Is the Sabbath relevant in our modern world? Is it really practical to try to keep the Sabbath today? If so, how should we observe it?
This is where an understanding of the purpose of the Sabbath law becomes important. Scripture shows that this command is a crucial key to our relationship with God.
"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, . . . then you will find your joy in the Lord . . ." (Isaiah 58:13-14, NIV).
Is the Sabbath relevant? Is it really practical to keep the Sabbath in today's world? How should it be observed today? To answer these questions, let's consider what the Bible, God's inspired Word, reveals.
Jesus Christ said that He was "Lord of the Sabbath" and that "the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27-28). He did not limit the Sabbath by teaching that it was made for any particular group of people at any specific time in history. Instead, it was made for all mankind for all time. It was enshrined in the Ten Commandments, the heart and core of God's divine law for mankind.
Part of a right relationship with God
The Sabbath was made for mankind, but for what purpose?
The book of Isaiah, chapters 58 and 59, describes mankind's separation from God because of our sins. "Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear" (Isaiah 59:1-2). These verses point out the hypocrisy of those who claim to seek God, yet are still filled with sin and evil intentions (Isaiah 58:1-4; 59:4-15).
But God shows that we can be reconciled to Him: "'The Redeemer will come to Zion, and to those who turn from transgression in Jacob,' says the Lord" (Isaiah 59:20). Jesus Christ is that prophesied Redeemer, the One God sent to redeem, or buy back, mankind through the sacrifice of His life (John 3:16; 1 Peter 1:18-19; 1 John 2:2; 4:9-10).
God also describes how to begin building a proper relationship with Him. Doing so involves humility and fasting, that we might come to understand God and His ways. "Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, 'Here I am' . . . Then your light shall dawn in the darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in drought, and strengthen your bones; you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail" (Isaiah 58:9-11).
God reveals a proper understanding of the Sabbath
This section of Scripture reveals another critical element to help us build that right relationship with God—a proper understanding and observance of the Sabbath.
"'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 [physical blessings] of your father Jacob.' The mouth of the Lord has spoken" (verses 13-14, NIV).
Here we see God's true intent for the Sabbath: It is part of a proper, loving relationship with Him. It is a matter of honoring God. It is a matter of surrendering one of our most precious possessions— our time —to build a right relationship with our Creator.
Properly observing the Sabbath, according to God's instruction here, means turning away from "going your own way," "doing as you please" and "speaking idle words." These actions trample His holy time underfoot, says God.
But the Sabbath is not to be a time for doing nothing. It is to be a time for building a relationship with God. It is to be a delight, a time to "find your joy in the Lord," He tells us. Rather than spending this time on our own interests and pursuits, it is a time set aside to concentrate on the things that are pleasing to God and to nourish our relationship with Him.
Keys to a proper relationship with God
How do we build this right relationship with God? We build it through contact and communication with Him. We talk to God through prayer. He talks to us through His inspired Word, the Bible. These are vital keys to a right relationship with God.
"Continue earnestly in prayer," wrote Paul (Colossians 4:2). "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you," he added (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). "The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much," wrote James (James 5:16).
Jesus Christ expected His followers to pray, telling them, "When you pray . . ." (Matthew 6:5-7; Mark 11:24; Luke 11:2). He gave them specific instruction about prayer and encouraged them that they "always ought to pray and not lose heart" (Luke 18:1).
God's Sabbath day is an ideal time for additional prayer, study of God's Word and contact with Him. By refraining from our usual work and other activities on that day, we have additional time to spend with God to build and strengthen our relationship with Him.
The Sabbath is also an ideal time for God to speak with us. He instructs us through His Word, the Bible. "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work," Paul told Timothy (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Not only does Sabbath observance help us understand God's ways; it helps us better understand our own thoughts and motivations, showing us where we can change to become more like Him. Hebrews 4:12 tells us that "the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart."
We should earnestly desire to study God's Word and learn more about it. "As newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby," we are told (1 Peter 2:2).
God commanded worship services on the Sabbath
God's Sabbath is a time for fellowship with others of like mind, a time for mutually encouraging one another. "And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching" (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Believers are expected to come together to worship (1 Corinthians 11:18; 14:23). As mentioned above, we should not forsake "the assembling of ourselves together." And the Sabbath is "a holy convocation," also translated "a sacred assembly" (Leviticus 23:3, NIV). God commands His people to gather to worship on that day.
