Chapter 9: Applying the Letter of the Sabbath Law

On the assumption that the letter of the Ten Commandments is eternal and all-inclusive, universally applicable and absolutely binding, Sabbatarianism insists that Christians are obligated to fulfill the letter of the Old Testament Sabbath commandment. Every feature of the Sabbath law given to an ancient nation is supposed to be binding on a civilization removed from the cultural situation of Israel by 4,000 years. (1) No allowance is made for the fact that the Mosaic Sabbath regulations were given to one nation living in Palestine with a simple agrarian economy, nor that ours is a highly complex, space-age society. The fact that the ancients knew nothing about a round world or the International Date Line is thought to have no bearing on the matter. The letter of Mosaic regulations is supposed to be followed in a post-Copernican world.

The best way to discredit an untenable thesis is to insist that it be carried to its logical end. We will proceed to do this with the Sabbatarian thesis.

The Seventh-day Sabbatarian says that we must rest not just one day in seven, but on the very day of the week on which God rested after He created the world. That is supposed to be 6,000 years ago. But even conservative Sabbatarian scholars are now constrained to admit that the world is more than 6,000 years old. The ancient Egyptian dynasties can be traced nearly that far back. How strange that we could lose a few thousand years from human records yet insist that not a single day has been lost!

Where does this original seventh day begin on a round world? Where does the sun rise first? Does the seventh day begin in Palestine, in Greenwich or at a place that our modern society calls the International Date Line? How do we know that the international community fixed the date line (which is not even a straight line) where God decreed it should be? The World Book Encyclopedia says that the "International Date Line is an imaginary line which marks the spot on the earth's surface where each new calendar day begins." (2)

Some Sabbatarians argue that since God Himself designated the seventh day in Palestine, we should reckon that each new calendar day begins in the Middle East. Since the earth rotates so that the day moves westward, the Sabbath in Australia would begin six hours after it begins in California, not eighteen hours before. This would make Sunday the seventh day for Australians.

A few years ago I met a seventh-day Sabbatarian who had given serious thought to this question. He argued that if we followed the letter of the law, Australians and all others on the same side of the International Date Line would keep the Sabbath after instead of before it is kept in the Western world. According to this reasoning, Sunday would be the Australians' seventh day. The fact is that calling any twenty-four-hour period the seventh day is both arbitrary and imaginary.

There seem to be about four ways to follow the letter of the Sabbath law on a round world. Three have been seriously proposed by groups of Sabbatarians. The first is to keep the Sabbath when those in Jerusalem keep the Sabbath. The second is to begin the Sabbath in the Middle East (assuming that the first day began in Eden and assuming that Eden was somewhere in the Middle East). This would not affect Western Sabbatarians, but it would mean that all Sabbatarians in the Far East would have to move the Sabbath forward one day. The third possibility is to begin the Sabbath at that "imaginary line" called the International Date Line. This would give us an "imaginary" seventh day. The fourth possibility is for the international community to alter the "imaginary line," which would require many Sabbatarians to change their day of worship. And why not, since they gave the international community the right to decide where to put the "imaginary line" in the first place? Would not one "imaginary line" be as good as another?

Determining the time to begin the Sabbath is also a problem. Seventh-day Sabbatarians generally prefer sunset, while first day Sabbatarians generally prefer midnight. The Bible seems to indicate that the Sabbatical period extends from "even to even." But when is "even"? Early Seventh-day Adventists hotly debated whether "even" meant six o'clock in the evening or sunset. Ellen G. White's vision in which she saw that "even" was sunset settled the question. But in recent years some specialists in the history of the ancient Middle East have shown that the Semites considered it to be "even" when they could see the stars, some time after sunset.

But what are Sabbatarians supposed to do north of the Arctic Circle, where it remains dark for several months each year? "Easy," some tell us. "Just calculate from the lowest and highest points of the sun." When I was in Norway recently, the Adventist Sabbath began in the Arctic Circle at 11:30 Friday morning. Sabbatarians were required to lose Friday as either a working day or a school day. Some were agitating a return to a six p.m. Sabbath commencement as a solution to this difficult problem. One of those pressing for a more liberal interpretation of the law was a high-school teacher. He said, 'We have to recognize that the law was drafted to suit the needs of an agrarian people living in Palestine, not a highly industrialized society living within the Arctic Circle." (3) A measure of sanity indeed!

Then we could ask about applying the letter of the Sabbath law to airline pilots, international travelers or astronauts.

Even Sabbatarians may now say, "these are silly, nit-picking questions". Of course they are! But those who choose to apply the letter of the law must find an answer to such silly, nit-picking questions. Letter-of-the-law Sabbatarianism is as viable in our modern world as the Flat Earth Society.

After deciding the correct time to commence the Sabbath, the real hassle begins. What is permissible and what is forbidden on the Sabbath? It is easy to ridicule the petty Sabbath restrictions of the Pharisees, but even the mighty Puritans found that once they committed themselves to the letter of the law, there was no end to its oppressive power. At the height of Puritan glory, one could dress a baby on the Sabbath but not kiss it. A man could comb his hair but not shave his beard.

