Many of our long-time readers have come to understand that the biblical Sabbath is the seventh day of the week. God has never given any ecclesiastical body the authority to change His day of rest. Nothing in the New Testament even remotely suggests that the Church Christ started ever kept any day but the seventh. But how should Christians observe and keep God's weekly Sabbath day?
AT THE end of creation week, God "ended his work that he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made" (Gen. 2:2-3). The seventh day of the week thus became a special day, a memorial of creation; holy, sanctified time. (The term sanctified means "set aside for a holy use or purpose.") God rested, not because He was tired (see Isa. 40:28), but to set an example for His human creation. The seventh day was to become a day of rest and rejuvenation — both spiritually and physically — for all of mankind.
Remember the Sabbath Day
Those who knew God's will and walked in it between Adam and Moses kept the Sabbath day as a memorial of creation and a day of rest. When the children of Israel were led out of the land of Egypt, God instructed them to "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Ex. 20:8). They could not be expected to remember something of which no one had ever heard. Nor could they be asked to keep something holy which had never previously been holy! God was not here instituting the Sabbath. Rather, He was reminding them of it and formalizing proper guidelines for its observance. In describing the basic guidelines of Sabbath observance, God instructed: "Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God [not "of the Jewish people!"]: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates" (Ex. 20:9-10). The term "work" here is referring especially to the labor of earning a living. It is mainly oriented to farming — the servants ("hired hands" today) and the cattle were also to be rested. That society was primarily agrarian; farming and those efforts with which it was associated were the main occupations. After giving these simple guidelines, God then reminded them that the seventh day was indeed a memorial of the original creation: "For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it" (verse 11). To hallow is to make holy or set apart for holy use. It is very similar in meaning to "sanctify." This was done at creation and remains so to this day. Once the basic command was given to keep the seventh day holy, God later expanded on the specific means by which the day was to be observed or "hallowed." Theocratic Israel was abundantly instructed in the keeping of the Sabbath. It was a day that was to be a sign of the true people of God (Ex. 31:13). In the community of Israel those who defiled the Sabbath by violating it were to be put to death (verse 14). That's how important its national observance was to God.
Unfortunately, as the nation drifted away from God, the leaders failed to instruct the people zealously in the keeping of the Sabbath. They also failed to carry out the death penalty for violation of this holy day. As a result, the Sabbath day came to be generally abused on a national scale. The nation descended deeper and deeper into sin. Finally, well into the period of the monarchy, Sabbath breaking had become a major national sin (see Jer. 17:19-27; Isa. 58:13-14). People were flagrantly and openly conducting business in the very Temple of God on His most holy Sabbath day! This aroused God's wrath! He spoke powerfully through His prophets and warned the people of impending national punishment if they didn't cease to violate the day He had set apart. The warnings of the prophets went unheeded and the nations plunged into captivity to Assyria and later Babylon. The House of Israel, with its capital at Samaria, never returned to the area of Palestine. Instead they were permanently replaced by Gentile peoples who became known as Samaritans. The southern House of Judah returned in part after some seven decades of captivity in Babylon. Under the leadership of Zerubbabel. Joshua (the High Priest), Ezra and Nehemiah, the Jewish people once more began to observe God's Sabbath day. Some time after Ezra and Nehemiah, later religious leaders, in their misguided zeal to avoid the mistakes of the past, began to enforce the Sabbath in a much more vigorous manner. They took the known biblical guidelines and embellished them considerably. They began adding many "do's and don'ts" to the keeping of this day to the point that it became an intensely complex and complicated matter. The sect of the Essenes, for example, refused to light fires or even relieve themselves on the Sabbath day! Severe penalties were imposed for violations of these additional laws. Instead of being a delight to the people, the Sabbath became a burden. The Jewish people — at least those who gave heed to these sectarian leaders — became enslaved to the Sabbath.
Sabbath Made a Burden
By the time of Christ's earthly ministry, the custom of keeping the Sabbath in the manner of the scribes and Pharisees had become deeply entrenched among devout Jews. They had many very stringent stipulations about what they could and could not do on the Sabbath day. The scribes and the Pharisees acted as "spiritual policemen" and attempted to enforce these rigid rules of Sabbath keeping. After all, they did sit in "Moses' seat" (Matt. 23:2). Didn't they have the right to determine — beyond the revealed Word of God — just what the people could and could not do on the seventh day? The scribes and Pharisees personified a common human problem — power corrupts. The heady wine of being in ecclesiastical authority over the people was too much for them. They began to lose sight of the spirit of the laws of God and emphasized the letter. Laws that were originally holy, just and good as God had given them became massive burdens to the people. Instead of drawing people to God, they alienated them from Him. The religious leaders of that day took it to themselves to add to the laws of God in direct violation of yet another law: "Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you" (Deut. 4:2; see also 12:32). Yet, these religious hypocrites (Matt. 23:13) added some sixty-five do's and don'ts to the keeping of the Sabbath day which God had not commanded! And they felt justified in so doing. They believed they were protecting the people from straying too close to the edge of the cliff and becoming "permissive" in the keeping of the weekly Sabbath. They went "above and beyond" — and in so doing became "more righteous" than God! The real problem, of course, was that they were self-righteous. They were not satisfied with the law as God had given it. They had to embellish it, add to it, "improve" upon it. Thus they became enslaved to a day which was really intended to serve them.
