Old Testament Laws: A Response to "Why the Seventh Day?"

Will Eva, editor of Ministry, a Seventh-day Adventist magazine, asked an important question in a two-part editorial titled “Why the seventh day?” (Ministry, July 1999, pp. 4-7, and September 1999, pp. 4-8). His discussion is interesting and worth responding to. Although you can find that article online, I think you can follow the discussion without having it in front of you.

I commend Eva for asking the question, for not simply relying on his church’s tradition for stock answers and dogma. I further commend Eva for his willingness to go against some of his tradition even in his effort to support the tradition of seventh-day observance. And I commend him for wanting to bring all doctrines into “the light of the arrival of Jesus and the rest He brought, indeed the rest He is through faith” (July, p. 4).

Eva has recognized that “the traditional Adventist approach to such issues as ‘the perpetuity of the law’ simply does not seem, by itself to answer the legitimate, seminal questions posed by the contemporary antisabbatarian initiative” (by which he means our denomination as well as Adventists who are “moving out of Adventism into independent congregations”). He recognizes that his own approach “is not traditional Seventh-day Adventist fare.” He wants to put the Sabbath into “a thoroughly scriptural and new covenant setting” (ibid.).

It seems that the traditional Adventist approach did not address some important questions. The foundation had some pieces missing, even some defects, and it seems that the conclusion now needs to be shored up in some other way. This is of course a reasonable thing to do when traditional doctrines are challenged, and it is also reasonable for us to assess whether Eva has given adequate answers.

Even on the first page, Eva assumes rather than proves “the permanence of the Decalogue…the perpetuity of the Ten Commandments.” This is a common Christian assumption. He gives some support for it in part 2 of his article, but this pivotal point seems more assumed than proved. I will have more to say about it later. First, I wish to address the Old Testament material he treats in part 1.

Genesis 2:1-3

Eva makes these claims:

  • The seventh day has an inextricable connection with creation.
  • The seventh day is tied to an unchangeable historical occurrence.
  • The meaning of the seventh day thus transcends Hebrew history.
  • The seventh day comes before the giving of all law.
  • The seventh day is blessed and made holy by God.
  • The seventh day was made holy before the arrival of sin (p. 5).

These claims are defensible, but they do not require a Sabbatarian conclusion. The argument is based more on inference than on connections that the Bible actually makes. Genesis 2:1-3 does not call the seventh day the Sabbath. It does not call it a day of rest. God rested on that day, but nothing is said about any need for humans to rest on that day. There is no suggestion that humans are to imitate what God did on any of the days of creation.

The sixth day, just as much as the seventh, has a connection with creation, the creation of humans, an unchangeable historical occurrence, therefore with a meaning that transcends Hebrew history. The connection of a day of the week with creation carries no weight, since they are all given some connection to creation.

The fact that God blessed the seventh day is more significant. But we should ask, how were humans supposed to respond to its sanctity?

Before sin entered, humans lived in a blessed and holy time, in which humans were in a state of peace with God, trustful and obedient. They did not need to labor in the way they later did. They did not need to set aside a day for communion with God, for they had it continually. They did not need a weekly Sabbath until after sin had entered. The first human did not need to rest on the second day of his life. It is significant that the Sabbath, as a command, was not given until after sin entered.

It is important to distinguish the concepts of “seventh day” and “Sabbath.” They were joined in the old covenant, but the Bible does not show that they were joined at creation. I commend Eva for talking of the “seventh day” (instead of calling it by the later term “Sabbath”) of creation, but he still expects readers to equate the two. The Sabbath, as a command, is found only in a covenant that God has declared obsolete. When we are discussing whether the Sabbath is commanded today, we must distinguish the command from the day itself. It is only through Moses that God tells anyone to treat this day as different from other days. We should not try to read Christian commands into an ancient Hebrew narrative.

We can compare two creation concepts: reproduction and Sabbath. The first is commanded in Genesis 1:28; the second is not commanded anywhere in Genesis. Although reproduction is a creation-based command, it is not required for all Christians. Despite this, some people claim that the Sabbath, which is not a creation command, is required for all Christians. This is to make exceptions for a command that is clear, and to inflexibly require something that is not clear. The logic of “creation command” is thereby called into question.

