November 26, 2016
Many books and articles discuss the question of whether the Sabbath should be observed by Christians. I couldn’t engage in that battle in a short lesson like this. In this lesson I’ll only focus on select evidence that has been missed by most people.
I did begin to write a book on this topic and was well into it when I realized the battle has devolved to trench warfare. Neither side can win the war and everyone is dug-in, absolutely certain that their position is correct. Except for a very few “defectors” no one on either side is going to move to the other side.
Sabbath observance has a love-hate relationship with Christianity. It is loved by some and despised by the others. The reaction by those who despise it is generally surprising – it is abhorent to them. Those who observe the Sabbath are also despised and it seems to be necessary to condemn them to Hell.
All sorts of reasons are cooked up to show that not only is the Sabbath not for Christians, but Christians who observe the Sabbath have rejected Jesus’ sacrifice. That large number of reasons is the sign of a problem. There is a consensus among the vast majority of Christianity that the Sabbath is not for Christians but there is no consensus at all on why this is and how and when it came to be.
In my experience this happens in two cases, when the Bible is unclear on a teaching and when Christians are rejecting what they know inside is right. The response is so visceral but the reason is so hazy. The question has to be asked “why do you hate it so much”?
In this lesson I’ll address a common question – why doesn’t the New Testament say that Christians should observe the Sabbath in the way it says we should observe Communion. The short answer is that it does. The problem is that the church has been teaching the verses incorrectly since the early years of the Church of Rome. Many translators and others knowledgeable in Greek know the truth but they will not accept it.
Lesson (Hebrews 4:9-13)
The Sabbath is not just an observance, done once a week. Nor is it only done for the blessings attached to it1. It is an act of faith. Hebrews 3:1 through 4:11 discusses this but first we need to unmask Hebrews 4:9-11.
These three verses say something important about the Sabbath but Satan has managed to cover them up. The result is that there are at least three completely different interpretations of what these verses are saying – all of them wrong. Here are those verses from the NIV translation.
9 There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; 10 for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. 11 Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.
The first problem with this is the translation. Any translation that allows the translator(s) to interpret the meaning runs the risk of the translator distorting the verses. The NIV is more a thought-for-thought translation, not a word-for-word translation. This requires the translator to understand the thought before translating it, which can open the door for bias. Because the translator must understand it in order to translate it, the translator’s previous understandings can affect that understanding. To escape that, we have to use a word-for-word translation. One of these is the NASB which renders the verses this way
9 So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. 10 For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. 11 Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience.
Notice how the NIV has changed the verb tense to “rests from their works”, which is present tense, from “has […] rested from his works”, which is past tense. The NIV is twisting the verb tense to fit the verses into a commonly seen interpretation. That is, that the resting from works described here comes in the after-life, not in the physical life. A word-for-word translation does not allow such a verb change and therefore the true meaning is more accessible.
We’ll begin with verse 10. This verse sets up a simile, a literary device, a figure of speech that makes a comparison between two unlike things. That verse is shown below to show the parts of the simile.
|For the one who has entered His rest|
|has himself also rested from his works,||← 1st side of the simile|
|God did from His.||← 2nd side of the simile|
The simile can be made more obvious by expanding the text and removing the superfluous word “himself”.
|For the one who has entered His rest|
|has rested from his works,||← 1st side of the simile|
|God rested from His works.||← 2nd side of the simile|
The meaning of the simile is obvious. Christians are to rest from our works just as God rested from his works. This is a reference to the 4th Commandment which provides the reason why the Sabbath is to be observed, “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day” (Exodus 20:11)
One of the common interpretations of these three verses is that they are a call for man to stop sinning. When this simile is understood, though, it becomes possible to see the error in that interpretation. We do that by inserting the interpretation into the literary simile. Because it is a simile the interpretation must be inserted into both sides of the simile
|For the one who has entered His rest|
|has rested from his evil works,||← 1st side of the simile|
|God rested from His evil works.||← 2nd side of the simile|
This shows the interpretation to be silly. God did not rest from his evil works.
Now we’ll go back to verse 9. This is the verse that Satan had to cover up.
9 There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God
The word that is translated as “Sabbath-rest” comes from the Greek word Sabbatismos. It is actually not a Greek word, but a Greek-ified version of a word borrowed from Hebrew. Unfortunately the Greek word disappeared from the Greek language very quickly and hasn’t been used in almost 2000 years. In a case like this translators have to look at how the word is used in the text to figure out the meaning of the word. This makes it very subject to translator bias.
The word Sabbatismos appears only once in all of the New Testament. Obviously it doesn’t appear in the Hebrew Old Testament but it also doesn’t appear in the Greek LXX translation of the Old Testament either.
This is what Strong’s Concordance says about word 4520, Sabbatismos.
sabbatismos: a sabbath rest
Original Word: σαββατισμός, οῦ, ὁ
Part of Speech: Noun, Masculine
Phonetic Spelling: (sab-bat-is-mos’)
Short Definition: a Sabbath rest
Definition: a keeping of the Sabbath, a Sabbath rest.2
You can see the definition “a Sabbath rest” there which is what is used in the English translations we’ve seen so far. But notice that there is another definition “a keeping of the Sabbath”. Where could a second definition come from if the word only appears once? It turns out the word is used in other writings a total of five times3 and this is where the other definition is coming from.
In all those other cases, however, it is clear from how the word is used that the definition is “a keeping of the Sabbath” not “a Sabbath rest”. And yet, the one case in the Bible is the only place where the word was translated as “a Sabbath rest”.
