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

Part 2c: The Sabbath and the Savior in the New Testament - Continued

Index | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7

Part 1
The Sabbath and the Savior in the Old Testament
Part 2a
The Sabbath and the Savior in the New Testament
Part 2b
The Sabbath and the Savior in the New Testament - Continued
Part 2c
The Sabbath and the Savior in the New Testament - Continued

Literal or Figurative Sabbathkeeping?
What inference can be legitimately drawn from this passage regarding the actual observance and understanding of the Sabbath among the recipients of Hebrews? The position of the majority of commentators is that this passage provides no indication that these "Hebrew" Christians actually observed the Sabbath or that the author intended to give a Christian interpretation to such an observance. We find this to be the position of Ratzlaff who submits five reasons against a literal interpretation of "sabbatismos-Sabbathkeeping" (Heb 4:9). Since we have already dealt with Ratzlaff's reasons in chapter 3, at this juncture we wish to consider three other basic reasons advanced to support a figurative interpretation of the Sabbath rest in Hebrews.71

First, some argue that since the author of Hebrews discusses not the actual observance of the Sabbath but the permanence and the fulfillment of its rest through the Christ-event, no inference can be drawn regarding its literal observance.

Second, some point out that since "the Sabbath rest that remains for the people of God" (Heb 4:9) is a future realization, the exhortation to enter God's rest (Heb 4:10, 11) has no implication for the present observance of the day.72

Third, some assume that since the author of Hebrews in a number of instances indicates that, with the coming of Christ, certain Old Covenant institutions were made "obsolete" (Heb 8:13; 7:11-9:28), the Sabbath was presumably among those "obsolete" institutions.

None of these arguments are convincing. The first argument fails to recognize that the recipients of the Epistle (whether Gentiles or Jewish-Christians) were so attracted to Jewish liturgy (of which the Sabbath was a fundamental part) that it was unnecessary for the author to discuss or to encourage its actual observance. What those "Hebrew" Christians actually needed, tempted as they were to turn back to Judaism,73 was to understand the meaning of Sabbath observance in the light of Christ's coming.

With regards to the second argument, one can hardly say that in Hebrews the Sabbath rest is viewed primarily as a future benefit, unrelated to the present observance of the day. The Sabbath rest that "remains for the people of God" (Heb 4:9) is presented primarily as a present experience into which those "who have believed are entering" (Heb 4:3).

The verb "are entering" (Heb 4:3) is in the present tense and, in Greek, is placed first in the sentence to stress the present reality of this "rest" experience. The same is true of the verb "remains" (Heb 4:9). If taken out of context, it could imply a future prospect; but in its present context, it refers back to the time of Joshua (Heb 4:8) in order to emphasize the present permanence of the Sabbath rest for God's people.

Obsolete or Remaining?
This leads us to the third argument, which maintains that the Sabbath is an Old Testament shadow or type of the salvation rest which Christ has fulfilled and, consequently, its function terminated with His coming.

Does Hebrews teach that the Sabbath, like the temple and its services, lived out its function with the coming of Christ? Or did the Sabbath acquire fresh meaning and function with His coming? Our study of the Sabbath material of the Gospels shows that Christ fulfilled the typological and eschatological Messianic Sabbath rest and release, not by annulling the actual observance of the day, but by making it a time to experience and share His accomplished salvation.

Let us now look at what Hebrews has to say on this point. There is no question that the author clearly teaches that Christ's coming has brought about "a decisive discontinuity" with the sacrificial system of the Old Covenant. In chapters 7 to 10, the writer of Hebrews explains at great length how Christ's atoning sacrifice and subsequent heavenly ministry have replaced completely the typological ("copy and shadow"-Heb 8 :5) function of the levitical priesthood and its Temple. These services Christ "abolished" (Heb 10:9). Thus they are "obsolete" and "ready to vanish away" (Heb 8:13). But, does the writer of Hebrews place the Sabbath in the same category, viewing it as one of the "obsolete" Old Covenant institutions? This is indeed the conclusion that many have drawn, but it can hardly be supported by a careful study of the passage.

The "sabbatismos-Sabbath rest" is explicitly and emphatically presented, not as being "obsolete" like the Temple and its services, but as being a divine benefit that still "remains" (Heb 4:9). We noted in Chapter 3 that the verb "remains-apoleipetai" is a present passive tense which literally translated means "has been left behind." Thus, literally translated, Hebrews 4:9 reads as follows: "So then a Sabbath-keeping has been left behind for the people of God."

