Eschatological Sabbath: The Spiritual Interpretation

In Isaiah 66:22-24, we read about the Sabbath in the new heavens and the new earth. It states:

“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. And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (NRSV).

For many Sabbatarians, this passage proves two things: (a.) that the Sabbath command is to be observed by both Jews and Gentiles, and (b.) that the Sabbath is an eternal institution, since it will exist in the new heavens and the new earth. As one Seventh-Day Adventist pastor said, “You better get used to keeping the Sabbath, since you’ll be doing that when you get to heaven!”

My problem with this statement is that it disregards the context of the passage. Isaiah 66:22-24 is not about what Christians will be doing in heaven; rather, it concerns God’s restoration of Israel from exile. This is made clear in v 20: “[The Gentiles] shall bring all your kindred from all the nations as an offering to the LORD, on horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and on mules, and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the LORD, just as the Israelites bring a grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the LORD.” According to Isaiah 66, God will restore Israel from her exile in Gentile lands, after which everyone–Jews and their Gentile captors–will worship God on the Sabbath and new moons.

Surprisingly, Adventist scholar Samuele Bacchiocchi acknowledges this point, for he states:

“It is important to note that Isaiah speaks of ‘the new heavens and the new earth’ in the context of the restoration of Jerusalem and the regathering of the Jews ‘from all the nations . . . to my holy mountain Jerusalem’ (Is 66:20). This means that the description of all flesh coming to worship ‘from new moon to new moon and from sabbath to sabbath’ refers first of all to the hoped-for political restoration of Jerusalem and its religious services, and second, to the End-time restoration of this earth, of which the former was a type” (see here).

For Bacchiocchi, Isaiah 66 has a two-fold application: first, to the historical restoration of Jerusalem (presumably in the sixth century B.C.E.), and second, to the new heavens and new earth of the future. We’ll see that Bacchiocchi’s approach is not entirely consistent, but at least he’s faithful to the literal context of Isaiah 66 (unlike a lot of Adventists)!

When I was living in New York, I often listened to Harold Camping’s radio program, “Open Forum.” Harold Camping is a Protestant preacher who is critical of Sabbatarianism. There was one incident in which he decided to ban Seventh-Day Adventists from calling his show. He was so fed up with them! But I wasn’t trying to argue with him or convert him to the Sabbath: I just wanted to see how he addressed certain texts. And I heard some pretty creative interpretations out of his mouth, let me tell you!

I asked Brother Camping how he interpreted Isaiah 66:23, and he answered that the Sabbath there is spiritual, not literal. Hebrews 4:1-11 describes the rest that believers have in Christ, after all, and that will exist in the new heavens and the new earth. Consequently, as far as Camping was concerned, Isaiah 66:23 doesn’t mean that people will literally honor Saturday after Christ comes back.

Camping’s approach may not be far-fetched, for the New Testament itself does not always interpret the prophets in a literal, contextual manner. For example, in John 7:37-39, we read: “On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”

Where did Jesus get the Scripture about living water flowing from the believer’s heart? There are a few possibilities. According to Zechariah 14:8, after God’s restoration of Israel, “living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it shall continue in summer as in winter.” Similarly, Ezekiel 47:1-11 describes a river of living water flowing from a new, eschatological temple. Is Jesus equating the believer with the temple in Jerusalem, as Paul seems to do when he calls Christians the temple of God (I Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:19)? Could be. One thing we can see, though, is that Jesus isn’t treating Zechariah 14:8 and Ezekiel 47:1-11 as literal. In John 7:37-39, his hermeneutic is spiritual and symbolic.

Now we come to my problem with Adventists. Let me go through this step-by-step. The Old Testament predicts that a lot of Jewish rituals will be observed after Israel’s eschatological restoration. The Levitical priesthood and animal sacrifices will be reconstituted (Jeremiah 33:18-22), including offerings for atonement (Ezekiel 43:20, 26; 45:15, 17, 20). You know that prince in Ezekiel’s temple whom some say is Jesus? Well, he’ll “provide for himself and all the people of the land a young bull for a sin offering” (Ezekiel 45:22). Does a sinless person like Jesus need to offer an animal for his own sins? In Zechariah 14:16-19, we read that Gentiles will make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles.

Adventists and a lot of other Christians really struggle with these passages. Hebrews, after all, says that the Levitical priesthood and sacrifices are now null and void, since Christ has atoned for sin (Hebrews 7-10). Although Bacchiocchi keeps the annual holy days, many Adventists hold that Colossians 2:16 abolishes them (see here). Yet, the Old Testament prophesies that people will obey these laws after Israel’s future restoration. How do Adventists deal with this dilemma?

There are at least two approaches that they take:

1. Some say that the prophecies were conditional on Israel’s obedience to God. Because Israel sinned, however, the prophecies are now null-and-void. Adventist Tim Crosby states:

Conditionalism helps us to understand why many of the prophecies of the Old Testament, such as the description of the new Temple in the last nine chapters of Ezekiel, were never literally fulfilled. Some prophecies will never be literally fulfilled on earth because their fulfillment was conditional upon the Jews’ remaining faithful in their covenant relationship with God. The promise that Israel would inherit the land of Canaan was clearly conditional on their obedience (Deut. 4:25-31; 11:13-17,22-28; 28:1-68; 29:22-30:10; 30:15-20; 31:16-29; Jeremiah 7; 17:24-27)” (see here).

In this view, God will not restore animal sacrifices and the Levitical priesthood in the future, for God was only saying that he would have done that had Israel gotten her act together! But she didn’t.

