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The Sabbath under Crossfire #11

The Sabbath and the Savior #1

                        THE SABBATH UNDER CROSSFIRE


by Samuele Bacchiocchi PhD


     The human heart longs for constant reassurance of divine
forgiveness, acceptance, and salvation. We each want to know,
"Has God really forgiven and saved me?" In Scripture, the
reassurance of divine forgiveness and salvation is communicated
not only verbally but also through types and symbols. The
sacrificial system, baptism, the Lord's Supper, footwashing, and
the Sabbath are all institutions established by God to help
believers conceptualize and experience the assurance of
     The Sabbath occupies a unique place among the various
Godgiven institutions. It is unique in its origin, nature,
survival, and function. It is unique in its origin because it is
the first institution established by God to invite His people to
enter into the joy of His rest and fellowship (Gen 2:23; Heb
4:3-10). It is unique in its nature because it is not a material
object or a place accessible only to few, but a day (time)
available to all. Being time, the Sabbath invites the believers
to experience divine fellowship not through "holy objects," but
in time shared together.
     The Sabbath is unique in its survival because it has
survived the Fall, the Flood, the Egyptian slavery, the
Babylonian exile, the Roman anti-Sabbath legislation (promulgated
by Emperor Hadrian in A.D.135), the French and Russian temporary
introduction of the ten-day week, and the recent attempts to
negate its validity for today by numerous Catholic and Protestant
doctoral dissertations, the Pope's Pastoral Letter "Dies Domini,"
and anti-Sabbath publications produced by former Sabbatarians. It
is unique in its function because it has helped Jews and
Christians to conceptualize, internalize, and experience the
reality of God's creative and redemptive accomplishments.

Importance of This Study. 

     This study derives its importance from the fact that many
Christians believe the Sabbath is an Old Covenant institution
that pointed to the Savior to come. Christ fulfilled the typolog-
cal function of the Sabbath through His redemptive mission. The
way Christ fulfilled the Sabbath, however, is understood
differently by different Christians. For some, Christ fulfilled
the Sabbath commandment by terminating its observance altogether
and by replacing it with an existential experience of salvation-
rest available to believers every day. This is essentially the
Lutheran position which recently has been adopted by the
Worldwide Church of God, Dale Ratzlaff in his book "Sabbath in
Crisis," and several independent "Adventist" congregations.
     For other Christians, Christ fulfilled and terminated only
the ceremonial aspect of the Sabbath commandment - namely, the
specific observance of the seventh day which foreshadowed the
salvation rest offered by Christ. However, they believe that the
moral aspect of the Sabbath commandment, consisting in the
principle of observing one day in seven, was not abrogated by
Christ but was transferred to the observance of the first day of
the week, Sunday. This is essentially the Catholic and
Calvinistic position which has been adopted by churches in the
Reformed tradition.
     The common denominator of both positions is the belief that
Christ fulfilled the ceremonial-typological function of the
Sabbath, thus releasing His followers from the obligation to
observe the seventh-day Sabbath. During the course of our study,
we have found that this prevailing view constitutes a major
attack against the validity and value of Sabbathkeeping for
Christians today and, consequently, deserves careful analysis.

Objective of This Chapter. 

     This chapter explores how the Sabbath relates to the Savior
to come in the Old Testament and to the Savior who has come in
the New Testament. The first part examines the sabbatical
typologies of Messianic redemption in the Old Testament and
Jewish literature. Here we focus on some significant Sabbath
themes that nourished the hope of redemption in the heart of
God's people in Old Testament times. The second part considers
the redemptive meaning and function of the Sabbath in the New
Testament. Our focus in this section is on the meaning of the
Sabbath for Christians today in the light of the Sabbath teaching
and ministry of Jesus.

     The question at hand is the relationship between the
Messianic redemption foreshadowed by the Sabbath and Christ's
redemptive ministry. Simply stated, the question we wish to
address in this chapter is this: Did Christ fulfill the
sabbatical typologies of Messianic redemption by terminating the
function of the Sabbath, as in the case of the Temple's services
(Heb 8:13; 9:23-28), or by actualizing and enriching its meaning
and observance through His redemptive ministry?

