“I saw that God had children, who do not see and keep the Sabbath. They had not rejected the light on it. And at the commencement of the time of trouble, we were filled with the Holy Ghost as we went forth and proclaimed the Sabbath more fully” (Ellen White, “A Word to The Little Flock” [WLF], 19).
On April 7, 1847 a young visionary, Ellen White, wrote a landmark letter to the Advent preacher and abolition activist, Joseph Bates. Her husband, James White, published it two months later in “A Word To The Little Flock,” the broadside that first set forth the core beliefs of the coalescing movement that would become the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The letter was a straightforward account of what we now call the Sabbath Halo Vision.
The Holy Spirit had shown Ellen White the Most Holy Place of the Heavenly Sanctuary. As she looked into the Ark of the Covenant, Jesus opened the tablets of stone that contain the Ten Commandments. “…the fourth (the Sabbath commandment,) shone above them all; for the Sabbath was set apart to be kept in honor of God's holy name... The holy Sabbath looked glorious—a halo of glory was all around it.” (WLF, 18)
Then the scene panned down on terrestrial events. She saw how the Sabbath had been changed and that just before the final crisis of earth’s history, Sabbath keepers would go out and proclaim “the Sabbath more fully.” Ellen White, reflecting on the vision five years later, understood the fuller proclamation of the Sabbath as a promise that the Sabbath message would be widely propagated by many more believers than the “little flock” of Adventists then honoring the seventh-day Sabbath.
But beyond a greater quantity of proclamation, the Sabbath Halo Vision also indicated broader qualities of the Sabbath message, not previously understood or emphasized, that must be proclaimed “more fully” before Jesus comes. By 1847, the Seventh Day Baptists had long taught that the sacredness of the seventh day was never changed and was as important for Christians to observe as the other nine commandments. But the scenes of the final crisis Ellen White was shown go farther by emphasizing how the Sabbath is not just like the other commandments, how it has a special significance prior to the second coming.
“…all we were required to do,” she wrote, “was to give up God's Sabbath, and keep the Pope's, and then we should have the mark of the Beast, and of his image” (WLF, 19). Because of their total commitment to Jesus, Ellen White saw that Sabbath keepers would be persecuted, and God would save them with supernatural power at the second coming. This implies that a full proclamation of the Sabbath includes its end-time role as a sign of our commitment to God and of God’s protection for His people.
This part of the Sabbath Halo Vision confirmed Joseph Bates’ conclusions about the heart of Revelation (chs. 12–14), and ever since Seventh-day Adventists have proclaimed the ultimate test of God’s relationship with His people as the center of the Sabbath’s end-time significance.
Next, Ellen White saw the second coming in sabbatical terms:
“Then commenced the jubilee, when the land should rest. I saw the pious slave rise in triumph and victory, and shake off the chains that bound him, while his wicked master was in confusion, and knew not what to do; for the wicked could not understand the words of the voice of God” (WLF, 20, emphasis mine).
The Year of Jubilee was the culmination of the Sabbatical year system (Lev 25). Every seven years the land was to lie fallow, allowing the people and the land to rest for the entire Sabbatical year. This would continue for seven cycles of seven years (49 years), and then the 50th year, the Jubilee year, was to be an extra Sabbatical year. During this year all debts were to be cancelled, all Israelite slaves set free, and everyone was returned to their ancestral lands.
Might the Jubilee also indicate the quality of a fuller proclamation of the Sabbath before Jesus comes? I believe the answer to that question lies in the answer to another. On which of the two tablets of the Ten Commandments does the Sabbath belong?
Recall that Ellen White saw it on the first, which along with the three preceding commandments pertain to our relationship with God. Sabbath is about loving God by respecting God’s time: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God…” (Ex 20:8–10a NKJV).
Sabbath simply acknowledges that six without seven is incomplete. The sixth day is the day on which human beings were created, and seven, the creation day on which God rested, is the biblical number of sufficiency. Thus, Sabbath keeping is a rhythmic reminder that human flourishing is not based on what we accomplish but on who we know. By resting on the seventh day we embody our dependence on our relationship with our Creator.
