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


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.

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