Several years ago my wife, Cindy, and I had a large number of friends leave the Seventh-day Adventist Church. They’d come to believe that being an Adventist was incompatible with being a new covenant Christian. A few high-profile pastors also left the church, putting forth the same argument: that some of the teachings of the Adventist Church detracted from the cross of Christ.
Our friends really zeroed in on the Sabbath. They said that the “old covenant” observance of the Sabbath had been fulfilled in Christ—that we no longer had to rest on the Sabbath, because we now rested in Christ. The issue, they said, wasn’t the Sabbath being changed to Sunday. They acknowledged that there’s no biblical support for the sacredness of the Sabbath being transferred to Sunday. Instead, they said, Sabbath rest had been fulfilled by our salvation rest in Christ.
The idea that the Sabbath somehow detracted from the glory of the cross of Christ startled and challenged me. I knew that our salvation was in Christ alone. I certainly didn’t view resting and worshipping on Sabbath as contributing in any way to my salvation, no more than my daughters’ obedience coaxes me into loving them. As with God’s other commands, I viewed resting on Sabbath as simply part of the life of faith. How could resting from our labors—and letting others rest from theirs—be a threat to the cross?
Sure, some Adventists have put way too much emphasis on the seventh-day Sabbath, as though we invented it. Sometimes the theology has been way, way off. I once visited a Sabbath school class in which the teacher posed this question: “Is it possible for someone to be saved who doesn’t keep the Sabbath?”
Raising my hand, I said, “I think it’s possible for someone to be saved who does keep the Sabbath.”
I probably shouldn’t have said that, but I was frustrated by the attitude that keeping Sabbath contributes to our salvation. It doesn’t. No more than prayer, Bible study, living with integrity, or helping abused children contribute to our salvation. We are saved by Christ’s finished work alone.
Tragically, sometimes we haven’t been clear about that. My grandmother died recently, and apparently she died worried. That’s a terrible state of mind to be in—the idea that we have to be good enough. None of us are good enough. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).
One of the reasons I was affected by the questions my friends asked was the renewed faith I saw in many of them. They showed a deeper hunger for the Word of God. Whereas before some of them seemed rather ambivalent toward Bible study and church in general, they now studied the Word with a voracious appetite. Many of them were filled with praise for Christ in a way they hadn’t experienced before.
I took these new questions seriously and wanted to study the Sabbath again for myself—especially the scriptures our friends were citing. Of course I was already familiar with the passages in support of the Sabbath, e.g., in Genesis God rested on the seventh day (though the actual word “Sabbath” isn’t used there), and in Exodus God wrote with His own finger the commandment to rest on Sabbath.
It’s worth pointing out that the actual Sabbath commandment doesn’t mention worship, per se; its focus is resting from our labors. Sometimes we have unfairly defined Sabbathkeeping as churchgoing. The Sabbath commandment itself is primarily about resting from our labors—and letting others rest. So the opposite of Sabbathkeeping isn’t Sundaykeeping. The opposite of Sabbath-keeping is not resting—or letting others rest.
So what place does worship have in Sabbath rest? An important one: The Torah talks about the sacred assembly, and Jesus Himself modeled Sabbath as a day of rest and worship. The fact that Gospel accounts written many years after Jesus’ resurrection still included so much material about Jesus and the Sabbath—including His statement that the Sabbath was made for humanity—is a strong argument in favor of the enduring nature of the Sabbath. In fact, a fifth-century historian named Socrates wrote: “Almost all churches throughout the world celebrate the sacred mysteries on the sabbath of every week, yet the Christians of Alexandria and at Rome, on account of some ancient tradition, have ceased to do this.”1
So centuries after Christ we still see Christians observing the Sabbath, even though some abandoned the Sabbath in part to distance themselves from the Jews.
Nevertheless, some New Testament texts, on the surface, seem to present a challenge to Sabbathkeeping after the cross. Three texts in particular are cited by critics of Sabbathkeeping: Romans 14:1-6, Galatians 4:8-10, and Colossians 2:13-17. Only in Colossians 2 is the actual word “Sabbath” used. But let’s take a look at each of these passages.
