Bibliotheca Sacra 123 (1966): 51-59

Copyright 1966 Dallas Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.

 

 

The Significance

of the Sabbath

 

Merrill F. Unger

 

 

THE Sabbath is not Sunday, nor does the latter represent a

mere change from the seventh day to the first day of the

week. Sunday, the first day of the week, is a wholly new day

instituted to commemorate the beginning of the new creation

with the resurrected Christ as its Head.

The only similarity of Sunday to the Sabbath is that it

perpetuates under grace the principle that, although all re-

deemed man's time is God's, one seventh is to be especially

sacred and ought to be set aside in voluntary gratitude for

the purpose of worship and for ministry for God in behalf of

men's spiritual needs, and for rest and recuperation for the

body, soul, and spirit.

In all other respects Sunday is in contrast to the Sabbath.

Even in the matter of preserving the principle that one

seventh of redeemed man's time is especially sacred to God,

there is a radical difference between the two days. One is

observed on the basis of gratitude and spontaneous love. The

other on the basis of strict legal obligation, infringement

punishable by death. One calls to devotion in worship and con-

secrated work, rest being a secondary benefit. The other en-

total rest from all work.

 

THE SABBATH AND CREATION

The Biblical Sabbath commemorates God's rest or cessa-

tion from His creative work of refashioning the earth (Gen.

1:1-31) for the habitation of His masterpiece--unfallen men

(Gen. 2:2-3). The reason God could "rest" was because He

saw that everything He had made, including man, "was very

good" (Gen. 1:31). Sin had not yet entered the abode God

refashioned for man nor into man's heart. Therefore, God

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54 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA January, 1966

 

could and did "rest."

It was to memorialize His finished work of refashioning a

chaotic and judgment-ridden earth (Gen. 1:2) that God

established and sanctified the seventh day. "And on the seventh

day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on

the seventh day from all his work which God created and

made. And God blessed the seventh day." He made and de-

clared it especially sacred, attaching to it the memorial that

He was satisfied with all that He had done in making it a

suitable abode for man and that He was pleased with man

whom He had created to occupy it.

God is also said to have "sanctified" the seventh day by

setting it apart as a day of rest from the other six days of

work, thus distinguishing it as a reminder to unfallen man that

God had created him innocent and free of sin. The Creator's

rest was possible because the creature He had made rested in

perfect and unbroken fellowship with the Creator, undisturbed

by sin. God therefore revealed and imposed the sanctity of the

Sabbath upon unfallen man.

Soon, however, the fall occurred (Gen. 3:1-24). Man sinned

and his rest in fellowship with the Creator was broken as

well as God's rest in a creation unsullied by sin, which He

could no longer pronounce "very good" (Gen. 1:31).

Man's fall consequently made it impossible for God to im-

pose the seventh day upon fallen man because the very thing

memorialized, namely, the divine rest in a "very good" crea-

tion, had been destroyed by the entrance of sin into the human

race. No longer was God's creation "very good." No longer

could God rest in the old creation. He must begin to work in

redemption toward a New Creation.

Hence the Sabbath revealed and imposed at the beginning

upon an unfallen race vanishes from the pages of revealed

truth in the long era from Adam to Moses, appearing with

startling suddeness in connection with the revelation of the

law from Sinai. There Sabbath observance was not only made

a part of the Mosaic code (Ex. 20:8-11), but constituted its

unique and dominant feature as a significant sign between

the Lord and His newly chosen and redeemed nation Israel

(Ex. 31:12-18).

Through this elect redeemed nation God had a special pur-



THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE SABBATH 55

 

 

pose in restoring His Sabbath rest disturbed by sin. Therefore,

the Sabbath was revealed anew and imposed upon a redeemed

elect nation, through which the earth and man eventually

would be restored to the rest the day commemorated. As the

Sabbath was originally imposed upon unfallen man, now it is

imposed upon a nation of redeemed men, destined to fulfill

"God's purposes of restoration for the earth and the nations.

Despite the fact that God never enjoined the Sabbath upon

fallen mankind, but only upon the race before it fell into

sin and broke His Sabbath rest, it is apparent that fallen man

from Adam to Moses attempted to observe the seventh day

without divine sanction.

