Symbols, Types, Vos, and the Sabbath

Symbols, Types, Vos, and the Sabbath

Copyright © 2016 Richard C. Barcellos. All rights reserved.


It is necessary to distinguish between symbols and types.[1] A symbol portrays a fact or reality that presently exists. A type is prospective. Perhaps Geerhardus Vos’ discussion of the fourth commandment can help at this juncture.[2] In his Biblical Theology the fourth commandment gets much more comment from Vos than the others.[3] One of the reasons is due to its origin and modified applicability throughout redemptive history. He says:


It must be remembered that the Sabbath, though a world-aged observance, has passed through the various phases of the development of redemption, remaining the same in essence but modified as to its form, as the new state of affairs at each point might require. The Sabbath is not only the most venerable, it is likewise the most living of all the sacramental realities of our religion. It has faithfully accompanied the people of God on their march though the ages.[4]


Another reason for the fourth commandment getting more discussion is due to the principle underlying it: “man must copy God in his course of life.”[5] God’s rest is prototypical of man’s. “It stands for consummation of a work accomplished and the joy and satisfaction attendant upon it.”[6] This is not only the duty of man individually but that of the entire race throughout its history.

But probably the greatest reason why Vos gives so much attention to the fourth commandment is due to its eschatological function. Dennison comments, “. . . the fourth precept is an idealizing of a transhistorical and eschatological paradigm.”[7] Vos says:


Before all other important things, therefore, the Sabbath is an expression of the eschatological principle on which the life of humanity has been constructed. There is to be to the world-process a finale, as there was an overture, and these two belong inseparably together. To give up the one means to give up the other, and to give up either means to abandon the fundamental scheme of Biblical history. Even among Jewish teachers this profound meaning of the Sabbath was not entirely unknown. One of them, being asked what the world to come would be like, answered that it would resemble the Sabbath. In the law, it is true, this thought is not developed further than is done in the primordial statement about God’s resting on the seventh day and hallowing it. For the rest, the institution, after having been re-enforced in the Decalogue, is left to speak for itself, as is the case with most institutions of the law. The Epistle to the Hebrews has given us a philosophy of the Sabbath on the largest of scales, partly in dependence on Psa. 95 [Heb. 3, 4].[8]


Remember, for Vos, the Sabbath principle “was true before, and apart from, redemption.”[9] The weekly Sabbath is symbolic and typical of “the eschatological structure of history.”[10] Life is not aimless; it has a goal beyond it. The successful probation of the covenant of works would have brought the sacramental Sabbath “into the reality it typified, and the entire subsequent course of the history of the race would have been radically different.”[11] The theocracy is a typical and “temporary ‘mirror’ of an eschatological and permanent state, i.e., holiness to the Lord in the arena of the perfect and eternal Sabbath.”[12] “[T]he Sabbath principle and the theocratic era both contain and point to something beyond themselves—a heavenly theocracy and an everlasting Sabbath rest.”[13] The theocracy functions as a recapitulation of the symbolic and typological pre-redemptive revelation and the covenant of works in the garden of Eden. The Christian Lord’s Day, the first day of the week,[14] is both a looking back to the resurrection as the accomplishment of redemption (i.e., “[t]he new exodus in the eschatological lamb of God”[15]) and “a sign looking forward to the final eschatological rest.”[16] “Weekly sabbatizing is a mirror imaging of eschatological sabbatizing.”[17] Though the theocracy was a temporary institution, its antitype being the church (ultimately in glory), the weekly Sabbath remains with the people of God until its antitype, the eternal state, comes in its fullness.[18] “Our weekly Sabbath now is a reflection of our resurrection union with him who has entered perfectly into his rest—and waits to welcome us to a consummate everlasting Sabbath.”[19]

A careful reading of Vos sees him grounding the symbolic and eschatological functions of the Sabbath as beginning with the Creator’s rest. The Sabbath principle is pre-redemptive revelation for Vos, something revealed to man as such. A merely proleptic function of the Creator’s rest does not give proper place to how the rest of the Bible understands it.


[1] See my discussion of Vos and symbols and types in The Family Tree, 207-12.

[2] The brief discussion of Vos is taken and expanded with permission from my The Family Tree, 205-07.

[3] Vos only discusses the first four commandments. He does so because the last six refer to man’s relationship with man; the first four deal with man’s relationship with God. The last six commandments, according to Vos, ought to be discussed in a course on Ethics. Cf. Vos, Biblical Theology, 134 and Dennison, “Vos on the Sabbath: A Close Reading,” 61-70, esp. 61-62.

[4] Vos, Biblical Theology, 139. Vos acknowledges emphatically that we have been released from any typical elements connected to the Sabbath in the Old Testament, “but not from the Sabbath as instituted at Creation. In light of this we must interpret certain New Testament statements such as Rom. 14.5, 6; Gal. 4.10, 11; Col. 2.16, 17.” Cf. Vos, Biblical Theology, 143.

[5] Vos, Biblical Theology, 139.

[6] Vos, Biblical Theology, 140.

[7] James T. Dennison, “Vos on the Sabbath: A Close Reading,” Kerux 2.1 (May 1987): 62.

[8] Vos, Biblical Theology, 140.

[9] Vos, Biblical Theology, 140.

[10] Vos, Biblical Theology, 140.

[11] Vos, Biblical Theology, 140.

[12] Dennison, “Vos on the Sabbath,” 62.

[13] Dennison, “Vos on the Sabbath,” 62.

[14] Cf. Dennison, “Vos on the Sabbath,” 67 for a discussion on the change of the day.

[15] Dennison, “Vos on the Sabbath,” 62.

[16] Vos, Biblical Theology, 141.

[17] Dennison, “Vos on the Sabbath,” 64.

[18] Dennison, “Vos on the Sabbath,” 62-63, 66.

[19] Dennison, “Vos on the Sabbath,” 68.