Jesus Indicts the Pharisees
Jesus pinpointed the problem in a scathing. indictment of their teachings and practices: "Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe [i.e., the Sabbath day], that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers" (Matt. 23:1-4). The Pharisees used the power of binding and loosening to pervert the true intent of the law of God. They made religious observance burdensome rather than a blessing. Time after time, the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus in alleged violations of the "law" of the Sabbath. What they didn't seem to realize is that Jesus Himself was the God of the Old Testament who had personally given that law to Israel and knew best how to interpret it. On one occasion Jesus and His disciples had gone through a field on the Sabbath day and the disciples began to pluck some heads of grain in accordance with a provision made in the Law. The corners of fields were not to be harvested in order that the poor of the land might go through these fields and take some grain when they were in need (Lev. 19:8-9; Deut. 23:25). The law of God stated nothing about this being "unlawful." This was one of the "don'ts" added by the religious leaders after the time of the Restoration. To those who thought themselves more righteous than God, plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath — even if you were starving — was "work." Therefore, they determined that it was "unlawful."
The Spirit of the Law
With this background in mind let's notice the actual account (using The New International Version). "One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, 'Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?," (Mark 2:23-24.) Rather than argue the technicalities of the law with them, Jesus gave in reply an example from the life of King David, a man after God's own heart. "He answered, 'Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the time of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is only lawful for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions'" (verses 25-26). Here Christ was pointing out that the law was not meant to be a burdensome, rigid, ironclad, inflexible thing. It was intended to picture something. It should not be violated wholesale or the meaning of the law would have been lost. Yet God did not intend that there should be food available in the Temple and the king and his men starving! God intended that no servile or remunerative work be done on the Sabbath. But that did not mean that a person could not expend any physical effort on that day! The keeping of the Sabbath is not an end in itself. It is a memorial of creation, a reminder of the beginning of the great plan of God. It is a time to worship God, to set aside the cares of the week and turn one's thoughts to God, and to rest one's body and mind. But it is not a day to which man must be in servitude. In fact, precisely the opposite is the case. "Then he said to them, 'The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.' So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath" (verses 27-28, NIV). Christ Himself is Lord, Master and Giver of the Sabbath. It is His right — not man's — to instruct us on just how that law is to be observed. Man has no right to go beyond the revealed will of God, or to add to the Word of God, in the manner of the keeping of the Sabbath as did the sect of the Pharisees.
What Jesus Said About the Sabbath
Jesus and His disciples were often criticized by the religious leaders for their "liberality" in observing the Sabbath day. In response to criticism of His healing a man with a withered hand on the seventh day, Jesus asked: "...'Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?' But they remained silent. "He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, 'Stretch out your hand.' He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus" (Mark 3:4-6, NIV). Incredible! Because He "broke" their law of the Sabbath, they probably thought they would be doing a service to God by killing Christ. They had zeal, but not according to knowledge. They were more "righteous" than God and Christ, who had given them the law of the Sabbath! They enslaved man to the picky do's and don'ts of Sabbath keeping. They took a perfectly good law and turned it into a burden. Jesus said: "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). God's laws are the way to freedom — not bondage. The laws were made to serve man — not vice versa. The Sabbath is a day in which man may rest and rejuvenate his person both spiritually and physically.
How Not to Keep the Sabbath
In their misguided zeal, some have suggested — or rather insisted — that the Sabbath is a day in which no pleasure of any kind may be indulged. Anything that is physically active or entertaining is wrong according to this line of thinking. This misunderstanding is based mainly on Isaiah 58:13-14: "If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord...." Now think about this. It's pretty difficult to call a day a "delight" when it contains nothing pleasurable! The problem is derived from a misunderstanding of what is meant by "thine own pleasure" in this verse. The Hebrew word so translated is chephets, and it is usually translated "desire" or "purpose." Let's look at a couple of other examples of the use of this word in the writings of Isaiah. "That saith of Cyrus, He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure [chephets]: even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid" (Isa. 44:28). Are we to believe that the word "pleasure" here means entertainment, fun or pleasure in that sense? Obviously not. It simply means that Cyrus would perform God's will or purpose. Notice also Isaiah 46:9-10: "... For I am God... declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure" [chephets]. Again, the word obviously has nothing to do with fun and entertainment. It plainly refers to the fact that God's will or purpose will be accomplished. With that in mind, let's go back and look at the way the Jewish translators rendered Isaiah 58:13: "If thou turn away thy foot because of the sabbath, from pursuing thy business on My holy day... nor pursuing thy business..." (Jewish Publication Society translation). The New English Bible makes it even plainer: "If you cease to tread the sabbath underfoot, and keep my holy day free from your own affairs, if you call the sabbath a day of joy... if you honour it by not plying your trade, not seeking your own interest or attending to your own affairs...." How plain! The Sabbath is a day on which you do not ply your trade or perform the usual money-making tasks of the week. It is a day on which you sanctify (set apart) God and think about things of God. The instruction of these verses has nothing to do with pleasure in the sense that we normally use it. It does not refer to entertainment, or laughter, or joy — or even to godly sexual pleasure! But let's not jump into the other ditch!
