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Divine Rest for Human Restlessness #3

Creation Sabbath in Scripture


Continued from previous page:

2. Creation-Sabbath in Scripture

     This brief survey of objections against the creation-Sabbath
has dealt primarilywith references found in the first two books
of the Bible, Genesis and Exodus. This could leave the impression
that the rest of the Scripture and history are silent on the
subject. But this is hardly accurate, since support for the
Edenic origin of the Sabbath is found both in history and in
other parts of Scripture. To these indications we shall now refer
succinctly, to enable the reader to view the issue in its
Biblical and historical perspective.

Mark 2:27. 

     Two significant sayings of Jesus, reported in Mark 2:27 and
John 5:17, allude to the creation Sabbath. According to Mark,
Christ said: "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the
Sabbath" (2:27). The context of this pronouncement is a charge of
Sabbathbreaking leveled against the disciples because they
relieved their hunger by eating raw ears of grain plucked along
the hedge of a field. To refute such a charge and to assert the
fundamental human function of the Sabbath as a protector and not
a depriver of physical and spiritual well-being, Christ appealed
to the original purpose of the day, saying: "The Sabbath was made
on account of  man and not man on account of the Sabbath" (Mark
     Our Lord's choice of words is significant.  The verb "made"
- 'ginomai' alludes to the original "making" of the Sabbath and
the word "nan"-- '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. This is exemplified in another instance, when in
reproving, the corruption, of the institution of marriage which
had occurred under the Mosaic code, He reverted to the Edenic
law, 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 fundmental use and
function for mankind.

John 5:17.     

     The Fourth Gospel reports another significant Sabbath
pronouncement of Jesus. Charged with healing on the Sabbath, He
defended Himself, saying: "My Father is working until now and I
am working" (John 5:17). Two earlier studies of this passage have
shown how God's "working" has been traditionally interpreted as
constant care (cura continua) or continuous creation (creatio
continua) and the adverb "until now" has been understood as
"continually, always." The unwarranted conclusion resulting from
such an interpretation has generally been that the continuous
working of God, whether in creation or preservation, overrides
and rescinds the Sabbath law.
     Such a conclusion is without sanction on at least two
     First, because in the Gospel of John the working and the
works of God are repeatedly and explicitly identified not with
creation or preservation, but with the redemptive mission of
Christ (cf. John 4:34; 6:29; 10:37-38; 14:11; 15:24; 9:3).
     Second, the adverb "until now" emphasizes not the constancy,
but the inauguration and culmination of God's working. In other
words, God is working until this very hour since the first
Sabbath and until the conclusion of His work - the final Sabbath.
The adverb "until now" presupposes a "beginning" and an "end."
The beginning is the creation Sabbath when God completed creation
and the end is the final Sabbath when redemption will be
concluded. The Sabbaths in between the first and the final
Sabbath are for God and His creatures (John 9:4) not a time of
listless resting but of concerned "working" for the salvation of
human beings. We conclude, therefore, that Christ, by alluding to
the creation Sabbath to justify the legitimacy of His redemptive
ministry performed on that day, provides in John 5:17 an implicit
endorsement of its Edenic origin.

Hebrews 4:1-11.     

     The creation origin of the Sabbath is also accepted by the
writer 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 OT 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. 4:4; 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). Our immediate
concern is not to understand the various meanings of the rest
mentioned in the passage, but rather to note that the author
traces its origin not to Joshua's day, at the settlement (Heb.
4:8), but 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). Thus in Hebrews 4, the
creation Sabbath rest is not only accepted, but it is also
presented as the basis for understanding God's ultimate purpose
for His people.

3. Creation-Sabbath in History

Jewish tradition. 

     Passing now from Biblical to extrabiblical sources, one
finds a widespread recognition of the creation origin of the
Sabbath in both Jewish and Christian history. The Jews developed
two differing views regarding the origin of the Sabbath. Broadly
speaking the two views can be distinguished linguistically and
geographically. Palestinian (Hebrew) Judaism, as noted earlier,
reduced the Sabbath to an exclusive Jewish ordinance linked to
the origin of Israel as a nation at the time of Moses. This view
represents not an original tradition but a secondary development
which was encouraged by the necessity to preserve a Jewish
identity in the face of Hellenistic pressures (especially at the
time of Antiochus Epiphanes, 175 B.C.) to abandon Jewish
religion. This is indicated 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 Sabbath (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
unmistakably viewed as a creation ordinance designed for all
people. Aristobulus, Philo's predecessor, for example, writes in
the second century B.C. that "God the creator of the whole world
has also given us the seventh day as rest because life is full of
trouble for all men."  Two centuries later Philo gave a much
fuller treatment to the Sabbath. He 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

Early Church. 

