Keeping the Sabbath Holy

It wasn’t too many years ago when businesses closed down on Sundays. You had to do your shopping on Saturday. Many of you remember when Sunday was a day you rested. Your parents gave the day to worship or to family gatherings. But times have changed. More and more Sunday is becoming a day of business as usual. Stores are open their regular hours, shopping malls are filled and more and more extracurricular activities are being scheduled for Sunday. Many tell us that this is progress. But the Bible tells us that this is not progress, it is regress. Our contemporary approach to the Sabbath is an indicator of a declining spirituality.

The Ten Commandments call us back to a deep commitment to the Lord. In the first three commandments we have been told

  • to make God the most significant influence in our life
  • to worship God as He is and not as we imagine Him, or would like Him to be
  • to honor God with our words by speaking of Him with reverence and by taking our promises and declarations seriously.

The fourth commandment speaks to us with sweeping implications.

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping 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, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. [Exodus 20:8-11]

This is probably the most controversial commandment. The debate is pretty broad. There are those who argue,

  • The Sabbath is an always has been Saturday and we should make Saturday our day for the Lord
  • Sunday is the Christian equivalent of the Old Testament Sabbath
  • The Sabbath requirements have been abolished by the death and resurrection of Christ

But rather than putting our focus on this debate I want to focus on four principles I think are found in the Fourth Commandment.

1. The commandment tells us that we should be involved in productive labor

Some people miss this obvious point. The Lord says, “six days you shall labor.” The Lord expects us to work. Labor is part of God’s will for our lives. Even before sin entered the lives of Adam and Eve, the couple was given the task of tending the Garden. Labor became more tedious because of sin, but labor itself was not the result of sin. Work is God’s way of getting involved with life. It is our chance to be productive and to contribute.

We cannot enjoy and appreciate the Sabbath if we are not involved in productive labor. The idea of people “working the system” or getting to the point where they “no longer need to work” is not something we find in Scripture. God has placed us here to serve Him and those around us. Whether you are retired or not, you should be involved in some kind of labor. It can be volunteer service, it can be religious pursuits, it can be labor you do from your home. However, the idea that we just sit home and do nothing is not a part of God’s design for our lives. Doing nothing is a waste of life.

2. The commandment tells us that we should make time to rest

The principle was real simple. Work for six days and rest for one. While inactivity may be a problem for some, for others, the problem is that they are consumed by their work. God reminds us that people need to rest. We need a break from the labor, from the stress and from the routine. We live in a world that is filled with people who are proud of being workaholics. The 60-70 hour work week is not at all uncommon in our society. When we brag about all the hours we work we are really confessing that we have a problem with our priorities.

Many businesses tell us that they “have to be open” on Sunday or they will not be able to survive. Individuals tell us that they have to work on Sunday or they can’t get all their work done. The cry is clear, “We don’t have time to take any time off.” How different is our contemporary attitude from the mindset of the Jews. God told Moses,

[Exodus 31:13-17] “Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy. ‘Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death; whoever does any work on that day must be cut off from his people. For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death. The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he abstained from work and rested.’”

Max Lucado tells the story of how his little girl rode her bike down her first hill.

I rode to the midway point and waited. Down she came. The bike began to pick up speed. The handlebars began to shake. Her eyes got big. Her pedals moved in a blur. As she raced past she screamed, “I can’t remember how to stop.”

She crashed into the curb.

If you don’t know how to stop, the result can be painful. True on bikes. True in life. [Lucado, AND THE ANGELS WERE SILENT p. 41]

Our “push to achieve” has created a state of stress that has become deadly. We are speeding down a hill and seem to have forgotten how to stop. We often push so hard that we never take a break, never take a day off, and we never relax. The result is high blood pressure, heart disease, an immune system that is more susceptible to infections and cancer, tension headaches, ulcers and sleeplessness. For our own health we need to learn to take time off. If God could create the world in six days, we can accomplish our work in six days. If God set aside a day for rest, we should too.

Have you looked at your calendar recently? Believe me, I know how easy it is to push, push, push. I know that in the drive to be productive and even faithful to the Lord we can neglect the need for rest. But we do so to our peril. It is foolish and it is sin.

