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New Horizons

The Age of Jubilee: A Redemptive-Historical Case for the Christian Sabbath

Brenton C. Ferry

Those on the left say that meeting for worship on Sunday is just a custom that has no necessary relation to the fourth commandment. Those on the right say that the church must still observe Saturday. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church takes a moderate position, insisting that we must observe Sunday. We defend both the moral necessity of observance (against the left) and the change of day (against the right).

My present concern is with the latter issue: the change of day. I will sketch the Westminster divines' main lines of argumentation (not exhaustively) in their seventeenth-century context. Then I will present a redemptive-historical argument for Westminster's position, based on the Year of Jubilee in the Old Testament.

The Sectarians

During the seventeenth century in England, numerous publications appeared in defense of "the Christian Sabbath" (Sunday) against "the Jewish Sabbath" (Saturday) and vice versa. I have examined over fifty of them. The polemics were occasioned by Christian sectarians who, with an exaggerated view of the continuity between the Old and New Testaments, had adopted seventh-day Sabbath keeping.

In 1667, Thomas Grantham observed that the Jewish Sabbath was "now observed by many." [1] He warned his readers "to beware of those (and that doctrine) that leadeth into bondage, for these daies are perilous in that respect."[2]

John Cowell recanted, after observing the Jewish Sabbath for thirteen years. Yet he often found it necessary to refrain from work on Saturday for the sake of his weaker, sectarian-leaning brethren. Cowell said that many of those sectarians also argued for circumcision and the whole law, including sacrifices, rebuilding the temple, and possessing Canaan. They believed that the civil government has the authority to enforce all of the Ten Commandments with capital punishment. Cowell mentioned one woman who kept the Sabbath with more precision than anyone, yet she denied that Jesus is the Messiah and rejected the New Testament outright.[3]

Scripture Citations

The Westminster Confession of Faith, in its proof texts, cites three main passages to support the change of the Sabbath day. First, there is 1 Corinthians 16:2, where the church is instructed to set aside an offering on the first day of the week. Secondly, the Confession mentions Acts 20:7, which describes the church gathered together for worship on Sunday. Finally, the Confession cites Revelation 1:10, where John is praying "on the Lord's day."[4]

The sectarian William Saller responded to the Confession by contending that 1 Corinthians 16:2 makes no mention of worship, that Acts 20:7 is only descriptive and not normative, and that Revelation 1:10 refers to Saturday. Saller and his companions argued that the Christian Sabbath was illegitimately instituted to "raise a wall of partition betwixt the Gentiles and the Jews." Saller and others desired to see the Christian church restore the Old Testament Sabbath as "a preparative" to bring about the union of Jew and Gentile promised in John 10:16, Romans 11:25-26, and Revelation 7.[5]

In Numero Numerate

In addition to appealing to the three references above, the Westminster divines and their supporters also argued that the fourth commandment does not necessarily specify the last day of the week, but only "one day in seven" (Confession of Faith, 21.7; Larger Catechism, 116).

They argued that in numero numerante ("in number numbering," that is, in the numbers themselves) there can only be one seven. It comes after six and before eight. However, in numero numerate ("in number numbered," that is, in things that are numbered), the sense in which the Westminster divines took the fourth commandment, the seventh day is relative and movable.[6]

One anonymous sectarian said that those who promote this view "in catechisms and other prints" are "dangerous to religion," teaching that "the first day is the seventh." This is "as absurd," he claimed, as affirming "that three is four, or that the next after the second is the fourth."[7]

Resurrection Rest

The third main argument made by defenders of the Christian Sabbath appeals to the reason stated in the fourth commandment, that God rested from his work of creation. Since Christ rested from his greater work of redemption on resurrection Sunday, the new day of rest has replaced the old. The reason for rest can be changed in redemptive history. In Exodus 20:11, the Sabbath is related to the rest of creation. In Deuteronomy 5:15, it is related to the rest of the Exodus. In Hebrews 4:9, it is related to the rest of heaven.[8]

Predictive Arguments

Beyond what is reflected in the Westminster Confession, a fourth type of argument appeared in the seventeenth century: predictive arguments, which find Old Testament passages that foreshadow the change in day. For example, George Walker argued that heaven, the place of eternal rest, was created on the first day of the week. God first rained manna in the wilderness on the first day of the week. Circumcision was administered on the eighth day.[9]

Thomas Cleadon observed that no creature could be sacrificed until it was eight days old (Ex. 22:30; Lev. 22:27). Priests were not consecrated to serve until the eighth day (Lev. 8:33). A leprous person and a polluted Nazirite were not cleansed until the eighth day (Lev. 14:10; Num. 6:10). Solemn assemblies of the Feast of Tabernacles took place on the first and eighth days (Lev. 23:35-36, 39).[10]

The Year of Jubilee

The previous arguments (whether satisfying or not) set the stage for my present argument from the Year of Jubilee. Simply stated, the Year of Jubilee fell on the first year after a cycle of seven sabbatical years. Every seventh day, Israel rested for a Sabbath day (Ex. 20:8-10). Similarly, every seventh year, Israel rested for a Sabbath year (Lev. 25:4). But after seven Sabbath years, the climax of the sabbatical calendar was reached on the following Year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:11-12). In other words, the Sabbath of all Sabbaths was the year after the seventh Sabbath year.

This Jubilee pattern was portrayed in miniature annually in the Feast of Pentecost (which means "fifty"). On the day after the seventh Sabbath from the wave offering, the Israelites observed another Sabbath day (Lev. 23:15-21). Therefore, inherent in the annual Sabbath cycle was the anticipation of the climactic Sabbath after the Sabbath.

Furthermore, Ezekiel prophesied that the end of the Babylonian captivity would fall on the Year of Jubilee (Ezek. 46:16-17). Freedom from the Babylonian captivity was a shadow of the redemption of the New Testament era.

We live on the inaugural side of the real Jubilee Sabbath, into which our Savior has entered. The Sabbath of Sabbaths has already begun. The eschatological eighth day has arrived. Therefore, we rest on "the eighth day." This structure is built into the Old Testament Sabbath calendar, providing God's people with an inherent anticipation of a better Sabbath, the ultimate Sabbath.

Endnotes

[1] Thomas Grantham, The Seventh-Day Sabbath (London, 1667), 1.

[2] Ibid., iii.

[3] John Cowell, The Snare Broken (London, 1677).

[4] Articles of Christian Religion (London, 1648), 35-36.

[5] William Saller, An Appeal to the Consciences of the Chief Magistrates of This Commonwealth (London, 1657), 7-13.

[6] William Aspinwall, The Abrogation of the Jewish Sabbath (London, 1657), 12; Thomas Shephard, The Change of the Sabbath (London, 1650), 5; William Gouge, The Sabbath's Sanctification (London, 1641), 23-24.

[7] Anonymous, The New Testament Sabbath (London, 1696), 6.

[8] Anonymous, Ancient Truth Revived (London, 1677), 47. See also Aspinwall, Abrogation, 10-11.

[9] George Walker, The Doctrine of the Holy Weekly Sabbath (London, 1641), 75-77.

[10] Thomas Cleadon, A Serious Brief Discourse (London, 1674), 7.

The author is pastor of Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church in Mount Airy, N.C. He quotes the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2009.

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