Adventists take Sabbath as a given. We know it to be God’s special gift, offered to humanity at Creation. We know that the […]
Adventists take Sabbath as a given. We know it to be God’s special gift, offered to humanity at Creation. We know that the seventh day comes before Sunday (and many languages around the world reflect this truth). Based on prophetic interpretation, some write passionately about Sabbath laws and persecution or Sabbath and end-times—but what does “keeping the Sabbath holy” really mean in a global church family reflecting many different cultural realities and practices?
Our family lived from 2005 to 2009 on the campus of the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies (AIIAS) in the Philippines. We cherish many unforgettable memories from these years living on a truly multicultural campus. One, however, stands out.
Sabbaths on campus were always very special. The international nature of AIIAS’ students and faculty from all around the world made Sabbaths even more intriguing. Some people liked to welcome the Sabbath in a group outside their apartments; others preferred a quiet moment in the prayer garden on campus. Some left campus on Sabbath morning to serve smaller congregations around the area; others spent the afternoon playing games with their children outside. The prevailing attitude was: “If I see you do something on Sabbath that looks strange or even foreign to me, I will ask why you do what you do.”
That’s a good premise as we revisit together five key principles underlying the biblical Sabbath.1
“In the beginning” is a powerful way to start a story. Right from the outset, Scripture reminds us that time is part of God’s Creation mix. He speaks in time—and Creation happens in time. Evening and morning make the first day, the second day, the third day, until we reach the sixth day (Gen. 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31). God is thrilled with His handiwork, and the biblical narrator tells us that after the creation of humanity on the sixth day God looked, and “it was very good” (verse 31).
God, however, is not yet done. Thrilled as He is with what He sees before Him, there is one more day that awaits completion. The seventh day of Creation is unique—in verbal forms used and focus offered. God finishes the work, He rests, and in His resting He blesses and sanctifies (Gen. 2:2, 3). The Sabbath represents the climax of Creation and an invitation to rest—side by side—with the Creator. God’s rest communicates that “it is done,” that His perfect creation is complete and perfect—and all we need.
Wholeness is a key characteristic of God’s Creation before the Fall and covers all relationships. God’s Sabbath rest is also an expression of His passionate love. God wanted to spend time with His creatures. In Eden God gives Himself every seventh day exclusively to fellowship with humanity.
Jump forward to Sinai. The Sabbath commandment in Exodus 20:8-11 is the longest commandment and employs a distinct syntactic structure. The opening invitation to “remember” echoes Genesis 1-2 and the holiness that comes from fellowship with the Creator. God’s presence makes the Sabbath holy. Creation reminds us of His hallowing activity and our yearning for community. This is true in all cultures and at all times.
Free at Last
Sabbath began with Creation, but there is more to Sabbath than creation. The Lawgiver Himself helps us understand this bigger dimension in Deuteronomy 5:12-15. Somewhere on a plain in Moab, Moses exhorts Israel at the end of wandering in the wilderness for 40 years (Deut. 1:1-5). His retelling of Israel’s history is a teaching tool, helping a new generation to remember and to understand.
Intriguingly, the rationale for Sabbathkeeping in Deuteronomy 5:15 is not Creation but rather focuses on God’s liberation of Israel from Egypt. Redemption is an integral part of the Sabbath package in Scripture. In fact, Deuteronomy 5:15 represents a conscious contextualization for a new generation, making the implicit explicit.2 In Creation there were no master and slave. All creation was equally dependent on the Creator and derived life from the divine Maker. Both man and woman were created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27), and after the Fall, both man and woman (and the rest of creation) required redemption.
Sabbath is the great equalizer. We all sit around the table of God’s grace and enjoy the fellowship of the redeemed. Social standing, gender, and ethnic differences become irrelevant. God has brought us out of “Egypt”—all of us—and He did so with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deut. 5:15). Israel’s new generation is to remember Egypt and slavery and God’s mighty acts. As they enter the Promised Land, they become God’s “new creation.” Just imagine what would happen if we could remember every Sabbath that we have been brought out of our Egypts and Babylons full of addiction, hatred, self-centeredness, and self-righteousness? “I’ve been redeemed” would become so much more than the title of a familiar hymn.
The Sabbath liberates us from misguided attempts to produce righteousness and holiness within ourselves. Can we hear Scripture’s good news whispering in our ears that we can truly rest in Him?
What About the Stranger?
Creation and liberation are foundational principles of a biblical Sabbath theology, but what about the stranger? Exodus 23:12 provides a helpful answer. Scholars have called the larger context of this passage the Book of the Covenant, as it details a number of laws governing human relations. These laws concern the altar, slaves, violence between human beings, property, restitution, equality before the law, Sabbath years, and annual feasts (Ex. 20:19-23:33).
Exodus 23:12 speaks specifically about the Sabbath, and includes an important reference to “the stranger” (Hebrew: ger). In a section dealing with practical issues affecting God’s people, why would God include another reference to the Sabbath that specifically mentions the “stranger”?
The Sabbath effect described in Exodus 23:12 may give us a hint. People and animals should rest so that they will “be refreshed.” The Hebrew verb used here describes refreshment coming from catching one’s breath while resting. In fact, the noun using the same root means “life” or “living being” and already appeared in Exodus 23:9. We all need to catch our breath and become, again, “living beings.”