The seven-day week and the Sabbath are a very ancient

Semitic institution, prominent in Assyrian-Babylonian civil-

ization, antedating the time of Moses by many centuries. The

so-called Pinches tablet lays restrictions upon the king on the

7th, 14th, 19th, 21st, and 28th days of the month (the 19th

marking the Sabbath of weeks). However, apparently no

restrictions were placed upon ordinary men, but only upon the

king as divine, and the Sabbath being for replenishment.1

The oldest calendar of the Semitic peoples, in use long

before the Mosaic era, was also based upon a seven-day week,

with a secondary time unit of fifty days. It consisted of seven

weeks, plus one additional day, celebrated as a festival of con-

clusion or termination of the fifty-day period. Agricultural

in nature, this reckoning of time was made up of seven pente-

contads (fifties) plus two festival periods of seven days (one

week) with a concluding day of supremely sacred character,

365 days in all.2

Among pagan Semites this farm calendar was of course

interwoven with idolatry. From it the ancient Babylonian

Sabbath (shabattu) was derived. When the Lord redeemed

Israel out of Egypt, and gave them the Mosaic laws, He em-

ployed existing time reckonings and customs, purifying and

adapting them when possible to the special revelation of His

redemptive truth to His chosen people Israel. This fact

appears in the historical and archaeological backgrounds

underlying Israel's festal calendar (Lev. 23).

 

1 Herbert C. Alleman, "The Book of Genesis," Old Testament Com-

mentary, p. 175.

2 Morgenstern, "Sabbath," The Interpreter's Bible, IV, 135-36.

 



56 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA January, 1966

THE SABBATH AND SINAI

 

The fourth commandment given from Sinai enjoining the

holy observance of the seventh day is unique in the Decalogue

(Ex. 20:8). Although this law, like all the moral laws ex-

pressed in the Ten Commandments, had been revealed and

was operative upon the human race from its creation, this

commandment alone had been enjoined only upon unfallen

man (Gen. 2:2-3). All the other nine commandments had been

operative upon unfallen man and remained unchangeably

operative upon fallen man as well, since God's holy require-

ments of His creatures are as unchangeable as His holy char-

acter.

But the Sabbath day was different. Its original significance

as a day commemorating God's rest and satisfaction in a

perfect creation was nullified by the fall and man's sin. No

longer was the old creation, notably man the crown and goal

of that creation, "very good" (Gen. 1:31). Instead it was very

bad, and God immediately began working in redemption (Gen.

3:15, 21; John 5:17) to restore the divine rest disturbed by

man's sin.

As a result God could not impose the Sabbath rest upon

His fallen creatures when the very thing commemorated by it

had been obliterated by sin. He now began working in redemp-

tion, no longer resting in a perfect creation. Only as He could

choose and redeem a people through whom He could restore

the earth and man from the curse of sin that had broken His

rest, could He impose Sabbath observance that would be con-

sonant with the true meaning of the day.

The fourth commandment from Sinai enjoining Sabbath

observance is not only unique in the Decalogue. This command-

ment, it must also be emphasized, was never imposed upon any

nation or people except Israel. All the other commandments

express eternal and omnitemporal moral principles obligatory

upon all of God's creatures from the creation of man--before

the fall as well as after the fall.

These abiding laws of God were not altered because man

changed when he fell. God never changed, nor did His holy

requirements of all His creatures. Nor are these eternally abid-

ing principles to be abrogated or set aside in any age or dis-

pensation. They are simply adapted and applied to the char-

 



THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE SABBATH 57

 

acter of that particular age or dispensation.

All the moral principles thundered as stern law from

Sinai find expression under grace in the New Testament

epistles with the sole exception of one. Nowhere is Sabbath

keeping ever imposed upon a Christian in this age of grace.

Indeed, the very opposite is true.

Keeping new moons and sabbaths, the unique and domi-

nant feature of the Mosaic covenant of legalism--a pedagogue

conduct to Christ--is declared to be completely at variance

with the gospel of grace (Col. 2:16-17; Gal. 4:9-10; Heb. 4:4)

now that Christ has come and given us His wonderful salva-

ion.

Although the Sabbath was never divinely imposed upon

fallen man, the custom from Adam to Moses of setting apart

the seventh day, like divinely ordained as well as nondivinely

ordained customs in general, degenerated as the fallen race

strayed from God and became engulfed in idolatry.

Instead of a day of rest reminiscent of the Creator's satis-

faction in His fashioning of the earth for His unfallen crea-

ture, man, under the deterioration of creature worship the

seventh day came to be looked upon as a day of ill-omen

controlled by evil spirits in which labor would not only not

succeed but stir up evil powers to work mischief on such

activity.

