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The Altar of Sacrifice

Altar

“The altar of burnt offering emphasizes the need for sacrificial atonement and consecration, but in the Old Testament, animal sacrifices only gave access to a copy of the heavenly temple, and these sacrifices needed to be repeated daily. Jesus’ sacrificial death is a perfect, once-for-all time sacrifice. On the cross, Jesus Christ ransoms, cleanses, and sanctifies those who trust in Him alone by faith. Only those who have been made holy by Christ may approach God without fear.”[i]

The world prior to the entrance of sin was a world of peaceful fellowship and harmony between God and humankind, but alas, only two people enjoyed that paradise, and that only temporarily. The seventh-day rest following creation was soon disrupted, and immediately two animals were slain by God to reestablish the first couple’s relationship with Him. These animals were the first living things to experience death. They were a fitting demonstration of the mortality Adam and Eve brought upon their descendants, but also of the grace to be experienced through a substitutionary sacrifice. With all humanity now in exile from Eden, that paradisaical day of rest came to signify the state of perfection to which God would eventually bring his people (Gen 3:15). Scripture records a few instances of offerings, sacrifices, and altars in the lives of the patriarchs leading up to the Mosaic covenant (Gen 3:21 God; Gen 4:3-4 Cain/Abel; Gen 8:20 Noah; Gen 12:7; 13:18; 22:2, 13 Abraham/Isaac; Gen 31:54; 35:7 Jacob; Ex 10:25 Moses/Pharaoh; Ex 12 Passover; Ex 18:12 Jethro; Ex 20:22-26 personal). But the Mosaic covenant would amplify the predicament of sin by legislating a system of blood-letting sacrifices by a family of priests at a central temple according to the law and its calendar. Alexander points out the necessity of sacrificial atonement to ransom, cleanse, and sanctify the sinner. The bronze altar, as part of the temple complex, served to emphasize that blood atonement was key to approaching God who was distanced from His creation due to their sin. The bronze altar that witnessed the exertions of countless priests and the deaths of countless animals looked back to the garden sacrifices for Adam and Eve and it looked forward to the singular sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God. Its centrality to Jewish worship is evidenced by their query to Christians, “Where is your altar?”

The altar of sacrifice answers the question, “Who may (re)enter into God’s presence?” Only those who have been forgiven of sin via substitution, cleansed in sanctification, and consecrated through participation in the covenant meal. Moses was able to ascend to the top of Mount Sinai, the elders up its side, and the general population at its foot. Similarly, the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, priests could enter the Holy place and the people could gather in the courtyard containing the altar. The realities that these types looked forward to are in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, His priestly access to the Holy of Holies in heaven, and our participation in the new covenant “meal” by faith (Jn 6:53-58). Jesus has ascended to the right hand of God, but even though His work is “finished” we have not yet entered into heaven as these types adumbrate.

The message of Hebrews is certain: The sacrifice of Jesus’ life need not be repeated since He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified (Heb 10:14). His traumatic death provided complete redemption for sin, a result not possible by the thousands of animals previously sacrificed each year at the temple altar. Similarly, the temple structures are also unnecessary since Jesus, our High Priest, having completed the work of redemption, is seated at the right hand of God (Heb 9:11; 10:12). But may we not erect in our churches a model of the altar to remind us that by virtue of Christ’s sacrifice there remains a promise that we will forever dwell in His presence (Jn 17:24; 1 Cor 13:12; 2 Cor 5:6; 1 Jn 3:2)? Is not the altar fulfilled only in part since we are entreated to continue to make sacrifices and offerings to God (Rom 12:1; Phil 2:17; 4:18; Heb 13:5, 16; 1 Pet 2:5)?

The author of Hebrews answers these questions for us. “We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat” (Heb 13:10). This is not an altar of unhewn stones (Ex 20:24-26) erected in our churches for the sake of symbolism or ritual. Our altar is where the sacrifice of Jesus Christ took place—the cross on Golgotha—not ever to be employed again. This put wavering Jews to task to choose between the tangible altar of Judaism or the symbolical altar of Christ. Christ’s altar inspires His followers to take up their cross outside the camp and share in His sufferings (Heb 13:13-14). His altar dispenses with the rituals in the temple court and calls for sacrifices of praise to God and service to fellow believers (Heb 13:15-16).  “Christ is our altar,” say Turretin, “on the cross, by immolation; in heaven, by intercession; on the table, by commemoration.”[ii]

Commenting on the “altar” of Christ, Calvin states,

This is a beautiful adaptation of an old rite under the Law, to the present state of the Church. There was a kind of sacrifice appointed, mentioned in the sixteenth chapter of Leviticus, no part of which returned to the priests and Levites. This, as he now shows by a suitable allusion, was accomplished in Christ; for he was sacrificed on this condition, that they who serve the tabernacle should not feed on him. But by the ministers of the tabernacle he means all those who performed the ceremonies. Then that we may partake of Christ, he intimates that we must renounce the tabernacle; for as the word altar includes sacrificing and the victim; so tabernacle, all the external types connected with it. Then the meaning is, “No wonder if the rites of the Law have now ceased, for this is what was typified by the sacrifice which the Levites brought without the camp to be there burnt; for as the ministers of the tabernacle did eat nothing of it, so if we serve the tabernacle, that is, retain its ceremonies, we shall not be partakers of that sacrifice which Christ once offered, nor of the expiation which he once made by his own blood; for his own blood he brought into the heavenly sanctuary that he might atone for the sin of the world.”[iii]

Unphased by the perfection of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice and the imperfection of repeated ritual sacrifices, the Roman Catholic Church holds that “a church…[is] where the faithful assemble, and where is worshipped the presence of the Son of God our Savior, offered for us on the sacrificial altar…”[iv] In limited agreement with Protestants, Catholics declare that the altar of the NC is the cross of Jesus Christ. However, their man-made doctrines demand a physical altar for the sacrament of the eucharist, and to effect and apply Christ’s sacrifice as an unbloody sacrifice on a daily basis.[v] If you have a physical altar, there must be a physical Christ upon it. If Christ is physically present, there must be a physical place for Him to be offered again and again. However, based on the perfection of Christ’s sacrifice on the altar of the cross, Turretin questions the need for any ongoing propitiatory sacrifice, even if Catholics call it a “sacrifice of commemoration” or a “sacrifice of application.”

The perfection of this sacrifice being established, however, the necessity of the sacrifice of the Mass is taken away. For to what purpose should Christ be offered further for the propitiation of sin, if once by the offering of himself he most perfectly obtained it? Therefore, either the sacrifice of the cross must be convicted of insufficiency or the falsity of the sacrifice of the Mass be acknowledged as not only useless, but also injurious and derogatory to the sacrifice of the cross.[vi]

There is danger awaiting those who seek to emulate the cultus of Judaism. Christians are not encouraged to continue to practice Jewish rituals to keep before them what the rituals foreshadowed. The Lord gave the church a simple ritual—a meal of unity in Him and with each other—to serve as 1) a reminder of a past event, perfect in satisfying the wrath of God for our sins (Christ on the cross) and 2) a promise of its full and complete consummation (a bodily resurrection into His heavenly presence). We do not need an altar to observe this symbolic and commemorative meal because the true sacrifice of Christ’s blood fulfilled the purpose of Israel’s altar. Nor should Christians employ the artifacts of Jewish temple worship if what they foreshadowed has only been conveyed in part. Jesus was clear that whoever “eats his flesh and drinks his blood has eternal life” (Jn 6:54).[vii] When we enter into and share in His life by faith, we have eternal life as a present, continuous possession. However, there is more to be realized by Jesus’ death on the cross. He then promised that He will “raise him up at the last day” (Jn 6:39-40) which indicates a benefit of eternal life yet to come. Even the access that we have now to approach the throne of God in prayer and petition (Heb 10:19-22)—clearly a fulfillment of His priestly service at the altar—is but a taste of the eventual and final fellowship we will enjoy in His presence (Rev 21:3). So, whether a fulfilled ceremony—like the altar or the Sabbath—has an unaccomplished aspect or not, we are under no obligation to continue the ceremony for whatever emotional or intellectual benefit we can conceive.

The author of Hebrews is decisive: those who continue to give service to the tabernacle have no right to participate in Christian worship (Heb 13:11). Christ’s sacrifice was enough, not just for the sins that were committed prior to His death, but those in the future. His expiatory death eliminated the need for all animal sacrifices, but it also removed the need for a centralized temple in which the sacrifices took place, and the calendar that specified what sacrifices were to be offered on what days. Gone are the days of gifts, offerings, and sacrifices, assisted by a priesthood at a designated place on designated days. Instead, our “sacrifices” of praise and thanksgiving require no temple, no altar, no human priesthood, and no Sabbath. Retaining a Sabbatarian view of the week is tantamount to retaining the sacrificial altar, the temple complex, and the calendar. As Turretin uncompromisingly said, our employment of an altar, and by extension, Sabbatizing the Lord’s Day, is “injurious and derogatory to the sacrifice of the cross.” In consideration of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isa 56:7), Calvin illuminates,

“Here we have the manifest difference between the Law and the Gospel; for under the Law the true worship of God was observed by one nation only, for whose sake the temple was especially dedicated to him; but now all are freely admitted without distinction into the temple of God, that they may worship him purely in it, that is, everywhere. We must attend to the form of expression, which is customary and familiar to the Prophets, who employ, as we have already said, figures that correspond to their own age, and, under the name of “Sacrifices” and of “the Temple,” describe the pure worship of God. He paints the spiritual kingdom of Christ, under which we may everywhere “lift up pure hands,” (1 Tim 2:8) and call upon God; and, as Christ saith, God is not now to be adored in that temple, but “the true worshippers worship him in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:24)

We don’t need to infuse our first-day worship in spirit and in truth with any legalisms of OT worship. Those who argue that we must continue to observe the Sabbath because what it foreshadowed has only been fulfilled in part are no different than those who argue for an altar in our churches to continue what remains to be accomplished by the altar of Christ’s sacrifice.


[i] Alexander, T. Desmond. “The Altar of Burnt Offering” Tabletalk, December 2017 p. 15.

[ii] Turretin, Francis. Institutes of Elenctic Theology. Vol 2, p. 156.

[iii] Calvin, John.  Commentary on the Bible Vol x p. x.

[iv] “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (Ligouri Pub: Ligouri, MO, undated), p.305.

[v] Ibid. p. 349.

[vi] Turretin, Francis. Institutes of Elenctic Theology. Vol 3, p. 528.

