The Sabbath Under Crossfire:
A Biblical Analysis of Recent Sabbath/Sunday Developments

Part 2a: The Old and New Covenants in the Book of Hebrews

Index | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7

Part 1a
A Look at the Old and New Covenants
Part 1b
A Look at the Old and New Covenants - Continued
Part 2a
The Old and New Covenants in the Book of Hebrews
Part 2b
The Old and New Covenants in the Book of Hebrews - Continued


Considerable importance is attached to the book of Hebrews in defining the relationship between the Sabbath and the covenants. Why? First, because Hebrews deals more with the relationship between the Old and New Covenants than any other book of the New Testament; and second, because Hebrews 4:9 clearly speaks of a "Sabbathkeeping that remains for the people of God." If the reference is to a literal Sabbathkeeping, this text would provide a compelling evidence of the observance of the Sabbath in the New Testament church.

The WCG Interpretation of the Sabbath in Hebrews 4:9.
The Worldwide Church of God acknowledges the importance of this text, saying: "If this passage [Heb 4:9] requires Christians to keep the seventh-day Sabbath, it would be the only direct post-resurrection Scriptural command to do so. If it doesn’t, then we have no existing proof-text command specifically written to the New Testament church mandating the keeping of the Sabbath. In view of this, it is extremely important that we understand clearly what the verses in question are telling us."37

There is no question that "it is extremely important" to understand the meaning of Hebrews 4:9 in the context of the author’s discussion of the Old and New Covenants. This is indeed what we intend to do now by examining the text in the light of its immediate and larger contexts. The interpretation given by the WCG to the Sabbath in Hebrews can be summarized in a simple syllogism.

First premise:
Christ made the Old Covenant obsolete.

Second premise:
The Sabbath was part of the Old Covenant.

Therefore, the literal observance of the Sabbath is obsolete.38

The WCG interprets the "Sabbathkeeping–sabbatismos–that remains for the people of God" (Heb 4:9) as a daily experience of spiritual salvation rest, not the keeping of the seventh-day Sabbath. "The spiritual rest of salvation into which God’s people are entering is a sabbatismos–‘a Sabbathkeeping.’ . . . In summary, the verses in question do not exhort us to keep the Old Covenant Sabbath, but they do admonish us to enter the spiritual ‘rest’ of God by having faith in Christ."39 The evaluation of the WCG interpretation of the Sabbath in Hebrews 4:9 is given in the context of the analysis of Ratzlaff’s interpretation, since the two are similar.

Ratzlaff’s Interpretation of Hebrews 4:9.
Like the WCG, Ratzlaff attaches great importance to the teachings of the book of Hebrews regarding the covenants and the Sabbath. His reason is clearly stated: "The contextual teaching of this book deals with the very point of our study: how Christians were to relate to the Old Covenant Law. Therefore, we should accept the following statements as having the highest teaching authority."40

Ratzlaff’s argument is essentially identical to that of the WCG. He argues that the Sabbath was part of the Old Covenant Law which became obsolete and was done away with the coming of Christ. He states his view clearly in commenting on Hebrews 9:1: "Now even the first covenant had regulations of divine worship (Greek word is service) (Heb 9:1). It is unquestionably clear that the Sabbath was one of those regulations of divine worship or service (Lev 23). . . . Let me clarify by reviewing what is said here. First, our author calls the Sinaitic Covenant the ‘first covenant’ (called old in other places). Then he says that it had regulations for divine worship. He goes on to list the things included in this ‘first covenant,’ including ‘the tables of the covenant’—a clear reference to the Ten Commandments. These are the facts of Scripture in their contextual setting. Thus the ‘tables of the covenant,’ which include the Sabbath commandment, and the ‘Laws for divine worship,’ which include the Sabbath, are old and ready to disappear."41

Discontinuity in Hebrews.
Ratzlaff is right in pointing out the discontinuity taught by Hebrews between the Old and New Covenant as far as the Levitical services are concerned. These were brought to an end by Christ’s coming. But he is wrong in applying such a discontinuity to the moral principles of the Ten Commandments, especially the Sabbath.

