Bibliotheca Sacra 123 (1966): 51-59
Copyright © 1966 Dallas Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.
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
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
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
ployed existing time reckonings and customs, purifying and
adapting them when possible to the special revelation of His
redemptive truth to His chosen people
appears in the historical and archaeological backgrounds
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-
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.
, 21; John ) to restore the divine rest disturbed by
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
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. -17; Gal. 4:9-10; Heb. 4:4)
now that Christ has come and given us His wonderful salva-
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
In giving the Fourth Commandment to
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
(Ex. 20:1-2). Moreover, the Lord invested the day with suit-
able meaning as a sign that
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-
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
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
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. -35).
Breaking the sign of the covenant, the offender broke the
covenant itself. By this act he in essence denied that God's
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
nations or the church or God. It was also enjoined as a re-
minder that God's creation rest would be restored through
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
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. -16; 60:1-22; Acts 1:6; Rom. -
The Sabbath is now in abeyance because of
belief and violation of it, occasioning her world-wide disper-
sion and long centuries of chastisement (Hos. ). 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
19:11-20:8). Not until
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
will be in the midst of the nations, and Christ will be in the
feet" and delivers up "the kingdom to God, even the Father
. . . that God may be all in all" (I Cor. -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.
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