[vii] This is not a reference to the Lord’s Supper, and certainly not to the Catholic belief that Christ is physically present in the Eucharist and therefore actually consumed during communion. Carson is blunt: “Any dullard could see that Jesus was not speaking literally: no-one would suppose Jesus was seriously advocating cannibalism and offering himself as the first meal” (Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. PNTC p. 295). Alluding to the manna that fed Israel for 40 years and kept them physically alive, Jesus asserts that if one eats the True Manna from heaven, i.e., believe that He alone is the Messiah who saves; that person will have eternal life, a spiritual life of complete rest in Him. Too, that the eternal life He grants is at the expense of shedding His only blood as a vicarious sacrifice for our sin. Believe this scandalous doctrine and follow Him. The Lord’s Supper uses real bread and wine which represent His broken body and sacrificial death. Participating in this sacramental “meal” does not bestow eternal life (otherwise, it would only need to be eaten only once).

House of God

“In sum, Israel’s relationship with God was preserved and cultivated by the sacrificial system of the tabernacle, enabling the Maker of heaven and earth to dwell with His people and fellowship. To understand the depth and wonder of such a purpose, we will reflect upon the meaning of the tabernacle first within God’s goal for creation and then as the heart of God’s covenant with his people—a purpose taken up and fulfilled by Jesus Christ.”[i] “When God ushers in the new heavens and earth, creation having been cleansed by Christ’s atoning work and renovated by the fires of the Holy Spirit, there will be no need for a temple—for God’s people will dwell with God in the House of God’s new creation. The tabernacle and temple were provisional for the era between creation and new creation.”[ii]

The residential and relational themes associated with the tabernacle and temple begin in Genesis and end in Revelation, and just like many other sacerdotal structures and procedures commanded in the law of Moses they find their telos or embodied fulfillment and completion in Jesus Christ. The design of the tabernacle was modeled after the creation, notes Morales, in its three spheres of heaven, earth, and sea. If the creation was a sort of residence for God to share with his creatures, then the tabernacle (and ultimately the temple) further develops the intention of God to dwell among His people (Ex 6:7; Lev 26:11-12).[iii] With this in mind, Timmer draws attention to the supplementary themes of priestly work and sacred space and concludes, “It is quite significant, therefore, that Exodus echoes Eden intentionally and in significant ways.”[iv] Additionally, the themes of rest (redemption) and domicile go hand in hand throughout Scripture. Rest is the state one enjoys in the place God employs. As Leder dutifully explained, the text of Gen 2:8 says Adam was “restfully placed” by God into the garden of Eden. “That is, although the common translation ‘to place’ or ‘to put’ is not in itself incorrect, the shift from śym to nw characterizes this placing in some sense as restful: The man is not merely placed in the garden, but restfully placed.”[v] The following chart demonstrates the regular, observable, and conclusive association of rest and place.

PlaceText (šbt=cease nwḥ=rest šbbt=Sabbath)
EarthGe 2:2 And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested (šbt : ceased) on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.
Garden of EdenGe 2:8 The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put (nwḥ: restfully placed) the man whom He had formed.
Noah’s ministryGe 5:28-29 Lamech lived one hundred and eighty-two years, and had a son. And he called his name Noah (nwḥ), saying, “This one will comfort us concerning our work and the toil of our hands, because of the ground which the Lord has cursed.”
Noah’s arkGe 8:4 Then the ark rested (nwḥ) in the seventh month, the seventeenth day of the month, on the mountains of Ararat.
Noah’s offeringGe 8:21 And the Lord smelled a soothing (nwḥ) aroma.
Abraham’s journeyGen 12:1 Now the Lord had said to Abram: “Get out of your country, From your family And from your father’s house, To a land that I will show you. [Note the triad of relationship spheres that Abraham leaves, and that ultimately he will be the fountainhead of a new society in Canaan—from tent to city—projecting a future restful relationship between God and his people, as expounded in Heb 11:8-10.]
Jacob’s blessingGe 49:15 He saw that rest (nwḥ) was good, And that the land was pleasant; He bowed his shoulder to bear a burden, And became a band of slaves.
CanaanJos 1:13 The Lord your God is giving you rest (nwḥ) and is giving you this land.
CovenantDeut 5:3, 12 The Lord did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us … Observe the Sabbath day (šbbt), to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.
SabbathEx 16:23 This is what the Lord has said: ‘Tomorrow is a sabbath (šbbt) rest (šbt), a holy sabbath (šbbt) to the Lord.’ Lev 25:4 But in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath (šbbt) of solemn rest (šbt) for the land, a sabbath (šbbt) to the Lord.
Day of AtonementLev 16:31 It is a sabbath (šbbt) of solemn rest (šbt) for you, and you shall afflict your souls. It is a statute forever.
ArkNu 10:33 The ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them for the three days’ journey, to search out a resting place (nwḥ) for them.
TabernacleEx 29:41-46 And the other lamb you shall offer at twilight; and you shall offer with it the grain offering and the drink offering, as in the morning, for a sweet (nwḥ) aroma, an offering made by fire to the Lord. This shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the door of the tabernacle of meeting before the Lord, where I will meet you to speak with you. And there I will meet with the children of Israel, and the tabernacle shall be sanctified by My glory. So I will consecrate the tabernacle of meeting and the altar. I will also consecrate both Aaron and his sons to minister to Me as priests. I will dwell among the children of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them up out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.
Jerusalem1 Ch 23:25 The Lord God of Israel has given rest (nwḥ) to His people, that they may dwell in Jerusalem forever.
Rahab’s protectionJos 6:23 So they brought out all her relatives and left (nwḥ) them outside the camp of Israel.
Ruth’s InheritanceRu 3:1 Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, shall I not seek security (nwḥ) for you, that it may be well with you?
Temple1 Ki 8:56 “Blessed be the Lord, who has given rest (nwḥ) to His people Israel, according to all that He promised. There has not failed one word of all His good promise, which He promised through His servant Moses.” (Solomon’s prayer)

The point here is that the Sabbath is not in a class of one, but joins many other OT symbols, types, and shadows of God’s post-creation rest of peace, fellowship, satisfaction, abiding, and harmony. Even the symbolic number seven or the six-plus-one pattern can be shown to be a relevant feature of these types and narratives. The weekly Sabbath was not the only OT figure that foreshadowed the glorious rest in Christ (i.e., the predestinating, the calling, the justifying, and the glorifying of His people), so, it need not be the only OT figure that must continue to be observed in order to keep the hope of eternal salvation-rest before our eyes.

There was no tabernacle or temple for the first two thousand years of biblical history (2 Sam 7:6-7) and there has been no such structure for the past two thousand years (Lk 21:5-6; Heb 9:8). However, the prototype for the tabernacle is discernable in the creation narrative. In this present age the Lord’s temple presence continues metaphorically through the new covenant (Acts 7:44-50; 2 Cor 5:1; Heb 9:11; 9:23-26; Rev 3:12), but at the end of the ages, the convergence of all these themes (place, dwelling, tent, house, tabernacle, temple, city) will find their ultimate completion in the unending state of the new heavens and earth (Zech 14:16-17; Isa 2:2-3; Jn 14:2; 2 Cor 5:1-5; 1 Jn 3:2; Rev 21:22).

These physical structures of the tabernacle and temple were the heart of Israel’s life with God and God’s presence among Israel, but they were, as Morales correctly stated, “provisional.” The tabernacle and the temple were not merely static structures designed to please the senses or to intrigue the mind. Within their confines a priesthood operated incessantly according to the circumstances and calendar events contained in the law. This system of worship functioned synergistically to give Israel a glimpse of the promised state of eternal redemption and perfection, yet their experience of it was limited by those stated conditions and the dates on the calendar. All of this was designed to be temporary until the incarnation of the promised Son of David. According to the law, each civil year came to an end in the seventh month (Tishri) with a triad of feasts: the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles. Rosh Hashana was the seventh New Moon celebration of the year, but it was the beginning of the new civil year (cf. Ex 19:18-20). And as with every new year the people renewed eschatological hopes for complete redemption (Zech 9:14).[vi] Tradition associates this feast with the creation of the world and the resurrection of the dead. The trumpet blasts foreshadowed the gospel call to the nations and the future call of His saints into His everlasting presence (I Thes 4:16-17). The Day of Atonement was designated as the Sabbath of Sabbaths (Lev 16:31; cf. Ex 30:10) during which one was to afflict their soul in repentance and contrition. This is still a requirement in coming before God, only during the new covenant we are assured that our sins will be remembered no more (Jer 31:31-34). Following this chief calendar event, was the eight-day celebration called the Feast of Tabernacles which began with a Sabbath and ended with a Sabbath on the eighth day. It recalled the years of wilderness wandering—a metaphor for the church age—and ended with a promise of eternal rest after the completion of God’s temporal plan for the first creation.

Getty image

What we have now as “true Israel” surpasses what “Israel after the flesh” had then; and there is even more to come, and in a greater degree, when Jesus returns a second time as the true tabernacle of God with men (Rev 21:3). We shall finally experience the glorious beauty of that eternal rest and perfection (Isa 11:10). So, what the last three feasts of the year forecasted, along with the New Moon and Sabbaths, the temple and the priesthood, was the reality of Christ’s full redemption and the finalization of that redemption when a new heaven and earth are presented to His elect (Rev 21:3). Even though the calendar rituals and the temple are fulfilled in Christ—and partially so—we sense no moral obligation to keep these ceremonies alive just to convince ourselves that what they forecasted will eventually be fulfilled. It is proper then to treat the Sabbath in similar fashion.

The building in which new covenant church-life occurs is no tabernacle or temple, for we are the “house of God” collectively—the church of the living God (1 Tim 3:5). The fact that Christianity continues to assemble together on a weekly basis no more makes the day holy than it makes the place holy; yet we are a holy priesthood (1 Pet 2:5-9). The day on which we meet is no more a Sabbath than it is a Day of Atonement or a Sabbath for the Land, for in our perpetual rest of redemption we work out our salvation with fear and trembling as God continues to work unceasingly in us (Php 1:6; 2:12-13). We do the work of building up one another (Heb 3:4), always abounding in the work of the Lord (1 Cor 15:58). And even though we await the new heavens and new earth that the temple anticipated, we obviously do not need such a temple to validate our expectancy of a new heavens and earth, nor to feel God’s presence with us or in us. We may call the building in which our church assembles a “temple,” but God does not do so. We are the temple of God, which means that temple typology has been completely fulfilled, even though there is a remaining aspect of that fulfillment to come.

Artwork: The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans A.D. 70, David Roberts 1850 Collection of Yeshiva University Museum.

