How to Keep the Sabbath

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What does it mean to keep the Sabbath day? How did Jesus interpret the commandment? Does keeping the commandments require us to make judgments?

Understanding the basics of the Sabbath commandment is fairly simple. It says not to work on the seventh day (sunset Friday to sunset Saturday) because God refrained from work that day after he made everything. It does not take a theologian, however, to understand that such a simple command leaves open many questions and room for debate.

There has never been a law, including the one delineating the Sabbath, which did not require practical interpretation. Ancient Israel established an official structure for deciding such matters (see Deuteronomy 17).

In Jesus' time, Jewish religious leaders had made God's day of rest unrecognizable from what was intended. They had created rules that made the holy period far more of a burden than a blessing. Jesus' approach to this period of rest, however, was based on common sense. He and the disciples usually totally ignored the unbiblical Jewish traditions regarding the Sabbath.

On a Sabbath day, when the disciples were walking through fields of grain, they decided to pluck and eat some of the grain heads since they were hungry. When the self-righteous Pharisees saw this they denounced it as not properly honoring the fourth commandment. Jesus' reply to the rigid religious leaders who criticized him was as follows.

Have you never read what David did that time when he needed something to eat? He and his men were hungry, so he went into the house of God and ate the bread offered to God . . . (Mark 2:25 - 26).

Jesus was trying to teach his critics that a human need like hunger, on occasion, overrides God's Sabbath commandment. Such exceptions, however, do not nullify the rule (or in this case commandment). Jesus even acknowledged that, in certain cases, a conflict could arise between the laws (see Matthew 12:5).

The first lesson we learn from what happened to the Israelites in Exodus 16, when bread rained down from heaven, is that the proper observance of the Sabbath day of rest requires forethought and preparation (Exodus 16:4 - 5). God gave his people very simple instructions. They were to gather, each day, enough food as they needed.

On the sixth day of the week they were required to gather double their normal portion so that they could cook or otherwise prepare the food in advance of the day of rest so that work would not be need on it. From this we learn that the Lord's time of rest, the Sabbath, was during a specific time period (sunset Friday to sunset Saturday) and not just on any day.

Sabbath benefits

There are extreme views on just about every teaching or doctrine in the Bible. Extremes regarding Sabbath keeping are no exception. Some, such as very strict Jews, argue that not only should we abstain from work on the day, we should also not benefit from the work of others. This means, for example, that electricity should not be used since it benefits from the work others do on the day to create and maintain the power plants, power lines, etc.

Such practices, however, are going far beyond the requirements of the law and may well defeat the very purpose of the commandment. Notice that the Sabbath commandment says that not only should YOU not work, but also YOUR son, daughter, servants, cattle, etc.

The fourth commandment forbids us from requiring work from anyone who is directly employed by us. Notice in the commandment the use of the possessive: YOUR servant, YOUR daughter, even YOUR stranger. God's law is for you. It is for what you do and require. The person who delivers the paper does not work directly for you. They make their own decisions about when to work and when to take off. They would still work on the day even if they did not deliver your paper.

The same holds true for those who make possible electricity and the other conveniences of life. God does not command us to stop others from working whom we do not direct employ and control. It does not prevent those who keep the Sabbath from benefiting from those who decide to work.

Keeping your job

There is the delicate balance between business and beliefs. Personal experience shows that many in supervisory positions, or who own their own business, are usually reasonable in accommodating others. A hard-working employee who is an asset to the company, who plans skillfully and wants to make up for missed time, can usually keep the Sabbath and his or her job.

A good employer knows that a faithful employee increases the company's profit. Five or six days from one hard worker are better than six or seven days from a lazy one. If you let your employer know your religious beliefs in a positive way then there is a good chance they will honor your request for resting from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset.

Jesus knew he could never answer all questions that would arise concerning keeping the Sabbath day. There is a continuing need for interpretation. The day is truly special to God. In it he gives us all the time we need - time for reading his Word, prayer, gathering with other people of like mind, time to enjoy children and, above everything else, time to get to know our Creator.

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