     Surprisingly, Sabbatarian literature largely ignores this
important aspect of the redemptive meaning and function of the
Sabbath in the Old and New Testaments. Its focus is primarily on
the creational origin of the Sabbath and its continuity during
the course of redemptive history. Yet an appreciation for the
theological development of the Sabbath, from a memorial of
perfect creation to a celebration of complete redemption and of
final restoration, can provide believers with a richer meaning
and experience of Sabbath observance.



     The story of creation is in a sense a redemption story:
redemption from disorder into order, from chaos into cosmos.
Within the creation event, the Sabbath reveals the purpose of
God's first redemptive act. It tells us that God created this
world not merely for the enjoyment of making something new and
beautiful out of formless matter (Gen 1:2) but for the special
pleasure of sharing Himself with His creatures.
     This truth is reflected especially in the blessing and
sanctification of the Sabbath. Since it is the manifestation of
God's holy presence that makes a day or a place holy, the
sanctification of the Sabbath reveals God's commitment to bless
His creatures with abundant life through His holy presence. God
"sanctified" or "made holy" the seventh day (Gen 2:3) by setting
the day apart for the manifestation of His Holy presence among
His creatures. To put it differently, by blessing and sanctifying
the seventh day; God revealed His intent to offer mankind not
only beautiful things, but also the sweet experience of His

A Promise of Emmanuel. 

     When the prospect of a joyous life in the presence of God
was shattered by sin, the Sabbath became the symbol of divine
commitment to restore broken relationships. From being the
symbol of God's initial cosmological accomplishments (that is,
bringing into existence a perfect cosmos out of chaos), the
Sabbath became the symbol of God's future soteriological
activities (that is, the redemption of His people from bondage
into His freedom). From serving as a symbol of God's initial
entrance into human time to bless and sanctify human beings with
His divine presence, the Sabbath became a symbol of God's future
entrance into human flesh to become "Emmanuel - God with us." The
first as well as the second coming of Christ represents the
fulfillment of God's purpose for this world expressed initially
through the blessings and sanctification of the Sabbath.
     In his book "Toward an American Theology," Herbert W.
Richardson rightly emphasizes the connection between the
sanctification of the creation Sabbath and the incarnation of
Christ. He writes: "God created the world so that the Sabbath
guest, Jesus Christ, might come and dwell therein. That is, the
world was created for the sake of 'Emmanuel, God with us.' The
incarnation is, therefore, not a rescue operation, decided upon
only after sin had entered into the world. Rather, the coming of
Christ fulfills the purpose of God in creating the world." 1
     To trace how the Sabbath has fulfilled this redemptive
function in the Old and New Testaments is not an easy task for
three major reasons. First, the Sabbath has provided the basis
for constant new reflections. Various strands of sabbatical
concepts such as the themes of Sabbath "rest," "peace," and
"delight;" the cosmic week; the liberation experience of the
Sabbath years; and the sabbatical structure of time have all been
used to express the future (eschatological) expectations of
divine deliverance. Second, the liberation message of the Sabbath
has been applied, as we shall see, both to immediate national
concerns for political restoration and to future expectations of
Messianic redemption. This dual application to the same theme
readily creates confusion in the mind of an unwarned reader.
Third, the biblical and extrabiblical sources provide us with
fragmented information rather than systematic explanation of the
various levels of meanings attributed to the Sabbath. Also,
certain allusions to sabbatical themes in the Old Testament
become clearer in the light of their New Testament
interpretation, especially in Hebrews 3 and 4.

Adam's First Day. 

     In Old Testament times, the Sabbath served not only to
provide personal rest and liberation from the hardship of work
and social injustices, but also to nourish the hope for a future
Messianic peace, prosperity, and redemption. 2  The latter
function was apparently inspired by the role of the Sabbath in
God's original creation.