[i] Morales, L. Michael. “The House of God” Tabletalk, December 2017 p. 7.

[ii] Morales, L. Michael. “The House of God” Tabletalk, December 2017 p. 9. Morales’ article is outstanding and the lengthiest of the series; however, I would like to clarify a small point of terminology. He states that upon completion of creation God enjoyed a “Sabbath rest” (p. 8). The narrative is clear: God did rest from His work of creation; that is, He finished creating, and He set that day apart with the significance of sanctification. But God’s solitary day of “rest” (Heb. shabat) was not same as the cyclical and ceremonial day of ceasing (Heb. shabbath) that Israel by covenant with God was commanded to obey.

[iii] It may be observed that the earth, Eden, and garden also convey a tripartite division of land.

[iv] Timmer, Daniel C. Creation, Tabernacle, and Sabbath (Göttingen, Germany: Vanderhoek & Ruprecht: 2009), p. 86.

[v] Leder, Arie C. Awaiting the Rest that Still Remains (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2021) p. 186. Note that Adam was “restfully placed” on the sixth day, the day of his creation, in anticipation of the seventh day, that would symbolize the ultimate period of redemptive rest between God and His people.

[vi] Howard, Kevin and Rosenthal, Marvin. The Feasts of the Lord (Nashville: Nelson, 1997) p. 112-113.

Book Review of “The Seven Day Circle” by Eviatar Zerubavel

book cover_seven day circle_zerubavel

Zerubavel presents his thorough research into the phenomenon that we call a “week.” While most understand the week as a seven-day period, Zerubavel introduces his readers to alternative day-periods. As such, he defines the week as a recurring sequence of days that is independent of the planetary measure of time that provides order for society. This book was enjoyable to read as he reviews the different “weeks” that are or have been in use throughout the world and through the centuries. Of course, he acknowledges the ubiquitous seven-day week as the contribution of the Judeo-Christian religion to the world. But French and Russian attempts to remove this particular sequence from society, with the aim to remove a theistic religion from contributing to the societal management of time, proved futile and short-lived.

Having read multiple books on this topic, the strength of this book is in the comprehensive coverage of the concepts of “weeks” as defined above and “quasi-weeks” that attempt to relate a sequence of days to lunation. He discusses the multiple issues involved in time accounting and surmises that the week is a human invention designed to give people and the societies in which they live, a shorter, recurring period of time management that purposely stands apart from natural phenomena. He suggests that the impetus for this is in the subliminal need for humans to assert their independence from the cosmos.

Since the author is obviously Jewish, I delighted to read about the incidentals of Jewish life surrounding the week; however, to him, the creation story is but a myth. This includes (obviously) the historical occurrence of Jesus’ resurrection of on the first day of the week. In his opinion, the Sabbath was not of divine origin, given to the Jews as they approached their wilderness wandering, but an artifact of Jewish minds assisted by the surrounding cultures in the 6th century BCE. He does admit that the seven-day week is specifically Jewish in origin—an incontrovertible fact of history—and that Christianity took this weekly concept across the globe. However, he omits the impact of Constantine in this regard, not even mentioning his name, and simply states that the Romans were favorable toward the seven-day week. He notes the philosophical and political regimes will often control society via the calendar, and that Christianity “deliberately modified the internal structure of the Jewish week” (p. 27). Though as I see it, Christianity lived in the Jewish week, since, as he noted, the early Christians were Jewish. The Sabbath remained the Sabbath and the first day of the week continued to be the first day of the week. Christians did abrogate the observance of Shabbat for themselves (p. 23), but they did not prohibit it or interfere with its observation by Jews (except during brief periods of persecution). Instead, Christians gave more significance to the day following the Sabbath as a weekly commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This book brings up an interesting question for Christians: In view of the previous attempts in history by totalitarian regimes hostile to Christianity to eliminate the seven-day week as we know it, would Christians resist or acquiesce to such attempts in the future? Most Christians are unaware of past trends to establish “world calendars” that ignore the seven-day week.[i] Less significantly, the concept of B.C. (before Christ) and A.D. (anno domini) has already changed to BCE (before the common era) and CE (common era).[ii] So what if a new world calendar is adopted that compels us to work four days and allows us to rest on the fifth, hence, making the “week” a repetition of five days? In this scenario, the culture demands that you work on what was formerly called Sunday. You would have to decide whether to assemble every fifth day of this new week or to meet in the evenings on what was formerly called Sunday.

Day 1
(formerly Sunday)
Day 2
(formerly Monday)
Day 3
(formerly Tuesday)
Day 4
(formerly Wednesday)
Day 5
(Off Day)
(formerly Thursday)
Day 6
(Formerly Friday)
Day 7
(Formerly Saturday)
Day 8
(Formerly Sunday)
Day 9
(formerly Monday)
Day 10
(Off Day)
(formerly Tuesday)
Day 11
(formerly Wednesday)
Day 12
(formerly Thursday)
Day 13
(formerly Friday)
Day 14
(formerly Saturday)
Day 15
(Off Day)
(Formerly Sunday)
Day 16
(Formerly Monday)
Day 17
(formerly Tuesday)
Day 18
(formerly Wednesday)
Day 19
(formerly Thursday)
Day 20
(Off Day)
(Formerly Friday)

What if a calendar is introduced that maintains the seven-day week, but at the end of the year, an intercalary or “blank” day is added to the month that does not receive the weekly nomenclature of the other seven days? That is, a Monday (a workday) would last two days and Tuesday would occur 48 hours later. This calendar was proposed in order to maintain exactly 30 days in every month, but 5-6 days during the year would assigned special names.

Sunday

(22)

Monday

(23)

Tuesday

(24)

Wednesday

(25)

Thursday

(26)

Friday

(27)

Saturday

(28)

Sunday

(29)

Monday

(30)

World Day

Tuesday

(1)

Wednesday

(2)

Thursday

(3)

Friday

(4)

Saturday

(5)

Sunday

(6)

Monday

(7)

Tuesday

(8)

Wednesday

(9)

Thursday

(10)

Friday

(12)

Saturday

(13)

Sunday

(14)

Monday

(15)

Tuesday

(16)

Wednesday

(17)

Thursday

(18)

Friday

(19)

Sunday the following week would be delayed by one day; that is, the weekend would be offset by one day. Eventually, there would be a two-day Saturday and a two-day Sunday. But as a Christian, you would have to decide whether to gather together on Saturday (7 days after the previous Sunday) or on the delayed Sunday (8 days after the previous Sunday).

Zerubavel described several totalitarian attempts to disrupt the Judeo-Christian adherence to a seven-day week. These usurpations could have been successful were it not for the resistance of Jews and Christians to conform to the new calendar systems. If Christians don’t know why they observe a seven-day week and why the first day of the week in particular is significant to religious life, then the stage could be set for apostasy. If the seven-day week is merely a human invention and the events associated with the week are merely mythic and reminiscent of agrarian days, then there is no reason why Christians (or Jews) should object to a change. Would the resolve of Christians be as unshakeable if our habit of weekly worship were based on mere tradition, as opposed to biblical instruction? Since some Christians already believe that the church could meet on any day of the week, and some are now comfortable replacing Sunday worship with Saturday evening worship or staying at home altogether for individualistic worship, one would expect little resistance to such a calendar change from this crowd.

Interesting, Seventh-day Adventists believe that in some future end-world scenario, they will be compelled by the government to work on their Sabbath. One would think this situation would affect Jews as well, but they seem to limit the purported impact on their church alone. This expresses a fear among SDAs that the Christianized state would no longer tolerate them and begin to persecute them specifically for their abstinence from work on Saturday, even to the excess of threatening their lives. Writing in response to Ellen White’s prophecy, and with the background as a former minister with the SDA, Canright debunked the notion as an impossibility.[iii] The same could be said for the instauration of new world calendar—it will never happen. But this does not reduce the Christian’s obligation to understand the meaning and importance of Sunday congregational assembly for ministry and worship.


[i] This was a more popular idea in the early 20th century. 

[ii] This is not a critical remark. Calendars and time-accounting are somewhat in the control of heads of state. The BC/AD system arose during the rule of Constantine, who desired that the Eastern and Western churches celebrate Easter at the same time. The move away from using overtly Christian terminology for naming the context of events developed in the eighteenth century and is now the established norm in technical writing.

[iii] https://blog.lifeassuranceministries.org/2021/01/28/2-the-religious-liberty-scarecrow/

Part 2d: What Are the Terms? Legalism

Glossary 23 Legalism/Legalistic 

Legalism. While Judaizing is a biblical term, legalism is a newly adopted term, often used pejoratively, to describe a range of beliefs and behaviors considered to be either theologically flawed or personally aberrant from the normal Christian life of obedience and sanctification. Obedience is compliance with a set of standards, instructions, or laws established by the one in authority, hence, the focus on the legitimacy of one’s beliefs or the legality of one’s behaviors. So, legalism represents a variety of ways in which there can be a breakdown in the proper understanding of and relationship to authority, the right application of the law, and the appropriate kind of obedience. Yet, legalism applies not only to biblical law (Mosaic law, Christic law, law of love) but more generally to any legal/ethical system that a person, group, denomination, movement, or society comprehends to be necessary for life or life beyond (Gal 4:9; 5:1). Hence, both the Jews under Mosaic law and Gentiles under the elements of the world (στοιχεῖα τον κόσμον) are enslaved to a lifestyle of legalism.[i] Baugh objects here to the term legalism by restricting its definition to “an unhealthy attitude or an empty performance of external regulations;”[ii] however, whether one’s commitment and dedication to that system is zealous or perfunctory, it remains their system of hope even though it cannot provide true liberty (Rom 10:1-3).  Also, Reisinger limits the use of the term legalism to justification and sanctification: “It is also sinful to label a person a ‘legalist’ for believing and seeking to obey all ten of the laws. . . when that person affirms and teaches that such obedience neither saves him nor keeps him saved.”[iii] While I agree with the sentiment, the term “legalism” now has a broader range of meaning.

The following illustration demonstrates the complexity and variables of law-keeping as a disciple of Christ, a citizen of God’s kingdom, and a temple of the Holy Spirit.

