Today a news item reminds me that some forty years ago I worked on Sabbath. As a secretary with World Vision International, then located in California, I helped at an event known as the Vietnamese Babylift Operation of 1975. My desk overlooked a large gymnasium filled with mattresses, each holding a toddler or infant. I could see hundreds of them, and the sound of their cries must have reached heaven. Of course, no Seventh-day Adventist would refuse to do good on the Sabbath, and these cherubic babies needed to find their adoptive parents. They had escaped to freedom.
I connect the day to a conversation I had with one of the directors. He asked why I kept the seventh-day Sabbath when Jesus had replaced it with His rest. This was the first time I had heard the belief articulated by an evangelical Christian. I didn’t have a ready answer other than we celebrated the rest by keeping the fourth commandment; after all, Christians respected the commandment against idol worship (the third commandment).
The director’s comment led me to study the subject over the years. It’s not that we don’t recognize our works can’t assure our salvation. Christ saves us through His sacrifice. His perfect life substitutes for our sinful one, thus, we rest from works to gain salvation on our own merits — an impossible task.
Along with most other Christians, Adventists believe in righteousness by faith in Jesus, but do we consistently connect it with Sabbath? Sometimes. In a Sabbath School lesson by John Fowler he said, “The Sabbath is a day of rest, rest in Christ (Hebrews 4:1-4); the Sabbath is a symbol of freedom, of liberation, the freedom and liberation we have in Christ (Romans 6:6,7); the Sabbath reveals not only God’s creation but the promise of re-creation in Christ.” (The Book of Luke, 2015 Sabbath School Bible Study Guide, p. 40).
Adventist scholars may think that Samuel Bacchiocchi’s Divine Rest for Human Restlessness: a Theological Study of the Good News of the Sabbath for Today or Sigve K. Tonstad’s The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day and similar books have settled the question. However, if you ask the average church member if they have read these books, they have probably not heard of them, let alone studied them in church.
Though seminary students dine well on the many significances of the Sabbath, our members rarely get beyond it as a memorial of creation or part of the Ten Commandments. Seventh-day Adventists must make this magnificent truth about the Sabbath our entrée instead of being a side dish. It’s especially important in evangelism. The fourth commandment, presented as a symbol, is not only Truth but an outreach to other Christians who understand Jesus as their rest. We meet them where they are (1 Corinthians 9:19-22), and they are right.
I have yet to hear an evangelistic series in which this vital truth is presented.
Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath (Luke 6:5). Thus on the Lord’s Day (Revelation 1:10) Sabbath, John the Revelator received his visions, in spite of one biblical version saying it was Sunday.* John used Jewish symbols well-known to his audiences. These two texts reveal how to interpret the Bible — comparing one text with another. To make the Lord ’s Day any day other than the seventh would damage biblical solidarity.
In Revelation, Seventh-day Adventists find their purpose in the end-times and preach the gospel in the context of the three angels’ messages (Revelation 14:6-13).
We find the Sabbath in the first angel’s message in terms of worship.…worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water. In the Sabbath commandment we read, For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it (Exodus 20:11). The Word instructs us to worship God as Creator as a memorial of creation. But it is also a celebration of our re-creation. A good reason to continue it after sin is eradicated (Isaiah 66:23).
The second angel’s message proclaims, Babylon is fallen, is fallen (Revelation 14:8). The news is repeated in 18:2, followed by a warning — Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins… (18:4). This is not the first time God’s people have been called out. The first was from Egypt, and the Sabbath commandment memorializes it — “remember you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out…and commanded you to keep the Sabbath day (Deuteronomy 5:15).
Many times in the Old Testament, God’s people were called out: Abraham from Ur of Chaldea; Lot from Sodom and the Israelites from physical Babylon. Babylon means confusion, a mixture of beliefs that deceive “all nations.” Because all false religion is work-based in its version of salvation, it denies what Christ has done for us — the rest He has provided. (It can happen in our own personal belief system.) It opposes God’s plan for our salvation. Thus, New Testament Christians were called to separate themselves from the world (2 Corinthians 6:14).
