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Book Review

by Dr. Desmond Ford


Sabbath in Crisis


Dale Ratzlaff


1990: Life Assurances Ministries, 19109 N. 71st Drive, Glendale, AZ 85308


Dale Ratzlaff’s book opposes the Sabbath using arguments based on the Bible covenants. The reviewer suggests that there is much biblical evidence to support the Sabbath: the distinction between moral and ceremonial laws; worship and moral principle; a more contextual understanding of Colossians 2:16–23; Jesus and his Sabbath miracles; the eternal covenant—and the necessity of not basing conclusions on isolated texts.

Dale Ratzlaff is an outstanding Christian, and I wish to go on record as saying that a sweet gospel spirit permeates his book. Christ and his grace are given their right place, and I, personally, am in accord with much that is said in this volume, though not with its chief conclusion_ that the fourth commandment is no longer for Christians.

Excellent statements from Dale

Here are specimen statements from Sabbath in Crisis with which I wholeheartedly agree:

It is vitally important to realize that when we speak of the old covenant, including the Ten Commandments, being superseded by the new covenant, we are speaking of the old covenant in totality, yet at the same time we are not doing away with any of the moral principles contained within the old covenant. We must also understand that for society to function without anarchy, it must continue to have specific moral laws to restrain the evil of the unregenerate heart. (p. 212, emphasis his)

... it is imperative that Christians have a regular time for worship. It is imperative that they assemble together in order to strengthen their faith, to meet in Christ’s presence for personal Christian growth, for the extension of the kingdom, and for corporate worship. (p. 322)
It is not a good principle of interpretation to accept and apply part of a verse of Scripture and ignore the rest. (p. 276)

These statements by Dale are a good jumping-off place for a consideration of his book.

Distinction between moral and ceremonial laws

Dale says he is not doing away with any of the moral principles contained within the old covenant. Good! But where are these summarized if not in the Decalogue?

The blood of the covenant was not sprinkled over the ceremonial laws given to Israel. (See Exodus 24:6-8.) It is the following book of Leviticus that begins the list of ceremonial enactments, whereas the blood was applied to the record of the Ten Commandments and their enlargements (called "judgments") for Israel.

More Distinctions

Let us clearly mark the distinction God made between the moral and ceremonial aspects of his law. The latter was given at a different time and from a different place to the former.

Not from Mt. Sinai, but from the tabernacle was the ceremonial code delivered. (See Leviticus 1:1.)

And they were cared for by different hands. God cared for the Decalogue under the Shekinah, and the priest cared for the other from day to day in his ritual services.

God did not write his moral code on parchment but on enduring stone.

Furthermore, the purpose of the ceremonial laws was to make atonement for the violation of the moral code. Christ knew well what he was talking about when he referred to "the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith" (Matthew 23:23 NRSV; compare 1 Corinthians 7:19 which also distinguishes the moral from the ceremonial.) The whole New Testament (or covenant) is concerned with these weightier matters.

Worship, morality and the Sabbath

Is not the command to worship the fountain of all morality?

Karl Barth and many others have referred to the fourth commandment as the most important of all the ten for that very reason.

Had it always been observed there would never have been atheists, heathen, idolaters, or warmongers. What a world this would have been!

Moral principles abide

Does not the New Testament affirm repeatedly that the moral principles of the Decalogue abide for all Christians? (See Matthew 5:17-48; 15:3-9; 19:17-19; 22:36-40; Romans 3:31; 7:12,14; 8:4; 13:8-11; 1 Corinthians 7:19; 15:56; Ephesians 6:1-3; 1 Timothy 1:8-11; Revelation 11:19; 12:17; 15:5.)

Here are the principles of the Ten Commandments: loyalty, worship, reverence, holiness, respect for authority, love, purity, honesty, truthfulness, contentment.

Who would wish to get rid of any one of these? Are they just Jewish? Did they only become important millenniums after the world was made?

The Jews had a saying that the Decalogue was given in the wilderness and not in Canaan, to show that it was for all people and for all time. Similarly, the chief name given to the author of these moral principles is Elohim ("God"), not Yahweh ("Lord"). That’s because the former means God as the Creator of all (see Genesis 1), and the second, God as Redeemer of his people.

All admit nine of the Ten Commandments are for all people for all time; therefore, "what God has put together let not man put asunder."

