Textual Interaction: The Letter to the Hebrews
The Letter to the Hebrews is a book filled with the language of fulfillment. The letter was written to Jewish believers who, due to persecution, were considering returning to Judaism. The book can be summarized by the text of Hebrews 2:2-3,
“For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation.”
The writer of the Hebrews seeks to encourage and warn the Jewish believers who are considering a return to Judaism. Throughout the letter the question is posed, “Why would you return to the shadows of the Old Covenant when we have received the light in Christ of the New?”
Chapter One deals with how Jesus is greater than men and angels. The letter argues, God had spoken and delivered truth to his people in various ways but none of them are as awesome as the way he is now revealed, namely through his Son. Whether it was by angels, Moses, Isaiah or any other medium, revelation directly through the Son is the ultimate word. Chapter Two discusses how great a salvation the Lord offers through Christ. The reasoning of Chapter Two is that if you could reject such a great salvation after hearing and tasting it, you should be concerned for your soul.
Chapter Three and Four deal with the rest of God and how it is fulfilled in Christ. These two chapters are critical for understanding what the Sabbath is, what it pointed to, and what it pointed to has been and will be fulfilled. Hebrews 3:1-6 reveal that “Moses the ‘the servant of God’ cannot compete with ‘the only son.’ Moses who spoke with God directly, had not seen him fully. Yet the Son, who was in the beginning with God and was God, has truly revealed the father.” Even though Moses led the people out of Egypt and into the Promise Land, Jesus is greater because Moses’ ministry was just a type or shadow of the ultimate exodus experience, that of conversion to the new earth.
It is important to recognize the context of shadow and fulfillment, which is interspersed throughout Hebrews. Up until this point the author has already been setting up the argument that the New Covenant is better. It is here that theological presuppositions matter. Sabbatarians carry the presupposition that the weekly Sabbath is a creation ordinance. Therefore, the rest that Hebrews is speaking of is an affirmation of Sabbath observance.However, this is inaccurate, the rest that is being spoken of in these passages is the rest of God and not the rest of man.
Textual Interaction: Hebrews 3:7-11
Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest’
Throughout the wanderings of Israel, the Promised Land was looked at as being the place of rest awaiting them, a land free of slave labor and filled with “milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). It was in this land that Israel was going to receive rest from their labors. It was also in this land that God would grant them a grace called the Sabbath day. There were other religions that practiced Sabbath days but “no precedent in the Ancient Near East exists for a seven-day cycle with the seventh day consistently set aside as a holy day.” Work and labor was a necessary evil in a fallen Ancient Near-Eastern culture. However, God desired for the Israelites to stand out and so he not only led them into a land of rest, but he gave them a day of rest every week as well.
Hebrews 3:7-11 refers back “to the classic failure of Israel at Kadesh Barnea which led to their 40-year wondering in the wilderness.” The first generation of Israelites did not enter the rest in the Promise Land of Cannon or the Eschatological rest of the new heavens and the new earth.
Hebrews 3:12-4:7, carries the argument that if these current Jewish Christians return back to Judaism, like the Israelites of old, they should not expect to enter the rest of God. Their wandering however will not be like the wandering of the ancient Israelites in the Desert. The wandering of these Jews would be an eternal wandering in a much worse desert. A desert that is heated by God’s wrath, a desert called hell.
Textual Interaction: Hebrews 4:6-7
Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, ‘Today,’ saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts’
The author appeals to the logic of Psalm 95 as he considers the eschatological significance of the rest of God. He considers the fact that David speaks of a current and future rest in Psalm 95:7 when he says “today.” The author’s logic is that David would not have said “today” if he was referring to the rest Joshua was bringing the people into in the land of Canaan. David obviously had another kind of rest in mind. The greatest evidence of this is that God is still saving sinners, he is still extending his grace to all those who repent. Therefore, since God is still offering his rest, and Israel already occupied the Land of Canaan, another rest must be in mind here. It is this “other” rest that the author of Hebrew will seek to explain. Ultimately, it is a rest that has eschatological fulfillment.
