Where the world comes to study the Bible

The Sabbath in Apostolic Preaching and Practice

Introduction

When I was growing up my parents owned and operated a small summer resort. Occasionally, there were Christian friends who came to visit and stay with us, and one friend in particular was a minister. When he and his family came and stayed over on a Sunday, I can still remember being puzzled at the fact that his children, who were my age, were restricted from doing many of the “fun” things which were permissible the rest of the week. The motive of this man was undoubtedly pure, but as a child, it still did not make sense to me. I hoped that his conception of the Sabbath was not God’s conception of heaven.

In the light of my study of the Sabbath I find that my childish quandary about our friends and their Sabbath observance was not as childish as I first thought. One of the common misconceptions currently held among Christians is that our observance of Sunday as the “Lord’s day” is the Christian Sabbath, the Sabbath day of the Old Testament saint, revised and tailored to meet the need for Christian worship. A careful study of the Sabbath in the teaching and practice of the apostolic, New Testament, church will prove otherwise. Our final study of the Sabbath will not only reveal what the Sabbath is not, but what it is and how we should understand and apply the Old Testament Sabbath today.

In our first two lessons on the Sabbath we have studied its institution in the Old Testament and its interpretation in the teaching and practice of our Lord. We found that the Sabbath has its roots in Genesis chapter 2, on the seventh day of creation when God rested, after completing His work of creation. The Book of Exodus builds on this foundation, first commanding a Sabbath rest in regard to harvesting the manna in the wilderness (chapter 16), then instituting the Sabbath as the Fourth Commandment, given by God from Mt. Sinai (chapter 20). Finally, the keeping of the Sabbath is declared to be the sign of the Mosaic Covenant, with the death penalty declared for any violators of this commandment (chapter 31).

The nature of the Sabbath rest is outlined in more detail throughout the rest of the Pentateuch. Rest is extended to the days when Israel will possess the land. Even the land is to have its rest every seventh year. The Israelites’ cattle and their slaves are also exempted from labor on the Sabbath. Not only was there further clarification as to the kinds of work prohibited, and the workers exempted, there was also greater detail provided as to worship which should be conducted on the Sabbath. The prophets sought to promote the observance of the Sabbath in the spirit of the Law, not just in the letter, promising blessings to those who kept the Sabbath and warning of the captivity which would result from continued disregard of it.

Our Lord’s interpretation of the Sabbath is given great emphasis in the gospels, thanks to the controversy precipitated by the scribes and Pharisees. The real issue was not what Jesus did, or even what He taught pertaining to the Sabbath, but Who He claimed to be in relationship to the Sabbath. In Luke chapter 4, verses 16-21, Jesus read from the Book of Isaiah, chapter 61. The passage initially seems to have no reference to the Sabbath, but some of the terms of this passage are linked to the Old Testament passages on the year of Jubilee, as sabbatical celebration.

In Matthew chapter 11, verses 25-30 our Lord offered men “rest” in Him, an obvious “Sabbath” illusion, with the added claim to be the source of the rest. These verses immediately precede the “Sabbath controversy” of chapter 12. In chapter 12 Jesus boldly identified Himself with God, and indeed, as God, by claiming to be greater than David, greater than the priests, and greater than the temple. He claimed to be the Lord of the Sabbath,5 thus having the authority not only to interpret the Sabbath Law, but even to set it aside altogether. Although our Lord never violated the Torah with regard to the Sabbath, He implied that He would bring about a significant change in this matter.

The final outworkings of our Lord’s coming with regard to the Sabbath were only hinted at in the gospels, due to the fact that our Lord’s work of redemption was still future. The full and final meaning of the Sabbath could only be understood in the light of His cross. Thus, it is the apostles who are privileged to give the final word on the Sabbath. They are the “court of last resort,” whose verdict on the Sabbath we must accept and apply.

The purpose of this lesson is to pursue the meaning of the Sabbath for the New Testament saint. We will attempt to do this by looking first at the practice of the apostles, and of the New Testament churches, as seen primarily in the Book of Acts, but also in some of the epistles. We will then consider the teaching of the apostles regarding the Sabbath. Finally, we will focus on the apostolic teaching of the Sabbath as it applies to the lives of New Testament saints, as it applies to you and me. I believe that we may find new and surprising insights here. We will, once again, gain further insight into the way in which we should interpret and apply the Old Testament to our lives as well. Let us seek to study the Sabbath with open hearts and minds to the truth of God, and to determine to apply what the Spirit of God convinces us is truth.

