A scholarly exposition of Hebrews chapter 4

THE RIGHT AND WRONG INTERPRETATION OF HEBREWS 4


Hebrews 4:3-10 .is the next passage used by Pastor Taylor [Ex-SDA] to support his view
that for New Testament Christians the Sabbath is a spiritual, daily experience of rest in
Christ and not a literal observance of the seventh day. He believes that ￿the author of
Hebrews is saying that those who believe in Jesus are resting in a Sabbath-like rest.
The time to enter that rest is another day called TODAY! Five times in the passage
￿Today￿ is repeated. The Sabbath-like rest that is offered to us in Christ is a ￿Today￿
experience; today and every day as we trust in Christ's righteousness and rest from any
trust in our own works. Here again the New Testament indicates that the Sabbath is a
FULFILLED institution. Here we see that Jesus is our Sabbath-like rest. When we trust
Him by faith, we are experiencing Sabbath-like rest each and every day of our lives!
What a beautiful concept! Jesus is your Sabbath and mine when we trust daily in Him.
My eyes were starting to see another perspective I had never seen before.￿
Pastor Taylor continues arguing that ￿There are some who have tried to make this
text a reason for continued Sabbath keeping, but that ignores the context of the passage.
It also ignores the greater context of the book of Hebrews. The entire book is dedicated to
showing the superiority of Christ to all of the Old Testament system. . . . In chapters 8-10
He is a greater sanctuary/temple, a greater sacrifice, a greater covenant. The entire book
of Hebrews is about Jesus being better than, and the fulfillment of, the entire Old
Testament/covenant system. To try to say, in the middle of this theme, that Sabbath is a
binding day for Christians is to miss not only the context of Chapters 3-4, but the larger
context of the book. The logical point that the author is making is that JESUS IS A
BETTER SABBATH than the old literal one-day-a-week rest, but HE IS OUR REST
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TODAY AND EVERY DAY AS WE TRUST IN HIM! He is the true temple, the true
Passover, the true law, the TRUE SABBATH! As I started to study all of this out, my
heart would just burn within me as I saw the significance of Jesus in this book.￿
It is unfortunate that Pastor Taylor violates again some fundamental rules of
Biblical interpretations by ignoring important textual and contextual indicators of the
passage under consideration. His claim that Hebrews 4 teaches that ￿Sabbath is a
FULFILLED institution￿ that believers experience every day by believing in Christ,
grossly misinterprets what the author teaches about the Sabbath.
Three Meanings of the Sabbath Rest
Had Pastor Taylor taken time to read carefully Hebrews 3 and 4, he would have
noticed that the author presents three different levels of meanings of the Sabbath rest
by welding two texts together, Psalms 95:11 and Genesis 2:2 . At the first level, the
Sabbath rest points to God￿s creation rest, when ￿his works were finished from the
foundation of the world . . . and God rested on the seventh day from all his works￿ (Heb
4:3,4). This is the original physical aspect of the Sabbath rest as cessation from work on
the seventh day (Ex 20:10; 23:12; 31:14; 34:21) in order to commemorate the completion
and perfection of God￿s creation.
At the second level, the physical rest experience of the Sabbath in Hebrews
symbolizes the promise of entry into the land of Canaan￿an experience which was
denied to 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 (Heb 4:8).
To understand the application of the weekly physical Sabbath rest to the political
or national aspiration of a Land of Rest, it is important to note that in OT times the
Sabbath rest served to epitomize the national aspirations 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). Scholars, like Gerhand von Rad, have traced the ￿Sabbath
rest￿ motif in the Old Testament, and have shown how the weekly physical rest
experience, came to symbolize for the Jews the hope for a national rest when they would
enjoy ￿rest from all enemies.￿
At the third and most important level, the Sabbath rest in Hebrews 4 prefigures
the redemption rest which has dawned for God￿s people through Christ￿s coming. The
author establishes the redemptive meaning of the Sabbath rest 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 renewed ￿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, 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); Second, the ultimate fulfillment of the Sabbath rest has dawned with the coming of
Christ (Heb 4:3, 7).
The Sabbath Rest as a Faith Response
Pastor Taylor is correct in noting that 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. The problem with Pastor Taylor is his failure to recognize that Christ￿s
coming fulfills the Sabbath rest, not by replacing the physical rest experience of the
seventh day with a daily spiritual rest experience, but by enabling the believer to
experience the spiritual redemption rest through the physical rest of the seventh day.
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It is through the physical rest that we apprehend and experience the spiritual rest.
This is also true for the Lord￿s Supper and Baptism. It is through the immersion into the
physical water, that the believers conceptualize their death to a sinful life and their
resurrection to a new life in Christ. This is why we do not spiritualize baptism by dry
cleaning people into the church. By the same token, the physical rest of the Sabbath
remains, but in the light of the Christ event, 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).
