By Colleen Tinker
A few weeks ago I was asked in an online discussion group to answer the question, “Why is it important to get the Sabbath right?”
For a person with an Adventist background, there is no question more important than this one. In fact, its answer defines one’s righteousness and measures one’s obedience to God.
For an Adventist, honoring the Sabbath is the public evidence that one has the right understanding of God and salvation. In fact, our Sabbath-keeping as Adventists assured us that we were on the “right side” when our hearts doubted we would be saved. We believed, after all, that the Sabbath was the sign of God’s law written with His own finger—the law which was the transcript of His character. As Sabbath-keepers we believed we were carrying the evidence of His character wherever we went, because we wore our Sabbath-keeping like an awkward and slightly embarrassing “garment”. Nevertheless, it was worth it, because keeping the Sabbath meant we were “right” and would be safe to save if we persisted and never gave it up.
Sabbath was the required sign signifying the saved. But Sabbath was our “golden calf”.
What were those calves about?
2 Kings 12:25-33 records one of the low points in Israelite history. Jeroboam, Solomon’s servant, had just became the king of the northern kingdom of the newly-divided nation, while Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, took the throne in Judah. Jeroboam, wanting to keep his subjects from returning to Jerusalem in Judah to worship at the temple, established two centers of worship in the northern kingdom, one in Bethel and one in Dan. These worship centers “became sin”, as verse 30 states. God had unequivocally given commands to Israel to worship in Jerusalem, and moreover, Israelite worship depended upon the levitical priesthood. Jeroboam appointed non-levitical priests, and he embellished the worship of Yahweh by adding culturally-relevant golden calves at the altar sites.
Significantly, Jeroboam did not replace the worship of Yahweh with golden calves; he added golden calves as visual and spiritual “aids”; they were “signs” of Yahweh which he borrowed from the popular religions of their Canaanite neighbors. In fact, in the Canaanite religions, the golden calves were never their deities. Rather, they CARRIED their deities, so Dagon, Chemosh, Baal, or whomever they worshiped were depicted riding on golden calves. The golden calves represented the power, strength, and fertility of the gods they carried, but they were not the gods themselves.
This idea is stated in both the Study Notes on 1 Kings 12:28 in the New American Standard Bible (NASB) published by Zondervan and in the New Bible Dictionary by Inter-Varsity Press on page 496. The NASB note states:
“Pagan gods of the Arameans and Canaanites were often represented as standing on calves or bulls as symbols of their strength and fertility (see note on Judg. 2:13). …Like Aaron (Ex. 32:4-5), Jeroboam attempted to combine the pagan calf symbol with the worship of the Lord, though he attempted no physical representation of the Lord—no “god” stood on the backs of his bulls.”
When Jeroboam made the golden calves, he did not make them with a god on top—because Yahweh was not visible. Jeroboam still called their syncretistic worship “Yahweh worship”, and the Israelites believed and said they were worshiping Yahweh, the God of the patriarchs, but God was angry with Jeroboam and all of his northern kingdom successors, because He said they were practicing idolatry. Even though they didn’t call the calves their “gods”, God called them gods. Jeroboam had added popular pagan symbols to the pure worship of Yahweh, and the mixing of pagan traditions with God’s own commands was idolatry.
The Almighty Creator God is sovereignly omnipotent, powerful, and mighty. He is not carried by any outside power or “helper” or representative that increases the perception of His might and honor. Yahweh IS. He IS intrinsically holy, mighty, and sufficient. He never shares His glory with another, and He does not allow any object or observance to pretend to illustrate His deity and power. He defines HIMSELF.
For us as Adventists, the Sabbath was our golden calf. We did not not think of it as “God”, but it reassured us we had the “right idea” about God and salvation. Our Sabbath-keeping visibly “carried” our relationship with God as we walked in the non-Adventist world. It was Sabbath that represented salvation and God and obedience and righteousness, both to ourselves and to non-Adventists.
Our Sabbath-keeping, however, was idolatry, because we considered it to be the sign of true worship and the seal of our relationship to God. We did not understand that no day “carries” God or defines true worship. Rather, God alone identifies Himself and carries US.
If calling the Adventist Sabbath a “golden calf” seems too strong, let’s look at Galatians, where Paul speaks to gentile believers about taking up the law after having coming to believe in the Lord Jesus through faith. In Galatians 4:8–11 Paul reminds them that, as gentile pagans, they had previously been slaves to “those which by nature are no gods,” or idols. Then he asks them how they have come to “turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain.”
Paul here does a startling thing: he compares the Galatians’ turning back to the law with going back to their pagan “no gods”. He directly compares going back to law-observance with returning to paganism, and he leaves no doubt about what he means. He even articulates that they are observing days, months, seasons, and years—Sabbaths! In fact, this reality is so distressing that Paul wonders if they have truly been born again. Maybe he “labored over [them] in vain”!
