When we think about the weekly Sabbath, we usually think about what we are not allowed to do: don’t work, don’t kindle fires, don’t buy and sell, etc., but God also had a lot to say about what we are required to do on the Sabbath.
In this article, I have listed the positive Sabbath commandments with scriptural references for each, as well as discussing what each one means for us today.
Keep the Sabbath holy
(Genesis 2:2-3; Exodus 20:8,31:14,35:2; Deuteronomy 5:12; Isaiah 56:2,58:13-14; Jeremiah 17:19-27; Ezekiel 20:11-24,22:8,23:38,44:24-25,46:1-3)
God said to “keep my Sabbaths holy” so many times that its importance to Him cannot be overstated. We must keep the weekly Sabbath separate (the literal meaning of “holy”) from other days.
Paul’s discussion about days in Romans 14:5-6 is about whether it’s better to fast on one day or another, and not about keeping the Sabbath. Likewise, his discussion of holidays in Colossians 2:16 is about man-made rules, not about God’s commandments.
The Sabbath is sacred, and no one is authorized to change that. It must be kept sacred primarily by two methods.
First, we sanctify the Sabbath by very deliberately moving the focus of our attention away from our own needs and labors to the needs of God and, by extension to the needs of his creatures, especially those who were also made in his image. We stop thinking about paying bills and making deals, and instead, we think about our relationship with our Creator, as well as with our neighbors.
Second, we follow God’s instructions as outlined in the rest of this article. On every other day of the week, we may work, play, and conduct our lives in almost any manner we choose, but this day is different. On the Sabbath, we stop doing all of those other things, and instead we study the Scriptures, pray, fellowship, and ease one another’s burdens.
Keep the Sabbath for God’s sake
(Leviticus 19:30,26:2; Numbers 15:30-36; Nehemiah 9:14; Isaiah 58:13-14,66:23; Ezekiel 20:11-24,23:38)
The Sabbath was made for man (Matthew 12:11-3; Mark 2:27-28; Luke 6:5), but that doesn’t mean God gets no benefit from it. Like any good parent, he wants us to do those things which are best for us, and he wants to have a close relationship with us. The Sabbath enhances both. It’s important to God that we keep it, therefore we keep it not only for our sake but for His.
Assemble on the Sabbath
There is only one explicit command to assemble on the Sabbath, and it is a general command for all of God’s appointed times:
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, These are the appointed feasts of the LORD that you shall proclaim as holy convocations; they are my appointed feasts. Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the LORD in all your dwelling places… Leviticus 23:1-3
Although this instruction is only given once, it is exemplified by the actions of the prophets and apostles throughout Scripture, and by related prophecies in Isaiah and Ezekiel.
In Isaiah 66:23 and Ezekiel 46:1-3, God said that all people and the people of Israel, respectively, will one day gather to worship Him on the days of the new moon and the weekly Sabbath.
In 2 Kings 4:23, a conversation between a woman and her husband hints that it was common practice to gather for teaching on the weekly Sabbath, and 2 Kings 16:18 talks about a covered walkway constructed at the Temple for the king’s private use on the Sabbath, indicating that the weekly gatherings were important enough that the king made a point of attending.
Yeshua made a lifelong habit of attending the local synagogue for Torah readings and teachings every Sabbath. (See Matthew 12:9; Mark 1:21,3:1,6:2; Luke 4:16-30,4:31-37,6:6-10,13:10.) Paul also attended synagogue every Sabbath. (See Acts 13,15:21,16:13,17:1-3,18:4.)
There’s nothing wrong with gathering for worship on any other day of the week, so long as we don’t neglect to gather on the seventh day Sabbath.
There is no direct command to relieve the suffering of others on the Sabbath, but there are commands to relieve the suffering of others in general. Most notably, Leviticus 19:18 says to “love your neighbor as yourself”, and this obligation doesn’t stop on the Sabbath. This was a continual point of conflict between Yeshua and the Jewish religious experts of his day.
