The Seventh-day Sabbath

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Rightly understood and observed, the seventh-day Sabbath (Saturday) is a precious gift from God. Millions of Christians in my faith community experience it as such. At creation, “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy” (Gen. 2:3; italics supplied); the Sabbath commandment echoes, “The Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Ex. 20:11).

The Sabbath is also God’s chosen sign of creation and redemption: “that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you” (Ex. 31:13); thus, rightly understood and observed, the Sabbath remains a perpetual antidote to both the theory of naturalistic evolution and to legalism. Finally, the Sabbath is God’s designated day for rest and worship, “a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation” (Lev. 23:3). Scripture never attributes any of these sacred pronouncements, or explicitly assigns any meaning whatsoever, to any day of the week other than the seventh-day Sabbath.

The New Testament upholds the Ten Commandments, including the seventh-day Sabbath, as God’s will for His people. References and allusions to the Ten Commandments abound in Jesus’ ministry and in the rest of the New Testament (for example, Matt. 5:17–19; Mark 2:27–28; 7:9–13; 10:17–22; Luke 23:56; Rom. 2:21–22; 7:7; 1 Cor. 6:9–11; Eph. 6:1–3; Heb. 4:4, 9; James 2:10–12). It was Jesus’ and the apostles’ “custom” to observe the Sabbath in a manner that would be expected of those who believed in its universality and permanence (Luke 4:16; Acts 17:2). Jesus fulfilled the law by ascribing deeper meaning to the commandments without destroying their original application (Matt. 5:17–30; 11:28– 12:8). The book of Revelation is permeated with direct and indirect allusions to at least seven of the Ten Commandments, including the Sabbath commandment. John received his vision “on the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10).

The Lord’s Day is designated in Scripture as the seventh-day Sabbath: “a Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Ex. 20:10); “my Sabbaths” (Lev. 19:3); “my holy day … the holy day of the Lord” (Isa. 58:13); the day of which Jesus said He is “lord” (Luke 6:5). Had God given such designations to Sunday or any other day, would this not be cited as evidence for its sanctity and sole claim to being “the Lord’s day”? The allusion in Revelation 11:19 to the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai suggests that subsequent references to “the commandments of God,” which God’s last-day people lovingly obey through faith in Jesus, include the Ten Commandments (12:17; 14:12). The eschatological appeal to “worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water” (14:7), borrows language directly from the Sabbath commandment. The scriptural evidence appears to me clear and convincing that the Ten Commandments, including the seventh-day Sabbath, are permanent and universal.

The New Testament never changes the Sabbath commandment. The eight “first day” references in the Gospels refer exclusively either to the very day Jesus rose and appeared to believers to assure them He was alive or to the very next Sunday, when He appeared to convince doubting Thomas. Interpreters who advance Sunday sacredness based on Acts 20:7’s reference to breaking bread on the first day must ignore that early believers “broke bread” daily (2:46; 27:35). Reputable scholars from various Protestant traditions (references cited in my essay in Perspectives on the Sabbath: Four Views):

  • Consider 1 Corinthians 16:1–2’s appeal to “put … aside and store … up” funds for the poor on Sunday as unrelated to a corporate worship service;
  • Provide evidence that Galatians 4:8–11’s rebuke for observing special days refers to pagan sacred days, not the Decalogue’s Sabbath;
  • Teach that the “days,” of which “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5) about observing, refer to Jewish fast days (“doubtful things,” 14:1, NKJV) rather than the Decalogue’s Sabbath;
  • Conclude that the reference to “a Sabbath” (“sabbaths,” NKJV) in Colossians 2:16–17 does not preclude a New Testament Sabbath and bears weighty evidence that this passage’s shadowy sabbaths, whose reality have come in Christ, are in fact the Old Testament ceremonial sabbaths, rather than the Decalogue’s seventh-day Sabbath (cf. Heb. 10:1–4).

Judaizers surely would have resisted any attempted change in the Decalogue’s Sabbath with even greater intensity than they fought against the Holy Spirit’s revelation that circumcision, which was not a creation ordinance or one of the Ten Commandments, held no continuing spiritual significance in the New Testament era (Acts 15). But no trace of such a controversy over the Sabbath exists in Acts or the remainder of the New Testament. Rather, just the opposite: “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Cor. 7:19).