Colossians 2:16

Yes, there is undeniable good Christian sense in the first two quotations we have given from our friend, Dale, but also in the third. To accept and apply part of a verse of Scripture and ignore the rest does indeed invite error.

For this reason, we believe Dale quite misinterprets Colossians 2:16-23. He has much to say about the first lines of these last paragraphs of the chapter, and very little about the rest, though the latter is the key to the former.

There we read about visions of angels gained through ascetic practices "based on human commands and teachings" (Colossians 2:22 NIV). The last line is a quotation from Isaiah 29:13, which is discussing false worship.

If Colossians 2:16 wipes out all Sabbath-keeping, it also wipes out all eating and drinking. (Fasting, not distinctions between foods and drinks, is the issue here—see all modern versions.) Clearly both are set in a particular context, and that context is set forth in the following lines—which warn Christians against practicing asceticism in order to have angelic visions. (God has given no such instructions to believers.)

More than one witness required

There are approximately 150 references to the Sabbath–by name–in Scripture. The only one apparently against the Sabbath is Colossians 2:16. We can either interpret the 149 texts by the one, or the one by the 149.

Seven times Scripture advises us that only "in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established." (For example, see Numbers 35:30; 2 Corinthians 13:1; Hebrews 10:28.) "A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses," says Deuteronomy 19:15 NIV.

Neither Galatians 4:10 nor Romans 14:5,6 name the Sabbath. Galatians 4:10 refers to days (plural), not the seventh day (singular), and Romans is referring to fast days as the context shows.

Therefore, in the whole of Scripture, only the lonely Colossians 2:16 can be invoked against the thunders and lightnings, the divine voice and finger of Sinai.

Chaos of isolated texts

Think what chaos we would be in if we did the same with other isolated texts!

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:1: "It is good for a man not to touch a woman" (NKJV). If the church had read this the way some read Colossians 2:16, none of us would be here!

Then take Christ’s words in Mark 10:21: "Sell whatever you have and give to the poor." How many are content with the plain meaning of those words?

Or "if anyone be ignorant, let him be ignorant," or "all things are yours," or "all things are lawful," or "if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing." (If you are ignorant of the references, don’t take the first admonition seriously. The references are: 1 Corinthians 14:38; 3:21; 6:12 and 10:23; Galatians 5:2, all KJV.)

Have you heard of the missionary who read Matthew 2:13 "flee into Egypt" and left his field of labor for the Nile region?

Edenic sabbath

The Anchor Bible Dictionary (the most recent comprehensive work of its kind) says on Colossians 2:16: "... ‘sabbath’ seems to refer to something other than wholesome weekly Sabbath-keeping as the majority opinion holds." (v. 5:855).

It is true that the seventh day Sabbath of Judaism with its shadowy ceremonies, sacrifices, and multitudinous laws has gone, but not that Edenic day of which Christ affirmed: "The sabbath was made for man" (Mark 2:27 NIV); and of which he was and is Lord. "For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath" (Mark 2:28; Luke 6:5).

The Edenic Sabbath remains_ fifty-two spring days in the year, "holy," "blessed," "honorable."

Mate of work is rest

Dale gives his opinion that "work did not enter until after they (Adam and Eve) sinned" (p. 22).

But Genesis 2:15 affirms that before our parents were warned against eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they were given the happy assignment of gardening in the most beautiful garden ever known. They were "to work it and take care of it" (NIV).

The mate of work is rest, and therefore we believe Sabbath in Crisis is wrong in teaching that man did not know the seventh-day created rest until millenniums later. (See p. 25.)

Sabbath sanctified

The expression "and sanctified it" in Genesis 2:3 KJV ("hallowed" NRSV; "made it holy" NIV) has no meaning unless there were people intended at that time to hallow the day. (The word "sanctify" often means public announcement—see Exodus 19:22.)

Exodus 20:8-11 says clearly that the seventh day was the Sabbath day at the time of its sanctification, and the fact that the word is not found in Genesis is no more significant than the fact that laws about sacrifice, tithing, murder, theft, lying, etc. are not mentioned in Genesis either, though always taken for granted as existing.

EVERY BIBLE MEMORIAL BEGINS WITH THE EVENT MEMORIALIZED, not millenniums later. (For example, see Exodus 12 and Joshua 4:20-21.)