     Genesis provides no information on the actual observance of
the Sabbath by Adam and Eve before their expulsion from the
Garden of Eden. Yet the picture of perfection and satisfaction
(note the sevenfold repetition of the phrase "it was good" - Gen
1:4,10,17,18,21,24,31) it portrays, especially through the divine
blessing and sanctification of the seventh day (Gen 2:3), could
easily offer to believers the basis for a vision of the Messianic
     The parallels and equivalences between the Sabbath of
Genesis, Adam's First Day after his creation, and the Last Days
of the Messianic age, though not always explicitly made, are
implicitly present in biblical and extrabiblical sources. To
illustrate how the creation Sabbath became the symbol of
Messianic redemption and restoration, we briefly examine a few
significant themes.

Sabbath Peace and Harmony. 

     The peace and harmony that existed between Adam and the
animals at the creation Sabbath will be restored in the Messianic
age when "the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard
shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the
fatling together, and a little child shall lead them" (Is 11:6).
At that time, according to the same prophet, "the earth shall be
full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea" (Is
11:9). 3  This vision of the earth full of peace and of the
knowledge of God in the Last Days may well have been inspired by
the view of the First Days, of which the Sabbath is the epitome.
The link between the First Sabbath and the Last Days or world to
come, is suggested by those rabbinical Sabbath regulations which
prohibited killing insects or carrying weapons on the Sabbath
because the day represents a foretaste of the world to come. For
example, Rabbi Simeon B. Eleazar taught that "Vermin must not be
killed on the Sabbath: this is the view of Beth Shammai [a
leading rabbinical school].... If one kills vermin on the
Sabbath, it is as though he killed a camel." 4
     The Mishnah, an ancient collection of Jewish laws, similarly
states that on the Sabbath, "A man may not go out with a sword or
a bow or a shield or a club or a spear... for it is written, 'And
they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears
into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against
nation, neither shall they learn war any more.'" 5  These
rabbinical injunctions are derived from the notion of the absence
of death during the primordial Sabbath which served as a paradigm
of the world to come. The abstention from any form of killing on
the Sabbath represents a foretaste of that world.

Sabbath Prosperity. 

     The material prosperity and abundance which characterized
the creation Sabbath inspired the prophetic vision of
extraordinary material abundance during the Messianic age. Amos
declares: "'Behold, the days are coming,' says the Lord, 'when
the plowman shall overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes
him who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine and
the hills shall flow with it'" (9:13). Similar descriptions are
found in Isaiah (4:2; 7:22; 30:23-25), Joel (4:19), Zephaniah
(3:13), Jeremiah (30:19; 31:24), and Ezekiel (34:13-14; 47:12).
     Later Jewish and Christian works abound with descriptions of
the material prosperity of the world to come, often equated with
the cosmic Sabbath. 6  For example, The Epistle of Barnabas (c.
A.D. 135), included among the writings of the "Apostolic
Fathers," interprets the millennium as the cosmic Sabbath which
will follow the six thousand years typified by the six days of
creation and which will be characterized by the peaceful,
prosperous, and luminous reign of Christ upon this earth ("He
changes the sun and moon and stars, then he will rest well on the
seventh day" - 15:5).7

     The typological meaning of the Sabbath, as a symbol of the
future age of rest and prosperity, presumably explains why the
rabbinical school of Shammai prohibited contributions for the
poor on the Sabbath in the synagogue or even the giving of a
dowry to an orphan to be married. 8  In rabbinical thinking, acts
of charity on the Sabbath would negate its prefiguration of the
material prosperity of the Messianic age.

Sabbath Delight. 

