A Halo of Light
How Ellen G. White came to appreciate the seventh-day Sabbath
By Kwabena Donkor
Before meeting Joseph Bates in 1846 in New Bedford, Massachussets, Ellen White had never considered the seventh-day Sabbath a topic of serious interest. Bates, who had embraced the Advent faith earlier and was already observing Saturday as the Lord’s Sabbath, was an enthusiastic proponent of his newfound conviction and urged it upon his listeners. But his hearers hesitated to accepting this truth. Ellen White recounts that she did not feel the importance of emphasizing the Sabbath commandment over the others.
Then in a vision she was shown the heavenly sanctuary, the ark, and the law of God inside it, with a halo of light encircling the fourth commandment. Her initial amazement at what she saw grew into a deep spiritual understanding of the meaning and importance of the Sabbath.
A Memorial of Creation
Following her vision about the Sabbath, Ellen White no longer saw Saturday as just another day of the week. The day was of God’s own making, the crowning act of His creative work. She understood that “when the foundations of the earth were laid, then was also laid the foundation of the Sabbath” (Life Sketches, p. 96). The intimate connection between the seventh day and Creation led Mrs. White to understand the Sabbath as a memorial of God’s creative power.
As a memorial, the Sabbath serves as a sign, pointing people to God’s Creation. Thus the sign (the Sabbath), and what it signifies (Creation), are intimately linked and cannot be separated. The Sabbath is a heaven-born institution; enduring in nature and public in character (seeProphets and Kings, p. 183).
Memorials are meant to be celebrated. So the Sabbath, while requiring observance from God’s faithful followers, is also an invitation for humans to rest and rejoice in God. God rested on the seventh day and was refreshed after Creation (Gen. 1:31; 2:2), just as the morning stars and the sons of God shouted for joy (Job 38:7). It is our privilege to do the same.
A Blessed Day
The Sabbath is restful and celebratory, not because of some magical quality inherent in the seventh day, but because God has blessed it. Ellen White wrote: “God set up the memorial of His work of creation in placing His blessings upon the seventh day” (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 48). But these blessings may be realized only when the day is faithfully observed; “Great blessings are enfolded in the observance of the Sabbath (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6, p. 349, emphasis supplied).
Elsewhere Ellen White quoted Exodus 31:16 and remarked that the reason Israel was required to observe the Sabbath was because God “sanctified and blessed the seventh day and made it His sacred memorial” (Medical Ministry, p. 215). The blessings were conditional on Israel’s recognition and observance of the day as a sacred memorial. And these blessings are not just for Israel, but for all who recognize the memorial’s significance and honor it as God commanded.
The Lord’s Day
The Sabbath “belongs to Christ” (The Desire of Ages, p. 288), and for Ellen White this aspect of the Sabbath is important. Christ made the Sabbath and set it apart as a memorial of the work of creation. It points to Him not only as Creator but as Sanctifier (Eze. 20:12).
Ellen White identified Christ as the voice in Ezekiel 20:12 and comments: “The Sabbath is a sign of Christ’s power to make us holy. And it is given to all whom Christ makes holy. As a sign of His sanctifying power, the Sabbath is given to all who through Christ become a part of the Israel of God” (The Desire of Ages, p. 288).
The Christological significance of the Sabbath goes beyond its sanctifying power. Expounding on the text “Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28), Ellen White remarked that it is full of instruction and comfort (The Desire of Ages, p. 288). Understanding all institutions God made for the benefit of humankind, Ellen White could say that the Lord declares all who keep “the Sabbath from polluting it,” that “even them will I bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer” (ibid.). The Sabbath calls to mind the lost peace of Eden and tells of peace restored through Christ because it points to His creative and redeeming power.
A Multipurpose Day
The writings of Ellen White indicate the practical spiritual value of the Sabbath. First, the Sabbath has a teaching role in salvation history. It points to God as the source of life and knowledge, and “recalls man’s primeval glory, and thus witnesses to God’s purpose to re-create us in His own image” (Education, p. 250). The power that created all things is the power that re-creates the soul in God’s own likeness.
The Sabbath also has instructional value in relation to the rest of God’s commandments. Noting the Sabbath commandment (Ex. 20:8) as the only one that tells who God is, Ellen White pointed out that it distinguishes the Creator God from every other god. Indeed, she remarked that “had the Sabbath always been sacredly observed, there could never have been an atheist or an idolater” (Counsels for the Church, p. 270).
Furthermore, because the Sabbath commandment is the only one in the Decalogue that names and defines the Lawgiver, it contains the seal of God as evidence of the authenticity and binding force of the law.
The Sabbath was made for, and plays a central role, in the life of humanity. It was an institution essential in paradise, and continues to be so today. Humankind needed, and still needs, to lay aside its own interests and pursuits for one day in seven (the seventh day) so that God’s works may be contemplated and His power and goodness meditated upon. God is man’s Benefactor, Friend, and Savior, and the Sabbath provides an opportunity like no other to contemplate His goodness and glory. The Sabbath means so much to God that those who keep the Sabbath are identified as worshippers of Yahweh.
Toward the end of time, faithfulness to this commandment will be the great test of loyalty to God. By it, a “line of distinction will be drawn between those who serve God and those who serve Him not” (The Great Controversy, p. 605).
For Ellen White, the Sabbath is truly a pivotal religious institution. Studied from all angles it is a powerful witness and reminder of our Creator God (Testimonies to the Church, vol. 7, p. 139). In its origin, nature, and purpose, the Sabbath testifies to the glory of God as a loving, creating, sustaining, and redeeming God.
Kwabena Donkor, Ph.D., is an associate director of the Biblical Research Institute in Silver Spring, MD, U.S.A.