As we have already seen, these texts in Exodus and Deuteronomy invite us to look to the past. They exhort us to rest on the Sabbath in order to celebrate God’s work for us in Creation and Redemption. Hebrews 4:9–11, however, also invites us to look to the future. It tells us that God has prepared a Sabbath rest that is in the future. It suggests a new dimension for Sabbath-keeping. Sabbath rest memorializes not only God’s victories in the past but also celebrates God’s promises for the future.
The future dimension of Sabbath observance has always been there, but it has often been neglected. After the fall, it came to imply the promise that God would one day restore creation to its original glory through the Messiah. God commanded us to celebrate His acts of redemption through Sabbath observance because Sabbath pointed forward to the culmination of redemption in a new creation. Sabbath observance is an anticipation of heaven in this imperfect world.
This has always been clear in Jewish tradition. A work titled Life of Adam and Eve, composed between 100 BC and AD 200 said: “The seventh day is a sign of the resurrection, the rest of the coming age.” (James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2 (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1985), 18.) Another ancient Jewish source said: The coming age is “the day which is wholly Sabbath rest for eternity.” (Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah: A New Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 873.) The Othiot of Rabbi Akiba, a later source, said: “Israel said before the Holy One, Blessed Be He, ‘Master of the World, if we observe the commandments, what reward will we have?’ He said to them: ‘The world-to-come.’ They said to Him: ‘Show us its likeness.’ He showed them the Sabbath.” (Theodore Friedman, “The Sabbath Anticipation of Redemption,” Judaism: A Quarterly Journal, vol. 16, no. 4 (1967): 443, 444.)
It is very significant that Paul in Hebrews used the Sabbath rest, and not Sunday, as a symbol of the salvation through grace that God offers us. The use of Sabbath rest in this way implies that Sabbath was cherished and observed by believers. From the second century AD forward, however, we find evidences of a decisive change in the church. Sabbath observance ceased to be considered a symbol of salvation and was, instead, considered a symbol of allegiance to Judaism and the old covenant, one that had to be avoided. To keep the Sabbath became the equivalent of “to Judaize.” For example, Ignatius of Antioch (around AD 110) remarked: “Those who lived according to the old order have found the new hope. They no longer observe the Sabbath but the day of the Lord—the day our life was resurrected with Christ.” (Jacques B. Doukhan, Israel and the Church: Two Voices for the Same God (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 42.) Similarly, Marcion ordered his followers to fast on Sabbath as a sign of rejection of the Jews and their God, and Victorinus did not want to appear that he “observed the Sabbath of the Jews.” (See Doukhan, Israel and the Church, 41–45.) It was the loss of the understanding of Sabbath observance as a symbol of salvation by grace that led to its demise in the Christian church.
The biblical Sabbath is for celebration, for joy and thanksgiving. When we keep the Sabbath, we indicate that we believe God’s promises, that we accept His gift of grace. Sabbath is faith alive and vibrant. As far as actions go, Sabbath observance is probably the fullest expression of our conviction that we are saved by grace through faith in the Messiah Jesus.