DIVINE REST FOR HUMAN RESTLESSNESS #16
Continued from previous page:
The priest's example.
The second argument used by the Lord is more directly
related to our immediate inquiry into the relationship between
Christ's saving ministry and the Sabbath. According to Matthew,
Jesus appealed not only to the prophetic section of the OT (i.e.,
the example of David - 1 Sam.21:1-7), but also to the Torah (Law)
proper, by citing the example of the priests, who "in the temple
profane the sabbath, and are guiltless" (Matt.12:5; cf. Num.
28:9-10; Lev.24:8-9). A host of activities, illegal for the
ordinary person, were performed by the priests on the Sabbath. On
that day the regular daily sacrifices were augmented by two
additional flawless yearling male lambs, together with flour and
oil (Num.28:9-10). Though working more intensely on the Sabbath,
the priests were "guiltless" (Matt.12:5). Why? Was it perhaps
because they took a day off at another time during the week? No,
the OT does not offer or contemplate any such special provision
for the priests. The absence of the latter constitutes a most
direct challenge to those who uphold the one day-in-seven
principle. Donald Carson wisely acknowledges this fact when he
writes, "If the OT principle were really 'one day in seven for
worship and rest,' we might have expected OT legislation to
prescribe some other day off for the priests. The lack of such
confirms the importance in OT thought of the seventh day, as
opposed to the mere one-in-seven principle so greatly relied upon
by those who wish to see in Sunday the precise NT equivalent of
the OT Sabbath."
Why, then, were the priests "guiltless"? The answer is to be
found in the redemptive nature of their Sabbath work. We noted
already that Christ alluded to the latter, when citing the
example of circumcision which the priests could lawfully perform
on the Sabbath because of the redemptive significance of the rite
(John 7:22-23). Similarly in this instance Christ appeals to the
various services and sacrifices which the priests legitimately
offered on the Sabbath, because these represented God's provision
of forgiveness and salvation for His people (Heb.7:27, 9:12, 22).
We have found that a vital function of the weekly and annual
Sabbaths was to provide "release" - aphesis to the oppressed. The
intensification of the Temple services and sacrifices on the
Sabbath (four lambs were sacrificed instead of the daily two -
Num.28:8-9) points to the special release from the burden of sin
and guilt that God offered to the people on that day. The Sabbath
is the time to experience in a special way the rest of God's
forgiveness - and a fresh new beginning.
Christ and the temple.
Christ finds in this redemptive work performed by the
priests on the Sabbath a valid basis to justify His own Sabbath
ministry as well as that of His disciples. Why? Because He
rightly views His own ministry as "something greater than the
temple" (Matt.12:6). In other words, the redemption offered
typologically by the temple through its serving priests
is now being provided realistically through Christ's saving
mission. Therefore, just as the priests could legitimately
"profane" the Sabbath in order to perform their redemptive
service in the temple, so could Jesus' disciples in order to
serve the One who is greater than the temple. Being the
fulfillment of the redemption promised through the temple's
services and sacrifices, Christ's ministry must continue on the
Sabbath, even preferably on that day. What He does His followers,
the new priesthood, must likewise do. "The priests," aptly writes
Ellen White, "were performing those rites that pointed to the
redeeming power of Christ, and their labor was in harmony with
the object of the Sabbath. But now Christ Himself had come. The
disciples, in doing the work of Christ, were engaged in God's
service, and that which was necessary for the accomplishment of
this work it was right to do on the Sabbath day."
Some object to this parallelism between the priests and the
disciples because in their view, the latter were not engaged in a
religious activity while plucking grain. What is it that makes an
act religious? Is it not when its intended function is directly
to serve God? Baking bread, for example, was a common work which
no Israelite was to do on the Sabbath at home (Ex.16:23). Yet in
the Temple baking was a religious activity, which the priests
lawfully performed on the Sabbath because it was part of their
service to God (1 Sam.21:3-6; Lev.24:8). Had not the disciples
left all to serve the One greater than the temple? Was not then
the caring for their personal needs on the Sabbath while
serving their Lord in His itinerant ministry a religious
activity? To reduce religious activities only to rituals
performed within the confines of a sacred place, thus neglecting
the aspect of service to human needs, means, as pointed out by
Christ, to fail to understand Hosea's statement, "I desire mercy,
and not sacrifice" (Matt.12:7; Hos.6:6).
