By E.H. “Jack” Sequeira
The Sabbath is more than a day of physical and mental relaxation. It is even more than the day on which we worship. The Sabbath has a definite redemptive significance — a distinct connection with the everlasting gospel.
The New Testament often uses the word rest to describe the good news of salvation realized in the holy history of Jesus Christ [see Matthew 11:28; Hebrews 4:2-3]. Ever since the Fall, this promised saving rest in Christ has been linked with the Sabbath. That is why the major feast days in the Old Testament were designated as Sabbath days of rest — they pointed ahead to the Messiah and His redemptive activity.
The Significance of the Sabbath to God
The word sabbath means “rest,” and the first think we discover about it in the Old Testament is that the Sabbath day belongs to God. He calls it “my holy day” [Isaiah 58:13]; “my sabbaths” (Exodus 31:13). “The seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God” [Exodus 20:10]. Since the Sabbath clearly belongs to God, it is unscriptural to refer to it as the “Jewish Sabbath.” Yes, it was made for man [see Mark 2:27], but is does not belong to man — Jew or Gentile. It belongs to God.
The next logical question is: Why would an almighty God, who obviously doesn’t need to rest, set aside the seventh day as His special day of rest? Scripture’s answer to this question is that God set aside this Sabbath day, this day of rest, to signify His perfect and finished work of creation [see Genesis 1:31; 2:1-3; Hebrews 4:4]. This fact becomes extremely important to our understanding of the gospel.
We must keep in mind that this Sabbath is God’s seventh day, not ours. God took six days to create everything that goes to make up our planet. Then He set aside (sanctified) the seventh day as His Sabbath [see Exodus 20:11]. Adam and Eve were created at the very end of the sixth day [see Genesis 1:26-31]. Therefore, God’s seventh-day Sabbath was actually mankind’s first whole day. Let me explain why I believe this is important, especially when we consider the Sabbath in light of our redemption in Christ.
God worked for six days in creating this world. Only when His work was perfect and complete did He rest [see Genesis 2:1-3]. Adam and Eve, on the other hand, did not begin by working; they spent their first whole day of life resting on God’s Sabbath. Only after they had “entered” into God’s rest did they follow it with six days of work. Mankind began by first receiving God’s handiwork as an entirely free gift, and only then could humanity enjoy His creation during the rest of the week.
Like creation, salvation begins, not by doing something, but by resting in the perfect, finished work Jesus accomplished in His doing and dying. Just as Adam and Eve spent their first day in Sabbath rest before talking up their work, we can enjoy the blessings of salvation only by first resting in the completed righteousness Jesus has provided. From this perspective, the Sabbath rest becomes the very foundation of the glorious truth of righteousness by faith.
When He set apart, or sanctified, the Sabbath, God was entering into an everlasting covenant relationship with mankind, a relationship in which men and women were always to be dependent on Him. Thus, when Adam and Eve sinned, choosing to be self-dependent rather than God-dependent, they broke this God-given covenant. One result was that they forfeited the true rest that the Sabbath symbolized. “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food” [Genesis 3:19]. But Jesus came into this world for the express purpose of restoring this rest that mankind lost at the Fall [see Matthew 11:28]. In doing this, He restored the significance of the Sabbath. In order to receive the good news of salvation, we must return to this fundamental principle of Sabbath rest that was given to our first parents.
The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus Christ was the agent through whom God accomplished both creation [see John 1:3; Ephesians 3:9; Colossians 1:16; Revelation 3:14] and redemption [see John 3:16-17; Romans 3:24; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Galatians 3:13; Colossians 1:14; Titus 2:14; Hebrews 9:12; 1 Peter 1:18; Revelation 5:9]. Just as Christ finished creation at the end of the sixth day and rested the seventh, so He also finished redemption on the cross on the sixth day and rested in the tomb the seventh day [see John 17:4; 19:30].
Further, Christ’s work of restoration, which will be realized at the end of His heavenly ministry [see 1 Corinthians 15:24-26; Hebrews 2:13], is also linked with the Sabbath [see Isaiah 66:22-23]. His work of restoration will be a perfect, finished work as were creation and redemption. So the Sabbath has a threefold significance to us — creation, redemption, and restoration.
Because Christ is our Creator, Redeemer, and Restorer, He has the perfect right to claim the title “Lord of the Sabbath day” [see Mark 2:28; Luke 6:5; Revelation 1:10]. When the Jewish nation rejected Him as the Messiah, their Sabbath keeping lost its meaning. That is why Hebrews says, “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest [sabbatismos, a “sabbath-keeping rest”] for the people of God” [Hebrews 4:9]. Any Sabbath keeping that is not motivated by a faith response to Christ’s perfect atonement on the cross is a sham and still belongs to the old covenant of salvation by works.