     The delight and joy of the Edenic Sabbath also inspired the
prophetic vision of the Messianic age. Theodore Friedman notes
that "two of the three passages in which Isaiah refers to the
Sabbath are linked by the prophet with the end of days (Is
56:1-7; 58:13-14; 66:20-24) .... It is no mere coincidence that
Isaiah employs the words 'delight' (oneg) and `'honor' (kavod) in
his description of both the Sabbath and the end of days
(58:13--'And thou shalt call the Sabbath a delight ... and honor
it'; 66:11-'And you shall delight in the glow of its honor'). The
implication is clear. The delight and joy that will mark the end
of days is made available here and now by the Sabbath." 9

     The concept of "Sabbath delight" appears to derive from the
vision of the Edenic Sabbath - a day of joy, light, harmony, and
peace which serves as a paradigm of the Messianic age.

Sabbath Lights. 

     Sabbath delight is expressed in the Jewish tradition
especially by kindling lights on that day. This act, a
prerogative of the Jewish woman, is interpreted as symbolic of
the extraordinary light that God caused to shine out for 36 hours
in consideration of the Sabbath (that is, from Friday morning to
Saturday night). This conclusion is drawn from a curious rabbinic
interpretation of the title of Psalm 92: "A Psalm, a song for the
Sabbath day." "R. Levi said in the name of R. Zimra: 'For the
Sabbath day,' that is, for the day which darkness did not attend.
You find that it is written of other days 'And there was evening
and there was morning, one day' but the words 'There was evening'
are not written of the Sabbath ... The Sabbath light continued
throughout thirty-six hours." 10
     The Midrash, an ancient Jewish commentary of the Old
Testament, interprets the text "God blessed the seventh day" (Gen
2:3) as meaning He blessed it with the blessing of light." Adam
was the first to benefit from such a blessing because God let His
light shine upon him though he deserved to be deprived of it by
reason of his disobedience." The redemptive role of the
primordial Sabbath in the Jewish tradition is impressive. 13 
Being viewed as the symbol of primordial redemption from chaos to
a perfect cosmos, the Sabbath could effectively typify the future
Messianic restoration. The tradition of kindling lights on the
Sabbath was symbolically linked both to the supernatural light
that shone upon Adam during the first Sabbath as an assurance of
salvation and of the extraordinary light of the Messianic age.
     The prophets envision the appearance of refulgent light
during the latter days: "Moreover the light of the moon will be
as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun will be
sevenfold, as the light of the seven days" (Is 30:26). The
comparison with "the light of the seven days" is presumably an
allusion to the seven days of creation, which, according to an
ancient Midrash, were bathed by extraordinary light more
brilliant than the sun. 14
     Zechariah's remark that "there shall be continuous day ...
not day and not night, for at evening time there shall be light"
(Zech 14:7) probably refers to the seventh day of creation which
in Genesis has no mention of "evening and morning." Such a detail
was interpreted as signifying that the Sabbath was especially
blessed by supernatural, continuous light.
     One should note that while Dale Ratzlaff appeals to the
absence of the phrase "evening and morning" for the seventh day
to argue that God sanctified not a literal seventh day but a
continuous condition of open fellowship with God irrespective of
the Sabbath 15 the Jewish tradition consistently interprets such
a detail as indicative of the extraordinary light that bathed the
seventh day. The prophetic vision of the extraordinary light of
the Messianic age most likely derives from the notion of the
supernatural light experienced by Adam on the first Sabbath -
light which, according to Jewish tradition, disappeared at the
close of the creation Sabbath because of his disobedience, but
which is expected to reappear in the Messianic age. 16

Sabbath Rest. 

     The theme of Sabbath rest (menuhah) which to "the biblical
mind," as Abraham Joshua Heschel explains, "is the same as
happiness and stillness, as peace and harmony," 17  has served as
an effective typology of the Messianic age, often known as "the
end of days" or "the world-to-come."
     In the Old Testament, the notion of "rest" is utilized to
express both national and Messianic aspirations. As a national
aspiration, the Sabbath rest served to typify a peaceful life in
a land of rest (Deut 12:9; 25:19; Is 14:3) where the king would
give to the people "rest from all enemies" (2 Sam 7:1) and where
God would find His "resting place" among His people and
especially in His sanctuary at Zion (2 Chron 6:41; 1 Chron 23:25;
Ps 132:8, 13, 14; Is 66:1). 18
     These references to political "rest" (menuhah) do not
mention specifically the Sabbath rest. However, it is reasonable
to assume, as noted by Ernst Jenni, 19  that it was the weekly
Sabbath rest experience that served as a model to typify the
larger aspiration for national rest. The two themes are often
connected in rabbinic literature. For example, in a rabbinic
comment on Psalm 92, we read: "A Psalm, a song for the Sabbath
day for the day when God's people abide in peace as is said: 'And
my people shall abide in a peaceable habitation, and in secure
dwellings, and in quiet resting-places" (Is 32:18). 20  This
comment clearly links together Isaiah's vision of messianic
peace, security, and quiet resting places with the notion and
experience of the Sabbath rest.

