Keep the Sabbath Holy

The fourth commandment is to keep the Sabbath Holy, but what exactly does that mean?

Introduction

References to the Sabbath are given throughout the Bible, with the first mentioning of the Sabbath (though not by the name Sabbath) in Genesis 2. While some conclude that at that point in time the Sabbath didn't exist yet, we are clearly told that this is when God sanctified it and made it holy. Thus, the Sabbath as a holy day was implemented during creation, as told in Genesis 2. This first Sabbath occurs on the 7th day of creation when God rests. Not surprisingly the Sabbath represents giving God approximately 10% of our week. (There are 168 hours in a week and 24 hours in the Sabbath. If you sleep for the recommended 8 hours a night, your Sabbath lasts 16 hours. 16 out of 168 hours represents 9.5%.)

It seems fairly straightforward, but there are varying views on this commandment. From what day actually constitutes the 7th day to how we are supposed to observe the day and what makes it holy. In this post there are notes on denominational beliefs, Bible verses that discuss this particular commandment, and a discussion of interpretations.
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Commandment

8Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: 10But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.Exodus 20:8-11 KJV
In both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, keeping the Sabbath day holy is listed as the 4th commandment given to Moses by God after the Israelites escaped from Egypt. In Exodus 20:8 the word "remember" implies it was a tradition they already kept or had kept before being held captive in Egypt. It is possible that the Israelites had been keeping the Sabbath before their captivity and had simply forgotten or ceased the practice while in bondage.

12Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee. 13Six days thou shalt labour, and do all thy work: 14But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou. 15And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day.Deuteronomy 5:12-15 KJV

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Bible Verses

  1. Genesis 2:3
  2. Exodus 16:23-30
  3. Exodus 20:8-11
  4. Exodus 31:13-17
  5. Exodus 35:2-3
  6. Leviticus 19:3
  7. Leviticus 19:30
  8. Leviticus 23:3
  9. Deuteronomy 5:12-15
  10. Nehemiah 10:31
  11. Nehemiah 13:15-22
  12. Isaiah 56:2-6
  13. Isaiah 58:13-14
  14. Jeremiah 17:21-27
  15. Matthew 12:1-13
  16. Mark 2:23-27
  17. Mark 3:1-6
  18. Luke 6:1-11
  19. John 7:23

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Denominations on the Sabbath

Exodus 20:8-11 KJV
Despite the common knowledge that the Sabbath of the Bible corresponds to the day we call Saturday and the less common knowledge that Biblical days were counted from sunset to sunset (as opposed to from midnight to midnight), thus making the Biblical Sabbath from Friday after sunset until sunset Saturday, the majority of Christian denominations recognize Sunday as the Sabbath (I'll get in to this more in the discussion section below).

The most well known denomination that observes the Biblical Sabbath is Seventh Day Adventist, however there are several other denominations that adhere to the Biblical definition of this commandment as well. Some of these denominations include Seventh Day Baptists and United Church of God. There are many other smaller denominations that keep the Biblical Sabbath, as well. One site has compiled a list of Sabbath keeping churches; you can view that list here.
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Discussion

The Sabbath is a full day that is set aside as holy in God's commandments. To actually understand this commandment, we must understand what and when the Sabbath is, as well as, what it means to keep this day holy. To do this we must consider what the Bible tells us, and put this in perspective based on history.
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When is the Sabbath?

The first issue we should discus, is when the Sabbath should occur. Yes, the seventh day of the week, but which day is the 7th day? The seventh day is undisputed, and is universally known to be Saturday by both scholars and theologians. In many languages, the word for Saturday is not rooted in the name of the Roman god Saturn, but God's holy Sabbath. Take the following as a sampling.
Langauge Word For Saturday
Hebrew יום שבת (Shabat)
Aramaic yum Shabto (Syriac) shvat kudsha (Targumic)[1]
Arabic السبت (al-Sabt)
Armenian շաբաթ (Shabat)
Spanish, Filipino, Portuguese Sábado
Greek Σαββατο (Sabbato)
Russian, Serbian суббота (Subbota)
Armenian, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek are all in the top 10 oldest languages[2] and all of them have a word for Saturday that stems from the Hebrew (and Biblical) word Shabat, which we call Sabbath in English. Saturday, with the reference to the Roman god Saturn, is used in languages that came into existence after the height of the Roman empire, and in the languages of countries that were colonized by countries speaking those languages (e.g. Igbo, Yoruba).