The Sabbath and the
Practice of the New Testament Church

There is a sparsity of information on the Sabbath practices of saints in the New Testament. Our first surprise comes here, at the sparsity of emphasis or information on the practice of the church with regard to the Sabbath. This lack of detail provided in the biblical text has led to a wide range of interpretations, mostly all inferential. In and of itself, this vagueness is informative. Surely, since the Old Testament went into great detail about the Sabbath and its observance, and since the New is surprisingly silent, the issue must not be all that important. Sabbath keeping should have been given more emphasis if it were a crucial matter for the New Testament saint.

This sparsity of information also signals us to the fact that the issue of keeping the Sabbath must not have been a major controversy in the church, even between Jewish and Gentile Christians, as was, for example, the controversies over circumcision or abstinence from certain foods:

Eight times we hear in Acts of what happened on the seventh day Sabbath, but only once of the day that supposedly eclipsed it in importance, and that single reference concerns a church outside Palestine and tells us virtually nothing about the day. Luke’s description of the church at Jerusalem speaks of the apostles’ teaching, the Lord’s Supper, fellowship of goods, temple worship, the growth of the church in numbers, the miracles that were worked, the praying that was done, and even of the joy that was experienced (2:42-47), but in all this there is not the barest hint of the inauguration of observance of Sunday! If we are to believe Beckwith [that the Old Testament Sabbath was converted to Sunday worship in the New Testament], the most distinctive and highly controversial feature of the earliest church’s practice has simply been totally ignored.6

A variety of practices related to the Sabbath are described in the New Testament. When the New Testament does inform us of the way in which people conducted themselves regarding the Sabbath, we find a variety of responses.

(1) At least initially, the Jewish Christians continued to worship in the temple and in their synagogues, as they had always done (cf. Acts 3:1).7 It may well be that as time went on the Jewish Christians attended the temple or the synagogue on the Sabbath in order to evangelize their unsaved Jewish brethren. This was surely the case with Paul in many instances.

(2) The Gentile proselytes, the “God-fearers,” who continued to worship on the Sabbath must have done so out of habit, more than out of a sense of necessity (as opposed to worshipping on Sunday).8

(3) While the evidence is sparse, it would seem that the Gentile Christians worshipped on Sunday, and not on the Sabbath (cf. Acts 20:7-12; 1 Corinthians 16:2; Revelation 1:10).

(4) In the post-apostolic period of the church (second century) there was little emphasis on Sabbath keeping. This is significant in the light of the emphasis at that period of time on the importance of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, of which the Fourth Commandment was a part, and, indeed, the covenant of which Sabbath keeping was the sign.9

All of this indicates to us that there was no uniform, clearly established practice of observing Sabbath worship in the New Testament. While many Jews did so freely, they did not have to do so compulsorily. Thus, it would seem as though Paul could change his pattern (timing) of worship as a matter of expediency:

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without Law, as without Law, though not being without the Law of God but under the Law of Christ, that I might win those who are without Law (1 Corinthians 9:19-21).10

The Sabbath and
the Teaching of the Apostles

There were several factors which precipitated the need for teaching on the relationship of the New Testament saint to the Law in general and to the Sabbath commandment in particular.

First, the death of Christ brought about a radical departure from Judaism, which had to be clarified. Paul’s experience illustrates this. As an unbeliever, Paul was considered “blameless under the Law,” and yet he was hopelessly lost, his righteousness was a good as dung, and he was a persecutor of Christ (Philippians 3:1-7).

Second, the offer of the gospel to the Gentiles and the large influx of Gentile Christians precipitated serious problems which required an apostolic solution. Peter’s vision and his consequent commission to preach to those gathered at the house of Cornelius (Acts 10) resulted in his being “called on the carpet” to explain his actions (Acts 11). Even when the Jewish Christians agreed that “God had granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18), they were still reluctant to act on this truth (cf. Acts 11:19).

Third, false teachers came along who sought to distort the gospel and to deceive the saints. Since their heresies often were related to the Old Testament Law, apostolic teaching was necessary. We will briefly survey how these three factors and others led to apostolic clarification and instruction which relates to the Sabbath.