Eva writes, “This prelapsarian [before sin] existence of the seventh day must be allowed at least to call into question the assumptions of a theology that dismisses the seventh day because of its ‘old covenant’ connections” (p. 5). But this is confusing the issues. We are not concerned about the seventh day – what we are concerned about is the seventh day as a commanded day of rest. The command did not enter until after sin entered, and it entered as part of the old covenant. That brings us to the next passage Eva discusses.

Exodus 16:1-30

Eva sees the following significance in the Exodus 16 manna-Sabbath story:

  • The Sabbath instructions came before Sinai, before the Ten Commandments were given.
  • The wording in Exodus 16 “presupposes a certain knowledge of the nature of the seventh day before this event” (p. 5).
  • If we question the pre-Sinai Sabbath, we should also question other pre-Sinai morality.

These arguments seem to have little merit. First, these Sabbath instructions came only a few weeks before Sinai, and the fact that they came earlier is no more significant than the fact that Passover sacrifices were commanded before Sinai, and the Festival of Unleavened Bread was commanded before Sinai, and the consecration and redemption of firstborn animals and humans was commanded before Sinai. All these belong to the old covenant, the Law of Moses, the law given 430 years after Abraham, the law that is now obsolete. There is no theological significance in the few weeks’ difference.

Second, the wording in Exodus 16 does not presuppose that the Israelites knew anything about the Sabbath before this. Moses simply tells the people to gather twice as much on the sixth day (verse 5), and on the sixth day he tells them that the Lord had commanded, “Tomorrow is to be a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord” (verse 23). Moses is not assuming anything about what the Israelites know – he is telling them as if they knew nothing about it. Even Eva recognizes this when he writes, “It is entirely possible, even likely, that Israel while in Egypt had all but forgotten the Sabbath” (p. 5). So where is the presupposing? I think it is in the presupposition that the Sabbath predated Moses.

Last, Eva suggests that if we “discount the pre-Sinai consciousness of seventh day sacredness, we might also question the existence of a pre-Sinai moral heritage in Israelite life behind the other nine commandments” (p. 5).

I am not questioning the validity of the principles behind the other nine commandments, but I do think it fair to “question the existence of a pre-Sinai moral heritage in Israelite life.” The patriarchs did many immoral things. They also worshipped God with sacrifices, circumcision, and other obsolete practices. Genesis simply tells the story – it does not tell us to do likewise or to avoid the likewise. To see whether it is right to imitate their behavior, we must turn to other biblical books. In other words, since some aspects of their behavior are wrong, every aspect of their behavior must be questioned.

The principles behind God’s law were indeed operative in the time of the patriarchs, but that is a conclusion we reach from other biblical books, not from Genesis itself. To proclaim that the Fourth Commandment must have pre-Sinai validity just because the other nine commandments do, is begging a question that needs to be addressed, not assumed. In both of the places where the Decalogue is mentioned by name, it is equated with a covenant that in the New Testament is called obsolete. We cannot assume that all the parts of an obsolete covenant must stay together, or that they were together before the covenant was given.

“It is begging the question,” Eva writes, “to say that there is little or no evidence of Sabbath keeping or Sabbath consciousness before Sinai. It is true that there is not a high volume of biblical material, but no fair-minded person can ignore the evidence that is there, along with its clear implications. Historically, Genesis 2 and Exodus 16 precede Exodus 20” (p. 6). But on the contrary, when we want to make claims about the Sabbath before Sinai, it is not begging the question to point out the lack of evidence. When somebody says that Abraham wore phylacteries, for example, it is not begging the question to point out the lack of evidence.

