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Sabbath Under Crossfire:
A Biblical analysis of Recent Sabbath/Sunday Developments
Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University
Few Bible doctrines have been under the constant crossfire of controversy as has the Sabbath. In recent years, Dispensational and "New Covenant" Christians have renewed their attack against the Sabbath with fresh zeal. The stock weapon of their arsenal is the allegation that the Sabbath is an Old Covenant relic that terminated at the Cross. Their strategy is to make the Cross the line of demarcation between the Old and New Covenants, Law and Grace, the Sabbath and Sunday. Since they believe the Ten Commandments formed the core of the Old Covenant and the Sabbath is central to the Ten Commandments, by firing on the Sabbath they hope to destroy the validity and value of the Mosaic Law in general, and of the Sabbath in particular.
This is largely the strategy recently adopted by such former Sabbatarians as the Worldwide Church of God, Dale Ratzlaff in his influential book Sabbath in Crisis, and some of the newly established "grace-oriented" congregations, which consist mainly of former Sabbatarians. Their literature contains some of the strongest attacks against the Sabbath ever published. This is a surprising development of our times, because, to my knowledge, never before in the history of Christianity has the Sabbath been attacked by those who previously had championed its observance. The weapons used by former Sabbatarians in their attacks against the Sabbath are taken largely from the aging munition dump of Dispensational literature.
For the sake of accuracy I must say that, contrary to most Dispensational authors, both the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) and Dale Ratzlaff are more concerned with proving the "fulfillment" and termination of the Sabbath in Christ than in defending Sunday observance as an apostolic institution. For them, the New Covenant does not require the observance of a day as such, but the daily experience of the rest of salvation typified by the Sabbath rest. In Sabbath in Crisis, Ratzlaff does include a chapter, "The First Day of the Week," where he makes a feeble attempt to justify the biblical origin of Sundaykeeping, but this is not the major concern of his book.
For the benefit of those less versed in theological nuances, it might help to clarify the difference between Dispensational and New Covenant theologies. Both emphasize the distinction between the Old Mosaic Covenant, allegedly based on Law, and the "New Christian Covenant" presumably based on grace. Dispensationalists, however, go a step further by applying their distinction between the Old and New Covenants as representing the existence of a fundamental and permanent distinction between Israel and the Church. "Throughout the ages," writes Lewis Sperry Chafer, a leading Dispensational theologian, "God is pursuing two distinct purposes: one related to the earth with earthly people and earthly objectives involved, which is Judaism; while the other is related to heaven with heavenly people and heavenly objectives, which is Christianity."1
Simply stated, Dispensationalists interpret the Old and New Covenants as representing two different plans of salvation for two different people—Israel and the Church. The destiny of each is supposed to be different, not only in this present age but also throughout eternity. What God has united by breaking down the wall of partition between Jews and Gentiles (Eph 2:14) Dispensationalists are trying to divide by rebuilding the wall of partition not only for the present age but for all eternity. It is hard to believe that intelligent, responsible Christians would dare to fabricate such a divisive theology that grossly misrepresents the fairness and justice of God’s redemptive activities.
Importance of This Study. The importance of this study stems from the popular perception that the Sabbath is an Old Covenant institution no longer binding upon "New Covenant" Christians. This thesis is espoused by most Evangelical authors and is widely accepted by Christians at large. In recent years, as we noted, the abrogation view of the Sabbath has been adopted by an increasing number of former Sabbatarians.
This chapter examines primarily the literature produced by former Sabbatarians, especially Ratzlaff’s Sabbath in Crisis. We focus on Ratzlaff’s book for two reasons: (1) The Sabbath in Crisis largely reflects the Dispensational and "New Covenant" views of the Sabbath. Consequently, the analysis of this book provides an opportunity to examine the abrogation view of the Sabbath held by most Christians today. (2) This book has exercised considerable influence not only on WCG,2 but also among a considerable number of former Adventist ministers and members who have rejected the Sabbath as an Old Covenant, Mosaic institution that no longer is binding upon Christians today.
A fitting example of the influence of Sabbath in Crisis among Seventh-day Adventists is the book New Covenant Christians by Clay Peck, a former Adventist pastor who currently serves as senior pastor of the Grace Place Congregation in Berthoud, Colorado. In the "Introduction" to his book Peck acknowledges his indebtedness to Ratzlaff saying: "While I have read and researched widely for this study, I have been most challenged and instructed by a book entitled Sabbath in Crisis, by Dale Ratzlaff. I have leaned heavily on his research, borrowing a number of concepts and diagrams."3
The far reaching influence of the "New Covenant" theology, championed among Sabbatarians by people like Dale Ratzlaff, is hard to estimate. The WCG has expereinced a massive exodus of over 70,000 members who have refused to accept the changes demanded by the "New Covenant" theology. In the Adventist church, the "New Covenant" teaching has influenced several former pastors to establish independent "grace- oriented" congregations.
This study on the relationship between the Sabbath and the New Covenant extends beyond the sabbatarian communities. Most Sundaykeeping Christians think of Sabbathkeeping as a relic of the Old Covenant and of Sabbatarians as "Judaizers" still living under the Old Covenant. It is urgent, then, for us to examine this popular perception which, as our study will show, is based on a one-sided, misleading interpretation of the biblical teaching on the relationship between the Old and New Covenants.
Objectives of This Chapter. In Chapter 2 I briefly traced the origin and development of the anti-Sabbath theology. This chapter continues the study of the anti-Sabbath theology by focusing on the major arguments adduced by the "New Covenant" theology to negate the continuity, validity, and value of the Sabbath for today.
This chapter is divided into two parts. The first deals with the alleged distinction between the Old Covenant based on Law and the New Covenant based on faith and love. The fundamental question addressed in the first part is: Do the Old and New Covenants contain a different set of laws, or are they based on the same set of moral principles? The second part examines the continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants as taught in the book of Hebrews. The fundamental question to be considered here is: Does the book of Hebrews support the popular contention that the coming of Christ brought an end to the Law, in general, and to the Sabbath, in particular?
A major characteristic of the "New Covenant" theology recently adopted by a significant number of former Sabbatarians is the Dispensational emphasis on the radical distinction between the Old and New Covenants. To illustrate this point, we briefly examine two representative studies: (1) The Pastor General Report, entitled "The New Covenant and the Sabbath," prepared by Pastor Joseph Tkach, Jr., Pastor General of the WCG; and (2) Chapters 5, 12, and 15 of the book Sabbath in Crisis, where Ratzlaff articulates his understanding of the distinction between the Old and the New Covenants.
(1) Joseph Tkach’s View of the Distinction
In his Pastor General Report of December 21, 1994, Pastor Joseph Tkach, Jr., devotes 20 pages to explain to his ministers the fundamental difference between the Old and New Covenants. He argues that the difference lies in the fact that the Old Covenant was conditional upon obedience to a "package of Laws," while the New Covenant is unconditional, that is, without obedience as a requirement.4
For Tkach, the Sabbath is part of the Old Covenant "package of Laws" and this is why "we don’t find the Sabbath commanded in the New Covenant."5 "Something was seriously wrong with the Israelite covenant. The people did not have the heart to obey, and God knew it (Deut 31:16-21, 27-29). Unlike Abraham, they did not believe and were not faithful (Heb 3:19). . . . Therefore, God predicted a New Covenant. He hinted at it even in the old . . . . There would be no need for a New Covenant, of course, unless the Old was deficient."6 If it were true that "something was seriously wrong" with the Old Covenant, then why did God in the first place give a faulty covenant that could not change the hearts of the people? Was something "seriously wrong" with the covenant itself? Or was it with the way the people related to the covenant? If the human response was a factor with the Old Covenant, could it also be a factor with the New Covenant?
Superiority of the New Covenant. "The New Covenant is superior to the Old, because it is founded on better promises (Heb 8:6)."7 Tkach argues that the New Covenant is the renewal of the Abrahamic covenant which was based on God’s unconditional promises. "God didn’t say, I’ll do this if you do that. Abraham had already done enough. He had accepted God’s call, went to the land as God had commanded, and he believed God and was therefore counted as righteous."8 Like Abraham, "New Covenant" Christians accept salvation by faith and not by works of obedience.
Tkach writes: "In the New Covenant, faith is required . . . . Christians have a relationship with God based on faith, not on Law. . . . We are saved on the basis of faith, not on Law-keeping, . . . In other words, our relationship with God is based on faith and promise, just as Abraham’s was. Laws that were added at Sinai cannot change the promise given to Abraham . . . That package of Laws became obsolete when Christ died, and there is now a new package."9 The problem with this statement is the gratuitous assumption that salvation was possible in the Old Covenant through Law-keeping. This is completely untrue, because, as we shall see in Chapter 6, obedience to the Law represented Israel’s response to the gracious provision of salvation. Law-keeping has never been the basis of salvation.
