The Grace Community, an American Evangelical church, publishes on its website a large number of e-books, including some religious, apologetic ones, such as “Open Letters to an Adventist” by Michael Morrison and Joseph W. Tkach, an old and ongoing dispute on the subject of the day of rest.
The book does not present a classic dispute between an Evangelical Christian and an Adventist, but a much more interesting phenomenon. The two religious communities have a common history, they have travelled the same road for a while, but in opposite directions. The Adventists, now numbering nearly 20 million, who originally gathered around the Sunday Baptist preacher William Miller (1840-1844), adopted Saturday as their day of rest, and are now known as Seventh-day Adventists, as opposed to the “First-day Adventists” who were the majority at the beginning and have now almost disappeared.
Grace Community began with Herbert Armstrong, an American who abandoned the theory of evolution and adopted the biblical Saturday Sabbath (1927). In 1934, he founded one of the American Sabbatarian movements, called the Radio Church of God because it broadcast its message by radio.
Since 1968, the movement has been known as the Worldwide Church of God (WCG), with hundreds of television stations, a dedicated magazine with a high circulation (Plain Truth), and an international cultural foundation (Ambassador) aimed at promoting education, schools, biblical archaeology, and so on (1975). These projects attracted the attention and honours of personalities such as Margaret Thatcher, Hirohito, Hussein of Jordan, Indira Gandhi, Leopold III of Belgium, President Marcos (Philippines), and others, earning Mr Armstrong the title of “Ambassador for World Peace”.
After Armstrong’s funeral (1986), which was attended by thousands of people, including politicians, the movement’s new leader, Ukrainian-American Joseph Tkach, together with his administrative team, drastically changed the WCG’s doctrine to make it compatible with the evangelical mainstream. Among other things, the observance of the Sabbath was abandoned, causing new schisms among the bewildered congregation. Since 2009, the former WCG has been called Grace Community, and its leaders are now militantly opposed to the seventh-day Sabbath they once promoted.
Although Sunday-to-Saturday conversions are much more common (because the biblical arguments for the Sabbath are not pedantic niceties, but clear biblical statements that anyone can understand and recognise), there are also former Sabbatarians who are now advocates of the Evangelical “New Covenant”. Mike Oppenheimer of the religious organisation Let Us Reason, an American Jew who became a New Age adherent and then converted to Evangelical Christianity, is now one of the most active opponents of the Sabbath.
Dale Ratzlaff of Life Assurance, a former American Adventist pastor, has also become a virulent anti-Sabbatarian in the name of the same “New Covenant” theology. These are just a few notable names, but the phenomenon is wider, and is underpinned by the activism of evangelical movements against “heretical cults” defined by the largely evangelical standards of “Protestant orthodoxy.” There have been many published responses to Ratzlaff’s theology, such as Alden Thompson’s letters (Ministry, February 2004); Pastor Martin Weber’s SDA for Me website; Jud Lake’s Sabbath Apologetics website and many others.
In a series of three articles, of which this is the first, we will look at the main anti-Sabbatarian arguments and counter-arguments that can be made.
Objections to Genesis 2:1-3
“Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested (way-yi-šbōt) from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested (šābat) from all the work of creating that he had done” (Genesis 2:1-3).
“In Genesis 2:1-3, the seventh day is not called Sabbath or Saturday.”
It is argued that the word “Sabbath”/”Saturday” is missing here, but unless you are a professional nitpicker, there are all the elements of the concept of Sabbath here: the seventh day, the cessation of weekly work, and even the verb šābat (to stop an activity). Therefore, the argument is unfounded. Further proof is found in the fact that when God gave the commandment to Israel on Sinai thousands of years later, He gave the same fundamental reason for the existence of the week and the Sabbath:
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:8-11; see also Exodus 31:17).
As for the relationship between the seventh day, the Sabbath, and Saturday, the above commandment indicates that the seventh day is šabbāt, the Hebrew term for Saturday. All four Gospels indicate that Jesus resurrected on the first day of the week (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1). It is not difficult to understand that the Sabbath is Saturday.
In Genesis 2:1-3, the seventh day is not a day of rest for mankind.
Another objection to the argument that the Sabbath has been given since the creation of the world is that the biblical text of Genesis 2 does not explicitly mention that the seventh day was left as a day of rest for mankind. It simply says that God stopped working and rested. It does not say that humans rested. But the argument is naive because it implicitly suggests that God needed rest and exactly six days to finish creating the world. Couldn’t God have made the world in a second or in a succession of ages? And did He need to rest?