When the Master and His disciples were passing through a grain field, the disciples plucked heads of grain and ate as they walked. Not only did Yeshua not rebuke them, but He defended their actions. They weren’t harvesting by any normal standards. They had no blades or bags. It can’t even be said that they were gleaning as the poor were allowed to do behind the regular harvesters. They were homeless and hungry, so they ate. To refuse them would have been needlessly harsh and would have created the added burden of hunger to their journey. (See Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-28, Luke 6:1-5.)
On numerous other occasions, Yeshua made a point of healing the sick, handicapped, and oppressed on the Sabbath. Although the Pharisees and Sadducees objected, He pointed out that they rightly have no objection to performing circumcisions on the Sabbath, and none of them would hesitate to rescue an animal from a ditch on the Sabbath. How much greater is it to relieve the sick from their oppressive burdens? Healing is not only allowed on the Sabbath, it is an even greater good than otherwise, as it allows more people to rest and no payment can be asked in return. (See Matthew 12:9-14; Mark 1:23-28,1:30-31,3:2-5; Luke 4:31-39,6:6-10,13:10-17,14:1-6; John 5:1-17,7:22-24,9:1-16.)
Perform essential Temple & Covenantal duties
(Leviticus 24:1-9; Numbers 28:9-10; 2 Kings 11:5-9; 1 Chronicles 9:32,23:31; 2 Chronicles 2:4,8:12-13,23:1-11,31:2-3; Ezekiel 46:1-3; Matthew 12:5-6; John 7:21-24)
There is no Temple, so the instructions for Sabbath sacrifices don’t apply to us directly, but we can learn from them by example. The essential functions of the Temple and Covenant included sacrifices, replacing the Bread of the Presence, performing circumcisions, and rotating the contingents of guards and priests on duty. The common factor among all of these activities is ensuring the ability of other people to keep the Sabbath.
Equivalent activities today (and probably in the first century as well) include preparing our meeting places, providing security in various ways, conducting religious services, etc. All of these things can involve burdensome labor, but they must be done to some extent if people are to be able to gather for worship as the commandments require.
Note that the guards and priests serving at the Temple were rotated from one week to the next. This ensured that nobody would have to work every Sabbath, and I think that’s a good practice to follow whenever possible, especially if you are in a position to set schedules for other people. Also, remember that a good leader doesn’t require his people to do what he is unwilling to do himself. If you must assign others to work on the Sabbath for some reason, you should put yourself in the rotation with them.
Keep even essential work on the Sabbath to a minimum and spread the load whenever possible.
(Exodus 31:15,34:21,35:2; Leviticus 23:3; Luke 23:56)
Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In plowing time and in harvest you shall rest. Exodus 34:21
The Hebrew for “rest” in this and other verses about the Sabbath is Shabbat, which, according to Brown-Driver-Briggs literally means to stop. It means that, whatever you normally do to earn your living on other days, you will stop doing it on this day. The added “in plowing and harvest” means that considerations of business or harvest conditions are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter to God whether Saturday is your busiest, most lucrative day of the week. He said to stop and rest. Even if it is the first day in weeks that the fields have been dry enough to plow or harvest, you will rest on the Sabbath rather than work. Sometimes God sends a break in the storm so that you will have a greater opportunity to exercise your faith in him.
You will take a day off from work. You will relax. You will contemplate the goodness of God manifested through his Creation, rather than working to tame or manipulate the Creation through your own efforts.
The Sabbath is not a day to prepare for your old age or to worry about bills and groceries. It takes an effort to set those things aside, but this is a command of God. You will enjoy what He has given you, no matter how great or meager, and you will spend time in His presence, trusting in His Providence rather than worrying about your own.
A Positive Sabbath
As you can see, the Sabbath is intended to be a positive experience, an opportunity to refresh ourselves and our relationships with God and our community. While the shift in habits and attitude can be difficult, it isn’t a burden. In the long run, the Sabbath enhances our lives not only by taking away our labors but by adding gratitude and joy.
The Sabbath was made for man, after all, not man for the Sabbath. Up next: The Restrictions of Sabbath.