Textual Intereaction: Hebrews 4:8-13,
For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two- edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
Hebrew 4:8-13 is full of typological significance that is easily missed in English translations. In the original Greek manuscripts, the names Joshua and Jesus are the same name. The NICNT Commentary on Hebrews states,
“The parallel between the Old Testament ‘Jesus,’ who led his followers into the earthly Canaan, and Jesus the Son of God, who leads the heirs of the new covenant into their heavenly inheritance, is a prominent theme of early Christian typology.”
Verse 10 is a critical verse, “for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” The author of Hebrews explains the nature of fulfillment concerning the rest of God in the Old Testament. As the people of God rested from their works on the seventh day, those in Christ rest from their works, which were done to try and please the Lord. Again, the word used in Genesis 2 for rest is more closely defined as ceased than literal rest. God did not rest after creation he simply stopped creating and re-entered into his state of perfect union and fellowship. What this text is teaching is that the same way that God ceased from working and entered into a state of Trinitarian peace, Christians enter this state in part now and fully in the eschaton. This reality is expounded on more fully in Jesus’ High Priestly prayer found in John 17. The meaning of this text must carry eschatology fulfillment because Jesus tells us that there will be great suffering for Christians on this side of eternity (Matthew 10:34). There is also much work to be done for the Christian pertaining to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20). Jesus has also said that full rest comes in future glory (Revelation 21:4, Revelation 22:1-5).
Textual Interaction: Colossians 2:16-17
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.
The letter to the Colossian church was written to encourage Christians to not succumb to false teaching. It is never made explicitly clear who or what these false teachers were teaching but hints are given. The remedy that Paul gives to combat the false teaching being presented in Colossae is a greater picture of the glories of Christ. Paul reasons that if he can give the Christians there a more glorious view of Christ, than they would no longer be interested in other things that are at best a shadow. It is this reasoning that brings us into Colossians 2:16-17.
The apostle Paul encourages believers not to get hung up on festivals or Sabbath days. He acknowledges that Christ ordained these days, but the intent was never for them to be permanent. They were shadows of a greater reality, specifically Jesus himself. This is the truth that Paul is laboring to present throughout the entire letter. If a banner could be placed over the doorpost of the Colossian church, Paul would like it to say, “Christ is better.” As this text is considered in light of this, it is clear that Paul is trying to drive home the same reality that the writer of Hebrews is.
Sabbath observers have tried to argue that the Sabbath days mentioned in this text are not specifically referring to the Sabbath commandment. They argue that the word “days” is plural and so could not be referring to the Sabbath day. However, the very fact that it is plural means that regardless of what Sabbaths Paul has in mind, the Jewish Sabbath is clearly one of them.
Since the First Century church, there seems to have always been the temptation for Christians to try and elevate the shadow of the Old Testament over the light of the New. In the first century, the Judaizers demonstrated this. In modern times, those who seek to place themselves and others under Old Testament law demonstrate it once again.
Textual Interaction: Revelation 21:1-4
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.
Revelation 21:1-4 speaks about a coming day where the chaotic cosmos will finally experience peace or shalom. The idea of peace reigning rather than chaos can be found in the conclusion of the first verse where Paul writes, “and the sea was no more.” In the early churches’ mind, there would have been a clear understanding that the sea symbolized danger and chaos. In revelation 20:14, hell is referred to as a lake of fire. Earlier in Revelation 20 the beast and the false prophet are thrown into a lake of fire, as well. Daniel 7:3 refers to a beast coming from the sea and even the Gospels reference how dangerous the sea could be in the midst of a storm. All of these realities lead to the idea that the absence of the sea here would bring the ideas of peace into the mind of the early readers. The text goes on to inform that the new Jerusalem would be come down from the heavens in preparation for the great wedding day between Christ and his church. The most critical part of this passage that deals with the Sabbath is found in verse 3 and 4. God is going to once again dwell with people and in so doing, redeemed humanity will enter into the rest of God fully. The rest and peace that this passage is illustrating is a rest beyond anything Christians can experience prior to the eschaton. Revelation 21:4 tells us that this state of rest and peace will be such a state that there will be no crying, pain, death, nor mourning of any kind. This eschatological rest is the fulfillment of the Sabbath command and what it always pointed to.
