Chapter 12: The Reality of the Sabbath

The Sabbath was given to Israel as a sign of her election. It was designed to remind her that He who had created the world had created the nation of Israel for Himself.

"The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between Me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He abstained from work and rested." -- Exodus 31:16-17

"Also I gave them My Sabbaths as a sign between us, so they would know that I the Lord made them holy [i.e., separated them, set them apart].-- Ezekiel 20:12

The sanctification (or separation) of the seventh day was a sign of Israel's sanctification or separation from all other people. It was the distinguishing mark par excellence of the Jew.

Much harm is done, however, when the sign and the thing signified are not distinguished. When Israel mistook form for reality, the prophets declared that God detested their Sabbath celebrations (Isaiah 1:14; Amos 5:21). In post exilic Judaism there was a tendency to glorify the Sabbath day while neglecting what the Sabbath was supposed to represent.

The same thing may be said about circumcision or even Christian baptism. Both Moses and Paul understood that the reality of circumcision was regeneration of the heart (Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6; Romans 2:22-29). The Judaizer who said that a man could not be saved unless he was circumcised would have been correct if he had spoken of the reality instead of the transitory sign.

There are Christians today who insist that baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation. Their "proof"-text is 1 Peter 3:21, which says that we are saved by baptism. It is true that we cannot be saved unless we have been baptized or incorporated into the holy history of Christ's death and resurrection (Romans 6:2-6; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 2:20). The rite of baptism is designed to express this reality. That is to say, it should visually depict the gospel. But we need to distinguish between the form and the reality. Christians have sometimes tenaciously argued over the form of baptism. Should candidates be poured, sprinkled, dipped or, according to Zwingli's stance toward the Anabaptists, drowned? To the shame of Christianity, the sectarian spirit has sometimes proclaimed: "Unless you have our form of baptism (the biblical one, of course!), you cannot be saved. Our way of doing this is the only legitimate one. Every other way is illegitimate." While we should try to adopt the form which most honors the reality, does not church history demonstrate that God has people who subscribe to different forms? And if God accepts them as His sons, why cannot we accept them as our brothers? If God does not make something a condition of fellowship with Himself, should we make it a condition of fellowship with one another?

We may say the same about the Sabbath as we have said about baptism: Unless we accept God's Sabbath rest, we cannot be saved. The book of Hebrews, which was written to Sabbatarian Christians, declares, "There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God" (Hebrews 4:9). This Sabbath rest is not the seventh day but the rest offered us in the gospel. "We who have believed enter that rest" (Hebrews 4:3). God's purpose of leading His people into this rest has existed since creation. The seventh day was merely a reminder of this grand goal of salvation history.

It is significant that the only New Testament commentary on the meaning of the Sabbath is found in Hebrews 4. There is no hint in this passage (or anywhere else in the New Testament) that Sunday is the Christian Sabbath. The gospel gives us Christ, and He alone gives the true rest apart from which no one will be saved. It is not a coincidence that Matthew introduces an account of one of Jesus' Sabbath controversies with His invitation:

"Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." -- Matthew 11:28

The Primeval Sabbath

We should keep the distinction between form and reality in mind when we read about the primeval Sabbath.

By the seventh day God had finished the work He had been doing, so on the seventh day He rested from all His work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He rested from all the work of creating that He had done. -- Genesis 2:2-3

This scripture, along with the Sabbath commandment in Exodus 20:8-11, is the chief weapon in the Sabbatarian's armory. But aside from the mistake of beginning with the Old Testament instead of the New, the Sabbatarian reads more into Genesis 2:2-3 than is warranted. The Puritans, for example, taught that the observance of one day in seven was a creation ordinance and must therefore be a perpetual obligation. Calvin, however, was somewhat wiser Although he also recognized the great antiquity of the Sabbath, he did not call it a creation ordinance. As we will see, there are good reasons for Calvin's reserve .

The institution of the family and the cultural mandate to govern the earth are widely acknowledged to be creation ordinances. These ordinances are specifically commanded in Genesis and are accompanied with specific examples. This, however, cannot be said of the weekly Sabbath. Genesis 2:2-3 does not mention a command or precept requiring man to rest every seventh day of the week.(1) It is true that the Mosaic Sabbath law is patterned after the six days of creation and seventh-day rest mentioned in Genesis 1-2. But those who try to project this law back into Genesis have serious difficulty with the passage which speaks of servants and beasts of burden -- things which did not belong to sinless Eden.

Finally, there is no example in Genesis of anyone who kept the weekly Sabbath. There is therefore no proof in Genesis that the weekly Sabbath was a creation ordinance. Someone might say that this is inferred, but dogmatic assertions require better support than an inference. When we are anxious to prove a point, it is easy to take too much for granted and to press Scripture beyond what it actually says.

