Desmond Ford Asks: Is the Seventh-day Sabbath Christian?


Many of my friends disagree with me on this topic, and some of them are certainly brighter than I. My convictions in these few pages, however, were hard won. I did not inherit the doctrine of the Sabbath. I accepted it reluctantly, in the face of pressures of culture, church, family, and employment. Many years later when my friend Robert Brinsmead gave up Sabbath observance and wrote at length against it, I reviewed the whole matter and consequently published The Forgotten Day.

This rest day has had no rest from controversy over the centuries. Researchers are surprised at how many hundreds of articles and books Christians have circulated on the subject of the Sabbath. The most scholarly anti-Sabbatarian book of recent times, From Sabbath to Lord's Day, reminds us that those who think the question can be easily settled don't understand the theological vastness of the issues involved. As editor D. A. Carson points out, "It is one of the most difficult areas in the study of the relationship between the Testaments and in the history of the development of doctrine." (Sabbath to Lord's Day, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, p. 17.)

Some simple Christians see no reason for making the question such a topic of debate. To them it seems obvious that at least nine of the Ten Commandments have been binding for everyone from the beginning of time and will be binding forever. Did God, they ask, slip in one temporary commandment intended only for Jews for only a short time? These believers see no reason for humans to put asunder what God has joined together. All 10 of the commandments, they conclude, are valid for all mankind forever.

Other Christians, not so theologically simplistic, contemplate the Sabbath commandment's "decisive material significance," "radical importance," and the "almost monstrous range" of this law. They link it with the doctrines of God, of revelation, of God's eternity and humankind's temporal well-being, of the biblical conception of Creation as the setting for the covenant, and of the New Testament fulfillment of the divine purpose in redemption. (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III:4, pp. 49, 57.)

Indeed, Barth goes so far as to claim that "the Sabbath commandment explains all the other commandments, or all the other forms of the one commandment. It is thus to be placed at the head." He quotes De Quervain approvingly: " 'Where the holy day becomes a day of man, society and humanity wither away and the demons rule...' " (Church Dogmatics, III: p. 53.)

The Bible refers to the seventh-day Sabbath by name approximately 149 times. The New Testament contains proportionately more references than the Old. While quantity must not be confused with quality, the statistics are nevertheless impressive when compared with the paucity of references to the Lord's Supper and to baptism in the New Testament, or to circumcision in the whole of Scripture.

It is further validating that biblical commentaries and theological articles written during recent decades contrast significantly with similar works of the 19th century. Most earlier works assumed that the shift from Sabbath to Sunday had church approval and apostolic support. Scholars no longer take this assumption for granted. Modern Gospel commentaries, for example, freely admit that Christ was not opposing the Sabbath, but rather the Pharisaic perversions of it. The book edited by Carson acknowledges that Christ kept the Sabbath law. It also says that the book of Acts suggests that the first Christians continued to keep the Sabbath, as later church history frequently documents:

"The Sabbath was an institution too central to Judaism for it to have been tampered with without provoking hostile reaction ad persecution, but there's no record of persecution on this account. Instead, the early Jewish Christians appeared to have taken advantage of Sabbath observance to preach Jesus the Messiah" (A.T. Lincoln, "From Sabbath to Lord's Day: a Biblical and Theological Perspective," From Sabbath to Lord's Day, ed. Carson, p. 365.)There is really only one text in the whole Bible capable of being interpreted as a negative reference actually naming the Sabbath, and that is Colossians 2:16. Christians are thus left with the option of judging the approximately 149 references by the one, or judging the one by the 149. And let us remember that Scripture repeatedly admonishes us that "in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established."

As scholars like Lohse and Francis have pointed out, the issue discussed in Colossians is not primarily nomos [law] (found well over 100 times in Galatians and Romans but not once in Colossians). Rather the issue is a pre-gnostic "philosophy falsely so called," or deceptive philosophy, having to do with "human precepts and doctrines" about "self-abasement and severity to the body" and "worship of angels." (See Col 2:8,18.) Such man-made regulations mentioned in the context of Colossians 2:16 had to do with fasting on holy times and were quite unrelated to the Torah.

Colossians 2:16 is asserting that no one should be allowed to make rules and regulations for believers concerning the way in which they observed holy times. The text takes for granted the observance of the times, but it rejects ascetic practices on such times. The verse no more wipes out all Sabbath-keeping than it wipes out all eating and drinking (referred to in the same verse).

Some interpret Paul's relative silence on the subject to mean that the fourth commandment is irrelevant for Christians. But that silence can mean that he took it for granted. The Old Testament revelation sometimes ignores the Sabbath for centuries, but scholars admit the Jews observed it during those years. Besides the fact that historical books which cover hundreds of years do not specifically mention the Sabbath, the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon do not mention it either. But no one doubts that the readers and writers of those books observed it.