The Significance of the Sabbath to Man
God created the world through Christ for our benefit. We made no contribution to creation; we only received it as a gift of God. Although the Sabbath belongs to God, as we have seen, He made it, like the world, for our benefit [see Exodus 31:13; Ezekiel 20:12; Mark 2:27]. God set apart, or sanctified, the Sabbath rest to remind us that He is our loving provider and that we are dependent on Him for all our needs.
It’s significant that God made this Sabbath covenant with mankind before the Fall. So, had Adam and Eve never sinned, we would still be keeping God’s Sabbath as a day of rest. When sin entered the world, however, it destroyed God’s original significance for Sabbath rest. Sin is rebellion against our dependence on God and a demand to be dependent only on self [see Romans 1:21; Philippians 2:21]. Therefore, when sin separated us from God [see Isaiah 59:2], the Sabbath could no longer have the same significance for us. Mankind had to introduce his own rest day, Sunday. Unlike God’s rest day, however, man’s substitute day does not point to a perfect, finished work — either of creation or redemption. This fact is very important in light of the final showdown that will occur in the great controversy between salvation by faith, symbolized by God’s Sabbath, versus salvation by works, symbolized by man’s Sunday.
At the cross, Jesus Christ accomplished a perfect, finished redemption on the sixth day, just as He had completed a perfect work of creation at the end of the sixth day [see Luke 23:54]. In this way He restored the Sabbath rest that He had given at Eden and that had been marred by sin. Now, all who receive the gospel by faith once again enter into God’s saving rest, of which the Sabbath is a sign [see Hebrews 4:2-3; cf. Exodus 31:13; Ezekiel 20:12; Isaiah 58:13-14]. In His Sermon on the Mount, Christ clearly taught that if we first seek His kingdom and His righteousness (which is by faith), all our needs will be supplied [see Matthew 6:33].
In other words, the gospel has made a way of escape for us from self-dependence, which is the source of all our problems, to God-dependence, which is the source of all our joy and happiness. But one thing is sure — we cannot serve two masters; we cannot serve self and God [Matthew 6:24-34]. When we enter into God’s rest, His day of rest must become our day of rest. This is the outward sign that we have chosen to live by faith alone. Keeping the Sabbath from this motivation of faith is true Sabbath keeping.
The Law and the Sabbath
Before we can consider the Sabbath in relationship to God’s law, we must first remind ourselves that God never gave the law as a means of salvation [see Romans 3:28; Galatians 2:16]. This is the error the Jews made, the error of the old covenant that ended in miserable failure [see Romans 9:30-33; Hebrews 8:7-11]. Therefore, anyone who keeps God’s Sabbath in order to be saved is repeating the mistake of the Jews and is perverting the very purpose of the Sabbath rest. When we make Sabbath keeping a requirement for salvation, we are not entering rest at all. We are not pointing to a finished, complete salvation. Instead, we are turning the Sabbath into the very opposite of what God intended it to be; we are making it into a means of salvation by works. Such Sabbath keeping is meaningless.
How, then, should a Christian, who has been saved by grace through faith alone, keep the Sabbath?
The New Testament, especially the apostle Paul, clearly teaches that God never gave His law as a method of salvation. In fact, before God gave the Jews His law on Mount Sinai, He stated, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” [Exodus 20:2]. God first redeemed Israel and then gave the Israelites His law. Moses applied this principle specifically to Sabbath keeping [see Deuteronomy 5:15]. Yet, although God did not give us the law as a means of salvation, He certainly wants us to consider His law to be the standard for Christian living [see Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:13-14; 1 John 5:1-3, 2 John 6].
The true motivation for keeping the law, Jesus said, was love [see Matthew 22:36-40; John 14:15]. The Old Testament agreed [see Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18]. Yet we cannot generate this love out of our own sinful natures, because it is the agape love, the self-sacrificing love, that originates with God. Therefore, God gives us this agape love as His gift to us through His Holy Spirit [see 1 Corinthians 12:31; 13:13]. He doesn’t give us this love so that it will flow back to Him; that would make God Himself self-centered! Rather, He gives us this unselfish love so that we can reflect it toward others as evidence of the saving power of the gospel over self [see John 13:34-35; Romans 5:5; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15]. This is what it means to have the law written on our hearts [see Hebrews 8:10].