The ￿Sabbath rest￿ that is still outstanding for God￿s people (Heb 4:9) has both a
physical and spiritual dimension. Hebrews gives a deeper meaning to the literal
observance of the Sabbath￿namely, a faith response to God. This is the deeper
meaning of the Sabbath rest that the ￿Hebrew/Jewish￿ minded readers needed to
understand. Support for a literal understanding of Sabbathkeeping is provided by two
indicators. The first, is the historical usage of the term ￿sabbatismos￿sabbathkeeping￿
used in verse 9 and the second, 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.￿
Literal or Spiritual Sabbathkeeping?
The term sabbatismos is used in both pagan and Christian literature to denote,
not a spiritual ￿a Sabbath-like rest￿ as claimed by Pastor Taylor, but the literal
observance of the Sabbath. This fact is acknowledge even by Prof. Andrew T. Lincoln in
the scholarly symposium FROM SABBATH TO THE LORD￿S DAY, produced by seven
British/American Sundaykeeping scholars. It is surprising that Pastor Taylor cites this
symposium in his ￿Open Letter,￿ but he ignores the following statement by Prof. Lincoln:
￿The use of sabbatismos elsewhere in extant Greek literature gives an indication of its
more exact shade of meaning. It is used in Plutarch, De Superstitione 3 (Moralia166A) of
Sabbath observance. There are also four occurrences in post canonical literature that are
independent of Hebrews 4:9. They are Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 23:3; Epiphanius,
Adversus Haereses 30:2:2; Martyrium Petri et Pauli 1; Apostolic Constitutions 2:36:2. In
each of these places the term denotes the observance or celebration of the Sabbath.
This usage corresponds to the Septuagint usage of the cognate verb sabbatizo (cf. Ex
16:30; Lev 23:32; 26:34f.; 2 Chron 36:21). Thus the writer to the Hebrews is saying that
since the time of Joshua an observance of the Sabbath rest has been outstanding￿ (p.
213).
In spite of his candid admission that sabbatismos denotes the literal observance
of the Sabbath, Prof. Lincoln argues that New Covenant Christians ￿discharge their duty
of Sabbath observance￿ by entering by faith into God￿s rest. He adds: ￿This is
analogous to God￿s ceasing from His works at the creation (cf. also Heb 4:4).￿ This
conclusion can hardly be drawn from the analogy of God￿s rest. 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 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 the
physical cessation from work on the seventh day, and not the spiritual experience of the
redemption rest every day. The probative value of this text is enhanced by the fact that
the writer is not arguing for the permanence of Sabbathkeeping￿he simply takes it for
granted.
The concern of the writer to the 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 appeals in chapters 7 to 10 to discontinue 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
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negative idea of rest, one which only would have served to encourage existing Judaizing
tendencies. What they needed to know, instead, was the deeper meaning of the act of
resting on the Sabbath, especially in the light of the coming of Christ.
The Deeper Meaning of the Sabbath Rest
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 b y
￿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
physical relaxation, 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
puts it in his commentary on Hebrews 4:10, believers are ￿to cease from their work to
allow God to work in them.￿
This expanded interpretation of Sabbathkeeping in the light of the Christ event
was designed, not to terminate the literal observance of the Sabbath as Pastor Taylor
maintains, but to help believers understand the deeper meaning of the act of resting on
the seventh day, namely a faith response, a yes ￿today￿ response to God. Karl Barth
eloquently explains that the act of resting on the 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.￿ The fact that Hebrews 4 reflects the Gospel
understanding of Sabbathkeeping as a time to experience the blessings of salvation,
shows that the Apostolic church understood the Sabbath, not as ￿FULFILLED￿ by Christ,
but as ENHANCED by Christ￿s redemptive accomplishments.
PASTOR TAYLOR￿S INTERPRETATION OF ACTS 15
The next major passage marshaled by Pastor Taylor to defend his termination
view of the Sabbath, is Acts 15, which describes the first Apostolic council convened in
Jerusalem at about A. D. 49 to deliberate on the basic requirements to be fulfilled b y
Gentiles who accepted the Christian faith. The Council was occasioned by the
dissension which arose in Antioch when certain agitators came to the Church there from
Judea, teaching: ￿unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you
cannot be saved: (Acts 15:1). To settle the dispute it was found necessary for Paul and
Barnabas to go to Jerusalem to discuss the problem with the ￿apostles and elders￿ (Acts
15 :3).
At the meeting there was ￿much debate￿ (Acts 15 :7) and discourses were made
by Peter, Paul and Barnabas ￿(vv. 7, 12). At the end James, who appears to have acted
as the presiding officer, proposed that Gentiles who became Christians were to be
exempted from circumcision, but they were to be notified ￿to abstain from the pollutions of
idols and unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood. For from early generations
Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every Sabbath in the
synagogues￿ (vv. 20-21).
