By Pastor Doug Batchelor
An Amazing Fact: A Cornell University study confirms the detrimental effects that work-related stress can have on families. Married couples with children and burdened by long hours of work report the lowest quality of life among couples. Additionally, 43 percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress, and at least 75 percent of all physician office visits are attributed to stress-related ailments, according to the American Psychological Association. Stress is also linked to the six leading causes of death in the United States: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis, and suicide.
Before Moses approached Pharaoh to seek liberation for Israel, he met with the oppressed Hebrew leaders. During this meeting, Moses encouraged the people to consecrate themselves to the Lord and told them that God was about to deliver them from slavery with a mighty hand.
The Israelites had been laboring seven days a week to maintain their heavy workload for the Egyptians. But after this meeting, they evidently decided to renew their covenant with God and began resting again every seventh day. A furious Pharaoh said to Moses, “Ye make them rest from their burdens” (Exodus 5:5). The angry king knew that he must do something drastic to keep the slaves under his control, so in an effort to crowd God from their thoughts, he drowned them further in rigorous labor and increased their workload. (See Exodus 5:7, 8.)
Well, God is about to do great things for His people again. Soon they will be delivered from the slavery of sin and journey to the heavenly Canaan. And, once again, as God is now trying to turn the minds of His people toward the importance of the Sabbath rest, the devil is seeking to drown this generation in work and stress.
Most people in the world don’t understand the dire consequences of breaking the fourth commandment. Even many Christians believe the Sabbath is just a day where you put in your two hours at church and then go to a football game, visit the mall, or mow the lawn. But is this trend a biblical one? How is a Christian to keep God’s Sabbath day holy?
In part one of this series on the Sabbath, available here, we looked at having the right attitude about this precious day of rest. In this second part, I’d like to consider the practical ways of keeping God’s holy day holy.
Before sharing some specifics on how to keep the Sabbath, I want to highlight a couple of extremes that can distort our thinking on how to honor this distinct day.
When Jesus was on this earth, the Pharisees taught people to keep the Sabbath in an extremely legalistic way. They went so far as to accuse Jesus of breaking the Sabbath! Of course, Jesus never did anything that violates the Sabbath commandment as outlined in Scripture.
Christ did break some of the Pharisees’ manmade traditions regarding the Sabbath. He said, “For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8 NKJV). Just before this, Jesus explained, “In vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” Worship and the Sabbath are intimately connected. Mankind’s traditions should never set aside or eclipse God’s requirements.
With that in mind, let’s now consider some biblical guidelines and activities to truly keep the Sabbath day holy.
A Time for Worship
The Sabbath is a day for us to come together in corporate worship. Notice how the Lord speaks about coming together for worship on Sabbath. “It shall come to pass that … from one Sabbath to another, all flesh shall come to worship before Me” (Isaiah 66:23 NKJV). In another place the Bible says, “Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation” (Leviticus 23:3 NKJV). A “convocation” is an assembly or gathering of people.
There are lots of examples in Scripture that show Sabbath is a day for corporate worship. One of my favorites is, “Let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24, 25 NKJV, my emphasis). Not only do we come together to worship the Lord, but also to encourage one another.
A Time to Study and Hear the Word
We can also find references in the Bible that encourage us to focus on the Scriptures on the Sabbath. We’ve already noted Jesus’ example of going to the synagogue “as His custom was” (Luke 4:16 NKJV). But it also adds, “He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written …” (v. 17). On the Sabbath, Jesus read from the Bible, the Old Testament book of Isaiah, when He announced His ministry. The Scriptures are an important part of our worship experience. This can be seen in the early church as well—“On the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God” (Acts 13:44 NKJV, my emphasis).
A Time for Prayer
Obviously, it is good and right for us to pray every day. But, once more, the Sabbath provides us a special time to engage in focused worship, study, and prayer. The Sabbath is “holy” time because it is set apart by God. We are to be “holy” because we are chosen by Him to be holy, and we become holy by taking time on God’s holy Sabbath to be with Him in a unique way. Here is how some in the early church worshiped on Sabbath: “On the Sabbath day we went out of the city to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made; and we sat down and spoke to the women who met there” (Acts 16:13 NKJV).
A Time for Relationship and Rest
Putting it quite simply, Sabbath is a day for quality time with God. If there’s a day that we should especially walk closely with God, the Sabbath is that day. It was set aside for us to grow in our appreciation and love toward the Lord. You cannot really know someone well unless you spend time with that person. It’s the same with God.
Sabbath provides uninterrupted time with God. The rush of work, of paying bills, of attending school functions, of cleaning the garage, and so many other things are set aside so we can nourish our relationship with Him. It’s a day to not be burdened by the cares of life—isn’t that wonderful? If something gets between ourselves and Jesus, then we know it is probably not helping us worship God on the Sabbath; it’s an activity best left undone.