No fair-minded person can ignore the fact that Genesis never mentions the word Sabbath and never commands anyone to do anything in particular on the seventh day. If the implications were so clear, why could Jewish rabbis imply that Abraham did not keep the Sabbath? When we are discussing a time span of more than 2,000 years, Exodus 16 (set in the Sinai Peninsula after the Exodus) cannot fairly be categorized as “pre-Sinai.” It is certainly not pre-Mosaic, and it would not be profitable to insist on a distinction between pre-Sinai and pre-Mosaic.

Eva suggests that further evidence for “pre-Sinai seventh day consciousness in Israel is found in Exodus 5:1-9 and 15:25, 26” (p. 6). He admits that they are “allusions” to the “pre-Sinai existence of some cultic material or custom.” Why they should be connected with the Sabbath (as if worship could not take place on any other day) is completely unexplained. This seems to be grasping at straws in an attempt to create evidence for a theory that doesn’t have enough.

Exodus 19 and 20

Eva makes the following observations about the Ten Commandments:

  • The decalogue is distinct from other laws given through Moses. God spoke “with awesome displays of lightning, thunder, earthquake and fire…etching this moral essence of His will with His finger on tables of stone” (p. 6).
  • “The seventh-day command is placed in the company of the other nine moral principles, at the heart of the decalogue.” This makes it distinct from cultic and ceremonial laws.
  • The Fourth Commandment begins with the word “remember,” suggesting the existence of the Sabbath before Sinai.
  • The Commandment connects the Sabbath to the seventh day of creation, as “part and parcel of first things…original being and consciousness.”
  • In Exodus, the Sabbath is given a significance in creation, not in any national history or ceremony.

Yes, it is true that the decalogue is distinct from other laws. It has a specific name: the ten words, which are equated with the Sinai covenant (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13). No matter how many miracles were performed, no matter how awesome the displays, the Ten Commandments are the old covenant. As Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 3, the Ten were glorious, but they had a fading glory. They were God-given, but it was a covenant that did not last (2 Corinthians 3:11; Hebrews 8:13). If we equate great displays of glory as a sign of permanence, we are wrong (Hebrews 12:18-19). If we equate stone with permanence, we are wrong. The Bible does not assign that kind of significance to these facts.

True, the Fourth Commandment is in the heart of the Ten. It is in the center of the old covenant. Should we read any significance into that? Perhaps it is a legitimate exercise, to explore the possibilities, but its significance would then pertain to the old covenant, not the new.

When we are arguing for Christian requirements, we cannot build our arguments on inferences. No matter how good the other nine commandments are (and they are not a sufficient guide to Christian life), we cannot assume that the Fourth must remain with them in perpetuity. There are a lot of good laws in Leviticus 19, too, including some exceedingly high principles, but we cannot assume that all its verses are equally valid today. We cannot judge a verse by its neighbors. We are dealing with a covenant that has been declared obsolete. The fact that it alludes to creation does not diminish the fact that it is the old covenant.

True, the Fourth Commandment begins with the word “remember.” But in Genesis 9:15, “remember” refers to something that began that very day. This is an argument by inference and English word-association, and I think Eva recognizes its weakness when he writes, “this again suggests or refers back to the existence of the Sabbath in some form before Sinai” (p. 6). When we are dealing with a doctrine that requires Christians to give up their jobs, to alienate their families, to look to the movement of the sun, we need more than suggestions, allusions and inferences. We need clear commands, and the fact remains that the only commands for the Sabbath are in a covenant that has been declared obsolete.

As Eva notes, the Sabbath command refers to creation. But the connection comes from Sinai, not from Eden. Since Genesis does not refer to the Sabbath command, the reason we know that there is a connection is Exodus 20. The Sabbath command is patterned like the creation sequence. But so what? The connection is clear in the old covenant, but it is valid for the new? We are again dealing with an argument by inference, by hypothesis. The land sabbath can also be connected to creation, but this connection does not imply a permanence of command. Reproduction is also connected to creation, but it is not required of every person.

The old covenant commemorated the first creation, but Christians are in a re-creation. Instead of commemorating “first things,” we look to future things. Instead of looking to “original being,” we look to eternal being. Instead of looking to a creation connected with the first Adam, we look to one connected with the second and final One. If we want to commemorate a creation, we need to commemorate the more important one. The New Testament tells us that the new is more important than the old. The old is instructive, but it does not have legal authority over us.

