WHO CHANGED THE SABBATH?

 

 

BY RUSSELL EARL KELLY

 

Adventism claims—indeed, Ellen White declared in her book The Great Controversy—that the pope of Rome changed the seventh-day Sabbath to Sunday. This claim, however, is a straw-man argument. God reveals in the Bible itself that throughout the history of humanity, God has treated the seventh day differently during different ages.

First, in Genesis 2:1-3, God referred to the seventh day as “blessed”. Moreover, that blessed day was an indefinite time, without the “evening” and “morning” formula defining its boundaries. No further reference to the seventh day occurs in the Bible until Exodus 16:23-30. Consider Genesis 2:1–4:

Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. By the seventh day God completed His work which he had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made. This is the account of the heavens and earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven.

The Bible specifically states that the first six (6) days all had boundaries of “evening and morning” (Gen. 1:5-31). However, the inspired word does not state this formula for the seventh day—an omission which demands the question, “Why?”

There is an obvious break between Genesis 1:31 and 2:1. The word “day” in Genesis 2:2 refers to the seventh day, but in 2:4 the word “day” does not refer to a 24-hour period. Adventists claim that “days preceded by numbers are always 24-hour days.” Nowhere, however, is this principle confirmed as fact in Scripture. Moreover, Adventists do not apply this “rule” to numbered prophetic days (such as 1260)!

God’s creation rest was a period of time when both God and man rested in sinless harmony. We are not told how long that first sinless Sabbath rest lasted. In fact, that original “Sabbath rest” may have lasted numberless years before sin entered.

Seventh-day Adventists, however, insist that the seventh day at the end of creation week was one calendar day and even state that it is the seventh day of creation when God created Sabbath. Scripture, however, does not describe the seventh day as part of creation. Rather the Bible describes it as the day God ceased creating and rested from His work.

 

From Adam to Israel

In Exodus 16:23-30, God again mentions the seventh day and changes its length from a sinless creation of indefinite length to a single day. Moreover, He assigned this Sabbath to Israel and commanded them to observe weekly rest, refraining from work as they rested inside their tents with their families:

…then he said to them, “This is what the LORD meant: Tomorrow is a sabbath observance, a holy sabbath to the LORD. Bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning.” So they put it aside until morning, as Moses had ordered, and it did not become foul nor was there any worm in it. Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, the sabbath, there will be none.”

It came about on the seventh day that some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. Then the LORD said to Moses, “How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My instructions? See, the LORD has given you the sabbath; therefore He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day. Remain every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.”

Significantly, in Exodus 16:29, God changed the focus of Sabbath rest from Adam and His sinless creation to national Israel:

“See, the LORD has given you the sabbath; therefore He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day. Remain every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.”

Moreover, just four chapters later (signifying about one month’s time in the narrative), God further defined and amended the Sabbath. In Exodus 20:10 He changed His instructions from merely stipulating that Israelites were to stay at home to mandating that no person or animal within their gates should work :

…but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you.

God’s law to Israel prohibited the Hebrews from sharing their covenant with the uncircumcised. Moreover, they were to show them no mercy in war. This prohibition, which included the covenant sign of Sabbath, was not removed until Jesus inaugurated the new covenant.

Exodus 23:32: “You shall make no covenant with them or with their gods.”

Deuteronomy 7:2: And when the LORD your God delivers them before you and you defeat them, then you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them.

Furthermore, Exodus 31:15 establishes the death penalty for Sabbath-breaking. This penalty is part of Sabbath law:

“For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall surely be put to death.”

Then, in verse 17, God adds the explanation that the weekly Sabbath is more than a memorial of creation; it is a unique covenant sign only for Israel. Contrary to what Adventism teaches, it is never called a “seal”:

“It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed.”

Ignoring Exodus 31:13-17, Seventh-day Adventists (not God) have changed the Sabbath from a unique cultic covenant sign only for national Israel into an eternal, moral principle required for all mankind. This change is serious; the Sabbath cannot be both a sign unique to Israel and also a requirement for all mankind.

The Sabbath for Israel is very clear in Exodus 16:23; 20:2, 8-11; 31:13-17, and in Deuteronomy 5:1-3, 12-15. It cannot be an eternal moral principle unless it is discernible by all mankind through nature and conscience as demonstrated in Romans 2:14. In fact, the weekly seventh-day Sabbath was not observed by gentiles and only came via special revelation to national Israel (see Rom. 1:18-20; 2:14-16; Jn. 1:9).

 

Often overlooked

Significantly, God changed the wording of the Sabbath commandment when Moses reiterated the covenant before the wilderness generation entered Canaan under Joshua. First, compare Exodus 20:8-11 with Deuteronomy 5:12-15:

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. 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; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy (Ex. 20:8-11).

