This article is adapted from the opening address of the 2010 Annual Council, presented October 8 at the General Conference auditorium in Silver Spring, Maryland.
One hundred fifty years ago we decided to call ourselves Seventh-day Adventists. In the weeks before October 1, 1860, many discussions took place that attempted to find an appropriate name for this group of Christians who understood its mission as a response to the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14. Part of those messages emphasize that God’s people at the end of time will call all humanity to keep God’s commandments. “This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus” (Rev. 14:12).
Shortly after this decision was made in 1860, Ellen White, in her remarks regarding the choice of our name, noted that the name Seventh-day Adventist highlights “the peculiar and prominent features of their faith . . . the observance of the seventh day, and waiting for the appearing of our Lord from heaven.”1
I learned about the Sabbath about 34 years ago while watching the program Il Est Écrit (It Is Written)
on a television station in Quebec City. I learned about it as a teenager eager to know more about the Bible and its message. As I watched Georges Hermans explain the Scripture, my life began to change. Of all the new doctrines I learned, the one about the Sabbath changed my life the most.
A Prophetic Message
Early Seventh-day Adventists understood that the fourth commandment is of particular interest in God’s plan of salvation. Indeed, the first angel’s message in Revelation 14 quotes from it in announcing to the world that the hour of God’s judgment has come, and humanity is called upon to worship the Creator, who “made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water” (Rev. 14:7).
Since the creation of the world the Sabbath has been, and remains, God’s special day of rest. At the end of Creation week God gave the Sabbath to Adam and Eve and their descendants as a gift of rest and as a sign of His holiness (Gen. 2:1-3).
By the time of the Exodus from Egypt, God’s people had largely forgotten about the Sabbath. So God gave them Ten Commandments. God placed the commandment about the day of rest at the heart of that list to signify its importance and role in a life of loyalty and obedience.
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Ex. 20:8-11).
For the past 165 years Adventists have memorized this commandment and pondered its meaning. It identifies us perhaps more than any of our other beliefs. It remains at the core of our Adventist identity. Above all, we are Seventh-day Adventists.
A Message of Remembrance
The commandment begins with the imperative: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” “Remember.” What are we to remember?
The commandment invites us to remember first that God is our Creator. “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day” (Ex. 20:11).
Our world exists because God put it into existence. The Sabbath is a reminder of God’s work of creation. In a sense the Sabbath answers one of the major philosophical questions of all time: Where did I come from? Where did humanity come from? The Sabbath reminds us that we are all children of God.
In the book of Deuteronomy, when Moses repeated the Ten Commandments to the children of Israel near the end of their 40 years in the wilderness, He gave as a reason to keep the Sabbath the fact that God had saved His people from slavery in Egypt. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deut. 5:15).
In this context the Sabbath reminds us that we are saved by grace, by God’s initiative—that God is our Savior. By resting on the Sabbath we demonstrate our trust in God’s salvation. Far from being an indication of salvation by works, keeping the Sabbath is a testimony of our faith in God as our Creator and Savior; creation and salvation are both works of God’s power and grace.
A Practical Message
The Sabbath commandment invites us to remember that work is good. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work” (Ex. 20:9). In this commandment God says that there is an intrinsic value in work. Work was ordained by God in Eden when He gave oversight of the newly created earth to Adam and Eve. Their responsibility was to oversee the earth, to work in the garden, to be stewards of God’s gifts to them.
Work is good for human beings, and physical labor even more so. Work was part of God’s original plan for humankind. Yet in our society we sometimes depreciate the value of work and overemphasize leisure. The commandment reminds us that human activity is healthy and desirable.
A Message of Rest
Next, the commandment reminds us that although work is good, and part of God’s plan, so is rest, rest on the seventh day, on the Sabbath. “The seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work” (verse 10).
God is our example. After working for six days, He instituted the day of rest, and He rested. The commandment is clear: the injunction applies to all members of the family. “On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter” (verse 10). In other words, Sabbath rest is for the entire family. Like no other day of the week the Sabbath is set apart by God for the enjoyment of the family.
But lest we be complacent, God reminds us that the rest of the Sabbath is not only for one’s own, immediate family. “On it you shall not do any work . . . nor your manservant or maidservant.” All the employees we are responsible for should also have a day of rest.
The Sabbath commandment brings up several social issues. In fact, the Sabbath is a reminder of a social compact: that all human beings were created by God, that all human beings—masters, servants, fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters—are all equal in God’s eyes.