     The connection between Sabbath rest and national rest is
also clearly established in Hebrews 4:4,6,8 where the author
speaks of the creation-Sabbath rest as the symbol of the promised
entrance into the land of Canaan. Because of disobedience, the
wilderness generation "failed to enter" (v.6) into the land of
rest typified by the Sabbath. Even later, when the Israelites
under Joshua did enter the land of rest (v.8), the blessings of
the Sabbath rest were not fulfilled because God offered His
Sabbath rest again long afterwards through David, saying, "Today,
when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts" (Heb 4:7)? 21
     The fact that the blessings of the Sabbath rest were never
realized as a political condition of rest and peace challenged
God's people to look for their future fulfillment at and through
the coming of the Messiah. In Jewish literature we find numerous
examples where the Sabbath rest and the septenary structure of
time are used to signify the rest, peace, and redemption of the
messianic age.
     For example, the Babylonian Talmud says "Our Rabbis taught:
at the conclusion of the Sabbath the son of David will come. R.
Joseph demurred: But so many Sabbaths have passed, yet has he not
come!" 22  The age of the Messiah is often described as a time of
sabbatical rest. At the end of the Mishnah Tamid we read: "A
Psalm, a song for the Sabbath day - a song for the time to come,
for the day that is all Sabbath rest in the eternal life." 23
     These few examples suffice to show that the rest experience
of the Sabbath nourished the hope and strengthened the faith of
the future Messianic peace and rest. The time of redemption came
to be viewed, as stated in the Mishnah, as "all Sabbath and rest
in the life everlasting." 24

Sabbath Liberation. 

     The freedom, release, and liberation which the weekly and
annual Sabbaths were designed to grant to every member of the
Hebrew society also have served as effective symbols of the
expected Messianic redemption.
     In the Deuteronomic version of the Fourth Commandment, the
Sabbath is explicitly linked to the Exodus liberation by means of
the "remembrance clause": "You shall remember that you were a
servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you
out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore,
the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath" (Deut 5:15).
     The connection between the Sabbath and the Exodus
deliverance may explain why the Sabbath became ideologically
connected with the Passover, the annual celebration of the
deliverance from Egypt. 25  In a sense, the Sabbath came to be
viewed as a "little Passover" in the same way as many Christians
have come to view their weekly Sunday as a "little Easter."
     The Sabbath was a real liberator of the Hebrew society by
providing a release from the hardship of life and social
inequalities, not only every seventh day but also every seventh
year, on the sabbatical year (Lev 25:8), and every "seven
sabbaths of years," on the jubilee year (Lev 25:8). At these
annual institutions, the Sabbath truly became the liberator
of the oppressed in Hebrew society. The land was to lie fallow to
provide free produce for the dispossessed and animals. The slaves
were emancipated and the debts owed by fellow citizens were
remitted. Though seldom observed, these annual Sabbaths served to
announce the future liberation and redemption to be brought about
by the Messiah. One reason for the Messianic function of the
Sabbath years is found in three significant features they