The contrast between the Sabbath and the sanctuary services is obvious. While the latter are "obsolete," the former is "left behind" and, therefore, is still relevant. A similar contrast is found in the Gospel of Matthew. There the rending of the Temple curtain in conjunction with Christ's death (Matt 27:51) indicates the termination of the Temple services. On the other hand, Christ's warning about the possibility that the future flight out of the city might occur on a Sabbath (Matt 24:20) takes for granted the permanence of its observance.

The exhortation given in verse 11 to "strive to enter that rest" provides an additional indication of the permanence of the Sabbath. The fact that one must make an effort "to enter that rest" implies that the "rest" experience of the Sabbath is not exhausted in the present but has a future realization also. This Christian view of the Sabbath rest as representing not only a present but also a future "rest" experience reflects to a large extent what we have already found in the Old Testament and in later Jewish literature. There we noted that the Sabbath was understood not only as a present experience of personal rest and liberation from social injustices but also as the anticipation of the future rest and peace to be realized by the Messiah. Thus, in his own way, the author of Hebrews reaffirms the Old Testament understanding of the Sabbath in a fresh Christian setting- namely, a day to experience the present rest of salvation while looking forward to the future and final rest in the heavenly Canaan.

Literal or Spiritual Sabbathkeeping?
What is the nature of the "Sabbath rest" that is still outstanding for God's people (4:9)? Is the writer thinking of a literal or spiritual type of Sabbathkeeping? The passage provides two important indications that support a literal understanding of Sabbathkeeping as a faith response to God. Since we have already discussed at some length both of these indications in Chapter 3, we only briefly mention them in this context.

The first indication is the usage of the term "sabbatismos-Sabbathkeeping" found in Hebrews 4:9. Though the term occurs only in Hebrews 4:9 in the New Testament, it is used in secular and Christian literature as a technical term for literal Sabbathkeeping.74 Consequently, the usage of "sabbatismos-Sabbathkeeping" in verse 9 makes it abundantly clear that the writer of Hebrews is thinking of a literal Sabbath observance.75

The second indication is the description of the Sabbath rest as cessation from work which is found in verse 10: "For whoever enters God's rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his" (Heb 4:10). Historically, the majority of commentators have interpreted the cessation from work of Hebrews 4:10 in a figurative sense, as "abstention from servile work," meaning sinful activities.76 Thus, Christian Sabbathkeeping means not the interruption of daily work on the seventh day but the abstention from sinful acts at all times.

In support of this view, appeal is made to Hebrews' reference 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 would be absurd to think that God ceased from "sinful deeds." The point of the analogy, as indicated in Chapter 3, 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.
Is the author of Hebrews merely encouraging his readers to interrupt their secular activities on the Sabbath? Considering the concern of the writer to counteract the tendency of his readers to adopt Jewish liturgical customs as a means to gain access to God, he could hardly have emphasized solely the physical "cessation" aspect of Sabbathkeeping. This aspect yields only a negative idea of rest, one which would only serve to encourage existing Judaizing tendencies. Obviously, then, the author attributes a deeper meaning to the act of resting on the Sabbath.

The 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.

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 the making of oneself available 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."77

The Sabbath rest that remains for the people of God (4:9) is not a mere day of idleness, for the author of Hebrews, but rather an opportunity renewed every week to enter God's rest-to free oneself from the cares of work in order to experience freely by faith God's creation and redemption rest. The Sabbath experience of the blessings of salvation is not exhausted in the present, since the author exhorts his readers to "strive to enter that rest" (Heb 4:11). This dimension of the future Sabbath rest shows that Sabbathkeeping in Hebrews expresses the tension between the "already" and the "not yet," between the present experience of salvation and its eschatological consummation in the heavenly Canaan.

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 of Hebrews on the one hand reassures his readers of the permanence of the blessings contemplated by the Sabbath rest and, on the other hand, explains that the nature of these blessings consists in experiencing both a present salvation-rest and the future restoration-rest which God offers to those "who have believed" (Heb 4:3).

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. As Karl Barth eloquently explains it, 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."78 Hebrews' interpretation of the Sabbath rest reflects to a large extent the redemptive understanding of the day we found earlier in the Gospels. Christ's great promise to have come to offer the expected sabbatical "release" (Luke 4:18) and "rest" (Matt 11:28) represents the core of the "Sabbath rest" available "today" to God's people (Heb 4 :7, 9). Similarly, Christ's assurance that He and His Father are "working until now" (John 5:17) to realize the final Sabbath rest is reflected in the exhortation to "strive to enter that rest" (Heb 4:1).