Paul summarized the above for Titus with these words: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works. Speak these things, exhort, and rebuke with all authority” (Titus 2:11-15). Peter assures us that God “has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue” (2 Pe 1:2-3). And Paul commended the obedience of the Philippians with these words: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Php 2:12-13). Grudem advocates a two-pronged approach to sanctification, which guards against passivity on one hand and pride on the other: “It is important that we continue to grow both in our passive trust in God to sanctify us and in our active striving for holiness and greater obedience in our lives.”[iv]

As the term implies, legalism is an inordinate or improper focus on law with respect to 1) eternal justification before God, exclusively or partially by obedience to the requirements of some law(s); 2) sanctification of one’s life before God and man by adherence to some law(s); 3) requiring Gentiles to obey now-abrogated cultic OT laws that were designed to foreshadow Christ; and 4) declaring man-made laws or traditions—either obligations or prohibitions—to be conscionable. Let us describe these in order with the understanding that there can be some overlap of these conceptual categories and that these categories reflect a speciation of Judaizing.

“In the broadest general terms, ‘legalism’ may be defined as an improper use of the law.”[v] “The legalistic use of ‘law’ refers to the attempt to utilize the works of the law as a basis for saving merit: this is an unlawful use of the law …”[vi] “Legalism (or Neonomianism) errs by either (1) requiring complete and perfect obedience to the commands of Scripture or (2) lowering the demands by substituting either imperfect obedience or more accessible rules for Christian behavior.”[vii] “’Legalism’ is a term that may appropriately describe at least three errors addressed in Scripture: justification by the works of the law, adding to or taking away from the law of God, and sanctification by the works of the law.”[viii] I would agree with Bahnsen’s frustration that “some would rather effortlessly dismiss the idea [of desiring to obey or live by God’s law] by blindly attaching the label ‘legalism’ to it.”[ix] As such, it is inappropriate to use this term as an aspersion for anyone who simply has a positive view about God’s law, as if they were denying God’s grace, without first learning the greater context and meaning of that expression.

Justification. Justification is the legal declaration by God that the sinner is free of guilt.[x] The biblical record is absolutely clear: justification is solely by grace through faith, without the doings (works) of the law (Rom 3:28; 4:5; 10:3; Gal 2:16, 21; 5:3). A “legalist” is someone who believes they may earn redemption by their own works, or that their works are instrumental causes, along with God’s grace, for salvation.

Sanctification. Like justification, one’s sanctification is also a work of God through faith (Php 2:12-13; Col 2:20). “Legalists” are those who believe they maintain their salvation by their works (Gal 3:3). This may be theologically driven due to Scriptures that appear to contradict the position that a believer can undo the spiritual regeneration effected by the Lord. Christian obedience is a must (Jn 15:4-12; ; Jas 2:20), but it must be in accordance with a knowledge of God’s will and for His glory (Rom 12:1-2; 1 Cor 10:31; Col 1:9-10; 1 Thes 5:21-22). Problems with internal attitudes and motivation for obedience can lead to legalistic behaviors. A low view of self-worth may motivate the legalist to base their acceptance with God and others on their spiritual performance (Matt 6:5; 1 Cor 9:25). Pride in and recognition of one’s impeccable presentation or ascetic practices is motivation enough for the obedience of some legalists (Lk 13:14; Matt 7:21-23; Col 2:18-19).  A legalist’s obedience may also be motivated simply by the self-satisfaction of accomplishment without consideration of its spiritual value (Isa 29:13; 1 Cor 10:29).

Abrogation. This applies to ritual laws contained in the OT that were obligatory for the Jews until the advent of Christ. This kind of legalism is identical to Judaizing. The apostles specifically excluded Gentiles from the obligation to perform cultic/ritual laws of the Mosaic covenant (Act 15:24-29; Eph 2:11-18; Col 2:16). If a law is no longer important or essential, then there is little benefit in keeping it (Gal 5:1-6). “Paul [argued] that the mark of the people of God was no longer circumcision and law observance, but faith in Jesus Christ and participation in his Spirit.”[xi] A “legalist” requires Gentiles to perform laws that were meant only for the Jews while they were under the Mosaic covenant. In addition, should a Gentile submit to circumcision, they are actually making a commitment to perform all that the law demands (Gal 5:3). If a Jew can be saved in the same manner as a Gentile, then their circumcision or Sabbath-keeping no longer provides any advantage (Act 15:11). A “legalist” is also a Jewish Christian who returns to the performance of cultic rites as if they had spiritual value (Gal 4:9). Lastly, a Christian may be labeled legalistic if they determine that it is necessary to obey an abrogated law on non-exegetical grounds, such as guilt, thoughtless compliance, health, novelty, self-satisfaction, or camaraderie. They are merely using the law to justify their behavior, lifestyle, or abstention that they could perform anyway without citing the law.

Tradition. By extension, any ecclesiastic, formative, or pietistic rules, policies, or practices can become legalistic if they become equated with divine commands that bind the conscience (Isa 29:13) or promote ill-will among the saints (Gal 5:16-26). These practices have questionable value, yet require considerable time and attention to observe them, and often create an unnecessary distinction among believers. To be fair, it is not that someone is particular about the way they do things or has an obsessive-compulsive personality; it’s that the activity or avoidance of an activity diverts the person from a balanced view of righteousness or prevents them from being an integral part of the life of the church. Differences of opinion are met with intolerance. Legalists are dogmatic and prideful about how their church service is conducted with regard to manner, music, message, or ministry. Najapfour recognizes the effect this can have on church membership: “We unconsciously become legalistic in the way we deal with the life and ministry of our church. We become more concerned with our traditions than with the Scriptures.”[xii] People are pressured (externally or internally) to conform to an exterior behavior while their inner character and the fruit of ministry is undervalued. “And therefore, we reject all human inventions, and all laws which man would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the conscience in any manner whatever.”[xiii] Some of these practices may have been well-intentioned and motivated by a spiritual goal, based on “sound inference” and accepted for generations, but when those who question or refuse to comply with those practices are excoriated or disfranchised, legalism is afoot.[xiv] “In the end, a heavy-handed legalism will do more to drive people away from Sabbath observance than it will do to preserve the day.”[xv]

Is it legalistic for a Christian to observe the Sabbath?

Justification. Sabbath-keeping is legalistic if it is integral to the salvation message; that is, no one can be assured of eternal life unless faithful Sabbath keeping can be demonstrated on the right day and in the right manner.[xvi] The NT doctrine of justification negates the possibility that works of any kind are instrumental in redemption, yet Paul’s arguments about justification through faith alone are primarily against the Jewish belief that the outward ritual of circumcision was necessary to attain full acceptance before God. Paul asserted that circumcision is nothing under the new covenant (1 Cor 7:19). If the ceremonial law (circumcision) given to Abraham was no longer profitable, then the ceremonial laws (calendar, priesthood, food, dress) given to Israel through Moses were less than unprofitable. And if this is true in the case of justification, then it is also true in sanctification, abrogation and traditionalization. In the showcase of religious sects today, Seventh-day Adventism and Armstrongism teach the necessity of keeping the Saturday Sabbath as a requirement for salvation.[xvii] They believe that Sunday worship condemns its practitioners to hell. “Sunday observance—this is the Mark of the Beast… you shall be tormented by God’s plagues without mercy.”[xviii] “The sign, or seal, of God is revealed in the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath…The mark of the beast is the opposite of this—the observance of the first day of the week.”[xix]

 

Sanctification. Sabbath-keeping is legalistic if it is part of the sanctification message. Christians should obey the commandments of God, the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ, the leading of the Holy Spirit, and the apostolic traditions—all of which articulate the obligation/command to assemble on the first day of the week to worship the Triune God in spirit and in truth. From the formidable warning against ceasing to gather together (Heb 10:24-25) we can conclude the relative importance of weekly worship in the spiritual life of a disciple of Christ. So, “going to church” on Sunday is a component of Christian sanctification, but there is a significant difference between keeping Sabbath and going to church (i.e., Christian assembly; gathering together; church meeting). The latter routine marks a time for fellowship, hearing God’s word, offering praise in prayer and song, giving to the poor, communion, and other functions. Sabbath-keeping on the other hand, as defined by the Sinaitic covenant, is to refrain from all manner of work from Friday evening to Saturday evening. It is legalistic to redefine the normative practice of church worship by adding the requirement to show piety through a twenty-four hour rest. According to Ray, “That final rest will only be obtained by those who… remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”[xx]

 

Abrogation. Sabbath-keeping is legalistic if the motivation comes from the belief that it is a moral law, which is contrary to the theology of the NT. The abrogation of the Sabbath, perspicuously taught by Paul (Col 2:16), is ignored or explained away simply because the Sabbath can be used by the clergy to cajole church attendance. The Mosaic law and its threats for breaking the Sabbath are advanced to motivate Christians to appear every Sunday for the sermon that the pastor worked assiduously to deliver. Rather than appealing to the grateful heart to join together in Christ’s presence to comprise His mystical body (Eph 1:3-2:22) and to be better equipped to serve God through the teaching of His word (Eph 3:1-6:20), a nullified law is given preeminence over the Spirit. While Sabbatarian pastors also appeal to a Christian’s desire to please God as the motivation to keep the Sabbath holy, they are essentially diverting the focus of the congregation from loftier ideals (Hos 6:6) to a non-essential law (Hos 2:11). It is legalistic to “call back the ceremonies into use,” as Calvin asserted, because it eventually diminishes Christ.[xxi]

Traditionalization. Sabbath-keeping is legalistic if a traditional mode of observation (i.e., not directly stated in Scripture) is determined to be critical for proper Sabbath-keeping, especially at the denomination level. Ceremonial laws are prone to legalism because the proper level of obedience must be legally defined. Yet, Sabbatarians do not want to fall into this Pharisaical trap. Chantry (SS) carefully avoids enumerating acceptable and unacceptable exterior behaviors: “All attention must not be to external details and endless regulations” and “He did not place elders in leadership so that they might dictate what specific course to follow in every particular.”[xxii] Admonishing Sabbath observance in general terms, Chantry at one point provided these guidelines: to avoid pursuing wealth, going fishing, watching television, and talking of sports or vacations.[xxiii] Ray (SS) tries to place the definition of work on the individual because everyone should know what constitutes work. “We don’t need 1,500 rules to keep. We all have a way of recognizing work when it comes our way.”[xxiv] He continues to identify our jobs as work, and adds housework, homework, and yardwork, to which I would add busywork and make-work. Even intellectual pursuits are think-works. Pipa (SS) is less abashed and lays out guidelines to prepare for Sabbath observance, advises giving rest to animals and working machines, and legislating business closures.[xxv] As Ratzlaff (LD) astutely observes, “As is true of any required legalistic observance, one never knows when his observance is ‘good enough’.”[xxvi]

