The fourth commandment says, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). Once you’ve learned about the Sabbath, the next logical question is, “How do I keep it holy?”
Keep It Simple
How many of the Ten Commandments have you debated the meaning of with your friends? Probably not very many! God is pretty straightforward. So why have we made the fourth one so complicated?
For thousands of years, man has applied his interpretation to the Sabbath. By the time Jesus began His ministry, the Pharisees had hundreds of regulations regarding the Sabbath—as well as hundreds of corresponding loopholes to get around observing them. They were so tied to their cultural traditions that when God arrived in their midst, teaching and working miracles, they denied His divinity because He didn’t do what their cultural traditions dictated. How about us? Are we tied to cultural traditions?
Principles of Bible Study
In order to learn what God says about a topic, we must try to put aside everything we’ve previously learned about that topic. For those of us who were raised Christians, that’s difficult to do! But come to God with an open heart and ask Him to guide you.
Two over-arching principles govern the study of any biblical topic:
- If you are earnestly seeking God’s will, you will find it. Let your prayer be as David’s, “Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell” (Psalm 43:3), and God will follow through on His promise: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6).
- Whatever you do must spring out of your faith-relationship with Jesus. “Everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). In any area of our lives, the issue is attitude, either of submission to or rebellion against God’s authority. Our choices must come as a result of our humble request for God’s guidance. If there is any hint of rebellion, reluctance or resentment in our attitude, God is not pleased by our actions, and we certainly receive no merit from them. We might be doing the “right” thing but have the wrong attitude about it. It’s still wrong in God’s eyes. Likewise, we might be doing the “wrong” thing, but have the right attitude, and be blessed by God. “Only let us live up to what we have already attained” (Philippians 3:16). What good does it do to ask God for guidance and then refuse to follow His leading?
How to Keep the Sabbath Holy?
The Sabbath is mentioned many times in both the Old and New Testaments. But an exhaustive study of every reference reveals only a few specifics of what to do or not do on the Sabbath, all of which applied to a vastly different culture than ours. God’s lack of explicit instructions can be frustrating. How do we know that we’re keeping the Sabbath the “right” way? We must use our intellect, guided by His Word and our relationship with Him, to determine the principles behind His instructions.
Really the only “black and white” instruction on the Sabbath is not to do any work. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates” (Exodus 20:9, 10). God made it clear that the entire household should have the opportunity to be refreshed by a Sabbath rest.
Many ask then, and justifiably so, what is work? I mean, besides the obvious of going to your place of occupation and trying to earn a living; what about yard work? Housework? Meal preparation? Physical exertion, like hiking or swimming or rock climbing? The answer to these questions is less clear, but the principles seem to be:
- The Sabbath is to be a “cessation from previous occupation”—an opportunity to rest from your normal day-to-day pursuits.
- The Sabbath is an opportunity to rest from your material pursuits, thus demonstrating that you trust God will bless your efforts over the last six days, and provide for your material needs.
While the Scriptures do not command it in so many words, some are blessed by using Friday to prepare for the Sabbath: clean the house, shop for groceries, even prepare ahead some of the meals. This way, when Sabbath begins, all of those household things are taken care of and you may take a deep breath and fully indulge in a day of rest. On the flip side, viewing this goal as an absolute can result in pressure to do so much preparation that Friday becomes a burden! Sometimes an act of faith is manifested by allowing some of those things to wait until Sunday.
It’s worth noting that God did not rest at the end of creation because He was tired. Isaiah tells us, “the Creator of the ends of the earth neither faints nor is weary” (Isaiah 40:28). A trap that many well-meaning Sabbath-keepers fall into is burning the candle at both ends all week and then collapsing in exhaustion on Sabbath afternoons! Perhaps we would benefit even more from Sabbath if we maintained a Sabbath-rest mentality all week long, getting adequate rest each day so that we could more fully enjoy the benefit of fellowship with our Creator and fellow believers on the seventh day. This Sabbath-rest lifestyle likewise demonstrates our trust in God’s ability to provide for our material needs.
In Leviticus 23:3, God told the Israelites that Sabbath was “a day of sacred assembly.” Both Jesus (Luke 4:16) and the apostles (Acts 13:13, 14; 13:42-44; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4) made a habit of going to the synagogue or worshiping together on Sabbath. Church is an opportunity to worship God in a place designed for worship, to learn more of Him through the study of His Word, and to receive encouragement from a community of fellow believers. Paul exhorted, “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” (Hebrews 10:25).
Like the Pharisees, some have made modern lists of Sabbath do’s and don’ts. And let’s be honest: A list is very attractive because then we don’t have to think anymore! Not only that, but the stricter my list, the more self-righteous I can feel when I compare it to yours. Additionally, it’s tempting to draw conclusions about Sabbath observance and say, “This is the way I’ll do it forever.” Again, I don’t have to think about it anymore. But God gave us the capacity to think and reason, and we should always be doing so, striving to learn more of His will.
When it comes to Sabbath observance, do what God tells you to do. Seek a personal relationship with Him and take care that you don’t fall mindlessly into habit and cultural traditions.
A final word on Sabbath observance: Because the Bible’s instructions on how to keep the Sabbath holy are just a little bit “gray,” your neighbor’s understanding may be different than yours. I bet you don’t want him forcing his understanding on you. “So in everything, do to others as you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). Love your neighbor, encourage him in his walk with our Creator, and trust that God speaks to his heart just like He speaks to yours.
– Emily Thomsen