God's ministers are expected to teach God's people about His way of life. Paul instructed the younger minister Timothy to "preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction" (2 Timothy 4:2, NIV).
As we read earlier, the regular practice of Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul was to attend a gathering in the synagogue on the Sabbath to teach and fellowship with those who wanted to learn God's ways. Jesus Christ constantly showed by His actions—by explaining God's Word and way of life and by performing works of mercy—the proper way to observe the day. Today God's Sabbath is the appropriate day to rest from our normal work and employment, a day to set aside time to meet with other believers to worship God, to be instructed in His way of life and to likewise perform good works that exemplify that way.
The Sabbath is to help us build a relationship with God
God tells us, "The seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work ... " (Exodus 20:10). He made it clear that our ordinary, routine work was unacceptable on that day. The Sabbath was to be different. Under the national administration of God's laws in ancient Israel, the Sabbath was so important to God that He specified that those who violated this command were to be put to death (Exodus 31:14-16; 35:2).
When Israel came out of Egypt, God reinforced this commandment by providing a double portion of manna on the sixth day and none on the Sabbath every week for 40 years (Exodus 16:26, 35; Joshua 5:12)—a total of more than 2,000 miracles! The Sabbath command is clearly important to God, and He expects us to obey it. Observing the Sabbath is vital to maintaining a proper relationship with God.
The Life Application Bible, commenting on Exodus 20:8-11, explains why we as human beings need the Sabbath: "The Sabbath was a day set aside for rest and worship. God commanded a Sabbath because human beings need to spend unhurried time in worship and rest each week. A God who is concerned enough to provide a day each week for us to rest is indeed wonderful. To observe a regular time of rest and worship in our fast-paced world demonstrates how important God is to us, and it gives us the extra benefit of refreshing our spirits. Don't neglect God's provision."
Jesus Christ showed by His example the proper way to observe the Sabbath. It was never intended to be a rigid, joyless day constrained by endless restrictions detailing what could and could not be done. He used it as a time to delight in sharing with others the joy of God's Word and way of life, showing it to be a time for strengthening our relationship with God. He used it as a time for healing—physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. It was meant to be a time for encouraging and helping those who are less fortunate.
Jesus Christ made it clear there was nothing wrong with doing good on the Sabbath, pointing out that God's Sabbath command had never forbidden it. He emphasized what the day is for, rather than listing all the things we can't do. His actions on the Sabbath pointed to the coming age He referred to as that of "the Kingdom of God," in which all humanity will share in God's promised healing, joy and freedom (Matthew 4:23; 9:35; Luke 4:16-19; 9:11; 10:9).
Christ's example showed that the Sabbath is to be a day of physical rest and spiritual rejuvenation. It is meant to be a welcome, refreshing break from our weekly labors, a time during which we must no longer be absorbed in our ordinary daily cares and concerns.
The purpose of God's commands—to bless and benefit us!
God's Word tells us that His commandments are never burdensome (1 John 5:3). They are not meaningless or arbitrary. They were given to humanity in love from a God of infinite wisdom and knowledge (Isaiah 55:8-9). They were given to be a benefit to mankind, bringing blessings when obeyed (Deuteronomy 4:40; 5:29, 33). These commandments include God's Sabbath. It is a day of rest and refreshing, a gift to mankind by the One who designed and created us. It is a time for physical, emotional and spiritual renewal.
God knew that we would need this time to nurture and strengthen a right relationship with Him. Part of the Sabbath command reads, "Six days you shall labor and do all your work . . ." God tells us to take care of our ordinary work and concerns on the other six days, leaving our time and our minds free to properly worship and obey Him by observing the Sabbath. When we are free to focus our minds and thoughts on God's way and purpose, the Sabbath truly becomes the blessing and delight God intends it to be (Isaiah 58:13-14).
On this seventh day of each week, we should cease from our own work and allow God to work in us, building and nourishing our relationship with our Creator. We will then discover and experience the blessings of God's Sabbath rest!