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 (The Doctrine of Sabbath)
Chapter 16: The Principles of Sabbath-Keeping
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CHAPTER 16: The principles of Sabbath-keeping

16.1       Introduction

In this time of grace, Sabbath-keeping should be a simple matter as there are no longer any Mosaic regulations to keep, or judgments to invoke trepidation. Our duty is merely one of upholding the Fourth Commandment—to keep the day holy, to rest, and to commemorate God’s gracious acts of creation and salvation. In addition, the Lord Jesus has taught and shown us through personal example to share God’s grace through good deeds. These basic principles, however, are not reasons for us to be casual about Sabbath-keeping. If anything, we need to fulfil God’s requirement to worship Him in spirit and in truth (Jn 4:24). Therefore, whatever we do on this day should emanate from the heart.   

16.2       Which day?

It should be clear that the Sabbath is the seventh day of the week—Saturday. Sunday observance, as we have learnt, was a development of the post-apostolic period, instigated by a church in doctrinal decline.

Our current way of timekeeping harks back to Roman times and entails that we reckon the day from midnight to midnight. However, the Bible shows that the original one-day cycle was from sunset to sunset. The Book of Genesis records: “God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day” (Gen 1:5; cf. 1:8, 13, 19, 23, 31). The Jews understood this and so kept the Sabbath from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday (Neh 13:19; Mk 15:42)—a practice that remains to this day.

As Christians, we should note that the Sabbath is a complete twenty-four hour cycle. It means that we should sanctify the whole day, not just a single hour or the part of the day that we spend in church. 

16.3       The principles of Sabbath-keeping

16.3.1    Keeping the day holy

The Sabbath is special. It has been sanctified by God (Gen 2:3), meaning that it has been separated out to belong to Him. Therefore, in the Bible, it is called “a holy Sabbath to the Lord” (Ex 16:23), “the Sabbath of the Lord your God” (Ex 20:10; cf. Lev 23:3), “a Sabbath of rest to the Lord” (Ex 35:2), “My Sabbaths” (Lev 26:2; Isa 56:4; Ezek 20:12). For this reason, we must respect this day and not profane it by treating it like any other day of the week (Ex 20:8; Deut 5:12).

The Book of Isaiah teaches us to keep the Sabbath holy by setting aside our own personal matters and wishes in favour of God’s:

“If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath,

From doing your pleasure on My holy day,

And call the Sabbath a delight,

The holy day of the Lord honorable,

And shall honor Him, not doing your own ways,

Nor finding your own pleasure,

Nor speaking your own words,

Then you shall delight yourself in the Lord;

And I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth,

And feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father.

The mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

                                                                          Isaiah 58:13–14

While it would not be helpful or desirable to have a prescriptive approach—for that would lead us back to the era of the Law—we will do well to reflect at a personal level on the way we keep the Sabbath. Do we have a tendency to engage in non-essential activities that distract us from the sanctity of the day, and do we allow them to take up time that rightfully belongs to God? If we do, then maybe we can do better.

Central to Sabbath-keeping is church attendance. This is because the Bible calls the day a holy convocation[1] (Lev 23:3). It is when the community of faith comes together to worship, to share His word and give thanks for His wonderful acts of creation and salvation (Ex 20:11; Deut 5:15). In doing this, the believers reaffirm their faith in God and build up the bond of unity within His household. Therefore, even if we live far away, we should endeavour to set aside time to worship God—on our own, if we have no choice; as a family unit; or with other brethren living nearby. Keeping the Sabbath is a basic Christian duty, and we should maintain this habit wherever we are.

By keeping the Sabbath holy, we are reminded that God has chosen us out of the world and sanctified us (Ex 31:13; Ezek 20:12). It is on account of His grace that we are “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people” (1 Pet 2:9). Having this constant awareness prompts us to lead lives that are worthy of our noble calling and to act as beacons of light in this dark world.

16.3.2    Resting

Underpinning the Fourth Commandment is the requirement to rest. Our almighty God Himself rested on the seventh day after completing His creation work. In doing so, He set a pattern for man’s earthly existence: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God…” (Ex 20:9–10).

Today, we live in a world where the pace of life never slows and the demands upon our time are unrelenting. Those of us fortunate enough to enter into God’s weekly rest are in a position to truly appreciate this special blessing. It is a precious respite—a day when we can lay aside our hectic routines to rest physically and mentally, and allow ourselves to be spiritually refreshed through God’s word and through fellowship with other believers. 

However, there is an even more profound reason for us to rest on the Sabbath: it reminds us of a future sabbatismos (Heb 4:9), or heavenly rest. Hence, the writer of Hebrews exhorts us to strive to enter into it through obedience to God:

There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His. Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience.

            Hebrews 4:9–11

The question is, how exactly should we rest? Very simply, the Fourth Commandment stipulates that we should stop our work (Ex 20:10). In the original Hebrew, the word for “work” is melakah[2], where the principal meaning is employment or business. This leads us to understand that work is primarily the activity of making a living.