According to Tkach, the Old Covenant did not work because it was based "on a package of Laws" that "could not cleanse a guilty conscience."10 On the other hand, the New Covenant works because it is based on the blood of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart. "The Holy Spirit changes their [believers] hearts. The people are transformed, and they grow more and more like Christ. . . . The New Covenant affects our innermost being. The blood of Jesus Christ changes us. . . . His sacrifice sanctifies us, makes us holy, sets us aside for a holy purpose."11
Does this mean that the blood of Christ has some kind of magic power to automatically change people, whether or not they are willing to obey God’s commandments? To attribute such magic power to the Spirit and/or to Christ’s blood reminds one of the magic power the Jews attributed to the Law. Isn’t this another form of legalism? Does the atoning sacrifice of Christ and the ministry of the Holy Spirit render obedience to God’s commandments unnecessary or possible?
The WCG acknowledges that "no New Testament verse specifically cites the Sabbath as obsolete."12 But since WCG believes that the Sabbath is part the Old Covenant terminated by Christ’s coming, the Sabbath also is no longer required. "There are verses that say that the entire Old Covenant is obsolete. The law of Moses, including the Sabbath, is not required. We are commanded to live by the Spirit, not by the Law inscribed in stone. The Sabbath is repeatedly likened to things now obsolete: temple sacrifices, circumcision, holy bread, a shadow."13 This statement contains several glaring inaccuracies that are addressed later in this chapter. We shall see that the New Testament distinguishes between the continuity of the moral law and the discontinuity of the ceremonial law (1 Cor 7:19). In the book of Hebrews, especially, we find a clear contrast between the Levitical services which came to an end with Christ’s coming (Heb 7:18; 8:13; 10:9) and Sabbathkeeping "which has been left behind for the people of God" (Heb 4:9).
Evaluation of WCG "New Covenant" Theology. A detailed analysis of "New Covenant" theology presented in the literature of the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) would take us beyond the limited scope of this chapter. Consequently, I make only a few basic observations.
One fundamental problem in the WCG "New Covenant" understanding of the Plan of Salvation is the faulty Dispensational assumption that, during the course of human history, God has offered salvation on different bases to different people. God started out by offering salvation to Abraham unconditionally on the basis of faith; but at Mt. Sinai He agreed to save the Israelites conditionally on the basis of obedience to His commandments, or what Tkach calls "the old package of Laws." When God discovered that such an arrangement did not work—because the Law "could not make anyone perfect. It could not change their hearts"—He reverted to the "faith arrangement" He had with Abraham. To make things easier, in the New Covenant, God did away with most of the old package of laws, including the Sabbath, and decided this time to work in the heart through the Holy Spirit.
If this scenario were true, it would surely open to question the consistency and fairness of God’s saving activities. It would imply that, during the course of redemptive history, God has offered salvation on two radically different bases: on the basis of human obedience in the Old Covenant and on the basis of divine grace in the New Covenant. It would further imply, presumably, that God learned through the experience of His chosen people, the Jews, that human beings cannot earn salvation by obedience because they tend to disobey. Consequently, He finally decided to change His method and implement a New Covenant plan where salvation is offered to believing persons exclusively as a divine gift of grace rather than a human achievement.
Such a theological construct makes God changeable and subject to learning by mistakes as human beings do. The truth of the matter, however, is that "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever" (Heb 13:8). Salvation has always been in the Old and New Covenants, first and foremost a divine gift of grace and not a human achievement.
Obedience to the Law provided Israel with an opportunity to preserve their covenant relationship with God, not to gain acceptance with Him. This is the meaning of Leviticus 18:5: "You shall therefore keep my statutes and my ordinances, by doing which a man shall live." The life promised in this text is not the life in the age to come (as in Dan12:2), but the present enjoyment of a peaceful and prosperous life in fellowship with God. Such a life was God’s gift to His people, a gift that could be enjoyed and preserved by living in accordance with the principles God had revealed.
Sinai Covenant: Law and Grace. Part of the problem of the "New Covenant" theology is the failure to realize that the Sinai Covenant reveals God’s gracious provision of salvation just as much as the New Covenant does. God revealed to Moses His plan to deliver Israel from Egypt and to set her up in the land of Canaan (Ex 3:7-10, 16) because Israel is "His people" (Ex 3:10). God’s deliverance of the Israelites from the bondage of Egypt reveals His gracious provision of salvation just as much as does His deliverance of New Testament believers from the bondage of sin. In fact, in Scripture, the former is a type of the latter.
What Tkach ignores is the fact that the Israelites responded with faith to the manifestation of salvation: "Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians . . . and the people feared the Lord; and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses" (Ex 14:30-31). When the Israelites believed, God revealed to them His covenant plan: "Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex 19:5).
These words show the gratuity of the divine election of Israel. God chose Israel without merit on her part (Deut 9:4ff), simply because He loved her (Deut 7:6ff). Having separated her from pagan nations, He reserved her for Himself exclusively. "I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself" (Ex 19:4). Through the Sinai covenant, God wished to bring people to Himself by making them a worshipping community dedicated to His service, living by the principles of His Law. This divine plan revealed at Sinai was ultimately realized at the Cross when types met antitypes.
The prophets appeal to the Sinai Covenant with emotional overtones drawn from human experiences to explain the relationship between God and His people. Israel is the flock, and the Lord is the shepherd. Israel is the vine, and the Lord the vinedresser. Israel is the son, and the Lord is the Father. Israel is the spouse, and the Lord is the bridegroom. These images, as Pierre Grelot and Jean Giblet bring out, "make the Sinaitic covenant appear as an encounter of love (cf. Ez 16:6-14): the attentive and gratuitous love of God, calling in return for a love which will translate itself in obedience."14 All of this hardly supports Tkach’s contention that "something was seriously wrong with the Israelite covenant."
Faith Is Not Alone. The obedience called for by the Sinaitic covenant was meant to be a loving response to God’s provision of salvation, not a means of salvation. Unfortunately, during the intertestamental period, the Law did come to be viewed by the Jews as the guarantee of salvation, just as faith alone is considered by many Christians today as the only basis for their salvation. But a saving faith is never alone because it is always accompanied by loving obedience (Gal 5:6). Can a person truly obey God’s laws without faith? Is there such a thing as a saving faith that is not manifested in obedience to God’s commandments? Is the problem of legalism resolved by changing packages of laws? Such distortions can only serve to make both the Old and New Covenants ineffective for many people.
At Sinai, God invited His people to obey His commandments because He had already saved them, not in order that they might be saved by His laws. As George Eldon Ladd affirms in his classic work, A Theology of the New Testament, "The Law was added (pareiselthen) not to save men from their sins but to show them what sin was (Rom 3:30; 5:13, 20; Gal 3:19). By declaring the will of God, by showing what God forbids, the Law shows what sin is."15 Ladd continues noting that "the line of thought in Galatians 3 and Romans 4 is that all the Israelites who trusted God’s covenant of promise to Abraham and did not use the Law as a way of salvation by works were assured of salvation."16
Another point overlooked in the Pastor General Report is that at Sinai, God revealed to the Israelites not only principles of moral conduct but also provision of salvation through the typology of the sacrificial system. It is noteworthy that when God invited Moses to come up on the mountain, He gave him not only "the tables of stone, with the Law and the commandment" (Ex 24:12), but also the "pattern of the tabernacle" (Ex 25:9) which was designed to explain typologically His provision of grace and forgiveness.
The major difference between the Old and New Covenants is not one of methods of salvation, but of shadow versus reality. The Old Covenant was "symbolic" (Heb 9:9) of the "more excellent" redemptive ministry of Christ (Heb 8:6). Consequently, it was necessary for Christ to come "once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself" (Heb 9:26).
Greg Bahnsen rightly notes that "If we allow the Bible to interpret itself and not infuse it with a preconceived theological antithesis between the Old and New Covenants (Law and Gospel), we are compelled to conclude that the Old Covenant—indeed the Mosaic Law—was a covenant of grace that offered salvation on the basis of grace through faith, just as does the Good News found in the New Testament. The difference was that the Mosaic or Law-covenant looked ahead to the coming of the Savior, thus administering God’s covenants by means of promises, prophecies, ritual observances, types, and foreshadowings that anticipated the Savior and His redeeming work. The Gospel or the New covenant proclaims the accomplishments of that which the Law anticipated, administering God’s covenant through preaching and the sacraments [baptism and the Lord’s Supper]. The substance of God’s saving relationship and covenant is the same under the Law and the Gospel."17
The Old Testament does not offer a way of salvation or teach justification differently than the New Testament. Justification is grounded in the Old Testament in "the Lord our Righteousness" (Jer 23:6). The saints of the Old Testament were people of faith, as Hebrews 11 clearly shows. Abraham himself, the father of the Jews, was a man of faith who trusted God’s promises (Gen 15:6; Rom 4:3; Gal 3:6). The prophet Isaiah proclaimed, "In the Lord shall all the seed of Israel be justified" (Is 45:25; KJV). Paul came to understand that in the Old Testament "the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written [in Hab 2:4], ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live’" (Rom 1:17. cf. Gal 3:11).