2. Then there are Adventists who don’t think we should interpret the Old Testament prophecies literally. Here is what Bacchiocchi says in his critique of dispensationalism, which embraces a literal interpretation of the Old Testament:

“On the basis of the principle of consistent literalism, Old Testament prophecies regarding the restoration of Israel, the rebuilding of the temple, and the reinstitution of animal sacrifices must be fulfilled in a literal way to the Jewish nation in Palestine during the ‘terminal generation’ which began in 1948, and especially during the last seven-year countdown…My study shows that the principle of consistent literalism fails adequately to interpret Biblical prophecy because it ignores the progressive nature of God’s revelation; it disregards the Messianic and expanding fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies; and it contradicts itself through its inconsistent interpretation of Biblical prophecies” (see here).

Here, Bacchiocchi is anti-literal in his approach to the Bible, for he doesn’t believe we should expect a real physical temple with real animal sacrifices in the millennium (Christ’s thousand year reign after his return). But didn’t we see above that Bacchiocchi interprets Isaiah 66 in reference to Israel’s political restoration? Isn’t that a literal hermeneutic? Even in that article, he doesn’t stick with a literalist method. He denies that Isaiah 66 means people will literally observe new moons in the new heavens and the new earth, even though that’s what the passage explicitly says. For him, the passage was just saying that to convey that Israel will find stability, or to describe what would happen in the sixth century B.C.E. rather than after the last days (here).

Bacchiocchi seems to treat the new moons the same way that many Protestants address the animal sacrifices in Ezekiel: God was trying to communicate a spiritual message to Israel, and he did that by referring to concepts that they understood, such as a temple building, animal sacrifices, etc. In this scenario, when God talked about animal sacrifices in a new temple, he really meant that Christ would atone for sin, not that there’d be literal animal sacrifices in a physical building. God just had to use that kind of language to get his point across!

My problem with the Adventist approach is that it’s inconsistent. For View #1 (conditionalism), if Ezekiel’s prophecy about a restored temple was conditional on Israel’s obedience, then why isn’t Isaiah 66’s vision about Gentiles keeping the Sabbath likewise conditional? They’re the same kind of prophecy, for both discuss Israel’s restoration from exile. For View #2, if we’re supposed to interpret Ezekiel’s new temple and the new moons symbolically, then why shouldn’t we do the same with the Sabbath in Isaiah 66? Why is Harold Camping wrong to view the Sabbath in that chapter as spiritual and symbolic, rather than literal? That’s the way Adventists treat other aspects of Israel’s eschatological restoration (e.g., animal sacrifices, a new temple, a restored Levitical priesthood, the restoration itself).

In a coming post, I’ll interact with dispensationalist approaches, which are more literal in their interpretation of Scripture. Interestingly, while Armstrongites are not dispensationalist, their treatment of Old Testament prophecies is similar to that method.

Stay tuned!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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7 Responses to Eschatological Sabbath: The Spiritual Interpretation

  1. dave says:

    You have no “section” on the Open Forum program hosted by Harold Camping; no “section” on Family Radio.

    The issues presented by that organization and its president appear to be eternal and right out in the public marketplace…where they can get a good “airing” and are necessary for the furtherance of “the/a gospel.”

    I wonder if you would consider distilling any of your thoughts (spread out in your other comments) about what Camping’s saying these days about the end times, hell, etc.

    thanks.

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  2. James Pate says:

    Hi Dave. Thanks for your comments.

    I used to listen to Harold Camping, but I haven’t in a while. I may interact with his views on the church age in the future, but it’s not one of my current interests. I think he raises important exegetical issues, though, since he arrives at his conclusions through the same spiritualizing hermeneutic that many Christians have had through the years (until dispensationalism, which is more literal). Can that hermeneutic lead to “anything goes”? Apparently it can, since Camping uses it to say we shouldn’t go to church. So what should be the limits of this spiritual hermeneutic, and what would their justification be?

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  3. dave says:

    I’m not sure that “Camping’s views/conclusions” are really his. He alleges to use only the Bible to reach conclusions; if this allegation has substance beyond allegation, then the views/conclusions may be the LORD’s and perhaps we would do well to search the Scriptures to make sure that these things are so. Asserting that the so-called “Church age” is over and that we are to “flee to the mountains” (remove ourselves from the churches) is pretty radical. But, then, so was the explosion of Jesus onto the world stage about 2000 years ago and Christians today don’t go to tabernacle on Saturday, do they?

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  4. James Pate says:

    Well, Camping turned out to be wrong on 1994. Does God make mistakes?

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  5. dave says:

    Hmmm. I read 1994? (before 1994) and didn’t get the impression that you did (he “was wrong”). Lots of people are under the impression that you have; but a close read of that particular book only leads to the suggestion that 1994 might have been the time. Camping’s currently teaching that 1994 began the final 17-year period of soul-saving just before the rapture (the “great multitude that no man can number”).

    I’m not a Camping apologist; however, I do consider what he says insofar as it is in accordance with the word of God.

    I’m sure that your question (Does God make mistakes) was more than rhetorical and, no, He doesn’t; but we surely do, don’t we?

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  6. James Pate says:

    No, I’ve not read it Dave, but even Camping said he was wrong because he didn’t take into consideration the latter rain.

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  7. dave says:

    Might be a good idea to read the book before commenting on it; as for Camping saying that he was “wrong because he didn’t take into account the latter rain,” I doubt that he said such a thing. Who told you that he said that?

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