Admitting that Scripture (with the exception of Col 2:16) endorses the seventh-day Sabbath, some have resorted to arguments on the covenants to dispose of the institution. But it has seemed to many that the best theologians have recognized for a long time that all the covenants of Scripture were merely topical variants of the one great everlasting covenant. Therefore, it is erroneous to draw hard and fast distinctions between the covenant at Sinai and the new covenant, as if to suggest they were in essential opposition.

Sinai was a replay of the Abrahamic covenant. See Psalm 105:9-11 which is quite clear on this matter.

The word "new" in relationship to the covenant actually means "renewed," as with the "new" earth and the "new" heart. According to Hebrews 8:8-12, the essence of the law proclaimed at the Exodus is now written in the heart. 2 Corinthians 3 is certainly not suggesting that idolatry, blasphemy, disobedience to parents, murder, adultery, theft, lying, and covetousness as well as Sabbath-breaking have been sanctified by the cross. No, it is merely saying that all law (even New Testament law) becomes the ministration of death if people teach it without the message of the Gospel and the Holy Spirit.

Personal Rationale

So far I have attempted to address some broad but significant arguments that come up in discussions about the Sabbath. I would like to add my personal, four-step rationale for Sabbath-keeping.

The primary duty of life is worship (Matt 4:10). If our attention to worship is right, all else will be right. All unrighteousness grows out of ungodliness (Rom 1:18).

Unless there is a set time for important duties, they become "buried under the stuff"-like Saul.

Unless God names the time for worship, all other suggestions stand without authority-the necessity, therefore, for the fourth commandment.

We are creatures of time and as such require regular change for mental, physical and spiritual health. Thus we have summer and winter, day and night, work and rest. Even the primitive pagans saw the necessity for holy days, and the wisest philosophers like Plato endorsed the practice. The Sabbath of Scripture harmonizes perfectly with the nature of humankind and is rightly called a "delight," or as the Hebrew says, a "luxury." Twentieth-century Christians living in a world of speed, information, and demands on their time have every reason to be grateful for the special church day, the family day, the rest day, "the holy of the Lord, honorable" (Isa 58:13).

I challenge any reader to conceive of a greater blessing that God could have bestowed upon his family of believers than the permission to free themselves from all secular activities and anxieties for one whole day. What could be better than having a day to be spent in adoration of him, in fellowship with one another, and in Christian service? The day of God leads to the house of God and thus to the word of God which tells of the Son of God who offers all the salvation of God. Why should believers now need this blessing less than did the faithful in ancient times?

Eden's Sabbath Is Eternal

Some hold that the Sabbath is mentioned in Genesis 2:1-3 only to foreshadow the time when it would be given to Israel as a requirement. They maintain that the real origin of the Sabbath was when God sent the manna thousands of years later. I contend that thorough exegesis does not support this view. The following eight comments explain my viewpoint.

1. All admit that the resting spoken of in Genesis 2:1-3 is set forth as transpiring on the first seventh day, and there seems to be no evident reason for separating the resting from the blessing by a space of millennia. Indeed, many scholars have seen the theological purpose of Genesis 1 to be a prelude to the climax of instituting the Sabbath in the first verses of Chapter 2.

2. In Genesis 1:20, 22, 24-26, and 28, we read that God immediately blessed the work he did during the first six days of creation week. Genesis 2:2-3 seems to be an obvious parallel to these verses, and, as such, his blessing and sanctifying of the Sabbath must have taken place immediately as well.

3. In the fourth commandment itself, we have another parallel between what took place during the first six days of creation week and what transpired on the seventh day. Note the tense in Exodus 20:11: "For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth...and rested the seventh day; wherefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it." All four verbs are in the past tense. No one disputes that the first two apply to creation week. The correlation of divine acts clearly indicates that the blessing and the hallowing took place at the same time as the resting. The last phrase, "and hallowed it," has no significance unless the Sabbath was proclaimed and set aside for human beings at Creation. The Hebrew term in this passage occurs repeatedly in Scripture to denote a public proclamation.

4. The fourth commandment affirms that the seventh day was already the Sabbath at the time God hallowed it, not thousands of years later.

5. The information in Genesis chapters 2-4 established the fact that humans were both workers and worshippers. They needed a special time for rest and adoration of the Creator. Why should this need be denied until Sinai?

6. There is no instance in Scripture of a memorial being instituted thousands of years after the event it memorialized. The Passover, for example, began at the time of the deliverance it symbolized.

Exodus 16 further supports the Edenic origin of the Sabbath. The reference addresses the Sabbath as if the Israelites already knew what it was. The language is far too casual to be the first introduction they had to such an important institution. (Compare it with the introduction of Passover in chapter 12.) The main theme of Exodus 16 is the provision of manna, not Sabbath observance.