Pastor Taylor￿s interpretation of the decision of the Jerusalem Council is incredible.
He argues that the Gentiles were exempted not only from the circumcision, but also from
Sabbath observance, because the two institutions were closely linked together.
Circumcision was the entrance to the Jewish community and the Sabbath ￿was the
continuing sign of allegiance to the Old Covenant.￿ Thus, by exempting the Gentiles from
circumcision, the Jerusalem Council allegedly exempted them also from the Mosaic law in
general and the Sabbath in particular. Pastor Taylor writes: ￿Where there was no entrance
to the Jewish community through circumcision, there was no Sabbath requirement. The
entrance sign came first. The continuing sign was immaterial if the initial sign was not
present.￿
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Pastor Taylor￿s argument that the exemption from circumcision granted to the
Gentiles automatically exempted them also from the observance of the Sabbath, is based
on his gratuitous assumption, namely, that the observance of the Sabbath was
applicable only ￿to the stranger within their gates or their households. It was not
applicable to the stranger who ￿sojourned among them.￿￿ This assumption is discredited
by the Mosaic legislation in Leviticus 17-18 regarding the foreigners. This legislation which
formed the basis of the four requirements of the Apostolic decree.
A careful reading of Leviticus 17-18 indicates that foreigners who dwelt among the
Jews, were exempted from circumcision, but not from the Mosaic law in general. Leviticus
18:26 clearly states: ￿You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and do none of
these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you.￿ The
Sabbath was part of the commandments that foreigners were expected to observe. In
fact, Isaiah reassures ￿the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, . . . every one who
keeps the Sabbath,￿ that they will be accepted and blessed by the Lord, ￿for my house
shall be called a house of prayer for all people￿ (Is 56:7).


The Adoption of the Sabbath Rest in the Roman World
Another important fact ignored by Pastor Taylor is that the Gentiles the Jerusalem
Council had in mind were mostly, if not all, Sabbathkeeping God-fearers who had been
instructed in the Jewish faith (Acts 10:2; 11:19-20; 13:43, 44; 14:1). They did not need to
be taught about the Sabbath commandment. The custom of Sabbathkeeping was
common not only among God-fearers (Jewish sympathizers) but also among Gentiles in
general.
In a well-known passage, Philo writes: ￿There is not a single people to which the
custom of Sabbath observance has not spread.￿ (Against Apion 2,39). Tertullian, an
influential church leader (about A. D. 200) reproaches the pagans for having adopted the
Jewish custom of resting on the Sabbath. He writes: ￿You have selected one day
[Saturday] in preference to other days as the day on which you do not take a bath or you
postpone it until the evening, and on which you devote yourselves to leisure and abstain
from revelry. In so doing you are turning from your own religion to a foreign religion, for the
Sabbath and cena pura [special supper] are Jewish ceremonial observances￿ (Ad
Nationes 1:13).
The Jewish Sabbath became so popular among the Romans that eventually it
influenced them to adopt the seven-day week instead of their own eight-day week
(nundinum). When this adoption took place just before the Christian era, the Romans
made Saturday the first and most important day of the week for resting and banqueting.
This development is discussed in chapter 8 of my dissertation FROM SABBATH TO
SUNDAY. In the light of the popularity of the Sabbath among both the Jews and the
Gentiles, the Jerusalem Council could hardly have exempted the Gentiles from Sabbath
observance without stirring a major controversy.
A fact often ignored, even by scholars, is that Saturday￿Dies Saturni was widely
accepted among the Romans as the day of rest. This helps us to understand why
Sabbathkeeping never became an issue among Gentile Christians. If Saturday had been
a working day in the Roman society, Sabbathkeeping would have been a problem for
both Jewish and Gentile Christians. But there are no indications of such a problem in the
New Testament or in the early Christian literature. The reason is that the Jews influenced
the Romans to accept their Sabbath￿known to the Romans as Dies
Saturni/Saturday￿as the weekly day of rest. Eventually Saturday was replaced b y
Sun-day, when the Sun-god became the most important god of the Roman Pantheon.
This process began in the early part of the second century and culminated in A. D. 321
when Constantine made Sunday a civil holiday.
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The Gentiles Were not Exempted from the Mosaic Law
A careful look at the decree of the council hardly suggests a law-free salvation for the
Gentiles, as claimed by Pastor Taylor. In his book Luke and the People of God Jacob
Jervell perceptively points out: ￿The apostolic decree enjoins Gentiles to keep the law,
and they keep that part of the law required for them to live together with Jews. It is not
lawful to impose upon Gentiles more than Moses himself demanded. It is false to speak
of the Gentiles as free from the law. The church, on the contrary, delivers the law to the
Gentiles as Gentiles. Thus Luke succeeds in showing complete adherence to the law as
well as the salvation of Gentiles as Gentiles￿ (p.144).