So, why do Christians rest on the first day of the week (Sunday), as apposed to the Sabbath? Some Adventists (those who keep Saturday) will argue that Constantine instigated the change of worship from the Sabbath to Sunday—in fact Constantine made Sunday a civil holiday in 321ad,[3] while others point to the Catholic Church (an article on Catholic.com, essentially admits they changed the Sabbath).[4] The closest thing to an official declaration can be seen in the Council of Laodicea.[7] Defenders of Sunday worship will try to refute these claims and attempt to prove that it was changed by the apostles.[5] The question is who is right?

Regardless of whether Constantine, a pope, or some other human was the culprit of the change only God can change God's word. For the purpose of discussing which day should be kept as the Sabbath it doesn't matter so much as to "who" changed the date; it matters more whether that person was human or whether God instituted the change. Let's look at some of the scriptures people use to "prove" God changed the Sabbath to Sunday.
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Acts 20:7

And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight.Acts 20:7 KJV
Acts 20:7 comes up a lot in this debate. People who invoke this quote argue that Paul and the apostles gathered on the first day of the week and thus the Sabbath had been moved during apostolic times. However, Christians gather together for many reasons; one such reason that includes "preaching" would be Bible Study, typically held on Wednesday. I have seen some churches that have different Bible Studies for different groups (e.g. women, teens, young adults, etc.), thus having multiple sessions through out the week. Also note that in Acts 13:42, 17:2, and 18:4 we see Paul preaching on the sabbath. Nowhere in Acts 20:7 does it say they recognized this as the "new" Sabbath. By definition the Sabbath is the 7th day, thus by pointing out it was the first day, the author is telling us it was not the Sabbath. Christians (or Jews for that matter) are not limited to worshiping and seeing each other on one day of the week. Simply because they chose to meet on this particular Sunday to break bread does not mean that they stopped resting on the Sabbath and began resting on Sunday. Also note, in God's command to keep the Sabbath holy, He never mentions breaking bread, so absolutely nothing in Acts 20:7 alludes to God's commandment on keeping the Sabbath holy. There is no reason to believe that this meeting was meant to replace Sabbath worship other than you want it to (which is not a valid reason when talking about God's word). Think about this, in the Old Testament, not only did God explicitly say keep the Sabbath holy, but it is repeated throughout scripture; would not a change to this be just as explicit and repeated? I would think we would have seen something along the lines of "On the first day Jesus rose from the dead, so God transferred the sanctity of the Sabbath to the first day"— Nowhere in God's word is anything like this mentioned.

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Colossians 2:16

Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:Colossians 2:16 KJV
One site[5] suggests that Colossians 2:16 abolishes the Sabbath all together (as well as the other laws of the Old Testament). Obviously Paul is telling the Colossians not to let a man judge them (Jesus Himself says "let he who is without sin cast the first stone"), does this mean the action is correct? If we start reading from Colossians 2:13 (so as to get the context of the verse), we see that Paul tells them they are "dead in [their] sins and the uncircumcision of [their] flesh." Paul says Jesus forgave them of all their sins, blotted out the ordinances that were against them, and nailed them to the cross. Paul reminds them that Jesus triumphed over all, then he tells them to let no man judge them. A more in depth discussion on this verse can be found in my post on the law specifically, but for now let's focus on the Sabbath.

Notice that Paul mentions sabbath days—plural. Why didn't Paul say the Sabbath day? Notice that meat, drink, holyday and new moon don't seem to have anything to do with the 7th day Sabbath... Why does Paul mention these specific things culminating in sabbath days? The sabbath days in question are the holydays set aside during the annual feasts God instructed the Israelites to keep (see my post Feast Days for more on the specifics). These days were determined by the new moon in the sense that they were set on specific days of the month and the first day of the month was determined by the moon. These feasts required specific meat and drink sacrifices. Furthermore, these feasts predict Jesus' first and second coming. Paul furthers this point by telling us those things were a shadow of what was to come (hence why it didn't matter if they were celebrated or not).[9] Paul was not ending the 7th day sabbath, he was telling us not to worry about the annual sabbaths.
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Additional Info on When

The Sabbath is clearly defined to be the Saturday, but the western method of identifying days is different than the Bible's. Ever wonder why one day has 2 nights (or rather why the wee hours of the morning are dark)? The Bible defines a day as and evening then a day. The first occurrence of this definition is in Genesis 1:5. As such, the beginning of the 7th day starts the evening of the day we call Friday. Therefore the Bible's exact definition is from sun down Friday to sun down Saturday. I will discuss why it is so important to observe the Sabbath as God defined in a separate post.
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What Does It Mean to Keep the Sabbath Holy?

