How to Keep the Sabbath, Part 1: Why Is It So Hard?

Exodus 20:8-11

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. Exodus 20:8-11

God had a lot to say about the Sabbath in the Bible, and I don’t think God wastes words. If we take the Bible seriously, we can’t deny that the Sabbath is important. He said “Do it because I did it. Do it because it’s a sign of the covenant between you and Me. Do it because you were a slave and those who work for you deserve a day off too. Do it because it honors me. Do it because it’s my day, and I want you to.”

Work six days. Take the seventh day off. That sounds easy enough. It’s a single day of rest each week, from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday. How hard can that be?

Pretty hard, as it turns out.

We thank God for Fridays as we leave the office on the last workday of the week. We kick back, spend some time with family and friends, maybe watch a little television…and then we go back to work on Saturday morning.

That grass won’t cut itself, after all. The car won’t fix itself. The windows need washing, the bills need paying, and you’ve got a pile of papers leftover from the office to sort through. Who’s got time to take a day off?

You do.

In fact, you can’t afford not to take the seventh day off, and let me tell you why.

The Sabbath belongs to God, and He commanded us to keep it. However, Yeshua said that the Sabbath was made for us. Does God need to rest? Probably not, yet he rested on the seventh day of creation as an example for us. Like sleep, friendship, and love, rest from labor is an essential ingredient to human fulfillment.

Seven is the number of completion, and we can’t be complete without the seventh day Sabbath. We can never fully realize all of the good that God has for us without it.

Previously, I wrote about how we can know that the day we call “Saturday” now, the seventh day of the week, is the real Sabbath. Once you see the facts laid out, that part’s not so difficult. Keeping the Sabbath the way God intended is something else entirely.

Why is it so hard to keep the Sabbath?

I think there are three reasons it can be hard to keep the weekly Sabbath.

First, some people just hate God and everything He does. They want to do everything God said not to do, and nothing that He commanded. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably not one of them, so I’m not going to spend any more time on that.

Second, it really is difficult to break the momentum of life. Everything has to change on this one day. Did you drive a truck all week? Crunch numbers? Make nice with frustrated retail customers? Full stop. On the Sabbath, you don’t do that. That kind of shift requires deliberate effort and some major habit changes.

I’m probably not the best person to help you make a change in mindset or habits, but there are many out there who are expert at it. A supportive family and community will probably be more helpful to you in this respect than anything else.

Third, most people simply don’t know how to keep the Sabbath. There are bad teachers and false teachers. There are things we’ve heard and things we’re just “sure” the Bible says, but can’t remember where.

What does it mean not to do any work? What about cooking? Maybe you’ve heard that you’re not supposed to turn a light switch on. What if you’re on-call or you work in a hospital? Isn’t this all just for the Jews anyway?

Should We Just Keep the Sabbath As the Jews Do?

There are a lot of traditions about how to keep the Sabbath. The rabbis have spent thousands of years accumulating rules about what you can’t do and how much of what you are allowed. Even in Yeshua’s day, the multitude of rules had become overbearing. An Orthodox Jewish rabbi can spend years studying the laws of Shabbat, and still not learn everything there is to know about it.

It seems to me that if your day of rest is more burdensome than a regular workday, you must be doing something wrong.

I don’t mean to totally dismiss rabbinical learning regarding the Sabbath. They are the heirs of more than 3000 years of learning, practice, and tradition regarding God’s Law. While I believe they have gone overboard in many respects, they have put an enormous amount of consideration into the matter, and their teaching is often profound in its depth and elegance. It shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.

But it’s easy to get lost in the complexity and to lose the distinction between commandment and tradition, and some of it really is just nuts. We have families, communities, and businesses to run. Very few of us have years to invest in mastering a set of religious rules whose connection to God’s commandments is tenuous.

Ninety percent of tradition regarding the Sabbath probably isn’t relevant to your life and a significant portion of the rest is nonsense. I don’t want you to give up because the essential truth is buried beneath centuries of extraneous tradition.

How Are We Supposed to Keep the Sabbath?

In preparing for this article, I searched the scriptures for every reference to the Sabbath and did my best to distill it all down to what really matters. Unfortunately, I am going to have to discuss some do’s and don’t’s. God was very clear that some things aren’t allowed and that some other things are required. There’s no way around that.

I have organized the Biblical Sabbath injunctions into three categories:

  1. Positive commandments: Are we supposed to go to church? Take the day off? Sit silently all day?
  2. Negative commandments: What constitutes work? Are we allowed to cook? Use a computer? Light a fire?
  3. Gray areas: Is it OK to drive to church or synagogue? What if we’re away from home and we’re hungry? What about people who have to work on Saturdays?

That third category is necessary because God doesn’t spell everything out for us. He expects us to think carefully about his Law and to work out the ambiguities in our communities, families, and consciences. I believe that’s part of his plan for building character in his people. As we progress through this series, I’ll try to point you in the right direction, but you’re going to have to make some decisions for yourself. Up next: The Positive Sabbath

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