The Bible is a record of God’s redemptive work in space and time. This story begins with an account of creation and it concludes with an account of recreation. The first words of Scripture are, “In the beginning…” and it could be assumed that the concluding words of the biblical narrative should be “In the end…” However, the idea that the closing of revelation provides can be summed up in the words, “In the NEW beginning…”
Christians must understand how the bible narrative unfolds in order to understand the role of the Sabbath within the greater meta-narrative of scripture. Man began this story of Scripture as a glorious creation made in the image of God. He was more glorious than the other creatures God had made because God was willing to condescend and make covenant with man. God provided man with good gifts such as the role of being the vice-regent over creation as well as marriage. Man was at peace with God and as God looked over his creation and was pleased, he rested, or more accurately, ceased from his work. Man rebelled against God and in so doing severed any relationship of rest between him and his Creator. The rest that man once knew was replaced by a restlessness as he sought to till the ground and subject a chaotic creation back under his dominion. Over time, God gave man the privilege of calling him by a covenant name, Yahweh. As an act of grace, Yahweh also chose to give man a full day where he would not have to work but could rather devote himself to striving after a relationship with his estranged Creator. God called this day a Sabbath and consecrated it as a gift and act of grace towards man. It would be but a shadow of the rest man once knew, but it was still an act of grace nonetheless. More significantly, this hallowed day would be an image for man of what he once had and what through covenant and redemption, God would give back to him. The initial fulfillment of this is seen in Jesus’ “high priestly prayer.” The consummation of the great rest of God for his people is found in that conclusion of Revelation as the picture of rest and peace is promised for those who are in Christ. Thom Shcreiner catches the vision of rest fulfillment very well as he states,
“The promised new creation will become a reality at the coming of Jesus Christ. God’s covenantal promises will then be fulfilled, and the groaning of the old creation will end when the new world dawns with its stunning beauty.”
This concludes my Series on the Sabbath. We have looked at how the Sabbath has been understood in Judiasm and throughout Church History. We have also looked at the 3 most prominent understandings of the Sabbath in our modern time. We have concluded by looking at what the Bible actually has to say about the Sabbath in the life of the Church. I have given you a lot of information but I think this issue is very important. Going forward, most of my articles will be much shorter than this (5 minutes on average). I hope you have benefitted from this study. I hope it will be helpful for those who want an overview of this issue. Grace and Peace!
You can also read the earlier letters in the series by following the Links Below.
- Judaism, The Church, and The Sabbath: An Historical Survey
- The Sabbath, The Church, and The 21st Century: Modern Views of the Sabbath
- The Sabbath In Scripture: A Textual Interaction
You can follow me on Twitter @KyleJamesHoward. Also, check out my podcast “Coram Deo Podcast” which focuses on issues concerning Biblical Counseling and Practical Theology. You can search for podcast on any major podcast catcher, listen on the web here, follow updates @CoramDeoPodcast, or just click the artwork below.
 Albert H. Baylis, From Creation to the Cross: Understanding the First Half of the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996), 156.
 Charles P. Arand, Perspectives On the Sabbath: 4 Views, ed. Christopher John Donato (Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Academic, 2011), 24-25.
 John H. Walton and general editor, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009), 23.
 Hodges, Z. C. (1985). Hebrews. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck, Ed.) (Heb 3:7–11). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
 F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 109.
 James M. Hamilton and Jr, Revelation: the Spirit Speaks to the Churches (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012), 383.
 Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2008), 864.