Each of the six days of creation are said to have a beginning and an ending:

  1. And there was evening, and there was morning -- the first day. -- Genesis 1:5
  2. And there was evening, and there was morning -- the second day. -- Genesis 1:8
  3. And there was evening, and there was morning -- the third day. -- Genesis 1:13
  4. And there was evening, and there was morning -- the fourth day. -- Genesis 1:19
  5. And there was evening, and there was morning -- the fifth day. -- Genesis 1:23
  6. And there was evening, and there was morning -- the sixth day. -- Genesis 1:31

Why is not the same said about the seventh day? Why is every day said to end except the seventh? The work of creation was absolutely finished on the sixth day (Genesis 2:1). And because God's work was designed to endure forever, might not the rest also have been designed to endure forever?

We suggest, therefore, that the original Sabbath was an open-ended day, and unlike the other days, it was never designed to close. It was the real Sabbath, which lasts forever. Here both God and man could rest, not because either had become weary, but because both could rest in the fellowship of the kingdom of God. The banquet of love was fully prepared. What more could either God or man do but enjoy it forever? Nothing is said about interrupting this festival with six days of toil.

Since this was the original Sabbath, the sin of man was great and bitter -- bitter for God as well as for man. For in his rebellion man marred the creation and abolished the Sabbath. God must now work again to restore that which was lost and to make all things new. Although this too would be God's labor of love, it would bring Him pain and agony and an infinite outlay of Heaven's treasure. But no price was too dear to pay for the object of His love. Thus, Jesus declared, "My Father is always at His work to this very day, and I, too, am working" (John 5:17). In context, Jesus was saying that God did not cease working on the weekly Sabbath, and neither did His Son. Both were working earnestly for man's restoration.

The Sinaitic Sabbath law, enjoining six days of labor and one day of rest, was a teaching device to point man back to God's original creation. Each seventh day, man was to have respite from his "painful toil" (Genesis 3:17) and wearing "labor" (Exodus 20:9). He would thereby enjoy a little taste of the Eden Sabbath and remember from whence he had fallen. But like all the great festivals of the Mosaic calendar, the Sabbath would not only point back to God's first work but forward to God's last work, when He would make all things new. The weekly Sabbath therefore stood as a perpetual witness to the fact that the God who acted in creation and the Exodus (cf. Exodus 20:8-11 with Deuteronomy 5:15) would act again at the end of the ages to restore the everlasting Sabbath. Thus, even Judaism understood hat the weekly Sabbath was "a foretaste already of eternal glory, which will be an unending Sabbath." (2)

That the weekly Sabbath was not the reality but a shadow which pointed forward to the reality is made clear by Paul's statement in Colossians 2:16, 17. Here he includes the weekly Sabbath in things which "are a shadow of the things that there to come." And then he adds, the reality [of the Sabbath], however, is found Christ." He is our rest as well as our peace and righteousness (Matthew 11:28: Ephesians 14).

The New Testament proclaims that in us Christ the real, eternal Sabbath of the age to come has already broken into history. It is offered us in the gospel, just as all other blessings of the last day are offered us the gospel. Paul uses the word "justification" to depict what is offered us in the gospel. John calls it "eternal life." The writer to the Hebrews calls it "a Sabbath-rest for the people of God" (Hebrews 4:9). Paul, John and the writer to the Hebrews were all describing the same reality.

Christ toiled and suffered to accomplish the new creation. But His work of redemption is done. Sin has been put away, the enemy has been defeated, and death has been abolished. It is no coincidence that it was also on the sixth day that the crucified Creator proclaimed, "It is finished" (John 19:30; cf. Genesis 1:31, 2:1). The gospel invites us to enter His rest -- a rest which is as permanent as His work. By the comforts of the gospel and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we begin that Sabbath festival that shall never end. In the life to come we shall experience that rest in its immortal fullness.

In his book, From Sabbath to Sunday, Samuele Bacchiocchi ruins the case for Sabbatarianism when he concedes that Colossians 2:16-17 teaches that the weekly Sabbath was a shadow of gospel realities. (3) Although he acknowledges the distinction between shadow and reality, he argues that the shadow of the weekly Sabbath is still needed to point us to the reality. We applaud him for warning us that this shadow "must never become the substitute for the reality." (4) But Colossians 2:16-17 contains no argument for retaining the shadow now that the reality has come. The writer to the Hebrews uses words almost identical to Colossians 2:16-17:

Colossians 2:16-17: ... a Sabbath day ... a shadow of the things that were to come: the reality, however, is found in Christ.

Hebrews 10:1: The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming -- not the realities themselves.

Bacchiocchi would surely agree that the book of Hebrews gives no encouragement to maintain the Levitical shadow. How then can the words of Colossians 2:16-17 be construed as encouragement to preserve the Sabbatical shadow?