To understand the significance of this memorable break, we need to look at the moment when God rested. The culmination of creation was the creation of man and woman. At the end of each day, God rejoiced in what He had created and declared that it was good (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18). But it was only after He had created the woman and blessed the first marriage that He admired all His creation, noticing that “it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). This observation inaugurates the first Sabbath and reveals the meaning and spirit of God’s rest. The holy couple is simply embraced by God in the rest of His joy.
In the Creation narrative, God manifests and expresses Himself, both in verbal and dramatic language, in a way that is not justified for Himself, but only for human beings. God acts in an exemplary way, both in the creation during the six days and in the rest of the seventh day. God creates humans “in His own image” (Genesis 1:26-27; 5:3; 9:6). As God works, so does humanity (Genesis 2:15). Just as God gives names to created things (Genesis 1:5, 8, 10; 5:2), so too He enables humans to give names to created things (Genesis 2:19; 3:20).
In this pattern of legitimate imitation of God, why should we be surprised that, just as God made everything else for human beings, He also made the Sabbath for them? Not only because Jesus said so (Mark 2:27), but also because the expressions used in the text (“God blessed the seventh day and made it holy”) would make no sense if the seventh day had not been given to mankind. Whenever God blesses something, He does so for the sake of the creature, not for Himself.
The only mentions of God blessing a specific day are in Genesis 2:3 and Exodus 20:11. The blessing pronounced on the Sabbath is for all God’s children, for all humanity made in God’s image. Just as all nations were to be blessed through the blessing of the “descendants of Abraham” (Genesis 22:18), so all obedient humanity was to be blessed through the weekly rest.
Just as in the book of Genesis the patriarchs bless their sons, giving special authority to the chosen ones (even though they are not always the first-born), so God blessed not only humanity (Genesis 1:22, 28; 5:2), but also the seventh day, dedicated to His encounter with mankind, who had been made the ruler of nature (Genesis 1:26-28).
If the blessing of the Sabbath is interpreted by some as a magic spell cast on a day of which it is not known for whom and why it was made, the expression “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy” is part of the clearest biblical language, indicating that it was given to humans as a holy day. Did He bless it for Himself and for the angels? Did He make it holy for its sake, as if it were a real being? Are we talking about magic again? The Hebrew verb qaddēš (to sanctify) means “to dedicate to sacred use”, “to declare holy (inviolable)”, and “to consecrate to worship, festive gatherings or other religious acts” (2 Kings 10:20; Joel 1:14; 2:15). All these imply the human being as a participant, as a worshipper.
The mention of the blessing and consecration of the seventh day as a day of rest and memorial comes after the experience of its inauguration, its first celebration. After God freed Israel from Egypt, He dedicated the day as a permanent annual festival by commandment (Exodus 13:3). Only after the Jews of Shushan rejoiced in God’s deliverance on 13-14 Adar (Esther 9:17-18) did they decide that these days should be celebrated every year (vv. 19-32). The same happened with the Sabbath of Creation. Only after experiencing it with humans on that first Sabbath did God sanctify it, declare it a special day, and set it apart for weekly observance in the future. Morrison also adds the argument that humans did not need rest the day after they were created. However, it is not “needs” as we perceive them today that we are discussing here, but needs as God’s wisdom saw them. As for the first Sabbath, just as God had no need of rest, but “rested” on the seventh day, so did mankind rest on the seventh day.
“In Genesis 2:1-3, the seventh day is no more reminiscent of Creation than any of the other six days.”
Indeed, the seventh day alone does not recall Creation. All the days of the week remind us of the first week. If there were no week, there would be no seventh day. Yet this logic also applies the other way round: if there were no seventh day, as a day distinct from the others, to mark and crown the week, then the seven-day cycle would lose its meaning.
To say that the seventh day is no more the memorial of Creation than the rest of the week is a mistake, because God chose the seventh day as a sacred memorial (Exodus 20:11). One might even say that while the days of the week commemorate Creation by “celebrating it through work”, only the Sabbath, the crown of the week, celebrates the Creator God. And only the Sabbath requires us to stop our work in order to admire God’s work.
“How could the seventh day have been sanctified before sin, work, and the profane existed?”
The idea that in heaven, before the Fall, there was no work and no concept of the profane, and therefore no need for a holy day of rest, is naive. The biblical text tells us that created humans were given work: to be stewards of nature, to rule over other living things (Genesis 1:26-28), and to care for the Garden of Paradise, “to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15).