Diet and Days
Romans was written for both Jewish and Gentile Christians. In Romans 14:1-4 we see two categories of people: those who eat everything and those who eat only vegetables. The person who eats everything (namely, meat) is considered to have strong faith, while one who eats only vegetables is considered weaker in faith (verse 2). Some commentators have interpreted these references to food as meaning the Jewish dietary laws—that those who ate only vegetables were still following the law and were weak in faith.
The problem with this interpretation is that Jews didn’t eat only vegetables; they ate meat, too. So Jewish food laws don’t seem to be in play here; in fact, the word “unclean” in verse 14 doesn’t mean “impure,” indicating a Jewish food law; it simply means “common.”
So what kind of food controversies existed? In places such as 1 Corinthians 10 we read about whether believers should eat meat sacrificed to idols. Some believers felt uncomfortable with this; others thought it was fine because they knew that idols had no effect. Paul counseled people to use their own judgment. That’s likely the case here—the strong in faith are able to handle eating food sacrificed to idols, but others are more sensitive.
In Romans 14:5, 6 we see two more categories of people: those who considered one day more sacred than another, and those who considered every day alike. Again, some commentators have pointed to Jewish holy days, including the Sabbath, saying that now it didn’t make a difference anymore. It’s interesting that Paul devotes much less time to the topic of days than to food. He devotes 21 verses to food, while fewer than two verses concern days. It seems highly doubtful that something as important as the Sabbath would be dismissed so casually.
Instead, the real issue with days was probably related to food—actually fasting. The Romans believed that certain days were best for fasting. A document from this time recommends fasting on Wednesday and Friday, rather than on Monday and Thursday. This might be the modern-day equivalent of when is the best time to have devotions—first thing in the morning, or anytime. On such inconsequential issues, he says, let each person be convinced in their own mind.
The second passage in the New Testament that on the surface seems to challenge Sabbathkeeping is Galatians 4:8-11. The book of Galatians, of course, was intended primarily for Gentile Christians.
The phrase “special days and months and seasons and years” (verse 10) can be understood in at least two ways. The first is that these refer to the pagan calendar that the Gentile Galatians, who were formerly pagans, used to follow. The phrase “how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces?” (verse 8) probably means pagan observances centered on elements in the cosmos.
The second interpretation is that the Galatians now felt obligated to observe all the holy days of the Jewish calendar—as urged by Judaizers who had infiltrated the church. Indeed, the larger context of Galatians is circumcision and the law.
Whatever the correct interpretation, the important thing to remember is that Galatians is a book about justification—about being saved. Galatians 5:4 says: “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” Only by Christ are we justified, not by any observances or behavior. Paul himself observed the Sabbath, and for that matter the feasts as well (see 1 Cor. 5:8). But we don’t rely on these things for our salvation, which comes only through Christ.
New Moons and Sabbath Days
For many people the most challenging text about the Sabbath is found in Colossians 2:16, 17: “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday [festival], or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ” (KJV).
On the surface this passage seems to challenge the perpetuity of the Sabbath, grouping it with Jewish feasts and new moons—and terming them all as a “shadow.” Note the apparent progression in verse 16 of (yearly) festivals, (monthly) new moons, and (weekly) sabbath days—and the label of shadow that seems to be applied to these days.
Often we have interpreted this verse by saying, “Well, it can’t be the weekly Sabbath, because the weekly Sabbath wasn’t a shadow of things to come; it was a memorial of Creation.”
Adventist theologian Ron du Preez recently made a strong case that “sabbath days” in this passage is, in fact, another term for festivals.2 That seems strange, because then the verse would read festivals, new moons, and festivals. But du Preez cites what’s called a chiastic structure, often used by Hebrew writers. A chiasm is created by starting with something, then moving to something else, then returning to the first thing—ABBA. For example, the Gospel of John opens with a chiastic structure:
“In the beginning was the Word, (A)
and the Word was with God, (B)
and the Word was God. (B)
He was with God in the beginning.”(A)
Du Preez takes us to Hosea 2:11, which says: “I will stop all her celebrations: her yearly festivals, her New Moons, her Sabbath days—all her appointed festivals.”
