How to Observe the Sabbath
Observing the Sabbath is one of the greatest blessings and privileges of being a Christian. It is a day of commanded reprieve from the mundane cares of life, a day of freedom-freedom from labour, freedom to fellowship with God, freedom to fellowship with family, friends, and brethren, freedom to join in worship with others, who are also free on that day; it is freedom to rest, to be rejuvenated, physically, spiritually, and mentally.
But how should a Christian go about keeping this day of freedom?
Basic Command is to Rest
The Fourth Commandment is the starting point for learning how to keep the Sabbath.
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (Ex. 20.8-1 1).
Unlike any of the other commandments, the Fourth was instituted at creation by God Himself. He chose to cease from His work of creation as an example for us, even though He doesn't get tired and He doesn't need to rest (is. 40.28, Ex. 31.17). His example and the commandment itself show that the Sabbath is fundamentally a day of ceasing from the labour of the six working days. It is a day of rest, a different kind of day!
Of course, many questions could be asked about the Fourth Commandment: What is work? What is rest? How do we keep the day holy in the 20th century? The Bible provides answers to these and many other questions. But there is something else that is far more important!
God's Law Must Be Written In Our Hearts
There is little point in discussing how we should observe the Sabbath until we recognise that God wants obedience from the heart! We must want to keep the Sabbath, we must want to cease from our labour on this day made holy by God. Once we have this desire to obey, we can study the Bible to learn how God wants us to observe the Sabbath. And what we find is not a laundry list of do's and don'ts (that's what the Pharisees of Jesus' day were all concerned about). Rather we find examples and general principles, which can teach us how God wants us to keep His day of rest.
A Day of Delight
Contrary to what many people think about the Sabbath, it was intended by God to be a day of freedom, a day of delight, the highlight of the week. Notice Isaiah 58.13-14:
If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord's holy day honourable, and if you honour it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land....
The Sabbath is not a day for seeking our own selfish, carnal pleasures; rather it is for seeking God's pleasure. We should consider it a delight, a special day at the end of each week-24 hours of freedom from the pressures of this physical life. Anyone who thinks of the Sabbath as a day of can'ts and don'ts is either misguided as to how the Sabbath should be kept or does not yet delight in obedience to God. People of Amos' day had this problem; they couldn't wait for the Sabbath to end so they could get back to "getting things done":
When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat? -skimping the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales... (Amos 8.5).
To them the Sabbath was a burdensome interruption in their commercial quest for physical wealth and pleasure. It was certainly not written in their hearts. Anyone who finds himself anxious for the sun to go down on Saturday, so he can get on to other things, is missing the point. It is to be a day of rejoicing, a day for celebrating God, His creating, His redemptions true delight, physically and spiritually.
A Day For Worship
While the Fourth Commandment itself does not mention worship on the Sabbath, examples from both Old and New Testament show that the Sabbath was used regularly for that purpose. According to Leviticus 23.3, the Sabbath was a day of sacred assembly for the Israelites. It was Jesus' custom to worship in the synagogues on the Sabbath (Luke 4.14-16). The apostles also worshipped on the Sabbath, both in synagogues and at other places (Acts 13.14, 42, 44; 14.1; 15.21; 16.13; 17.2; 18.4).
The writer of the book of Hebrews exhorted Christians to assemble with one another.
Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Heb. 10.28).
Certainly Christians can assemble and worship on any day; but during the week so many activities and responsibilities interfere with congregational and group worship and Bible study. However, on the Sabbath, God's children are free from physical duties and obligations. Indeed, they are commanded by God to be free on that day. Hence, while every day is suitable for group worship, on the Sabbath day it is especially appropriate. Throughout Bible history, God's people have used it for that purpose.
Jesus' Example of Sabbathkeeping
Our Messiah was continually running afoul of the religious leaders of His day regarding the Sabbath. Many times they accused Him of doing things on the Sabbath which, according to their traditions, were unlawful. I n His responses to them, we can learn a great deal about how the Sabbath should be kept.
Lawful to Do Good.
On one occasion, the Pharisees, looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, asked Him if it was lawful to heal on the sabbath (it wasn't according to their traditions). He responded very pointedly,
If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath (Matt. 12.11-12).
We can and should do good every day, but on the sabbath we are especially free to reach out to, others, to visit the widow, the sick, the orphan (Jas. 1.26-27) and to do good in many other ways. Of course, one could spend his entire Sabbath doing good for people and completely neglect to rest, to worship, or to fellowship; this is not what Jesus intended. Note that He did not say that doing good was the primary purpose of the Sabbath; rather He simply stated that it was lawful. He did not spend His entire sabbath looking for people to heal. But when they came to Him, He did not turn them away.
But suppose one makes his living doing good - caring for the sick, for example. Can he go right on making his living on the Sabbath? Hardly! The intent and purpose of the Fourth Commandment is to provide the seventh day as a day of ceasing that is refreshing and rejuvenating physically, mentally, and spiritually. That is hardly accomplished by doing the same thing on that day that one does the six working days, even if it is doing good. Of course, sick people have to be cared for 7 days a week, but if we truly have the Sabbath commandment written in our hearts, we will do our best to find a way to accomplish both-to have a 7th day of rest, and to have the sick cared for - perhaps by those who will be working that day regardless (non-Sabbathkeepers) or by volunteers.
Taking Care of Emergencies.
Jesus made it very plain that it is right to handle emergencies - even those that involve labour -on the Sabbath. He gave the example of pulling an ox out of the ditch (Luke l4:5) and of caring for animals. Modern examples might be fixing a flat tire, jump starting a stalled car, putting out a fire, repairing a broken water pipe.