We are not given details, and imagination is not enough. However, beyond imagination, the biblical text affirms that humans, created in the image of God, were made active. On all working days, they could cultivate their garden as they wished. However, the day that God had blessed and sanctified for human beings could not be treated in the same way if they were indeed made in God’s image.
The fact that God sanctified a certain day—that is to say, gave it a sacred character—meant that the other days were made profane by the same decree. Not in the sense of sacrilegious, sinful or unclean, but simply not holy, not sanctified. If all things were “holy” (declared sacred), then all things would be equally profane, without distinction.
Those who say that the Sabbath could not have been sanctified before sin occurred contradict the text, which shows that the sanctification of the seventh day preceded the fall. At the same time, however, they confuse the pair righteous-sinful (which applies to persons) with the pair holy-unholy (sacred-profane), which also applies to realities that cannot become sinful.
It is true that the relationship of communion with God must be permanent, every day. However, it is one thing to be with God at work and in brief moments of prayer, study, meditation, and so on, and quite another to have a full day of holy activities in relationship with God, family, and other believers. If keeping the Sabbath holy was necessary in a holy and pure world, it was all the more so after the Fall, when life and work became punishment and torment (Genesis 3:17-19).
The distinction between sacred and profane is not made by our imagination but by God’s Word. When God gave humans all the fruit trees and kept one for Himself, which humans were not allowed to touch, He made a distinction between the sacred and the profane. This established the need for a commandment even where there was no sin. But why wasn’t the Sabbath also given by commandment?
“The seventh day does not appear as a commandment in Creation.”
In fact, how many explicit imperatives appear in the Creation text? Also, imperatives are not always moral commands or commands that impose a way of life, but are often creational ones (“Let there be light!” etc., Genesis 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24), or expressions of the creation plan (Genesis 1:26), or forms of well-wishes and expressions of laws that are in the nature of created beings (Genesis 1:22, 28; 9:1, 7).
On the other hand, commandments of a practical nature, prescribing a way of life, are sometimes expressed in an indicative mood (“I give you…”, Genesis 1:29), which shows that a divine commandment can be given in ways other than imperatively. Moreover, this kind of command was originally implanted in the nature (instinct) of created beings (Genesis 1:30). Even the law of marriage and marital fidelity was originally given in heaven in an indicative mood and not imperatively (Genesis 2:24).
The divine commandment is creational. Various creatures came into being by divine command (Genesis 1:20, 24). However, human beings, both male and female, were not created by a command (“Let there be human beings!”) as were the plants and the animals, but by a significant creational act (Genesis 2:7, 21-23).
There is only one explicit commandment given to humans in heaven in the form of an absolute imperative:
“You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:16-17).
This commandment is not moral in nature, nor is it religious, ceremonial, civil or sanitary. It is a prohibition formulated by God to test faith and obedience, and thus to educate the supreme virtue of obedience out of faith and love. There can be no virtue without a negative potential; therefore, the appearance of the prohibition produces either obedience or disobedience, according to personal choice.
This subject is of colossal importance, but we shall confine ourselves to stating that the only explicit commandment given to humanity in the beginning does not retain its validity beyond Adam’s life in heaven, whereas the law of monogamous heterosexual marriage, although spoken in an indicative mood (Genesis 2:24) and not imperatively, remains as a divine commandment as long as the world exists, being confirmed by commandment (Exodus 20:14).
The test of the forbidden fruit was given as a direct commandment before the woman was created. She was to hear the commandment from her husband at the proper time. Nevertheless, the fact that she had not received the commandment directly did not relieve her of obligation, even though the primary responsibility rested with Adam.
It is not the explicit manner in which a commandment is formulated that indicates its binding nature, but rather the nature of the commandment. The Hebrew term tôrā, which is usually translated as “law”, literally means direction, indication, directive, instruction, or teaching. In ordinary human relationships, requests are not expressed in the form of commandments (orders, commands), but often through suggestions and, above all, through gestures, for example, by assuming a certain role: an invitation, sometimes without words, addressed to a partner or a son with a sensitive conscience.
The Sabbath is such a primordial law, left by God’s example of work and rest as an invitation to celebrate. Why should a command accompanied by the threat of wrath be necessary to accept God’s explicit wish? The case is similar to the parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22:2-14) or the parable of the great banquet (Luke 14:16-24). The excuses for not attending the happy feast betrayed enmity and hatred towards the one who had invited them, and had no other explanation. When one is invited to hard work, it is natural to be more reluctant, or to go only if some law obliges you. But if you are reluctant even when invited to rest and feast, you give the impression that you have more important business than that of God Himself.