7. The author of Hebrews 4 distinguishes between the "rest" of Canaan and a Sabbatical rest "entered into" from the time when "the works were finished," that is, from Creation. The argument of this section of the chapter is that "from the foundation of the world," there has been a spiritual experience of rest offered to believers. Both the rest of the first Sabbath and the rest from pilgrimage in Canaan are symbols of the blessing offered to those who cease relying on their own works and trust instead in the finished work of Christ.

8. The moral nature of the Sabbath command indicates it originated in Eden. The test of an eternal moral law is whether or not it grows out of relationships between God and humanity. All agree the other nine commandments grew out of God's relationships with man and woman and were binding on humanity from the time of creation. Certainly the Sabbath grows out of God's relationships with humanity also. The fact that we are God's creation is the foundation of all worship and morality. If people had faithfully observed the Sabbath from the beginning, there would never have been an atheist or a pagan.

It is interesting to discover that in the original Hebrew text, the center of the Ten Commandments is the phrase "the seventh day is the Sabbath." Furthermore, the stated reason we are to remember this day is that God made heaven and earth. This is certainly not a Jewish reason. The commandment does not include any ceremonial features or rituals such as sacrifices. It merely invites humanity to rest from secular activities and to hallow the day that God has appointed.

Additionally, wherever the New Testament alludes to the Decalogue, it takes for granted that it is still in force (Eph 6).

Only the fourth commandment explains the right of the Creator to legislate. It alone gives the foundation of all worship and obedience. Without this commandment, the law could have been the product of any pagan deity or wandering nomad who claimed to be God. Only the fourth is prefaced by "Remember..." It is the most detailed, lengthy, and comprehensive of the ten and amounts to one-third of the Decalogue.

The first table of the commandments tells us who to worship, how to worship (not with images but in spirit and in truth), the approach of worship (reverence), and the time for worship. Do not Christians need all of these still?

Even the placement of this law is important. Those who wish to eradicate it must clamber over three other obviously eternal laws if they come from one direction, or clamber back over six other obviously eternal laws if they come from the other direction. It is fenced in by divine inspiration and divine proclamation.

A law proclaimed by God himself and written with his own finger can be abolished only in as definite a manner as he first gave it. Such a retraction does not exist. Also, observe that the only positive commandments, the fourth and the fifth, refer to the two institutions of Eden which are the source of all the ten.

Jesus and the Sabbath

Christ himself kept the Sabbath in life as well as in death. The only whole day he spent in the tomb was the seventh-day Sabbath. During his life he risked his whole ministry to show how the Sabbath should be kept. He did for the Sabbath what he did for the other nine commandments-he freed it from unscriptural distortions. He worked seven miracles on the Sabbath and proclaimed it a day to celebrate God's redemption.

Form criticism reminds us that the Gospels preserved only details which were relevant for the church after the cross. And they had many references to the Sabbath.

Consider the amazing range not only of people concerned in the Sabbath miracles but also of the arguments Jesus used to explain his actions. The miracles included men and women, young and old, people in church (synagogue), at home, and in other settings. In defending his reforms Christ argued from the Sabbath's beginning in Eden (Mark 2:27), from the Sabbath laws of the Old Testament, from Old Testament history, from the later prophets, from God's providential working, from everyday experience, from human reason, and from his own Lordship. In addition, he appealed to conscience. (See Mark 2:27,28; Matt 12:3-12; John 5:17; Mark 3:4; Luke 13:15-16; Matt 12:6-8; Luke 14:3; John 5:16,17; 9:13-16.)

Furthermore, in his last sermon when he referred to both the fall of Jerusalem and to the end of the world, Jesus admonished the disciples to pray regarding Sabbath observance at a time of persecution and crisis (Matt 24:20).

We have no record of any other institution that Christ labored so hard to defend and perpetuate as the seventh-day Sabbath of the fourth commandment. How could he have done more?

The Sabbath as Parable

Now we come to perhaps the most important point of all. The Sabbath is an acted-out parable of the blessings of the Gospel. Our physical rest on the seventh day is but the sign of the rest of heart we have all week long because of the finished work of Christ. "We who have believed do enter into rest" (Heb 4:3). Just before the New Testament's first allusion to the Sabbath, we have Christ's great invitation to receive his rest that results from faith in him and in his finished work. (See Matt 11:28-30.)

For Christians Today

The Sabbath of Judaism, with its oppressive laws and its rituals applying to sacrifice and temple, has gone forever. So have the additional laws that surrounded most of the Ten Commandments as found in the Torah. But the Sabbath of Eden remains. It was for the first man and woman; it is for the last man and woman, and it is for every man and woman of all time.

*After publicly debating the Sabbath with a non-Adventist clergyman, Desmond Ford, Ph.D., was called to his first academic post, chair of Bible at Avondale College. Ford has served more than 25 years as an Adventist religion professor plus 16 years with the ministry Good News Unlimited, conducting seminars on the gospel worldwide. 

This article first appeared in the Jul/Aug 1996 issue of Adventist Today.