excerpts of Chapter Ten
The Christian and the Sabbath
by Tom Wells
A lot of people who hear the word "statistics" reply with a one-syllable word, "Ugh!" There are at least two reasons for this:
1. The first is a modern proverb: "Statistics don't lie; statisticians do!" The point of the proverb is that statistics can
be used in many ways to produce false impressions. I hope that I am not doing that.
2. The second reason can be summed up in the statement, "Statistics are boring!" That is certainly true of large piles of numbers
on subjects that we have little interest in. But I think you will find these statistics anything but boring if the Sabbath issue seems important to you.
In this chapter I have two sets of statistics to put before you. Both bear on the Sabbath. I hope you will find them
interesting. For someone whose bent of mind welcomes statistical argument this may prove to be the most important chapter in the book.
Some Statistics on the Word "Holy"
We find that hte word "holy" and the idea of holiness are very frequent in the Bible. We are not surprised then to see them used in
connection with the Sabbath.
The importance of holiness to the Sabbath is underlined by Walter Chantry's book, Call the Sabbath a Delight. His opening
chapter is titled "The Commandment is Holy." In it he reminds us "that 'the sovereign right, made the day holy.'"118 That was quite true when God established the
Dr. Pipa reminds us of this as well. He tells us that the Sabbath is a holy day since God Himself sanctified
When Waldron lays out his argument for the Lord's Day as a Sabbath he says, "It is a holy day because it is a day that belongs especially to
the Lord. It is sacred or holy because of its association with His sacred person."120
All Sabbath days in the OT were clearly holy days according to the Bible. It is difficult to see how anyone could deny that. I
certainly would not. Many godly persons find a Sabbath day in the NT as well, and they treat it as holy.
But I do want to make two things clear in this short study. First I want to show how differently the OT and the NT treat the subject of
sanctification or holiness. Second I want to show how this bears on two groups of people called "the people of God" in the Bible.
We will pursue this subject under two contrasting headings:
1. How the Pentateuch Uses Words for Holiness, and
2. How the NT Uses Words that Describe Holiness.121
Four OT Uses for "Holy" in the Pentateuch
When we look at the Pentateuch, that is, the five books of Moses, we find four categories of things that are described as holy. They
1. Holy is used for objects that are dedicated to God. For example, Exodus 28:2 reads, "Make sacred [holy] garments for your
brother Aaron, to give him dignity and honor." Or again in Exodus 30:10 we find, "This annual atonement must be made with the blood of the atoning sin offering for the generations to
come. It is most holy to the LORD." This use is found:
29 times in Exodus.
41 times in Leviticus.
15 times in Numbers.
1 time in Deuteronomy.
Total Uses: 86 instances having to do with objects.
2. Holy is used for times dedicated to God. For example Exodus 20:8 reads, "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy."
In Leviticus 23:2 we read, "These are my appointed feasts, the appointed feasts of the LORD, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies." This use is found as follows:
7 times in Exodus.
14 times in Leviticus.
6 times in Numbers.
0 times in Deuteronomy.
Total Uses: 27 instances having to do with times.
3. It is used for places dedicated to God. Exodus 3:5 says, "Take off your sandals, . . . where you are standing is holy
ground." Leviticus 6:16 talks to priests about eating from an offering, "Aaron and his sons shall eat the rest of it, but it is to be eaten without yeast in a holy place; they are to eat it in
the courtyard of the Tent of Meeting." This use is found:
4. It is used for persons, either God Himself or persons dedicated to God. For example, in Leviticus 19:2 we find, "Be holy
because I, the LORD your God, am holy. In Exodus 19:6 we read, "You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." This use is found:
4 times in Exodus.
18 times in Leviticus.
6 times in Numbers.
6 times in Deuteronomy.
Total Uses: 34 instances having to do with persons.
What have we found? Of 187 instances of something being called holy, objects, times, and places account for 81% of the uses in the
Pentateuch. Persons are referred to as holy in only about 19% of the instances.
To put this another way, as measured by uses of the world "holy," there is relatively much less emphasis on persons as holy than there is on
things, i.e., objects, times, and places.
But now we must compare this with the emphases in the NT.
Three of the Four OT Uses for "Holy" Recur in the NT
When we look at the NT, we find three of the four categories of things that are described as holy. But "times" is missing. Taking
just the common Greek word for "holy," we will calculate the instances for the whole NT rather than book by book, since that would be tedious for 27 books.
