What Is Proper Sabbath Rest?

by Ronald L. Preast  |  9 July 2021  |

At the end of an evangelistic series, it honored me to see a young lady baptized and join the local Seventh-day Adventist Church. She especially enjoyed spending the Sabbath with her new church family. One Sabbath day she suggested to a member they go to the local mall where her friend was hosting a “birds of prey” exhibit. She thought this was an appropriate Sabbath activity and people would enjoy learning about God’s nature. The church friend gave her a strange look, turned up her nose and said, “It’s the Sabbath, and we don’t go to the mall on the Sabbath.” The young lady was crushed. She left church that day, never to return.

We have all probably struggled with what is appropriate activity on the Sabbath day. The commandment simply states,

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 NIV).

We are commanded not to work, but what is considered “work”? How can we sinners keep anything holy?

Rights and wrongs

So what are the dos and don’ts for keeping the Sabbath? Can we eat out on Sabbath, or should we avoid restaurants? Can we watch television programs, or only watch religious programs on this day? We are not to work, but what is work for you may not be for me. Some people can play golf and find it relaxing and restful, but for me it is work. Working in the garden may be calming, but if my business is landscaping, it would be work. What does it mean to break the Sabbath, and how do we desecrate it?

Isaiah 58:13-14 can make it even more confusing:

“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.

I’m not supposed to do what I please, but what if preaching pleases me? I’m not to speak idle words but I have listened to many idle words in Sabbath School classes. I can’t do as I please, but I’m supposed to call the day a delight and find joy in keeping the Sabbath?

Then there is the question of why we keep the Sabbath. Do we keep it in honor of creation (Exodus 20:11), or in remembrance of being set free from Egyptian slavery? (Deuteronomy 5:15).

How they kept it

Different groups have sought to keep the Sabbath day holy the way God intended. The religious leaders of Israel studied Scripture and debated with one another on how to best observe the Sabbath day. This resulted in the establishment of 39 categories of what made up work, along with hundreds of Sabbath rules. The Pharisees and Sadducees spent hundreds of years studying and debating the Scriptures, trying to correctly follow God’s will. Then Jesus arrived and informed them they had gotten it all wrong.

You’ve got to feel a little sympathy for these religious teachers. Just consider how our own church reacts when someone presents a teaching that goes against years of beliefs and traditions (think of Desmond Ford). The denomination will call a special committee to study this new philosophy, and if they believe it to be unacceptable, the teachers may lose their place in church membership.

Seventh-day Adventists are not immune from establishing our own set of Sabbath rules. On Friday our clothes are to be prepared, cooking completed, shoes shined, and baths are to be taken. On the Sabbath, all secular work is to be set aside and all secular papers are to be out of sight (Child Guidance, p. 528). Many can remember the swimming discussion: “How deep can one wade into the water on the Sabbath and still keep the day holy?”

God commanded the Israelites to

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” (Exodus 31:14 NIV).

The religious teachers were trying to keep the people from desecrating the Sabbath, leading to death. But how does one desecrate the Sabbath? If we surveyed our own church, we would find many answers regarding appropriate Sabbath observance.


God gives very little instruction on how to properly keep the Sabbath.

In Exodus 16 the Israelites are told not to search for manna on the Sabbath day, but the priests prepared the consecrated bread every Sabbath (1 Chronicles 9:32). They were not to gather wood on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36) or build a fire (Exodus 32:3). Does that mean when camping we cannot gather wood and have a campfire? Nehemiah believed it was wrong to tread winepresses on Sabbath or sell goods on this day (Nehemiah 13:15). Is it wrong to eat out on the Sabbath, causing someone else to work in preparing our meals?

The people were not to carry loads through the gates of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 17:21-27). What makes up a load? Apparently, the Israelites were coming to worship at the temple and bringing along their harvest to sell in the streets while they were in town. Does this make it wrong for a Sabbath speaker to sell his books after church? The Jewish people were commanded not to work on this day, but the palace guards worked every Sabbath guarding the royal palace (2 Kings 11:5). Amos made it clear we are not to wish the Sabbath were over so we can get back to our regular duties (Amos 8:5). In context, it wasn’t about wishing the Sabbath were over but wishing it would end so they could take advantage of the poor.

When the Israelites fled Egypt, they carried along with them the influence of living in Egyptian bondage for the past 400 years. There was much God wanted to say, but they could not understand His full intentions. He wished to tell the people to love God and love one another (Matthew 22:36-40), but they could not comprehend true love. So God spelled it out in the Ten Commandments. For that present time, God commanded an “eye for an eye” until He could bring about respect and order among the people. If they had been told to turn the other cheek, it would have resulted in a massive brawl (Matthew 5:38-39).

Trying to gain the Israelites respect and trust God resorted to punishment if they refused to honor the Sabbath day. It’s like a child refusing to take a nap. The parent knows if this child does not rest, then no one will want to be around them. To make this happen, they may threaten the child with physical punishment. Hopefully the child will one day understand and take naps without being told.

God knew the Israelites needed a Sabbath rest. If they refused, no one would want to be around them. Unfortunately, they never outgrew having to be forced to rest and abused this gift from God. They only added more threats to those who failed to keep the Sabbath day as they saw fit. God’s few Old Testament rules for the Sabbath were emergency measures for the times. He keeps hoping His children will grow up and not need rules. Then they will understand and keep the Sabbath without being told.

The purpose of the Sabbath

In misunderstanding God’s true intentions for the Sabbath day, the people of God placed the Law of Moses before the needs of the people (John 7:20-24). The Pharisees showed more kindness to their animals than to their fellow believers (Matthew 12:11-12). It was so bad, the religious leaders had no problem with crucifying an innocent Man as long as they could accomplish it before sunset on Friday evening (John 19:31).

Jesus and His followers were all accused of being Sabbath breakers. They picked grain on Sabbath just to satisfy their hunger (Luke 6:1-2). Jesus performed many healings on the Sabbath day: the man with a shriveled hand (Matthew 12:10); a crippled woman (Luke 3:10-12); a man with dropsy (Luke 14:2-4); an invalid by the pool (John 5:3-8); and the blind man (John 9:13-15).

Jesus attempted to clarify the real purpose for the Sabbath by demonstrating, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28). Whenever questioned for breaking the Sabbath, Jesus immediately taught the true purpose of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a gift given to draw people closer to God. It is a day for doing good to one another and for saving lives (Mark 3:1-5). The Sabbath was never meant to be a test of fellowship or a day for proving who the true Christians are and who are not.

Jesus was trying to tell us, “It’s not about how you keep the Sabbath; it’s about why you keep the Sabbath.” If the Sabbath doesn’t make us better, more loving Christians, perhaps we should question how we are keeping it. If my rules cause someone to leave the church and never return, am I putting the law above the needs of people?

I fear we have spent so much of our time trying to figure out what is lawful to do or not do on the Sabbath that we have failed to fully enjoy the day. Jesus enjoyed the Sabbath. He found pleasure in healing others and seeing the joy on their faces. If His followers were hungry, He had no problem with them plucking grains of wheat. For Jesus, the needs of the people outweighed the traditions and man-made rules for how to keep His day holy (Matthew 12:1-8).

Jesus said, “The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14). Do we want people condemning us for how we keep the Sabbath? Then why are we condemning others for how they keep, or don’t keep, the Sabbath? Perhaps our rest on God’s holy day should include resting from condemning others who don’t keep my Sabbath rules or who don’t live according to my lifestyle.

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience (Hebrews 4:9-11).

Ron Preast served the Seventh-day Adventist Church 44 years as pastor and conference evangelist. He is now retired, living in Arlington, WA.

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