The result of Christ’s coming is described as "setting aside" (Heb 7:18), making "obsolete" (Heb 8:13), and "abolishing" (Heb 10:9) all the Levitical services associated with the Old Covenant. It is unfortunate that these statements are interpreted as meaning that Christ by His coming abrogated the Mosaic Law, in general, including the Sabbath. This interpretation, which is at the heart of much misguided thinking about the Law today, ignores the fact that the termination statements found in Hebrews refer to the Levitical priesthood and services of the Old Covenant, not to the principles of God’s moral Law which includes the Sabbath Commandment. Of the Sabbath the Book of Hebrews explicitly states, as we shall see below, "a Sabbathkeeping is left behind for the people of God" (Heb 4:9).
(2) Dale Ratzlaff’s View of the Distinction
In many ways Ratzlaff’s view of the distinction between the Old and New Covenants is strikingly similar to that of Joseph Tkach, Jr. Consequently, there is no need to repeat what has already been said. Ratzlaff’s aim is to show that the New Covenant is better than the Old because it is based no longer on the Law but on love for Christ. Like Tkach, Ratzlaff reduces the Old Covenant to the Ten Commandments and the New Covenant to the principle of love in order to sustain his thesis that Christ replaced both the Ten Commandments and the Sabbath with simpler and better laws. For the purpose of this analysis, I focus on the major contrast that Ratzlaff makes between the Old and New Covenant in terms of Law versus Love.
Law Versus Love. Ratzlaff’s fundamental thesis is that there is a radical distinction between the Old and New Covenants because the former is based on laws while the latter is based on love. Though he acknowledges that an important aspect of the Old Covenant was "the redemptive deliverance of Israel from Egypt,"18 he concludes his study of the Old Covenant with these words: "We found that the Ten Commandments were the covenant. They were called the ‘tablets of the testimony’ (Ex 31:18), the ‘words of the covenant,’ the ‘Ten Commandments’ (Ex 34:28), the ‘testimony’ (Ex 40:20), the ‘covenant of the Lord’ (1 Ki 8:8, 9,21)."19
"We also found that the other Laws in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy were called the ‘book of the covenant’ (Ex 24:7) or ‘the book of the Law’ (Deut 31:26). We saw that these Laws served as an interpretation or expansion of the Ten Commandments." 20 Again Ratzlaff says that "The Ten Commandments were the words of the covenant. There was also an expanded version of the covenant: the Laws of Exodus through Deuteronomy."21
By contrast, for Ratzlaff the essence of the New Covenant is the commandment to love as Jesus loved. He writes: "Part of this ‘new commandment’ was not new. The Old Covenant had instructed them to love one another. The part that was new was ‘as I have loved you’ . . . In the Old Covenant what made others know that the Israelites were the chosen people? Not the way they loved, but what they ate and what they did not eat; where they worshipped, when they worshipped, the clothes they wore, etc. However, in the New Covenant, Christ’s true disciples will be known by the way they love!"22
Ratzlaff develops further the contrast between the two covenants by arguing that as the Old Covenant expands the Ten Commandments in "the book of the Law, so the New Covenant contains more than just the simple command to love one another as Christ loved us. We have the Gospel records which demonstrate how Jesus loved. . . . Then, in the epistles we have interpretations of the love and work of Christ. . . . So the core, or heart, of the New Covenant is to love one another as Christ loved us. This is expanded and interpreted in the rest of the New Testament, and also becomes part of the New Covenant."23
According to Ratzlaff, the distinction between "Law" and "Love" is reflected in the covenant signs. "The entrance sign to the old Covenant was circumcision, and the continuing, repeatable sign Israel was to ‘remember’ was the Sabbath. . . . The entrance sign of the New Covenant is baptism [and] the remembrance sign [is] the Lord’s Supper."24 The distinction between the two sets of signs is clarified by the following simple chart:
Ratzlaff affirms this view unequivocally: "In Old Covenant life, morality was often seen as an obligation to numerous specific Laws. In the New Covenant, morality springs from a response to the living Christ."26 "The new Law [given by Christ] is better than the old Law [given by Moses]."27 "In the New Covenant, Christ’s true disciples will be known by the way they love! This commandment to love is repeated a number of times in the New Testament, just as the Ten Commandments were repeated a number of times in the Old."28
Evaluation of Ratzlaff’s Covenants Construct. The attempt by Ratzlaff to reduce the Old and New Covenants to two different sets of laws with their own distinctive signs, the latter being simpler and better than the former, is designed to support his contention that the Ten Commandments, in general, and the Sabbath, in particular, were the essence of the Old Covenant that terminated at the Cross. The problem with this imaginative interpretation is that it is devoid of biblical support besides incriminating the moral consistency of God’s government.
Nowhere does the Bible suggest that with the New Covenant God instituted "better commandments" than those of the Old Covenant. Why would Christ need to alter the moral demands that He has revealed in His Law? Why would Christ feel the need to change His perfect and holy requirements for our conduct and attitudes? Paul declares that "the [Old Testament] Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good" (Rom 7:12). He took the validity of God’s moral Law for granted when he stated unequivocally: "We know that the Law is good, if one uses it Lawfully" (1 Tim 1:8). Christ came not to change the moral requirements of God’s Law, but to atone for our transgression against those moral requirements (Rom 4:25; 5:8-9; 8:1-3).
It is evident that by being sacrificed as the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29; 1 Cor 5:7), Christ fulfilled all the sacrificial services and Laws that served in Old Testament times to strengthen the faith and nourish the hope of the Messianic redemption to come. But the New Testament, as we shall see, makes a clear distinction between the sacrificial laws that Christ by His coming "set aside" (Heb 7:18), made "obsolete" (Heb 8:13), "abolished" (Heb 10:9), and Sabbathkeeping, for example, which "has been left behind for the people of God" (Heb 4:9).
Why should God first call the Israelites to respond to His redemptive deliverance from Egypt by living according to the moral principles of the Ten Commandments, and later summon Christians to accept His redemption from sin by obeying simpler and better commandments? Did God discover that the moral principles He promulgated at Sinai were not sufficiently moral and, consequently, needed to be improved and replaced with simpler and better commandments?
Such an assumption is preposterous because it negates the immutability of God’s moral character reflected in His moral laws. The Old Testament teaches that the New Covenant that God will make with the house of Israel consists not in the replacement of the Ten Commandments with simpler and better laws, but in the internalization of God’s Law. "This is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my Law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God" (Jer 31:33).
This passage teaches us that the difference between the Old and New Covenants is not a difference between "Law" and "love." Rather, it is a difference between failure to internalize God’s Law, which results in disobedience, and successful internalization of God’s Law, which results in obedience. The New Covenant believer who internalizes God’s Law by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit will find it hard to break the Law because, as Paul puts it, "Christ has set him free from the Law of sin and death" (Rom 8:2).
Internalization of God’s Law. The internalization of God’s Law in the human heart applies to Israel and the Church. In fact, Hebrews applies to the Church the very same promise God made to Israel (Heb 8:10; 10:16). In the New Covenant, the Law is not simplified or replaced but internalized by the Spirit. The Spirit opens up people to the Law, enabling them to live in accordance with its higher ethics. Ratzlaff’s argument that under the New Covenant "the Law no longer applies to one who has died with Christ"29 is mistaken and misleading. Believers are no longer under the condemnation of the Law when they experience God’s forgiving grace and, by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit, they live according to its precepts. But this does not means that the Law no longer applies to them. They are still accountable before God’s Law because all "shall stand before the judgment seat of God" (Rom 14:10) to give an account of themselves.
The Spirit does not operate in a vacuum. His function of the Spirit is not to bypass or replace the Law, but to help the believer to live in obedience to the Law of God (Gal 5:18, 22-23). Eldon Ladd notes that "more than once he [Paul] asserts that it is the new life of the Spirit that enables the Christian truly to fulfill the Law (Rom 8:3,4; 13:10; Gal 5:14)."30
Any change in relation to the Law that occurs in the New Covenant is not in the moral Law itself but in the believer who is energized and enlightened by the Spirit "in order that the just requirements of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit" (Rom 8:4). Guidance by the Spirit without respect for the Law of God can be dangerous to Christian growth. This is a fundamental problem of "New Covenant" theology espoused by the WCG, Ratzlaff, and countless Evangelicals today: it is a theology that ultimately makes each person a Law unto himself. This easily degenerates into irresponsible behavior. It is not surprising that America leads the world not only in the number of evangelical Christians (estimated at almost 100 million) but also in crime, violence, murders, divorces, etc. By relaxing the obligation to observe God’s Law in the New Covenant, people find an excuse to do what is right in their own eyes.