     The recognition of the creation origin of the Sabbath is
also found in the documents of the early Church, even though in
some instances its importance is either challenged or applied to
Sunday. In the Syriac Didascalia (about 250), for example, the
Sabbath/Sunday controversy centers on the priority of the two
days with respect to creation. Sunday is presented as "greater"
than the Sabbath because it preceded the latter in the creation
week. As the first day of creation, Sunday represents "the
beginning of world."  In the treatise "On the Sabbath and
Circumcision," found among the works of Athanasius (about
296-373), the superiority of Sunday over the Sabbath is argued on
the basis of creation versus re-creation "The Sabbath was the end
of the first creation, the Lord's day was the beginning of the
second in which He renewed and restored the old."  The fact that
both Sabbath and Sunday keepers would defend the legitimacy and
superiority of their respective days by appealing to their roles
with reference to creation, shows how important the latter was in
their view.
     In the so-called "Constitutions of the Holy Apostles" (about
380), Christians are admonished to "keep the Sabbath and the
Lord's day festival; because the former is the memorial of the
creation, and the latter of the resurrection." Several other
references to the creation Sabbath are found in the same
document. For example, a prayer commemorating Christ's
incarnation begins with the words, "O Lord Almighty, Thou hast
created the world by Christ and hast appointed the Sabbath in
memory thereof, because that on that day Thou hast made us rest
from our works for the meditation upon Thy laws." The theme of
the creation Sabbath, as noted by Jean Danielou, is also "at the
center of Augustinian thought."  The culmination of the creation
week in the Sabbath rest, provides for Augustine (354-430) the
basis to develop two significant concepts. The first is the
notion of the progress of the history of this world toward a
final rest and peace with God. In other words, the realization of
the eternal rest represents for Augustine the fulfilment of "the
Sabbath that the Lord approved at the beginning of creation,
where it says, 'God rested on the seventh day from all his
     The second Augustinian interpretation of the creation
Sabbath may be defined as the mystical progress of the human soul
from restlessness into rest in God. A fitting example is found in
one of the most sublime chapters of his Confessions, where
Augustine prays: "O Lord God, Thou who hast given us all, grant
us Thy peace, the peace of rest, the peace of the Sabbath, the
peace without an 'evening'. For this very beautiful order of
things will pass away when they have accomplished their appointed
purpose. They all were made with a 'morning' and an 'evening'.
But the seventh day is without an 'evening' and it has no
setting, because Thou hast sanctified it so that it may last
eternally. Thy resting on the seventh day after the completion of
Thy works, foretells us through the voice of Thy Book, that we
also after completing our works through Thy generosity, in the
Sabbath of eternal life shall rest in Thee." This mystical and
eschatological interpretation of the creation Sabbath shows what
a profound appreciation Augustine had for its significance, in
spite of the fact that he failed to accept the literal observance
of the Fourth Commandment.

Middle Ages. 

