Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University


This is the second installment of the Sabbath/Sunday debate between Dale Ratzlaff, author of THE SABBATH IN CRISIS and myself, author of three major books on the Sabbath, including my doctoral dissertation FROM SABBATH TO SUNDAY, published by the Pontifical Gregorian University. The debate began on June 15 when KJLS, a Christian radio station in St. Louis, MO, invited us to discuss our respective views regarding the Sabbath. We have agreed to continue the debate on the internet before meeting for a public discussion on October 10 at the St. Louis SDA Central Church.

In the first installment I responded to the three basic arguments Ratzaff presents in his book THE SABBATH IN CRISIS to deny the creation origin of the Sabbath and to reduce the Sabbath to a Mosaic institution given exclusively to the Jews and abrogated by Christ together with the rest of the Mosaic laws. Last night in my sleep I was troubled by the fact that in my response I forgot to mention two important New Testament texts that clearly affirm the creation origin of the Sabbath. Thus, before leaving this morning for speaking engagements, I am posting this second installment as a continuation and conclusion of the first part. Ratzlaff informed me last night via email that he is preparing his response which I should receive by the time I return on June 26. At that time I will post it in all the discussion groups to which I subscribe.


I. MARK 2:27

The first New Testament reference that teaches the creation origin of the Sabbath is found in Mark 2:27. In this passage Jesus 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). It is noteworthy that Christ refuted the charge of Sabbathbreaking by referring to the original purpose of the Sabbath which is to ensure physical and spiritual well-being: "The Sabbath was made on account of man and not man on account of the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27).

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.

Ratzlaff rejects this interpretation because he says: "This interpretation runs contrary to the Jewish undeerstanding that the Sabbath was given ONLY to the nation of Israel" (p. 110). This argument ignores two fundamental facts. First, the meaning of a Bible text is not determined by Jewish tradition but by the internal evidence of Scripture. In this case, Scripture clearly attest to the creational origin of the Sabbath, as we have already seen.

Second, Ratzlaff ignore that the Jewish attempt to reduce the Sabbath from a creation ordinance established for mankind to a Mosaic ordinance given exclusively to Israel, was developed by Palestinian rabbis to preserve a Jewish identity, at a time when the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes implemented a program of radical Hellenization of the Jews through the prohibition of sacrifices and Sabbathkeeping (175 B.C.). The result was that many Jews fell away, "sacrificed to the gods and desecrated the Sabbath" (1 Macc. 1:43). Pious Jews resisted passionately against such Hellenization, preferring to be slaughtered rather than desecrating the Sabbath (1 Macc. 2 :32-38).

The need to preserve a Jewish identity at that critical time inspired an exclusivistic and nationalistic view of the Sabbath. Some Rabbis taught that the privilege of Sabbathkeeping was denied to the Gentiles and reserved exclusively to Israel. As stated in the book of Jubilees, "He [God] allowed no other people or peoples to keep the Sabbath pn this day, except Israel only; to it alone he granted to eat and drink and keep the Sab-bath on it" (2 :31).69 If the patriarchs are sometimes mentioned as keeping the Sabbath, this is regarded as an exception "before it [the Sabbath] was given" to Israel.

The notion of the Sabbath as an exclusively Jewish institution, established not at creation for all mankind but by Moses for Israel alone, makes God guilty, to say the least, of favoritism and discriminatory practices. It must be said, however, that such a view represents a late secondary development rather than an original tradition. This is borne out by the fact that even in Palestinian literature there are references to the creation origin of the Sabbath. For example, the Book of Jubilees (about 140-100 B.C.), while on the one hand it says that God allowed "Israel only" to keep the Sab-bath (Jub. 2:31), on the other holds that God "kept Sabbath on the seventh day and hallowed it for all ages, and appointed it as a sign for all His works" (Jub. 2:1).