Campbell (SS) states that the Sabbath principle is a moral one, but assures his readers that it is “quite out of biblical character for anyone… to draw up a list of prohibitions.” He quips that sportsmen arrive on the field and drivers appear on the roads knowing the well-defined rules, but “there is no list of prescribed or proscribed duties” for the Sabbath. He repeats the dictum that Sunday Sabbath is for works of mercy and necessity, but then states that “what is ‘necessary’ may vary from person to person, place to place, or even culture to culture.” He recounts that during his collegiate years, students studied night and day all through the week, but he refused to use the day for secular study. What was apparently a moral duty for him was not for the other students. One could reason, quite properly, the legitimacy of seminarians to study religion religiously and guiltlessly on their Christian Sabbath. These conflicting statements and the latitude he propounds can only be true if Sunday is not the Sabbath. Finding enjoyment and blessings and encouragement during Sunday worship is normal, but it’s not because it’s the Sabbath. Knowing that Sunday worship is good for a Christian’s sanctification is doctrinally correct, but it’s not because the Sabbath was shifted to the first day of the week. Stopping what you are doing to meet with other like-minded believers is obviously a necessity, but it is not observing the Sabbath. Freeing up your afternoon for additional Bible study, visiting the elderly, sharing a meal with company, and returning for the evening sermon is wonderful, but it is not keeping the Sabbath. The Sabbath was fulfilled and annulled, and now off the table for Christians. However, Christians are obligated to assemble weekly on the first day of the week for worship at such time the community of believers determines, but they are free to spend the rest of their time as they choose. Under this scenario, Campbell’s statements make more sense: “Not everything that is necessary for me to do on the Sabbath [the Lord’s Day] is necessary for my brother Christian to do” and “I cannot pass judgement on their decision [to do things that I don’t do on the Lord’s Day].”[xxvii]


[i] Bruce, F. F. Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), p. 202-203.
[ii] Baugh, S.M. “Galatians 5:1-6 and Personal Obligation” in The Law is Not of Faith; Estelle, Fesko, VanDrunen, eds. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009), p. 267-268.
[iii] Reisinger, John G. Tablets of Stone, p. 124. (Here, Reisinger limits the term to justification and security. The person in question may be legalistic in other ways.)
[iv] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: IVP/Zondervan, 1994), p. 755.
[v] McGraw, Ryan M. The Day of Worship, (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011) p. 123.
[vi] Bahsen, Greg L. By This Standard (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985), p. 183.
[vii] Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), p. 664.
[viii] McGraw, Ryan M. The Day of Worship, (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011) p. 127.
[ix] Bahsen, Greg L. By This Standard (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985), p. 175-176.
[x] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994) p. 723.
[xi] Kruse, C. G. “Law” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, T. Desmond Alexander, et.al., eds. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000) p. 635.[xii] Najapfour, Brian G. “2 Main Reasons Why Members Leave and Join Another Church” The Outlook (70:2, Mar/Apr 2020), p. 38.
[xiii] Belgic Confession, Art. 32.
[xiv] Sproul, R. C. “When to Stop, When to Go, When to Slow Down” https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/when-stop-when-go-when-slow-down/ (accessed June 20, 2020).
[xv] Chantry, Walter. Call the Sabbath a Delight (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), p. 107.
[xvi]  The Jews associate Sabbath-keeping with the arrival of the Messiah, teaching that if all of Israel should obey the Sabbath (perfectly) just once, then the Messiah would come (Hertzberg, Judaism, p. 117). This essentially makes God’s will subservient to the collective behavior of countless Jews, in which case, the expected Messiah should never come. Christian Sabbatarians are not far off in mimicking this sentiment by proposing Messianic age blessings on the world in exchange for proper Sabbath-keeping. “Only as God’s people return to the habit of engaging in systematic spiritual exercises for an entire day each week, then will the moral fabric of our age begin to be strengthened” (Chantry, Call the Sabbath a Delight, p. 12).
[xvii] Ratzlaff, Dale. Truth About Adventist “Truth”, (Glendale, AZ: LAM Publications, 2007) p. 33. See also, Ratzlaff, Dale. Sabbath in Christ, (Glendale, AZ: Life Assurance Ministries, 2003), p. 371-395.
[xviii] Armstrong, Herbert W. “The Mark of the Beast” (Pasadena, CA: Ambassador College Press, 1957), p. 10-11.
[xix] White, Ellen G. Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 8 (1904), p. 117. See also The Great Controversy, p. 605.
[xx] Ray, Bruce A. Keeping the Sabbath Wholly (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2000) p. 50-51. This statement might very well fit the category of works-justification.
[xxi] Calvin. Commentaries, 21:193 (Col 2:17)
[xxii] Chantry, Walter. Call the Sabbath a Delight (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), p. 37, 105.
[xxiii] Ibid. p. 39.
[xxiv] Ray, Bruce A. Keeping the Sabbath Wholly (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2000) p. 107.
[xxv] Pipa, Joseph A. The Lord’s Day (Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 1997) p. 197-207, 48-52
[xxvi] Ratzlaff, Dale. Truth About Adventist “Truth”, (Glendale, AZ: LAM Publications, 2007) p. 36.
[xxvii] Campbell, Iain D. On the First Day of the Week, 2005 (repr: 2011, Leominster, UK: Day One Publications), p. 191.

 

Bronze Basin

“The once-and-for-all washing—signified by baptism—occurs as defiled sinners repent of their sins, in faith receive God’s promises fulfilled in Jesus and proclaimed in his word, and become joined to him. Through this union, believers break with their old lives and begin a process of sanctification in which they take on the qualities of their Savior, who will ensure its completion and a place for them forever in the presence of a holy God.”[i]  

The original bronze basin or laver (Ex 30:17-21) for the tabernacle and the enlarged and arresting “molten Sea” structure for the Solomonic temple (1 Ki 7:23-26) were not only for the ministers of worship to ritually cleanse themselves of their own defilement from sin but to cleanse the carcasses prepared for sacrifice (Ex 29:17; Lev 1:9, 13; 2 Ch 4:6). The Torah required cleansing from a specially constructed bowl during priestly service, but by the time the Solomonic Temple was built, a remarkable system was developed due to the increased number of sacrifices, and to expedite and restructure the ability to cleanse both priests and sacrifices. Commenting on the Herodian Temple that followed the Solomonic Temple, Edersheim elaborates:

The first lot, which in reality had been cast before the actual break of day, was that to designate the various priests who were to cleanse the altar and to prepare its fires. The first of the priests on whom this lot had fallen immediately went out. His brethren reminded him where the silver chafing-dish was deposited, and not to touch any sacred vessel till he had washed his hands and feet. He took no light with him; the fire of the altar was sufficient for his office. Hands and feet were washed by laying the right hand on the right foot, and the left hand on the left. The sound of the machinery, as it filled the laver with water, admonished the others to be in readiness. This machinery had been made by Ben Catin, who also altered the laver so that twelve priests could at the same time perform their ablutions. Otherwise the laver resembled that in the Temple of Solomon.[ii]

The bronze laver was as sacred as the altar for several reasons: 1) it was dedicated to service with a unique concoction of holy oil (Ex 30:28), 2) it was positioned in the court with the altar, and 3) it was used as much as the altar. Failure to ritually wash could jeopardize the priest’s life (Ex 30:20), so the priests understood that the sacred bowl, its contents, and its use were integral to holy worship. The use and function of the bronze laver contribute to its symbolic meaning and typological intention, and these in turn provide the basis for understanding how this ritual was specifically fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Logically, if Christ’s sacrificial death rendered the altar obsolete, then the wash basin would acquire the same status. However, the fulfillment of the bronze basin must stand on specific historical elements and have conceptual associations in NT teachings, so that our confidence in dismissing this temple ritual is based on particular aspects of Christ’s work of redemption.

The Hebrew words used to generally describe washing and cleansing (kabas and rachats) focus on the physical action of removing dirt and impurities from clothing or skin (Gen 8:14; 1 Sam 25:41). At first blush, water from this temple fixture was used to “wash” the hands and feet of material defilement. The desired result from washing was to be clean (taher) or pure (chata); uncontaminated and holy.

The first association of washing with the intent to preparing a person to stand before God is when Moses brought the Hebrew evacuees to the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses gave the people two days to wash their clothes so they would be consecrated for the visible manifestation of God upon the Holy Mount on the third day. “So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and sanctified the people, and they washed their clothes” (Ex 19:14). The significance of this is not just that the people would be “clean as a whistle” before God visited them, but that they were removing the defilement of having lived in Egypt (Lev 18:3). This soteriological idea is echoed in the Feast of Unleavened Bread during which all traces of leaven, representing sin and the corruption of Egyptian influences, were removed from the home (Ex 34:28; cf. Ezek 23:7; Lk 12:1; 1 Cor 5:6-8). The Hebrew nation was saved from their oppressors, but also saved (somewhat) from the influences of Egypt. They would naturally rejoice in the freedom of the former, but they would have to repent from the mindset of the latter. The washing was reminiscent of their passage through the waters of the Red Sea and of their desire to begin life anew with their Lord and God, from whom they would receive the covenant (Ex 20:1-2). Salvation and repentance were recapitulated when John the Baptist urged the people of this covenant to prepare their life for the arrival of the Messiah through personal repentance, evidenced by water baptism (Matt 3:1-12). His baptismal washing was directly associated with the forgiveness of sins (Jn 1:36). But John understood that the Messiah would provide a “baptism” that transcended and escalated his water baptism.

The second association between washing and sanctification was in the preparation of Aaron and his sons for ministering in the temple (Ex 29:4-9). Their hallowing for service included unleavened bread and sacrificial animals, but it began with washing, dressing with fine linens, and anointing with oil. This washing prepared the priests for service in the tabernacle, giving them greater responsibility and closer proximity to the Holy Place as representatives of Israel before God. But this priesthood and all the rituals associated with them must yield to the greater priesthood (Heb 5:4-6; 7:4-10, 12), just as John the Baptist, himself a Levite, proclaimed to his fellow priests and Levites his inferiority to the Messiah who should come (Jn 1:15ff). This new High Priest would ritually wash the feet of His disciples to prepare them for worldwide ministry in the kingdom of God. Wrapped with a simple linen, He need only wash their feet to establish their qualification for this new priesthood, for they were made clean by His word (Jn 13:3-5, 10-11). 