3. The commandment tells us that we should make time for worship

The Sabbath is also designed to remind us of our point of reference. Once a week the children of Israel . . . and the followers of the Savior are to stop and look toward Heaven. You see we were not simply to “take a day off”. We were also supposed to “make the day holy”. Lucado writes,

The Sabbath is the day that God’s children in a foreign land squeeze their Father’s hand and say, “I don’t know where I am. I don’t know how I’ll get home. But you do and that’s enough.” [Lucado, p. 41]

One day a week we are to come back “home” and center our lives. Weekly worship is something we do because we need it. We need time to encourage one another. We need to be taught again in God’s Word. We need someone to remind us that this world is not our own. We need to celebrate God’s goodness. Why? Because it is right to honor God with our time. But it is also good for us. We forget that we are not alone. We can easily forget that what it takes us 20 hours to accomplish the Lord can accomplish in 20 minutes. Resting in Him reduces our stress, reminds us of where our strength lies, and makes us ready for another week.

When we miss our weekly time of worship we will at first feel unsteady. But what happens when we repeatedly miss that weekly time of “squeezing the Father’s hand” is that we experience a sort of “vertigo”. In other words, we don’t know which way is up any more. We become confused, and disoriented. And if this continues we find ourselves dying spiritually and soon we no longer have time for God and have to face the drudgery of life with no sense of relief.

In the fourth commandment we have God commanding that we honor Him by giving Him priority in our time. One day out of seven is to be set aside to worship Him. One day out of seven we are to stop what we are doing and gather with others to acknowledge His greatness in our midst.

You know it as well as I do: our calendar reflects our values. We schedule times for work, for recreation, for vacation, for family activities because they are important to us. I try to set aside time on my calendar to attend ball games and other activities my children are involved in because it is a priority to me. I recently rescheduled a wedding rehearsal so I could attend a big ballgame. I don’t want to miss these years!

God wants to be as important to us as our kids are. He wants to be as important as our favorite hobby or recreational activity. God wants us to put Him on our schedule. He wants us to plan around our time with Him. We’ve heard it said many times: a person finds time for the things that are truly important to them.

I find it hard to believe that a person really loves the Lord if they will not make time for Him in their lives. Here’s a test (be careful, it may sting a little), what kinds of activities come before worship in your life? What kinds of things have caused you to miss worship over the past six months? The answer to that question will tell you what you value more than the Lord.

Have we taken seriously the way in which God has ordered the cycle of life so that our bodies and minds receive the rest they require and our spirits engage in the worship God prescribes? Do we remember the Lord’s Day? Or do we simply regard it as an occasion to “please ourselves?” By this fourth commandment God has provided the opportunity to worship Him undisturbed by personal business or pleasure. Should we not welcome such a day of worship and service to God, uninterrupted by the routine rush of work and recreation? When I disregard this day and choose to misuse it for selfish ends, I am guilty of breaking God’s laws. [Alistair Begg WHAT ANGELS WISH THEY KNEW p. 47]

Worship gives us the chance to re-center our lives after a week of labor in the world. The person who lets other things come before worship has allowed other things to come before the Lord in their lives.

4. The commandment points us to the spiritual truth that salvation is by Grace not by Works (Hebrews 4:1-13)

This is one more element to this commandment that we seldom think about. In Hebrews 4 we are told that the true “Sabbath rest” comes through Christ. The real Sabbath rest is when we come to rest in the finished work of Christ on our behalf. We enter the true Sabbath rest when we stop trying to earn salvation and put our hope, confidence and trust in what Christ has done for us.

Paul told us,

Col. 2:16, 17 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

Paul contends that the Sabbath was ultimately pointing us to Christ. It is designed to teach us the important lesson of salvation that we are saved by grace and not by works.

And maybe this is where our true understanding of the Sabbath should begin. Maybe we need to realize that “apart from Him we are nothing.” We can run around doing good . . . but we cannot save ourselves. We can work hard to change the world, but only God can make the changes that are most necessary. One hour with the Lord will yield a greater productivity than a whole day of labor. One cry of faith in the work that our Savior has done for us will yield a new life that a whole lifetime of striving could not achieve.

We talk about grace, but we are prone to rely on our efforts. At least once a week we need to be reminded that He is our hope. We need to remember that salvation is something He has accomplished for us. We don’t have to LOOK for Him . . . we just need to FOLLOW Him. We don’t need to find eternal life. We are called to enjoy it. The Sabbath was designed to remind us of the most important lesson of life: “It is by grace that we are saved, through faith, and this not from yourselves, it is a gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.” [Eph. 2:8,9]

5. Questions

Before we end we must address some remaining questions.