In a world where time equates to money, God’s call to stop work goes against the grain. However, for the person who truly fears Him, it is both appropriate and necessary. The Sabbath offers a regular pause in our busy lives to regain perspective: to remember our status, God’s love, and our true purpose. In truth, God’s requirement for us to stop work is also completely reasonable, given the fact that He has given us six days in which to earn a living and, moreover, has graciously assured us of His providential care (Isa 58:13–14). All we need is a heart of obedience, a measure of faith, and the right conditions in our lives to enable us to comply with God’s will. 

At a fundamental level, having the right conditions in our lives means doing a job that allows us to rest on the Sabbath day. For many of us, particularly those working in the west, this is not likely to be an issue, as many organizations close at weekends. However, this will not be the case for everyone: in some countries and in certain sectors, employees have contractual obligations to work at weekends. In such situations, and where we genuinely have no option, we can only appeal to the mercy of God. Nevertheless, this should never be a reason for us to be complacent: we must remember that we still have an over-riding duty to honour the Sabbath commandment. Where practicable, that duty might entail re-negotiating our work contract, looking for a new post, or even considering a career change. Where there is a will, God will surely provide the way. 

For those of us in the fortunate position of being self-employed, Sabbath-keeping should hopefully be an altogether more straightforward matter. This is because closing our business on the seventh day should be a matter of course. When we do this, we not only enable ourselves to honour the Sabbath rest, we allow those in our employment to do likewise (Ex 20:10).

Broadening the scope, we will also do well to apply the spirit of the Sabbath rest to two other areas of our lives: our personal or home life, and our church life. In terms of our personal life, we should consider deferring any non-essential tasks that have the potential to tire us or to raise our stress levels. The benefit is that we will have more time and energy for more meaningful matters, such as being with our family, and with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

In terms of our church life, it is likewise important to promote the principle of rest. If we have responsibility for the Sabbath schedules of our local church, we should try to strike a balance in terms of the volume of activities we arrange. Services and other church work are certainly central to this holy day, but we also need to ensure that members are able to experience and enjoy the Sabbath rest. The latter might be compromised if there are too things planned, or if the same few members are enlisted to facilitate them week after week. Both the congregation and the workers need to come away from the weekly Sabbath feeling physically and spiritually refreshed. 

16.3.3    Commemorating God’s grace

The Sabbath is a day for us to commemorate two important aspects of God’s grace. One aspect is God’s creation: the fact that He made the heavens and the earth and all things in it, including man (Ex 20:11). This truth provides us with much needed perspective. It reminds us that, however much material success we may acquire in this world, we are but God’s creatures. He is the master of the universe—the one who created everything by the power of His command, and the one who gives us life, our daily needs and everything we have. 

The second aspect of God’s grace is His salvation. We remember that, just as He delivered the Israelites out of their bondage from Egypt (Deut 5:15), so He delivered us from our bondage to sin (Rom 6:17–18). Having this awareness constantly in our mind should give rise to a heart of thankfulness. Furthermore, it should act as a motivational force, compelling us to live for God and to share the good news of salvation with others. 

Each one of us should make a habit of remembering these aspects of God’s grace. In addition, the church should share these messages with the congregation, for in this way, we avoid losing sight of why we ought to keep the Fourth Commandment.

16.3.4    Doing good works

The Sabbath reminds us of another important truth: as believers, we have an obligation to both God and man (Mt 22:37–39). Therefore, while attending services to worship God is important, it is only half the picture; we also need to take care of the people around us, especially those in the household of faith (Gal 6:10). It is with good reason, then, that Jesus taught us to do good works on this day (Mt 12:12). He Himself taught in the synagogues, visited people, healed the sick and cast out demons. 

For us today, performing good deeds could entail doing something as simple as visiting the sick and the isolated, giving someone a ride to church, offering a sympathetic ear, preparing a fellowship meal, or sharing the gospel. All these things and much more are possible when we have a heart of love and eyes that are constantly open to the needs of others. In truth, when we allow God to use us to minister to others, we enable them to experience His love and the warmth and joy of being one family in Christ: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34–35).

16.4       Conclusion

God, in His wisdom, gave us a Sabbath that remains as significant and as relevant now as when it was first established. It is a day of respite, an opportunity to enter into His blessings, a time for reflection upon His grace and our future hope, and a time to manifest His love. By keeping the Sabbath here on earth, we look forward to keeping it for an eternity in heaven.

“Then I heard a voice from heaven saying to me, ‘Write: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” ’  ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them’ ” (Rev 14:13). 


© January 2012 True Jesus Church.

[1]      Hebrew, miqra (H4744), meaning “something called out, i.e. a public meeting...assembly, calling, convocation, reading”.  Source: The Complete Word Study: Old Testament, ed. S. Zodhiates (Tennessee: AMG International, 1994).

[2]      Strong’s reference no. H4399. “The principal meaning is deputyship, i.e. ministry, service, employment, work, labor, performance, business, trade, errand.” Source: The Complete Word Study: Old Testament (USA: AMG Publishers, 1994). 

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