The bronze wash basin is the third picture of washing with water, restricted to the Aaronic priests in the course of their service, “When they go into the tabernacle of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn an offering made by fire to the Lord, they shall wash with water” (Ex 30:20). However, prior to entering the temple arena, priests would have already washed themselves thoroughly to establish their ritual purity for ministry (Ex 40:12-15; Num 8:7). The bronze laver, then, standing beyond the altar, allowed the priests to maintain that purity while they labored in the temple court. It was perhaps understood by priests that the act of washing did not actually make them pure and morally innocent before God—it was symbolic οf their need to remain pure of heart or morally clean. In contrast, the religious establishment at the outset of Jesus’ ministry were likened to vipers to be trampled, trees to be cut down, and chaff to be burned (Matt 3:7-12), despite their punctilious attention to temple rituals. Israel was about to “cleaned” through judgment because they did not internalize their ritual of maintenance cleansing. However, priests of the new covenant may pass on repetitive water rituals to cleanse visible debris, and instead cleanse their lives of immoral conduct, their hands of sinful actions, and their minds of insincerity through repentance, humility, and confession (1Cor 7:1; Jas 4:8; 1 Jn 1:9).

These episodes and rituals in the law do not explicitly associate washing with moral cleanness. This idea, though, is eventually expressed when the word of God comes through David (a king), Jeremiah (a priest), and Isaiah (a prophet).

David: “Wash (kabas) me thoroughly from my iniquity, And cleanse (taher: to purify) me from my sin” (Ps 51:2).

Jeremiah: “O Jerusalem, wash (kabas) your heart from wickedness, That you may be saved (yasha: safe). How long shall your evil thoughts lodge within you?” (Jer 4:14).

Isaiah: “Wash (rachats) yourselves, make yourselves clean (zakah: innocent); Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes” (Isa 1:16).

Washing became a metaphor for cleansing the heart and mind from the pollution and defilement of sin. It is plausible then, that ritual washings entered the public sphere to demonstrate innocence of wrongdoing (Deut 29:6; Ps. 26:6; Matt 27:24). Sickness was often thought to be the consequence of sin. Jesus employed the symbolism of washing to demonstrate the innocence of the man born blind—then healed when he washed (Jn 9:1-7). Eventually, the baptism of John, indicating personal repentance of sin, became the symbolic ritual for the disciples of Christ to proclaim the forgiveness of their sins through the blood of Jesus Christ (Act 22:16; Rev 1:5).[iii] Christian baptism is likened to the safety of the ark passing through the judgment of water (God purged the world of sin), not necessarily to the cleansing of material defilement by water (1 Pet 3:21). Christian baptism is also likened to the figurative washing of Israelites as they passed through the Red Sea, cleansing them from their former idolatrous lives (1 Cor 10:1-2). Baptism also recapitulates the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—an event with which Christians identify (Rom 6:3-5).

In the law, washing and cleansing were also necessary for those who were ritually unclean, like a leper who experienced healing (Lev 14:1-20). Cleanness was to be achieved by two clean birds, one of which was sacrificed, and its blood sprinkled on the person seven times. The healed leper proceeded to wash his clothes, shave his body, wash his body, and waited seven days; and in near repetition, he washed his clothes again, shaved his head, and washed his body. On the eighth day (the first day of the week) the work necessary to declare cleanness increased:

“And on the eighth day he shall take two male lambs without blemish, one ewe lamb of the first year without blemish, three-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil as a grain offering, and one log of oil. Then the priest who makes him clean shall present the man who is to be made clean, and those things, before the Lord, at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. And the priest shall take one male lamb and offer it as a trespass offering, and the log of oil, and wave them as a wave offering before the Lord. Then he shall kill the lamb in the place where he kills the sin offering and the burnt offering, in a holy place; for as the sin offering is the priest’s, so is the trespass offering. It is most holy. The priest shall take some of the blood of the trespass offering, and the priest shall put it on the tip of the right ear of him who is to be cleansed, on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot. And the priest shall take some of the log of oil, and pour it into the palm of his own left hand. Then the priest shall dip his right finger in the oil that is in his left hand, and shall sprinkle some of the oil with his finger seven times before the Lord. And of the rest of the oil in his hand, the priest shall put some on the tip of the right ear of him who is to be cleansed, on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot, on the blood of the trespass offering. The rest of the oil that is in the priest’s hand he shall put on the head of him who is to be cleansed. So the priest shall make atonement for him before the Lord. Then the priest shall offer the sin offering, and make atonement for him who is to be cleansed from his uncleanness. Afterward he shall kill the burnt offering. And the priest shall offer the burnt offering and the grain offering on the altar. So the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be clean” (Lev 14:10-20).  

In this case, even though the leper was healed, he still had to be ritually cleansed and declared clean. This was achieved not only by water, but by blood and oil—the same elements used in the dedication of priests (Num 8:5-16). Interestingly, cleansing involved the hands and feet of both the priest and former-leper, and the priest had to cleanse himself with a sin offering and trespass offering in the process (Heb 7:27). More importantly, the healed person was not declared “clean” until the eighth day, that is, the start of a new week. There is no record in the OT that this ritual law was ever employed, so Jesus’ healing and cleansing of ten lepers should have been a momentous occasion for temple priests (Lk 17:11-18).

While water washing is not directly associated with moral cleanness in the Pentateuch, blood atonement is (Lev 16:24). Attaining a “clean slate” from sin was possible for the nation only on the Day of Atonement: “For on that day the priest shall make atonement for you, to cleanse (taher: to purify) you, that you may be clean (taher: to purify) from all your sins before the Lord” (Lev 16:30ff). Blood atonement on the Sabbath of all Sabbaths was the means for Israel to be “washed” clean of all her sins and to eventually experience Edenic rest. The minister of this climactic ritual, the High Priest from the tribe of Levi, washed and put on articles of clothing befitting his office and the extraordinary service he provided on behalf of the people of Israel.[iv]

“And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. So you shall speak to all who are gifted artisans, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they may make Aaron’s garments, to consecrate him, that he may minister to Me as priest” (Ex 28:2-3).

Cleansing and purification of the heart under Mosaic law was accomplished primarily by blood atonement, but allusions were made to the cleansing effect of water. The NT uses both blood and water to figuratively describe the spiritual cleansing effects of redemption. “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses (καθαρίζω) us from all sin” (1 Jn 1:7). “Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify (ἁγιάζω) and cleanse (καθαρίζω) her with the washing (λυοτρόν) of water by the word (ῥῆμα), that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25-27). “You are already clean (καθαροί) because of the word which I have spoken to you” (Jn 15:3). “Sanctify (ἁγιάζω) them by Your truth. Your word is truth” (Jn 17:17). “When He had by Himself purged (καθαρίζω) our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb 1:3).

Returning to the bronze basin, Exodus relates that master-craftsman Bezaleel obtained the necessary material for its construction from devoted women who voluntarily surrendered their polished brass mirrors to the task (Ex 38:8). Henry muses about the association between this seemingly obscure detail and the function of the Word of God as a mirror (Jas 1:23).[v] David attributes to the word of God the cleansing effect of water (Ps. 119:9) as did Jesus (Jn 15:3). It is possible that the bronze laver served as a type of the cleansing effect of God’s word, that is, His continual, “maintenance” work of purifying the hearts of His kingdom of priests who daily render services of praise and thanksgiving. But this word must be closely related to the work of the Holy Spirit, who is also likened to active streams of living water (Jn 7:38-39). By the Spirit, we are able to comprehend God’s word (Heb 3:7; 9:8; 10:15; 1 Pet 1:2, 12, 22; 1 Jn 4:2-3. 13). By the Spirit, we are sanctified in our salvation through the truth of the gospel (2 Th 2:13-14).

The law of Moses provided no “once-and-for-all washing” that sanctified and purified someone from all their sins. Like most of the other fixtures and services associated with worship, the statutes of the bronze basin were to be followed forever by each succeeding generation of Levitical priests (Ex 30:21). The repetitive nature of washing in this case can be compared to the repetitive nature of sacrifices. And if continual sacrifices didn’t remove sin and continual washing didn’t purify the heart, then continual Sabbath-keeping did not provide rest. And if all OT sacrifices can be undone by one sacrifice and all OT washings are undone by one spiritual cleansing, then all Sabbaths are done away by the everlasting rest in Christ (Heb 4:3). By grace, through faith, we have been cleansed of all our sins. “For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed (καθαρός) from his old sins” (2 Peter 1:9). At the same time, we are encouraged to “wash” daily by the word of God and His Spirit: “having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse (καθαρίζω) ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor 7:1). And after death, our sanctification and purification from sin will finally be complete.

The bronze laver is another OT ritual that finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, and like the other Mosaic ceremonies, there is a component of fulfillment yet to come. The surety of the “not yet” part of our spiritual washing and purity is made possible by the indwelling Holy Spirit, who seals these promises to us. Were this not the case, we must, whenever we sin, renew ourselves in purity with another baptistic ritual. Like the Sabbath, the fulfillment of the bronze laver by Jesus Christ has both an “already” and “not yet” aspect. If we were to apply the same rule to the basin that Sabbatarians apply to the Sabbath (that a ritual law with a “not yet” aspect should still be observed to the letter), then we should continue to perform ritual cleansings in church to remind us of the day to come when we, like the cleansed priests prepared for ministry, don our white robes of holiness (Rev 7:9-17: 19:8). However, through Christ’s work of redemption, we are forever cleansed for His service, forever free from the guilt and dominion of sin, and forever at peace and in fellowship with God (that is, sacrifices, washings, and rests are fulfilled). The fulfillment of these types is complete, even though there is more to be realized. As Greidanus explains: “Even fulfilled promises can still point forward toward the future. The Old Testament acquaints us with the concept of multiple fulfillments or progressive fulfillment, that is, the initial fulfillment may hold the promise of further fulfillment.”[vi] This is true of figures and types as well.

This study would not be complete without mentioning the foot washing of the disciples sometime near Jesus’ final Passover. This final week relates Christ’s preparation for His ultimate sacrifice, but there was still much to convey to His disciples. Like the three washings described in the Pentateuch, Jesus uses this foot-washing episode to describe three new covenant concepts: 1) of spiritual readiness, 2) of priesthood readiness, and 3) of priesthood maintenance. The primary lesson for the disciples was His example: that if Jesus being Lord would wash the feet of his disciples, then this same attitude of humility should guide those who follow Him. In this spirit the disciples were cleansed, clothed and anointed to humbly serve the flock, by caring for them and being willing to give their lives for them. This is what Jesus was about to do on the cross on behalf of his sheep. The link between foot-washing and His sin payment demonstrates the profound love for His own and the cleansing of their sins by water and by blood.