Authority or legality?
Does Christ's use of the example of David and of the priests
suggest that He justified the conduct of His disciples by
asserting His authority to transcend the Sabbath law, or by
proving the legality of their action within that law?
A number of scholars argue for the former view. For them "it
is a question of authority rather than legality" that is at
stake. The comparison between David and the priests on the
one hand, and Christ on the other hand, is allegedly supposed to
show that "persons with authority" can override the Sabbath.
Consequently it is Christ's "authority which shields the
disciples from guilt." The ultimate conclusion drawn from such
reasoning is that Christ's authoritative teaching supposedly
anticipates the change in the day of worship which however did
not actually occur until after the resurrection. What can be
said of such reasoning? Obviously, it reveals a genuine desire to
find a ground for Sunday observance in Christ's teaching. But,
can such a conclusion be drawn legitimately from Jesus'
arguments? I think not.
Did Christ appeal to the example of David and of the priests
to show that persons of authority have the right to supersede the
Sabbath law? Can human authority per se be regarded as a valid
criterion to transcend God's law? If this were true, there would
be a constant conflict between human authority and divine
precepts. Such a conflict, however, does not exist in Jesus'
reasoning. What He tells the Pharisees is not that the law does
not apply to important persons such as David or the priests, but
on the contrary that their exceptional conduct, like that of the
disciples, is contemplated by the law. This is clearly indicated
by the counter-question that Christ asks twice, "Have you not
read in the law ... ?" (Matt.12:5; cf. v.3). Note that it is
within the law (not outside of it) that Jesus finds precedents to
defend the legality of the disciples' conduct. The disciples were
"guiltless" then, not because their authority (or that of Christ)
transcended the law, but because their action fell within the
intention of the law itself.
Christ, the Interpreter of the law.
All laws must be interpreted. The case of the priests
provides a fitting example.
The law ordered them to work on the Sabbath (Num.28:9; Lev.
24:8), thus causing them to break another law - that of the
Sabbath rest (Ex.20:8-10). What does this mean? Simply that the
letter of the law cannot be applied indiscriminately, but must be
interpreted discriminately when applied to specific cases. In
American society the Supreme Court acts as the final interpreter
of the intent of the laws of the land. This is the authority that
Christ claims by proclaiming Himself "Lord of the Sabbath" (Matt.
12:8; Mark 2:28). It is not the authority to abrogate or
substitute the Sabbath commandment but rather to reveal its true
divine intention Christ demonstrates this authority as
Interpreter of the true meaning of the fourth commandment by
presenting five significant arguments in defending the innocence
of His disciples.
First, the Lord refers to David to validate the general
principle that law admits exceptions (Matt.12:3; Mark 2:25).
Second, Christ provides a specific example of exceptional
use of the Sabbath by the priests, to prove that the commandment
does not preclude but contemplates ministering to the spiritual
needs of people (Matt.12:5).
Third, Christ claims for Himself and His disciples the same
Sabbath privileges of the priests, because as the superior
Antitype of the Temple and its priesthood (Matt.12:6), He and His
followers also, like the priests, must provide a ministry of
salvation to needy sinners.
Fourth, by citing Hosea's statement, "I desire mercy, and
not sacrifice" (Matt.12:7), Jesus explains that the order of
priorities in the observance of the Sabbath is first a loving
service to needy persons and then the fulfillment of ritual
Lastly, Jesus asserts His lordship over the Sabbath, that
is, His prerogative to interpret its meaning, by reaffirming the
fundamental principle that the Sabbath was instituted to insure
human well-being (Mark 2:28). Consequently, to deny human needs
on account of the Sabbath commandment is a perversion of its
6. The Savior's Rest
The Savior's rest and the Sabbath.
