandment took on an additional dimension for Israel: to remember the faithful Creator, who did not abandon the work of His hands.

Redeemed Israel celebrated the Sabbath therefore for two distinct reasons, one motivated by reverence for God's creative power, and the other by gratitude for His saving mercy.

The Sabbath: Israel's blessing for all nations

The Sabbath represents God's commitment to His original purpose for humanity: to bless humanity, even after the Fall. God had revealed to Israel that He had chosen them, ushering them into a privileged "sanctifying" relation ship with Himself. This fellowship with God implied the call to be a priestly "light to the nations, so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth" (Isa. 49:6; cf. Exod. 19:5, 6).

What God gave to Israel was intend ed for all humankind as He is the Creator of all. In the Old Testament, this high calling to reach out to all nations was developed most extensively by Isaiah. He predicted that the Torah would ultimately attract many peoples, who in the "last days" will come to the "mountain of the LORD," desiring that God "may teach us concerning His ways, and that we may walk in His paths, for the law will go forth from Zion, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem" (Isa. 2:2, 3). The same prophet pronounced the universal significance of the Sabbath in chapters 56, 58, and 66.

Isaiah viewed God's covenant and the Sabbath as virtual synonyms expressing the same redemptive purpose for all humanity. The worship of Gentiles in the Jerusalem temple will be pleasing to God, "for My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples" (56:7).

Isaiah 56 proclaims the universal significance of the Sabbath, calling upon every Gentile to "choose what pleases" God, and to keep "from profaning the Sabbath and hold fast My covenant" (56:6). Isaiah thus connects the Sabbath and God's covenant in Israel's worship of the one Creator-Redeemer, to which all Gentiles were invited.

Isaiah's prophecy makes the Sabbath celebration an essential characteristic of the new covenant for restored Israel and for all Gentiles who will be "gathered" to Israel and "join themselves to LORD ... to love the name of the LORD" (56:6). This new-covenant relationship will be consummated only when the Messiah comes to gather all Israel and all Gentiles to Himself (see Isa. 11:10-12).

Later, Jesus refers to Isaiah's "gathering" promise and applies it to Himself as the God-sent gatherer, who comes to draw "all men" to Himself (John 10:16; cf. Isa. 56:8; John 12:32). Christ offers all people who come to Him His "rest" of grace (Matt. 11:28).

Jesus: the true Interpreter of the Sabbath

The fourth Gospel declares that the pre-existent Jesus was the Co-Creator of heaven and earth (John 1:1-3). This has much bearing on the origin of the Sabbath. Just as God made human beings in the beginning, so He made the Sabbath—on the very next day of the Creation week.

The New Testament reveals that Christ is the divine Mediator of all creation—including the Sabbath. Jesus is thus the Originator of the Sabbath, the most sacred of divine institutions, and hence also the true Interpreter of the Sabbath commandment.

Ellen White states, "And since the Sabbath is a memorial of the work of creation, it is a token of the love and power of Christ."6

Jesus rejected the traditional rabbinic restrictions that made the Sabbath a burden by stating, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). Jesus thus affirms the priority of the human, as was implied in the Creation account itself. In that account, the seventh-day Sabbath is seen to be a gift to Adam and Eve, who had been created a day earlier, and it was to be a delight for His people (Isa. 58:13), rather than a burden.

Christ made a fundamental distinction between the traditions of Jewish elders and the Law of God (see Matt. 5:3-6). This distinction lies at the foundation of Jesus' critique of Pharisaic Sabbath keeping.

For example, the primary goal of Jesus' seven healing miracles on the Sabbath was to demonstrate that He was the promised Messiah who would heal the sick and thus inaugurate the kingdom of God (see Luke 7:22, 23).7 Like Elijah, Christ had come to "restore all things" and to explain the meaning of true worship in Spirit and in truth (John 4:22-25; Matt. 17:11; cf. Acts 3:21). His Messianic mission was also to interpret the Torah and the Sabbath according to the divine intentions seen in His Sabbath healings.