The Sabbath reminds us of basic human and social equality before God; that we are all part of one family, God’s family. Regardless of our social status, whether we are property owners or renters, whether we are rich or poor, presidents of corporations or janitors, we are all God’s children. On the Sabbath there is no rank, no class status, no social privileges. God hears the prayers and accepts the worship of all His children.
One last group God invites us to remember on the Sabbath: “On it you shall not do any work . . . nor the alien within your gates” (verse 10).
Is the Sabbath for aliens, too? The context of the book of Exodus tells us that by aliens God referred to the noncovenant people and non-Israelites who were part of the mixed multitude that had accompanied the Hebrews out of Egypt.
At the time it was easy for one cultural group to dominate another, to deprive from a community of foreigners their basic human rights. But in this commandment God reminds His people that He is the God of all humanity, not only of the Hebrew people.
Jesus also reminded His disciples of this when He stated, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27, NRSV).2
In Aramaic Jesus’ statement said, “The Sabbath was made for Adam,” meaning for all of humanity. Here also there is a social leveling aspect to the Sabbath. Before God all human beings are equal, and all deserve rest on the seventh day. The Sabbath invites us to think about those who don’t belong to our people group or to our church as also deserving of the blessings of the Sabbath.
We live in a time when the fear of others has become prevalent. Here in the United States a lot of fear and anger is directed at various immigrant groups. The Sabbath teaches us to be careful about such feelings toward those who are not of our faith. In fact, all along the Sabbath has been a blessing waiting to be given to strangers and foreigners.
The prophet Isaiah announced on behalf of God, “Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.’ . . . For this is what the Lord says: . . . ‘And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer” (Isa. 56:3-7).
More than any other place in the Bible the commandment about the Sabbath highlights the common heritage of all human beings. We are all children of the same Creator, all deserving of the blessings He gives on the Sabbath. Those of us in positions of leadership are reminded to keep the Sabbath and to invite all within our circle of influence to also receive its blessings. Why? Because God is, for all of us, both our Creator and our Redeemer.
An Environmental Message
The commandment includes one more reminder. “On it you shall not do work . . . nor your animals” (Ex. 20:10). The same command in Deuteronomy specifically mentions donkeys and oxen as well.
Why is God reminding His people to let their animals rest on Sabbath? Somehow it seems a strange command. But in a world in which agriculture was the main economy, it makes sense. To ensure that people rest, God asks them to allow their animals to rest also. God is interested in all aspects of His creation.
This commandment indicates that God cares about animals, about His creation, and, more broadly, about the environment. God reminds us in the Sabbath commandment that His original plan included a symbiotic relationship between animals and humans, that there was to be harmonious support and care between all parts of His creation.
Adam and Eve were made stewards of the earth; to care for it, not to destroy it. In the Sabbath commandment God enshrined a clause for the protection of animals. Adventists know that it was never part of God’s plan that animals should suffer at the hands of humankind, or be eaten, for that matter. This commandment reminds us that we are still stewards of all the earth, responsible for protecting it.
An All-encompassing Message
In Genesis 2, at the end of the week of Creation, God did three things on the first Sabbath. “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (Gen. 2:2, 3).
God rested on the seventh day; He blessed and sanctified it. This is a special day like no others. It is a blessed and holy period of 24 hours each week. Abraham Heschel described it as a “palace in time.” And Adventists have insisted that this special day remains blessed and holy since Creation, and that nowhere in the Bible is this special day supplanted by another, nor is it abrogated. The Sabbath remains as blessed and sanctified as it was at Creation.
God told Moses to remind the people of Israel about the sanctifying feature of the Sabbath. “Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy. Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. . . . It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He abstained from work and rested” (Ex. 31:13-17). The Sabbath has been set apart since Creation to sanctify and identify God’s people, to set them apart from the world.
Jesus’ observance of the Sabbath in the Gospels (Luke 4:16) and the miracles He performed on that day (e.g., Luke 4:31-37) also highlight its specialness. Far from being a burden, Jesus showed by His example that the Sabbath is a day of worship, healing, and renewal. He showed the Sabbath as essentially a reminder of our salvation.
In fact, the Sabbath is so important in God’s plan for humanity that we will keep this special day on the new earth. Isaiah tells us, “For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, says the Lord; so shall your descendants and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the Lord” (Isa. 66:22, 23, NRSV).
Seventh-day Adventists keep the Sabbath because God is our Creator, our Redeemer, and because we believe in His promise of a new earth. The Sabbath is our weekly reminder of His work of creation and redemption. Our name proclaims this beautiful message, a message of salvation and healing to be proclaimed “to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people” (Rev. 14:6).
1 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, p. 223.
2 Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
Denis Fortin is dean and a professor of Theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University. This article was published April 28, 2011.