Pastor Taylor ignores the issue addressed at the Jerusalem Council was not the
Mosaic law in general, but the circumcision in particular (15:1, 5, 9). The reason
circumcision became such a serious issue in the evangelization of the Gentiles is simply
because it entailed undergoing a surgical operation without anesthesia. This was
undoubtedly a most painful experience for adult male persons which would have
discouraged the acceptance of the Gospel.
By exempting the Gentiles from the painful surgical operation of circumcision, the
Jerusalem council did not granted indiscriminate freedom from the law. This is clearly
indicated by the four precepts of the decree: abstention ￿from pollution of idols and from
unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood￿ (Acts 15: 20). Studies have shown
that the four precepts of the apostolic decree are drawn from Leviticus 17 and 18. In the
light of this fact ￿porneia,￿ translated ￿unchastity,￿ actually refers to unlawful marriages to
close relatives discussed at length in Leviticus 18:6-18. This excessive concern of James
and of the Apostles (Acts 15 :22) to respect the Mosaic laws regarding food, unlawful
marriages, and association with the Gentiles, hardly allows us to imagine that a weightier
matter such as Sabbath observance had been unanimously abrogated.


PASTOR TAYLOR INTERPRETATION OF CHRIST AND THE SABBATH
Pastor Taylor attempts to prove that Christ fulfilled the Sabbath by becoming our
Sabbath rest. Simply stated, he believes that the Sabbath was a ceremonial law which
pointed to Christ￿s redemptive mission. Jesus fulfilled the Sabbath by becoming ￿the
REST PROVIDER and the LORD OF THE SABBATH.￿ New Testament Christians
observe the Sabbath, not by resting physically on the seventh day, but by experiencing
the rest of salvation every day.
Commenting on Christ inaugural address delivered in the synagogue of Nazareth
(Luke 4:16-21), Pastor Taylor writes: ￿Jesus not only claimed to be the Messiah in this
statement, but He called himself the JUBILEE! Jesus called himself the ULTIMATE
SABBATH! He was claiming to be the Messiah and the Sabbath personified. The people
knew exactly what He was claiming! They tried to kill Him for it. Can Jesus be any more
clear about who He is? The Sabbath is a Person!￿
Does Luke 4:16-21 teach us that Christ terminated the observance of the Sabbath
by fulfilling the Messianic typologies of the sabbatical and jubilee years? A careful
reading of this passage in the light the Sabbath healings and teachings of Jesus reveals
otherwise. Let us briefly examine a few passages.
Luke introduces Christ as a habitual Sabbathkeeper (￿as his custom was￿￿4:16)
who delivered His inaugural Nazareth address on a Sabbath day, by reading and
commenting upon a passage drawn mostly from Isaiah 61:1-3 (also 58:6) which says:
￿The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to
the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to
the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of
the Lord￿ (Luke 4:18).
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In this passage Isaiah describes, by means of the imagery of the Sabbath years,
the liberation the Messiah would bring to His people. Christ used this passage to
present Himself to the people as the very fulfillment of their Messianic expectations
nourished by the vision of the Sabbath years. The latter is clearly indicated by Jesus￿
brief exposition of the passage: ￿Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing￿
(4:21).


Christ Fulfillment of the Messianic Typologies of the Sabbath
Pastor Taylor is correct in pointing out that the theme of promise and fulfillment is
recurrent in all the Gospels, including Luke. The risen Christ, according to Luke, explained
to His disciples that His teaching and mission represented the fulfillment of ￿everything
written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms￿ (Luke 24:44; cf.
24:26-27). The question is, How does the Sabbath fit into this theme of promise and
fulfillment? Did Christ fulfill the Messianic typology of the Sabbath by terminating its
function, as Pastor Taylor claims, or by actualizing and enriching its meaning? The
answer is abundantly clear when we study Christ￿s Sabbath pronouncements made in
the context of seven Sabbath healing episodes reported in the Gospels. For the sake of
brevity we will look only at the healing of the crippled woman reported in Luke 13:10-17.
In the brief narrative (Luke 13:10-17) the verb ￿to free￿luein￿ is used by the Lord
three times, thus suggesting intentional rather than accidental usage of the term. The verb
is first used by Christ in addressing the woman, ￿you are freed from your infirmity￿
(13:12). Twice again the verb is used by Christ to respond to the indignation of the ruler
of the synagogue: ￿You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox
or his ass from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a
daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on
the Sabbath day?￿ (13:15-16).
Arguing from a minor to a major case, Christ shows how the Sabbath had been
paradoxically distorted. An ox or an ass could be legitimately untied on the Sabbath for
drinking purposes (possibly because a day without water would result in loss of weight
and consequently in less market value), but a suffering woman could not be released on
such a day from the shackles of her physical and spiritual infirmities.
