Does the book of Hebrews tell Christians to continue resting on the seventh-day Sabbath? What does the Greek word sabbatismos really mean?
Some have been puzzled as to the meaning of Hebrews 4:9, which says, “There remains therefore a rest for the people of God.” The confusion generally arises over the Greek word sabbatismos, which is translated “rest” in the New King James Version of the Bible. Other translations, such as the American Standard Version and English Standard Version, translate this word as “Sabbath rest.” The Bible in Basic English translates it “Sabbath-keeping.”
The writer of Hebrews uses the concept of rest in several different ways in chapters 3 and 4. First, rest (katapausis) is spoken of in the sense of the physical rest from wandering that the ancient Israelites would receive when they entered the Promised Land (Hebrews 3:7-11). The reason the first generation of Israelites who left Egypt did not experience this rest is because of their great rebellion against God. This rebellion—termed “the rebellion” (verses 8 and 15) and “the day of trial in the wilderness” (verse 8)—was their refusal to go into the land after 10 of the 12 men who spied out the Promised Land gave negative reports (Numbers 14:1-38).
Reflecting back on this dark time in Israel’s history, God said, “Moreover I also gave them My Sabbaths, to be a sign between them and Me, that they might know that I am the LORD who sanctifies them. Yet the house of Israel rebelled against Me in the wilderness; they did not walk in My statutes; they despised My judgments, ‘which, if a man does, he shall live by them’; and they greatly defiled My Sabbaths. Then I said I would pour out My fury on them in the wilderness, to consume them” (Ezekiel 20:12-13). An important point to note from this passage is that God included Sabbath breaking as part of this generation’s great rebellion.
The word rest (katapauo) is also used in this section of Scripture to describe keeping the Sabbath. As Hebrews 4:4 says, “For He has spoken in a certain place of the seventh day in this way: ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all His works.’”
The writer of the book of Hebrews also uses the word rest (katapausis) in the sense of a future relationship with God saying, “We who have believed do enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:3). He further states of this rest that “it remains that some must enter it” (verse 6).
Recognizing this rest as a future relationship with God, some have mistakenly assumed that the rest (sabbatismos) of Hebrews 4:9 has no connection to the Sabbath. As we’ve seen, such an interpretation overlooks the author’s explicit reference to this command.
While making the point that there is a future rest Christians can have with God, the author also connects the Sabbath to this rest.While making the point that there is a future rest Christians can have with God, the author also connects the Sabbath to this rest, noting: “For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said: ‘So I swore in My wrath, “They shall not enter My rest,”’ although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. For He has spoken in a certain place of the seventh day in this way: ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all His works’” (Hebrews 4:3-4).
Adam Clarke, in his commentary on Exodus 20:8, says regarding the Sabbath: “It typifies the rest which remains for the people of God, and in this light it evidently appears to have been understood by the apostle, Hebrews 4. … Some have presumptuously inferred that there is no Sabbath under the Christian dispensation. The truth is, the Sabbath is considered as a type. All types are of full force till the thing signified by them takes place. But the thing signified by the Sabbath is that rest in glory which remains for the people of God, therefore the moral obligation of the Sabbath must continue till time be swallowed up in eternity” (Adam Clarke’s Commentary).
The meaning of sabbatismos
In his notes on Hebrews 4:9, Albert Barnes says sabbatismos means “Sabbatism” or “keeping of a Sabbath,” as it is rendered in the margin of the King James Version of the Bible. The meaning of Hebrews 4:9 then is, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (English Standard Version). Sabbath-keeping continues for Christians today who look forward to being in God’s Kingdom. This weekly act of keeping the Sabbath reminds us of this glorious hope.
Verse 10 also infers Sabbath-keeping: “For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His.” The point is that if we want to have a relationship with God, we need to imitate Him. Christ kept the Sabbath (Luke 4:16), and we are told that we ought to “walk just as He walked” (1 John 2:6).
Because sabbatismos is not found in any other passage in the New Testament, some have mistakenly suggested that the author of the book of Hebrews made up this word and that it has a spiritualized meaning other than keeping the Sabbath. However, secular writings of the first century confirm its usage and its meaning as noted above.
Professor Andrew T. Lincoln states, “The use of sabbatismos elsewhere in extant Greek literature gives an indication of its more exact shade of meaning. It is used in Plutarch, De Superstitione 3 (Moralia 166A) of Sabbath observance. There are also four occurrences in post canonical literature that are independent of Hebrews 4:9. They are Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 23:3; Epiphanius, Adversus Haereses 30:2:2; Martyrium Petri et Pauli 1; Apostolic Constitutions 2:36:2. In each of these places the term denotes the observance or celebration of the Sabbath. This usage corresponds to the Septuagint usage of the cognate verb sabbatizo (cf. Exodus 16:30; Leviticus. 23:32; 26:34; 2 Chronicles. 36:21), which also has reference to Sabbath observance. Thus the writer to the Hebrews is saying that since the time of Joshua an observance of the Sabbath rest has been outstanding” (“Sabbath, Rest and Eschatology in the New Testament,” From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, ed. D.A. Carson, 1982, p. 213).
For more on the Sabbath, read the articles in the section: “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.”