Last, was the Sabbath given a national significance? In the context ox Exodus 20, it is set in the center of a national covenant between Israel and God. The Decalogue begins with, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt.” It is given to a people brought out of a specific land. The creation account is mentioned as an example, a paradigm for the Sabbath, but not as a command that dated from creation. Rather, it looks to what God did at creation, not at what he commanded at creation.

The pattern in Exodus 20:11 is consistent with the evidence of Genesis: the seventh day was blessed at creation, but it was not commanded as a Sabbath, a day of rest, before the Exodus from Egypt. The decalogue in Deuteronomy connects the Sabbath with the Exodus, not with creation. It is connected with a deliverance from slavery. That is an application of a timeless principle, but that does not make the Sabbath itself timeless. The Jubilee year is also an application of eternal truths. Truths are eternal, but applications are not necessarily eternal.

Regardless of whether the Sabbath command is cosmic or cultic, the command is found in a covenant that is obsolete. We cannot invent categories of command such as “primal” or “original creation” or “cosmic” and then declare all such commands to be perpetually binding, when Scripture says no such thing – especially when Jesus categorizes the law as a ceremonial law, and his apostles write that it is no longer in force. With that, we turn to part 2 of the editorial.

Part 2

Eva begins part 2 by summarizing part 1: “We showed that the seventh-day Sabbath, based on its Creation origin, its pre-Hebrew, pre-law, pre-sin, and divine infrastructure was invested with qualities clearly transcendent of anything limited to Hebrew or ‘Jewish’ covenantal constructs” (September, p. 4). He assumes more than he has proven. He has shown that the seventh day was made by God before sin and before Moses. He has not shown that the seventh day as a commanded day of rest was made at creation or that it would have been necessary for humans to keep the Sabbath before they sinned. He has not shown that any Sabbath command existed before Moses. He has sidestepped the Sabbath’s importance in the old covenant and has ignored the biblical equation of the decalogue with the old covenant and what it means for the covenant to be obsolete.

In part 2, he approaches the important task of seeing “how Jesus’ Messianic arrival actually affected or impacted the role of the law.” He focuses particularly on Galatians 3 and Romans 7, as well as touching on a number of other relevant passages.

Galatians 3

Eva rightly identifies the Galatian heresy as Judaizers who “held that the Gentile Christian was obligated to continue keeping the whole law (as Paul identifies in Galatians 5:1-6) in order to achieve standing with God. Although their perceived obligations involved observances such as circumcision, behind that the whole Mosaic system was involved, which by all means included the Sinai decalogue” (p. 4).

He asks, “What law was Paul referring to when he told the Galatians that ‘the law was our custodian…until Christ came’?” (pp. 4-5). He gives the right answer: “Both the ceremonial and the moral code.” In saying this, Eva appears to be arguing against some Adventists, for he takes space to show that his answer agrees with 19th-century Adventist authorities. It seems that some modern Adventists are afraid of the idea that Paul might be including the Ten Commandments in his argument against the Law.

It is clear from Galatians 3:17 that the entire Mosaic law is under discussion; Eva turns to Galatians 4:24 to show the same thing: “The reference to Mount Sinai shows unequivocally that Paul has the moral law or the Sinai decalogue (the Ten Commandments) in mind in his Galatian teaching, and not just the ‘ceremonial law’ as many Adventists have maintained” (p. 5).

Eva further connects this to Romans 7:7, where Paul quotes the tenth commandment as part of “the law.” He mentions Romans 7:4 and implies that the same law is in view: “Through Christ we died to the law (including every one of the Ten Commandments).” Eva notes that we now belong to Christ, not the law. “A fresh center of moral or ethical definition has been introduced – not now a written code, but the living Word Himself.” Excellent! We belong to Christ, not to the law. This is true.

