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

Part 2b: The Old and New Covenants in the Book of Hebrews - Continued

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

Is the Sabbath Rest a Daily Rest of Grace?
The fifth reason given by Ratzlaff for negating the literal meaning of "sabbatismos—Sabbathkeeping" in Hebrews 4:9 is his contention that, since "the promise of entering God’s rest is good ‘today,’" the author of Hebrews is not thinking of the seventh day Sabbath rest but of the "‘rest’ of grace" experienced by believers every day.51 "The writer of Hebrews stresses the word ‘today’ on several occasions. In the New Covenant, one can enter into God’s rest ‘today." He does not have to wait until the end of the week. . . . The New Covenant believer is to rejoice into God’s rest continually."52

It amazes me how Ratzlaff can misconstrue the use of "today" to defend his abrogation view of the Sabbath. The function of the adverb "today—semeron" is not to teach a continuous Sabbath rest of grace that replaces literal Sabbathkeeping; it is to show that Sabbathkeeping as an experience of rest in God was not experienced by the Israelites as a people because of their unbelief (Heb 4:6). To prove this fact, the author of Hebrews quotes Psalm 95:7 where God invites the people to respond to Him, saying: "Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts" (Heb. 4:7, cf. Ps. 95:7).

The "today" simply serves to show that the spiritual dimension of the Sabbath as rest in God still remains because God renewed the invitation at the time of David. To argue that "today" means that "New Covenant" Christians observe the Sabbath every day by living in God’s rest is to ignore also the historical context—namely, that the "today" was spoken by God at the time of David. If Ratzlaff’s interpretation of "today" were correct, then already, at the time of David, God had replaced the literal observance of the Sabbath with a spiritual experience of rest in Him. Such an absurd conclusion can be reached only by reading into the text gratuitous assumptions.

Three Levels of Interpretation of the Sabbath Rest in the Old Testament.
To understand better the preceding discussion about the Sabbath rest in Hebrews 3 and 4, it is important to note three levels of meaning attached to the Sabbath rest in the Old Testament and in Jewish literature. In the Old Testament, we find that the Sabbath rest refers first of all to the physical cessation from work on the seventh day (Ex 20:10; 23:12; 31:14; 34:21). Second, the Sabbath rest served to epitomize the national aspiration for a peaceful life in a land at rest (Deut 12:9; 25:19; Is 14:3) where the king would give to the people "rest from all enemies" (2 Sam 7:1; cf. 1 Kings 8:5), and where God would find His "resting place" among His people and especially in His sanctuary at Zion (2 Chron 6:41; 1 Chron 23:25; Ps 132:8, 13, 14; Is 66:1).

The fact that the Sabbath rest as a political aspiration for national peace and prosperity remained largely unfulfilled apparently inspired the third interpretation of the Sabbath rest—namely, the symbol of the Messianic age, often known as the "end of days" or the "world to come." Theodore Friedman notes, for example, that "two of the three passages in which Isaiah refers to the Sabbath are linked by the prophet with the end of days (Is 56:4-7; 58:13, 14; 66:22-24) . . . . It is no mere coincidence that Isaiah employs the words ‘delight’ (oneg) and ‘honor’ (kavod) in his descriptions of both the Sabbath and the end of days

(Is 58:13—‘And you shall call the Sabbath a delight . . . and honor it’; Is 66:11—‘And you shall delight in the glow of its honor’).

The implication is clear. The delight and joy that will mark the end of days is made available here and now by the Sabbath."53

Later rabbinic and apocalyptic literature provide more explicit examples of the Messianic/eschatological interpretation of the Sabbath. For example, the Babylonian Talmud says: "Our Rabbis taught that at the conclusion of the septennate the son of David will come. R. Joseph demurred: But so many Sabbaths have passed, yet has he not come!"54 In the apocalyptic work known as The Book of Adam and Eve (about first century A.D.), the archangel Michael admonishes Seth, saying: "Man of God, mourn not for thy dead more than six days, for on the seventh day is a sign of the resurrection and the rest of the age to come." 55

How did the Sabbath come to be regarded as the symbol of the world to come? Apparently the harsh experiences of the desert wandering, first, and of the exile, later, inspired the people to view the Edenic Sabbath as the paradigm of the future Messianic age. In fact, the Messianic age is characterized by material abundance (Am 9:13-14; Joel 4:19; Is 30:23-25; Jer 31:12), social justice (Is 61:1-9), harmony between persons and animals (Hos 2:20; Is 65:25; 11:6), extraordinary longevity (Is 65:20; Zech 8:4), refulgent light (Is 30:26; Zech 14:6, 7), and the absence of death and sorrow (Is 25:8).

This brief survey indicates that both in the Old Testament and in later Jewish literature, the weekly experience of the Sabbath rest served not only to express the national aspirations for a peaceful life in the land of Canaan (which remained largely unfulfilled), but also to nourish the hope of the future Messianic age which came to be viewed as "wholly sabbath and rest." 56

Three Levels of Interpretation of the Sabbath Rest in Hebrews.
The existence in Old Testament times of three levels of interpretation of the Sabbath rest as a personal, national, and Messianic reality provides the basis for understanding these three meanings in Hebrews 3 and 4. By welding two texts together—namely, Psalm 95:11 and Genesis 2:2—the writer presents three different levels of meaning of the Sabbath rest. At the first level, the Sabbath rest points to God’s creation rest, when "his works were finished from the foundation of the world" (Heb 4:3). This meaning is established by quoting Genesis 2:2.