There is no question that the author of Hebrews emphasizes the discontinuity brought about by the coming of Christ when he says that "if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood" (Heb 7:11), there would have been no need for Christ to come. But because the priests, the sanctuary, and its services were "symbolic" (Heb 9:9; 8:5), they could not in themselves "perfect the conscience of the worshipper" (Heb 9:9). Consequently, it was necessary for Christ to come "once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself" (Heb 9:26). The effect of Christ’s coming, as Ratzlaff notes, is described as "setting aside" (Heb 7:18), making "obsolete" (Heb 8:13), "abolishing" (Heb 10:9) all the Levitical services associated with the sanctuary.

The problem is that Ratzlaff interprets these affirmations as indicating the abrogation of all the Old Testament laws, including the Sabbath. Such an interpretation ignores that the statements in question are found in chapters 7 to 10 which deal with the Levitical, sacrificial regulations. In these chapters, the author uses the terms "Law" (Heb 10:1) and "covenant" (Heb 8:7, 8, 13) specifically with reference to the Levitical priesthood and services. It is in this context—that is, as they relate to the Levitical ministry—that they are declared "abolished" (Heb 10:9). But this declaration can hardly be taken as a blanket statement for the abrogation of the Law, in general.

Walter Kaiser emphasizes this point: "The writer to the Hebrews clearly shows that what he saw as being abrogated from the first covenant were the ceremonies and rituals—the very items that had a built-in warning from God to Moses from the first day they were revealed to him. Had not God warned Moses that what he gave him in Exodus 25-40 and Leviticus 1-27 was according to the ‘pattern’ he had shown him on the mountain (e.g., Ex 25:40)? This meant that the real remained somewhere else (presumably in heaven) while Moses instituted a ‘model,’ ‘shadow,’ or ‘imitation’ of what is real until reality came! The net result cannot be that for the writer of Hebrews, the whole Old Covenant or the whole Torah had been superseded."42

Ratzlaff ignores the fact that the reference to "the tables of the covenant" in Hebrews 9:4 is found in the context of the description of the contents of the ark of the covenant, which included "the tables of the covenant." The latter are mentioned as part of the furniture of the earthly sanctuary whose typological function terminated with Christ’s death on the Cross. However, the fact that the services of the earthly sanctuary terminated at the Cross does not mean, as Ratzlaff claims, that the Ten Commandments also came to an end simply because they were located inside the ark.

Continuity of the Ten Commandments in the New Covenant.
Hebrews teaches us that the earthly sanctuary was superseded by the heavenly sanctuary where Christ "appears in the presence of God on our behalf" (Heb 9:24). When John saw in vision the heavenly Temple, he saw within the Temple "the ark of the covenant" which contains the Ten Commandments (Rev 11:19). Why was John shown the ark of the covenant within the heavenly temple? The answer is simple. The ark of the covenant represents the throne of God that rests on justice (the Ten Commandments) and mercy (the mercy seat).

If Ratzlaff’s argument is correct that the Ten Commandments terminated at the Cross because they were part of the furnishings of the sanctuary, then why was John shown the ark of the covenant which contains the Ten Commandments in the heavenly Temple? Does not the vision of the ark of the covenant in the heavenly sanctuary where Christ ministers on our behalf provide a compelling proof that the principles of the Ten Commandments are still the foundation of God’s government?

It is unfortunate that in his concern to argue for the discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants, Ratzlaff ignores the clear continuity between the two. The continuity is expressed in a variety of ways. There is continuity in the revelation which the same God "spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets" and now "in these last days has spoken to us by a Son" (Heb 1:1-2). There is continuity in the faithfulness and accomplishments of Moses and Christ (Heb 3:2-6).

There is continuity in the redemptive ministry offered typologically in the earthly sanctuary by priests and realistically in the heavenly sanctuary by Christ Himself (Heb 7-10). There is continuity in faith and hope as New Testament believers share in the faith and promises of the Old Testament worthies (Heb 11-12).