But how does a person die to the Ten Commandments? How does this connect to verse 1: “The law has authority over a man only as long as he lives”? Since the law under discussion in this passage includes the Ten Commandments, verse 1 is saying that the Ten have authority over us only as long as we live, and then the passage proceeds to tell us that we have died to the law. The next step is to conclude that we are no longer under the authority of the Ten Commandments. But Eva does not make this step, at least not in those words. He is aware that many Adventists will be uncomfortable with what he is saying. “It seems to me that historically, Adventists have not grasped this watershed reality” (p. 6).

The point is that under the “old covenant” the ethical or moral emphasis was on the validity of the written code, the law. Since the arrival of Jesus the emphasis has shifted to the divine, definitive person of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, the giver of the law in the first place. There is a significant difference in theological orientation and practical result between obedience that comes by merely observing the written code, and the loving discipleship that develops when…one simply follows the living Christ, the One who is the believer’s righteousness to begin with. (p. 6)

“Many have been so afraid of the perceived negative implications that dying to the law would produce, that they have been unable to see the three fabulous resultant principles,” which I summarize as belonging to Christ, serving in the Spirit, and following Christ.

In the latter concept, of imitating Christ, Eva tries to re-insert the commandments he has so ably dismissed in his discussion of Galatians 3 and Romans 7. He is trying to argue, in effect, that we are under the authority of Christ, not the law, but that Christ’s example immediately puts us back under the authority of the law. So we obey the law not because the law says so, but because Christ tells us to. This does not seem to be the significant breakthrough that Eva suggests that it is.

On page 7, he acknowledges that “this dying to the law includes all ten of the commandments” – but then argues that since the other nine are “an abiding, continuing core of human morality residing…in the very person of God Himself,” then the fourth commandment must be, too. “There is no reason to exclude the fourth commandment from this core.” But this again assumes something that should be proved. We cannot assume that an Old Testament command is valid simply because its neighbors are. If the thrust of the commandments “does not decrease a ‘jot or tittle’” (p. 7), then in what sense can we say that the tables of stone were a covenant that did not last (2 Corinthians 3:11)? Something must have changed.

The law became flesh

Eva rightly notes that God’s Word became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, who lived without sin. “In the living Christ ‘the word’ was incarnated, law was incarnated, the seventh day was incarnated…. In Christ the written code comes to life…and lives out among us all that the written code was ever meant to convey” (p. 7).

This is good, and I think we can extend it further. Jesus Christ is the incarnation of the entire law, including the sacrifices, the grain offerings, the cleansing rituals, the clothing taboos, and if there be any other law, the living Christ is the last word on the subject. I believe that these additions are valid, and I believe that they point out the principle that we do not have to keep a law merely because Jesus was the incarnation of it. Jesus is the incarnation of the Sabbath, but that does not mean that we have to keep it in our flesh, too.

When Eva writes that Jesus “gave the written code its fullest expression,” he is right, but he skates on thin ice when he adds “thus confirming it and affirming it” (p. 7). Did Jesus confirm and affirm all the laws he kept? The law said to wear tassels on your garments, to go to Jerusalem three times a year, to kill at least one lamb each year, to go through purification rituals after touching a dead person, etc. We do not have to do everything Jesus did. He lived under the old covenant, and we do not. There is a significant difference, and a “do as Jesus did” is too simplistic. We are to live as if he were us, not as if we were him.

When we belong to Christ and are under his authority, we are to do not as he did, but as he commanded. We do not keep the old covenant laws he did, but we keep the new commands that he gave – and he never commanded the Sabbath. Even his example is not as supportive of the Sabbath as Sabbatarians often assume. His example is always of activity, never of rest. His example is always pushing the edge of what is allowed, with never any word about what is forbidden. His example is always liberty, never restriction.

Eva is right when he says, “The Gospel writers are then seen to have carefully selected, under inspiration, certain illustrative occurrences from the life of Jesus.” But then he writes, “There is lavish New Testament verification of the Sabbath just in the accounts of the miracles Jesus performed on that day.” He picks Luke 6 to show that “Jesus’ words and actions that day definitively expose the true and ultimate meaning of the Sabbath” (p. 7).