In giving the Fourth Commandment to Israel, the Lord ac-

cordingly took a well-known day, which paganism looked upon

with ill-omen and popular superstition, thereby desecrating it,

and He sanctified it by restoring it to its original significance

of commemorating the Creator's rest in a perfect creation,

enjoining it upon His people recently redeemed out of Egypt

(Ex. 20:1-2). Moreover, the Lord invested the day with suit-

able meaning as a sign that Israel was the Lord's blood-

bought people, His own elect nation separated by redemption

from the surrounding pagan nations and joined to the Lord,

their Redeemer (I Cor. 10:2). Through this chosen delivered

nation He would restore the earth and mankind, so that His

divine rest, broken by man's fall, would be restored by redemp-

tion.

What the Lord never enjoined upon fallen man, nor upon

the nations, at Sinai He imposed upon His one nation. He did

 



58 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA January, 1966

 

this because this nation was chosen to be an example of His

redemptive power to all other nations sunk in idolatry, and its

Sabbath was to be a badge that God's rest would eventually

be restored through this people.

As circumcision had been given as a token or badge of the

Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 17:9-13), so Sabbath observance

was instituted as a sign and symbol of the Mosaic covenant to

Israel (Ex. 31 :13). This covenant marked Israel as a sep-

arated people through whom Messiah would come and God's

rest would be restored through salvation brought to the na-

tions and the earth.

Even in the latest period of the Jewish nation before its

destruction in A.D. 70, Sabbath keeping was still regarded as

the peculiar stamp of the Jew. Juvenal (c. A.D. 55-135), a

Roman poet, notes this particularly in his famous Satires

and the fact was well known and recognized in the ancient

world.3

Moreover, since Sabbath observance was more than merely

keeping a day, but actually a sign between the Lord and His

chosen nation that He has established with them a perpetual

covenant, profanation of the day was accordingly tantamount

to violating the covenant.

For this reason Sabbath keeping was rigidly enforced.

Infraction of it meant death (Ex. 31:14-15; Num. 15:32-35).

Breaking the sign of the covenant, the offender broke the

covenant itself. By this act he in essence denied that God's

people Israel were different from the pagan nations. He thus

violated the principle of separation. The penalty was his

separation from God's people.

 

THE SABBATH AND PROPHETIC CONSUMMATION

The Sabbath was not only enjoined solely upon the nation

Israel, never upon any other people since the fall, either the

nations or the church or God. It was also enjoined as a re-

minder that God's creation rest would be restored through

that nation. Israel's Sabbath had accordingly a double role,

retrospective and prospective.

Retrospectively the Sabbath looked back and memorialized

God's creation rest undisturbed by sin, when He finished the

 

3 VI, 159; XXII, 18-20.



THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE SABBATH 59

 

 

earth for the habitation of unfallen man (Gen. 2:2-3). Pros-

pectively it pointed ahead to Israel's future as a Messianic'

nation through which God's creation rest would be restored

as a result of Christ's redeeming work received by that nation

and mediated by it to all the nations of the earth in the future

kingdom age (Isa. 11:10-16; 60:1-22; Acts 1:6; Rom. 11:26-

36).

The Sabbath is now in abeyance because of Israel's un-

belief and violation of it, occasioning her world-wide disper-

sion and long centuries of chastisement (Hos. 2:11). Upon the

completion of God's ad interim purpose in the church, the Sab-

bath will be reinstituted in the tribulation (Matt. 24 :20) and

in the kingdom over Israel set up at Christ's return in glory

(Rev. 19:11-20:8). Not until Israel's spiritual restoration

will the nation realize the true meaning of its Sabbath (Isa.

66:23; Ezek. 46:1; cp. Deut. 30:8).

As a sign of a "perpetual covenant" between the Lord and

the Israelite nation, the Sabbath points to the great consum-

mation of God's purpose for the earth. This plan centers in

restored Israel in ministry to the nations of the earth. Israel

will be in the midst of the nations, and Christ will be in the

midst of Israel, ruling "till he hath put all enemies under his

feet" and delivers up "the kingdom to God, even the Father

. . . that God may be all in all" (I Cor. 15:24-28).

At that grand finale God's creation rest will be restored

through redemption. This redemption brought to mankind

and the earth, so long cursed by sin, will be realized through

His elect redeemed nation and the Redeemer it produced.

Meanwhile the Sabbath imposed upon that nation is a sign

and symbol to all the people of the earth that that nation was

set apart from all others for this high and holy calling.

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Dallas Theological Seminary

3909 Swiss Ave.

Dallas, TX 75204

www.dts.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: thildebrandt@gordon.edu