Jesus did not reject Sabbath keeping, but liberated the Sabbath from the senseless and burdensome restrictions of scribal traditions. More than once He asked the Jewish leaders the challenging question: "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" (Mark 3:4; cf. Luke 6:9); or, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?" (Luke 14:3). These questions confirm Jesus' intention to obey God's law. He stated positively: "So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath" (Matt. 12:12).

Christ's Sabbath healings focused Israel's attention on His Messianic authority. Two instances stand out: the healing of the invalid in John 5 and of the blind-born man in John 9. Each time, Jesus deliberately provoked the issue of the Sabbath by ordering the healed ones to break the Sabbath laws, imposed by tradition. To the paralytic at the pool He said: "Arise, take up your pallet, and walk" (John 5:8). To the blind man: "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam" (John 9:7). In both cases an immediate protest arose against these actions as being in conflict with the Sabbath law (John 5:9, 10; 9:13-16).

Jesus rejected the protests (John 5:16-18) and defended the true nature of Sabbath keeping by an appeal to a higher authority: "My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working" (John 5:17).

Jesus' words "My Father" were offensive to the Jewish leaders and sharpened the Sabbath conflict. They rightly understood Jesus' claim that God was "His own Father, making Himself equal with God" (John 5:18).

This far-reaching claim brought the real issue into focus: His claim to be the "Lord of the Sabbath," and One "greater than the temple" (Matt. 12:6). How ironic: the Lord of the Sabbath was arraigned before a human tribunal to answer the charge of breaking the Sabbath. No wonder Jesus censured His accusers for not knowing the Scriptures that testified of Him (see John 5:39,40).

The healing of a blind man on Sabbath was even more spectacular, by showing that Jesus did His work of heal ing so that "the works of God might be displayed" (John 9:3). The Light of the world with creative power had indeed come "to restore sight to the blind" (John 9:5).

This story reaches its climax when the healed one "sees," believes, and then worships Jesus (see verses 35-38). When he professes Jesus as the Messianic Son of Man, his spiritual eyes are opened and the work of God is fully displayed.

Thus, with the coming of Jesus, Sabbath signified a healing and sanctifying relationship with Christ as the Lord of the Sabbath, the Provider of the divine rest (see Matt. 11:28-30). Samuele Bacchiocchi clarifies: "Matthew sets forth the 'yoke' of Christ, not as a commitment to a new Torah, but as dedication to a Person who is the true Interpreter and Fulfiller of the Law and the Prophets."8

The new-covenant Sabbath rest in Hebrews 4

The letter to the Hebrews adopts the theme of divine rest and places it at the center of the new covenant of Christ. Hebrews 3 and 4 stress the redemptive significance of the "Sabbath rest" for the entire history of divine revelation. The Creator's "resting" in Genesis 2:3 is explained as the source of His restoring the work of salvation! Hebrews urges the Jewish Christians: "Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest [the Sabbath rest, 4:9], lest anyone fall" (4:11).

The unbreakable unity and continuity of God's work in creation and in redemption implies the constant invitation of God for human beings to "enter His rest," which is now experienced by coming in faith to our High Priest Jesus and to His "throne of grace" (4:1, 11, 14-16). This "rest of God" has been available "from the foundation of the world," and was proclaimed to Israel as the "good news," but "they were not able to enter because of unbelief" (3:19; 4:2, 3).

Hebrews 4 acknowledges therefore only one covenant of grace for all salvation history. Berkouwer explains, "The continuous line runs from the resting of God after His work of creation through history to the rest into which believers shall enter, to the rest that yet remains for the people of God (Heb. 4:3, 9). God shares with man what He takes for Himself.... Genesis 2 must be the starting point for observation of the later passages."9

Hebrews extends its invitation to enter God's rest with new urgency, as a bastion against apostasy. The writer repeats the plea of "today" (Ps. 95) as a renewed offer of God's sustaining and sanctifying rest. The promise of entering into God's own redeeming "rest" still stands, as long as Christ serves as our heavenly Priest and Mediator.