Why do we worship on Sunday? The answer is that as the Jewish Sabbath commemorated creation, the Christian Sabbath is meant to commemorate redemption. Christians worship on Sunday because of the resurrection. It seems apparent from the Colossians passage that the “day” on which the Sabbath is observed is less important that the principle of the Sabbath be observed. The early church saw the Sabbath pointing to grace and not to the law . . . so they changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday.

What if I am required to work on Sunday? I would answer this in a couple of different ways. First, I would point out that the Bible does seem to indicate that certain pursuits are appropriate on the Sabbath. It is good to care for your animals. It is appropriate to help and heal others. It is always acceptable to do good. But secondly I must ask: are you really required to work on Sunday? Is it a demand that your work Sunday or is it a choice that you work Sunday? Are you working for the overtime? Have you tried to do things God’s way? Have you asked for Sunday off? Have you dared to trust God by closing your business on Sunday?

I know that we live in a community where there are certain times of the year when there is much to be done and the work is done when it is good weather whatever day it is. I understand that, but I’m not sure what God thinks about it. Do we ignore the “Sabbath” at these times because we think that giving God His time will make us LESS productive? If so, maybe we need to rethink things.

If you do “have to” work, then I hope you will make sure that you don’t have to work EVERY Sunday. And the weeks when you do have to work I hope you will make sure that you find another way and time to worship (maybe listen to our radio broadcast, attend a Bible Study, take time to read and study the message on our web site). Make sure you plan another day for rest and renewal.

What activities are appropriate on Sunday? The Jews had a whole list of things which you could and could not do on the Sabbath. That list developed because they wanted to know what they could do without violating the Sabbath principles? Most of us want to know: Is it wrong to go shopping, eat out, watch athletic events? Participate in recreational events? These are difficult questions. Let me give two broad principles.

First, our first priority on the Sabbath is to be the Lord. Anything that keeps us from worship is a violation of the Sabbath. I don’t think we should allow our children to play ball on Sunday morning. I don’t think we should schedule activities on Sunday morning. I think anything that stands between us and our regular worship is a violation of this commandment.

[Isaiah 58:13, 14] If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the LORD’S holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the LORD, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.” The mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Second, we must remember that the Sabbath was not meant to restrict us but to refresh us. Jesus said, the “Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath”. There is nothing that man needs more than regular time with the Lord. But I think Paul and others would tell us that the Sabbath was not to be viewed as something legalistically to be observed. It was a principle to be obeyed.

Yes, the Sabbath is a day of rejuvenation as well as spiritual renewal. Maybe it is acceptable to enjoy a football game, to go on a picnic, spend some time on the lake, or to do something that you enjoy doing. . . .on the other hand, if we continue to support those who make Sunday at time for “business as usual” are we not part of the problem? I honestly don’t know how to answer the question. I think there is room for flexibility here. I must leave this issue to your own consciences.


Sadly, we have generally ignored the fourth commandment in our lives. We have qualified and justified to the point where the command carries little power. In doing this we cut ourselves off from the intended renewal of the fourth commandment. So, where do we go from here?

First, take an inventory of your life. Is it possible that you are running yourself into the ground? Do you need to work at learning to relax and renew? If you are pushing yourself to the limit and doing it as a regular course then you need to make some changes in your life. Turn off the phone. Put away the pager for a day. Learn to say “No”. Get out of town and do something fun. Take control of your life once again.

Second, treat your spiritual life with the same kind of commitment you do your job. As you are diligent and disciplined in your work, be diligent and disciplined in your spiritual life. View Sunday morning as a “non-negotiable”. Teach your children by example that Sunday is God’s day. Show by your behavior that God is important enough in your life to be put on your calendar.

Let me conclude with the words of Max Lucado again,

It’s almost as if activity is a sign of maturity. After all, isn’t there a beatitude which reads, “Blessed are the busy?” No, there isn’t. But there is a verse which summarizes many lives: “Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro: He bustles about, but only in vain; he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it.” [Ps. 39:6]

Does that sound like your life? Are you so seldom in one place that your friends regard you as a phantom? Are you so constantly on the move that your family is beginning to question your existence? Do you take pride in your frenzy at the expense of your faith?

Slow down. If God commanded it, you need it. If Jesus modeled it, you need it. Trust him. Take a day to say no to work and yes to worship.

Keep a clear vision of the cross on your horizon and you can find your way home. Such is the purpose of the day of rest: to relax your body, but more importantly to restore your vision. A day in which you get your bearings so you can find your way home. [p.42-43]

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