Washing 1. Potentially Clean—Spiritual Readiness. Jesus washes the feet of all the disciples, including Judas Iscariot. This is reminiscent of the washing performed by the Israelites in preparation for the Lord’s descent upon Mount Sinai (Ex 19). Many were called, but few were chosen (Matt 22:14). Shortly after the Israelites readied themselves by washing, God both amazed and terrified them with a demonstration of his power and might. In spite of this, many refused to obey God and suffered the consequences of unbelief (Ex 32:28; Heb 3:12). The warning in Hebrews applies—should one fall away following an experience of God’s goodness and grace, they will not benefit from another washing of repentance (Heb 4:2; 6:4-6). This acknowledges the gruesome end of many Israelites who previously washed, but whose disobedience revealed the true alliance of their heart.

Washing 2. Salvation clean—Priesthood Readiness. The foot-washing was for His followers: those who were privileged to understand through the gift of the Holy Spirit the teachings of Christ. For these disciples, the foot-washing signified their salvific spiritual cleansing. “He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you” (Jn 13:10). The eleven disciples were called and chosen, cleansed and sanctified for their apostolic work. True believers are also declared clean by virtue of their faith in the sin-payment made by Jesus (2 Pet 1:9; cf. Act 10:9-16). Washing clothes did not actually sanctify; foot-washing was not efficacious by itself; neither does the act of baptism ensure the cleansing of the heart from sin. We are clean when we believe on the word of God (Jn 15:3). However, Jesus, as the Prophet who should come to replace Moses (Deut 18:15), will wash and sanctify a kingdom of priests to serve Him in His heavenly sanctuary (Heb 9:11). These priests will ultimately be clothed in righteousness, though they at this present time, wear common garments.

Washing 3. Ministry clean—Priesthood Maintenance. Having declared that some disciples were already clean, Jesus states that He must wash only their feet. This corresponds to the use of the bronze laver that priests availed themselves of during ministry. “Individuals who have been cleansed by Christ atoning work will doubtless need to have subsequent sins washed away, but the fundamental cleansing can never be repeated.”[vii] Jesus dons the linen apron of a servant. Dress indicates the status of the person, so Jesus assumes the dress of a lowly servant. This is in juxtaposition to the attire of the highest religious official in Israel: the high priest whose duty was to labor on behalf of the people of Israel. Jesus, of course, is the high priest after the order of Melchizedek, but He is adorned with a simple linen wrap and prepared to serve rather than be served (Matt 20:28). Jesus revealed this just a week before the current High Priest, Caiaphas, would interrogate Him and allow Him to be slapped for answering truthfully (Jn 18:19-23). This intimate gathering with the apostles is characterized by intense personal instruction aimed at keeping these disciples focused on their calling. Jesus’ instructions and teachings, and even His enigmatic sayings, will be brought to remembrance by the Holy Spirit (Jn 13:7; Lk 12:11-12). It will be Jesus Christ’s teachings that provide direction for the church, and His word will be instrumental in saving generations from their sins, and His word will be necessary for sanctifying future generations for daily living (1 Jn 1:9-10).


[i] Estrada, Justin E. “The Bronze Basin” Tabletalk, December 2017, p. 17.

[ii] Edersheim, Alfred. The Temple: Its Ministry and Services (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1997), p. 108.

[iii] Skarsaune, Oskar. In The Shadow of the Temple (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002), p. 353-375.

[iv] Edersheim, Alfred. The Temple: Its Ministry and Services (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1997), p. 201.

[v] Henry, Matthew. Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol 1. p. 346. (Ex 38:8)

[vi] Greidanus, Sidney. Preaching Christ from the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 208.

[vii] Carson, D. A. The Gospel According to John (Leicester, England: Apollos, 1991), p. 465.

How Does Christ’s Fulfillment of the Law Affect Ritual Rest?

Introduction

Sabbatarians have had difficulty sustaining the belief that the Sabbath is both a moral and ceremonial command. Historically, the aspect of the Sabbath that was considered to be ceremonial was only the day of the week on which it fell so the Sabbath could be moved to another day. The emphasis has been on the morality of Sabbath-keeping due to its mention in the decalogue and its association with the creation narrative. However, contemporary Sabbatarians have acknowledged the typologic relationship between the creation rest and the future state along with the numerous symbolic themes of rest throughout the OT. They no longer champion the idea that the Sabbath was practiced prior to the formation of national Israel. These facts admit to a more essential ceremonial status of the Sabbath as given to Israel. However, to rescue their viewpoint, Sabbatarians have advanced the idea that a ceremonial command that has a “not yet” component to its fulfillment needs be continued by the church to keep what is still foreshadowed in the ceremony fresh in her mind until the final consummation brings the intent of the ceremonial law into full accomplishment. Curiously, this hermeneutical rule seems to apply only to the Sabbath commandment, as if it were in a class-of-one among all the ceremonies given to Israel in the law. For example, Gaffin admits that the Sabbath commandment is eschatological in function within the “already/not yet” paradigm of fulfillment. He states that those who discontinue the observation of the Sabbath based on the first phase of fulfillment alone forget that there is still another phase of fulfillment that requires “a continuing place for the Sabbath sign under the new covenant.”[i] In other words, partial fulfillment is not sufficient a reason to discontinue the outward performance of a ceremonial law. This hermeneutic also affirms that the Sabbath was not only a sign of the Mosaic covenant, but of the new covenant as well. Pipa asserts that because new covenant people are striving to enter the future rest they should continue to keep the Sabbath.[ii] “Thus the theology of accomplished redemption does not annul a continued Sabbath keeping, but requires it.”[iii] Ray states that the “resurrection rest” that we celebrate on Sunday “is not the end or fulfillment: it is the beginning… of eternal life, of the abundant and blessed rest in Jesus…[and so] the Sabbath is still appointed for all men everywhere.”[iv] The Fortieth General Assembly of the OPC disputed the argument that the Sabbath was no longer required because it was an eschatological sign fulfilled by Christ’s coming. While agreeing that the NT unmistakably identifies the eschatological character of the Sabbath, they held that since the experience of that rest is still future, the sign is still in force.[v] More recently, Beale advances the same line of thinking: “If the eschatological reality of final Sabbath rest has not consummately come, then it is unlikely that the typological sign pointing to that ultimate rest has ceased. That is, if the weekly Sabbath included the function of pointing forward to consummate rest, and that rest has not yet come, then that weekly Sabbath should continue.”[vi]

This line of thinking engenders many questions.

  • Is Sabbath-keeping essentially a moral or ceremonial law? What parts are moral and what parts are ceremonial? What NT teaching provides the rationale for making these distinctions? Are the annual Sabbaths moral or ceremonial in substance? Is the Sabbath on the Day of Atonement a moral or ceremonial law for Christians? What NT basis is there for discontinuing this and other annual Sabbaths? What other OT ceremonial laws have a continuing moral component to them?
  • What aspect of Sabbath-keeping is moral and what part is ceremonial? Does resting from work on the Day of Atonement look forward to the eternal rest? Does resting from work signify the “eternal Sabbath,” in which case resting from work is ceremonial? If resting from work is ceremonial, then what aspect of the Sabbath is moral? Was God’s creation rest an expression of an intrinsic attribute of His holiness (i.e., moral) or was it symbolic of a future rest (i.e., eschatological and typological)? Where in the creation narrative is all mankind commanded to keep a cyclical Sabbath? When did God’s rest signify the future state of His people: before or after the fall?
  • The Sabbath is a signal command of the Mosaic covenant, but where is it stated that it is a signal command for all humanity or for beneficiaries of the new covenant? Are there other symbols and types in the creation narrative that are echoed in OT law as outward ceremonies, and then fulfilled by Christ during His first advent, yet still anticipate a future fulfillment coinciding with Christ’s return? If so, are Christians obligated to keep these themes in mind by faithful observance of such OT laws?
  • What is the origin of this rule that partial fulfillment of an OT signal command does not remove the requirement to observe it?  Does partial fulfillment fully abrogate any ceremonial laws or are they all still required under the new covenant? What new covenant citations exist that demands the continuation of the old covenant law of the Sabbath? Does this hermeneutic rule apply to all ceremonial laws that have been only partially fulfilled or to the Sabbath alone? Are all ceremonial commands to adhere to this hermeneutical precept: that if there is a greater fulfillment still anticipated, the new covenant “requires” that old covenant ceremonial laws be continued?
  • Is it possible that this rule is just another attempt to bolster a seventeenth century doctrine? Isn’t it easier to bring the Westminster Confession into full harmony with the NT view of the Sabbath? Wouldn’t Reformed leaders be counted more honorable for admitting the inadequate treatment of Lord’s Day doctrine and the fourth commandment, than using logical fallacies and sophistry to rescue this teaching?

There is no question whether a final future “rest” awaits us; the matter is whether the “rest” that believers receive now as Jesus promised (Matt 11:28-29; Heb 4:3) is to be considered fulfilled enough to warrant the annulment of sabbatic rituals. “Two of the more recent attempts to give New Testament support for viewing the first day as a day of rest are those of Jewett and Beckwith, who hold that because the consummation is yet to come the sign of a weekly Sabbath rest still holds. We have criticized this view in passing in connection with the exegesis of the relevant passages, but here it should also be added that there is a sense in which all rest points to the consummation of rest; but there is no convincing reason from the New Testament evidence why this has to be associated with Sunday. Also one cannot properly argue that, because the rest has not yet been consummated, we must therefore preserve the physical symbol of a day of rest.”[vii] As Botkin explains: “The Sabbath was not only a gracious gift from God, but it was a sign of a greater reality that was yet to come. That reality has come in Christ, and so ‘today’ one can enter God’s rest, thereby experiencing the fellowship that has been waiting for God’s people since creation.”[viii] Christians don’t enter God’s rest ultimately by striving to keep the Sabbath each week on the wrong day. We enter God’s rest now by faith (Heb 4:3) on any day of the week and we experience the benefits of that rest on a daily basis by faith. The analogy Hebrews depended on was the necessity of faith, which brings not only rest but salvation. Our present rest is as sure and real as the moment an Israelite crossed the river and set foot in the promised land. Either faith is enough to enter into God’s rest or it is not. While the fullness of our restful salvation is yet to come, we remain faithful now through tribulations knowing that our future rest is sure because the reality of redemption is ours now through Jesus Christ (Col 2:16). How is the rest we experience now different than the rest we will experience in the future? And how is our redemption now different than the redemption we will experience in the future?

