Emil Heller Henning, author and principal investigator, professional architect and church elder

Does Ezekiel Anticipate a Sunday Sabbath?

Christians and Jews acknowledge God’s eternal covenant sign of the weekly Sabbath, but disagree about when it is to be observed. Jews follow the ordinance established in Genesis 1 and commanded in Exodus 20 of six days of work followed by a day of holy rest on the seventh. Many Messianic Jews (people of Jewish ancestry who follow Jesus as the Messiah) worship on the seventh day, some going so far as to suggest that the Sunday worship of “the Christian Church” (i.e., Gentile Jesus-followers) was an accommodation to pagan sun-worship. Without disparaging Saturday worship by Messianics as a witness to their unsaved Jewish families and friends, I think there is at least a hint in Ezekiel’s Temple of a New Covenant Sabbath on Sunday, the first day of the week.

By “New Covenant” I mean the covenant of Ezekiel 34-37 on which his Temple is predicated as being essentially the same as the “new covenant” of Jeremiah 31. That new covenant, Jeremiah says, would “not be like” (v.32 NJPS) the Mosaic covenant with Israel (which, as Jeremiah says in that same verse, “they broke.”) There are things in Ezekiel’s Temple Vision, for example its sacrifices and unusual “Prince,” that differ in either major ways or details from the Mosaic Covenant. Whether or not Ezekiel says or hints at it, would a weekly Sabbath on Sunday instead of Saturday be that much more radical an innovation?

The great majority of Christians observe a Sunday Sabbath or “Lord’s Day,” being both the first day of the week and the eighth day (much as the seven degrees of a musical scale—do, re, me, fa, sol, la, ti—are followed by an eighth tone which is another do, just an octave higher.) Jews have several eighth-day observances. Male infants are circumcised on the eighth day. Pentecost, the fiftieth day of Shavu’ot, is the eighth day of its final week. The Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) concludes with a solemn assembly on its eighth day—a Sabbath-like day of “complete rest” (Lev. 23.39 NJPS).

It will be objected that only an earth-shaking, cosmic act of God could shift the regular weekly Sabbath by a day, but something like that actually happened in Israel when Joshua prayed and God halted the sun for “a whole day” (Josh. 10.13 NJPS), resulting in a week in which one weekly Sabbath followed its preceding one by eight days instead of seven. Joshua and Jesus shared forms of the same Hebrew name of “Salvation” (Yeshua), and when Jesus arose victorious on Sunday—after “resting” in death on the customary Saturday Sabbath—a whole new order of creation began. When He emerged from the tomb, the earth did shake (Matt. 28:2). The sun didn’t stop in the sky, but a “sun of righteousness” (ArtScroll) or “victory” (NJPS) did “rise to bring healing” (Mal. 3:20, Eng. 4:2).

Just as the old Sabbath commemorated Israel’s temporal deliverance of a million or more of God’s people from slavery in Egypt through the sea (Deut. 5.15), the Sunday Sabbath celebrates the greater Exodus when Jesus led perhaps billions of His people—Jews and Gentiles from every corner of the earth—to everlasting freedom from slavery to sin through the sea of death (see Luke 9:31, where the Greek word exodon usually translated as “departure” is the same word used for the Exodus in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek Old Testament.)

Is it so hard to think that the eternal covenant sign of the Sabbath might be shifted by one day, as in that unusual week in Joshua’s time? The germ of a rationale for such a change might be discerned in the Torah itself. The second, Deuteronomy 5 giving of the Law does not repeat the reason given in Ex. 20 for the Sabbath—God’s resting on the final day of creation week—but instead relates it to the redemption from Egypt (which, again, Christians see as pointing to Christ’s even greater redemption in a new creation.) Ezekiel’s innovations concerning the annual Jewish feasts and their sacrifices have long been debated in Judaism, but the highly regarded ArtScroll Tanach Series Yechezkel (Ezekiel) Commentary (p.716) cites the opinions of the Jewish sages Malbin and Radak that Ezekiel “anticipated a new world order for Messianic times, when a new halachah [law] would apply to the new circumstances of heightened spirituality.” Christians understand that “new world order” with its “heightened spirituality” (Jer. 31, Hebrews 8) to have broken in when Jesus arose from the grave—the first Sunday Sabbath.