It is impossible to appreciate how Bacchiocchi reaches these conclusions from Paul's Epistle unless one first understands his theology of the Sabbath, presented in the early part of his book. Significantly, this theology is based on the Gospels. Bacchiocchi interprets the Epistles in light of conclusions drawn from the Gospels. Bacchiocchi draws attention to the Sabbatical setting of so many of Christ's works of deliverance and healing (i.e., the demon-possessed man in Luke 4:31-37, Simon's mother-in-law in Luke 4:38-39, the man with the withered hand in Matthew 12:9-13, the crippled woman in Luke 13:10-17, the paralytic in John 5:1-10, the blind man in John 9:1-41, etc.). He correctly indicates that these scriptures demonstrate an intimate relationship between the Sabbath and the liberating power of Jesus. But then Bacchiocchi draws the strangest conclusion from this relationship. Jesus did these works on the Sabbath, he says, to draw attention to "the redemptive function of the Sabbath"(5) and "this liberating function of the Sabbath". (6) "The Sabbath is the time when believers experience God's merciful salvation" (7) "On the Sabbath, Christ intensified his saving ministry", says Bacchiocchi, "so that sinners ... might experience and remember the Sabbath as the day of their salvation." (8) Christ was showing that the Sabbath is "a time to experience God's salvation accomplished through Jesus Christ," (9)

We call this a strange conclusion because Bacchiocchi has Christ pointing away to the greatness of the Sabbath instead of having the Sabbath pointing away from itself to the greatness of Christ. The Jews already, had a high view of the Sabbath In fact they practically deified the day by attributing all kinds of powers to it.

Jesus had no need to call attention to the importance of the Sabbath. If anything, the Jews had already exaggerated its importance. Jesus performed mighty works on the Sabbath to emphasize that He was the reality to which the Sabbath pointed, that in Him God was offering man the true rest of which the day was only a symbol. When Jesus proclaimed that He was the light of the world at the Feast of Tabernacles, was He trying to tell us that the fifteenth day of the seventh sacred month was the time to pass from darkness to light? When He died for our sins on Passover Friday, was He telling us that Easter is the time to experience liberation from our sins? Rather, are not the Gospels telling us that Jesus is the fulfillment and reality of the weekly and yearly festivals?

Bacchiocchi's thesis opens the door to what Calvin calls "'the superstitious observance of days." (10) This is really no different from a superstitious pilgrimage to holy places. If there is "a time to experience God's salvation accomplished through Jesus Christ," it is certainly not just one day of the week, as Bacchiocchi suggests, but it is that day which Paul refers to when he says, "Now is the day of salvation" (2 Corinthians 6:2).

There is no liberating or redeeming power in a day but only in the person and work of Christ. He who is our righteousness, peace, wisdom and life is also our Sabbath. This Sabbath transcends all boundaries of time and space.

Who could object if a person or community should decide to observe a weekly day of rest on which to rehearse God's mighty act in Christ and to celebrate their liberation? But to bind a weekly celebration with arbitrary regulations which shackle the conscience or to ascribe to a weekly day a redemptive significance which belongs to Christ alone is to make a day compete with Jesus Christ.


(1) The first time a weekly Sabbath law appears in the Bible is in the story of the Exodus (Exodus 16, 20). While there was a consciousness of right and wrong from Adam to Moses and possibly some knowledge of a Sabbath, precise regulations did not enter until Moses (Romans 5:13-14. 20; Galatians 3:17-19). The Sabbatarian must presume far too much about the Edenic state. The actual conditions of time and space in the unfallen world are as impossible to accurately imagine as is the life to come. Why try to build a theology on Old Testament shadows when the New Testament gives us God's final word?

(2) Gerhard Friedrich. ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 7:8.

(3) See Samuele Bacchiocchi. From Sabbath to Sunday, pp. 358, 364.

(4) Ibid. p. 364.

(5) Ibid. pp. 29, 73.

(6) Ibid. p. 36.

(7) Ibid. p. 55.

(8) Ibid. p. 73.

(9) Ibid. Bacchiocchi's view of the Sabbath sounds astonishingly like the Roman Catholic view of the sacraments, which contends that grace is mediated through the elements of the bread and wine. Another Seventh-day Adventist scholar, Sakae Kubo. says: "the Sabbath as a memorial of Creation is significant to us only after we see it as a memorial of our 'new creation' ... "the Sabbath for the Christian becomes a sign of what God has done in him ... He celebrates God's creative activity in his life for making him a new creation" (Sakae Kubo, "Man's First Full Day", Ministry, Nov. 1980, p. 17).

This comes suspiciously close to making the Sabbath a distinguishing mark of the Sabbatarian's piety and a memorial of his infused righteousness.

(10) John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, bk. 2, chap. 8, sec. 31.

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