The fact that Hebrews 4 reflects the gospel understanding of the Sabbath as a time to experience the blessings of salvation, which will be fully realized at the end of our earthly pilgrimage, shows that the Sabbath was understood in the Apostolic Church as a time to celebrate God's creative and redemptive love.

5. The Manner of Sabbathkeeping

How did New Testament believers observe the Sabbath in the light of its expanded redemptive meaning derived from Christ's ministry? Initially, most Christians attended Sabbath services at the Jewish synagogue (Acts 13:14, 43, 44; 17:2; 18:4). Gradually, however, Christians established their own places of worship. Matthew suggests that the process of separation had already begun at the time of his writing, because he speaks of Christ entering "their synagogue" (Matt 12:9). The pronoun "their" suggests that the Matthean community as a whole no longer shared in Sabbath services at the Jewish synagogue by the time the Gospel was written. Presumably, they had organized their own meeting places of worship by then.

The distinction in Sabbathkeeping between Christian and Jewish communities soon became not only topological but also theological. The various Sabbath pericopes reported in the Gospels reflect the existence of an ongoing controversy between the Christian congregations and the Jewish synagogues which, in some cases, may have been located across the street from one another. The controversy centered primarily on the manner of Sabbathkeeping in the light of Christ's teachings and example. Was the day to be observed primarily as "sacrifice," that is, as an outward fulfillment of the Sabbath law? Or was the Sabbath to be observed as "mercy," that is, as an occasion to show compassion and do good to those in need? (Matt 12:7).

A Day to Do Good. To defend the Christian understanding of Sabbathkeeping as a day to celebrate Messianic redemption by showing "mercy" and doing "good" to those in need, the Evangelists appeal to the example and teaching of Jesus. For example, in the healing of the crippled woman, Luke contrasts two different concepts of Sabbathkeeping: that of the ruler of the synagogue versus that of Christ. For the ruler, the Sabbath consisted of rules to obey rather than people to love (Luke 13:14). For Christ, the Sabbath was a day to bring physical and spiritual liberation to needy people (Luke 13:12, 16).

Christ challenged the Ruler's misconception by appealing to the accepted customs of watering animals on the Sabbath. If the daily needs of animals could be met on the Sabbath, how much more the needs of "a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years"! Shouldn't she "be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?" (Luke 13:16).

This humanitarian understanding of the Sabbath is also expressed in the episode of the healing of the man with the withered hand, reported by all the three Synoptics (Mark 3:1-6; Matt 12:9-14; Luke 6:6-11). In this instance, Jesus responds to the testing question posed by a deputation of Scribes and Pharisees regarding the legitimacy of healing on the Sabbath by asking a question of principle: "Is it lawful on the sabbath, to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?" (Mark 3:4; Luke 6:9).

It is noteworthy that in both Mark and Luke, Christ substitutes for the verb "to heal" (therapeuein), used in the question, the verbs "to do good" (agathopoiein) and "to save" (sozein). The reason for this change is Christ's concern to include not one type but all kinds of benevolent activities within the intention of the Sabbath commandment. Such a broad interpretation of the function of the Sabbath finds no parallel in rabbinic concessions.

A Day of Benevolent Service.
According to Matthew, Christ illustrated the principle of Sabbathkeeping as a time of benevolent service by adding a second question that contains a concrete example: "What man of you, if he has one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep!" (Matt 12:11-12). Both by the question of principle and by its illustration, Christ reveals the original value of the Sabbath as a day to honor God by showing concern and compassion for others. The believer who on the Sabbath experiences the blessing of salvation automatically is moved "to save" and not "to kill" others.

Christ's accusers, by failing to show concern for the physical and spiritual well-being of others on the Sabbath, revealed their defective understanding and experience of God's Holy Day. Rather than celebrating God's goodness on the Sabbath by being involved in a saving ministry, they engaged in destructive efforts, looking for faults and devising methods to kill Christ (Mark 3:2-6).

The new Christian understanding of the Sabbath as a time of active, loving service to needy souls, rather than of passive idleness, represents a radical departure from contemporary Jewish Sabbathkeeping. This is attested to also in an early document known as the Epistle to Diognetus (dates between A. D. 130-200), where the Jews are charged with "speaking falsely of God" because they claim that "He [God] forbade us [Christians] to do what is good on the Sabbath-day-how is not this impious?"79 This positive humanitarian understanding of Sabbathkeeping is rooted in Christ's fulfillment of the redemptive typology of the Sabbath, which is brought out in the Gospels.