The feature of Ezekiel’s Temple that hints at this shift of the Sabbath from the seventh to the first (or eighth) day is the internal layout of its gate structures. Each of the Temple’s three outer gates (from the outside of the Temple to its first, or “outer” court) has six small chambers arranged in pairs, three on one side of a central hallway and three opposite them on the other side. After passing through those six side chambers, the hallway empties into a larger seventh space—a vestibule opening onto the outer court—where worshipers can rest while others of their party are being examined for circumcision (Ezek. 44) or ritual impurity in the small chambers, before all can join up and proceed further into the Temple. Note the similarity of this arrangement to the six days of the week followed by the Sabbath as a special day of rest. The relationship of these outer gates to the seven-day week is underscored by their each being entered by a stairway of seven steps.

Those outer gateways also evoke a biblical covenant sign with a close tie to the Sabbath. In Genesis 15, God ratified His covenant with Abraham by passing between three divided animal carcasses that were “cut in two, down the middle,” and then between two (uncut) birds, as one passing through Ezekiel’s outer gates would walk between three pairs of matching side chambers and out through a vestibule with two separated gateposts. God passed through the divided carcasses, ratifying the covenant—the Hebrew word for ratifying a covenant is “cutting” it, like the three animals were cut—in announcing Israel’s 430-year bondage in Egypt until the redemption that Deut. 5 says the Sabbath commemorates.

God’s emphasis on Ezekiel’s “exits and entrances” (43:11) proves the gates’ importance to the Temple Vision. Their role in the covenant axes of the Temple has been shown throughout this website (see the “What Is EzekielsTemple.com?” page and the Feb. 17, 2019 blog post, “Are the Two Covenant Axes Biblical?”)

But beyond these ways in which the outer gates evoke the Sabbath, the really interesting thing is that the three other gates, from the Temple’s outer court to its inner court, reverse the order just seen. Their six small side chambers don’t precede, but follow the larger vestibule, which now becomes an entrance foyer from the outer court. Here the circumcised and ritually clean lay worshipers (having passed muster in the outer gates) can interact with priests from the inner court, bringing sacrifices to them (40:38) or joining in worship (46:3). What a picture of the Christian Sabbath as a special day of energizing rest beginning the post-Resurrection week, where spiritually regenerate (“born again”) believers gather to worship and be instructed by their godly ministers, as they then go along with them into the innermost parts of the Temple!

And reinforcing that, these gateways to the inner court have eight steps (instead of seven) leading up to them—suggesting a seventh-day Old Covenant Sabbath giving way to an eighth-day New Covenant one. While the numbers of steps to the outer and inner gates are clearly stated in Ezekiel’s text, it does not say how many lead up to the main, inner sanctuary that is the presumed goal of the routes through the Temple’s gates, making the seven/eight relationship of those gateway steps all the more compelling.

For diagrams of what has been described above, see Part 4 of the “Christian midrash” articles on the Free Articles page, or pages 55-57 of the author’s Ezekiel’s Temple book on The Book page.

We mentioned Ezekiel’s “Prince” among his New Covenant innovations. Many commentators have seen the Messiah prefigured in him. As explained in “Lost and Found in the Temple” or “A Brief Overview” on the Free Articles page, the Prince moves across the outer court (along the Temple’s E-W Axis) between the sacred east outer gate and the opposite-facing east gate to the priestly inner court. He enters the facing vestibules of those two gate structures, but does not travel entirely through either of them from one end to the other. When God passed completely through the divided carcasses to “cut” the Abrahamic covenant, He was vowing to be cut in two Himself if He failed to keep its promises. Like God, but unlike Ezekiel’s Prince, Jesus passed completely through the east outer gate (as an infant in Mary’s arms) to be presented to the priests according to the Law. Thirty-three years later He passed completely through the second gate into the inner court, where He “became sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21) on the cross, taking upon Himself the covenant curse, the Torah penalty for His people’s covenant disobedience.

Like all who have received the outward sign of circumcision, Jesus climbed the seven steps and went through the first gate corresponding to the days of Creation week to participate in the community of God’s Old Covenant people. Then He climbed the eight steps and went through the second gate into the inner court to die like a sacrificial animal on the altar of burnt offering, inaugurating the New Creation, in which all who follow Him up those steps into the inner court of salvation by faith—the invisible church of those who die to themselves and are born again from above (John 3:16)—receive the gift of the Holy Spirit prophesied by Ezekiel and Jeremiah, and pass from spiritual death to eternal life (John 5:24).

Whether your conscience leads you to worship on Saturday or Sunday, true rest for today and eternity can only be found in Jesus, the “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8). As He said, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and you shall find rest unto your souls” (Matt. 11: 28-29).

Are the Two Covenant Axes Biblical?