Q: If it’s true that we are now under a higher law or standard than the Old Covenant, why would the higher standard replace the lower standard? Shouldn’t the lower standard be
included in the higher?
A: As we understand the question, you are asking why the seventh-day Sabbath (lower standard) has been eclipsed by the New Covenant sabbatismos of Hebrews 4 (higher standard), when other examples of lower standards such as "thou shalt not kill" remain in force after the declaration of a higher standard prohibiting deep anger.
Just to give a little background on this subject, Hebrews 4 uses the word sabbatismos (sabbath-rest) rather than sabbaton (the typical word for Sabbath), indicating that Sabbath is a state of being.
Ex. 34:28 states that the ten commandments are the "words of the covenant." Put that together with Heb. 8:7-13, in which the old covenant is called "obsolete." Thus, the ten commandments are literally obsolete. We don't refrain from murder or adultery because of the ten commandments—we refrain from them because the new covenant is written in our hearts. It's not about law anymore—it's about relationship.
The lower standard (seventh-day Sabbath) is actually included in the higher standard because we now rest every day in Christ, making our lives more meaningful. Jesus IS our Sabbath rest. His words are spirit and they are life. In essence, His words bring us a deep spiritual rest that we had never known while trying to keep the seventh day holy.
Q: Shouldn’t we keep the Sabbath like the patriarchs?
A: Yes, the patriarchs of old rested in God every day, as there was no command to specifically keep the seventh day holy. God intended for humanity to live resting in Him. Hebrews 4 restored the original plan.
Q: Why do you want to throw out the Sabbath but keep the other nine commandments?
A: All laws given through Moses are obsolete for believers—ceremonial laws, health laws, and the moral law (Rom. 10:4). We are not keeping the other nine commandments—all ten are out with the New Covenant, and higher laws are put in their place. For example, a person who refuses to think lustful thoughts (higher law) will never commit adultery. So the moral law has been transcended. The moral law is not obsolete for non-believers, however (see Gal. 3:10-13), because it shows them their need of Christ. Believers don't need the law because they are living by faith (Rom. 1:17).
Q: If the seventh-day Sabbath was replaced by the apostles, why did it continue being observed in diverse places for so many years?
A: The key is Acts 15. Verse 5 indicates clearly that circumcision was merely a surface issue at the Jerusalem Council—the real point was that a certain faction wanted the gentiles commanded to keep the law of Moses. However, without circumcision, the gentiles wouldn't even be allowed into a synagogue—much less welcomed into the law-keeping community. Therefore, circumcision was key to the imposition of the rest of the law. The inspired decision of the Jerusalem Council was to exempt the gentiles from circumcision—thus exempting them from the rest of the law of Moses except what was spelled out in verse 29. Thus, the gentiles were exempt from the seventh-day Sabbath, but the Jewish Christians continued to observe it for many years. The decision of Acts 15 was accommodating to the situation of both groups.
There is certainly no command in the NT to stop keeping the seventh-day Sabbath, just as there is no command to stop observing the other ceremonial laws, and these laws died slowly as the center of Christianity moved away from Jerusalem and Christianity became a gentile religion. However, as you point out, pockets of Sabbath-keepers remained for many years—they were the remnants/converts of the Jewish believers, and there was no NT command to stop keeping the seventh-day Sabbath, so they weren't doing anything wrong by worshipping on the seventh day—so long as they didn't judge others for the day on which they worshipped (Col. 2:16, Rom. 14:4-6). The NT Christians were free to meet and worship on any day of the week because rest in Christ is perpetual.
Q: Isn’t the seventh-day Sabbath a beautiful reminder of our human sinfulness and our need for rest in Christ?
A: If God had established the seventh day as a perpetual day of rest, that would be fine. As you suggest, the Sabbath could remind us of our human sinfulness
and of our utter need for rest in Christ our Savior. But I'm sure you would agree that we must always be governed by scripture, and that we must never add our "good" ideas to the gospel.
What does God actually ask of us? If He asks for seventh-day Sabbath rest, then we must do it. But what if the New Covenant doesn't include seventh-day worship? Then it would be
inappropriate for us to insist upon it—even from a gospel-centered perspective.
What happened at the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15? Were they just discussing circumcision, or were they actually discussing the whole law—Sabbath included? Verse 5 provides the question that they were addressing:
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses."
We tend to focus on circumcision, but what was the point of circumcising the Gentiles? The point was that they must keep the law of Moses, according to the Judaizers, and they couldn't become Jews unless they were circumcised. Circumcision was the requirement that signified entrance into the Old Covenant community. The real point of debate was therefore whether Gentiles had to keep the Jewish laws given through Moses. Circumcision was a prerequisite to law-keeping (see Gal. 5:3 - "Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law").
Peter responded to the legalists by declaring that the Jews had never been able to keep the law, so why should it be imposed on the Gentiles?
“Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (Acts 15:10, 11).
Was the unbearable "yoke" circumcision, or was it the law? The Jews successfully followed circumcision, so this requirement wasn't the yoke. The yoke was the Ten Commandments and the rest of the law, which they had been unable to perfectly keep. Thus, the Jerusalem Council actually threw out the entire law of Moses—including the Sabbath—for believing Gentiles. I know this is hard for Adventists to accept, but we have to consider the context of Acts 15, which was really a discussion of the role of the law in Christian life.
So what happened in the early church? The Gentiles were not circumcised, so they were never under the law. No particular day of worship and rest was assigned to the Gentiles. In contrast, the Jewish converts to Christianity were allowed to continue Jewish practices, including the keeping of the seventh-day Sabbath.
One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord" (Rom. 14:5, 6).
Paul literally states that some Christians consider every day alike with respect to its sacredness. This could not be a true statement if Christians were observing a sacred day. Every day wouldn't be alike....
As an Adventist, I was always taught that the law could never be changed, but scripture says it was changed:
If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood—and indeed the law given to the people established that priesthood—why was there still need for another priest to come, one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? For when the priesthood is changed, the law must be changed also (Heb. 7:11-12).
The law was, in fact, changed when the New Covenant was established! That's why Heb. 4:9 uses the word sabbatismos (Sabbath rest) rather than sabbaton (Sabbath day). Sabbatismos is only used once in the Bible. Had the writer of Hebrews desired to emphasize the seventh day for sacred worship, the word sabbaton would have been used. Instead, Hebrews 4:9 describes a daily worship experience that brings us back to the Edenic ideal. You see, Adam and Eve weren't given a particular day for worship. They were given every day for worship. Their Sabbath rest was to be perpetual—it was to be an every-day experience of rest in fellowship with their Creator. Thus, Hebrews 4 tells us to enter our rest "today" (vs. 7)—no matter what day of the week!
We've come to believe that the change from Old Covenant to New Covenant was much more comprehensive than we had ever imagined as Adventists!
For articles and recommended resources on the Sabbath issue, please visit our "The Sabbath" page.