Perhaps as a reaction to the popular "abrogation of the Law" perception, there is a hunger today for someone to help the Christian community to understand how to apply the principles of God’s Law to their lives. To a large extent, this is what the Basic Youth Conflict seminars have endeavored to accomplish since 1968, drawing thousands of people to its sessions in every major city in North America. Referring to this phenomenom, Walter Kaiser writes: "This is an indictment on the church and its reticence to preach the moral Law of God and apply it to all aspects of life as indicated in Scripture."31
No Dichotomy Between Law and Love. No dichotomy exists in the Bible between Law and Love in the covenantal relationship between God and His people because a covenant cannot exist without the Law. A covenant denotes an orderly relationship that the Lord graciously establishes and maintains with His people. The Law guarantees the order required for such a relationship to be meaningful.
In God’s relationship with believers, the moral Law reveals His will and character, the observance of which makes it possible to maintain an orderly and meaningful relationship. Law is not the product of sin, but the product of love. God gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites after showing them His redeeming love (Ex 20:2). Through God’s Law the godly come to know how to reflect God’s love, compassion, fidelity, and other perfections.
The Decalogue is not merely a list of ten laws, but primarily ten principles of love. There is no dichotomy between Law and love, because one cannot exist without the other. The Decalogue details how human beings must express their love for their Lord and for their fellow beings. Christ’s new commandment to love God and fellow beings is nothing else than the embodiment of the spirit of the Ten Commandments already found in the Old Testament (Lev 19:18; Deut 6:5). Christ spent much of His ministry clarifying how the love principles are embodied in the Ten Commandments. He explained, for example, that the sixth commandment can be transgressed not only by murdering a person but also by being angry and insulting a fellow being (Matt 5:22-23). The seventh commandment can be violated not only by committing adultery but also by looking lustfully at a woman (Matt 5:28).
Christ spent even more time clarifying how the principle of love is embodied in the Fourth Commandment. The Gospels report no less than seven Sabbath-healing episodes used by Jesus to clarify that the essence of Sabbathkeeping is people to love and not rules to obey. Jesus explained that the Sabbath is a day "to do good" (Matt 12:12), a day "to save life" (Mark 3:4), a day to liberate men and women from physical and spiritual bonds (Luke 13:12), a day to show mercy rather than religiosity (Matt 12:7). In Chapter 4, "The Savior and the Sabbath," we take a closer look at how Jesus clarified the meaning and function of the Sabbath.
Ratzlaff’s attempt to divorce the Law of the Old Covenant from the Love of the New Covenant ignores the simple truth that in both covenants love is manifested in obedience to God’s Law. Christ stated this truth clearly and repeatedly: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15). "He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me" (John 14:21). "If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love" (John 15:10). Christ’s commandments are not an improved and simplified set of moral principles, but the same moral principles He promulgated from Mt. Sinai.
Under both covenants, the Lord has one moral standard for human behavior, namely, holiness and wholeness of life. Wholeness of life is that integration of love for God and human beings manifested in those who grow in reflecting the perfect character of God (His love, faithfulness, righteousness, justice, forgiveness). Under both covenants, God wants His people to love Him and their fellow beings by living in harmony with the moral principles expressed in the Ten Commandments. These serve as a guide in imitating God’s character. The Spirit does not replace these moral principles in the New Covenant. He makes the letter become alive and powerful within the hearts of the godly.
Jesus and the New Covenant Law. The contention that Christ replaced the Ten Commandments with the simpler and better commandment of love is clearly negated by the decisive witness of our Lord Himself as found in Matthew 5:17-19: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven" (NIV).
In this pronouncement, Christ teaches three important truths: (1) Twice He denies that His coming had the purpose of abrogating "the law and the prophets"; (2) all of the Law of God, including its minute details, has an abiding validity until the termination of the present age; and (3) anyone who teaches that even the least of God’s commandments can be broken stands under divine condemnation. This indictment should cause "New Covenant" Christians to do some soul-searching.
There is no exegetical stalemate here. Christ gave no hint that with His coming the Old Testament moral Law was replaced by a simpler and better Law. It is biblically irrational to assume that the mission of Christ was to make it morally acceptable to worship idols, blaspheme, break the Sabbath, dishonor parents, murder, steal, commit adultery, gossip, or envy. Such actions are a transgression of the moral principles that God has revealed for both Jews and Gentiles.
It is unfortunate that Ratzlaff, the WCG, and Dispensationalists try to build their case for a replacement of the Old Testament Law with a simpler and better New Testament Law by selecting a few problem-oriented texts (2 Cor 3:6-11; Heb 8-9; Gal 3-4), rather than by starting with Christ’s own testimony. The Savior’s testimony should serve as the touchstone to explain apparent contradictory texts which speak negatively of the Law.
In Chapter 5, "Paul and the Law," I examine Paul’s apparently contradictory statements about the Law. This study suggests that the resolution to this apparent contradiction is to be found in the different contexts in which Paul speaks of the Law. When he speaks of the Law in the context of salvation (justification—right standing before God), especially in his polemic with Judaizers, he clearly affirms that Law-keeping is of no avail (Rom 3:20). On the other hand, when Paul speaks of the Law in the context of Christian conduct (sanctification—right living before God), especially in dealing with antinomians, he upholds the value and validity of God’s Law (Rom 7:12; 13:8-10; 1 Cor 7:19).
Ratzlaff’s Interpretation of Matthew 5:17-19. Ratzlaff examines at some length Matthew 5:17-19 in chapter 14 of his book entitled "Jesus: The Law’s Fulfillment." He bases his interpretation of the passage on two key terms: "Law" and "fulfill." A survey of the use of the term "Law" in Matthew leads him to "conclude that the ‘Law’ Jesus makes reference to is the entire Old Covenant Law, which included the Ten Commandments."32 This conclusion per se is accurate, because Jesus upheld the moral principles of the Old Testament, in general. For example, the "golden rule" in Matthew 7:12 is presented as being, in essence, "the Law and the prophets." In Matthew 22:40, the two great commandments are viewed as the basis upon which "depend all the Law and the prophets."
The problem with Ratzlaff’s rationale is that he uses the broad meaning of Law to argue that Christ abrogated the Mosaic Law, in general, and the Ten Commandments, in particular. He does this by giving a narrow interpretation to the verb "to fulfill." He argues that "in the book of Matthew every time the word ‘fulfill’ is used, it is employed in connection with the life of Christ, or the events connected with it. In every instance it was one event which ‘fulfilled’ the prophecy. In every instance Christians are not to participate in any ongoing fulfillment."33 On the basis of these considerations, Ratzlaff concludes that the word "fulfill" in Matthew 5:17-19 refers not to the continuing nature of the Law and the prophets but to the fulfillment of "prophecies regarding the life and death of Messiah."34
To support this conclusion, Ratzlaff appeals to the phrase "You have heard . . . but I say unto you," which Jesus uses six times in Matthew 5:21-43. For him, the phrase indicates that the Lord was asserting His authority to "completely do away with the binding nature of the Old Covenant. This He will do, but not before He completely fulfills the prophecies, types and shadows which pointed forward to His work as the Messiah and Savior of the world which are recorded in the Law. Therefore, the Law must continue until he has accomplished everything. This happened, according to John, at the death of Jesus."35 The conclusion is clear. For Ratzlaff, the Cross marks the termination of the Law.
The Continuity of the Law. Ratzlaff’s conclusion has several serious problems which largely derive from his failure to closely examine a text in its immediate context. The immediate context of Matthew 5:17-19 clearly indicates that the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets ultimately takes place, not at Christ’s death as Ratzlaff claims, but at the close of the present age: "I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished" (Matt 5:18). Since, at Christ’s death, heaven and earth did not disappear, it is evident that, according to Jesus, the function of the Law will continue until the end of the present age.
Ratzlaff’s claim that the six antitheses, "You have heard . . . but I say unto you," indicate that Jesus intended to do away completely "with the binding nature of the Old Covenant" is untenable because in each instance Christ did not release His followers from the obligation to observe the six commandments mentioned. Instead, He called for a more radical observance of each of them. As John Gerstner points out, "Christ’s affirmation of the moral Law was complete. Rather than setting the disciples free from the Law, He tied them more tightly to it. He abrogated not one commandment but instead intensified all."36
Christ did not modify or replace the Law. Instead, He revealed its divine intent which affects not only the outward conduct but also the inner motives. The Law condemned murder; Jesus condemned anger as sin (Matt 5:21-26). The Law condemned adultery; Jesus condemned lustful appetites (Matt 5:27-28). This is not a replacement of the Law, but a clarification and intensification of its divine intent. Anger and lust cannot be controlled by Law, because legislation has to do with outward conduct that can be controlled. Jesus is concerned with showing that obedience to the spirit of God’s commandments involves inner motives as well as outer actions.