Christ acted deliberately against prevailing misconceptions, not to terminate the
Sabbath, but to restore the day to God￿s intended purpose. It should be noticed that in
this as well as in all other instances, Christ is not questioning the binding obligations of the
Sabbath commandment, but rather He argues for its true values which had been largely
obscured by the accumulation of traditions and countless regulations.
The imagery of loosing on the Sabbath a victim bound by Satan￿s bonds (Luke
13:16) recalls Christ￿s announcement of His mission ￿to proclaim release to the captives . .
. to set as liberty those who are oppressed￿ (Luke 4:18). Jesus￿ act of freeing a
daughter of Abraham from physical and spiritual bonds on the Sabbath, exemplify how
the liberation of the Messianic Sabbath was being fulfilled (Luke 4:21).
Acts of healing such as that of the Crippled Woman, are not merely acts of love and
compassion but true ￿sabbatical acts￿ which reveal how the Messianic redemption
typified and promised by the Sabbath was being fulfilled through Christ￿s saving ministry.
How did the woman and the people who witnessed Christ￿s saving intervention
come to view the Sabbath? Did they come to view the Sabbath as a ceremonial law
which was being fulfilled by Christ? Hardly so. Luke reports that while Christ￿s
￿adversaries were put to shame . . . the people rejoiced￿ (13:17), and the woman ￿praised
God￿ (13:13). Undoubtedly, for the healed woman and for all the people blessed b y
Christ￿s Sabbath ministry, the day became the memorial of the healing of their bodies and
souls, the exodus from the bonds of Satan into the freedom of the Savior.
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The new and richer meaning of the Sabbath can be seen in the various Sabbath
pericopes reported in the Gospels. It is unfortunate that Pastor Taylor ignores what Jesus
said about the Sabbath. It would have been wiser for him to begin his investigation with
what Jesus has to say about the Sabbath, rather than with three problematic Pauline
passages. Had he done so, he would have been surprised to discover that the Gospels
give more coverage to the Sabbath ministry of Jesus, than to any other aspect of His
ministry. Why? Because the Sabbath was important for NT Christians. They wanted to
know how Jesus kept the Sabbath, so that they could follow His example.
Is the Sabbath Commandment Missing in the New Testament?
Had Pastor Taylor studied the Sabbath teachings of Jesus, he would not have
written the following statement: ￿I was blown away to discover that all of the other nine
commandments are restated as important for Christians in relationship with Christ, except
one, the Sabbath. The Sabbath is NEVER TAUGHT as a moral ought for Christians. Not
once! Instead it is reinterpreted as a daily rest in Jesus as we have seen before.￿
To claim that ￿the Sabbath is NEVER TAUGHT as a moral ought for Christians,￿ is
utterly discredited by all what Jesus said about the Sabbath. The truth of the matter is
that Jesus spent more time clarifying the Sabbath commandment, than any other
commandment. The reason is to be found in the fact that the Sabbath affects our
relationship with God, more that any other commandment. This is why it is the longest
commandment placed in the center of the Decalogue. Let us look at some of Christ￿s
statements.


The Sabbath was Made for Mankind
A fundamental statement of Jesus about the Sabbath is found in Mark 2:27, where
the Savior refutes the charge of Sabbathbreaking leveled against His disciples who were
relieving their hunger by plucking raw ears of grain, by saying: ￿The Sabbath was made
for man, not man for the Sabbath￿ (Mark 2:27).
Pastor Taylor contends that in this text ￿Jesus is not making a universal statement
here. He is basically saying that the Sabbath was made for the man, not the other way
around. The context clearly teaches that Sabbath is not in the category of moral oughts. It
is lumped in with the temporary or ceremonial system. This truth, right from the heart of
Jesus Sabbath teachings, truly opened up to me a new paradigm.￿
Does the fact that the Sabbath was made by God for man￿s benefit, exludes it from
￿the category of moral oughts￿? Are not all the moral principles of the Decalogue
established for our benefit?
Our Lord￿s choice of words is significant. The verb ￿made￿ginomai￿ alludes to the
original ￿making￿ of the Sabbath and the word ￿man￿anthropos￿ suggests its human
function. Thus to establish the human and universal value of the Sabbath, Christ reverts
to its very origin, right after the creation of man. Why? Because for the Lord the law of
the beginning stands supreme.
The importance of God￿s original design is emphasized in another instance when in
reproving the corruption of the institution of marriage, which occurred under the Mosaic
code, Christ reverted to its Edenic origin, saying: ￿From the beginning it was not so￿ (Matt
19:8). Christ then traces both marriage and the Sabbath to their creation origin in order to
clarify their fundamental value and function for mankind.
