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Part 2d: What are the Terms? Sabbath

Glossary 2

Glossary of Terms. In order to communicate with one another, words and phrases must have consistent and comprehensible meaning, and theological terms must also be biblically derived and defensible. Quite simply, I would like to present some working definitions of key terms and phrases in this debate along with some comments how different camps understand the terms and what some of the potential issues are associated with these terms. This glossary is not meant to be exhaustive nor to replace your favorite theological dictionary; after all, whole books have been written on many of these topics.[i]

Sabbath. An external, ritualistic law given to Israel after their release from Egypt (Ex 16:25-26; Eze 20:10-12) that required a weekly abstention from work (Lev 23:3) from Friday evening until Saturday evening (Lev 23:32); that is, every seventh day from the time that it was commanded (Ex 16:23; 31:16), Saturday being the seventh day of the week. The Sabbath was given in connection with the manna, such that a double-portion of manna on the sixth day was miraculously preserved in order to prevent the Israelites from going out in search of it on the Sabbath (Ex 16:22-30). The Sabbath was the premier ritual for the Jews, being placed among the Ten Words of the covenant (Ex 20:8-11; Deut 5:12-15), and it was an important topic through the remainder of the OT (Neh 9:14; 13:15-22; Jer 17:21-23; Eze 20:12, 16, 19-21, 24; 44:24; 45:17; 46:1,3,12; Isa 56:2, 4, 6; Am 8:5). The term also applies to seven additional non-weekly “rest days” integral to Israel’s festival calendar (Lev 23:4-44) and even to the Sabbatic Year (Lev 25:2-7). Biblical critics have discovered little to cast doubt on the Mosaic origin of the Sabbath. As Sampey eloquently concluded, “The wealth of learning and ingenuity expended in the search for the origin of the Sabbath has up to the present yielded small returns.”[ii] Of course, the NT describes Sabbath-keeping by Jesus and the disciples, on which some conflicts occurred (Mk 2:23-28; Lk 4:16, 31; 13:10-17; 14:1-6). Following the resurrection, the disciples frequented synagogues on the Sabbath (Act 13:14, 42, 44; 17:2; 18:14), and Paul eventually described the Sabbath as a “shadow” of Christ (Col 2:16; cf. Gal 4:10) that heralded a perpetual experience of inner “rest” (i.e., redemption) through faith in Christ (Heb 4:9). The Sabbath (Acts 17:2) is to be distinguished (Matt 28:1) from the Lord’s Day that occurs on the first day of the week (Acts 20:17; Rev 1:10) as both the resurrection of Jesus and the giving of the Holy Spirit were predicted to happen on the “morrow after the Sabbath” (Lev 23:10-11, 15-17). CS: the Sabbath was transferred to Sunday and is called the “Christian Sabbath” or the Lord’s Day. SS: Saturday is the Sabbath and the Sabbath was called “the Lord’s Day” by John.[iii] CS and SS: the Sabbath was instituted at creation.

There are two questions regarding the Sabbath that are foundational for each interpretive camp: its origin and its permutability. First of all, anthropological and archaeological research has uncovered nothing that brings into question the biblical account of the origin of the Sabbath. This includes any hint of a sabbatic observation prior to the time of Moses. While the creation account gives a nod to the symbolism behind the Sabbath, Moses was careful not to use the word “Sabbath” throughout the whole book of Genesis. As such, there is no biblical evidence that the Sabbath was practiced by any patriarch prior to the wilderness experience. The concept of a “seven-period,” that is seven consecutive days, is demonstrable, but this is not a recurring week. The recurring Sabbath was given to the Jews by God after their release from Egypt. Secondly, given that Judaism has been keeping Sabbath for over four millennia, it is highly unlikely that the weekly cycle has been altered or disrupted, especially because it is independent of any host nation’s calendar. Therefore, the Sabbath is best identified with Saturday, our named seventh day of the week. Also unlikely is that early Christians would have confused matters by calling both Saturday and Sunday the Sabbath. “For the earliest Christians it [Sunday/Lord’s Day] was not a substitute for the Sabbath nor a day of rest nor related in any way to the fourth commandment.”[iv]The LD position is the simplest explanation and the least falsifiable—and it most closely mirrors Jewish beliefs about the Sabbath.

Term Position
“Creation Sabbath” N/A Yes, but unknown day Yes, on Saturday
Sabbath Saturday Saturday for Jews

Sunday for Christians

Lord’s Day Sunday Sunday Saturday
“Christian Sabbath” N/A Sunday N/A


Sabbatismos. Transliterated from sabbatismoς, a Sabbath-keeping or Sabbath-rest, and only in Hebrews 4:9. In the Septuagint, the Greek verb sabbatisen, is used in Ex 16:30 “So the people rested on the seventh day.” In this passage, the Greek unambiguously means the people observed the Sabbath, by resting (sābath) on the seventh (shebí) day. But in the epistle to the Hebrews, it is equally unmistakable that the term is used as a metaphor rather than the actual practice of keeping Sabbath. “Here the Sabbath-keeping is the perpetual Sabbath rest to be enjoyed uninterruptedly by believers in their fellowship with the Father and the Son, in contrast to the weekly Sabbath under the Law.”[v] “Here the concept of a sabbath observed by physical rest has been transformed into a perpetual rest that is entered by faith (4:2) and involves the believer’s cessation of his or her own works in obedience to God (4:6, 10).”[vi]