The third angel’s message warns, If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives his mark on his forehead or hand, he shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God… (14:9). This is the same beast who will think to change times and laws (Daniel 7:25) and is described in Revelation 13. His mark is the counterfeit of the seal of God symbolized in the Sabbath commandment. The beast’s mark focuses on humans — what they think (head) and what they can do (hands). It is about pride of self. It echoes the Babylonian king who boasted of the great city he had built (Daniel 4:30). It is a religion of humanity. The Sabbath seal is rest in Jesus for His work on our behalf. It is the righteousness of Christ, and what He does through us and for us; we have no part in it.
Throughout her writing and preaching, Ellen White uplifted Christ and His righteousness. The book Evangelism (p. 190) states, “Several have written to me, inquiring if the message of justification by faith is the third angel’s message, and I have answered, ‘It is the third angel's message in verity.’” And “Christ and His righteousness — let this be our platform, the very life of our faith” (Ev 190). She supported the young Waggoner and Jones who first presented it to church leaders.
Though other Christians often say Christ replaced the Sabbath commandment, we have no scriptural evidence of this. They have only part of the message, but can we learn from them? Our founders first heard the Sabbath commandment as binding from Rachel Preston, a Seventh-day Baptist; Ellen White embraced this truth and later had it confirmed in vision.
Nowhere in the Bible does the Sabbath rest appear clearer than in Hebrews 4. The Jews didn’t understand the sanctuary service. And when the time came, they rejected their rest — Jesus.
My purpose is not to defend or prove Sabbath keeping but to suggest we may not be presenting Christ in the Sabbath and the seal as we should in these end-times. It’s not new light; it’s a new priority. A day cannot save, only Christ can. Now if that sounds too obvious, one might present the question to some of our members. You might be surprised to learn that a significant number consider the Sabbath as their last-day salvation — the sign that means they are saved, when in reality it means our rest in and acceptance of Christ. Without Him, the Sabbath means nothing, and its rules and regulations empty traditions. With Him it is a day dedicated to and acknowledging what He has done for us. We no longer wrestle with works of salvation and their accompanying guilt should we fail in some way. We no longer follow others’ regulations as one might obey a superstition. Instead we do the right thing, because we are in Christ. We respond out of love for Him and His work on the cross for us.
Sabbath is a gift; it’s been called a sanctuary in time as one Jewish scholar called it, and so it is for the Jew. The Jewish people of Jesus’ era would agree with the legalistic Sabbath presented in some of our evangelistic meetings. But for the Christian, “sanctuary” or “temple” means protection, safety, beauty, and worship. Christ used the word “temple” for Himself, and we are called to be a temple for the Holy Spirit.
Sabbath is only about Jesus. I heard a pastor say there are Christians who attend church on Sunday, but understand better than many Adventists the rest that is in Jesus. We don’t know the future, but we know many need to hear the message of righteousness by faith as pointing to Sabbath rest. There is no other way we can be sealed other than through belief in Jesus who knew us from the foundation of the world.
Christ as our Sabbath rest keeps us from becoming legalistic and judgmental of others’ Sabbath keeping. We rest in Jesus for our own witness. In a class years ago, an insightful teacher once said, “think of Sabbath as a date. When you go out the door on a date, you might spy a weed near the door and pluck it up, but if you stop and weed the whole thing, then you are saying to your date I don’t value time with you.”
Sabbath symbolizes rest from our works to gain heaven. Nothing we can do will get us there. We are not saved by the Law. Christ fulfilled the Law in His life as a substitute for our sinful one. This is classical Christianity we share with others. Some Christians respect both days — Sabbath as rest and Sunday to attend their traditional church. Others feel compelled by the need for a Sabbath and some contemporary writers have made it a popular issue. The growth of Messianic Sabbatarian churches has narrowed the practice down to the specific biblical day.
Like the planes that brought the Vietnamese babies to their new homes and freedom, Christ will lift us up to real freedom and a home in His kingdom.
Ella M. Rydzewski resides in Clarksville, Maryland.
We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.