The Continuation of the Law. Ratzlaff is correct in saying that "to fulfill" in Matthew generally refers to the prophetic realization of the Law and prophets in the life and ministry of Christ. This implies that certain aspects of the Law and the prophets, such as the Levitical services and messianic prophecies, came to an end in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. But this interpretation cannot be applied to the moral aspects of God’s Law mentioned by Jesus, because verse 18 explicitly affirms that the Law would be valid "till heaven and earth pass away." In the light of the antitheses of verses 21-48, "to fulfill" means especially "to explain" the fuller meaning of the Law and the prophets. Repeatedly, in Matthew, Jesus acts as the supreme interpreter of the Law who attacks external obedience and some of the rabbinical (Halakic) traditions (Matt 15:3-6; 9:13; 12:7; 23:1-39).
In Matthew, Christ’s teachings are presented not as a replacement of God’s moral Law but as the continuation and confirmation of the Old Testament. Matthew sees in Christ not the termination of the Law and the prophets but their realization and continuation. The "golden rule" in Matthew 7:12 is presented as being the essence of "the Law and the prophets." In Matthew 19:16-19, the rich young man wanted to know what he should do to have eternal life. Jesus told him to "keep the commandments," and then He listed five of them.
In Matthew 22:40, the two great commandments are viewed as the basis upon which "depend all the Law and the prophets." Ratzlaff should note that a summary does not abrogate or discount what it summarizes. It makes no sense to say that we must follow the summary command to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev 19:19; Matt 22:39) while ignoring or violating the second part of the Decalogue which tells us what loving our neighbor entails. We must not forget that when the Lord called upon people to recognize "the more important matters of the Law" (Matt 23:23), He immediately added that the lesser matters should not be neglected.
We might say that, in Matthew, the Law and the prophets live on in Christ who realizes, clarifies, and, in some cases, intensifies their teachings (Matt 5:21-22, 27-28). The Christological realization and continuation of the Old Testament Law has significant implications for the New Testament understanding of the Sabbath in the light of the redemptive ministry of Jesus. This important subject is investigated in Chapter 4 of this study, "The Savior and the Sabbath."
Considerable importance is attached to the book of Hebrews in defining the relationship between the Sabbath and the covenants. Why? First, because Hebrews deals more with the relationship between the Old and New Covenants than any other book of the New Testament; and second, because Hebrews 4:9 clearly speaks of a "Sabbathkeeping that remains for the people of God." If the reference is to a literal Sabbathkeeping, this text would provide a compelling evidence of the observance of the Sabbath in the New Testament church.
The WCG Interpretation of the Sabbath in Hebrews 4:9. The Worldwide Church of God acknowledges the importance of this text, saying: "If this passage [Heb 4:9] requires Christians to keep the seventh-day Sabbath, it would be the only direct post-resurrection Scriptural command to do so. If it doesn’t, then we have no existing proof-text command specifically written to the New Testament church mandating the keeping of the Sabbath. In view of this, it is extremely important that we understand clearly what the verses in question are telling us."37
There is no question that "it is extremely important" to understand the meaning of Hebrews 4:9 in the context of the author’s discussion of the Old and New Covenants. This is indeed what we intend to do now by examining the text in the light of its immediate and larger contexts. The interpretation given by the WCG to the Sabbath in Hebrews can be summarized in a simple syllogism.
Christ made the Old Covenant obsolete.
The Sabbath was part of the Old Covenant.
Therefore, the literal observance of the Sabbath is obsolete.38
The WCG interprets the "Sabbathkeeping–sabbatismos–that remains for the people of God" (Heb 4:9) as a daily experience of spiritual salvation rest, not the keeping of the seventh-day Sabbath. "The spiritual rest of salvation into which God’s people are entering is a sabbatismos–‘a Sabbathkeeping.’ . . . In summary, the verses in question do not exhort us to keep the Old Covenant Sabbath, but they do admonish us to enter the spiritual ‘rest’ of God by having faith in Christ."39 The evaluation of the WCG interpretation of the Sabbath in Hebrews 4:9 is given in the context of the analysis of Ratzlaff’s interpretation, since the two are similar.
Ratzlaff’s Interpretation of Hebrews 4:9. Like the WCG, Ratzlaff attaches great importance to the teachings of the book of Hebrews regarding the covenants and the Sabbath. His reason is clearly stated: "The contextual teaching of this book deals with the very point of our study: how Christians were to relate to the Old Covenant Law. Therefore, we should accept the following statements as having the highest teaching authority."40
Ratzlaff’s argument is essentially identical to that of the WCG. He argues that the Sabbath was part of the Old Covenant Law which became obsolete and was done away with the coming of Christ. He states his view clearly in commenting on Hebrews 9:1: "Now even the first covenant had regulations of divine worship (Greek word is service) (Heb 9:1). It is unquestionably clear that the Sabbath was one of those regulations of divine worship or service (Lev 23). . . . Let me clarify by reviewing what is said here. First, our author calls the Sinaitic Covenant the ‘first covenant’ (called old in other places). Then he says that it had regulations for divine worship. He goes on to list the things included in this ‘first covenant,’ including ‘the tables of the covenant’—a clear reference to the Ten Commandments. These are the facts of Scripture in their contextual setting. Thus the ‘tables of the covenant,’ which include the Sabbath commandment, and the ‘Laws for divine worship,’ which include the Sabbath, are old and ready to disappear."41
Discontinuity in Hebrews. Ratzlaff is right in pointing out the discontinuity taught by Hebrews between the Old and New Covenant as far as the Levitical services are concerned. These were brought to an end by Christ’s coming. But he is wrong in applying such a discontinuity to the moral principles of the Ten Commandments, especially the Sabbath.
There is no question that the author of Hebrews emphasizes the discontinuity brought about by the coming of Christ when he says that "if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood" (Heb 7:11), there would have been no need for Christ to come. But because the priests, the sanctuary, and its services were "symbolic" (Heb 9:9; 8:5), they could not in themselves "perfect the conscience of the worshipper" (Heb 9:9). Consequently, it was necessary for Christ to come "once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself" (Heb 9:26). The effect of Christ’s coming, as Ratzlaff notes, is described as "setting aside" (Heb 7:18), making "obsolete" (Heb 8:13), "abolishing" (Heb 10:9) all the Levitical services associated with the sanctuary.
The problem is that Ratzlaff interprets these affirmations as indicating the abrogation of all the Old Testament laws, including the Sabbath. Such an interpretation ignores that the statements in question are found in chapters 7 to 10 which deal with the Levitical, sacrificial regulations. In these chapters, the author uses the terms "Law" (Heb 10:1) and "covenant" (Heb 8:7, 8, 13) specifically with reference to the Levitical priesthood and services. It is in this context—that is, as they relate to the Levitical ministry—that they are declared "abolished" (Heb 10:9). But this declaration can hardly be taken as a blanket statement for the abrogation of the Law, in general.
Walter Kaiser emphasizes this point: "The writer to the Hebrews clearly shows that what he saw as being abrogated from the first covenant were the ceremonies and rituals—the very items that had a built-in warning from God to Moses from the first day they were revealed to him. Had not God warned Moses that what he gave him in Exodus 25-40 and Leviticus 1-27 was according to the ‘pattern’ he had shown him on the mountain (e.g., Ex 25:40)? This meant that the real remained somewhere else (presumably in heaven) while Moses instituted a ‘model,’ ‘shadow,’ or ‘imitation’ of what is real until reality came! The net result cannot be that for the writer of Hebrews, the whole Old Covenant or the whole Torah had been superseded."42
Ratzlaff ignores the fact that the reference to "the tables of the covenant" in Hebrews 9:4 is found in the context of the description of the contents of the ark of the covenant, which included "the tables of the covenant." The latter are mentioned as part of the furniture of the earthly sanctuary whose typological function terminated with Christ’s death on the Cross. However, the fact that the services of the earthly sanctuary terminated at the Cross does not mean, as Ratzlaff claims, that the Ten Commandments also came to an end simply because they were located inside the ark.
Continuity of the Ten Commandments in the New Covenant. Hebrews teaches us that the earthly sanctuary was superseded by the heavenly sanctuary where Christ "appears in the presence of God on our behalf" (Heb 9:24). When John saw in vision the heavenly Temple, he saw within the Temple "the ark of the covenant" which contains the Ten Commandments (Rev 11:19). Why was John shown the ark of the covenant within the heavenly temple? The answer is simple. The ark of the covenant represents the throne of God that rests on justice (the Ten Commandments) and mercy (the mercy seat).
If Ratzlaff’s argument is correct that the Ten Commandments terminated at the Cross because they were part of the furnishings of the sanctuary, then why was John shown the ark of the covenant which contains the Ten Commandments in the heavenly Temple? Does not the vision of the ark of the covenant in the heavenly sanctuary where Christ ministers on our behalf provide a compelling proof that the principles of the Ten Commandments are still the foundation of God’s government?