From His throne of grace, Christ provides all "mercy" and "grace to help in time of need" (4:16; cf 9:14). In Him the purpose of creation and the purpose of redemption are united within God's one "eternal covenant" (Heb. 13:20).

The Creation Sabbath embodies a promise of the "rest of God" as a benefit for humans, which they needed to have before the Fall, in their sinless state. How much more is it needed for fallen human beings in their sinful state! Hebrews assures us of God's abiding promise: "There remains therefore a Sabbath rest [sabbatismos] for the people of God. For the one who has entered his rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His" (Heb. 4:9, 10).

This "Sabbath rest" may be "tasted" now with delight as a restorative "power(s) of the age to come" (Heb. 6:5). The "Sabbath rest for the people of God" is the reassuring foretaste of better things to come: to believers who will "see the Lord" (12:14).

The present joy of the Messianic "rest" and peace guarantees that Christ will lead His people safely to the Sabbath rest that still "remains," of which the seventh-day Sabbath as a Creation ordinance is a prophetic type: Paradise restored "whose architect and builder is God" (Heb. 4:9; 11:10, 16).

Because of all this, Bacchiocchi justifiably asks the thought-provoking question: "How can the typological symbolic function of the Sabbath have terminated with the coming of Christ, when the final rest, to which the present weekly Sabbath points, still lies in the future? . . . How can the Sabbath nourish in the believer the hope of the future rest, when its present celebration, which is a foretaste and anticipation of that future rest, is renounced or even denounced?"10

So it is that the pre-Fall, pre-law, pre-Hebrew, pre-old covenant seventh-day Sabbath, established by God for all humanity as the capstone of His creative work, has been ratified in Jesus Christ and thus in the new covenantal, gospel rest which was confirmed in the Messianic blood of the cross. The Sabbath spans the whole of human history from the Creation through the pinnacle of the Christ event and on to the end, finding its consummation in the final rest ushered in by the second coming of Jesus.

* Except as otherwise stated, Scripture quotations in this article are from the New American Standard Bible.

1 So rightly T. E. Fretheim, in The New Interpreter's Bible {Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994) 1:347.

2 The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Hagerstown, Md-: Review and Herald, 1955), 4:307.

3 See the depth of Karl Barth's Sabbath theology in Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T. G. T. Clark, 1958), Vol. 3, Pt. 1, 213-227. Earth states: "That God rested on the seventh day, and blessed and sanctified it, is the first divine action which man is privileged to witness; and that he himself may keep the Sabbath with God, completely free from work, is the first Word spoken to him, the first obligation laid on him" (219).

4 Thus Calvin on Genesis 2:3: "First, therefore, God rested; then he blessed this rest, that in all ages it might be held sacred among men."—Commentary on the First Book of Moses (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1948), 1:106. On modern Christian theologies of the Sabbath, see my essay, "Contemporary Theologies of the Sabbath," in The Sabbath in Scripture and History. K. A. Strand, ed. (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald, 1982), 278-294. See also B. Gaffin, Calvin and the Sabbath (Mentor: Christian Focus Publications, 1998), ch. 5, for a critique on Calvin's "failure to reckon adequately with the Sabbath institution as a creation ordinance" (146).

5 See Matthew 19:4, 5, 8, where Jesus united Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 for His position on marriage.

6 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 1940), 281.

7 See S. Bacchiocchi, Divine Rest for Human Restlessness. Rome 1980, 151-166.

8 ———, "Matthew 11:28-30: Jesus' Rest and the Sabbath," in Andrews Univ. Seminary Studies, 22 (1984) 3:303.

9 G. C. Berkouwer, The Providence of God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1972), 57.

10 Bacchiocchi, Divine Rest for Human Restlessness, 170.

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Hans K. LaRondelle, Th.D., is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

March 2004

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