Christ affirmed that the Sabbath came into being (egeneto) after the creation of man,
not to make him a slave of rules and regulations but to ensure his physical and spiritual
well-being. The welfare of man is not restricted but guaranteed by the proper observance
of the Sabbath. By this memorable affirmation then, Christ does not ￿lumped it [the
Sabbath] with the temporary or ceremonial system,￿ but establishes its permanent
validity by appealing to its original creation when God determined its intended function for
the well-being of mankind.


New Testament Observance of the Sabbath
Pastor Taylor ignores that Christ￿s statements about Sabbathkeeping reflect, not the
termination of the Sabbath, but 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. Was the day to be observed primarily as ￿sacrifice,￿ that
is, as an outward fulfillment of the ceremonial laws about the Sabbath? Or was the
Sabbath to be observed as ￿mercy,￿ that is, as an inward expression of the moral intent
of the Sabbath to show compassion and do good to those in need (Matt 12:7)?
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 Gospel
writers 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 expressed also 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 moral intent of the Sabbath law. Such a broad
interpretation of the function of the Sabbath finds no parallel in rabbinic concessions.
According to Matthew, Christ illustrated the principle of Sabbathkeeping as a time of
benevolent service by adding a second question containing 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 b y
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.
Unfortunately, with the accumulation of restrictions (Mark 7:9), the observance of the
day had been reduced to a legalistic religiosity rather than an opportunity to offer loving
service to the Creator-Redeemer by serving needy fellow beings. The believer who on
the Sabbath experiences the blessing of salvation will automatically be 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).
Endtime Issues No. 78 Page 18 of 21
The new humanitarian value which Christ placed upon the Sabbath is expressed in
Matthew with uncompromising positiveness: ￿So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath￿
(Matt 12:12). Matthew￿s positive understanding of the Sabbath as a day ￿to do good￿
(Matt 12:12) and to show ￿mercy￿ rather than religiosity (Matt 12:7) is fully shared by the
other three Gospels. In both Mark and Luke, Christ is cited as saying the same thing b y
means of a rhetorical question, precisely that on the Sabbath it is lawful ￿to do good￿ and
￿to save￿ (Mark 3:4; Luke 6:9).
In Luke, Christ is reported as saying that the Sabbath is the day to loose human
beings from physical and spiritual bonds (Luke 13:12,16). In John, Christ invites His
followers to share on the Sabbath in the divine redemptive activity (John 9:4; 5:17; 7:22-
23). Had Pastor Taylor taken time to study Christ￿s Sabbath pronouncements, he would
have discovered that the Gospels unanimously present the Sabbath as a time to serve
God especially by rendering a loving service to human needs.
The new Christian understanding of the Sabbath as a time, not of passive idleness,
but of active, loving service to needy souls, represents a radical departure from
contemporary Jewish Sabbathkeeping. This is attested 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 to
do what is good on the Sabbath-days￿how is not this impious?￿ (4:3).
The positive humanitarian understanding of Sabbathkeeping is rooted in Christ￿s
fulfillment of the redemptive typology of the Sabbath, which is presented in the Gospels
in several ways. Viewing the rest and redemption typified by the Old Testament
Sabbath as realized by Christ￿s redemptive mission, New Testament believers regarded
Sabbathkeeping, not as a ceremonial practice abolished by Christ, but as a day to
celebrate and experience the Messianic redemption-rest by showing ￿mercy￿ and doing
￿good￿ to those in need. What this means to us Christians today is that on and through
the Sabbath we celebrate Christ￿s creative and redemptive accomplishments by acting
redemptively toward others.


PASTOR TAYLOR INTERPRETATION OF THE CREATION SABBATH
Pastor Taylor closes his Biblical journey by stating four basic reasons for rejecting
the creation origin of the Sabbath. He wrote: ￿First, there is no evening and morning
mentioned here [Gen 2:2-3]. All the other creation days had the evening and morning
connected to them. Not that this was not a literal day, but there is a continuing aspect of
this day that is implied. God intended that the rest He had established would have a
continuing quality. It would have remained as a daily experience had it not been for the
incursion of sin. Rest would have been a perpetual reality. Second, the word Sabbath is
not mentioned. There is no mention of this being a Sabbath. Third, there was no need for
Adam and Eve to rest yet because they had not worked. Finally, there is no record that
anyone ever kept the Sabbath from that time until God taught the people about it through
the manna episode and of course, Mount Sinai.￿
These four arguments are examined at great length in chapter 2 of my book THE
SABBATH UNDER CROSSFIRE. Interested readers would do well to read this
informative chapter. For the purpose of this response I will make a few basic
observations.
Omission of the Formula ￿Evening and Morning￿
Pastor Taylor￿s first argument that the omission of the formula ￿and there was evening
and morning,￿ implies that the Sabbath was to be ￿a daily experience￿ in a perfect world,
is negated by the fact that God blessed and sanctified the ￿seventh day,￿ not every
previous day. In other words, God promised at creation to make the seventh day a
channel of blessings for His people. Why would God bless and sanctify the seventh
day, if he wanted His people to enjoy the blessings of the Sabbath every day?