In Matt 24:20 Jesus spoke of fleeing on the sabbath. "Pray ye that your flight be not in winter, neither on the Sabbath Day." Fleeing would certainly be an emergency - something one would not want to do any day, but especially not on the Sabbath. Yet, though not desirable, it was permissible. Some emergencies (like fleeing) might involve many hours of labour on the Sabbath, but they would be very rare.
Jesus Was Out with People.
Jesus did not cloister Himself away fasting, praying, and studying all day on the Sabbath. Rather, He was out with people, at least much of the time. He was teaching, preaching, healing, talking, walking. This does not mean it is wrong to pray, fast, and study, or to spend time alone on the Sabbath. Indeed, on that day, we are free to pray and study and we should definitely take advantage of that opportunity. But Jesus' example, and that of the apostles, was not one of seclusion on the Sabbath.
Learning Not to Judge
Sabbathkeepers are a very diverse group of Christians living in a world that virtually ignores the Fourth Commandment. We are students, office workers, factory workers, labourers, homemakers. And because we spend our 6 working days so differently, our needs for rest and rejuvenation on the 7th day will vary to some extent. A student, who spends 6 days grinding away at the books, will hardly be much refreshed by a Sabbath of mostly studying. Yet a busy salesman may relish the opportunity to spend long hours reading the Bible on the sabbath. A man who does heavy construction all week, will look forward to the Sabbath differently than a woman who has been cooped up at home with small children all week. What is a thoroughly rejuvenating and spiritually uplifting experience for one person, may not be for another.
The Bible gives principles regarding how the sabbath should be kept; they will be applied in different ways by different people. Just as other people may honour their parents differently than we do, others may keep the Sabbath a little differently than we do. Perhaps we can learn from them, and perhaps they can learn from us (Gal. 6.1). We should be careful not to judge one another (Rom. 14.4,10). Yet we should all approach the Sabbath with positive anticipation and learn to delight in what God wants on that day, rather than what we want.
Day of Preparation Important
We live at a very fast pace. There are so many things to do work, school, shopping, appointments to keep, meetings to go to. There's never enough time. It is so easy to let all these activities and pressures spill over to the sabbath. This should not be. When the sun sets on Friday, a different kind of time should begin. A time of calm, of refreshment, of ceasing. Some things will just have to wait until the next week-or be left undone. Some opportunities will just have to be sacrificed in order to obey God.
One of the keys to a restful, rejuvenating Sabbath is preparation. In Exodus 16, when God gave the Israelites manna, He specifically instructed them to prepare their food the day before. Mark 15.42 also mentions the day of preparation before the Sabbath. Doing things beforehand is a very important key to enjoying the Sabbath to the full. So many routine things, such as feeding animals, taking out garbage, putting gas in the car, showering and cooking can be done ahead of time. The more effective one is in preparing, the more free he will be on the Sabbath-free to worship, to rest, to do good, to study, to fellowship.
Children's Special Needs
One of the most important considerations for those who have children is to recognise that their needs on the sabbath are different from those of adults. To be sure, they need a day of ceasing, a day of rest and rejuvenation. But their idea of getting it may be entirely different than an adult's idea. Sitting long hours in church getting "spiritual food" may be a worse burden to them than doing chores around the house during the week.
Don't misunderstand. I'm not suggesting they stay home from church to do the chores on the Sabbath. I am saying, look at it from their perspective. If you give them a long list of don'ts (no TV, no ball playing, no bike riding, no computer games, no friends over,) and a short list of dos (pray, study Bible, go to church, sit quietly), you may make the Sabbath a real burden for them. Do everything you can to make the sabbath a day they look forward to. Use your freedom from weekday responsibilities to spend time with your children-doing things that will make the Sabbath a joy and a delight for them!
Day to Enhance Our Relationship with God
There are so many things that could be said about keeping the Sabbath; it would be so easy to give a set of rules. We would all feel so secure and comfortable with everyone keeping the Sabbath according to the same set of rules. But this is not God's way. He is not interested in cookbook obedience to a set of regulations; rather He wants an intimate, personal relationship. He wants children who are learning and growing and developing, not automatons who can follow a code of rules.
Of course any individual or group can develop a set of guidelines based on their understanding of the Bible. And we can all learn from discussion with one another about keeping the Sabbath. But we should learn a giant lesson from the Pharisees of Jesus' day. They had a stringent code of conduct regarding the Sabbath. But one rule always begat another one-to the point that they completely forgot the original purpose of the Sabbath. Jesus denounced their approach: "The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath" (Mark. 2:27-28).
The important thing is that the law is written in each individual heart-in your heart and my heart. You, personally, must want to search the Scriptures for yourself. You must learn and apply the principles and lessons you find there in your own life so you can grow in your relationship with your heavenly Father.
The Sabbath is a special day that should be fundamentally different from the 6 working days of your week, a day of physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional rest, a day to enhance your relationship with God. Sabbath was made for man; it was made for you as God's gift. It is a day of commanded freedom. Use it to the full as a blessing for you and a glory to God!
Do You Have Questions or Comments?
If you have questions or comments about any of the material covered in this booklet, please feel free to contact the person who gave it to you or write to one of the addresses listed inside the back cover. We'll be happy to communicate with you on a personal basis.
Other literature regarding the Sabbath, including the book From Sabbath to Sunday, by Samuele Bacchiocchi, is available from The Bible Sabbath Association, RD 1 Box 222, Fairview, OK 73737; write for more information.
Hundreds of cassette tapes, many on topics related to that of this booklet, are available from the publishers; write to one of the addresses inside the back cover for a listing.
For More Information
Contact the person who gave you this booklet or write to one of the addresses printed below.
Richard A. Wiedenheft
Focus on Truth
P.O. Box 45S
Lake Winola, PA 18625
Phone (717) 378-2056
Daniel W. Porter
Church of God
1129 Saffell Road
Reisterstown, MD 21136