In fact, it isn’t necessary to see the other uses of Sabbatismos to understand the definition. Sabbatismos is a noun made from a verb; that’s what the “ismos” part of it does. The verb form of the word is used many times in the Greek LXX translation of the Old Testament. In every case it means “to keep the Sabbath”.
We make nouns from verbs in English as well but we do it a little differently. We can say “We tithe our incomes”, where tithe is used as a verb. We can also say “It remains for us to tithe our incomes”, where it is used as a noun. Using it as a verb or a noun has not changed the meaning of the word tithe. It is the same with Sabbaton, the verb root of Sabbatismos. It means “to keep the Sabbath” both as a verb and a noun.
When we take a close look at the translation of Sabbatismos into “a Sabbath rest” we are confused at what it would mean. The word Sabbath means “a rest, or ceasing from work”. Looked at that way “a Sabbath rest” would mean either “a rest rest” which is nonsense, or “a ceasing from work rest” which is just the definition of the Sabbath. So “a Sabbath rest”, as a translation, makes no sense.
So far we’ve seen that Sabbatismos does not have that meaning anywhere else, its verb root does not have that meaning, and that “Sabbath rest” is meaningless. Because the common translation is so far from its obvious meaning, we see that “a Sabbath rest” is a coined term, not a translation. It expresses a concept the translator wants to convey that a direct translation of the text would not convey. It is a paraphrasing and like all paraphrasing, subject to bias. The translator is trying to express the idea that Sabbatismos is a reference to the afterlife rest.
Why is the translation “a Sabbath rest” used? It’s because a correct translation results in a verse that Christendom doesn’t want to hear – a verse that cuts in a way that they have rejected.
9 So there remains a keeping of the Sabbath for the people of God.
The final test is to see how the verses work together with the cover removed.
9 So then, it remains for the people of God to keep the Sabbath. 10 For whoever enters his rest has rested from his works as God has from his own. 11 Let us take pains, therefore, to enter that rest, lest we fall in the manner of those who were not persuaded. (Aramaic New Testament)
Does this interpretation make it past verse 10 where others have failed?
|10 For the one who has entered His rest|
|has rested from his 6 days of work,||← 1st side of the simile|
|God rested from His 6 days of work.||← 2nd side of the simile|
The simile comes out perfectly and makes complete sense. Having said that Christians are to keep the Sabbath (by resting), the author of Hebrews is comparing the weekly Sabbath, with its resting and ceasing from work, with the rest that God took after the days of creation. His point then is that those who enter into God’s rest have observed the Sabbath, which is a commemoration of God’s rest.Now let’s look at verse 11 in detail.
11 Let us take pains, therefore, to enter that rest, lest we fall in the manner of those who were not persuaded.
By saying “let us take pains” the author is saying that we must try very hard to do something – an effort and action is required – we must do something to enter that rest. From verse 4:9, which also says “enter that rest”, we understand this to be the observance of the Sabbath.
The author follows with a reference back to what he has been saying beginning in Chapter 3, that the promised provision of God’s rest to his people was not delivered when Israel entered the Promised Land. In fact it was the Israelite’s lack of faith and thus obedience that caused them to lose that promise and they wandered in the desert until they died. God’s rest has existed since creation (v. 4:3) as he said about the Sabbath (fourth commandment). That promise of God’s rest has not been delivered but will be entered into by faith. That takes us to verse 9 which says, therefore (because the promise of God’s rest is still future), it remains for the people of God to continue to keep the Sabbath which is the observance of that rest which began at the end of creation.
In saying “lest we fall in the manner of those who were not persuaded” he is saying that faith and obedience are the foundation for entry into that future rest and of Sabbath observance. The same lack of faith and disobedience that Israel showed when they did not enter the Promised Land can cause us to lose that future rest in God.The next two verses are treated by the church as though the author has changed topics and therefore they are not connected to the previous verses. Now with a full understanding we can see that they are connected.
12 For the word of God is living and all-efficient, and much sharper than a double edged sword, and it pierces to the separation of soul and spirit and of joints, marrow and of bones, and judges the reasoning and conscience of the heart. 13 And there is no created thing hidden from before him, but everything is naked and open before the eyes of him to whom we give an account.
The point of these verses is that God sees everything and “judges the reasoning and conscience”. That’s clear enough but it doesn’t apply to having faith. You either have faith or you don’t. You may have a little faith or much faith but all you need is a little faith. Reasoning and conscience don’t apply. Therefore these verses seems disconnected.
These verses relate to the previous verses because an observance is mentioned. The reason the Sabbath is observed can be wrong. This is the problem Israel ran into that was discussed above. Any observance can be done for the wrong reasons. It can be observed because of a sense of duty, because it’s a tradition, because everyone else does it, because it’s fun, or for other reasons. God wants it done as an act of obedience coming out of faith. Therefore what Paul says serves as a warning to make sure your heart is right, that your reasoning and conscience are good.
Paul says much the same thing about the Communion observance.
28 Because of this, let a man search his soul, and then eat of this bread and drink from this cup. 29 For whoever eats and drinks from it being unworthy, eats and drinks a guilty verdict into his soul for not distinguishing the body of the lord Yahweh.
Observances may be symbolic but that does not reduce their significance.
3 “The words `sabbath rest’ is from the [Greek] noun sabbatismos, [and is] a unique word in the NT. This term appears also in Plutarch (Superset. 3 [Moralia 166a]) for sabbath observance, and in four post-canonical Christian writings which are not dependent on Heb. 4:9” (The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 5, p. 856).