Jesus no sabbath-breaker

Sabbath in Crisis devotes many pages to the topic of Jesus and the Sabbath, but a close study of this subject confirms Christ’s own verdict concerning the Sabbath-keeping of himself and his followers_ they were "innocent," "guiltless" of all violations. (See Matthew 12:7.)

Jesus could say he had kept his Father’s commandment and thus abode in his love. How else could he have been a perfect sinless sacrifice on the cross?

Significance of sabbath miracles

Dale’s book misses the true significance of the seven miracles Christ worked on the holy day and Christ’s own discussions regarding them.

The miracles involved both sexes, the young, the middle-aged, and the old, and transpired in the home, at church, and on the street.

In his arguments, Christ drew from Old Testament laws, from Jewish history, from the later prophets, from God’s own example, from human custom, and from human reason and conscience.


Sabbath and temple

As with the third, fifth, and seventh commandments, Christ rebuked ceremonial perversions in order to restore the original commandment.

Never does Christ so treat any temporary institution. Dale’s attempt to make a parallel between Christ’s treatment of the Sabbath and his cleansing of the temple collapses, because Christ repeatedly foretold the end of the temple and its services. (See Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21, and John 4:21 ff.) Christ made no such intimation of the end of the fourth commandment.

Sabbath and two Adams

Indeed, Christ hallowed the Sabbath even in death, for it was the only whole day he spent in the tomb. His followers likewise honored the Sabbath (Luke 23:56). John Gospel purposely models its account (see John 19:23-41) of the second Adam’s death on the sleep of the first Adam at the close of the sixth day of creation.

Thus, there are references to the nakedness of the new head of the race, his opened side, in a garden and on a cross (elsewhere called a tree Acts 5:30; 10:39).

Cross and creation

Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, "I am thirsty." A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, "It is finished." (John 19:28–30 NIV)

Do not miss the forcefulness of the words "completed," "fulfilled," and "finished." They echo the use of "finished" in Genesis 2:1-3 on the eve of the first Sabbath.

At the very moment Christ cried, "It is finished!" synagogues throughout the land were using that same word as they read publicly Genesis 2:1-3 to usher in the holy rest day.

New creation example

Never forget that Christ’s worthy redemption was a new creation. We are safe and only safe if we follow the example of Christ. (Remember that seven times the New Testament says Christ created the world. He rested on the first Sabbath and the Calvary Sabbath, and that fact can no more be changed than one’s own birthday.)

Shall any be condemned on Judgment Day because they have modeled their faith and practice on the faith and practice of our Lord?

The law and the Gospels

It should be remembered that the Gospels were written after the epistles of Paul, and there the Holy Spirit gives a final word on some topics still unclear to the readers of Paul.

For example, Matthew speaks beautifully of grace (see Matthew 20:1-16, the parable sometimes entitled "The Reward of Grace"). Yet everywhere throughout his Gospel, Matthew takes the sacredness of the Decalogue for granted.

There is neither casuistry about law nor antinomianism in any of the Gospels.

Bible covenants

We have in a recent copy of Good News Unlimited magazine discussed the issue of the covenants—an issue pivotal for Dale’s book.

At this point, we can only refer readers to Psalms 105:42-45, which makes clear that the Sinaitic covenant was but an extension of the covenant of faith made with Abraham, and it therefore in no way clashed with the still later enlargement which we call the new covenant. (See Galatians 3 and 4; Romans 4.)

All the Bible covenants were but forms of the one everlasting covenant of grace, though with different emphases according to the needs of the time. (See Hebrews 13:20.)

Eternal commemoration

For other arguments found in Sabbath in Crisis, we refer students to my book The Forgotten Day (which may be reprinted shortly).

There is no great hurry, however, as we think the so-called Sabbath crisis has been greatly exaggerated. After all, the Sabbath has stood for millenniums, observed by patriarchs, prophets, kings, Christ, the apostles, and the early church for centuries. And in commemoration of creation past and the new creation to come, and the re-creation of redemption, it will yet stand throughout eternity (Isaiah 66:22,23).

Appendix to Book Review

The following quotations are taken from the last chapter of the book From Sabbath to Lord’s Day - the most scholarly book on the topic this century (if we mean by "scholarly" that many researchers rather than just one have contributed).

The book is edited by D. A. Carson, a well-known New Testament scholar, who wrote the foreword to Sabbath in Crisis.

The full meaning of these quotations will only be found by studying their context, but we submit them as "admissions" from those who are not Sabbath-keepers.