(1) The immaturity of the infant Jewish church necessitated apostolic clarification on the role the Old Testament Law was to play in the lives of the New Testament saint. An excellent illustration of this problem can be seen in the matter of the Old Testament food laws, which declared certain foods unclean (cf. Leviticus 11; Deuteronomy 14). Judaism had interpreted and extended these laws in such a way as to prohibit a Jew from eating with a Gentile. In His teaching, our Lord had already paved the way for setting aside these laws: “And He said to them, ‘Are you too so uncomprehending? Do you not see that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him; because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?’ (Thus He declared all foods clean.)” (Mark 7:18-19).

The implications of this change were not readily seen, even by the disciples of our Lord, and the application of this change was not easy either. Thus we read in the 10th chapter of Acts that it took a vision from God to convince Peter than he should go to the house of a Gentile and preach the gospel. And when word reached the Jewish church leaders in Jerusalem, Peter had to convince them that he had done the right thing. Even when they agreed that God was doing a new thing, the Jewish Christians were not quick to act on this new truth (cf. Acts 11:17-19). Later on, Peter, under pressure from his Jewish brethren, buckled under pressure and withdrew from eating with the Gentile Christians (Galatians 2:11-21).

The setting aside of the Old Testament food laws was but a preview of other questions related to the application of the Old Testament Law to New Testament Christians. Only as time passed did the apostles come to understand the change which occurred as a result of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. The Old Testament Law was given to the Israelites, in order to distinguish this nation from all other nations (cf. Exodus 19:4-6). The Law thus placed barriers between the people of God and the other nations. With the coming of Christ and the new covenant, God broke down the barriers between Israel and the Gentiles, making one people, one church. Thus, those laws which separated Jew from Gentile had to be put aside:

Therefore remember, that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity (Ephesians 2:11-16; cf. Colossians 3:11).

The Law, which forbade (or a least restricted) fellowship with the Gentiles had to be set aside, for with the new covenant came a whole new dispensation, a whole new order, one which tore down distinctions and barriers between Israel and the nations and which united all saints into one body—the church. Since it was not Judaism that saved men, Gentiles did not have to become Jewish proselytes, nor did they need to keep the Law. They did, however, have to make certain concessions for the sake of unity and harmony with their Jewish brethren. The Jerusalem Council outlined these concessions (Acts 15).

(2) Whether or not one kept the Sabbath became an issue which created tensions between the strong and the weak. As time went one, more and more Gentiles were converted. The fact that there were Jewish Christians who continued to observe the Law11 and Gentile Christians who did not created certain problems.12 The stronger Christians were those who understood and exercised their Christian liberties, while other weaker Christians were not so inclined. Some of the “strong/weak” issues related to the Old Testament Law, and thus the dividing line was drawn between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Paul found it necessary, on a couple of occasions, to lay down guidelines of conduct for the “strong” and the “weak,” so that harmony, unity, and fellowship could be insured (cf. Romans 14 and 15; 1 Corinthians 8-10). The bottom line of these guidelines was that no man should defile himself by doing what he doubted to be right, that the strong and the weak should both act on personal convictions, and not seek to impose these on others. The strong should always refrain from the exercise of a liberty which might cause a weaker brother to stumble.

In the Book of Romans the observance of days was one of the “strong/weak” issues Paul specifically addressed:

One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God (Romans 14:5-6).13

Thus in the context of the stronger and the weaker brothers, and in the realm of personal convictions, each is free to observe a certain day as he sees fit before God. Surely, as this regards the keeping of the Sabbath day, there is neither the necessity to observe the Sabbath, nor condemnation for doing so. It is a matter of liberty.

(3) False teaching arose, blending Hellenistic philosophy, speculation, and the Jewish laws. In the Gentile churches mentioned in the New Testament, there was a form of false teaching which had a Jewish flavor, but was a blending of Hellenistic philosophy and Old Testament Law. Thus we read warnings like this: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).14

Initially, this warning seems to have nothing to do with Judaism, but this observation would be inaccurate, for several reasons. In the first place, the expression “elementary principles of the world” is used elsewhere with reference to the Old Testament Law (cf. v. 20; Galatians 4:9). Furthermore, the broader context of the second chapter of Colossians is clearly dealing with the Old Testament Law. The circumcision mentioned in verse 11 is in contrast with the physical circumcision of the Old Testament. Verses 14 and 20-23 deal with the Old Testament Law or perversions of it. Thus, a kind of blend of error is addressed in this chapter, some of which is derived from the Old Testament and distorted by philosophy, speculation, and asceticism.

Paul’s “Pastoral Epistles” abound with references to this kind of error and its dangers:

As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus, in order that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith. … For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions (1 Timothy 1:3-4, 6-7).

