SABBATH AND THE NEW COVENANT
Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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"
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.
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.
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?
LOOK AT THE OLD AND NEW COVENANTS
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
the Two Covenants
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
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?
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
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.
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
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
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?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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."
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.
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
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
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.
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).
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
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).
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
the Two Covenants
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. 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,
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
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
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
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
"The Old Covenant
The above contrast attempts 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. The contrast assumes that the
Old Covenant was based on the obligation to obey countless specific laws, while
the New Covenant rests on the simpler love commandment of Christ. Simply stated,
the Old Covenant moral principles of the Ten Commandments are replaced in the
New Covenant by a better and simpler love principle given by Christ.
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
new Law [given by Christ] is better than the old Law [given by Moses]."27
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
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
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).
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).
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?
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).
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"
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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).
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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;
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.
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.
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
OLD AND NEW COVENANTS
THE BOOK OF HEBREWS
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.
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
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.
made the Old Covenant obsolete.
Sabbath was part of the Old Covenant.
the literal observance of the Sabbath is obsolete.38
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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
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).
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
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
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).
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
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.
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
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."
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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).
"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.
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).
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."
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
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
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).
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
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.
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.
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).
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
TO CHAPTER 3
Lewis Sperry Chafer, Dispensationalism (Dallas, 1936), p. 107.
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.
Clay Peck, "New Covenant" Christians (Berthoud, Colorado,
1998), p. 2.
Joseph Tkach, Jr., "The New Covenant and the Sabbath," Pastor
General Report (December 21, 1994), pp. 8, 11.
Joseph Tkach, Jr., Pastor General’s Report (January 5, 1995), p. 1.
"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),
Ibid., p. 4.
Joseph Tkach, Jr., (note 4), p. 2.
Ibid., p. 11.
Ibid., p. 6.
Ibid., p. 7.
"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.
Ibid., pp. 3-4.
Pierre Grelot and Jean Giblet, "Covenant," Dictionary of Biblical
Theology, ed., by Xavier Leon-Dufour (New York, 1970), p. 95.
George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids,
Michigan, 1974), p. 507.
Ibid., p. 507.
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.
Dale Ratzlaff, Sabbath in Crisis: Transfer/Modification?
Reformation/Continuation? Fulfillment/Transformation? (Applegate,
California, 1990), p. 73.
Ibid., p. 78, emphasis supplied.
Ibid., p. 78.
Ibid., p. 180.
Ibid., p. 181.
Ibid., p. 182.
Ibid., pp. 182, 183, 185.
Ibid., p. 185.
Ibid., p. 74.
Ibid., p. 73.
Ibid., p. 185.
Ibid., p. 207.
George Eldon Ladd (note 15), p. 128.
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.
Dale Ratzlaff (note 18), p. 228.
Ibid., p. 228.
Ibid., p. 229.
Ibid., p. 229.
John H. Gerstner, "Law in the NT," International Standard Bible
Encyclopedia, revised edition, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1960), vol 3, p. 88.
"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.
"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.
"Does Hebrews 4:9 Command Us to Keep the Sabbath?" (note 37), pp.8-9.
Dale Ratzlaff (note 18), p. 197.
Ibid., p. 198.
Walter C. Kaiser (note 31), p. 186.
Dale Ratzlaff (note 18), p. 246.
Plutarch, De Superstitione 3 (Moralia 1660); Justin Martyr, Dialogue
with Trypho 23, 3; Epiphanius, Adversus Haereses 30, 2, 2; Apostolic
Constitutions 2, 36.
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.
Dale Ratzlaff (note 18), p. 243.
Ibid., pp. 243-244.
Ibid., p. 244.
Ibid., p. 247.
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).
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
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).
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.
Dale Ratzlaff (note 18), p. 247.
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.
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