This article is a follow-up from the 9/20/22 worship service where we promised an article on how to keep the Sabbath. You can view that service here. I’ve put this in the form of a FAQ so you can skip down to what you’re interested in. Below you’ll find scriptural teachings on the Sabbath, and in the places where there’s room for interpretation, I’ll share my opinion as pastor at Downs UMC.
Is the Sabbath still a commandment of God, especially after Jesus?
Short answer: Yes.
Longer answer: It is true that many Old Testament laws do not directly apply to us today the same way that they did before Jesus. One example of this would be the legal system laws (like the penalties for stealing in Exodus 22:1-4). They do not apply because we are not a part of the Old Testament nation of Israel, our country, America has its own laws. Another example would be the prohibition to eat pork (found in Leviticus 11:7-8). It no longer applies because it was abolished by the Holy Spirit in Acts chapter 10 as part of a greater teaching about welcoming everyone.
It’s also true, however, that this principle doesn’t apply to every Old Testament law. Jesus himself said he had come to fulfil, not abolish, the law (Matthew 5:17-20). And nowhere in the Bible are the ten commandments described as completed, irrelevant, or nonapplicable. They would be an example of Old Testament law that we still try to follow, and the sabbath is number four on that list of ten. So yes, it is something we should be doing.
What exactly are the rules for Sabbath?
In the 10 commandments (Exodus 20), we are told to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. One day out of six are we to spend doing no work. The Bible is very strict in Exodus and Leviticus about how the people are supposed to keep the sabbath, even including a death penalty for breaking it! No, we don’t keep that death penalty today, because it’s a civic law, but its presence in the Bible points to just how important this commandment is.
The Jewish community (from Exodus to the book of Matthew) passed and kept a lot of laws and traditions around the Sabbath. They got very specific about how to keep Sabbath and how to break it. All those laws were good intentioned for sure, but they had added up to a pile of regulations that had missed the point. In their simplest form here are the rules for Sabbath:
- One period of 24 hours each week where you do no work, and honor the holiness of God
- To the best of your ability, it should be the SAME period of 24 hours each week.
- Bonus points if it’s on Saturday as that’s the Old Testament traditional Sabbath.
BUT there’s some room to maneuver here, as you can see in the next question.
Is there any wiggle room on how to keep the Sabbath?
Jesus ministered to a community that had a burdensome stack of Sabbath regulations from, literally centuries of tradition. Jesus helps return their focus to the purpose of the day when he says “The Sabbath was made for mankind, not mankind for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)
This is huge because it means Sabbath is about you-getting-rest-and-preserving-holiness. It is NOT about you-not-working-because-God-said-so. There’s a big difference between those two.
Personally, I interpret this to provide grace for those of us with schedules that don’t work wonderfully for a classic sabbath:
- If you can’t immediately do 24 hours, start with what you can do and make it a goal to slowly grow that time till it is 24 hours.
- If you can’t do Saturday, try Sunday.
- If you can’t do morning to night, try Sunset to Sunset.
- If you try and fail, don’t berate yourself, simply try again.
What constitutes “work”, Biblically speaking?
This is the million-dollar question, but I’m going to give you some simple answers from a big-picture scriptural and historical point of view:
- If you make money doing it, or it provides for you or your family, it’s work.
- If it’s a ‘maintenance task’ (laundry, dishes, oil change for the car, cooking, cleaning, mowing the lawn, even your regular workout routine, etc) it’s work.
- If it’s a hobby (doesn’t earn money, you don’t have to do it, and it brings you joy) then it’s NOT work.
- If it involves buying or selling something, it’s USUALLY work.
- If it produces quality family time, quality marriage time, or quality friendship time, it’s NOT work.
- If it produces real, meditative, peaceful, restful time with God, it’s NOT work.
- If you’re trying to game the Sabbath system in order to get something accomplished: like… let’s all clean the garage together as a family… It’s work, don’t do that.
What do you even do on a Sabbath?
Well, the list in the question above should help, but here are a few things my family does:
- The Sabbath is the only day you get to sleep in as long as you want.
- On the Sabbath we read and meditate on (but do not study) scripture.
- Our food is all preprepared, or we go out to eat together so no cooking or cleaning up.
- On the Sabbath we pray together as a family and encourage personal prayer time.
- We take time on this day to do things together as a family
- We try to stay off our phones and keep the screen time for “together activities” as much as possible.
- We allow time on this day for people to do things alone, to pursue their hobbies and non-work interests.
- You can take naps on the Sabbath and not feel guilty
- This is a great day for the kiddos to connect with their friends (invite people over, go to other people’s houses, etc.)
- Same goes for adults too, a good day to connect with friends and family.
You’re asking the impossible, nobody can do this (especially nobody with kids).
Well, this author, your pastor has a family of five and we’ve been keeping the Sabbath for over 20 years. It can be done, but I won’t lie, it requires sacrifice. The biggest sacrifice being: you have to say to your life—no, I can’t do everything. The world is full of good ideas, fun opportunities, potential resume builders, and more but… You. Just. Can’t. Do them all. Neither can your kids.
Sabbath forces you to look at life’s opportunities and really weigh the input/output. I’ll be putting x time and x money into this, is it worth it? To keep Sabbath is to say no to activities, clubs, sports, and events that aren’t worth it to you and yours, and to intentionally invest in the weekly activities that are. It’s to build time with God into your schedule, and it’s to acknowledge that a 7-day work-week (between your job and your extracurriculars) is a wasting death to the soul. You were not made to run on empty.
There’s a lot of sacrifice involved in keeping this spiritual discipline, is it worth it?
I can tell you, with 20 years of experience, that the resounding answer is YES! It’s absolutely worth it. You will literally be putting your mind, soul, and body back in sync with the rhythm of the created universe. Sabbath is kind of cosmic in that way.
But the truth is, you won’t know until you try it. Personally, I believe that if you have success keeping two sabbaths (across two weeks, one each week), with even a B- level of following-the-rules, you will see immediate benefits. It will impact you on a personal level, on a family level, and you will begin to discover the presence of God in new places, spaces, and times.
You aren’t losing too much by experimenting with keeping a Sabbath for a couple of weeks… but you stand to gain so much if God is right, and this is a thing that you need.