In Luke 6, however, Jesus defended the activity of his disciples. He used the example of David eating the tabernacle showbread. He said, if David could eat the showbread, my disciples can pick enough grain to eat. However, notice that the argument doesn’t work if the Sabbath is more important than showbread rules – the Pharisees could have said, The Sabbath is more important than showbread, so we have to be more careful about it.

In order for the logic of the argument to work, the showbread has to be at least as important as the Sabbath. Only then could the comparison carry any weight. Only then could the argument conclude, if it was permissible to bend the showbread rules, then we can bend the Sabbath rules, because it is easier to bend the Sabbath, because it is not as important. Jesus used a ritual law as a point of comparison for the Sabbath. Elsewhere, he put the Sabbath in the company of circumcision (John 7:22) and temple rituals (Matthew 12:5). Jesus treated the Sabbath as a ceremonial law, not a matter of morality.

Eva notes, “Jesus invested the seventh day with associations of restoration, healing, re-creation and liberation” (p. 8). That is true, but I would like to add that a notable aspect of the Sabbath is missing from this list. Jesus never invested the seventh day with any associations of avoiding work. This apparently was not part of his vision for the Sabbath.

Eva argues that Jesus would not have removed a law so “strongly associated with the unchangeable creation event itself.” This is again arguing by inference, not by Scripture. One could just as easily argue that Jesus could not remove a law so strongly associated with Sinai, or a sacrificial law that so perfectly pictures our redemption in Christ. The fact that we can make the argument sound good does not mean it is good. The facts are 1) that creation is changeable and there will be a new heavens and new earth and 2) Jesus can change whatever he wants.

Eva says, “It is true that in many ways type met antitype in Jesus, but one cannot say that the creation of the world was a type of any kind” (p. 8). Wrong. The creation was a type, to be replaced by the new and better heavens and earth. We already belong to the heavenly. There is no need for a Sabbath in the new heavens and new earth; this is not something rooted in God’s very nature so that he lives perpetually by a six-one cycle.

Eva’s last argument about Jesus was to note that “he rested in the tomb over the seventh day, apparently confirming by this the significance and the connections this day was designed to have in the light of His arrival. In this He connected Seventh day rest not only to creation, but also to redemption.” I think this is grasping at straws again. Does Eva really think that being dead or comatose is the way to keep the Sabbath? Is this what “rest” means? That seems far removed from the intentions of the Gospel writers. There is no hint in the text that Jesus’ time in the tomb had any symbolic significance for the Sabbath day. This is reading things into the text.

Colossians 2

Eva then gives one paragraph to Colossians 2, mentioning it merely as “another question that could stand some development.” But he acknowledges, “if Paul, in these passages has in mind the cosmic, Creation-sourced, weekly Sabbath of the decalogue, we have some difficult matters to explain” (p. 8). Indeed. If this passage says what it appears to say, then Adventists do have some difficult matters to explain, particularly when we realize that the Sabbath is not creation-sourced, and Paul says that we are not under the authority of the decalogue!

As evidence, Eva mentions the controversy about circumcision that is evident in the New Testament. “One can only begin to imagine the atomic explosion that might have ensued had the issue of the weekly Sabbath been questioned by people such as Paul.”

We can easily envision an explosion when a modern Sabbatarian church questions the Sabbath, but if we think that first-century Judaism would have had an explosion over this doctrine, we do not understand the culture. First-century Jews did not believe that Gentiles had to keep the Sabbath unless they were circumcised as proselytes under the Sinai covenant. They did not believe that the Sabbath command applied to Gentiles, and so there wouldn’t have been any “explosion” if Paul said that the Sabbath did not apply to Gentiles. Maybe the Jews were right — and maybe that is why Paul could so easily say that the Sabbath was not a matter on which Christians should judge one another. It never did apply to Gentiles, and still does not.

I will end as Eva did: “Jesus Himself is the rest of the believer and indeed the ultimate personification and terminus of all truth.”

Author: Michael Morrison


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