When a minister skied to church, his board of elders accused him of desecrating the Sabbath. 'Why, mon, ye skied on the Lord's holy day," said one of the elders. The minister protested: "But that was the only way I could have come to the services. The snow was too deep to drive." "That's not the p'int," the chairman shot back at him. "The p'int is this: Did ye enjoy it?"

Seventh-day Adventists today would smile at the fastidious Sabbatarianism of the Puritans, yet their own communities have an elaborate tradition of what is permissible or not on the Sabbath. (4) A nature walk is good. A swim in the ocean is not. A pleasant nature ride is permissible if you take a bicycle but not a horse. You may enjoy a ride into the country in a car but not down the river in a boat. A nurse who works on the Sabbath is accepted in good and regular standing, but not a policeman -- although both kinds of work may be equally necessary.

Such Sabbatarian traditions have an astonishingly strong hold on people -- the kind of hold that Paul chides the Colossians for submitting to. Samuele Bacchiocchi argues that Colossians 2:16 does not disapprove of Sabbath-keeping but only of burdening it with arbitrary Jewish restrictions. Yet might not arbitrary Adventist restrictions be just as bad? Does not Bacchiocchi himself err when he contends for the letter of the law in the Saturday versus Sunday debate? How far is he prepared to press the letter of the law?

The fact is that no one can ever satisfy the letter of the law, and the entire history of Sabbatarianism proves this. Those who are married to the letter of the law can never be sure that they adequately perform it. What kind of a marriage is it when the husband is never satisfied with the wife's devotion and the wife is never sure that she complies with her husband's demands? (Romans 7:1-6).

Pressing the letter of the law not only causes uncertainty, but it creates hostility. It creates secret hostility toward the law of God, which we ought to love (Psalm 119; Romans 7:22). It also creates hostility between people, because it divides those who ought to be united. Devotion to the letter of the law inclines Christians to judge and accuse each other of breaking the commandments. Paul saw that "the law with its commandments and regulations" was a dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2:14-15). No wonder he opposed those who wanted to erect this wall within the Christian church! (5) No wonder he said that "the letter kills"! (2 Corinthians 3:6). The good news is that marriage to the letter of the law is terminated by the death of Christ (Romans 7:1-6). The cross has canceled "the written code, with its regulations" (Colossians 2:14). The spiritual energies of believers should not be distracted, much less dissipated, in arguments over the calendar. Believers should concentrate on that which increases faith and love. A religion committed to such external things as keeping days and observing food taboos has seriously misunderstood the spirit of New Testament faith.


(1) There is no record of a Sabbath law prior to the Exodus. Genesis 2:2-3 mentions the Sabbath but not a Sabbath law.

(2) William Markowitz, article: "International Date Line", The World Book Encyclopedia (Chicago: Field Enterprise Educational Corp., 1974) 10:263.

3) In 1900 when Ellen G. White was confronted with certain problems relating to Sabbath-keeping above the Arctic Circle, she wrote the following advice to G.A. Irwin then president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists:

"In the countries where there is no sunset for months and again no sunrise for months the period of time will be calculated by the records kept. But God has a world large enough and proper and right for the human beings He has created to inhabit it without finding homes in those lands so objectionable in very many, many ways" (Letter 167, 23 Mar. 1900).

On pages 219 and 225 of his book The Lords Day on a Round World. (Nashville: Southern Publishing Assn. 1970) Robert L. Odom cites portions of this letter from Ellen G. White but eliminates the italicized material cited above. This part of the Ellen G. Whiteletter has never been released by the Ellen G. White Estate for publication. The obvious reason for not releasing these words is that they constitute a patently foolish comment on the Arctic Circle problem. Even the White Estate realizes that Arctic Circle communities confronted with the practical problem of Sabbath observance cannot have their common sense insulted by telling them that they should not live in such in objectionable place. Unfortunately such selected releases of inspired Ellen G. White statements are all too common. It is also unfortunate that we had to resort to unusual means to discover what was actually stated in this letter so carefully guarded by the White Estate. But we can vouch for its authenticity. Since the leaders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church are still using selected portions of this letter to settle an intrachurch debate in Norway, we suggest that the only honest thing to do is to acknowledge exactly what Ellen G. White said.

(4) The Comprehensive Index to the Writings of Ellen G. White lists about 500 things either to do or not to do on the Sabbath. See Comprehensive Index to the Writings of Ellen G. White (Mountain View Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Assn. 1963) 3:2311-2315.

(5) The visionary Ellen G. White declared, "I saw that the holy Sabbath is and will be the Separating wall between the true Israel of God and unbelievers" (Ellen G. White, Early Writings [Washington D.C.: Review & Herald Publishing Assn. 1945], p. 85).

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