For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach, for the sake of sordid gain (Titus 1:10-11; cf. also 1 Timothy 4:1-3, 6; 6:3-5, 20-21; 2 Timothy 2:14-18, 23-26; 4:3-4; Titus 3:9-11).

The warnings against the teachings of such men are numerous, but included are instructions directly involving Sabbath observance: “Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day” (Colossians 2:16).

This instruction implies that observing the Sabbath (or other Jewish holy days) would not be wrong. This is a matter of Christian liberty. What is forbidden is not the observance (or non-observance) of the Sabbath, but allowing another (principally the false teachers or one of their followers) to stand as our judge in the keeping of this day. Since the observance of the Sabbath is a matter of freedom, no one should dare to be a judge of another in this matter. Here, no one should allow another to become his judge in this matter. Freedom in this area is thus insured, and the authority of the false teachers is cut out from under them.

(4) The heresy of the Judaizers. During the days of our Lord’s earthly ministry the scribes and Pharisees vehemently resisted the Lord Jesus Christ for what He taught, but mainly for what He claimed. Righteousness according to the scribes and Pharisees was a works righteousness, attained by Law-keeping. The conflict between Jesus and these legalists led to the cross of Calvary. After Christ’s resurrection and ascension the Jews persisted at resisting grace. Unbelieving Jews resented the worship of “fulfilled Jews” in their temple and synagogues. They followed Paul about, seeking to thwart his teaching and even to kill him. Some of these legalists were converted, or at least professed to be saved, and entered the church, attacking it from the inside, seeking to make Law-keeping the means for attaining righteousness. This is the heresy which Paul countered in the Book of Galatians. Paul viewed this teaching as heresy, as a “different gospel” (Galatians 1:6), pronouncing a curse on any who would teach thus (1:8, 9). The essence of this teaching was that a Gentile could only be saved by converting to Judaism (as signified by circumcision) and by the keeping of the Old Testament Law. A part of this Law-keeping would be the observance of the Sabbath: “You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain” (Galatians 4:10-11).

The Judaizers insisted that salvation in Christ could only be attained by conversion to the Old Testament doctrines and practices of Judaism. Of course this involved the keeping of the ceremonial days of worship. It was one thing for men like Paul to observe the Jewish rituals and religious holy days (cf. Acts 18:18; 20:16; 21:17-26), for Paul viewed them in terms of their fulfillment in Christ. The legalists, however, saw them as something which the Law required in addition to the work of Christ (cf. Galatians 3:1-3). Thus, to practice the Law with this mindset was to forsake Christ and to fall from grace (Galatians 5:1-4). It is no wonder that the “observance of day” was so strongly attacked by Paul in the context of this heresy.

In the teaching of the apostles, the observance of much of the Old Testament Law was a matter of personal choice, of Christian liberty. No one should feel guilty about continuing most of their observances, for this was the common practice of Paul and the other (Jewish) apostles. On the other hand, no one needed to do so as a requirement of the Law, or as something imposed on them by others (who thus served as their judges in the matter). When such practice was related to “strong” or “weak” Christians, Christian love should prevail. When Law-keeping was a necessity for salvation and sanctification, it was heresy which had to be avoided at all cost.

Is Sunday, the Lord’s Day, a New Testament Sabbath?

It would seem, then, that both according to apostolic practice and preaching, the keeping of the Sabbath was purely a matter of preference and personal choice. Some, however, have insisted that the “Lord’s Day” of the New Testament (Revelation 1:10), along with the church meeting on the “first day of the week” (cf. Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2), are the New Testament “Sabbath,” which Christians are obligated to observe.15 This conclusion is one which contradicts too much evidence. Because this view is so commonly held today among Christians, I will take a moment to defend my conclusion that this view is incorrect.

(1) Our Lord strongly implied in His teaching that there was to be a dramatic change with regard to the observance of the Sabbath as a result of His coming. Our Lord not only vindicated Himself with regard to His practice on the Sabbath, but suggested a decisive change was at hand. He was the One who was working because His Father was at work (John 5:17). He was the One who was greater than David, greater than the priests, greater than the temple—the Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8). As Lord of the Sabbath, our Lord could not only technically violate the Sabbath, He could change it altogether. To merely transform Sabbath worship to Sunday worship would not do justice to the change we are led to expect from our Lord’s words.