In the light of this authoritative interpretation of the
meaning of the Sabbath, it is well to consider the meaning of
Christ's summons which Matthew placed just prior to the episode
we have just examined. The Savior says, "Come to me, all who
labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke
upon you, and learn from me; for I am meek and lowly in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and
my burden is light" (Matt.11:28-30). Twice in this invitation
Christ promises rest to those who come to Him and learn from Him.
Is the rest that Christ offers related to the Sabbath rest? The
possible connection between the two has been noted by several
commentators Such a link is suggested by Matthew's setting of
Christ's invitation to receive His rest (Matt.11:28-30), in the
immediate context of two Sabbath episodes (Matt.12:1-14).
In addition to this structural link, Matthew suggests also a
temporal connection by carefully noting that the two Sabbath
conflicts occurred "at that time" (Matt.12:1), "presumably at or
near the time when Jesus had spoken of His rest." The
possibility exists, therefore, that the rest promised by Christ
is that of the true Sabbath. Earlier in this chapter we noted
that the Sabbath rest in OT times was viewed as typifying the
future Messianic rest. By offering rest, then, Christ could well
have claimed to fulfill the expected Sabbath rest. As Christ in
Luke 4:18-21 proclaims to be the Messianic fulfillment of the
expected sabbatical liberation, so in Matthew 11:28-29 He claims
to realize the expected Messianic Sabbath rest.
The Nature of Christ's rest.
What is the nature of the "Sabbath rest" that Christ offers
to those "heavy-laden"? How is such a "rest" to be experienced?
To a modern reader, the formula offered by Christ sounds most
paradoxical. Said He, "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me
... and you will find rest for your souls" (Matt.11:29). How can
rest be found by taking a yoke upon oneself? Such a formula
sounds like a clear contradiction of terms. The contradiction,
however, is resolved when the significance of the imagery of the
"yoke" is understood. The term "yoke" was used both by the Jews
and by the early Christians to designate the law. A few examples
will suffice to bear this out.
Jeremiah speaks of the leaders of the people who though
"they know ... the law of their God ... they ... had broken the
yoke, they had burst the bonds" (Jer.5:5). In the following
chapter the same prophet says to the people, "find rest for your
souls" by learning anew obedience to God's law (Jer.6:16; cf.
Num.25:3). The invitation to take upon oneself the yoke of the
law occurs frequently also in rabbinical literature. Rabbi
Nehunya b.Kanah (c. A.D.100), supposedly said, "He that takes
upon himself the yoke of the law, from him shall be taken away
the yoke of the kingdom and the yoke of worldly care." This
notion of the law as a yoke was familiar to the early Christians.
The Jerusalem Council, for example, decided not to put "a yoke
upon the neck" (Acts 15:10) of the Gentiles by requiring them to
fulfill the law of circumcision
This imagery of the law as a yoke could deceive us into
thinking that the law was viewed as a burdensome straitjacket.
The truth of the matter is much different. To the devout believer
the law expressed not slavery but the basis of a special covenant
relationship with God. It expressed, as M.Maher aptly explains,
"the desire to place oneself under the direct rule of God and to
devote oneself entirely to performing his revealed will."
Thus the Psalmist declares "blessed" the person whose
"delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates
day and night" (Ps.1:1,2; cf. 112:1; 119:18,105). The conflict
between Judaism and early Christianity has unfortunately obscured
the fact that there were indeed noble Jews who gave attention not
merely to external legal piety but also to the internal intention
of God's precepts. These persons genuinely loved God and their
fellow beings and later accepted the Messiah as their personal
Savior by the "thousands" (Acts. 21:20; cf. 2:41; 4:4). The fact
remains, however, that there were also Scribes and Pharisees who
expounded the law in terms of minute legal requirements which
weighed as a heavy yoke upon the people. "They bind heavy
burdens, hard to bear" (Matt.23:4). Such a teaching encouraged a
form of petty legalism that offered not rest but restlessness to
Christ, as the new Moses, claims the authority to refute
such a misleading understanding and practice of the will of God,
and to reveal through His teaching and ministry the true meaning
of God's precepts. "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me"
(Matt.11:29). The "yoke" of Christ's teaching is not "heavy" as
that of the Pharisees but "easy" and "light" (Matt.11:30). Why?