Once you determine when you should observe the Sabbath, the natural question is what does observance look like? Most passages discussing the Sabbath use the term "rest" or command us not to do work, but what does that mean? Is God telling us to sleep all day? Is swimming in a pool or watching TV all day resting? What constitutes work? If you look at some of the traditional things people refrained from on the Sabbath, things like washing clothes or cooking have significantly changed since Biblical times. To cook a meal in Jesus' day you had to get wood, build a fire, and fetch water. Now you could cook something like spaghetti or soup by simply collecting water from the faucet, then turning a dial on the stove. Before you have to fetch water and scrub your clothes to wash them; now you can simply dump them in a washing machine. The amount of work required is greatly reduced! As a child I often asked if that meant it was now ok to perform such tasks.

13If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: 14Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.Isaiah 58:13-14
Isaiah 58:13-14 tells us part of God's expectation of us on the Sabbath. He expects us to refrain from doing our own pleasure and to consider the day a delight. Isaiah tells us that we should not be doing our own thing and speaking our own words on this day, but delighting in the Lord's day. To me, this tells us that our focus on the Sabbath should be on God. In Genesis, when He rested, He took the time to admire His creation. The Sabbath was given to us so that we too may wonder at God and His creation.

In the Old Testament, certain things are explicitly forbidden. Jeremiah 17 tells us not to carry a burden (this would refer to lifting objects, moving things, delivering packages, etc.) on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:3 says that we should not kindle a fire. Selling and thus buying (how can you buy without requiring someone to sell?) is prohibited in Nehemiah 10:31 and Nehemiah 13:15-22.

In the New Testament, Jesus addresses the question of work on the Sabbath when He and the disciples are caught picking corn on the Sabbath[8]. Jesus points out that in times of great need, when worshiping, and when performing an act of kindness, it is ok to break the Sabbath. Is it not work for the preacher to preach, or the choir to sing, or even in those days for the congregation to walk to the gathering? Should not a doctor see about an ailing patient regardless of the day? From Jesus' example it is clear that sometimes the Sabbath may need to be broken. This is not to say that Sabbath is done away with, but that there is a middle ground between leaving your sheep in the ditch and picking corn every Sabbath. A classic example in my own life is that I will notice Friday afternoon that I have dishes in the sink, instead of sitting down to watch TV and leaving the dishes to be washed on the Sabbath, I wash them at that moment. This is an example something that is not important and can be fit into my schedule prior to observing the Sabbath. I plan to rest and to study God's Word on the Sabbath, however, should something important come up, I must see to those matters. For instance, a mother cannot ignore her crying or sick baby. If you are sick, you wouldn't leave vomit on the floor would you? These are situations you can't predict but must deal with when they come. Essentially Jesus is saying to us that there will be times when need trumps the Sabbath, however, we should not carelessly put off what can be done on Friday until the Sabbath (i.e. playing video games with your friends all afternoon Friday, only to have rake the yard on Saturday when you could have done that on Friday).
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References

  1. Days of the week in Aramaic. Learn Aramaic. August 2012
  2. "Top 10 Oldest Languages in the World". World Blaze. January 2015
  3. Zerubavel, Eviatar (1989). The Seven Day Circle: The History and Meaning of the Week. University of Chicago Press. p. 45. ISBN 9780226981659
  4. "Who Changed the Sabbath to Sunday". The Church of God International. 2015
  5. "Neither the Pope nor Constantine Changed the Sabbath". Bible.ca. 2015
  6. "Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes". Jewish Virtual Library. 2015
  7. "Which Day is the Sabbath?". United Church of God. February 2011
  8. Matthew 12
  9. Hebrews 10:1
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Author Image Author Image I love reading the Word of God. With prayer God's Word reveals so much: from comfort to temperance, from perspective to affirmation. Digging into the depths of the Word, cross-referencing history, language and time differences, is a passion of mine. In March of 2015 I decided to go back through the Bible doing an in depth study on each section I read. Eventually I decided to share my journal of notes as I partake in this journey. I hope you are blessed by God and inspired to pursue a deeper relationship with Him. I love reading and learning about God, nature, and science. I am interested in how it all connects. The Creator's fingerprints are all over his creation. We can learn so much about Him and how we came to be by exploring the world around us. Join me as I explore the world and draw closer to the One who created it all.
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