(2) The old covenant and the Law of the Old Testament are no longer binding on the New Testament saint. The Sabbath commandment is a part of the Old Testament Law which New Testament saints are no longer under. There are two different answers to this objection. The first is that the Sabbath is a “creation ordinance,” established at the outset of creation, before the giving of the Law. The Scripture contradicts this conclusion, however. At creation (Genesis 2:1-3) we are only told that God rested and that He blessed and sanctified the seventh day. No command is given to keep the Sabbath until the time that the Law was given at Sinai (Exodus 16, 20, 31, etc.). Second, there are efforts to differentiate God’s “moral Law”16 (which includes the Ten Commandments) from the “civil” and “ceremonial” Law of the Old Testament. As many have observed, however, these distinctions between “moral,” “civil,” and “ceremonial” Law are arbitrary and highly questionable.

(3) There is really no way in which the Fourth Commandment can be modified so as to make it fit the “Lord’s Day” worship of the New Testament and yet retain the Sabbath distinctives. There is no emphasis on “rest” in the church’s Sunday worship. There is no equating the creation rest of God on the seventh day with the first day worship of the church which may well be related to the resurrection of our Lord. The Sabbath of the Old Testament and the “Lord’s Day” of the New Testament are just too different. It is amazing that if such a transition from Sabbath to Sunday were to be taught in the New Testament the connection between the two would be so obscure in the New Testament. Far from stressing the continuity between Sabbath and Lord’s Day, the New Testament seems to emphasize the contrast between the two. The compulsory Sabbath of the Old Testament (with its death penalty) is a contradiction to the liberty of choosing and observing of days in the New (cf. Romans 14:5; Galatians 4:10; Colossians 2:16).

The Significance of the
Sabbath to the New Testament Saint

If the necessity of keeping the Fourth Commandment is a thing of the past, and is but a matter of Christian liberty, what is the relevance of the Sabbath to the contemporary Christian? Is this but one of the antiques of the Scriptures, something which belongs in a museum, but not to be used any longer? Quite the contrary. There are two texts of Scripture which inform us of the role of the Sabbath for the New Testament saint. Let us briefly consider these texts.

Colossians 2:16-17

Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ (emphasis mine).

We have already learned from this text that Sabbath observance is a matter of Christian liberty, and thus we must not allow others to judge us on whether or not we observe the Sabbath. But in the 17th verse Paul goes on to inform us of the role which the Sabbath played: it was a shadow of that which is to come. Notice Paul’s tenses here. He did not say, “The Sabbath was a shadow of that which was to come,” he said, “The Sabbath was a shadow of that which is to come.” In other words, the Sabbath was given as a type, a prophecy of the future. That which was prophesied (as it were) has not yet come, for it is still viewed as future. The Sabbath is called a “mere shadow,” not because it was insignificant, but because its significance pales in the light of our Lord’s coming. He, indeed, is the substance, the basis for what is yet to come. The Sabbath is a “mere shadow” because it points to what is yet to come; the Lord Jesus is the substance of what is to come because it is He who has procured what is to come.

The same principle, that the Sabbath is a shadow of what is to come, is taught in the Book of Hebrews: “For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never by the same sacrifices year by year, which they offer continually, make perfect those who draw near” (Hebrews 10:1).

Hebrews 3 and 4

It is the Book of Hebrews which expounds the meaning of the Old Testament Sabbath for the New Testament saint in chapters 3 and 4. The message of these two chapters is beyond the scope of this message, nevertheless we will attempt to catch the essence of the argument of these two chapters as it develops and concludes the doctrine of the Sabbath in the Scriptures.

In chapter 3 the writer is exhorting his readers to be faithful, even as our Lord (vss. 2, 6) and Moses (vss. 2, 5) were. This requires faith (as opposed to unbelief) and obedience (as opposed to disobedience). The danger which the Christian must be on guard against is that of unbelief. Israel is used as an example of the hardness of heart which the Christian is to avoid. In their day of trial in the wilderness, the Israelites failed to believe God, so they put Him to the test (vss. 7-11). The consequence of this generation’s hardness of heart was that they were not permitted to “enter into God’s rest” (v. 10).

The reader is warned about the possibility of having this same hardness of heart (v. 12). The solution is to daily encourage one another (v. 13). The reader can be assured of becoming a partaker of Christ if he holds fast his assurance to the end (v. 14). The danger of unbelief and disobedience is presented as real and imminent. Those whose hearts are hardened may be those who have experienced the grace of God in a mighty way. After all, the writer argues, were not those who were laid low in the wilderness not recipients and participants in all of God’s gifts associated with the exodus (vss. 15-19)?