     The Augustinian spiritual interpretation of the creation
Sabbath continued with some degrees of approximation during the
Middle Ages. But a new development occurred following the
Constantinian Sunday law of 321. In order to give a theological
sanction to the imperial legislation demanding rest from work on
Sunday, church leaders often appealed to the Sabbath commandment,
interpreting it as a creation ordinance applicable to Sunday
observance. Chrysostom (about 347-407) anticipates this
development in his exposition of Genesis 2:2, "God blessed the
seventh day and hallowed it." He asks "What do the words 'He
hallowed it' actually mean? . . . [God] is teaching us that among
the days of the week one must be singled out and wholly devoted
to the service of spiritual things." This reduction of the
creation Sabbath from the specific observance of the seventh day
to the principle of resting one day in seven in order to worship
God made it possible to apply the Sabbath commandment to the
observance of Sunday. Peter Comestor, for example (died about
1179), defends this application, arguing on the basis of Genesis
2:2 that "the Sabbath has been always observed by some nations
even before the Law."  This recognition of the Sabbath as a
creation and thus universal ordinance was motivated, however, not
by the desire to promote the observance of the seventh day, but
by the necessity to sanction and regulate Sunday keeping.
     In late mediaeval theology the literal application of the
Sabbath commandment to Sunday keeping was justified on the basis
of a new interpretation which consisted in distinguishing
between a moral and a ceremonial aspect within the Fourth
Commandment. Thomas Aquinas (about 1225-1247) offers the most
articulated exposition of this artificial and unwarranted
distinction in his "Summa theologica." He argues that "the
precept of the Sabbath observance is moral ... in so far as it
commands man to give some time to the things of God ... but it is
a ceremonial precept ... as to the fixing of the time."  How can
the Fourth Commandment be ceremonial for specifying the seventh
day but moral for enjoining to set apart a day of rest for
worship? Basically because for Aquinas the moral aspect of the
Sabbath is grounded on Natural Law, that is to say, the principle
of a regularly stated time for worship and rest is in accordance
with natural reason. The ceremonial aspect of the Sabbath, on the
other hand, is determined by the symbolism of the seventh day:
commemoration of "Creation" and prefiguration of the "repose of
the mind in God, either, in the present life, by grace, or, in
the future life, by glory." 
     One wonders, how can the Sabbath be ceremonial (transitory)
for symbolizing God's perfect creation and the rest to be found
in Him both in the present and future life? Is it not this
reassurance that provides the basis for setting aside any time to
worship God? To reject as ceremonial the original message of the
seventh day Sabbath, namely that God is the perfect Creator Who
offers rest, peace and fellowship to His creatures, means to
destroy also the very moral basis for devoting any time to the
worship of God. The belief in God as perfect Creator, as will be
brought out in the following chapter, constitutes the cornerstone
of the Christian faith and worship. Apparently Aquinas himself
recognized the inadequacy of his reasoning since he makes a
distinction between the Sabbath and other symbolic OT festivals
such as Passover, "a sign of the future Passion of Christ." The
latter, Aquinas explains, were "temporal and transitory ...
consequently, the Sabbath alone, and none of the other
solemnities and sacrifices, is mentioned in the precepts of the
decalogue."  Aquinas' uncertainty as to the ceremonial aspect of
the Sabbath is also reflected in his comment that Christ annulled
not the precept of the Sabbath but "the superstitious
interpretation of the Pharisees, who thought that man ought to
abstain from doing even works of kindness on the sabbath; which
was contrary to the intention of the Law." Aquinas' uncertainty,
however, was largely forgotten and his moral-ceremonial
distinction of the Sabbath became the standard rationale for
defending the Church's right to introduce and regulate the
observance of Sunday and holy days. This resulted in an elaborate
legalistic system of Sunday keeping akin to that of the
rabbinical Sabbath.