1. It is used for objects that are dedicated to God. For example, Romans 11:16 uses objects as illustrations of the church,
saying, "If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches."
2. It is used for places that are dedicated to God. For example in Acts 6:13 we read, "They produced false witnesses, who
testified, 'This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law.'" Another example is Hebrews 9:24, "For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary [holy place] that was
only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God's presence."
3. It is used for persons, either God Himself or persons dedicated to God. In Luke 1:49 Mary speaks of God: "For the Mighty
One has done great things for me—holy is his name." In Mark 6:20 we read: "Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him
to be righteous and holy man."
Taking just the common Greek word for holy, hagios, we can see how the NT uses it. Take note of the following three points
that demonstrate the way NT writers employ it.
1. Eleven instances are about places or objects that refer to things under the Old Covenant.
2. Five instances are about the quality of Scripture. Though they apply to the NT as well, they refer to what we now call the
3. Two hundred and nine, or 93%, are about persons and their relationships. Whatever you make of this fact, it shows an
astounding difference between the Mosaic law and the New Covenant. Further than that, 17 of the 27 books in the NT have no other use of the word "holy" except the reference to a person or
Here are my conclusions based on these comparisons:
1. The matter of holiness as it is discussed in the NT is largely confined (93%) to the character of persons, including God, and their
relationships with other persons.
2. The persons involved are believers, angels (once), and the Triune God. The include believers' relationships with
3. The chief exception is citation of things that existed as holy under or before the time of the Mosaic Covenant.
4. Conclusion 3 includes references to the Scriptures since it is the OT Scriptures that are in view in those citations.
5. Unholy things such as idols are of course still forbidden to the Christian as plainly taught in the NT as well.
It seems fair to say, then, that the subject of the holiness of non-personal objects (except the Scriptures) involves Christians only for
historical reasons, so that we may understand the OT. The common questions of contemporary holy objects, places, and times, so often discussed in the Mosaic Covenant, do not arise under the
The excerpt above is from pp. 117-122 in The Christian and the
Sabbath by Tom Wells, and it is shared by the author's permission.
Some Statistics on the Word Sabbath
Join me for a quick survey of the use of the word Sabbath(s) in the Bible. We will compare the number of instances of Sabbath, singular
and plural, in the OT to the number in the NT. We will treat two uses in a single verse as two instances. The lists below are taken from counting instances in Strong's Concordance.
I've put them together in several small groups. I think you will be surprised by what these lists show.
|Genesis - Joshua 47 instances
||Matthew - John 50 instances
|Judges - 2 Chron. 16 instances
||Acts - Revelation 11 instances
|Ezra - Malachi 47 instances
|OT Total 110 instances
|| NT Total 61 instances
What is surprising here? The chart shows that there are more references to the Sabbath per page in the NT than in the Old!
You may roughly confirm this by remembering that the OT is about three times as long as the NT. These lists would suggest that the
Sabbath is at least as important for those of us under the New Covenant as for those under the Old, judging by the frequency with which the New Covenant mentions it. More than that, these
statistics might suggest the question of whether we must keep a Sabbath day has found its answer in these facts.
Has it found its answer here? We begin to feel some doubt when we realize the following three points:
1. The verses in Matthew to John concern the Jewish Sabbath.
For this reason they discuss the Old Covenant institution.
2. All the references in Acts are to the Jewish Sabbath, even though
Acts takes place under the New Covenant.
3. The final NT reference in Colossians is to the Jewish Sabbath.
These facts seem strange in New Covenant documents. They are reasons for caution in drawing conclusions. Let's take a closer
look. Now we'll list references in the OT and NT by books. Our question will be, "How many of the texts express or imply a command to Israel or the church to keep a Sabbath, ususally the
weekly Sabbath, occasionally the yearly Sabbath?" In comparing them, you will another surprise. Of course while you are reading this book you will have to take my word for their
accuracy. But I urge you to work out what I'm about to say for yourself.
Here are the OT texts listed as I found them with the number of commands to keep the Sabbath. We are surprised to see how many OT texts
Exodus 14 out of 14 instances
Leviticus 20 out of 20 instances
Numbers 3 out of 3 instances
Deuteronomy 3 out of 3 instances
2 Kings 0 out of 5
1 Chronicles 2 out of 2 instances
2 Chronicles 4 out of 6 instances 126
Nehemiah 6 out of 6 instances
Psalms 1 out of 1
Isaiah 6 out of
Jeremiah 4 out of 4 instances
Lamentations 2 out of 2 instances
Ezekiel 14 out of 14 instances
Hosea 1 out of
Amos 1 out of
As is clear from the OT, the great majority of these texts command or imply Sabbath keeping. In using those two categories, command or
imply, I am not playing mind games with you! Things rightly called commands are self-explanatory. Implicit commands are of two types. Some tell priests or others what they must do
on the Sabbath. The assumption in such cases is the necessity of keeping the Sabbath. The others with an implicit command rebuke men and women for not keeping a Sabbath. Their
negative cast implies the clear command: you must keep the Sabbath!
