In the scriptures, God tells his followers many times that they should keep the Sabbath day holy. Perhaps the most familiar example is the often quoted fourth of the ten commandments as found in Exodus (20:8-11). This not only directs the individual to comply, but any head of a household to compel everyone within the household, even animals, not to work on the Sabbath. Some form of this commandment appears many times in the scriptures, and it is repeated almost verbatim in Deuteronomy.

If you question of the importance of this commandment, take note of the words in Exodus 31:14a, attributed to God speaking to Moses: “You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death….” The last part of verse 15 says, “whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death.” Whether you take these words literally or not, there can be no doubt that observing the Sabbath was considered important.

As you and I seek to understand and obey this commandment, we are left with two important questions:

  • What did God really mean when he issued this commandment?
  • And, more importantly, what does God’s direction to keep the Sabbath day holy mean for today’s Christian?I spent part of my early childhood living with a very pious maternal grandmother, widow of a minister. From time to time she would find it necessary to work on Sunday, and she would always say, “The ox is in the ditch.” I was familiar with that expression before I know what an ox was.And so it was, on the sixth day, that they gathered twice as much bread, two omers for each one. And all the rulers of the congregation came and told Moses. Then he said to them, “This is what the LORD has said: ‘Tomorrow is a Sabbath rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD. Bake what you will bake today, and boil what you will boil; and lay up for yourselves all that remains, to be kept until morning.’ ” So they laid it up till morning, as Moses commanded; and it did not stink, nor were there any worms in it.* Then [on the Sabbath] Moses said, “Eat that today, for today is a Sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is the Sabbath, there will be none.” Now it happened that some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather, but they found none. And the LORD said to Moses, “How long do you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws? See! For the LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore He gives you on the sixth day bread for two days. Let every man remain in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.” So the people rested on the seventh day.This also reminds us of the slippery slope we often encounter as we interpret what God wants us to say, do, or avoid. Discerning God’s will about matters that involve strong appeals to our secular desires is both necessary and very dangerous. Do we reach a decision that responds favorably to our secular desires objectively or by rationalizing? How do we know? Are we capable of reaching and complying with decisions that frustrate our secular desires, leading us to do things we might otherwise avoid instead of things from which we expect instant gratification? These are questions to think about.There are theologians who say the commandments in the Old Testament pertaining to the Sabbath no longer apply. They note that this is the only one of the ten commandments not repeated in the New Testament. The Bible Knowledge Commentary interprets the following passage as explicitly condemning those who command Sabbath obedience: Colossians 2:16 So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths.While some may see the creation story as a basis for the existence of a Sabbath, I find the realization that we need the rejuvenating benefits of a Sabbath weekly more persuasive.But we still have to determine what it means to keep it holy. A sometimes conscious and sometimes unconscious departure within our society from the traditional Old Testament and early American Puritanical concepts of Sabbath leave Christians with challenging decisions, decisions only the most foolhardy would attempt to make without seeking God’s help with the required discernment. Where at one time a Puritanical society dictated how the Christian Sabbath would be observed, today’s society makes it very difficult to observe it at all. The so-called blue laws that prohibited businesses from opening on Sunday are ancient history, and Sunday shopping is very popular. Organizations from soccer leagues to prestigious charities schedule events with little or no regard for Christian worship traditions. With full schedules and other demands on our time, Sundays, seem to be the only time we can do many of the things we need or want to do. Of course, some of us would point out that activities appropriate for the Sabbath are among the things we need and should want to do.Incidentally, in 1961, in its decision on McGowen vs. Maryland the US Supreme Court agreed with Jesus that the observation of the Sabbath benefitted people. The court held that the laws restricting business on Sunday were “intended to improve the ‘health, safety, recreation, and general well being’ of citizens,” even if such laws originally had religious bases. Observing the Sabbath offers us several benefits. It provides a periodic break from the various forms of work that, even when enjoyable, can be wearing. A comprehensive, well planned Sabbath should be very beneficial to our well being and personal development.Absent having our church or another church provide us with a “prefabricated” Sabbath, we can, and arguably should, develop individual plans that comply with God’s commandment. It’s obvious from the scriptures that any plan should begin with rest of our minds, bodies, and spirits. Other elements might include one or more worship services, other forms of Christian education with groups or alone, and meditation and prayer. Some other activities that seem especially appropriate for the Sabbath come to mind such as —