At the second level, the Sabbath rest symbolizes the promise of entry into the land of Canaan, which the wilderness generation "failed to enter" (Heb 4:6; cf. 3:16-19), but which was realized later when the Israelites under Joshua did enter the land of rest (4:8). At the third and most important level, the Sabbath rest prefigures the rest of redemption which has dawned and is made available to God’s people through Christ.

How does the author establish this last meaning? By drawing a remarkable conclusion from Psalm 95:7, 11 which he quotes several times (Heb 4:3, 5, 7). In Psalm 95, God invites the Israelites to enter into His rest which was denied to the rebellious wilderness generation (Heb 4:7-11). The fact that God should renew "again" the promise of His rest long after the actual entrance into the earthly Canaan—namely, at the time of David by saying "today" (Heb 4:7)—is interpreted by the author of Hebrews to mean two things: first, that God’s Sabbath rest was not exhausted when the Israelites under Joshua found a resting place in the land, but that it still "remains for the people of God" (4:9); and second, that such rest has dawned with the coming of Christ (Heb 4:3, 7).

The phrase "Today, when you hear his voice" (Heb 4:7) has a clear reference to Christ. The readers had heard God’s voice in the "last days" (Heb 1:2) as it spoke through Christ and had received the promise of the Sabbath rest. In the light of the Christ event, then, ceasing from one’s labor on the Sabbath (Heb 4:10) signifies both a present experience of redemption (Heb 4:3) and a hope of future fellowship with God (Heb 4:11). For the author of Hebrews, as Gerhard von Rad correctly points out, "the whole purpose of creation and the whole purpose of redemption are reunited" in the fulfillment of God’s original Sabbath rest.57

The Nature of the Sabbath Rest in Hebrews.
What is the nature of the "Sabbath rest" that is still outstanding for God’s people (Heb 4:9)? Is the writer thinking of a literal or spiritual type of Sabbathkeeping? The answer is both. The author presupposes the literal observance of the Sabbath to which he gives a deeper meaning—namely, a faith response to God. Support for a literal understanding of Sabbathkeeping is provided by the historical usage of the term "sabbatismos—sabbathkeeping" in verse 9 and by the description of Sabbathkeeping as cessation from work given in verse 10: "For whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his."

We noted earlier that sabbatismos is used in both pagan and Christian literature to denote the literal observance of the Sabbath. Consequently, by the use of this term, the writer of Hebrews is simply saying that "a Sabbathkeeping has been left behind for the people of God." The probative value of this text is enhanced by the fact that the writer is not arguing for the permanence of Sabbathkeeping; he takes it for granted.

The literal nature of Sabbathkeeping is indicated also by the following verse which speaks of the cessation from work as representing entering into God’s rest. "For whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his" (Heb 4:10). The majority of commentators interpret the cessation from work of Hebrews 4:10 in a figurative sense as "abstention from servile work," meaning sinful activities. Thus, Christian Sabbathkeeping means not the interruption of daily work on the seventh day, but the abstention from sinful acts at all times. In other words, "New Covenant" believers experience the Sabbath rest not as a physical cessation from work on the seventh day but as a spiritual salvation rest every day. As Ratzlaff puts it, "The New Covenant believer is to rejoice in God’s rest continually."58

To support this view, appeal is made to the reference in Hebrews to "dead works" (Heb 6:1; 9:14). Such a concept, however, cannot be read back into Hebrews 4:10 where a comparison is made between the divine and the human cessation from "works." It is absurd to think that God ceased from "sinful deeds." The point of the analogy is simply that as God ceased on the seventh day from His creation work, so believers are to cease on the same day from their labors. This is a simple statement of the nature of Sabbathkeeping which essentially involves cessation from works.

The Meaning of Sabbathkeeping in Hebrews.
The concern of the author of Hebrews, however, is not merely to encourage his readers to interrupt their secular activities on the Sabbath, but rather to help them understand the deeper significance of the act of resting for God on the Sabbath. The recipients of the book are designated as "Hebrews" presumably because of their tendency to adopt Jewish liturgical customs as a means to gain access to God. This is indicated by the appeal in chapters 7 to 10 to discourage any participation in the Temple’s sacrificial services. Thus, these Hebrew-minded Christians did not need to be reminded of the physical-cessation aspect of Sabbathkeeping. This aspect yields only a negative idea of rest, one which only would have served to encourage existing Judaizing tendencies. What they needed, instead, was to understand the meaning of the act of resting on the Sabbath, especially in the light of the coming of Christ.

This deeper meaning can be seen in the antithesis the author makes between those who failed to enter into God’s rest because of "unbelief—apeitheias" (Heb 4:6, 11), that is, faithlessness which results in disobedience, and those who enter it by "faith—pistei" (Heb 4:2, 3), that is, faithfulness that results in obedience.