It is unfortunate that in his concern to argue for the discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants, Ratzlaff ignores the clear continuity between the two. The continuity is expressed in a variety of ways. There is continuity in the revelation which the same God "spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets" and now "in these last days has spoken to us by a Son" (Heb 1:1-2). There is continuity in the faithfulness and accomplishments of Moses and Christ (Heb 3:2-6).
There is continuity in the redemptive ministry offered typologically in the earthly sanctuary by priests and realistically in the heavenly sanctuary by Christ Himself (Heb 7-10). There is continuity in faith and hope as New Testament believers share in the faith and promises of the Old Testament worthies (Heb 11-12).
More specifically, there is continuity in the "Sabbathkeeping–sabbatismos" which "remains (apoleipetai) for the people of God" (Heb 4:9). The verb "remains—apoleipetai" literally means "has been left behind." Literally translated, verse 9 reads: "So then a Sabbath-keeping has been left behind for the people of God." The permanence of the Sabbath is also implied in the exhortation to "strive to enter that rest" (Heb 4:11). The fact that one must make efforts "to enter that rest" implies that the "rest" experience of the Sabbath also has a future realization and, consequently, cannot have terminated with the coming of Christ.
It is noteworthy that while the author declares the Levitical priesthood and services as "abolished" (Heb 10:9), "obsolete," and "ready to vanish away" (Heb 8:13), he explicitly teaches that a "Sabbathkeeping has been left behind for the people of God" (Heb 4:9).
Ratzlaff’s Objections to Literal Sabbathkeeping. Ratzlaff rejects the interpretation of "sabbatismos" as literal Sabbathkeeping because it does not fit his "New Covenant" theology. He goes as far as saying that sabbatismos is a special term coined by the author of Hebrews to emphasize the uniqueness of the salvation rest of the New Covenant. "The writer of Hebrews characterizes this rest as a ‘Sabbath rest’ by using a word which is unique to Scripture. I believe he did this to give it special meaning just as we do when we put quotation marks around a word as I have done with the term ‘God’s rest.’ As pointed out above, the author is showing how much better the new covenant is over the old. I believe the truth he is trying to convey is that the ‘Sabbath’ (sabbatismos, Gr) of the New Covenant is better than the Sabbath (sabbaton, Gr) of the Old Covenant."43
The truth of the matter is that the author of Hebrews did not have to invent a new word or use it with a unique meaning because the term sabbatismos already existed and was used both by pagans and Christians as a technical term for Sabbathkeeping. Examples can be found in the writings of Plutarch, Justin, Epiphanius, the Apostolic Constitutions, and the Martyrdom of Peter and Paul.44 The one who is inventing a new meaning for sabbatismos is not the author of Hebrews but Dale Ratzlaff himself, in order to support his unbiblical "New Covenant" theology.
Professor Andrew Lincoln, one of the contributors to the scholarly symposium From Sabbath to the Lord’s Day, a major source used by Ratzlaff, acknowledges that in each of the above instances "the term denotes the observance or celebration of the Sabbath. This usage corresponds to the Septuagint usage of the cognate verb sabbatizo (cf. Ex 16:23; Lev 23:32; 26:34f.; 2 Chron 36:21) which also has reference to Sabbath observance. Thus the writer to the Hebrews is saying that since the time of Joshua an observance of Sabbath rest has been outstanding."45
Lincoln is not a Sabbatarian but a Sundaykeeping scholar who deals in a responsible way with the linguistic usage of sabbatismos. Unfortunately, he chooses to interpret spiritually the ceasing from one’s works on the Sabbath (Heb 4:10) as referring to the spiritual cessation from sin rather than to the physical cessation from work.46 This interpretation, as we see below, is discredited by the comparison the author of Hebrews makes between the divine and human cessation from "works."
Ratzlaff’s Five Reasons Against literal Sabbath- keeping. Ratzlaff submits five reasons to support his contention that sabbatismos "cannot be the seventh-day Sabbath of the fourth commandment."47 The first and second reasons are essentially the same. Ratzlaff argues that since Hebrews states that the Israelites at the time of Joshua and, later, the time of David "did not enter the rest of God," though they were observing the Sabbath, then, the sabbatismos has nothing to do with literal Sabbathkeeping.48
This conclusion ignores the three levels of meaning that the author of Hebrews attaches to the Sabbath rest as representing (1) the physical rest of the seventh day, (2) the national rest in the land of Canaan, and (3) the spiritual (messianic) rest in God. The argument of Hebrews is that though the Israelites did enter into the land of rest under Joshua (Heb 4:8), because of unbelief they did not experience the spiritual dimension of Sabbathkeeping as an invitation to enter God’s rest (Heb 4:2, 6). This was true even after the occupation of the land because, at the time of David, God renewed the invitation to enter into His rest (Heb 4:7). The fact that the spiritual dimension of the Sabbath rest was not experienced by the Israelites as a people indicates to the author that "a sabbatismos—sabbathkeeping has been left behind for the people of God" (Heb 4:9). It is evident that a proper understanding of the passage indicates that the sabbatismos—sabbathkeeping that remains is a literal observance of the day which entails a spiritual experience. The physical act of rest represents a faith response to God.
The third reason given by Ratzlaff is his assumption that "the concept of ‘believing’ is never associated with keeping the seventh-day Sabbath in the old covenant."49 This assumption is negated by the fact that Sabbath is given as the sign "that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you" (Ex 31:13). Is it possible for anyone to experience God’s sanctifying presence and power on the Sabbath without a "belief" or "faith response" to God? Furthermore, does not the prophet Isaiah summon the people to honor the Sabbath by "taking delight in the Lord" (Is 58:14)? Can one delight in the Lord on the Sabbath without believing in Him?
The fourth reason advanced by Ratzlaff relates to the verb "has rested" in Hebrews 4:10 which is past tense (aorist tense in Greek). To him the past tense indicates "that the believer who rests from his works did so at one point in time in the past."50 In other words the past tense "has rested" suggests not a weekly cessation from work on the Sabbath but a rest of grace already accomplished or experienced in the past.
This interpretation ignores two important points. First, the verb "has rested–katepausen" is past simply because it depends upon the previous verb "eiselthon—he that entered," which is also past. The Greek construction (aorist participle) makes it clear that some have already entered into God’s rest. It is evident that he who "entered" into God’s rest in the past has also "rested from his works" in the past.
Second, the text makes a simple comparison between the divine and the human cessation from "works." In the RSV the text reads: "For whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his" (Heb 4:10). The point of the analogy is simply that as God ceased from His work on the seventh day in order to rest, so believers who cease from their work on the Sabbath enter into God’s rest. If the verb "has rested" referred to the "rest of grace," as Ratzlaff claims, then by virtue of the analogy God also has experienced "the rest of grace," an obvious absurdity. All of this shows that the analogy contains a simple statement of the nature of Sabbathkeeping which essentially involves cessation from work in order to enter God’s rest by allowing Him to work in us more fully and freely.
The reason both verbs "entered—eiselthon" and "rested—katepausen" are past tense (aorist) may be because the author wishes to emphasize that the Sabbathkeeping that has been left behind for the people of God has both a past and present dimension. In the past, it has been experienced by those who have entered into God’s rest by resting from their work (Heb 4:10). In the present, we must "strive to enter that rest" (Heb 4:11) by being obedient. Both the RSV and the NIV render the two verbs in the present ("enters — ceases") because the context underlines the present and timeless quality of the Sabbath rest (Heb 4:1, 3, 6, 9, 11).
Is the Sabbath Rest a Daily Rest of Grace? The fifth reason given by Ratzlaff for negating the literal meaning of "sabbatismos—Sabbathkeeping" in Hebrews 4:9 is his contention that, since "the promise of entering God’s rest is good ‘today,’" the author of Hebrews is not thinking of the seventh day Sabbath rest but of the "‘rest’ of grace" experienced by believers every day.51 "The writer of Hebrews stresses the word ‘today’ on several occasions. In the New Covenant, one can enter into God’s rest ‘today." He does not have to wait until the end of the week. . . . The New Covenant believer is to rejoice into God’s rest continually."52
It amazes me how Ratzlaff can misconstrue the use of "today" to defend his abrogation view of the Sabbath. The function of the adverb "today—semeron" is not to teach a continuous Sabbath rest of grace that replaces literal Sabbathkeeping; it is to show that Sabbathkeeping as an experience of rest in God was not experienced by the Israelites as a people because of their unbelief (Heb 4:6). To prove this fact, the author of Hebrews quotes Psalm 95:7 where God invites the people to respond to Him, saying: "Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts" (Heb. 4:7, cf. Ps. 95:7).