Basically because the Savior invites His followers to commit
themselves not to a new set of rules, but to Himself, the true
Interpreter and Fulfiller of God's law ("Come to me ... learn
from me"--Matt.11:28-29). Since the Law and the prophets pointed
to Christ (Luke 23:27; John 5:39), it is in relationship to His
mission that He interprets their meaning and function. The "yoke"
of Christ's teaching brings rest because it leads a person to
experience the rest of His salvation.
New rules or new rest?
Does this mean that Christ supersedes and annuls the Sabbath
commandment by offering His own rest instead? No. Rather Christ
explains the meaning of the Sabbath rest in the light of His
redemptive rest. The various Sabbath episodes analyzed so far
support this view. We have found that Jesus on a Sabbath
announced His mission to be the fulfillment of the
expected sabbatical redemption (Luke 4:16-21). During His
ministry Christ made good such a claim by intentionally working
on the Sabbath for the salvation of needy sinners (John 5:17;
9:4), so that souls whom "Satan bound" would experience and
remember the Sabbath as the day of their liberation (Luke 13:16).
Moreover, it was on a Friday afternoon that Christ completed His
earthly redemptive mission, saying "it-is finished" - (John
19:30), and then resting on the Sabbath in the tomb(Mark 15:42,
46; Luke 23:5354). Like the completion of creation, so now that
of redemption is marked by the Sabbath rest (No it was not a
Friday afternoon, but a Wednesday afternoon when Christ was
killed on a cross; but yes He did rest on the weekly Sabbath in
the tomb, as He was not raised to life until the beginning of the
first day of the week. All explained in other studies on this
Website - Keith Hunt).
This meaning of the Sabbath is supported also by the two
Sabbath episodes (Matt.12:1-14) that Matthew links with Christ's
offer of His rest (Matt.11:28-29). The question raised in both
episodes is, "What is lawful on the Sabbath?" (Matt.12:2,10).
The two stories show that the Pharisees had reduced the Sab- -
bath rest to an oppressive burden. Christ, as Lord of the Sabbath
(12:8), interprets the commandment in terms of "mercy" rather
than legalistic religiosity (12:7). In the first episode
(plucking off ears of corn), we found that Christ identifies His
ministry as well as that of His disciples with the redemptive
service performed by the priests on the Sabbath in the Temple
(12:6). In the second incident (man with a withered hand), to be
examined in the next chapter, Christ clarifies the "value" of the
Sabbath as a day "to do good" (12:12-13) and "to save" (Mark
3:4). In a sense, these two episodes bring out two related
dimensions of Christ's view of the Sabbath: the first, that the
Sabbath is a time to experience His gracious salvation; second,
that it is a time to share blessings received by responding to
human needs. The "Sabbath rest" that Christ offers to those who
labor in vain to procure rest for themselves by fulfilling
demanding regulations, is not a newer or simpler set of rules on
how to keep the day, but an experience of the peace and rest of
salvation on and through His Holy Day.
7. The Sabbath in Hebrews
The redemptive meaning of the Sabbath which we have found in
the Gospels is reflected in the book of Hebrews. We noted earlier
that the author of this book, drawing upon existing
eschatological understandings of the Sabbath rest, relates God's
rest on the seventh day of creation (Heb.4:4) to all the rest
and peace God intends to confer on His people. By linking
together two passages, namely Genesis 2:2 and Psalm 95:7,11,
the author explains that the divine rest promised at creation was
not exhausted when the Israelites under Joshua found a resting
place in Canaan, since God again offered His rest "long
afterwards" through David (Heb.4:7; cf. Ps.95:7). Consequently,
God's promised Sabbath rest still awaited a fuller realization
which has dawned with the coming of Christ (Heb.4:9). It is by
believing in Jesus Christ that God's people can at last
experience ("enter" - 4:3,10,11) the "good news" of God's rest
promised on the "seventh day" of creation (4:4).
Literal or figurative Sabbathkeeping?
What inference can be legitimately drawn from this passage
regarding the actual observance and understanding of the Sabbath
among the recipients of Hebrews? The position of the majority of
commentators is that this passage provides no indication that
these Christian "Hebrews" actually observed the Sabbath or that
the author intended to give a Christian interpretation to such an
observance. What are the reasons advanced for such a position?