Chapter 4 covers more fully the meaning of Sabbathkeeping as a faith response to God in conjunction with the relationship between the Savior and the Sabbath. There we see that Hebrews’ deeper meaning of Sabbathkeeping reflects to a large extent the redemptive understanding of the day we find in the Gospels. Christ’s offer of His "rest" (Matt 11:28) represents the core of the "Sabbath rest" available "today" to God’s people (Heb 4:7, 9).

The act of resting on the Sabbath for the author of Hebrews is not merely a routine ritual (cf."sacrifice"—Matt 12:7) but rather a faith response to God. Such a response entails not the hardening of one’s heart (Heb 4:7) but being receptive to"hear his voice" (Heb 4:7). It means experiencing God’s salvation rest, not by works but by faith—not by doing but by being saved through faith (Heb 4:2, 3, 11). On the Sabbath, as John Calvin aptly expresses it, believers are "to cease from their work to allow God to work in them."59

This expanded interpretation of Sabbathkeeping in the light of the Christ event was apparently designed to wean Christians away from a too materialistic understanding of its observance. To achieve this objective, the author, on the one hand, reassures his readers of the permanence of the blessings contemplated by Sabbathkeeping and, on the other hand, explains that such a blessing can be received only by experiencing the Sabbath as a faith response to God.

It is evident that for the author of Hebrews the Sabbathkeeping that remains for "New Covenant" Christians is not only a physical experience of cessation from work on the seventh day but also a faith response, a yes "today" response to God. Karl Barth puts it eloquently. The act of resting on Sabbath is an act of resignation to our human efforts to achieve salvation in order "to allow the omnipotent grace of God to have the first and last word at every point."60

The preceding study of the Sabbath in its relationship to the New Covenant has shown that there is an organic unity between the Old and New Covenants—a unity which is reflected in the continuity of the Sabbath. Both covenants are part of the everlasting covenant (Heb 13:20), that is, of God’s commitment to save penitent sinners. In both covenants, God invites His people to accept the gracious provision of salvation by living in accordance with the moral principles He has revealed. Christ came not to nullify or modify God’s moral Law but to clarify and reveal its deeper meaning. Christ spent much of His ministry clarifying how the love principle is embodied in the Ten Commandments, in general, and in the Sabbath, in particular.

Of all the commandments, the Sabbath offers us the most concrete opportunity to show our love to God because it invites us to consecrate our time to Him. Time is the essence of our life. The way we use our time is indicative of our priorities. A major reason why the Sabbath has been attacked by many throughout human history is that sinful human nature is self-centered rather than God-centered. Most people want to spend their Sabbath time seeking for personal pleasure or profit rather than for the presence and peace of God.

New Covenant believers who on the Sabbath stop their work to allow God to work in them more fully and freely tangibly show that God really counts in their lives. They make themselves receptive and responsive to the presence, peace, and rest of God. At a time when so-called "New Covenant" theology is deceiving many Christians into believing in the "simpler" and "better" principle of love, the Sabbath challenges us to offer to God not just lip-service, but the service of our total being by consecrating our time and life to Him.

Chapter 3, Part 2a
Chapter 4, Part 1


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

51. Ibid.
52. Ibid., p. 247.
53. Theodore Friedman, "The Sabbath: Anticipation of Redemption," Judaism 16 (1967), p. 445. Friedman notes that "at the end of the Mishnah Tamid (Rosh Hashanah 31a) we read: ‘A Psalm, a song for the Sabbath day—a song for the time-to-come, for the day that is all Sabbath rest in the eternal life.’ The Sabbath, the Gemara asserts, is one-sixtieth of the world to come" (ibid., p. 443).
54. Sanhedrin 97a.
55. The Books of Adam and Eve 51:1,2 in R. H. Charles, ed., The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Oxford,1913), vol 2, p. 153. Cf. Apocalypsis of Mosis 43:3. A similar view is found in Genesis Rabbah 17:5: "There are three antitypes: the antitype of death is sleep, the antitype of prophecy is dream, the antitype of the age to come is the Sabbath." Cf. Genesis Rabbah 44:17.
56. Mishnah Tamid 7:4. The viewing of the Sabbath as the symbol and anticipation of the Messianic age gave to the celebration of the weekly Sabbath a note of gladness and hope for the future. Cf. Genesis Rabbat 17; 44; Baba Berakot 57f. Theodore Friedman shows how certain Sabbath regulations established by the school of Shammai were designed to offer a foretaste of the Messianic age (note 53, pp. 447-452).
57. Gerhard von Rad, "There Remains Still a Rest for the People of God," in The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays (New York, 1965), p. 94-102.
58. Dale Ratzlaff (note 18), p. 247.
59. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1965), vol. 2, p. 337. Karl Barth keenly observes that by resting on the Sabbath after the similitude of God (Heb 4:10), the believer "participates consciously in the salvation provided by him [God]" (Church Dogmatic [Edinburgh, 1961], vol. 3, part 2, p. 50).
60. Karl Barth (note 59), p. 51.

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