Dispensationalists claim that the Sabbath was exclusively for Israel and passed away with the old covenant. If so, the same would be true for the other nine commandments of the Decalogue. But though God did indeed choose the Sabbath as His covenant sign between Himself and “the people of Israel” (Ex. 31:17), He also established the new covenant exclusively with “the house of Israel,” the spiritual seed of Abraham, all “those of faith” (Heb. 8:8, 10; Gal. 3:7, 29; see Isa. 56). Since both the new covenant and the Sabbath as God’s covenant sign were given to Israel, if the Sabbath applied exclusively to Israel, then so does the new covenant. However, as the new covenant specifically given to “the house of Israel” applies to all “those of faith” (Gal. 3:7), so the Sabbath — God’s chosen “sign” between Himself and Israel — likewise applies, universally and permanently, to all “those of faith.”

Hebrews 4:9 states explicitly: “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest [Greek, sabbatismos] for the people of God.” Sabbatismos “denotes the observance or celebration of the Sabbath” (A.T. Lincoln, From Sabbath to the Lord’s Day, 213). Never in Scripture does sabbatismos or its cognate verb sabbatizō refer either to Sunday or to a nebulous spiritual experience. Hebrews 4:9’s “Sabbath rest” that “remains … for the people of God” is the Sabbath instituted at creation, as explicitly indicated just four verses earlier (Heb. 4:4, quoting Gen. 2:2): “God rested on the seventh day from all his works.”

Indeed, Ephesians 5 and Hebrews 4 treat marriage and the seventh-day Sabbath, both creation ordinances, similarly by:

  • Affirming their creation origins (Eph. 5:31; Heb. 4:4),
  • Assigning each deeper sanctity and meaning based on Jesus’ atoning ministry and the believer’s relationship to Him (Eph. 5:32; Heb. 4:6), and
  • Affirming the application of marriage and the Sabbath as continuing New Testament ordinances (Eph. 5:33; Heb. 4:9).

The seventh-day Sabbath is linked indissolubly to Jesus. Jesus, the architect of creation (John 1:1–3), rested on the seventh day in celebration of His finished work (Gen. 2:2), and as “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2), rested in the tomb on the Sabbath between Good Friday and Easter Sunday at the completion of His earthly ministry of redemption (Luke 23:52–24:2). As the spiritual Rock that attended Israel on their journeys (1 Cor. 10:4), Jesus spoke the Ten Commandments to His people (Deut. 4:12–13), etched them in stone with His finger (Ex. 31:18), and writes them in His people’s hearts by His Spirit in fulfillment of His new covenant promise (Deut. 30:6, 11–14; Ps. 40:8).

So Jesus could rightfully declare Himself the sole legitimate “Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28). And in the same breath He declared: “The Sabbath was made [Greek, egeneto] for man [anthropos]” (Mark 2:27). Egeneto (literally, “came into existence”) occurs twenty times in the Genesis 1 creation story and three times in John 1:3, which reveals Jesus as the One through whom all things were “made”/ created. Anthropos is the generic Greek term for humankind. Thus, Jesus affirmed the creation origin and universal character of the very Sabbath of which He is Lord.

As Jesus is the focus of our Sabbath worship today, so He will be in the new earth: In “the new heavens and the new earth… . From new moon [better “month,” for scholarly references see Perspectives on the Sabbath: Four Views] to new moon [“month”], and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD” (Isa. 66:22–23, emphasis supplied). The reference to “new heavens and new earth” in Isaiah 65–66 hearkens back to Genesis 1–2, envisioning God’s restoration of the earth to Edenic conditions. In Eden and the new earth:

  • Humans are assigned rewarding work opportunities (Gen. 1:26, 28; 2:15; Isa. 65:21),
  • Animals are given plants (not each other) for food (Gen. 1:30; Isa. 65:25),
  • The seventh-day Sabbath is God’s appointed time for rest and worship (Gen. 2:3; Isa. 66:23).

Thus, the observance of the seventh- day Sabbath “remains … for the people of God” (Heb. 4:9), universally and permanently, as His covenant sign between Himself and His church, showing that He is our Maker, our true rest, and our Redeemer — “that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you” (Ex. 31:13). I invite you to experience the seventh-day Sabbath for yourself and see whether the attendant portfolio of meanings God assigned to it, and the blessings of the communion with Him that He offers in its observance, do not enrich your life and deepen your walk with Jesus — your Creator, Redeemer, and Lord.

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