Biblical writings show that God has given history a Sabbatical structure after which the weekly cycle has been patterned.

Jesus cut through the complexities of the Pharisaic debates of his time. He kept the Sabbath law but not the Halakic interpretations of it; in the process he reminded men and women that the purpose of the Sabbath institution was for their benefit. (p. 345)

...various New Testament writers are able to see Jesus’ whole mission in terms of its fulfillment of Sabbatical motifs and Sabbath demands.

If the hypothesis of the Sabbath as a creation ordinance could be established, then, whatever the temporary nature of the Sabbath as part of the Mosaic covenant, the appeal could still be made to the permanence of the mandate for one day of rest as inherent to humanity made in the image of God. As chapter 11 indicates, both Luther and Calvin held to the notion of the Sabbath as a creation ordinance....

...the difficulty of finding an express warrant for changing this one day from the seventh to the first.... (p. 346) is the "seventh day" God blesses and hallows (Genesis 2:3), not the first. (pp. 346-347)

...nowhere in the process of the institution of the first day of the week as significant for Christians does such a rationale feature as grounds for choosing the first day rather than the seventh, and more importantly nowhere do the New Testament writers or the writings of the first three centuries of the church’s life indicate that the first day was actually treated as a day of rest. (p. 347)

Physical rest is still applicable to all human beings as long as they remain in the body. If it could be shown that one day’s physical rest in seven was inherent to the way in which humans were meant to function, this would not be a factor that would change with the inauguration of the new creation. The New Testament writers, especially Paul, make clear that the one aspect of the new creation that is still outstanding in relation to men and women is that which affects their physical bodies. This would then be a case in which the new creation would not annul but rather remain within the bounds of the original created order until consummation. (p. 348)

...the seven-day pattern of Genesis 1 and 2 imposes a Sabbatical structure on the history of creation, one that provides the basis for the concept of the world week that figures strongly both in Jewish apocalyptic literature and in the writings of the second-century postapostolic church. The framework of Genesis 1 and 2 certainly indicates that there is a divine ordering of history, so that, as history moves towards its consummation, it moves towards the goal of God’s rest. (p. 349)

As a sign of the permanent relationship between God and his people, the Sabbath is also a memorial of the great acts accomplished by God for his people in both creation and redemption. (p. 353)

If the Mosaic law were designed to teach the principle of one day’s rest in seven instead of seventh-day rest, it might be expected that its legislation would have provided for a different day of rest for the priests (cf. Numbers 28:9-10), but it does not.

There can be no doubt that within the Old Testament and particularly within the Mosaic covenant the Decalogue does have a special status. The commandments it contains are singled out as the "Ten words".... (p. 355)

It is likely that Jewish enthusiasm for the Decalogue may have been dampened when Christians increasingly took it over in the second century and it was withdrawn from the synagogue liturgy. (p. 357)

The narratives in Mark suggest that the provocation about the Sabbath in fact builds up on the side of Jesus’ enemies. Jesus’ Sabbath ministry in Mark 1 is not accompanied by antagonism and conflict, but when opposition to Jesus’ ministry as a whole begins to mount, then his Sabbath practices provide a convenient point for attack in terms of the Halakic interpretation of the law, and in Mark two conflicts over this (2:23-28 and 3:1-5) lead to a decisive point in the narrative, the decision of the Pharisees in 3:6 to confer with the Herodians in order to destroy Jesus. (p. 360) his zeal to accomplish God’s will he cannot be accused of provoking the conflicts over the Sabbath. Nor is there any suggestion in the accounts that he was less than careful to observe the actual requirements of the Torah in respect to the Sabbath. As has been noted, the Mosaic Sabbath with its requirement of cessation from work was not designed to achieve total inactivity so much as total abstention from one’s regular daily work. When this is remembered it is hard to see how, for instance, the disciples’ plucking of the ears of corn and eating them (Mark 2:23-28 and parallels) can be considered as a profanation of the Mosaic Sabbath. If they had been farm workers or even women making up for lack of preparation for a meal, it would have been a different matter; their casual plucking of corn on a walk scarcely falls into any such categories. Similarly the healings Jesus performs on the Sabbath are scarcely candidates for the description of profanations of the Sabbath. As Carson points out, the Torah says nothing about healing on the Sabbath and Jesus’ healings are not part of the routine daily work of either a medical practitioner or a nursing relative. It is certainly in keeping with this picture that early Christian writers also never consider Jesus and his ministry to provide them with any precedent for breaking the Sabbath but rather see his healings as part of his fulfillment of the law. (p. 361)