A Time for Giving
Sabbath is also a day for giving. It’s a time for bringing our gifts to the Lord. Even though we can bring offerings to God on any day of the week, from a practical standpoint, it makes sense to bring such gifts when we come to worship on the Sabbath. The Bible says, “Give to the LORD the glory due His name; bring an offering, and come before Him. Oh, worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness!” (1 Chronicles 16:29 NKJV). Giving is an act of devotion and worship.
When you go before a king, it is customary to take a gift. It is considered impolite to approach a monarch empty handed. The very audience of a king is a great privilege. When the wise men went searching for Jesus, they brought gifts. Likewise, Sabbath is a day we come before the King of the universe, and it should be in our hearts to bring an offering.
Preparing for Sabbath
One of the most important aspects of the Sabbath commandment is summarized in the word “remember.” We shouldn’t forget about the Sabbath during the week so that we only remember it when the sun is cresting the horizon Friday evening. We can get ready before that happens! Let’s look at some ways to prepare for Sabbath.
The Christian writer Ellen White suggests, “On Friday let the preparation for the Sabbath be completed. … The Sabbath is not given to the repairing of garments and the cooking of food, to pleasure seeking or any other worldly employment. Before the setting of the sun let all secular work be laid aside and all secular papers be put out of sight” (Child Guidance, p. 528).
On my desk at home, I’ve got all kinds of items I’m dealing with from my workweek—bills, projects, official papers, etc. When Friday comes, I stack them up and put them away. You know what would happen when you saw these projects Saturday morning—you’d automatically start thinking about them! They are less of a distraction if they are covered or put away.
What about cooking? Exodus 16:23–26 speaks about doing your Sabbath food preparation in advance. How should we understand this text? First of all, it’s not a commandment that you eat cold food on the Sabbath. The principle is that whatever you can get done ahead of time, do it for your own sake. Yet while ensuring your meals are a wholesome delight, the Sabbath should not be dedicated to elaborate culinary activities. This protects the sacred hours for rest and quality time with Jesus.
A Day for Doing Good
We can become so focused on what not to do on Sabbath that we neglect the good things we can do. Jesus once spoke to a group of Pharisees who asked Christ if it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath. He answered, “What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:11, 12 NKJV).
Sheep still fall into pits today. There will sometimes be unforeseen circumstances that arise on the Sabbath that call for our attention. If a woman goes into labor on the Sabbath, should we tell her not to “labor” that day and to wait to have her baby on another day? When people are suffering on the Sabbath and it is within our abilities to help them, shouldn’t we have a heart for them, even more than for an animal stuck in a ditch?
However, sometimes in an effort to explain or excuse our actions on the Sabbath, we casually cite our deed as being “an ox in the ditch.” (See Luke 14:5.) There are other references in the Bible to donkeys and sheep falling into pits. What does it mean? When an urgent need comes to our attention on Sabbath, we should pitch in and help someone out of a difficulty. For instance, one Sabbath my son Stephen and I were driving home from church when we came up on a dangerous scene. Someone’s car had stalled in the middle of an intersection, and everyone was driving by just honking at him. Steven and I looked at each other, pulled over, jumped out, and helped push the car off to safety.
But raking the leaves in your front yard, or even your neighbor’s yard, does not qualify as an unexpected emergency. This is the reason God wants us to remember the sacredness of the Sabbath all week long.
A Day Not to Waste
True, the Sabbath is a perfect time for physical rest and rejuvenation, especially if you’re involved in manual labor during the week. But some take the “resting” part a little too far. Missing Sabbath worship because we are “sleeping in” doesn’t draw us closer to God, nor does it qualify as spiritual rest. God has called us to His throne; don’t sleep through that opportunity!
Another way to reduce our vigor on Sabbath is by gorging food. This can actually dull our minds and fatigue our bodies, keeping us from better things. Sabbath meals should be made memorable and even include a simple treat, but that doesn’t mean we need 20 different entrées from which to choose. Often, we eat so much on Sabbath, especially at potlucks, and then want to find the nearest hammock and snore away the hours. Don’t get stuck in that net!
The Purpose Is Jesus
Sabbath is a blessed time given to us as a gift. We need it so that we can pause from our regular work and focus on the Lord. It is a unique time for worship, Bible study, prayer, and fellowship with other Christians. It is also a day for healing and cheering others, especially those who are suffering. Sabbath is a day for visiting the sick and those in prison. It is a day to put away our own busy agendas and think about others.
Most of all, it is a day to set aside distractions so that we can sit at the feet of Jesus. It is not a day full of rules that make it a burden. Sabbath is to be a de-light because it draws us closer to the One we love, Jesus Christ.
Perhaps you have not spent much time thinking about practical ways to keep God’s Sabbath holy. I would encourage you to make a commitment right now. Say, “Lord, help me to keep Your day holy.” I believe that when you choose to keep the Sabbath and place God first in your life, He will make you holy, just as He made the Sabbath day holy.