Endtime Issues No. 78 Page 19 of 21
The omission of the formula ￿and there was evening and morning, a seventh day￿ in
connection with the seventh day may be due to the fact that the seventh day is not
followed by other creation days. The formula serves to separate each of the first six days
of creation from the following ones. The seventh day, being the last day of creation, did
not need to be separated because there was no ￿eighth day￿ to follow. By marking the
termination of the creation week, the seventh day did not need to be defined in terms of its
termination because there were no further creation days.
Pastor Taylor￿s contention that rest ￿would have remained as a daily experience had
it not been for the incursion of sin,￿ is negated by the fact that the pattern of six days of
work and the seventh for rest were established before the Fall by the example of God
Himself. God did not need six days to create our solar system. He could have spoken it
into existence in a second, since His creation was accomplished by the spoken word (Ps
33:6). But He chose to establish a human week of seven days and to use it Himself in
order to give a divine perspective to our six days of work and to our seventh day of rest.
God￿s willingness to enter into the limitations of human time at creation in order to enable
us to identify with Him is a marvellous revelation of His willingness to enter into human
flesh at the incarnation in order to become Emmanuel, God with us.
Pastor Taylor ignores that the creation week is a human week, established by God
for regulating our human life. To negate the creation origin of the Sabbath means to negate
the creation origin of the seven days week itself, since the two are inextricably connected.
The seventh day Sabbath is the culmination and completion of the creation week. If the
Sabbath is a Jewish institution terminated by Christ, then the same would be true of the
seven days week. The very fact that most people today still regulate their lives in
accordance with the seven days week establish at creation, is a compelling proof that the
Sabbath is part of the human structure of time established at creation.


The Absence of the Term ￿Sabbath￿
The absence of the term ￿Sabbath￿ in Genesis 2:2-3 is interpreted by Pastor
Taylor as an indication that the Sabbath as an institution did not originate at creation but
later at the time of Moses. This is a popular argument used by many to negate the
creation origin of the Sabbath.
It is true that the name ￿Sabbath￿ does not occur in the passage, but the cognate
verbal form shabat (to cease, to stop, to rest) is used. The latter, as noted by Ugo
Cassuto in his Commentary on the Book of Genesis , ￿contains an allusion to the name
￿the Sabbath day￿￿ (p.63). Moreover, as Cassuto sagaciously remarks, the use of the
name seventh day rather than Sabbath may well reflect the writer￿s concern to underline
the perpetual order of the day, independent and free from any association with astrological
￿sabbaths￿ of the heathen nations (p. 68).
It is a known fact that the term shabbatu, which is strikingly similar to the Hebrew
word for Sabbath (shabbat), occurs in the documents of ancient Mesopotamia. The term
apparently designated the fifteenth day of the month, that is, the day of the full moon. By
designating the day by number rather than by name, Genesis seems to emphasize that
God￿s Sabbath day is not like that of heathen nations, connected with the phases of the
moon. Rather, it is the seventh day recurring in perpetual order, independent from any
association with the cycles of heavenly bodies.
By pointing to a perpetual order, the seventh day strengthens the cosmological
message of the creation story￿precisely that God is both Creator and constant controller
of this cosmos. In Exodus, however, where the seventh day is given in the context of the
genesis/origin, not of this cosmos, but of the nation of Israel, the day is explicitly
designated ￿Sabbath,￿ apparently to express its new historical and soteriological function.
Endtime Issues No. 78 Page 20 of 21


Did Adam and Eve Need a Sabbath Rest?
The third argument used by Pastor Taylor to negate the creation origin of the
Sabbath is that ￿there was no need for Adam and Eve to rest yet because they had not
worked.￿ This argument ignore the profound theological significance of the origin of human
life with the Sabbath rest rather than with six days of work. The fact that Adam and Eve
spent their first full day of life, not working, but resting in God￿s presence, tells us that God
created human beings, not to put them to work so that He could rest, but for them to enjoy
sweet fellowship with Him.
In the Babylonian creation epic Enuma elish the god Marduk says: ￿Verily, savageman
I will create. He shall be charged with the service of the gods, that they might be at
ease.￿ What a contrast with the Biblical creation story where God works six days to
prepare a wonderful world for the first human couple to enjoy on the seventh day.
In the opening statement of his sermon ￿The Gift of Rest,￿ delivered nationwide on
November 4, 2001 from the Coral Ridge Hour, Dr. James Kennedy said: ￿God so loved
the human race that He gave us the Sabbath.￿ He continues highlighting the contrast
between the human boss who urges his workers, saying: ￿Work, Lift, Push, Haul￿ and
God who says: ￿Rest my son. Rest my daughter.￿ What a profound theological insight for
Pastor Taylor to consider! The fact that God invited Adam and Eve to spend their first full
day of life resting with Him on the Sabbath, is a marvelous revelation of God￿s love.