     First, the annual Sabbaths promised release from personal
debts and slavery. Such a release provided an effective imagery
to typify the expected Messianic deliverance (Is 61:1-3, 7;
40:2). 26  In his dissertation on the jubilary theology of the
Gospel of Luke, Robert Sloan shows how the New Testament concept
of forgiveness ("aphesis") is derived largely from the release
from financial indebtedness and social injustices of the annual
Sabbaths. 27  These are referred to as "the release," "the Lord's
release," and "the year of release" (Deut 15:1,2,9; 31:10; Lev
     In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old
Testament), the Hebrew term for "release" (deror), is translated
as aphesis - "release," which is the New Testament word for
"forgiveness." Thus, the Lord's Prayer's phrase "forgive us our
debts" (Matt 6:12) derives from the release from financial
indebtedness of the annual Sabbaths. The sabbatical release from
financial endebtedness and social injustices came to be viewed as
the prefiguration of the future Messianic release from the moral
indebtedness of sin.
     Isaiah 61:1-3 employs the imagery of the sabbatical release
to describe the mission of the Messiah who would bring jubilary
amnesty and release from captivity. Christ, as we shall see,
utilized this very passage to announce and explain the nature of
His redemptive mission.

     A second Messianic feature of the Sabbath years is the
trumpet blast by means of a ram's horn (yobel - from which
derives the term "jubilee") which ushered in the Sabbath years.
28  The imagery of the Jubilee's trumpet blast is used in the Old
Testament to describe the Messianic ingathering of the exiles (Is
27:13; cf. Zech 9:9-14) and in the New Testament to announce the
return of Christ (1 Cor 15:52; 1 Thess 4:16; Matt 24:31).

     A third Messianic feature of the Sabbath years is the date
of the tenth day of the seventh month (Atonement Day) on which
the ram's horn was blown to inaugurate the year of jubilee (Lev
25:9). It was the cleansing and new moral beginning offered by
God to the people on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:13-19) which
inaugurated the sabbatical release of the Jubilee year.
     The connection between the Day of Atonement and the Jubilee
year was noticed by rabbis who said: "The Lord would forgive
Israel's debt on the seventh month, which is Tishri, at the blast
of the shofar, and just as the Holy One blessed be He has had
mercy on Israel in this age at the blast of the shofar, also in
the future I will have mercy on you through the shofar and bring
your redeemed ones near." 29

Sabbatical Structure of Time. 

     The unique Messianic features of the Sabbath years
apparently inspired the use of the sabbatical structure of time
used to measure the waiting time to the Messianic redemption.
Some scholars call this phenomenon "sabbatical Messianism" 30  or
"chronomessianism." 31
     The classical place of sabbatical Messianism is found in
Daniel 9 where two sabbatical periods are given. The first refers
to the 70 years of Jeremiah's prophecy (Jer 29:10) regarding the
length of the exile before the national restoration of the Jews
(Dan 9:3-19) and consists of 10 sabbatical years (10 x 7). The
second period is of "seventy weeks (shabuim)" - technically
"seventy sabbatical cycles" - which would lead to Messianic
redemption (Dan 9:24-27). This sabbatical Messianism is found in
later Jewish literature such as "The Book of Jubilees" (1:29) and
a fragmentary text discovered in 1956 in Qumran Cave II (known as
11Q Melchizedek). 32  Other examples are present in rabbinic
tradition. For example, the Talmud says: "Elijah said to Rab
Judah... 'The world shall exist not less than eighty-five
jubilees, and in the last jubilee the son of David will come.'"


     This brief survey of Old Testament Sabbath themes shows that
in Old Testament times the weekly and annual Sabbaths served not
only to provide physical rest and liberation from social
injustices but also to epitomize and nourish the hope of future
Messianic redemption. Rabbi Heschel captures vividly the Old
Testament messianic function of the Sabbath in this way: "Zion is
in ruins, Jerusalem lies in the dust. All week there is only hope
of redemption. But when the Sabbath is entering the world, man is
touched by a moment of actual redemption; as if for a moment the
spirit of the Messiah moved over the face of the earth." 34  The
sabbatical typologies of messianic redemption we have found in
the Old Testament help us to appreciate the relationship between
the Sabbath and the Savior in the New Testament.


To be continued

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