Observe the sabbath day to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you, so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day (Deut. 5:12-15).

Notice now that God changed the wording of the fourth commandment in Deuteronomy from the Sabbath’s being a memorial of creation rest to its being a memorial of His deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage. It is strange that Christians quote the earlier version from Exodus and not the later from Deuteronomy 5, even though God’s rest and freedom from bondage are closely related.

Now we turn to one of Adventism’s favorite secondary proof texts for the eternality of Sabbath: Isaiah 66:23. First, here is the verse:

“And it shall be from new moon to new moon and from sabbath to sabbath, all mankind will come to bow down before Me,” says the LORD.

By teaching that Isaiah 66:23 proves that the weekly Sabbath will be kept throughout eternity, Seventh-day Adventists err by not teaching the same about the new moon Sabbaths. Furthermore, they ignore the context of Isaiah 66 which is specifically addressing God’s promises to Israel, because these passages make no sense in Adventist eschatology.

Furthermore, the prepositions “from” and “to” in 66:23 define a range of time. For example, if we say we will be out of town from Sunday to Saturday, we mean we will be gone for a full week. “From new moon to new moon” and “from sabbath to sabbath” means “every day of the lunar month” and “every day of the week”. If (as Adventists insist) 66:23 proves that the weekly Sabbath will be observed throughout eternity, it logically must also prove that the monthly new moon Sabbaths will also be kept—but Adventists do not teach the continuation of the new moon feasts.

Moreover, Revelation 21:25 suggests that there will be no days and nights in the new Jerusalem, and therefore no numerable days:

In the daytime (for there will be no night there) its gates will never be closed.

 

New Testament Changes

Adventists cite Matthew 5:17-19 to teach that the law is still in force; therefore, they argue, so is the Sabbath day:

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

Using Matthew 5:17-19 to support weekly Sabbath observance, however, changes the meaning of God’s word and is self-defeating. The texts literally teach that we are either under all of the Law or none of it. In fact, verses 20-48 include examples from the whole law of commandments, judgments and statutes, not simply the Decalogue. In other words, the entire law stands or is fulfilled as a whole, and God determines when “all is accomplished”. Therefore, verses 17-19 cannot be used to argue the continuation of Sabbath. Adventism admits that “the ceremonial law” was ended at the cross, but they insist that this passage in Matthew refers to the Ten Commandments, thus twisting the meaning of the words Jesus spoke.

Another passage Adventists misuse is Matthew 19:16-21. They insist it mandates Sabbath-keeping as part of the requirements for salvation:

And He said to him, you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” Then he said to Him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER; YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY; YOU SHALL NOT STEAL; YOU SHALL NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS; HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER; and YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.”

This encounter between Jesus and the rich young ruler occurred before Calvary when Jews were under the full jurisdiction of the Mosaic Law. Obedience to the entire Mosaic Law, not merely to the Ten Commandments, is in view here. Proof that one was a true Hebrew was exhibited by obedience to all of the law and not merely the Sabbath. The passage continues:

When the rich young ruler said he kept all the laws, Jesus replied, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Mt. 19:21).

Jesus was saying to this young man that even careful law-keeping could not qualify him to be saved. What he had to do was to be willing to give up what he loved the most and follow Jesus. This passage is adamantly not teaching that keeping the Sabbath is an implicit salvation requirement.

It is also important to note that Jesus commanded his Jewish disciples, before Calvary, to obey the Mosaic law in Matthew 5:23-24 and 8:4. He never, however, commanded gentiles whom He healed to observe the Mosaic law.

Furthermore, Adventists change the application of Jesus’ prophecy about Sabbath found in Matthew 24:20 by removing it from its biblical context of Judea, Jerusalem, and the temple on earth:

“But pray that your flight will not be in the winter, or on a Sabbath.”

This passage is a prophecy about the future destruction of Jerusalem. It is not saying people would be unable to flee because they had to keep the Sabbath. Neither is Jesus making a statement about a Sabbath requirement that is universal. Rather, He was specifically referring to the earthly city of Jerusalem and saying that, if “the abomination of desolation” (v. 15) came on Sabbath, the gates would likely be locked, and people would be UNABLE to flee.

Another text Adventists misinterpret is Mark 2:27-28 (and also Matthew 12:8) when they insist that Mark 2:27 can only be interpreted to include all mankind:

Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

Adventists insist the Greek words which underly “mankind”, ho anthropos, can only mean “man in general”, or “all mankind.” However, this argument is far from conclusive. God gave the Sabbath to national Israel as their special old covenant sign and commanded them not to share their covenant. This mandate is clear in Exodus 23:32; 31:13-17; Deuteronomy 7:2, and Ezekiel 20:12, 20.