The "today" simply serves to show that the spiritual dimension of the Sabbath as rest in God still remains because God renewed the invitation at the time of David. To argue that "today" means that "New Covenant" Christians observe the Sabbath every day by living in God’s rest is to ignore also the historical context—namely, that the "today" was spoken by God at the time of David. If Ratzlaff’s interpretation of "today" were correct, then already, at the time of David, God had replaced the literal observance of the Sabbath with a spiritual experience of rest in Him. Such an absurd conclusion can be reached only by reading into the text gratuitous assumptions.
Three Levels of Interpretation of the Sabbath Rest in the Old Testament. To understand better the preceding discussion about the Sabbath rest in Hebrews 3 and 4, it is important to note three levels of meaning attached to the Sabbath rest in the Old Testament and in Jewish literature. In the Old Testament, we find that the Sabbath rest refers first of all to the physical cessation from work on the seventh day (Ex 20:10; 23:12; 31:14; 34:21). Second, the Sabbath rest served to epitomize the national aspiration for a peaceful life in a land at rest (Deut 12:9; 25:19; Is 14:3) where the king would give to the people "rest from all enemies" (2 Sam 7:1; cf. 1 Kings 8:5), and where God would find His "resting place" among His people and especially in His sanctuary at Zion (2 Chron 6:41; 1 Chron 23:25; Ps 132:8, 13, 14; Is 66:1).
The fact that the Sabbath rest as a political aspiration for national peace and prosperity remained largely unfulfilled apparently inspired the third interpretation of the Sabbath rest—namely, the symbol of the Messianic age, often known as the "end of days" or the "world to come." Theodore Friedman notes, for example, that "two of the three passages in which Isaiah refers to the Sabbath are linked by the prophet with the end of days (Is 56:4-7; 58:13, 14; 66:22-24) . . . . It is no mere coincidence that Isaiah employs the words ‘delight’ (oneg) and ‘honor’ (kavod) in his descriptions of both the Sabbath and the end of days (Is 58:13—‘And you shall call the Sabbath a delight . . . and honor it’; Is 66:11—‘And you shall delight in the glow of its honor’). The implication is clear. The delight and joy that will mark the end of days is made available here and now by the Sabbath."53
Later rabbinic and apocalyptic literature provide more explicit examples of the Messianic/eschatological interpretation of the Sabbath. For example, the Babylonian Talmud says: "Our Rabbis taught that at the conclusion of the septennate the son of David will come. R. Joseph demurred: But so many Sabbaths have passed, yet has he not come!"54 In the apocalyptic work known as The Book of Adam and Eve (about first century A.D.), the archangel Michael admonishes Seth, saying: "Man of God, mourn not for thy dead more than six days, for on the seventh day is a sign of the resurrection and the rest of the age to come." 55
How did the Sabbath come to be regarded as the symbol of the world to come? Apparently the harsh experiences of the desert wandering, first, and of the exile, later, inspired the people to view the Edenic Sabbath as the paradigm of the future Messianic age. In fact, the Messianic age is characterized by material abundance (Am 9:13-14; Joel 4:19; Is 30:23-25; Jer 31:12), social justice (Is 61:1-9), harmony between persons and animals (Hos 2:20; Is 65:25; 11:6), extraordinary longevity (Is 65:20; Zech 8:4), refulgent light (Is 30:26; Zech 14:6, 7), and the absence of death and sorrow (Is 25:8).
This brief survey indicates that both in the Old Testament and in later Jewish literature, the weekly experience of the Sabbath rest served not only to express the national aspirations for a peaceful life in the land of Canaan (which remained largely unfulfilled), but also to nourish the hope of the future Messianic age which came to be viewed as "wholly sabbath and rest." 56
Three Levels of Interpretation of the Sabbath Rest in Hebrews. The existence in Old Testament times of three levels of interpretation of the Sabbath rest as a personal, national, and Messianic reality provides the basis for understanding these three meanings in Hebrews 3 and 4. By welding two texts together—namely, Psalm 95:11 and Genesis 2:2—the writer presents three different levels of meaning of the Sabbath rest. At the first level, the Sabbath rest points to God’s creation rest, when "his works were finished from the foundation of the world" (Heb 4:3). This meaning is established by quoting Genesis 2:2.
At the second level, the Sabbath rest symbolizes the promise of entry into the land of Canaan, which the wilderness generation "failed to enter" (Heb 4:6; cf. 3:16-19), but which was realized later when the Israelites under Joshua did enter the land of rest (4:8). At the third and most important level, the Sabbath rest prefigures the rest of redemption which has dawned and is made available to God’s people through Christ.
How does the author establish this last meaning? By drawing a remarkable conclusion from Psalm 95:7, 11 which he quotes several times (Heb 4:3, 5, 7). In Psalm 95, God invites the Israelites to enter into His rest which was denied to the rebellious wilderness generation (Heb 4:7-11). The fact that God should renew "again" the promise of His rest long after the actual entrance into the earthly Canaan—namely, at the time of David by saying "today" (Heb 4:7)—is interpreted by the author of Hebrews to mean two things: first, that God’s Sabbath rest was not exhausted when the Israelites under Joshua found a resting place in the land, but that it still "remains for the people of God" (4:9); and second, that such rest has dawned with the coming of Christ (Heb 4:3, 7).
The phrase "Today, when you hear his voice" (Heb 4:7) has a clear reference to Christ. The readers had heard God’s voice in the "last days" (Heb 1:2) as it spoke through Christ and had received the promise of the Sabbath rest. In the light of the Christ event, then, ceasing from one’s labor on the Sabbath (Heb 4:10) signifies both a present experience of redemption (Heb 4:3) and a hope of future fellowship with God (Heb 4:11). For the author of Hebrews, as Gerhard von Rad correctly points out, "the whole purpose of creation and the whole purpose of redemption are reunited" in the fulfillment of God’s original Sabbath rest.57
The Nature of the Sabbath Rest in Hebrews. . What is the nature of the "Sabbath rest" that is still outstanding for God’s people (Heb 4:9)? Is the writer thinking of a literal or spiritual type of Sabbathkeeping? The answer is both. The author presupposes the literal observance of the Sabbath to which he gives a deeper meaning—namely, a faith response to God. Support for a literal understanding of Sabbathkeeping is provided by the historical usage of the term "sabbatismos—sabbathkeeping" in verse 9 and by the description of Sabbathkeeping as cessation from work given in verse 10: "For whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his."
We noted earlier that sabbatismos is used in both pagan and Christian literature to denote the literal observance of the Sabbath. Consequently, by the use of this term, the writer of Hebrews is simply saying that "a Sabbathkeeping has been left behind for the people of God." The probative value of this text is enhanced by the fact that the writer is not arguing for the permanence of Sabbathkeeping; he takes it for granted.
The literal nature of Sabbathkeeping is indicated also by the following verse which speaks of the cessation from work as representing entering into God’s rest. "For whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his" (Heb 4:10). The majority of commentators interpret the cessation from work of Hebrews 4:10 in a figurative sense as "abstention from servile work," meaning sinful activities. Thus, Christian Sabbathkeeping means not the interruption of daily work on the seventh day, but the abstention from sinful acts at all times. In other words, "New Covenant" believers experience the Sabbath rest not as a physical cessation from work on the seventh day but as a spiritual salvation rest every day. As Ratzlaff puts it, "The New Covenant believer is to rejoice in God’s rest continually."58
To support this view, appeal is made to the reference in Hebrews to "dead works" (Heb 6:1; 9:14). Such a concept, however, cannot be read back into Hebrews 4:10 where a comparison is made between the divine and the human cessation from "works." It is absurd to think that God ceased from "sinful deeds." The point of the analogy is simply that as God ceased on the seventh day from His creation work, so believers are to cease on the same day from their labors. This is a simple statement of the nature of Sabbathkeeping which essentially involves cessation from works.
The Meaning of Sabbathkeeping in Hebrews. The concern of the author of Hebrews, however, is not merely to encourage his readers to interrupt their secular activities on the Sabbath, but rather to help them understand the deeper significance of the act of resting for God on the Sabbath. The recipients of the book are designated as "Hebrews" presumably because of their tendency to adopt Jewish liturgical customs as a means to gain access to God. This is indicated by the appeal in chapters 7 to 10 to discourage any participation in the Temple’s sacrificial services. Thus, these Hebrew-minded Christians did not need to be reminded of the physical-cessation aspect of Sabbathkeeping. This aspect yields only a negative idea of rest, one which only would have served to encourage existing Judaizing tendencies. What they needed, instead, was to understand the meaning of the act of resting on the Sabbath, especially in the light of the coming of Christ.
This deeper meaning can be seen in the antithesis the author makes between those who failed to enter into God’s rest because of "unbelief—apeitheias" (Heb 4:6, 11), that is, faithlessness which results in disobedience, and those who enter it by "faith—pistei" (Heb 4:2, 3), that is, faithfulness that results in obedience.