     The sixteenth-century reformers expressed differing views
regarding the origin and nature of the Sabbath. Their position
was influenced by their understanding of the relationship between
the Old and the New Testaments as well as by their reaction
against the legalistic and superstitious observance not only of
Sunday but of a host of holy days as well. Luther and some
radicals, in their concern to combat legalistic Sabbatarianism
promoted not only by the Catholic Church but also by left-wing
reformers such as Andreas Karlstadt, attacked the Sabbath as a
Mosaic institution "specifically given to the Jewish people." 
This position was largely determined by a radical distinction
between the Old and New Testaments. In the Large Catechism (1529)
Luther explains that the Sabbath "is altogether an external
matter, like other ordinances of the Old Testament, which were
attached to particular customs, persons, and places, and now have
been made free through Christ."  This view is stated even more
emphatically in article 28 of the Augsburg Confession (1530):
"Scripture has abrogated the Sabbath-day; for it teaches that,
since the Gospel has been revealed, all the ceremonies of Moses
can be omitted." 
     The above statements may give the impression that Luther
rejected the creation origin of the Sabbath, reducing it
exclusively to a Mosaic institution. Such a conclusion, however,
is not correct, since Luther affirms, for example, in the same
Large Catechism, "The day [Sabbath] needs no sanctification for
itself, for in itself it has been created holy. From the
beginning of the creation it was sanctified by its Creator." 
     Likewise, in his comments on Genesis 2:3, Luther says:
"Since the Scriptures mention the Sabbath much sooner than Adam
fell in sin, was it not appointed at that time that he should
work six days and rest on the seventh?  This is so without
doubt."  The same view is expressed by Melanchthon, Luther's
associate and successor. In the 1555 edition of his "Loci
Communes," Melanchthon unequivocally states that "from the time
of Adam the first fathers kept it [Sabbath] as a day on which
they put aside the work of their hands and met publicly for
preaching, prayer, thanksgiving and sacrifice, as God ordered."  
     Melanchthon distinguishes between the function of the
Sabbath before and after the Fall. Before the Fall the Sabbath
was designed to allow God to "have His rest, habitation, joy and
delight" in His creatures. "After the Fall," Melanchthon writes,
"the Sabbath was re-established when the gracious promise was
given that there would be a second peace of God, that the Son of
God would die and would rest in death until the Resurrection. So
now in us our Sabbath should be such a dying and resurrection
with the Son of God, so that God may again have His place of
habitation, peace and joy in us." 
     What a profound insight into the Biblical meaning of the
Sabbath! A day to enable the believer to die and to be
resurrected with Christ. A day to allow God to have "His place of
habitation, peace and joy in us." It is to the study of Sabbath
themes such as these that the pages of this book are dedicated.
But, one wonders, how could Luther and Melanchthon on the one
hand view the Sabbath as a creation ordinance, and on the other
hand regard the day as a Mosaic institution? Primarily by
adopting and developing Aquinas' distinction between natural and
Mosaic law, or, as often called, moral and ceremonial law. This
distinction is articulated more clearly by Melanchthon than by
Luther, though even the latter says that "Moses' legislation
about the Sabbath ... is null and void" because "it is not
supported by the natural law."  It is Melanchthon, however who in
responding to those who carried Luther's unguarded statements to
an extreme by denying the observance of any day, clearly
explains: "In this commandment there are two parts, one general,
which is always necessary for the Church, and one specific, which
refers to a special day that pertains only to the government of
Israel ... For the general in this commandment pertains to that
which is moral and natural and permanent, namely the keeping of
the Church's worship; and the specific, which points to the
seventh day, pertains to ceremony ... it is not binding on us;
therefore, we have gatherings on the first day, namely on
     It is hard to understand the logic behind such reasoning.
How can the principle of setting aside one day or some time of
the week "to maintain the office of preaching and public worship
be considered as moral, while the actual specification of the
seventh day be treated as ceremonial, that is, pertaining "only
to the government of Israel"? To argue that the seventh day is
ceremonial because it cannot be discovered by unaided human
reason (Natural Law), is to fail to recognize that neither can
human reason alone discover the principle that some time must be
set aside for maintaining "the office of preaching and public
worship." The latter principle, in fact, cannot even be
explicitly derived from the Fourth Commandment, where mention is
made not of attending public preaching services on the Sabbath
but only of resting unto the Lord (Ex. 20: 10). The notion of the
Decalogue as based on or supported by Natural Law is a
fabrication of scholasticism (influenced by classical moral
philosophy). In the Scriptures the Sabbath and the rest of the
Ten Commandments are rooted not on human reason but on a special
divine revelation. The fact that unaided human reason can
discover some of the ethical values of the Decalogue may show
their rationality but not their origin.
     The Lutheran distinction between moral and ceremonial or
natural (creation) and Mosaic aspects of the Sabbath can be
viewed as an honest but inadequate effort to save some of the
values of the Sabbath in the face of two opposite threats: on the
one side, there were radical antinomians who denied the need for
observing any day; on the other side there were Catholic and
Reformed legalists who defended the observance of holy days as
things "necessary to salvation." The Augsburg Confession refers
to these "monstrous disputations" and explains that "these errors
crept into the Church when righteouness of faith was not taught
clearly enough."  Luther is to be commended for his efforts to
steer clear of the Scylla of legalism and the Charybdis of
antinomianism. It is only regrettable that to charter such a
course, he rejected as Mosaic and ceremonial those vital meanings
and functions of the seventh-day Sabbath which, as we shall see,
enable believers to understand and experience "righteousness of
faith." Instead, Luther chose to retain Sunday, as a convenient
day "ordained by the church for the sake of the imperfect laity
and the working class," who need "at least one day in the week
... to rest and ... to attend divine service." Luther's radical
distinction between natural law and Mosaic law and between Law
and Gospel, was adopted and developed to extremes by radicals
such as Anabaptists, leftist Puritans, Quakers, Mennonites,
Hutterites and many modern antinomian denominations. These have
generally claimed that the Sabbath is not a creation ordinance
but a Mosaic institution which Christ fulfilled and abolished.
Consequently, believers in the Christian dispensation are free
from the observance of any special day.