The “men” (anthropos) in the context of this passage in Mark are Hebrew men under the jurisdiction of the Mosaic Law. Thus, Jesus might have been saying, “The seventh-day Sabbath was made for the Hebrew man [who is under the law], and the Hebrew man was not made for the seventh-day Sabbath.” Importantly, as discussed earlier, it is impossible for the Sabbath day to be at the same time “for all mankind” and also to be a unique sign of the God’s old covenant with national Israel as stated in Exodus 31:13-17.

 

Commandments and the church

While Seventh-day Adventists themselves pick and choose when determining which of the old covenant commandments they think still apply to the church, they accuse others of being commandment-breakers. Furthermore, no Jewish follower of Jesus would have subdivided the Mosaic Law into three divisions—civil, ceremonial, and moral—in an attempt to observe only the Ten Commandments and to ignore the remainder of the law. Second, when Jesus told his Jewish disciples who were still under the full jurisdiction of the Mosaic Law to “keep his commandments”, he was certainly not instructing the post-Calvary, still-not-revealed body called the ekklesia (church) about sanctification after Calvary. Third, if the Adventist viewpoint that the Ten Commandments are extracted from the law and still apply to the church were true, there would be little need for the epistles.

Ironically, the Adventists have made Saturday one of their busiest days of the week, mandating church attendance, often preparing and serving Sabbath dinners for family and friends, taking nature walks, and doing various evangelism projects. In addition, their Sabbath rest which forbids “secular work” (medical work is allowed) requires the work of non-Adventists on the police and fire crews, the power plants, and even in pharmacies and stores in case of emergencies requiring Sabbath-purchases for the health of a family member.

The only consistent hermeneutic is the one which says, “Only that which is either repeated after Calvary in terms of grace or that which is universally knowable through natural law, can be brought forward out of the Mosaic Law into the New Covenant.” To illustrate: when the fledgling United States discarded all of British law and wrote its own U.S. Constitution, their new laws included many regulations—such as prohibitions against murder and betrayal of one’s country—which were also included in British law. Nevertheless, these common rules did not mean the new United States was still subject to the laws of Britain. Instead, these common factors reflected a shared respect for moral behavior honored by both countries. The United States was no longer subject in any respect to the laws of Britain. They had a completely new law that applied only to them, even though this new law contained elements common to Britain’s law.

Another passage Adventists twist is the Acts 15 account of the Council of Jerusalem. When Peter says, in Acts 15:1, “Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear,” he is referring to the entire law including all 10 of the Commandments. Adventists, however, insist the Sabbath is not part of the unbearable yoke even though the context clearly rejects the Sabbath along with the whole law for gentile Christians.

Paul was opposed by Christian Pharisees who wanted gentile converts to observe all the Mosaic Law, including circumcision and Sabbath-keeping. Furthermore, Peter had witnessed how God saved gentiles by faith who had not observed the Mosaic Law (Acts 10), and he realized that salvation by faith alone—not the law— also saved the Jews. He knew that the Pharisees’ insistence on circumcision and Sabbath-keeping had lost its value.

In addition, James confirmed that the church in Jerusalem had no intention of expecting the gentile converts to observe the Mosaic Law, including Sabbath-keeping (Acts 15:13-29). In fact, he said such a requirement would be “unsettling [or subverting] your souls” (v. 24). Finally, The Holy Spirit even confirmed that gentile Christians were not obligated to observe the Mosaic law (v. 28).

Seventh-day Adventists ignore these texts as they progress through the book of Acts to teach Sabbath-keeping out of context.

 

Paul’s Sabbath preaching 

Adventists change the Bible’s explanation for Paul’s Sabbath preaching to try to prove he kept the Sabbath. For example, they cite Acts 13:14 which recounts Paul and Barnabas going into the synagogue on the Sabbath at Perga after arriving at Pisidian Antioch. They do not point out, however, that Paul’s pattern was always to go first to the Jewish synagogues on the Sabbath because he had an open, free pulpit as a Jewish rabbi, and he had a commitment to preach first to the Jews. Neither do they teach that Paul usually preached to the gentiles daily, not once a week, after he had been rejected from the synagogues.

In this same account in Acts 13, Adventists conveniently omit 13:39:

“And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.”