The first four of God’s Ten Commandments have to do with our relationship to Him; the last six deal with our relationship with our neighbors. Since agape “is not self-seeking” [1 Corinthians 13:5], how do we obey the first four commandments without making God self-centered? We do so by remembering that the only way we can obey is through faith. As we obey the first four commandments by faith, the result is the new-birth experience, and with this experience comes the gift of agape love that enables us to keep the last six commandments of love for our neighbors.
The New Testament has little to say about our obeying the first four commandments, because all God wants from us, in regard to our relationship with Him, is faith [see John 6:28-29; Hebrews 11:6; 1 John 3:23]. He wants us to have a faith that is motivated by a heart appreciation for His supreme gift of love, Jesus Christ [see Galatians 5:6]. So the only way we can acceptably keep the fourth commandment, the Sabbath commandment, is by faith — entering by faith into God’s rest. The Sabbath becomes, in this context, the seal of righteousness by faith.
The Sabbath-Sunday Controversy
The real issue is not the one we usually think of — Sabbath keeping versus Sunday keeping. Many sincere Sunday-keeping Christians today are fully resting in Christ for salvation. They are keeping the wrong day but for the right reason. Likewise, many sincere Sabbath-keeping Christians do so because they think their Sabbath keeping will save them. They are keeping the right day for the wrong reason. Both need to be corrected and, if we let Him, the Holy Spirit will do this as He guides us into all truth [see John 16:13].
When the gospel of the kingdom is preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations [see Matthew 24:14], it will polarize the human race into only two camps — believers and unbelievers [see 1 John 5:19]. There will be only those who are fully resting in Christ and those who have ultimately rejected Him. In the end time, all who come under the banner of Christ will worship the Lord of the Sabbath; their Sabbath keeping will be the outward sign or seal of the righteousness they have already received by faith, just as Abraham’s circumcision was “a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” [Romans 4:11].
In the end time, those who have deliberately turned their backs on God’s free gift of salvation in Christ will worship the dragon that gives power to the beast [see Revelation 13:3-4]. They will exalt Sunday as man’s day of rest in defiance of God’s rest day. The issue, then, in the final conflict will not be between two groups of Christians, or even between two rest days, but between two opposing methods of salvation. The conflict will be between the seventh-day Sabbath, signifying salvation by faith alone, and Sunday, signifying salvation by human effort.
The fundamental issue throughout Scripture is salvation by faith versus salvation by works. At the heart of the Bible message is salvation by grace made effective through faith alone [see Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 3:28; Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8-9; Hebrews 10:38-39; Hebrews 11:1-40]. At the heart of every false religion is salvation by works. In ancient times, Sunday became not only man’s day of physical and mental rest, but above all it symbolized his day of spiritual rest and worship based on the pagan belief that the sun was the chief of gods. This became prominent in the Roman Empire of Christ’s day. Hence, at its very foundation, Sunday rest is a pagan institution representing self-righteousness in contradiction to God’s Sabbath, the sign of righteousness by faith. These two opposing concepts of salvation have been in conflict since the Fall and can never be reconciled.
When the true gospel of righteousness by faith will be fully recovered and preached in all the world for a witness, every person will have to make a choice — either for or against Christ [see Deuteronomy 30:19-20; Joshua 24:13-15; Romans 9:30-33; Philippians 3:3-9]. At that time, the Sabbath will become God’s seal, representing righteousness by faith. Sunday keeping, in contrast, will represent the mark of the beast, signifying mankind’s rejection of God’s saving grace in Christ [see Revelation 14:10-11]. When laws legally establishing Sunday worship are enacted, it will indicate the world’s deliberate and ultimate rejection of God’s loving offer to salvation through His Son.
This is the “the abomination that causes desolation” of which Christ spoke [Matthew 24:15]. Those who will then insist on Sunday rest in willful opposition to God’s Sabbath will receive the plagues, God’s wrath poured out without mixture [see Revelation 14:9-11]. In contrast, those who will stubbornly cling to the seventh-day Sabbath will manifest a faith in God that is unshakable. They will go through the great time of trouble and wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb [see Revelation 7:14].
Because even so many Christians still have confused ideas about salvation, the true nature of the controversy between God’s Sabbath and man’s Sunday is also not clearly understood. But when the two opposing methods of salvation come clearly into focus, then the true importance of the Sabbath will also be clearly seen. At that time Sabbath keeping will become a test of faith.
At that time, may God give each of us the grace and courage to stand for truth. “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people” [Revelation 22:20-21].