     The Catholic view of the Sabbath in the sixteenth century
reflects basically Aquinas' distinction between Mosaic and
Natural Law. This can be seen, for example, in the Catechism of
the Council of Trent (1566), the so-called "Roman Catechism." The
fourth chapter of part III explains the difference between the
Sabbath and the rest of the commandments, saying: "The other
precepts of the Decalogue belong to the natural law, and are
perpetual and unalterable ... because they agree with the law of
nature, by the force of which men are impelled to their
observance; whereas this commandment, touching the sanctification
of the Sabbath, if considered as to the time appointed (for its
observance), is not fixed and unalterable, but susceptible of
change, nor does it belong to the moral but ceremonial law,
neither is it a principle of the natural law ... but from the
time the people of Israel were liberated from the bondage of
Pharaoh, they observed the Sabbath day." The conclusion that
follows is that "the time when the observance of the Sabbath [as
the seventh day] was to be removed, is that the same time when
the other Hebrew rites and ceremonies were to be abrogated,
namely, at the death of Christ." 
     The irrationality of viewing only the specification of the
seventh day within the Fourth Commandment, as a Mosaic or
ceremonial law, was exposed earlier. As a further comment, it
should be pointed out that on the basis of Natural Law, even
the second commandment which forbids the worshiping of
iconographic (pictorial) representation of the Deity (Ex. 20:3-6)
should be treated as ceremonial, since it can hardly be defended
on the basis of human reason alone. This may be a reason for the
Catholic deletion of the second commandment (Ex. 20:3-6) from
their Decalogue.  

     But, is human reason the legitimate criterion for accepting
or rejecting precepts of the Decalogue? Apparently the Catholic
Church has taken this position to defend her right to introduce
the observance not only of Sunday but of other days as well.
Examples of such a claim abound, especially in Catholic documents
of the sixteenth century. Johann Eck (1486-1543) for instance, in
his Enchiridion directed against some of the Reformers, argues
that "If the church has had power to change the Sabbath of the
Bible into Sunday and to command Sunday keeping, why should it
not have also this power concerning other days? ... If you omit
the latter, and turn from the church to the Scripture alone, then
you must keep the Sabbath with the Jews, which has been kept from
the beginning of the world." 
     It is noteworthy that Eck, though claiming the authority of
the Catholic Church for the change of the Biblical Sabbath into
Sunday, still acknowledges the creation origin of the Sabbath,
when saying that it "has been kept from the beginning of the
world."  The same view is expressed in a more official Catholic
document, the "Catechism o f the Council of Trent" (1566). "The
Sabbath," the Catechism explains, "is so called by the Lord in
Exodus (Ex. 20:8-11; Gen. 2:2), because having finished and
completed the creation of the world, 'God rested from all his
work which he had done (Gen. 2:2-3).'"  A little later the
Sabbath is declared to be "a sign, and as it were, a memorial of
the creation of this admirable world."  This frank recognition of
the Sabbath as an institution and memorial of creation
contradicts and challenges the Catholic right asserted in the
same document to alter it: "It pleased the Church of God, that
the religious celebration of the Sabbath day should be
transferred to the Lord's day."  This unresolved contradiction,
as we shall soon see, reappears in a different and yet similar
form in the Reformed tradition.

     Radical reformers promoted two opposing views regarding the
Sabbath. One group, mentioned earlier, pressed to its logical
conclusion the Lutheran distinction be tween the Old and New
Testaments, rejecting the observance of the Sabbath or of any
day, as part of the Mosaic dispensation which Christ had
fulfilled and replaced with the dispensation of Grace. Another
group, however, pursued the logical


To be continued

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