In chapter 3 the author looked back in time, focusing on Israel’s unbelief and disobedience, and seeking to show that the danger we face is of the same kind Israel did—and failed. In chapter 4 the writer looks forward, focusing on the rest into which the Israelites were not allowed to enter, showing that this rest is the same rest to which the saints still look forward.

The rest into which the first generation of Israelites failed to enter is presented as that future rest into which New Testament saints should strive to enter. The same promise of rest, the writer assures us, still remains (v. 1). Just as this rest is a goal toward which we should strive, it is also one that can be forfeited by unbelief: “Therefore, let us fear lest, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you should seem to have come short of it” (10:1). The reader, like the first generation Israelite of chapter 3, may have heard a word from God, but this good word will not be of any profit, unless it is accepted with faith (v. 2), for faith is the means of entering into God’s rest (v. 3).

The writer to the Hebrews now relates the “rest” which the Israelites failed to obtain, and which we still have as a future hope, to that rest which God established at the conclusion of His creation (vss. 3-5). The rest was something already “finished” as Genesis 2:2 indicates. The failure to enter this rest was thus due only to Israel’s unbelief, not to any other failure (certainly not a lack of preparation on God’s part).

The writer stresses that the Israelites’ rest is the same as that rest to which New Testament saints look forward. He does this by highlighting the word “today” from Psalm 95:7. He reasons that as long as the word “today” is still applicable, so is the promise of rest available. Furthermore, the promised rest which that first generation of Israelites failed to enter was not attained by any Israelite up to David’s day (specifically the time of the writing of Psalm 95). If Joshua had given the Israelites rest, David would not still be speaking of this rest as a future, unfulfilled blessing (vss. 8-9). Once one has entered into God’s promised rest, there is no more need to strive to enter it (v. 10).

Since the promise of rest remains, and since it is forfeited by unbelief and obtained through faith, let the reader strive diligently to enter into this rest, fearful of developing a hardened heart do to unbelief and neglect of the word of God. It is this word which is alive and active and able to judge the motives and intentions of the heart, thus exposing sin which hardens it (vss. 12-14).

Just what is the “rest” which is spoken of? Here, Bible students differ greatly. I believe that the emphasis of these two chapters falls on the future rest, rather than on a present rest. We are to labor to enter into our rest (4:11). I believe that just as our Lord was justified in working on the Sabbath to provide our rest (John 5:17), to rest when that work was complete (cf. Hebrews 10:11-12), so we must now labor to enter into God’s promised rest. Thus, the author is not here stressing a present “faith rest” as some would say.

I believe that that promised rest is the future, full and final rest of our eternal salvation; in a word, our eternal, heavenly rest. Some would protest that this cannot be correct since the Israelites of old failed to enter into salvation. This is precisely the point: they have not, as yet, entered into their rest, but they will. Every Old Testament Israelite (including Moses, remember) did not, at that time, enter into their heavenly rest, for which they hoped and to which they looked forward (cf. Hebrews 11:13-16). They will, however, do so in the future, as Hebrews 11 makes very clear. One important reason why Israel did not enter their rest then was their sin, as Hebrews 3 points out. Another reason is given in chapter 11: “And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40).

The rest to which Old and New Testament saint alike looks forward is the eternal, heavenly, rest of salvation. God chose not to give this rest to the Jew until He could also give it to Gentile saints as well. Thus, the sins of every Old Testament believer were sufficient cause to delay the blessed rest, until the time that Messiah would come to give every believer, Jew or Gentile, that rest.

How powerfully the point of chapters 3 and 4 undergirds the message of the entire epistle to the Hebrews. The Hebrews were tempted to fall back into Old Testament (legalistic) Judaism, due to the pressure and persecution of their Jewish brethren. Yet this Judaism had not enabled one Israelite to enter into the rest which the Sabbath anticipated and foreshadowed. This rest had been accomplished on the cross of Calvary by the Messiah, and these readers were willing to forsake Him and His rest, in order to avoid the persecution of the Jews. The word of God which these readers had heard (and believed) was the word of Christ, the gospel. To fall from this gospel was to have a hardened heart, and to endanger the rest which it alone provided in Christ.