Sabbath rest is part of God’s therapy for stressed-out, overworked, and worried workaholics. Yet Exodus 23:12 does not really focus upon them. The text focuses on animals, the “son of your female servant,” and the “stranger.” Exodus 23:12 tells us that God cares for those who are downtrodden, those who are marginalized, and those who are strangers. Refugees and “strangers” are evermore present in many parts of our world. We do well to remember God’s special care for them and the close link to the Sabbath.
How Can I Serve You?
There exists a close link between the Sabbath and the commitment to serve others. We sometimes forget this important part of Sabbath theology, as did people who lived in ancient Israel. Amos, the prophet, wrote passionately about the disconnect between keeping the Sabbath and abusive practices aimed against those who are poor and afflicted (Amos 8:5, 6). Somehow, Israel had forgotten that God’s justice is intricately connected to His creation and redemption that involves all.
Isaiah 58 highlights this important element of the Sabbath in Scripture. The chapter juxtaposes false and true worship. The prophet, echoing God’s voice, wonders about the disconnect of seeking God and drawing near to God, yet ignoring righteousness and oppressing society’s marginalized (Isa. 58:2, 3). Fasting and praying are not good replacements for humble service and unselfish giving. Sabbath worship, it seems, cannot be a self-centered pursuit of happiness but should focus upon God’s dreams and His will for this world.
Pursuing “our pleasure” (or our “own interests” [verse 13, NRSV]3) is equivalent to “trampling the Sabbath” (verse 13, NRSV). Human agendas are not part of God’s Sabbath ideal. Rather, we are invited to look out for those who struggle, who are captives, who are hungry and naked and walk in darkness, whose names no one seems to remember.
In fact, if we are honest and take a good look into the mirror, that’s really us, isn’t it? Revelation 3:17 tells us that we think we have it all together, but in reality we are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. We think we are doing well, yet we are blindsided to our true condition. We are grace-starved and self-propelled.
What happens when we recognize the Sabbath’s implicit invitation to serve others? Isaiah 58 mentions twice the notion of “delight.” The Hebrew root is not used often in the Old Testament. Isaiah 58:13 contrasts human pleasure to God-centered delight. Instead of pursuing self-gratification, God invites us to experience the sheer delight of discovering His sustaining and creative grace as we serve society’s downtrodden.
See the Sign?
In an age of smartphone apps and GPS we pay less and less attention to signs and maps. Yet signs still matter (and not just when the satellite is down or we don’t have coverage). Signs identify locations; they highlight important events; and they point to something beyond themselves.
Exodus 31:12-17 includes a unique contribution to a biblical Sabbath theology: “Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (Ex. 31:13).
Sabbathkeeping is not an optional recreational activity. Rather, as a divine command it represents a sign between God and His people helping humanity to understand true sanctification. Scholars have long recognized the close link between the Sabbath and the sanctuary. Both emphasize divine-human fellowship and community—in space and time (cf. Ex. 25:8). Both were given by God and reflect divine characteristics.
But another dimension to the Sabbath sign is expressed in Exodus 31:12-17. Sabbath is a sign for a perpetual (or eternal) covenant (verses 16, 17) that is rooted in Creation. Scripture mentions three covenant signs in the Old Testament (the rainbow [Gen. 9:12, 13, 17]; circumcision [Gen. 17:11]; and the Sabbath [Ex. 31:13, 17; Eze. 20:12, 20]). Of these three, Sabbath is the least physically tangible and involves a consistent human response. The Sabbath sign helps us to “know” (Ex. 31:13) the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. It’s like a flag that gets raised every seven days and helps us to remember—lest we forget.
Adventists have always recognized the message of the first angel of Revelation 14:6, 7 as pointing to the Sabbath. The language of the text clearly reflects the language of the fourth commandment (Ex. 20:11). In a sense, the Sabbath becomes the subtext of God’s story set in contrast to the dragon’s story in Revelation. The loving Creator is set against the angry accuser who wants to sow doubt about God’s character. In the first angel’s message, “the Sabbath,” writes Adventist scholar Sigve Tonstad, “conveys the message of God’s enduring and faithful participation in human reality.”4 God is still around, and every new Sabbath becomes a sign of His presence, grace, and future.
Looking Back—and Looking Up
We have nearly reached the end of our journey into the Sabbath. Creation and redemption lie at its very foundation; mission, service, and the public declaration are additional nuances reflecting the perfect character of the Lawgiver.
But our search is not yet over. Too often we have become sidetracked by the intricacies of the do’s and don’ts of appropriate Sabbathkeeping and overlooked the foundational Sabbath principles that challenge us to ultimately “rest in Him.” Instead of living the Sabbath principles 24/7, we have frequently specialized in establishing a canon of appropriate Sabbath behavior.
Imagine what could happen if these principles affected our lives, not just our Sabbathkeeping? Hebrews 4:1-6 speaks of another rest. It’s rest from our own righteousness; rest from our poor attempts at true holiness; and rest from our self-centeredness. As we begin to see more clearly the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28), we too are drawn to Him who came to save the lost, the weary, and the broken.
It’s time to begin falling in love all over again.
1 In writing this article I have benefited significantly from the research found in Mathilde Frey, “The Sabbath in the Pentateuch: An Exegetical and Theological Study” (Ph.D. diss., Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, 2011), and Sigve K. Tonstad, The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 2009).
2 See Gerald A. Klingbeil, “The Sabbath Law in the Decalogue(s): Creation and Liberation as a Paradigm for Community,” Revue Biblique 117, no. 4 (2010): 491-509, esp. 506.
3 Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
4 Tonstad, pp. 479, 480.
Gerald A. Klingbeil is an associate editor of Adventist World who longs for the ultimate Sabbath rest in Jesus.