Like the law of marriage, the law of the Sabbath was not given by an explicit commandment accompanied by threats, but by an invitation to enjoy a special fellowship with the One who blessed and sanctified only the seventh day. From the point of view of the Jewish author (Moses) and the early readers (Israelites), the matter is much simpler. When Genesis 2:1-3 was written, the author was referring to a long-established custom, for the commandment given at Sinai referred directly to Genesis 2:1-3 as the inauguration of the work week and the Sabbath.
If the weekly and Sabbatical cycle had not already been known, the writer’s reference to the creation week and Sabbath would have been senseless. However, in the context of the survival of the week, even though it must have been affected by slavery in Egypt, Moses’ invitation to the original weekly rest was welcome and anticipated the commandment at Sinai.
It is true that the Sabbath appears in the form of a commandment accompanied by threats after the Fall, namely in Exodus 20:8-11. Nevertheless, this only reinforced its compulsory nature within a social and educational system of external constraint. The relationship between God and humans had changed. Parental examples and suggestions were no longer sufficient; explicit command, accompanied by threat and illustration of capital punishment (Exodus 31:14-15; 35:2; Numbers 15:32-33), was required.
Sabbath deniers complain that Genesis 2 lacks command, commandment, imperative, and threat, but they forget that in that perfect world, God got along with humans without many words. The relationship between Genesis 2:13 and Exodus 20:8-11 emphatically shows that the (same) author intended us to understand the narrative of the creation of the Sabbath as justifying the primacy of a known obligation as more than a commandment.
Are we to believe, however, that an explicit and unambiguous commandment in Genesis 2 concerning the Sabbath would be acceptable to objectors? Morrison admits that it would not be satisfactory:
“Even if Genesis called the seventh day a Sabbath and a commanded day of rest, I would still allow the epistles to overturn that commandment, in the same way that I allow the epistles to overturn the command for circumcision (which is in Genesis), or the worship practices found in Genesis (altars, sacrifices, etc.)”.
Therefore, the argument that the Sabbath is not commanded in Genesis 2, but merely mentioned, is disingenuous.
“Christians look to the new Creation, not the old.”
Even if we admit that the seventh day of Creation is the Sabbath, and that it should have been kept from the beginning according to the commandment of the Decalogue, Morrison asserts, this would only be a commemoration of the old Creation—and Christians look to the new Creation.
This, however, is a sophism. First, Morrison says that the Sabbath is a shadow of things to come, a ceremonial foreshadowing of the kingdom of the seventh millennium, or a type of the true rest that was to come through Christ. However, if he were shown that the Sabbath is a commemoration of Creation and not a foreshadowing of future events, he would reply that in this case, Christians are waiting for a new creation, not celebrating the old one.
We need to remember that everything God made was perfect—very good (Genesis 1:31), and that on the Sabbath we do not celebrate creation itself; we are not pantheists, nature worshippers. We celebrate the Creator. What He established “in the beginning” remains a norm by which Christ Himself guides us (Matthew 19:4, 8; Mark 10:6-9). For Christians, God is also identified in the New Testament as the Builder/Creator (Ephesians 3:9; 1 Timothy 6:13; Hebrews 11:10). Why else would we entrust our souls to the Creator, the One faithful to the covenant of creation, when the Christians’ only hope is the resurrection (1 Peter 4:19; Philippians 3:11; 1 Thessalonians 4:17-18)?
Furthermore, the resurrection, although chronologically a new creation, is done by the same God by virtue of the same authority and power. This is why the New Testament calls our attention to the “Creator—who is forever praised” (Romans 1:25; John 5:17; Acts 17:24-30; Hebrews 11:3; Revelation 4:11), and calls for a return to the Creator God (Revelation 14:6-7), because only the Creator God can be Saviour. “I, even I, am the Lord, and apart from me there is no saviour” (Isaiah 43:11; cf. Isaiah 45:5-6, 18; 48:12; Joel 2:27; John 1:1-3, 14).
Therefore, there is no need for another day in the New Testament to commemorate the resurrection, the new creation, or to foreshadow the seventh or eighth millennium, because God (Father or Son, without distinction) did not feel the need to change the day celebrating His creative power to celebrate the resurrection.
Florin Lăiu is a former Bible professor at the Theological Seminary of the Adventus University in Romania where he worked for 28 years, specialising in biblical languages, biblical exegesis, apocalyptic and biblical translation. Now retired, he is an Adventist apologetic, poetry and music enthusiast, author of articles and books, husband, father of four, and grandfather of six.