In Hellenistic (Greek) Jewish literature the Sabbath is un-mistakably viewed as a creation ordinance designed for all people. For example, Philo, the famous Jewish philosopher, not only traces the origin of the Sabbath to creation, but also delights to call it "the birthday of the world." Referring to the creation story, Philo explains: "We are told that the world was made in six days and that on the seventh God ceased from his works and began to contemplate what had been so well created, and therefore he bade those who should live as citizens under this world-order to follow God in this as in other matters." Because the Sabbath exists from creation, Philo emphasizes that it is "the festival not of a single city or country but of the universe, and it alone strictly deserves to be called public, as belonging to all people."

The recognition of the creation origin of the Sabbath is also found in the documents of the early Church. Anyone interested in this question is welcomed to read chapter 1 of my book DIVINE REST FOR HUMAN RESLESSNESS where all the documentation is found.



The second and most explicit reference to the creation Sabbath is found in the book of Hebrews. In the fourth chapter of the book, the author establishes the universal and spiritual nature of the Sabbath rest by welding together two Old Testament texts, namely Genesis 2:2 and Psalm 95:11. Through the former, he traces the origin of the Sabbath rest back to creation when "God rested on the seventh day from all his works" (Heb 4:3; cf. Gen 2:2-3). By the latter (Ps 95:11), he explains that the scope of this divine rest includes the blessings of salvation to be found by entering personally into God's rest" (Heb 4:3, 5, 10).6

Our immediate concern is not to understand the meaning of the rest mentioned in the passage, but rather to note that the author traces its origin back to the time of creation, when "God rested on the seventh day from all his works" (Heb 4:4). The context clearly indicates that the author is thinking of the "works" of creation, since he explains that God's "works were finished from the foundations of the world" (Heb 4:3). The probative value of this statement is heightened by the fact that the author is not arguing for the creation origin of the Sabbath, but rather he takes it for granted to explain God's ultimate purpose for His people. Thus, in Hebrews 4, the creation origin of the Sabbath is not only accepted but is also presented as the basis for understanding God's ultimate purpose for His people.

This fact helps us to appreciate why the writer of Hebress declares the Levitical priesthood and its services "abolished" (10:9), "obsolete" and "ready to vanish away" (8:13), but he explicitly presents the "Sabbath rest" as a divine benefit that still "remains" (4:9).

The verb "remains-apoleipetai," literally means "to be left behind." Literally translated verse 9 reads: "So then a Sabbath rest is left behind for the people of God." The permanence of the Sabbath is also implied in the exhortation to "strive to enter that rest" (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.

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? Verse 10 describes the basic characteristic of Christian Sabbathkeeping, namely, cessation from work: "For whoever enters God's rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his" (4:10).

Historically, the majority of commentators have interpreted the cessation from work of Hebrews 4:10 in a figurative sense, namely as "abstention from servile work," meaning sinful activities.68 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" (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 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.

Further support for a literal understanding of Sabbathkeeping is provided by the historical usage of the term "sabbatismos-sabbath rest" found in Hebrews 4:9. This term occurs only once in the New Testament, but is used several times as a technical term for Sabbathkeeping in post-canonical literature by Plutarch, Justin, Epiphanius, the Apostolic Constitutions and the Martyrdom of Peter and Paul.

Prof. A. T. Lincoln, a contributor to the symposium FROM SABBATH TO THE LORD'S DAY, 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." We would conclude then that both the reference to cessation from work found in v. 10 and the term "sabbatismos-Sabbathkeeping" used in v. 9 make it abundantly clear that the writer is thinking of a literal Sabbath observance.

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 resting on the Sabbath.

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" (4:6, 11)-that is, faithlessness which results in disobedience-and those who enter it by "faith-pistei" (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 (4:7) but the making of oneself available to "hear his voice" (4:7). It means experiencing God's salvation rest not by works but by faith, not by doing but by being saved through faith (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."

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, that is, 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" (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 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" (4:3).



The conclusion that emerges from the two texts briefly considered is that the New Testament agrees with the Old Testament in viewing the Sabbath as a creation institution intended for mankind. Those who, like Razlaff, attempt to reduce the Sabbath to a Mosaic ordinance given to the Jews, deprive themselves and others of the spiritual, physical, and social renewal God intended the Sabbath to provide.

Christian regards

Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D.,
Professor of Theology and Church History, Andrews University