More specifically, there is continuity in the "Sabbathkeeping–sabbatismos" which "remains (apoleipetai) for the people of God" (Heb 4:9). The verb "remains—apoleipetai" literally means "has been left behind." Literally translated, verse 9 reads: "So then a Sabbath-keeping has been left behind for the people of God." The permanence of the Sabbath is also implied in the exhortation to "strive to enter that rest" (Heb 4:11). The fact that one must make efforts "to enter that rest" implies that the "rest" experience of the Sabbath also has a future realization and, consequently, cannot have terminated with the coming of Christ.

It is noteworthy that while the author declares the Levitical priesthood and services as "abolished" (Heb 10:9), "obsolete," and "ready to vanish away" (Heb 8:13), he explicitly teaches that a "Sabbathkeeping has been left behind for the people of God" (Heb 4:9).

Ratzlaff’s Objections to Literal Sabbathkeeping.
Ratzlaff rejects the interpretation of "sabbatismos" as literal Sabbathkeeping because it does not fit his "New Covenant" theology. He goes as far as saying that sabbatismos is a special term coined by the author of Hebrews to emphasize the uniqueness of the salvation rest of the New Covenant. "The writer of Hebrews characterizes this rest as a ‘Sabbath rest’ by using a word which is unique to Scripture. I believe he did this to give it special meaning just as we do when we put quotation marks around a word as I have done with the term ‘God’s rest.’ As pointed out above, the author is showing how much better the new covenant is over the old. I believe the truth he is trying to convey is that the ‘Sabbath’ (sabbatismos, Gr) of the New Covenant is better than the Sabbath (sabbaton, Gr) of the Old Covenant."43

The truth of the matter is that the author of Hebrews did not have to invent a new word or use it with a unique meaning because the term sabbatismos already existed and was used both by pagans and Christians as a technical term for Sabbathkeeping. Examples can be found in the writings of Plutarch, Justin, Epiphanius, the Apostolic Constitutions, and the Martyrdom of Peter and Paul.44 The one who is inventing a new meaning for sabbatismos is not the author of Hebrews but Dale Ratzlaff himself, in order to support his unbiblical "New Covenant" theology.

Professor Andrew Lincoln, one of the contributors to the scholarly symposium From Sabbath to the Lord’s Day, a major source used by Ratzlaff, acknowledges that in each of the above instances "the term denotes the observance or celebration of the Sabbath. This usage corresponds to the Septuagint usage of the cognate verb sabbatizo (cf. Ex 16:23; Lev 23:32; 26:34f.; 2 Chron 36:21) which also has reference to Sabbath observance. Thus the writer to the Hebrews is saying that since the time of Joshua an observance of Sabbath rest has been outstanding."45

Lincoln is not a Sabbatarian but a Sundaykeeping scholar who deals in a responsible way with the linguistic usage of sabbatismos. Unfortunately, he chooses to interpret spiritually the ceasing from one’s works on the Sabbath (Heb 4:10) as referring to the spiritual cessation from sin rather than to the physical cessation from work.46 This interpretation, as we see below, is discredited by the comparison the author of Hebrews makes between the divine and human cessation from "works."

Ratzlaff’s Five Reasons Against literal Sabbath- keeping.
Ratzlaff submits five reasons to support his contention that sabbatismos "cannot be the seventh-day Sabbath of the fourth commandment."47 The first and second reasons are essentially the same. Ratzlaff argues that since Hebrews states that the Israelites at the time of Joshua and, later, the time of David "did not enter the rest of God," though they were observing the Sabbath, then, the sabbatismos has nothing to do with literal Sabbathkeeping.48

This conclusion ignores the three levels of meaning that the author of Hebrews attaches to the Sabbath rest as representing (1) the physical rest of the seventh day, (2) the national rest in the land of Canaan, and (3) the spiritual (messianic) rest in God. The argument of Hebrews is that though the Israelites did enter into the land of rest under Joshua (Heb 4:8), because of unbelief they did not experience the spiritual dimension of Sabbathkeeping as an invitation to enter God’s rest (Heb 4:2, 6). This was true even after the occupation of the land because, at the time of David, God renewed the invitation to enter into His rest (Heb 4:7). The fact that the spiritual dimension of the Sabbath rest was not experienced by the Israelites as a people indicates to the author that "a sabbatismos—sabbathkeeping has been left behind for the people of God" (Heb 4:9). It is evident that a proper understanding of the passage indicates that the sabbatismos—sabbathkeeping that remains is a literal observance of the day which entails a spiritual experience. The physical act of rest represents a faith response to God.