The preceding study of the relationship between the Sabbath and the Savior shows that both in the Old and New Testaments the Sabbath is closely linked to Christ's redemptive mission. In the Old Testament, various themes-such as Sabbath peace and prosperity, the Sabbath rest, the Sabbath liberation, and the sabbatical structure of time- indicate that, in Old Testament times, the weekly and annual Sabbaths served to epitomize and nourish the hope of Messianic redemption.

In the New Testament, the coming of Christ is seen as the actualization, the realization of the redemptive typology of the Sabbath. Through His redemptive mission, Christ offers to believers the expected sabbatical "release" (Luke 4:18) and "rest" (Matt 11:28). In the light of the Cross, the Sabbath memorializes not only God's creative but also His redemptive accomplishments for mankind. Thus, "the Sabbath rest that remains for the people of God" (Heb 4:9) is not only a physical cessation from work to commemorate God's perfect creation, but also a spiritual entering into God's rest (Heb 4:10) made possible through Christ's complete redemption. The physical act of resting becomes the means through which believers experience the spiritual rest. We cease from our daily work on the Sabbath to allow God to work in us more freely and fully.

In the New Testament, the Sabbath is not nullified but clarified and amplified by Christ's teaching and saving ministry. Viewing the rest and redemption typified by the Old Testament Sabbath as realized by Christ's redemptive mission, New Testament believers regarded Sabbathkeeping as a day to celebrate and experience the Messianic redemption-rest by showing "mercy" and doing "good" to those in need. This means that for believers today, the Sabbath is the day to celebrate not only God's creation by resting, but also Christ's redemption by acting mercifully toward others.

In an age when the forces of chaos and disorder increasingly appear to prevail-when injustice, greed, violence, corruption, crime, suffering, and death seem to dominate-God through the Sabbath reassures His people that these destructive forces will not triumph because "there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God" (Heb 4:9). Through the Sabbath, God reassures us that He is in control of this world, working out His ultimate purpose. God tells us that He conquered chaos at creation, that He has liberated His people from the bonds of sin and death through the saving mission of His Son, and that He "is working until now" (John 5 :17) in order to establish a New World where "from sabbath to sabbath all flesh shall come to worship before God" (Is 66:23). In that final Sabbath, as eloquently expressed by Augustine, "we shall rest and see, see and love, love and praise."80

Chapter 4, Part 2b
Chapter 5, Part 1


Notes to Chapter 4, Part 2c
Dies Domini: Pope John Paul II's Pastoral Letter regarding the Sabbath.

71. For a presentation of the three reasons, see A. T. Lincoln (note 68), pp. 212-214.
72. Among the commentators who view the fulfillment of the Sabbath rest as an exclusive future experience are E. Käsemann, O. Michel, H. Windisch, W. Manson, F. F. Bruce, F. Delitzsch, and R. C. H. Lenski.
73. Bruce Metzger rightly remarks: "Many of them felt themselves drawn to Jewish liturgy and were on the point of renouncing Christianity and returning to their ancestral Jewish faith" (The New Testament: Its Background, Growth and Content [Nashville, 1965], p. 249).
74. The term sabbatismos occurs in the following works: Plutarch, De Superstitione 3 (Moralia 1660); Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 23, 3; Epiphanius, Adversus Haereses 30, 2, 2; Apostolic Constitutions 2, 36.
75. Andrew T. Lincoln, a contributor to the scholarly symposium From Sabbath to the Lord's Day acknowledges that in both secular and Christian literature "the term [sabbatismos] 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" (note 68), p. 213.
76. For examples and discussion of the spiritual interpretation of the Sabbath commandment, see W. Rordorf (note 60), pp. 100-108. Franz X. Pettirsch also notes: "The early fathers of the Church applied the law of Sabbath rest only allegorically to absention from sin; a literal application to work was foreign to their thinking" ("A Theology of Sunday Rest," Theology Digest 6 [1958], p. 116). The author explains how during the Middle Ages the formula "servile work" was interpreted in a literal sense as meaning "field work, any heavy work" (p. 117). The spiritual interpretation of the Sabbath rest as "self-renunciation" is advocated also by John Calvin, in Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses, trans. C. W. Bingham (Grand Rapids, 1950), p. 436.
77. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids, 1972), 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 Dogmatics [Edinburgh, 1961], vol. 3, part 2, p. 50).
78. Karl Barth (note 77), p. 51.
79. Epistle to Diognetus 4, 3, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, 1973 reprint), vol. 1, p. 26.
80. Augustine, City of God, XXII, 30, trans. Gerald Walsh, Demetrius B. Zema, Grace Monahan (New York,1958), p. 544.

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