The Sabbath and the People of God

“There remains therefore a rest for the people of God.” (Hebrews 4:9 NKJV)

The above quoted verse, in the English translations, never mentions the Sabbath. It is my opinion that this is one of the most grossly mistranslated verses in all of the New Testament. This was a recent revelation for me and I stumbled upon it when I was reading George Lamsa’s Translation, “The Holy Bible from the Ancient Eastern Text.” Dr. Lamsa translated the verse, “It is therefore the duty of the people of God to keep the Sabbath.” As a torah-observant Christian, this translation really warmed my heart but I questioned its accuracy in the Greek translations. So, I began to dig into the Greek of the verse and the following is what I’ve found.

Before we begin, I must say that I am no Greek scholar. I purchased a course from National Bible College in Florida and studied Greek through it. I say that this is one of the most mistranslated verses in scripture because the fallacy of the translation is even obvious to a novice such as myself. So let’s look at the Greek.

The verse reads, “” I will endeavor to break this verse down and explain the Greek to those who have no background in it. The sentence begins with a preposition. This particular preposition “intimates that, under these circumstances something either is so or becomes so.” (1) When it is placed at the beginning of a sentence…accordingly should be its translation (2). This tells us that the previous verses set the stage of the “certain circumstances” from which we can draw a conclusion. The context of the first 11 verses of chapter 4 are juxtaposing the Sabbath, grace, and faith. The writer is making the point that if we would enter into the “rest” of God that we must cease from our works, just as God ceased from His works on the seventh day, the Sabbath. This is the backdrop for the “” of verse 9. The writer uses this word to indicate to his readers that, “under these circumstances, the following must be applicable.” Consequently, the word should be translated “Accordingly.”

The next word in the sentence “” is the verb of the sentence. The “-” ending on this verb indicates that this verb is in the passive voice. “The passive voice indicates that the subject is being acted upon.” (3) Hence, whatever conclusion the writer is about to reveal, the subject of the sentence will be acted upon. An example of the passive voice could be the English sentence, “The ball was thrown.” The ball is the subject and the verb “to throw” is acting upon the subject. The verb itself means to “leave behind as in remains.” According to Thayer’s Lexicon of the New Testament, the word should be translated here, “is reserved.” (4)

The next word is the one where translators have just dropped the ball, the word is “”, which is transliterated, sabbatismos. See where we are going? The  ending indicates the normative case and that this is the subject of the sentence. So, in the passive voice, this subject is going to be acted upon. This particular word is found only here in the entire New Testament. The best way to describe it is that it is a verb that has become a noun. It means, “to keep the Sabbath” Thus, it becomes, “a keeping Sabbath” or the “Kept Weekly Sabbath.” Corresponding words are found in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. When the word is a verb it is “” It is found in Leviticus 23, and several other places, and has the basic meaning of “to keep the Sabbath.” As noted scholar David Stern writes, “In the Septuagint, the related Greek word was coined to translate the Hebrew verb shabat when it means “to observe the Sabbath.” (5) It is painfully obvious that the word means “to keep the Sabbath.” Being that this is the only place in the New Testament that this word is used, to translate it correctly, one would look back at the way it was previously translated from the Old Testament Scriptures. If scholars had done this, they would know that this refers to Sabbath. Let’s review what we have so far.

Thus far, the verse should read, “Accordingly, the keeping of the Sabbath is reserved…” This is the essence of the Greek thus far. The keeping of the Sabbath functions as the subject of the sentence and it is going to be acted upon. “Is reserved” functions as the verb. The remainder of the sentence will determine who is going to act upon the subject. Generally, the “dative case” in Greek is the case that identifies the direct object of the sentence. For example in English, “the ball was thrown by the boy.” this is an example of the passive voice where the subject is being acted upon, mainly, being thrown, by whom, by the boy. Thus, the direct object generally acts upon the subject of the sentence in the passive voice. So, let’s look at the direct object.

The phrase of the verse is “” will give us the direct object. The ending on the first two words indicates the Dative case. This is the case that means “to or for.” and is the direct object of the sentence, thus, it will do the acting upon the subject. The phrase “” literally means “to or for the people.” Consequently, the people will be performing the action upon the subject of the sentence. So, what we have so far is, “Accordingly, the keeping of the Sabbath is reserved for the people.” Meaning, that the people are the ones “keeping the Sabbath.” Let’s finish the verse.

 

The “” ending indicates the Genitive case which is the case of possession. It is translated with an “of.” Thus “” literally means “of God.” When we combine the direct object with the genitive case we get, “to or for the people of God.” Now, let’s put it all together. The verse should read, “Accordingly, the keeping of the Sabbath is reserved for the people of God.” Amazing, this is a new Testament reference, in Greek, that indicates that the people of God should be keeping the Sabbath, the seventh day Sabbath, as the writer of Hebrews was writing to Hebrews. It is a foregone conclusion that he was not talking about Sunday worship as it would not be established for another 100 years or so. The conclusion that the writer of Hebrews has drawn is this: The outward manifestation that we are a people of grace and faith is that we keep the Sabbath. It sets us apart from the world and proclaims that we rest on this day, having entered into His rest by the grace and blood of Jesus Christ, we proclaim to the nations that we are a people of faith by resting from our work on the seventh day just as God rested from His. Even conservative evangelical scholars admit this. Jamsion, Fausset, and Brown commentary states, “This verse indirectly establishes the obligation of the Sabbath.” (6)

Many have attempted to relegate this verse to a distant future. That is, in the sweet by and by, we will enter into an eternal Sabbath rest. The Nelson Study bible commentary writes, “Jews commonly taught that the Sabbath foreshadowed the world to come, and they spoke of a “day that would be all Sabbath.” (7) With this statement, we completely agree. The Sabbath does foreshadow a future and it is a “shadow of things to come.” However, to completely negate it’s connotations for today is to take it out of the context of chapter 4 of Hebrews. It is here in this chapter that the writer is speaking of “Today.” He quotes from a Psalm to illustrate his point about the relevance of his teaching for the here and now and not just the sweet by and by when he writes, “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” Thus, the keeping of the Sabbath, according to the Greek of this scripture, is relevant for today, or as Lamsa translated it, “It is therefore the duty of the people of God to keep the Sabbath.” The two verses that follow round out the point of the whole section. We will let them, here, speak for themselves. “For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His. Let us therefore be diligent to enter the rest…” Hebrews 4: 10-11a NKJV)

Endnotes

1. Thayer, Joseph, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 2005, page 71.

2. Ibid.

3. Machen, J. Gresham, McCartney, Dan G., New Testament Greek for Beginners, Second Edition, Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 2004, page 87.

4. Thayer, page 64.

5. Stern, David, Jewish New Testament Commentary, Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992, page 673.

6. Jamieson, Robert, Fausset, A.R., Brown, David, “A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments.” Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody Mass, 2002, vol 3, page, 537.

7. Radmacher Earl D. (General Editor), The Nelson Study Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN, page: 2083..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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