The third reason given by Ratzlaff is his assumption that "the concept of ‘believing’ is never associated with keeping the seventh-day Sabbath in the old covenant."49 This assumption is negated by the fact that Sabbath is given as the sign "that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you" (Ex 31:13). Is it possible for anyone to experience God’s sanctifying presence and power on the Sabbath without a "belief" or "faith response" to God? Furthermore, does not the prophet Isaiah summon the people to honor the Sabbath by "taking delight in the Lord" (Is 58:14)? Can one delight in the Lord on the Sabbath without believing in Him?

The fourth reason advanced by Ratzlaff relates to the verb "has rested" in Hebrews 4:10 which is past tense (aorist tense in Greek). To him the past tense indicates "that the believer who rests from his works did so at one point in time in the past."50 In other words the past tense "has rested" suggests not a weekly cessation from work on the Sabbath but a rest of grace already accomplished or experienced in the past.

This interpretation ignores two important points. First, the verb "has rested–katepausen" is past simply because it depends upon the previous verb "eiselthon—he that entered," which is also past. The Greek construction (aorist participle) makes it clear that some have already entered into God’s rest. It is evident that he who "entered" into God’s rest in the past has also "rested from his works" in the past.

Second, the text makes a simple comparison between the divine and the human cessation from "works." In the RSV the text reads: "For whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his" (Heb 4:10). The point of the analogy is simply that as God ceased from His work on the seventh day in order to rest, so believers who cease from their work on the Sabbath enter into God’s rest. If the verb "has rested" referred to the "rest of grace," as Ratzlaff claims, then by virtue of the analogy God also has experienced "the rest of grace," an obvious absurdity. All of this shows that the analogy contains a simple statement of the nature of Sabbathkeeping which essentially involves cessation from work in order to enter God’s rest by allowing Him to work in us more fully and freely.

The reason both verbs "entered—eiselthon" and "rested—katepausen" are past tense (aorist) may be because the author wishes to emphasize that the Sabbathkeeping that has been left behind for the people of God has both a past and present dimension. In the past, it has been experienced by those who have entered into God’s rest by resting from their work (Heb 4:10). In the present, we must "strive to enter that rest" (Heb 4:11) by being obedient. Both the RSV and the NIV render the two verbs in the present ("enters — ceases") because the context underlines the present and timeless quality of the Sabbath rest (Heb 4:1, 3, 6, 9, 11).

Chapter 3, Part 1b
Chapter 3, Part 2b


Notes to Chapter 3, Part 2a
Dies Domini: Pope John Paul II's Pastoral Letter regarding the Sabbath.

37. "Does Hebews 4:9 Command Us to Keep the Sabbath?" A Bible study prepared by the Worldwide Church of God and posted on their Web page ( – September, 1998), p. 1.
38. "The New Covenant and the Sabbath," a Bible study prepared by the Worldwide Church of God and posted on their Web page ( – September, 1998), pp. 9-10.
39. "Does Hebrews 4:9 Command Us to Keep the Sabbath?" (note 37), pp.8-9.
40. Dale Ratzlaff (note 18), p. 197.
41. Ibid., p. 198.
42. Walter C. Kaiser (note 31), p. 186.
43. Dale Ratzlaff (note 18), p. 246.
44. Plutarch, De Superstitione 3 (Moralia 1660); Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 23, 3; Epiphanius, Adversus Haereses 30, 2, 2; Apostolic Constitutions 2, 36.
45. Andrew T. Lincoln, "Sabbath, Rest, and Eschatology in the New Testament," in From Sabbath to the Lord’s Day, ed. Donald A. Carson (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1982), p. 213.
46. Ibid.
47. Dale Ratzlaff (note 18), p. 243.
48. Ibid., pp. 243-244.
49. Ibid., p. 244.
50. Ibid.

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Written by: Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University