They quote verses 42 and 44 which emphasize Paul and Barnabas’s commitment to preach in the synagogue, but they ignore verse 43 which points out the gentiles who urged them to continue in the grace of God were God-fearing proselytes to Judaism who had already been persuaded to observe the Sabbath. In other words, Paul’s preaching was not bringing gentile converts into Sabbath-keeping; Judaism had already done that. The apostles did not turn to the non-proselyte gentiles who did not worship on the Sabbath until verse 46!

Paul followed his pattern of going first to the Jews in each new city he entered. He did not go to the synagogues because he was keeping the Sabbath; rather, he went there to bring the gospel of Jesus to his kinsmen. Consistently, after the Jews would throw him out of the synagogues, he went to the gentiles, and he did not preach to them on Sabbaths exclusively. He preached every day of the week. In fact, this pattern is described in Acts 16, 17, and 18. It is amazing how conveniently Adventists forget to point out that all of their Sabbath-day illustrations involving Paul intended to validate Sabbath sacredness actually end with Paul’s going to the gentiles and preaching to them daily. Clearly no sacred day is in view in any of these accounts.

 

Rewriting history

Seventh-day Adventists misinterpret and change the word of God to make it appear that the entire early church worshiped on Saturday Sabbath. Yet history affirms that only the Eastern Roman Empire worshiped on Saturday for several centuries. They did so, moreover, because they misunderstood the law and its lack of application to the church (Acts 21:20-21). However, God’s word affirms that gentiles in the East were not required to worship on Saturday because the law was not required of gentile believers (Acts 15:28 and 21:25).

Adventists do not want others to know that Christians in the Western Roman Empire (before the Catholic Church existed) very early worshiped on Sunday. Essentially all church historians except Adventists state this fact correctly. Although Catholics claim to have changed the Sabbath, they distort the truth that Constantine made the decision apart from pressure from the Western papacy. Still unbaptized, Constantine did not institute Sunday as a day off to obey the papacy; rather, he declared Sunday a legal holiday to bring unity to his empire.

Finally, Adventists change God’s Word by twisting the very obvious Sabbath-day reference in Romans 14:5 into something different:

One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.

Paul never taught that Sunday replaced the Saturday Sabbath. Instead, he taught that there were no longer any holy days; all days were equal opportunities to preach the gospel. In fact, in Galatians 4:10-11 he opposed any holy day.

The Adventist’s challenge to “Sunday-keepers” to find the text where the Sabbath was changed to Sunday is a straw-man argument. There is no such text, and Bible-honoring Christians know the Sabbath was not changed. Rather, it was fulfilled in Christ. He has taken the place of the shadows of sacred days. Even though the Catholics claim to have changed the Sabbath, it was God who changed the seventh day from a holy day to merely one more day of which every one is alike.

Paul’s pattern was clear; in every city he went first to the Jewish synagogue on Sabbaths where he had an open pulpit until the Jews would chase him out. After the Jews refused to listen, he went to the gentiles every day of the week. In short, the Adventists’ claim that Paul always observed the Sabbath is unbiblical.

 

The seal

Finally, Adventists change God’s Word for Christians when they teach that the seal of God in Revelation 9:4 is the Sabbath. In fact, the Sabbath is never called a “seal” in the Bible. Yet Adventists ignore the two things which are called seals—circumcision and the Holy Spirit. Circumcision was the seal of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 17), and that seal was replaced for the church by the indwelling Holy Spirit (Acts 15; Eph. 1:13, 40; 2 Cor. 1:22). The Bible clearly teaches that believers in the Lord Jesus and His finished work are sealed with the Holy Spirit who is a guarantee of their eternal security.

Adventists have often invited discussion by asking, “Who changed the Sabbath?” Their answer to that question has historically been, “The pope.” We have seen, however, that Sabbath laws and applications have changed many times. God Himself expanded and explained Sabbath law throughout the history of Israel. The Lord Jesus revealed the truth of His superiority over the Sabbath, and the New Testament writers explained how Jesus Himself fulfilled the law—including the Sabbath. In the new covenant, the Holy Spirit replaces the law as the rule of godly living in the lives of believers (2 Cor. 3).

Finally, Adventists themselves have changed the biblical account of Sabbath. They have twisted the words of the New Testament to retain the Sabbath as a mandate for Christians. This misuse of Scripture, however, suppresses the truth and places adherents back under bondage to the law. In the words of Paul:

“You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace (Gal. 5:4).” †

 

Russell Kelly, has a B.A. from Southern Adventist University (1972), a PhD from Covington Theological Seminary (2000) and learned Chinese Mandarin at Yale University. A former Adventist pastor, he has written extensively on many subjects including Adventism, tithing and the resurrection. His writings can be found at www.tithing-russkelly.com. You may email him at russell-kelly@att.net.

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