As Seventh-day Adventists our observance of the seventh day Sabbath is a practice that sets us apart from most Christians, and this doctrine is embedded in the name of our Church. But is it possible that we observe the seventh day Sabbath without truly understanding or appreciating the wonderful attributes of God that this day represents? While it is true that God set apart the Sabbath day as His holy day, God also gave the Sabbath to us as a gift. Jesus tells us that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). If we understood the significance of what we actually celebrate when observing the seventh day Sabbath, we would understand why the Sabbath is a gift. If those who consider us legalists because of our observance of the seventh day Sabbath understood all that the Sabbath represents, they would see something quite the opposite of legalism. The fourth commandment tells us that we honor God as creator when observing the seventh day Sabbath. “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). Celebrating God’s character is not the only reason for Sabbath observance. Other aspects of God’s character also give us cause for rejoicing on the Sabbath day. Christ’s death on the cross reveals to us another aspect of God’s character that we celebrate when observing the Sabbath. Jesus could have died on any day of the week, but it was in God’s plan for Jesus to die on a Friday and to rest in the tomb over the Sabbath day. God not only emphasized the need to observe His law by orchestrating Christ’s death in this manner and having Jesus set an example of obedience to God’s divine precepts by resting during the Sabbath hours, but Jesus also sent another message to the world. This message can be heard in Christ’s dying words on the cross, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). In the 28th verse of the same chapter, John tells us that Jesus knew that all things were now accomplished. In John one we are told that Jesus was the one who created the earth. He created this world in six days, and when His work was completed, He rested on the seventh day. In like manner, Jesus completed His work of redeeming the human race on the sixth day of the week, and when all things were accomplished, He announced that His work was finished. He died and then rested in the tomb on the seventh day. Because of Christ’s death on the cross, all who accept God’s grace will experience forgiveness and cleansing from sin. For this reason that we observe the Sabbath to celebrate God, not only as our creator, but as our redeemer. When Christ’s Sabbath rest was completed, He came forth from the grave and continued His work, which leads us to yet another aspect of God’s character that we celebrate by observing the Sabbath.
God reveals this aspect of His character regarding Sabbath worship in the book of Ezekiel. “Moreover I also gave them My Sabbaths, to be a sign between them and Me, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them” (Ezekiel 12:20). God says the same thing in Exodus 31:13. Jesus presented to the world the same message about Himself as He did in Exodus and Ezekiel by healing people on the Sabbath. The people who lived in Christ’s time had a very distorted view of the Sabbath, because their religious leaders had turned the day God had given them as a gift into a burden. Jesus wanted to portray the Sabbath in its true light, and by healing people on the Sabbath He was declaring Himself to be the God who heals. When Christ paid the penalty for our sin on the cross, He earned the right to blot out our sins from remembrance. When He rose again, He earned the right to heal us and set us free from the enslavement of sin. In Heaven Christ continuously labors on behalf of the human race, granting forgiveness for all who take hold of His grace, and imparting to them His mind through the Holy Spirit, which enables them to live in perfect obedience to His commandments. This is the work that Christ began to do after His Sabbath rest in the tomb, once He ascended into Heaven. So when we observe the Sabbath, we are not only celebrating God as the creator and redeemer, we are also celebrating God as the restorer, because He restores us into His likeness—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. This is what righteousness by faith is all about, and it is all represented in the observance of the seventh day Sabbath.
The Bible uses the number seven to represent completeness, and in the light of the seventh day Sabbath we can see the complete work that God longs to accomplish in every human life. At the end of time, God will have a sealed people who completely reflect His perfect character, and the observance of the seventh day Sabbath will be the sign of God’s sealed people, setting them apart from the rest of the world. This sealing, however, will not be accomplished by trying to keep the Sabbath as perfectly as possible. If we are keeping the Sabbath as a means of obtaining Salvation, we are actually not keeping the Sabbath at all, because we are denying God the redeemer, the one who saves us by grace through faith and not of works (Ephesians 2:8-9). Jesus tells us that without Him we can do nothing (John 15:5). If we try to keep the Sabbath in our own strength, refusing to admit that our ability to obey God’s commandments comes through God’s power alone, we are not keeping the Sabbath, because we are denying God the restorer. The Sabbath is a representation of the righteousness by faith message, and the observance of the seventh day Sabbath by God’s end time people will be the sign that His people accept this message. By keeping the Sabbath, we as God’s people are acknowledging that we cannot save ourselves or change ourselves, and through Sabbath worship we are giving allegiance to the only one who can create, redeem, and restore us. True Sabbath worship is not the means of obtaining salvation but rather the result of obtaining salvation. Those who knowingly reject the seventh day Sabbath and practice Sunday worship are actually promoting legalism, because they are choosing to worship God on a day set aside by a religious system that teaches salvation by works.
The seventh-day Sabbath doctrine is one of the doctrines that critics of Adventism point to when accusing Adventists of legalism, and tragically, many of us as Adventists give our critics a basis for their accusations. We make the same mistake as the Jewish leaders of old by turning God’s gift into a burden, and and this legalism is the picture of Sabbath worship we present to the world. We have guidelines that indicate what we should and should not do on the Sabbath, and we go through the same Sabbath routine every week—Sabbath school, church service, potluck, Bible study—trying our best to abide by these guidelines. I strongly believe that the Sabbath absolutely must be observed in a holy manner. God gave the commandment not to work on the Sabbath for a reason. Many things might shift our focus away from God if we took part in them on His holy day. However, if we observe the Sabbath in the light of the cross, appreciating and taking hold of all that the Sabbath represents, we would keep the Sabbath day holy out of a heart flowing with gratitude to God for what He has done for us and continues to do for us. We would not need to keep a checklist of what to do and not to do on the Sabbath, because the grace of God in our hearts would cause the observance of the Sabbath day in a holy manner to come naturally to us, and we would truly worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24). The world needs to see this picture of the Sabbath, and when we as Adventists fulfill our responsibility to the world by sharing this picture through our words and actions, many of those who are currently repulsed by the seventh day Sabbath doctrine will ultimately be drawn by it. The doctrine that they now see as representing legalism they will come to see as representing liberty, and they will join with us in celebrating the everlasting gospel on God’s holy day.
All Scriptures are taken from the New King James Version.