Chapter 4 covers more fully the meaning of Sabbathkeeping as a faith response to God in conjunction with the relationship between the Savior and the Sabbath. There we see that Hebrews’ deeper meaning of Sabbathkeeping reflects to a large extent the redemptive understanding of the day we find in the Gospels. Christ’s offer of His "rest" (Matt 11:28) represents the core of the "Sabbath rest" available "today" to God’s people (Heb 4:7, 9).
The act of resting on the Sabbath for the author of Hebrews is not merely a routine ritual (cf."sacrifice"—Matt 12:7) but rather a faith response to God. Such a response entails not the hardening of one’s heart (Heb 4:7) but being receptive to"hear his voice" (Heb 4:7). It means experiencing God’s salvation rest, not by works but by faith—not by doing but by being saved through faith (Heb 4:2, 3, 11). On the Sabbath, as John Calvin aptly expresses it, believers are "to cease from their work to allow God to work in them."59
This expanded interpretation of Sabbathkeeping in the light of the Christ event was apparently designed to wean Christians away from a too materialistic understanding of its observance. To achieve this objective, the author, on the one hand, reassures his readers of the permanence of the blessings contemplated by Sabbathkeeping and, on the other hand, explains that such a blessing can be received only by experiencing the Sabbath as a faith response to God.
It is evident that for the author of Hebrews the Sabbathkeeping that remains for "New Covenant" Christians is not only a physical experience of cessation from work on the seventh day but also a faith response, a yes "today" response to God. Karl Barth puts it eloquently. The act of resting on Sabbath is an act of resignation to our human efforts to achieve salvation in order "to allow the omnipotent grace of God to have the first and last word at every point."60
The preceding study of the Sabbath in its relationship to the New Covenant has shown that there is an organic unity between the Old and New Covenants—a unity which is reflected in the continuity of the Sabbath. Both covenants are part of the everlasting covenant (Heb 13:20), that is, of God’s commitment to save penitent sinners. In both covenants, God invites His people to accept the gracious provision of salvation by living in accordance with the moral principles He has revealed. Christ came not to nullify or modify God’s moral Law but to clarify and reveal its deeper meaning. Christ spent much of His ministry clarifying how the love principle is embodied in the Ten Commandments, in general, and in the Sabbath, in particular.
Of all the commandments, the Sabbath offers us the most concrete opportunity to show our love to God because it invites us to consecrate our time to Him. Time is the essence of our life. The way we use our time is indicative of our priorities. A major reason why the Sabbath has been attacked by many throughout human history is that sinful human nature is self-centered rather than God-centered. Most people want to spend their Sabbath time seeking for personal pleasure or profit rather than for the presence and peace of God.
New Covenant believers who on the Sabbath stop their work to allow God to work in them more fully and freely tangibly show that God really counts in their lives. They make themselves receptive and responsive to the presence, peace, and rest of God. At a time when so-called "New Covenant" theology is deceiving many Christians into believing in the "simpler" and "better" principle of love, the Sabbath challenges us to offer to God not just lip-service, but the service of our total being by consecrating our time and life to Him.
1. Lewis Sperry Chafer, Dispensationalism (Dallas, 1936), p. 107.
2. A study paper on "The Sabbath" released by the Worldwide Church of God on 1995, lists Dale Ratzlaff’s book, Sabbath in Crisis, as one of the major sources used. The other two sources are the special issue of Verdict (vol. 4), entitled "Sabbatarianism Reconsidered," published by Robert Brinsmead on June 4, 1981, and the symposium From Sabbath to the Lord’s Day, and published by Zondervan in 1982.
3. Clay Peck, "New Covenant" Christians (Berthoud, Colorado, 1998), p. 2.
4. Joseph Tkach, Jr., "The New Covenant and the Sabbath," Pastor General Report (December 21, 1994), pp. 8, 11.
5. Joseph Tkach, Jr., Pastor General’s Report (January 5, 1995), p. 1.
6. "Covenant in the Bible," a Bible study prepared by the Worldwide Church of God and posted in their Web page (www.wcg.org – September 15, 1998), p. 3.
7. Ibid., p. 4.
8. Joseph Tkach, Jr., (note 4), p. 2.
9. Ibid., p. 11.
10. Ibid., p. 6.
11. Ibid., p. 7.
12. "The Sabbath in Acts and the Epistles," a Bible study prepared by the Worldwide Church of God and posted on their web page (www.wcg.org, September 1998), p. 3.
13. Ibid., pp. 3-4.
14. Pierre Grelot and Jean Giblet, "Covenant," Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed., by Xavier Leon-Dufour (New York, 1970), p. 95.
15. George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1974), p. 507.
16. Ibid., p. 507.
17. Greg L. Bahnsen, "The Theonomic Reformed Approach to the Law and Gospel," in The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1993), p. 97.
18. Dale Ratzlaff, Sabbath in Crisis: Transfer/Modification? Reformation/Continuation? Fulfillment/Transformation? (Applegate, California, 1990), p. 73.
19. Ibid., p. 78, emphasis supplied.
20. Ibid., p. 78.
21. Ibid., p. 180.
22. Ibid., p. 181.
23. Ibid., p. 182.
24. Ibid., pp. 182, 183, 185.
25. Ibid., p. 185.
26. Ibid., p. 74.
27. Ibid., p. 73.
28. Ibid., p. 185.
29. Ibid., p. 207.
30. George Eldon Ladd (note 15), p. 128.
31. Walter C. Kaiser, "The Law as God’s Gracious Guidance for the Promotion of Holiness," in The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1993), p. 198.
32. Dale Ratzlaff (note 18), p. 228.
33. Ibid., p. 228.
34. Ibid., p. 229.
35. Ibid., p. 229.
36. John H. Gerstner, "Law in the NT," International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, revised edition, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1960), vol 3, p. 88.
37. "Does Hebews 4:9 Command Us to Keep the Sabbath?" A Bible study prepared by the Worldwide Church of God and posted on their Web page (www.wcg.org – September, 1998), p. 1.
38. "The New Covenant and the Sabbath," a Bible study prepared by the Worldwide Church of God and posted on their Web page (www.wcg.org – September, 1998), pp. 9-10.
39. "Does Hebrews 4:9 Command Us to Keep the Sabbath?" (note 37), pp.8-9.
40. Dale Ratzlaff (note 18), p. 197.
41. Ibid., p. 198.
42. Walter C. Kaiser (note 31), p. 186.
43. Dale Ratzlaff (note 18), p. 246.
44. Plutarch, De Superstitione 3 (Moralia 1660); Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 23, 3; Epiphanius, Adversus Haereses 30, 2, 2; Apostolic Constitutions 2, 36.
45. Andrew T. Lincoln, "Sabbath, Rest, and Eschatology in the New Testament," in From Sabbath to the Lord’s Day, ed. Donald A. Carson (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1982), p. 213.
47. Dale Ratzlaff (note 18), p. 243.
48. Ibid., pp. 243-244.
49. Ibid., p. 244.
52. Ibid., p. 247.
53. Theodore Friedman, "The Sabbath: Anticipation of Redemption," Judaism 16 (1967), p. 445. Friedman notes that "at the end of the Mishnah Tamid (Rosh Hashanah 31a) we read: ‘A Psalm, a song for the Sabbath day—a song for the time-to-come, for the day that is all Sabbath rest in the eternal life.’ The Sabbath, the Gemara asserts, is one-sixtieth of the world to come" (ibid., p. 443).
54. Sanhedrin 97a.
55. The Books of Adam and Eve 51:1,2 in R. H. Charles, ed., The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Oxford,1913), vol 2, p. 153. Cf. Apocalypsis of Mosis 43:3. A similar view is found in Genesis Rabbah 17:5: "There are three antitypes: the antitype of death is sleep, the antitype of prophecy is dream, the antitype of the age to come is the Sabbath." Cf. Genesis Rabbah 44:17.
56. Mishnah Tamid 7:4. The viewing of the Sabbath as the symbol and anticipation of the Messianic age gave to the celebration of the weekly Sabbath a note of gladness and hope for the future. Cf. Genesis Rabbat 17; 44; Baba Berakot 57f. Theodore Friedman shows how certain Sabbath regulations established by the school of Shammai were designed to offer a foretaste of the Messianic age (note 53, pp. 447-452).
57. Gerhard von Rad, "There Remains Still a Rest for the People of God," in The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays (New York, 1965), p. 94-102.
58. Dale Ratzlaff (note 18), p. 247.
59. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1965), vol. 2, p. 337. Karl Barth keenly observes that by resting on the Sabbath after the similitude of God (Heb 4:10), the believer "participates consciously in the salvation provided by him [God]" (Church Dogmatic [Edinburgh, 1961], vol. 3, part 2, p. 50).
60. Karl Barth (note 59), p. 51.