This text in Hebrews draws together the teaching of the entire Bible, Old Testament and New, with regard to the Sabbath. As both Paul (Colossians 2:17) and the writer to the Hebrews (10:1) taught, the Sabbath was given as a shadow, a preview, of God’s rest which is still future. God’s creation rest was an anticipation of man’s rest, but the fall prevented this from taking place immediately. The rest that Israel looked forward to was far greater than just entrance into and possession of the land of Canaan. Her unbelief caused her to forfeit this rest, at least for the time being. That rest was never attained by any Old Testament saint. No wonder our Lord could present Himself as the One through whom Israel would find rest (e.g. Matthew 11:25-30).17

Thus, from the first Sabbath text (Genesis 2:1-3) to the last, there is foreshadowed a rest which is still future, a rest which our Lord Himself has procured and assured, a rest to which we look forward and into which we must strive to enter, by persevering in our faith and obedience.

Conclusion

The first lesson we learn from the Sabbath teaching of the apostles is that Sabbath rest is salvation rest. How ironic, how tragic, that God had created the world and rested, prepared to share this rest with mankind. Instead, man rebelled in the Garden of Eden, and his curse was toil. When God gave the Law to His people, the covenant sign was that of rest. In the final analysis it was not through his own toil that man would be blessed, but by rest.18 This rest, like the “Sabbath rest” of God in Genesis 2:1-3, foreshadowed that rest which believing men and women would someday experience.

When our Lord came to the earth, He came to give men rest, this rest which had been promised for so long. His task was to labor to provide that rest for men. No task was more difficult, no toil more painful, than that “work” which He accomplished on the cross of Calvary. It is the only work which God finds acceptable for eternal salvation. I pray that you have found rest in Christ and in His finished work.

Another lesson to be learned is in the area of biblical interpretation. Surely we have seen in our study of the Sabbath that God does reveal truth progressively, and thus we must study doctrine from Genesis to Revelation. We dare not derive our doctrine from any one text, to the neglect of many others. So, too, we must carefully note the differences created by the cross of Christ. Whether or not you like the term “dispensation” or not, the cross greatly affects matters that were introduced in the Old Testament. To avoid a dispensational perspective is dangerous and careless, avoiding those distinctions made by our Lord and His apostles.

A dispensational approach to the interpretation of Scripture does not force us to cast our Old Testament aside, as though it is no longer useful. It enables us to look at the Old Testament Law, its institutions, its symbols, and its teaching as those things which foreshadow Christ and the fulfillment of the new covenant. How much richer the Old Testament is in the light of the New. Here, I strongly disagree with those who would have us avoid “reading the New Testament into the Old.” This is what the apostles and our Lord often did, and it is good for us as well, so long as we follow the methodology of the inspired writers of the Scriptures.

Finally, while worshipping on the Sabbath is a matter of Christian liberty, and not a matter of necessity (with death penalty and all), we need to conclude that what we have learned about the Sabbath has new relevance to our Sunday worship. As we have previously stated, it does take time to be holy. Planning to finish our work at a fixed time and setting aside the remaining time for worship is a beautiful (but rare) discipline. Just as God established a weekly pattern for commemorating the Mosaic covenant (by Sabbath keeping) in the Old Testament, so I believe He has established a weekly pattern for commemorating the new covenant, by the Lord’s Table (communion). The more we meditate upon the way Israel was set apart by her Sabbath celebration, the more we will gain insight into our own sanctification. While the precept of Sabbath keeping is not in force today, the principles of the Sabbath have much to commend themselves to us in the hectic pace of our world.


5 “In the Old Testament the Sabbath was said to be ‘a Sabbath to the LORD your God’ (Exod. 20:10; Deut. 5:14; cf. Exod. 31:15; 35:2; Lev. 23:3). It belonged to Yahweh, the covenant Lord. Now here is Jesus as the son of man claiming to be the Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus’ claim to authority over the day is not only a claim to equal authority with the Law given by God in which the Sabbath demand was embedded but can be understood as a claim to the same authority over the day as the covenant Lord Himself, a claim to equality with God every bit as strong as the Johannine saying. … If the Sabbath was made for man, and its regulations are to be employed for that end (a principle foreshadowed in the David incident) then it should not be surprising that one with the special status of Son of Man, who has already been shown to possess God’s prerogative and authority to forgive sins (cf. 2:10), should also be Lord of the Sabbath and determine how those who are with Him may act on this day.” “From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical and Theological Perspective,” A. T. Lincoln, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, D. A. Carson, ed. (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1982), p. 363.

6 Max. M. B. Turner, “The Sabbath, Sunday, and the Law in Luke/Acts,” From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 135.