"The Son of man is lord even of the sabbath" (Mark 2:28; cf. Matthew 12:8; Luke 6:5). This is a momentous claim indeed when understood against the background of the Mosaic Sabbath and its terminology. In the Old Testament the Sabbath was said to be "a sabbath to the Lord your God" (Exodus 20:10; Deuteronomy 5:14; cf. Exodus 31:15; 35:2; Leviticus 23:3). It belonged to Yahweh, the covenant Lord. Now here is Jesus as the Son of man claiming to be the Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus’ claim to authority over the day is not only a claim to equal authority with the law given by God in which the Sabbath demand was embedded but can be understood as a claim to the same authority over the day as the covenant Lord himself, a claim to equality with God.... (p. 363) definite break with the Mosaic Sabbath is clearly set out in his teaching or actions.... (p. 364)

By its silence in regard to any Sabbath controversies, Acts suggests that Jewish Christians must have continued to keep the Sabbath. The Sabbath was an institution too central to Judaism for it to have been tampered with without provoking hostile reaction and persecution, but there is no record of persecution on this account. (p. 365)

In Colossians 2:16-17, this transition from the old economy to the new, which has taken place in Christ, is the basis for Paul’s attack on yet another variety of first-century Sabbath observance. The Colossian Christians were no doubt predominantly Gentile. The syncretistic practices of the group included ascetic regulations drawn from Judaism, however. The questions of food and drink mentioned in 2:16 are likely to be a reference to regulations for fasting as preparation for a visionary experience (cf. 2:18) and evidently the observance of Jewish festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths had become part of the cultic celebrations being advocated in Colossae in order to appease the "elemental spirits of the universe" (2:8,20). Paul is against this variety of Sabbath observance because it is part of a ‘philosophy’ that attempted to go beyond Christ to obtain the fullness of salvation. (p. 367)

When the four commandments from the Decalogue are quoted in Romans 13:9, they have clearly been placed within the new framework of Romans 13:8,10, which stress that love is the fulfilling of the law. The commandments now provide concrete illustrations of the new law of love. Similarly in Ephesians 6:1-2, when the apostle exhorts children to obey their parents, the primary motivation is the relationship "in the Lord" (cf. also Colossians 3:20), and the primary reason is that "this is right," but then the fifth commandment can be brought in as additional support. It may well be that in outlining vices to be avoided, Paul also makes use of the Decalogue; and that Colossians 3:5 and Ephesians 5:3 combine the seventh and tenth commandments, identifying covetousness and lust in a traditional manner, while Ephesians 4:25ff. paraphrases the seventh to the tenth commandments. (p. 370)

Matthew’s high regard for the law is further reflected in the fact that it is he who, more than any other New Testament writer, characterizes unbelief as anomia ("lawlessness") (cf. 7:23; 13:41; 23:28; 24:12). Jesus’ view of the Torah as the revealed will of God obviously applies also in Matthew to the Decalogue as part of the law (cf. Matthew 15:3-6 where the fifth commandment is called the commandment not just of Moses but of God). In Matthew 19:16ff., Jesus brings the demands of a number of the commandments in the Decalogue to bear on the rich young man.... (p. 372)

In any case all the probabilities are against such a change, for the Jewish Sabbath was so distinctive and central to Judaism that any attempts in the early church to tamper with the day on which it was observed would have led to great controversy, and it would be strange indeed that none of the literature of the first and second centuries reflects any such controversy. Further, such a change of day would have caused not only religious but also social and economical turmoil if Jewish Christians had taken their day of rest on a different day and Gentile believers had started to take a day of rest on the first day of every week. Again, of such turmoil there is not a hint. (p. 393)

Gentile, however, would not necessarily have found the Sabbatical division of time either natural or convenient and need not have adopted it, and yet they did. Part of the Christian church’s inheritance from Judaism was the concept that in the weekly cycle God had stamped a seven day pattern on history. Acts 20:7_ "the first day of the week"_ and 1 Corinthians 16:2_ "the first day of the week"_ reflect the terminology of Gentile Christian churches for Sunday as the first day in the sequence determined by the Sabbath. (The Greek for "the first day of the week" is literally "the first to the Sabbath.") (p. 398)

Read Dale's Response


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