  • Traditionally, many churches have various services and activities throughout the day on Sunday. No matter how you feel or felt about that, this made it easier to stay involved with sacred activities. Today, many churches and other institutions still provide activities that might help us observe the Sabbath all day. These may include , Sunday school, morning worship, fellowship time, Christian education, Christian youth organizations, concerts, and evening services. During the season, Hurlbut has a service at 8:30am on Sunday, the denominational houses have worship services at 9:30am, and Chautauqua has several religious activities throughout the day, and there is no charge for admission.
  • In view of the scriptures we have read and discussed, and Wesley’s quadrilateral, let us consider what the Sabbath should mean in our lives and how we might want to implement it. Be reminded Jesus told us in Mark 2:27-28, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.” (Isn’t this another reason not to abandon observance of the Sabbath?) Surely, if abandonment of observation of the Sabbath were intended by God, Jesus would have used it in his disputes with religious authorities.
  • Anyone who has worked seven day weeks for any length of time, would agree on the undesirability of such a pattern, whether the person were religious or not. Others are unaware of what they are missing when every day is otherwise pretty much the same without a distinctive Sabbath.
  • As we contemplate the various scriptures involved, this would seem an ideal application of the so-called Wesley quadrilateral. That is a designation given by others to Wesley’s idea that we should analyze scripture in the context of tradition, experience, and reason. Doing so, it is difficult to see why the Sabbath, which God regarded as so very important before Jesus was born, would not be of value to Christians today. Tradition, experience, and reason would not have us interpret the scriptures as making the Sabbath obsolete.
  • Let’s return to and consider the question to which each of us needs an answer: What does God’s direction to keep the Sabbath day holy mean for today’s Christian? We all have some idea of what “holy” means, but it is worth our while to articulate this understanding as we examine the whole commandment. Is not God saying that he wants us to regard the Sabbath as being recognized and declared sacred by his authority?” A published definition would tell us “Holy” and “sacred” are “dedicated or devoted to God, the Church, or religion,” I would also suggest that anything external considered holy would relate closely to that which is holy and sacred within us.” That which is Holy contributes to our spiritual, mental, and physical development as disciples of Christ.
  • This story illustrates the lengths to which God, the leaders of the Israelites, and the multitude went to protect the Sabbath. It also suggests that we, like Jesus, have to identify which are the valid exceptions to the mandates, a task that requires spiritual help in our discernment efforts.
  • Nevertheless the following account in Exodus 16:22-30 demonstrates a powerful effort to apply the Sabbath prohibitions strictly. The Israelites were on their journey in the wilderness, led by God.
  • The validity of the first of these questions is demonstrated by the fact that our gospel text is but one of many examples where religious authorities challenged Jesus and accused him of violating the sabbath. Although we know the authorities had corrupt motives, it is apparent there is some ambiguity in the commandments. This is partially attributable to the fact that exceptions to the mandates against working on the Sabbath were and are unavoidable. When criticized by the authorities for healing on a different Sabbath, Luke tells us Jesus responded, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman (whom he was curing), a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for 18 long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” In a later passage from Luke, Jesus is quoted as validating exceptions to the Sabbath laws, saying, “Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?” Luke 14:5
  • Making sure we are “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” of Jesus, instead of trying to carry our challenges alone?
  • Relationship strengthening activities like letters or phone calls, especially to persons for whom these might be a valuable or even needed blessing.
  • Activities that build family relationships in wholesome ways.
  • Visiting shut-ins at their homes, hospitals, and nursing homes, people we know and people God wants us to know.
  • Reading and the use of other media in ways that provide spiritual and intellectual nourishment.
  • Using the arts, such as religious and secular music, to help with spiritual renewal.Philippians 4:8-9 offers what could serve as a place to start for determining the elements of a holy Sabbath. These sound to me like ingredients of a holy Sabbath.
  • May it be so.
  • Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
  • Christians who do not observe a Sabbath, for whom Sunday (or their designated Sabbath) is just another day, miss a valuable and important, potentially life altering experience. Each of us in his or her way, needs to discern and obey God’s will and observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

* Normally, in the absence of secure storage and refrigeration, food would have spoiled, become contaminated, or both under these circumstances.