Balanced Sabbath Observance
Because this verse is not a stern, Pharisaical injunction against such things does not mean that the Sabbath day should be totally taken up with hedonistic, pleasure-seeking activities! That's "ditchism"! Why so? Because the Sabbath is a day when you honor God. It is a day when a Christian's mind should be on spiritual things more than on the physical. Obviously, a person must still eat on the seventh day. God is not raining manna down from heaven today, so food must be prepared. Most heavy preparation should be done on Friday, however. But it is not wrong to cook on the holy days of God (Ex. 12:16). Nor is there any scriptural law against watching some types of television programming or having a short, refreshing swim in a backyard pool, or even indulging in mild physical activity — including marital relations. But if any such activity should begin to dominate the Sabbath day, it would obviously become a violation since God would be removed from the picture. The fact that there is a problem finding a balance is the very reason the Pharisees felt they had to legislate many do's and don'ts for the keeping of the day! The people did not have God's Spirit to give them the wisdom they needed in making judgments about what was right and what was not. Today's Christian should not require an endless listing of permissible and non allowable activities for the Sabbath! Christ came to teach us the spirit of the law. A truly converted mind is bigger than the mere letter — it seeks the greater wisdom of the spirit. If you can set God apart in your mind on the seventh day — think of Him, learn of Him in His Word, pray more to Him and reflect on your own need to overcome and develop the mind of Christ, then you will be keeping the spirit of the Sabbath day. If your mind is primarily on God and the things of God, then the Sabbath is serving you as Christ intended. It will be a day of rest for spiritual and physical rejuvenation. If your mind is mainly on your own thoughts, dreams, business deals, entertainment, etc., etc., then you will be missing the mark in keeping the Sabbath. In ancient Israel the Sabbath day was customarily observed by holding services in the local synagogue. A definite series of readings of Scripture were prearranged and read every Sabbath in the Temple or synagogue services. These services were usually held in the morning with those in attendance having a major meal (feast) in the afternoon. Often guests were brought home from the synagogue. Thus most of the Sabbath day was taken up with services and fellowship.
Modern-Day Sabbath Keepers
Today, modern Christians still faithfully keep the seventh-day Sabbath, just as God originally ordained it. The Church of God holds weekly Sabbath services throughout the United States and much of the rest of the world.
Jesus and the Sabbath
To the Pharisees who asked if it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath day, Jesus replied: "What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out? How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days" (Matthew 12:11-12). Jesus then proceeded to heal the man in their presence. Regarding the rigorous and legalistic do's and don'ts of Sabbath observance which the Pharisees imposed, Jesus said: "The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath" (Mark 2:27-28). Christ was teaching on the Sabbath in a synagogue when He saw a woman bowed over with a spirit of infirmity. He laid His hands on her and healed her right there. The ruler of the synagogue became indignant and objected vehemently to this healing on the Sabbath day. Christ replied: "Thou hypocrite, doth not each one of you on the sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering? And ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound, 10, these eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day? "And when he had said these things, all his adversaries were ashamed..." (Luke 13:15-17). An impotent man who had been bedridden for 38 years lay at the pool of Siloam, " waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had" (John 5:3, 4). Knowing that the man had no one to put him into the pool, Jesus said: " Rise, take up thy bed, and walk" (verse 8). "And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath" (verse 9). This angered the onlookers, who claimed that it was not only unlawful to heal on the Sabbath, but also for the man to carry his bed! (Verse 10.) Instead of rejoicing about the healing of a man who had suffered so many years, the religionists persecuted Jesus "and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day" (verse 16). Jesus' answer to them is recorded in verses 17-47. Verse 30 shows that God in heaven approved of what He did on the Sabbath, for Jesus said: "I can of mine own self do nothing ...." The great champions of the law and of strict Sabbath observance sought to murder Jesus in obvious violation of the Sixth commandment. Jesus said: "Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keepeth the law? Why go ye about to kill me?" (John 7:19.) The people accused Him of demon influence because He said this. Jesus answered: "I have done one work, and ye all marvel. Moses therefore gave unto you circumcision... and ye on the sabbath day circumcise a man. If a man on the sabbath day receive circumcision, that the law of Moses should not be broken; are ye angry at me, because I have made a man every whit whole on the sabbath day? Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment" (verses 21-24). John 9 records another account of Christ healing on the Sabbath day. Again the Pharisees made no small stir over the matter. They simply couldn't understand how their own concept of Sabbath observance could be violated and the man still be of God. This is why they said: "This man is not of God, because he keepeth not the sabbath day. Others said, How can a man that is a sinner do such miracles? And there was a division among them" (John 9:16). Christ often taught on the Sabbath: "And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read" (Luke 4:16).