It is unfortunate that Dr. Kennedy attempts to make a biblical/historical case for
Sundaykeeping, after speaking so eloquently about the Sabbath. The next newsletter
examines Dr. Kennedy￿s sermon, dealing specifically with his attempts to legitimize
Sunday observance as an Apostolic institution.


No Record of Sabbathkeeping in Genesis
The fourth and perhaps the strongest argument used by Pastor Taylor against
the creation origin of the Sabbath, is the absence of an explicit reference to
Sabbathkeeping after Genesis 2 for the whole patriarchal period up to Exodus 16. He
wrote: ￿there is no record that anyone ever kept the Sabbath from that time until God
taught the people about it through the manna episode and of course, Mount Sinai.￿
The absence of explicit references to Sabbathkeeping between Genesis 2 and
Exodus 16 does not necessarily mean that the principle of Sabbathkeeping was
unknown. It could simply mean that it is taken for granted. A number of reasons support
this explanation.
First, we have a similar example of silence regarding the Sabbath between the
books of Deuteronomy and 2 Kings. Such silence can hardly be interpreted as nonobservance
of the Sabbath since, when the first incidental reference occurs in 2 Kings
4:23, it describes the custom of visiting a prophet on the Sabbath.
Second, Genesis is not a book of laws like Exodus but is rather, a brief sketch of
origins. Since no mention is made of any other commandment, silence regarding the
Sabbath is not exceptional. The fact that God￿s commandments were known is indicated
by what the Lord says about Abraham: ￿Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my
charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws￿ (Gen 26:5).
Third, throughout the book of Genesis and the early chapters of Exodus one finds
circumstantial evidences for the use of the seven-day week which would imply the
existence of the Sabbath as well. The period of seven days is mentioned four times in the
account of the Flood (Gen 7:4, 10; 8:10,12).
Apparently, the ￿week￿ also is used in a technical way to describe the duration of
the nuptial festivities of Jacob (Gen 29:27) as well as the duration of mourning at his
death (Gen 50:10). A similar period was observed by the friends of Job to express their
Endtime Issues No. 78 Page 21 of 21
condolences to the patriarch (Job 2:13). Probably all the mentioned ceremonials were
terminated by the arrival of the Sabbath.
Lastly, the Sabbath is presented in Exodus 16 and 20 as an already existing
institution. Pastor Taylor maintains that ￿God explains the Sabbath concept to the people
of Israel through the manna episode . . . [because] the people were unaware of any
Sabbath up to this time.￿ This conclusion can hardly be drawn from instructions regarding
the gathering of the manna, which presuppose a knowledge of the significance of the
Sabbath: ￿On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as
much as they gather daily￿ (Ex 16:5). The omission of any explanation for gathering a
double portion on the sixth day would be inexplicable if the Israelites had no previous
knowledge of the Sabbath.
Similarly, in Exodus 20, the Sabbath is presupposed as something already
familiar. The commandment does not say ￿Know the Sabbath day￿ but ￿Remember the
Sabbath day￿ (Ex 20:8), thus implying that it was already known. Furthermore, the
commandment presents the Sabbath as rooted in creation (Ex 20:11). This hardly allows
for a late Exodus introduction of the festival.
The foregoing considerations discredit Pastor Taylor￿s attempt to negate the
creation origin of the Sabbath. On each of the first six days of creation God did something
that had lasting results for the human family. The same is true for the seventh day. B y
resting, blessing, and sanctifying the seventh day, God created a day that would
delineate the on-going weekly cycle for human beings, and invites them to fellowship with
Him in a special way on the Sabbath day. God created the natural world by speaking,
then man by moulding him out of dust and vivifying him with His life-giving Spirit, and the
Sabbath by ￿sabbatizing￿ Himself.
By instituting the Sabbath at creation along with the basic components of human
life such as marriage and labor, long before Israel existed, God made the day a permanent
institution for the human family (Mark 2:27). The fact that later the Sabbath became one of
the Ten Commandments does not negate its universality, but rather supports it, since the
other nine commandments are universal principles binding upon the whole human family,
not Israel alone.
Let us pray that the Lord may use this response to lead Pastor Taylor and other
former Adventist pastors who like him have recently rejected the Sabbath, to re-examine
their decisions and rediscover the Sabbath as the day of joyful celebration of God￿s
creative and redemptive work￿the day when we stop our work to allow Christ to work in
us more fully and freely; the day when we experience in a special way the presence,
peace, and rest of Christ in our lives.
by
Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D.
Retired Professor of Theology and Church History
Andrews University
 

 

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