See the chiasm? Festivals and Sabbath days are both called appointed festivals. The weekly Sabbath wasn’t an appointed festival, so apparently the expression “Sabbath days” in this sequence refers to some of the annual festivals. Maybe that’s what’s going on in Colossians 2, where we find similar wording.
Consistent with this insight from Hosea is the added fact that whenever we find the sequence of feasts, new moons, and sabbaths in the Old Testament, it’s almost always within one particular context: sacrifices.
Ezekiel 45:17, for example, says: “And it shall be the prince’s part to give burnt offerings, and meat offerings, and drink offerings, in the feasts, and in the new moons, and in the sabbaths, in all solemnities of the house of Israel” (KJV). Notice how this passage uses similar terms as the Colossians 2 passage: meat, drink, feasts, new moons, sabbaths. The context is sacrifices.
So what could Paul mean by “shadow” in Colossians 2:17? Most scholars argue that the shadow is the feasts, new moons, and sabbaths. The problem with that is that the new moon can’t be a “shadow” because a new moon had no religious significance in itself. A new moon’s only significance was its association with sacrifices. Instead, the shadow must have something to do with what all these particular days had in common: the sacrifices offered on them.
At this time some Jewish Christians still offered sacrifices and judged other Christians who didn’t. (Paul himself experienced this in Acts 21 when he went back to Jerusalem.)
Is it possible that the missing piece to the puzzle here is “sacrifices”—that that’s what this passage is talking about? Is there scriptural support for the idea that “shadow” refers to sacrifices? Yes. Strong support. The only other two New Testament references to shadows are associated with sacrifices. They’re found in Hebrews.
Hebrews 8:3-5: “Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices. . . . They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven.”
Hebrews 10:1-5: “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. . . . Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: ‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me.’”
So we begin to see a theme here: shadows as sacrifices, in contrast to the body of Christ—the substance. Both Colossians and Hebrews teach that the age of sacrifices is now over. They were shadows of something better to come: the body of Christ.
There Remains a Sabbath Rest
Let’s look at one other mention of the word “Sabbath”—one that comes with great peace and gentleness.
Hebrews 4:1-10 is sometimes misunderstood. Adventists have used it to say that the writer is arguing that the Sabbath day still remains—as though there was controversy about it. But actually the writer doesn’t use the typical word for Sabbath; he uses a unique term, sabbatismos, which means a Sabbathlike rest.
The writer is saying that a Sabbathlike rest remains for God’s people. This is our salvation rest, resting in God. The writer compares our salvation rest to our Sabbath rest. Think about it: If the Sabbath were no longer in existence, why would the writer use the term sabbatismos, Sabbathlike rest? Rather than being defensive or strained, the writer uses the familiar word “Sabbath” to explain God’s rest.
He says this rest in God remains from the time of Israel in the desert. That means that both God’s rest and Sabbath rest coexisted in the old covenant—and both continue to exist in the new covenant. Sabbath rest and God’s salvation rest both endure.
So what really happened to the Sabbath? Why do most Christians no longer practice it? I read Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, by David Klinghoffer. The author—a Jew—points out that the Jews rejected Christianity in part because Christianity gradually rejected the Torah, which was so important to the Jewish people. One of the most important things that Christians ultimately set aside was the seventh-day Sabbath, in part to distance themselves from the Jewish people. It was an anti-Semitic period.
With all of our faults—and we have many—one of the most beautiful things about the Seventh-day Adventist Church is that we are truly Judeo-Christian. We celebrate salvation in Christ alone as taught in the New Testament. We also celebrate our heritage in the timeless commandments written by the finger of God on tablets of stone. This is the new covenant: laws written not just on stone, but on our hearts as well.
One of the most special experiences of my life was being in Jerusalem on Friday evening as Jewish people streamed into the Old City, hand in hand, ready to welcome Shabbat. Many Christians stood there that evening, taking in the beautiful scene. But as a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, there was an additional specialness. The Sabbath was familiar, and it was good. n
1 Socrates, Ecclesiastical History, book 5, chap. 22, p. 289.
2 Ron DuPreez, Judging the Sabbath: Discovering What Can’t Be Found in Colossians 2:16 (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 2008).
Andy Nash is author of the forthcoming book Being Adventist. This article was published February 9, 2012.