But notice the middle part of commandment: “…In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates” (Ex 20:10b NKJV). This aspect of Sabbath keeping deals with how we relate to other people (and animals, but that’s for another article). It teaches us that everyone is equal before God, because on Sabbath there are no socio-economic divisions. When we are all resting from our labor, we rest from our struggles within the divisions and power structures of the social order. On the seventh day, we are freed to relate to everyone as princes and princesses of the Heavenly Creator before whom we can claim nothing that sets us above another.
Complete Sabbath Keeping
Proclaiming the Sabbath more fully in the end times encompasses more than preaching Sabbath as a sign of God’s relationship with His people. Resting on the Sabbath calibrates our relationship with God; and that way of relating through rest based on God’s prior involvement in our existence must in turn recalibrate our relationship with each other. Therefore, the Sabbath is especially significant in the end-times because it functions as the bridge that unites the two great commands: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:37, 39).
The Sabbatical year and Jubilee laws fleshed out the political and economic implications of Sabbath for Israelite society, and Ellen White held that the social principles encapsulated therein would be beneficial for us to follow today (Patriarchs and Prophets 536, cf. Matt 5:17–18). God did not create human beings to be enslaved by endless production and consumption, globalized competition, over-regulation, indebtedness, and crony capitalism. And God did not create human beings to be inescapably oppressed by discrimination, police brutality, welfare dependency, predatory mortgages, and gang violence. God desires that earthly societies be structured such that people threatened by slavery—real or virtual—have an escape route to freedom. So while the fourth commandment primarily deals with our relationship with God, if it were possible, it could find a place on both tablets of the law, because it also relates to how we treat each other individually and in society.
Keeping the weekly Sabbath gives us the experience of Heaven as time spent with God apart from the problems of this present age. Keeping the social principles of Sabbath expressed in the Jubilee gives us a foretaste of a human race free and equal before God, which is the “great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” in worship (Rev 7:9 NKJV). Working to present that vision in concrete ways is indispensable to a full proclamation of the Sabbath.
It would be absurd for me to tell people to keep a weekly Sabbath without resting on the seventh day myself. It is just as absurd to invite people to come to Heaven with us and not demonstrate to them what Heaven will be like by our actions. Proclaiming the Sabbath more fully even involves working to insert the social principles of Sabbath into the governance of our society so that by tasting a drop of practical compassion, a world thirsty for justice can have reason to hope in the promise of its one day running down like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24).
Though the American institution of slavery Ellen White saw being abolished at the second coming ended during her lifetime, she insisted that this change in the slaves’ legal status did not exhaust the divine mandate for privileged American Adventists to make special efforts toward racial equality:
“Are we not under even greater obligation to labor for the colored people than for those who have been more highly favored? Who is it that held these people in servitude? Who kept them in ignorance, and pursued a course to debase and brutalize them, forcing them to disregard the laws of marriage, breaking up the family relation, tearing wife from husband and husband from wife? If the race is degraded, if they are repulsive in habits and manners, who made them so? Is there not much due to them from the white people? After so great a wrong has been done them, should not an earnest effort be made to lift them up?” (“Our Duty to the Colored People,” 20).
The pioneers of the Seventh-day Adventist movement saw no distinction between preaching the soon second coming and working for a better world today. They joined the social reform movements like abolition, prohibition, and health reform to alleviate the suffering of the oppressed through a combination of personal influence, organized relief, and legislative action. All were idealistic causes with little chance of success, but if you believe in Heaven, you can afford to be an idealist, because Jesus is coming to right the wrongs of this world! The founders of my church did not regard history’s trajectory toward persecution and the eventual destruction of this wicked world as an excuse with which to wash their hands of any involvement with activism and politics. Rather they took the second coming as permission to make a difference in society, knowing that their work would find its eternal value in the restoration of all things.
Today, Americans are confronted with a crisis of race and law enforcement that has its roots in a self-righteous failure of empathy and solidarity for those whose experience differs from the vulnerable group with whom we most identify, whether the already vulnerable or those who make themselves vulnerable for the sake of protecting others. Today, Adventists in America decide whether to step out of their demographic box to find a common humanity, or step into the scripted role society expects them to play. We decide whether to step in and work with those advocating solutions to this crisis, or step out and do nothing as things get worse. God has promised to use the Advent movement to proclaim His Sabbath more fully, and He promised that He has numbers waiting to join those of us who embrace a complete Sabbath message. Let us go out, and proclaim “the Sabbath more fully.”