Let me summarize what we have found here in the OT. Of 87 uses of Sabbath in the OT, 80 demand a Sabbath be kept.
What is the situation with the NT texts? Let's look at them to see what they command either Christians or Jews to do:
1. Matthew 10 instances. (None command or imply a Sabbath.)
2. Mark 11 instances. (Some think 2:27 implies a Sabbath.)
3. Luke 18 instances. (Some think 6:5 implies a Sabbath.)
4. John 9 instances. (None command or imply a
5. Acts 9 instances. (None command or imply a
6. Colossians 1 instances. (Doesn't command or imply a Sabbath.
In fact it does the opposite.)
And that is the list. What did we find? Though "Sabbath" occurs more frequently per page in the NT, the fact remains that there
are 80 OT commands to keep a Sabbath; in the NT there are none.129
More than that, the word "Sabbath" appears only in six of the NT books, out of twenty-seven. And still further, all but Colossians are
historical books, about what happened among Jewish believers. Finally, Colossians' single instance is a command: "Do not let anyone judge you with regard to a Sabbath day."
Let me remind you again: how this comparison strikes you or me cannot prove anything decisively. In the final analysis, what we think will be
conjecture. But that does not make it worthless. Why? Because a comparison like this almost inevitably forces probability on us. Even if one quibbles about this or that NT
text, I think the overwhelming impression will be the same.
Given the facts listed here, there can hardly be any doubt that a mandatory Sabbath has disappeared in the NT. That means that not
only is there no Sabbath commanded, it is no longer an issue for us.
The excerpt above is from pp. 126-130 in The Christian and the Sabbath by Tom Wells, and it is shared by the author's permission.
121 (The NIV which I quote often has "sacred" for "holy.") I have not compared the two complete Testaments because of the enormity of the task. But the
Pentateuch contains the heart of the Old or Mosaic Covenant, and the NT sets forth the comparison between the two covenants. Note: the common Hebrew word of "holy" does not appear in
122 If you care to purse this further you might want to add in all the other words that are related to hiliness in Louw & Nida's Greek Lexicon. This lexicon has
categories called "Semantic Domains." Rather than arranging the words in alphabetical order they are put together by topics such as Domain 88, "Moral and Ethical Qualities & Related
Behavior." The sub-topic in this domain that discusses holiness is called "Holy, Pure." It is found in volume one, pages 745-746.
The editors point out that "Domain 88 is unusually large, primarily because moral and ethical qualities and their consequent behavior figure
so largely in the content of the NT." In my own study I added one additional holiness word, hosios, to Louw & Nida's list. Then I compared this NT group to the word "holy" in
the Pentateuch. This produced about 80 additional comparisons, but the percentage came out the same. 93% in the NT were about persons and their relationships.
125 The instances in 2 Kings are maily time markers. For instance, the Sabbath is used to identify a time of the month in 4:23. The one exception to this is in
16:18 where the word "Sabbath" is part of the name of something in the temple, "the Sabbath canopy."
126 The other two are time markers.
127 The word "Sabbath" appears in the title of Psalm 32. Many scholars hold that the titles are part of the Psalms themselves.
128 None command a Sabbath though it is evident that Jews and maybe others in Acts kept a Sabbath. One verse, Acts 20:7 is often mentioned as illustrating Christians
meeting on the first day of the week. It may well do that, but there is nothing in the verse that commands or necessitates a Sabbath as I have tried to show in chapter seven, 94.
129 Pipa, 118, quotes Pink, 210. There Pink says "It cannot be gainsaid that Hebrews 4:9 refers directly to the Christian Sabbath. Hence we solemnly and
emphatically declare that any man who says there is no Christian Sabbath takes direct issue with the New Testamant Scriptures." This is the nearest thing I found insisting that a NT
Sabbath can be proved from the demand of any NT text.
Excerpts from The Christian and the
Sabbath by Tom Wells, Chapter Ten, "Some Surprising Statistics," are shared here by permission.