If Pipa is correct that the notion of a completed redemption has no effect on ceremonial rest, and instead our completed redemption demands a continuation of ritual rest, then any other ritual rest commanded by God in the law must also be performed by Christians. This means that there are seven additional Sabbath rests that must be observed throughout the year by Christians. If this be denied, then Pipa and cohorts see Christ’s fulfillment to be sufficient to annul the annual Sabbaths but not the weekly Sabbaths. However, there is no NT rationale to support this inequitable effect of a completed redemption on ceremonial Sabbaths. The manner in which the weekly Sabbath is observed is the same as the manner in which an annual Sabbath is observed. All Sabbath rests regardless of the day on which they fell look forward to the same ultimate salvific rest. What is overlooked by Sabbatarians is that resting from work does not signify resting from work. Let it be asserted again: resting from work does not signify resting from work. Ceremonial rest signifies something more profound. The restriction from work that defines proper Sabbath-keeping is not foreshadowing a future completely devoid of work. Our eternal state will not be marked by a ritual rest every seventh day nor by an eternal state of ceasing work. Instead, ceremonial rest signifies two different things. First, in terms of foreshadowing a completed redemption, ritual rest portrays the idea that salvation is not the result of human doing; that is, salvation is not by works. Ritual rest also signifies trust, because salvation is not by works, but through faith. By resting from works, a faithful Israelite portrayed that the promised rest—his future inheritance in the kingdom; i.e., redemption—was not his through works, but through faith. In other words, ceremonial rest foreshadowed a completed redemption. The 24-hour rest typified what was required of the penitent sinner when calling out for salvation in Jesus’ name. The fact that Christ provides a completed salvation to those who call upon his name in faith demonstrates that the ritual portrayed the reality of a completed redemption. Secondly, the day of rest foreshadowed everlasting peace and fellowship with God in a sinless estate. This future state of complete redemption is also pictured in the Sabbatic Year and the Jubilee. Must these ceremonies also be continued because what they foreshadow is not our present existential reality? In truth, there is no valid rationale for treating calendar Sabbaths any differently. They all portray the necessity of faith alone on the human side and the guarantee of a completed redemption of the divine side.

Following this introduction, I will present eight essays that continue to explore and evaluate the proposed hermeneutical rule that OT ceremonies must continue in force until they are fully realized at the end of the ages. As a point of departure, I chose a Ligonier Tabletalk (December 2017) that provided several brief, but Christ-honoring essays about the temple of Israel. The editor introduces the collection of essays by stating that “the earthly tabernacle and temple of Israel and all of their furnishings served Israel by manifesting God’s presence through symbols, types, and shadows.”[ix] Hinting at the ultimate fulfillment of temple symbolism in Revelation 21, he goes on to state, “God was not required to dwell with us, and God does not possess an inherent need to dwell with us, but because of his sovereign love and for his glory, he chose to dwell with us and in us.”[x] In the same way, there was no inherent need in God to set apart the seventh day of the creation week and infuse it with the themes of restful harmony, peace, and fellowship between God and man unless He, in knowing the end from the beginning, designed that seventh day to point forward to the eventual reconciliation of His people for His glory. Likewise, God was not required to give Israel a hebdomadal law that reminded them of what was lost through sin and what would eventually be regained through the seed of the woman. Scripture clearly demonstrates that tabernacle/temple worship had a beginning and an end. So did the Sabbath. Each feature of temple worship, including the Sabbath, looked back to creation and looked forward to the consummation of the ages; yet each feature was gloriously fulfilled in Christ, bringing an end to the obligation to continue them—even though they have an already/not yet aspect to their fulfillment. While the Tabletalk essays focus on tangible items of temple worship, one must not overlook the calendar given to Israel that directed the use of every temple artifact and prescribed the order of temple worship. Any priestly activities performed without attention to the calendar would amount to will-worship. The two cannot be separated.


[i] Gaffin, Richard B. “Westminster and the Sabbath” in The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century, Vol. 1, Duncan, ed. repr. 2004 (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2003) p. 132.

[ii] Pipa, Joseph A. The Lord’s Day (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 1997), p. 117.

[iii] Pipa, Joseph A. The Lord’s Day (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 1997), p. 117-118.

[iv] Ray, Bruce A. Celebrating the Sabbath (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2000) p. 52-53.

[v] Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Fortieth General Assembly “Report of the Committee on Sabbath Matters” p. 105. (Richard Gaffin was on this Committee.)

[vi] Beale, G. K. A New Testament Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011) p. 789.

[vii] Lincoln, A. T. “Sabbath, Rest, and Eschatology in the New Testament” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day (Repr. Wipf and Stock, 1999)  p. 216.

[viii] Botkin, John E. “‘Today,’ Enter God’s Rest: The Argument of Hebrews 3:7-4:11 and Its Implications for the Sabbath Command” (Master’s thesis, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2002), p. 62.

[ix] Parsons, Burk “Immanuel” Tabletalk, December 2017 p. 2.

[x] Parsons, Burk “Immanuel” Tabletalk, December 2017 p. 2.

Book Review of “Waiting for the Rest that Still Remains” by Arie C. Leder

Out of the kindness of Wipf and Stock, I received a preview digital file in response to my interest in the topic of biblical rest. In this book, he provides insights into the varied themes of the Former Prophets, a study that follows his survey of the Pentateuch entitled, “Waiting for the Land” (2010).

The idea that “rest” is an organizational theme within the books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, and Kings is one that I explored in The Sabbath Complete, published in 2011. Indeed, both “land” and “rest” occupy the minds of the authors of much of OT literature. Not surprisingly, the Lord instituted multiple ritual ordinances related to these significant eschatological themes. But Israel, having never realized in fullness the possession of the land and the resultant rest from enemies, must ponder how the Lord will ultimately accomplish His promises with such a notoriously disobedient people. These themes must also be considered by new covenant believers since they are reminded in Hebrews to be diligent to enter that rest (Heb 4:11).

In preparation for his insights into the Former Prophets, Leder reviews canonical considerations, hermeneutical views, and presuppositions that affect how one is to read and derive meaning from the books of the Bible. “Scripture speaks to its committed readers today as it did to those of old because the intended audience is that divinely shaped community which accepts this Scripture as God’s word and therefore authoritative and definitive for faith and conduct” (p. 9). Following this, Leder continues to prepare his readers with the backdrop of Genesis and the historical trajectories that set the stage for Joshua and beyond. These are worthwhile instructional chapters. The remaining chapters investigate the theme of rest in each book of the Former Prophets. I was intrigued with his discoveries of parallelism and repetition. If you decide to read this book, I suggest beginning with his appendix/word study on nuach and menuhah in Genesis.

As mentioned above, the theme of rest is of great importance to members of the NT church. The book title derives its name from Hebrews 4:9: “There remains therefore a rest (sabbatismos) for the people of God.” Hebrews 3:7-4:11 draws on passages in Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Kings, and Psalms to provide relevant assurances, advice, and warnings to the people of God. The overall thrust of Leder’s book considers “rest” to be a redemptive and eschatological theme to be fulfilled in Christ. But If Christ indeed provides rest for the people of God, this necessarily invalidates the “divine instructions” to overthrow the enemies, to take possession of the land, and to physically rest at appointed times. Instead, these themes are reimagined as spiritual realities and experiences. Leder astutely observes that “fundamentally, completing the conquest was not a territorial matter but a profoundly spiritual battle against the powers and principalities that ruled Canaan” (p 86). This understanding, guided by the NT interpretation of the OT, pictures new covenant believers as also awaiting the promised land and its rest, while concurrently engaged in spiritual warfare.

Depending on one’s view of fulfillment and its affect on ceremonies of land and rest, Hebrews 4 may become a bit of an interpretive battleground. Hebrews 4:9 is used in Reformed literature to advocate the continuation of a weekly rest, à la the fourth commandment. However, Leder does not directly advocate “keeping the Sabbath” and mentions it but a few times. Once, he uses the Sabbath as a metaphor for the hope of peaceful rest with God (p. 171). His focus is on the relationship of the experience of daily rest from enemies and peaceful fellowship with God while in the land. The Sabbath is merely a weekly duty to rest from work, during which God expects “nothing less than rigorous keeping of the covenant vows” (p. 86). Also, Leder only adverts to Matt 11:28-29 a few times, where Christ promises rest to those who exchange their burdens for his easy yoke—presumably a daily experience of rest. But the sense of rest proposed in Leder’s studies is that our time awaiting the complete fulfillment of rest is our burden. “The burden of waiting for the rest that still remains is the waiting, the incompleteness, the brokenness, the temptation to surrender to the pain of bodily incoherence, and the never ending discerning the spirit behind the conflict (p. 182). There is no denying the hardships that challenge our sense of rest in Jesus Christ. “For indeed, when we came to Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were troubled on every side. Outside were conflicts, inside were fears. Nevertheless God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus” (2 Cor 7:5-6). But at the same time, this idea of waiting for the rest that remains must take into account that “we who have believed do enter that rest” (Heb 4:3). Clarke wonderfully expressed the truth of this verse:

“The meaning appears to be this: We Jews, who have believed in Christ, do actually possess that rest-state of happiness in God, produced by peace of conscience and joy in the Holy Spirit—which was typified by the happiness and comfort to be enjoyed by the believing Hebrews, in the possession of the promised land.”

Clarke, Adam. Clarke’s Commentary, 6:710

The New Testament does not support the idea that Sabbath-keeping is a required law for Christians. Sabbatarians tend to maximize their attention on the idea of waiting for the rest that remains—the shared hope of faithful Israel—while minimizing the present possession of salvation rest of those who believe. Since the focus is on waiting, the church, they say, must continue to observe the Sabbath which sustains that future hope. Scripture does present a parallel between the Jews awaiting the (land) rest that remains and the Christian awaiting the (heavenly) rest that remains. We may admit this even though the concept of that rest is slightly different—the Jews expecting national occupation of the land promised to Abraham, and Christians expecting the inheritance of a new heavens and earth, also expected by Abraham (Heb 11:13-16). However, the parallel between the Jew’s occasional and temporary rest from enemies is profoundly different than the present and unshakeable redemptive rest that every Christian enjoys in covenant relationship with Jesus Christ. This truth obviates Sabbath-keeping because our soulical experience of complete rest in Jesus Christ is the down-payment and guarantee of our full inheritance in the promised eschaton. There is no wondering whether our perfect obedience is instrumental in securing or maintaining the present possession of rest. As Leder says, “Israel’s rest from its enemies all around is no longer dependent on its compliance with divine instruction as in the days of Joshua, but on the Lord’s covenant with David and his descendants” (p. 143). While our ultimate salvation is sure, not directly dependent on our obedience, we are still urged to be diligent to enter that rest lest any succumb to the disobedience of disbelief (Heb 4:11).

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