First, it is argued that since the author discusses not the
actual observance of the Sabbath but the permanence and the
fulfillment of its rest through the Christ-event, no inference
can be drawn regarding its literal observance.
Second, it is pointed out that since "the Sabbath rest that
remains for the people of God" (4:9) is a future realization, the
exhortation to enter God's rest (4:10,11) has no implication for
the present observance of the day.
Thirdly, it is assumed that since the author in a number of
places indicates that with the coming of Christ, certain old
covenant institutions were made "obsolete" (8:13; 7:11-9:28), the
Sabbath also was presumably viewed as belonging to the past.
In our view these reasons come short on several counts. The
first argument fails to recognize that the recipients of the
Epistle (whether Gentiles or Jewish-Christians) were so attracted
to Jewish liturgy (of which the Sabbath was fundamental) that it
was unnecessary for the author to discuss or encourage its actual
observance. What those Christians actually needed, tempted as
they were to turn back to Judaism, was to understand the meaning
of its observance in the light of Christ's coming. It is this
meaning that the author endeavors to bring out. George Wesley
Buchanan finds the passage so steeped in the OT concept of the
"sabbath and jubilees releases," understood as quiet and peaceful
existence in the promised land, that he claims both the author
and the recipients of the Hebrews possibly still hoped to see in
their own day the fulfillment of the promised Sabbath rest in
terms of a concrete national independence from the Romans.
Though such a view is hardly defensible in the light of the
writer's exhortation to enter God's rest (4:9-10) and not that of
the land, it still serves to illustrate that some scholars
recognize what an important role the Sabbath theology played in
the thinking of the community. Moreover, the fact that the author
is not engaged in a polemical defense of the validity of Sabbath
observance but rather in an exhortation to experience its
blessings which are still outstanding for the people of God
(4:9), makes his testimony all the more valuable, since it takes
its observance for granted. Additional indications will soon be
Present or future?
With regard to the second argument, it can hardly be said
that in Hebrews the Sabbath rest is viewed primarily as a future
benefit, unrelated to the present observance of the day. Some
scholars have identified in Hebrews the model of the church as a
company of wanderers, journeying to a future heavenly resting
place. Without denying the presence of the pilgrimage motif in
Hebrews, it must be pointed out that the Sabbath rest" that
"remains for the people of God" (4:9) is presented primarily not
as a future but as a present experience into which those "who
have believed are entering" (4:3). The latter verb is in the
present tense, and in Greek is placed first in the sentence to
stress the present reality of this "rest" experience. The same is
true of the verb "remains" (4:9), which if taken out of context
could imply a future prospect, but in its context the verb refers
back to the time of Joshua (4:8), in order to emphasize the
present permanence of the Sabbath rest for God's people. What the
author of Hebrews is saying, as well stated by A.T.Lincoln, is
"that since the time of Joshua an observance of the Sabbath has
been outstanding." The use of both verbs in the PRESENT tense
emphasizes the present permanence of the Sabbath rest rather than
its future consummation. It must be said, nonetheless, that the
future dimension of this rest is also contemplated in the
passage, as we shall soon see.
Obsolete or remaining?
This leads us to the third argument which maintains that the
Sabbath is an OT shadow or type of that final rest which Christ
has made available to His people and consequently its function
terminated with His coming. Is this what Hebrews or the rest of
the NT teaches? Did the Sabbath, like the temple and its
services, live out its function with the coming of Christ? Or did
the Sabbath acquire fresh meaning and function with His coming?
Our study of the Sabbath material of the Gospels has shown that
Christ fulfilled the typological and eschatological Messianic
Sabbath rest and release, not by annulling the actual observance
of the day but by making it a time to experience and share with
others His accomplished salvation.
Let us look now at what Hebrews has to say on this point.