The phrase: “There remains a sabbatismos for the people of God” is rendered one of two ways. LD practitioners and many CS favor a metaphorical use of the term whereas some CS and SS favor a literal interpretation. As Klein stated, the authors of the Bible “intended their messages to have only one sense” and “they selected appropriate ways to convey their intended meaning.”[vii]Of course, the phrase fits into a context, and it is the context that determines the best interpretation. If the author meant that the people of God (assuming those now under the new covenant) are to continue keeping the Sabbath until the consummation, then Christians must keep the Sabbath on Saturday as practiced by the Jews. How else would a Jew writing to Jewish Christians in the first century convey the obligation to observe the Jewish Sabbath by a ritualistic rest? However, the moment one starts qualifying this obvious conclusion, then one must introduce a variety of considerations not immediately discernable from the text. Oh, not on Saturday but on Sunday? Oh, for the whole world and not just for believers? Oh, how do we keep Sabbath without a priesthood? Oh, the people of the OT never experienced rest with all their rituals, but we have to keep practicing this ritual? Oh, we only continue to practice Jewish rituals that still refer to the future? Then what about Feast of Booths and what about the land of Canaan? A literal approach is a misinterpretation of the author’s original intent. A metaphorical understanding is the most likely intent since the Canaan rest was presented in a metaphorical way. The “sabbatismos” that remains for the people of God is simply the redemptive rest that we enjoy in Jesus, now and forever. As difficult as it might be for some to understand, literal Sabbath-keeping is a work of the flesh, but it symbolizes that salvation cannot be achieved by works.

Sabbath law. A variety of proscriptive and prescriptive regulations that define proper observance of the Sabbath (Deut 5:12). These include: 1) on a weekly basis, within the timeframe of Friday evening to Saturday evening (Lev 23:32); 2) all family members, guests, slaves, and working animals must rest from all labor (Ex 20:10), avoid commerce, and remove temptations to engage in commerce (Neh 13:15-22). 3) Observers must remain near home and avoid travel (Lev 23:3), 4) avoid igniting a fire (Ex 35:3), since 5) Sabbath meals must be prepared the day prior (Ex 16:29). In addition, 6) the priesthood was required to sacrifice two additional lambs (Num 28:9-10), offer a meal and drink offering (Num 28:9), and bake twelves loaves to be placed within the sanctuary (Lev 24:1-8). Finally, 7) violators were to be excluded from fellowship or stoned to death (Ex 31:14). LD: Holds that all of these laws were fulfilled in Christ and no longer bind the conscience of Christians. CS: Tacitly agree that all laws are fulfilled with the exception of a 24-hour rest from labor and commerce, which now is moved to Sunday, defining rest as allowing acts of mercy and necessity, but divided on recreational activities, cooking, and travel. SS: Similar position to CS, but that the Sabbath was not and could not be moved, therefore, it remains on Saturday.

As stated in Part 2a, there are no Christians (LD, CS, or SS) who advocate complete obedience to the complete set of Sabbath laws. The importance of this fact is that even Sabbatarians treat the Sabbath more like a ceremonial law than a moral law—because they only enjoin a few regulations while the larger portion is ignored or counted as inconsequential. While they spend considerable energy asseverating that the Sabbath commandment is fully moral or still in force today, they routinely avoid any exegetical argument for the ceremoniality of those Sabbath regulations that they do not obey. The CS camp believes that rest may be “violated” by acts of necessity and mercy. But if God’s creation rest is the model for our rest, then that would mean that God’s rest was interrupted by some necessary mercy. The only way that could be true, is that Adam and Eve sinned during God’s seventh day rest, requiring God to act redemptively for the sake of Adam and Eve, who believed the promise and received their provisional atonement. The specific qualifications to absolute rest on the Sabbath that Jesus confronted the Pharisees about—doing good, healing, forgiving, and saving—were reenactments of God’s necessary mercy for Adam and Eve. This casts Jesus’ confrontations about Sabbath law as messianic fulfillments rather than behavior instructions or legal advisements.

[i] Resources consulted: The Theological Wordbook, Campbell,; Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Harris,; New Englishman’s Greek Concordance, Wigram; Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words; The Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible, Gowan, ed.; Kittle’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament; ISBE; and many others.

[ii] Sampey, John Richard. “Sabbath” from ISBE (1915).

[iii], accessed November 13, 2016. From Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Vol. 7, referenced as 7BC 955:8.

[iv] Bauckham, “The Lord’s Day,” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, Carson, ed., p. 240.

[v] Vines Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, p. 970.

[vi] McCann Jr., J. C., “Sabbath” in ISBE (Revised, 1989).

[vii] Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. p. 185.

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