7 “Judaism as a whole considered the Sabbath to be binding on Israel alone. It was not a matter for Gentiles (note its absence from the Noachian laws) and this was sometimes very strongly put.” Ibid, p. 128.

8 “‘God-fearers’ (cf. Acts 13:43; 17:4, 17), and even some Gentiles with remoter connections with Judaism, tended to keep the Sabbath; but here again this commandment, while more commonly followed than many others, was accepted as part of the God-fearer’s general imitation of Judaism, not because it was singled out as a creation ordinance binding even on Gentiles.” Ibid.

9 “The striking thing about the evidence we have from the second century is that it is almost as if the Sabbath commandment were not a part of the Decalogue, because the writers of this period take one attitude towards the Decalogue but a different one towards the Sabbath.” Lincoln, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 378.

“In the light of their views of the Decalogue one might expect early Christian writers to have treated the Sabbath commandment as eternally binding and to have attempted to argue that it was part of natural Law for all people. This, however, was a much later development in Sabbatarian argumentation and in general the Sabbath discussion of the fathers not only rejects the Sabbath as temporary, treating it along with other Mosaic ceremonial regulations, but also fails to notice the issue raised by the Sabbath commandment being in fact part of that Decalogue they treat as ‘natural Law.’… Ignatius rejected Sabbath keeping, seeing it as having become outmoded together with the whole Jewish religion … and expecting Jewish Christians to be ‘strong’ and take the same approach. This was a common attitude among second-century writers. … Judging in terms of what we have seen of the attitude of the New Testament writers, the majority of second-century writers seem to have been sound in their instinct to treat the Sabbath as a temporary Mosaic institution, …” Ibid, pp. 380, 381.

10 I understand that 1 Corinthians 9 does not specify Sabbath worship as that which Paul could “leave or take,” but surely this is one specific instance of his general principle, as Romans 14:1-6 clearly states.

11 “The earliest Jewish Christians, almost without exception, kept the whole Law and were theologically committed to it.” From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 134.

12 “The needed inner freedom came when the entry of the Gentiles brought the claims of Christ into sharp conflict with those of the Law and led to a new realization of the total subordination of the whole Law to Christ and to His teaching.” Ibid.

13 “On the other hand, we have evidence from both Paul himself and the Book of Acts that Paul continued his own Sabbath keeping. The balance of probability, then, is in favor of the Sabbath being included in the “days” of Romans 14:5. Paul allows that the keeping of such days is purely a matter of individual conscience.” “The Sabbath/Sunday Question and the Law in the Pauline Corpus”, D. R. Lacey, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 182.

14 “Jewett suggests that Paul’s terminology indicates ‘that the agitators had not made use of the typically Jewish terminology but sought instead to connect the Jewish festivals with ideas and terms generally prevalent in the Hellenistic world. Thus the cultic calendar was presented to the Galatians on a basis which was far from orthodox. But the agitators were not disturbed as long as quick and observable results could be achieved. It was more important to them that the Galatians be circumcised and begin to keep the festivals than that they do so for proper reasons.’” Ibid, p. 180.

I am not sure that I accept Jewett’s conclusions as related to the Book of Galatians, but I do believe that his conclusions fit the false teachers and their teachings as dealt with in Colossians and the Pastoral Epistles.

15 B. B. Warfield holds to this view, and states the matter in strong terms: “I am to speak to you today, not of the usefulness or of the blessedness of the Sabbath, but of its obligation. And I am to speak to you of its obligation, not as that obligation naturally arises out of its usefulness or blessedness, but as it is immediately imposed by God in his Word.” B. B. Warfield, “The Foundations of the Sabbath in the Word of God,” Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, Ed. by John E. Meeter (Nutley, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1970), p. 308.

16 Warfield, for example, writes, “In thus emancipating his readers from the shadow-ordinances of the Old Dispensation, Paul has no intention whatever, however, of impairing for them the obligations of the moral Law, summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments.” Ibid, p. 321.

17 When our Lord read from Isaiah 61:1-2 (Luke 4:16-20), the terminology of this text was sabbatical, and thus it would appear that He was, at this point, making another claim to be the source of Sabbath rest. Cf. “Jesus and the Sabbath in the Four Gospels,” D. A. Carson, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, pp. 71-72.

18 It is noteworthy that in Psalm 127, the blessing of children is described as not the result of toil, but of rest: “It is vain for you to rise up early, To retire late, To eat the bread of painful labors; For He gives to His beloved even in his sleep” (Psalm 127:2).