There is no question that the author of this book clearly teaches
that Christ's coming has brought about "a decisive discontinuity"
with the sacrifical system of the Old Covenant. In chapters 7 to
10, the writer explains at great length how Christ's atoning
sacrifice and subsequent heavenly ministry have replaced
completely the typological ("copy and shadow" - 8:5) function of
the levitical priesthood and its Temple. These services Christ
"abolished" (10:9) and thus they are "obsolete" and "ready to
vanish away" (8:13). But, does he place the Sabbath in the same
category, viewing it as one of the "obsolete" old-covenant
institutions? This is indeed the conclusion that some have
drawn, but, in our view, it is based on gratuitous assumptions
rather than on what the document actually says.
The "Sabbath rest" is explicitly and emphatically presented
not as being "obsolete" like the temple and its services, but as
a divine benefit that still "remains" (4:9). The verb "remains -
apoleipetai," literally means "to leave behind" and is used here
in the present passive tense. If literally translated verse 9
reads "So then a Sabbath rest is left behind for the people of
God." The contrast between the Sabbath and the sanctuary services
is obvious. While the latter are "obsolete," the former is "left
behind," and therefore still relevant. A similar contrast is
found in the Gospel of Matthew. There the rending of the Temple's
curtain in conjunction with Christ's death (Matt.27:51) indicates
the termination of the Temple's services. On the other hand,
Christ's warning about the possibility that the future flight out
of the city might occur on a Sabbath (Matt.24:20) takes for
granted the permanence of its observance.
The exhortation given in verse 11 to "strive to enter that
rest" provides an additional indication of the permanence of the
Sabbath. The fact that one must make efforts "to enter that rest"
implies that the "rest" experience of the Sabbath is not
exhausted in the present but has a future realization also. This
Christian view of the Sabbath rest as representing not only a
present but also a future "rest" experience reflects to a large
extent what we have already found in the OT and in later Jewish
literature. There we saw that the Sabbath was understood not only
as a present experience of personal rest and liberation from
social injustices, but also as the anticipation of the future
rest and peace to be realized by the Messiah. Thus in his own way
the author of Hebrews reaffirms the OT understanding of the
Sabbath in a fresh Christian setting, namely, a day to experience
the present rest of salvation while looking forward to the future
and final rest in the heavenly Canaan.
An unresolved contradiction.
It is unfortunate that the happy tension between the two
dimensions - present and future - of the Sabbath which we have
found in Hebrews (and in the Gospels) was soon overlooked and
even rejected by many Christians. For what reasons? We have shown
in "From Sabbath to Sunday" that as a result of an interplay of
social, political, pagan-religious and Christian factors, it
became expedient to change the day of worship from Sabbath to
Sunday. Those who adopted this change found it necessary to empty
the Sabbath of all its validity and meaning for the present life
and to reduce it exclusively to a symbol of the future eternal
rest. Such a view has enjoyed general support throughout
Christian history. It appears for the first time in the so-called
"Epistle o f Barnabas" (ca. 135), where the author argues that
"it is not the present sabbaths that are acceptable to me [God]"
(15:8) but the future Sabbath that God will establish in the
seventh millennium (15:4,5). At that time the Lord will bring
everything to rest and "then we shall be able to treat it [the
Sabbath] as holy" (15:7). This millenarian (chiliastic) view of
the Sabbath has been held by such early Christian writers as
Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Cyprian,
Augustine (for a time), Victorinus and Lactantius.
Others such as Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, Jerome,
Augustine, Chrysostom, Bede, Rabanus Maurus, Peter Lombard,
Calvin and some contemporary scholars, however, choosing to
retain the notion of the Sabbath rest as a symbol of the endtime
rest, have rejected all millenarian connotations. The historical
survival of these eschatological interpretations of the Sabbath
raises some very crucial theological questions: How can the
theological-symbolic function of the Sabbath have terminated with
the coming of Christ, when the final rest, to which the present
weekly Sabbath points, still lies in the future? To retain the
Sabbath as the symbol of the future and final rest that awaits
God's people, while denying the basis of such a symbol, namely,
the present Sabbath rest experience, is a clear contradiction of
terms. How can the Sabbath nourish in the believer the hope of
the future rest, when its present celebration, which is a
foretaste and anticipation of that future rest, is renounced or
Moreover, this unilateral interpretation of the Sabbath as
an exclusively future reality destroys the organic unity that we
have found in both the OT and NT between the temporal and
eschatological functions of the Sabbath. These unresolved
contradictions illustrate what happens when the permanency of a
divine percept such as the Fourth Commandment is tampered with.