Paul is telling the Galatians that their Sabbath-keeping and feast-day observances are the same as paganism—idolatry. They are honoring what is not God. They are adding things to the worship of Christ that He has made obsolete by fulfilling the law.
The New Bible Dictionary published by Inter-Varsity Press says this about idolatry:
“John, having urged the finality and fullness of revelation in Christ, warns that any deviation is idolatry (1 Jn. 5:19-21). The idol is whatever claims that loyalty which belongs to God alone (Is. 42:8).”
For Adventists who believe the Sabbath is the seal of God (a function which Scripture says is the work of the Holy Spirit—Ephesians 1:13-14) and who believe that Sabbath-keeping is the mark of the saved when Jesus returns, the day functions as an idol. Adventists do not think of Sabbath as a god, but they require its observance as part of true worship. Moreover, it replaces the Holy Spirit at the seal of God’s people. In short, Adventists are borrowing a practice from an obsolete system which Paul equates with a return to paganism, and such practice is idolatry.
People who were Adventist learned that the law is eternal and is the transcript of God’s character.
We were wrong. Galatians 3:16-19 states that the law came 430 years after Abraham and lasted until “the seed would come to whom the promise had been made”—Jesus. God is eternal. The law, however, was merely an agreement God made with the Israelites to serve as their national constitution; it revealed to them that they were unable to avoid sin, that a perfect Sacrifice was the only way to atone for their sin, and it revealed that He was holy and demanded death for sin. It was, Paul says, a “ministry of death” (2 Cor. 3:7). The law was always intended to be a shadow of things to come, as Hebrews states over and over. Jesus was the reality to which the Law and the Prophets testified (Rom. 3:21). Jesus fulfilled the law in addition to fulfilling every symbol and shadow involved in the sanctuary and the priesthood.
Now, on this side of the cross, if we trust Jesus and His shed blood on our behalf and His resurrection from the dead, He IS our “living law”, the Author of salvation, the Author of the law, and He personally writes Himself on our hearts when His Spirit indwells us. His Spirit—not the Sabbath—is the seal that marks us as God’s and promises us our eternal inheritance (Eph. 1:13-14).
The Sabbath was the sign of the Old Covenant. It pointed forward to Jesus and backward to God’s finished work at the end of creation, reminding Israel of the rest God promises to every person who does not harden his heart but believes Him (Heb. 4:1-13).
The Sabbath was a shadow of Jesus. A shadow, however, cannot be the transcript of God’s character; it is temporary and it is a creation. The Creator’s creation cannot be the transcript of His character any more than our creative works are eternal transcripts of our characters.
Jesus was the transcript of God’s character…Jesus IS GOD. Jesus, not the Law, is the core of Christianity.
The Sabbath was the sign Israel was to remember. They were to remember that God rested on the seventh day from all His work, and they were to rest as He did by ceasing from their work. Furthermore, Sabbath was also the sign that they continued to accept the terms of God’s covenant with them. It was a two-way deal; if they obeyed, God would bless them.
Jesus, however, introduced a new covenant. He said to remember Him, not the Sabbath, in the repeated sign of the Lord’s Supper. In fact, the Lord’s Supper is the new “remember”. We remember Jesus Himself by drinking his blood and eating His body through the symbols of communion (Lk. 22:14-21).
If we hold onto the shadow of Sabbath, we are rejecting its fulfillment in the Lord Jesus. If we insist Sabbath is to be kept holy by Christians as a perpetual sign of remembrance, we are insisting that the holiness of a mere created day supersedes the holiness of the One who fulfilled the whole Law. Of course, taking a day away from the stress of the week is a wonderful habit, but keeping a day holy is not a command for Christians.
It is vitally important that we get the Sabbath right. Sabbath was a sign for Israel before Jesus came. It was a shadow of the reality of Christ (Col. 2:16-17). Loving and clinging to the shadow means we refuse to turn around and see the One casting the shadow. We insist our vague and imprecise shadow of God’s rest is “real” when it was never intended to be real. It was always a pointer toward the reality of Christ.
We must embrace Christ and follow Him. We must relinquish our “golden calf” which we believed was inseparable from the triune God but which Scripture reveals is idolatry. We have to let go even of cherished doctrines which actually stand between us and trusting Jesus alone.
Sabbath for Christians is never taught. Jesus as the Sabbath’s fulfillment, however, is all over the pages of the New Testament.
We have to be willing to read Scripture contextually; words matter, and context is everything. When we approach Scripture humbly and contextually, we discover an amazing reality: the Lord Jesus—crucified, buried, and risen from death—is the fulfillment of the entire law, including the Sabbath.