The nature o f the Sabbath rest.
This brief digression has taken us some distance away from
Hebrews 4. We now return to it in order to ascertain the nature
of the Sabbath rest that Christians must observe. The author
explains the Christian understanding of the "Sabbath rest" that
is still outstanding for God's NT people (4:9), by referring to
its basic characteristic, namely, cessation from work: "for
whoever enters God's rest also ceases from his labors as God did
from his" (4:10). Is the author thinking here of cessation from
work in a literal or a figurative sense? Historically, the
majority of Christian writers have interpreted this figuratively,
as "abstention from servile work," that is, evil deeds, sinful
activities. According to this common interpretation, which has
found supporters in practically every age, Christian Sabbath-
keeping means not the interruption of the daily work on the
seventh day, but the abstention from sinful acts at all times
(perpetual Sabbath). Advocates of this interpretation often
appeal to the references in Hebrews about "dead works" (6:1;
9:14). Such a concept, however, can hardly be read back into
Hebrews 4:10, where the comparison is made between the divine and
the human cessation from "works" - erga. If by "works" were meant
"sinful deeds," the analogy would require that God also has
ceased from these. Such an absured concept is of course totally
foreign to Hebrews (and to the rest of the Scriptures) where it
is explicitly stated that God "rested" (v.4) and "ceased" (v.
10--in Greek, the verb is identical in both instances) "on the
seventh day from all his works" (4:4). The analogy then is made
in terms of man's imitation of God's ceasing or resting from
works of creation. In other words, 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 the Sabbath which essentially involves cessation from work.
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 can be seen in the antithesis he makes between those who
failed to enter into its rest because of "unbelief "--apei-theias
(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 faithresponse 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 to experience 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
for the author of Hebrews not a mere day of idleness, but rather
an opportunity renewed every week to enter God's rest, that is,
to make oneself free from the cares of work in order to
experience freely by faith God's creation and redemptionrest.
Moreover, we noted that this Sabbath experience of the blessings
of salvation is not exhausted in the present, since the author
exhorts 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 future
restoration-rest which God offers to those "who have believed"
Good news of redemption.
One can hardly fail to perceive that Hebrews' interpretation
of the Sabbath rest reflects to a large extent the redemptive
understanding of the day we found in the Gospels. Christ's great
promise to have come to offer the expected sabbatical "release"
(Luke 4:18) and "rest" (Matt.11:28) represents the core of the
"Sabbath rest" available "today" to God's people (Heb.4:7,9).
Similarly, Christ's assurance that He and His Father are "working
until now" (John 5:17) to realize the final Sabbath rest is
reflected in Hebrews' exhortation to "strive to enter that rest"
(4:11).The fact that Hebrews 4 reflects the Gospel's
understanding of the Sabbath as a time to experience the
blessings of salvation, which will be fully realized at the end
of our earthly pilgrimage, shows that NT Christians (at least
some) viewed the Sabbath as Good News of Redemption.
In an age when the forces of chaos and disorder increasingly
appear to prevail, when injustice, greed, violence, corruption,
crime, suffering and death seem to dominate, God through the
Sabbath reassures His people that these destructive forces will
not triumph, because "there remains a sabbath rest for the people
of God" (4:9). Through the Sabbath God reassures us that He is in
control of this world, working out His ultimate purpose. God
tells us that He conquered chaos at creation, that He has
liberated His people from the bonds of sin and death through the
saving mission of His Son, and that He "is working until now"
(John 5:17) in order to establish a New World where "from sabbath
to sabbath all flesh shall come to worship before God" (Is.
66:23). In that final Sabbath, as eloquently expressed by
Augustine, "we shall rest and see, see and love, love and
How are we to celebrate on our present seventh-day
Sabbath such wonderful Good News? To answer this question, the
following chapter will examine various aspects of what our
response should be, especially on The Sabbath, to the Good News
To be continued