Summary: The Lord instructed Moses to “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Although this law was given to the Jews, the Christian church from its very beginning also kept this commandment, except doing so on the first day of the week rather than on the last day. But beginning in the early 1960s the Christian churches began to downplay the importance of keeping the sabbath day, claiming that such a law had been done away with by Christ, and that we no longer needed to follow it. This article examines the importance of following this commandment and how to make it a holy day.
The Lord instructed Moses to “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But 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: For 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).
To the Jews, the sabbath is a holy day and the things they do on this day are generally different from what they do on other days of the week. During the time when Jesus walked the earth, the Jews had become so strict in their observance of the sabbath day that they had developed a long list of things that specified what they could and couldn’t do in order to stay in compliance with this divinely mandated law.
For the Jews, the sabbath day was the last day of the week, or what we today call Saturday. However, as the Jews began to accept a belief in Jesus Christ they meet together to worship God on the “first day of the week” (Acts 20:7), which is what we today call Sunday, and as Christianity spread it is this day that has continued to be observed by Christians as the sabbath.
“The word sabbath literally means rest, or interruption, cessation, or to desist” (from thehebrewscholar.com). For this reason, throughout its history, Christians have observed Sunday as a day of rest, where we cease from doing our daily chores, and attended church to feast on the word of God. For centuries church was an all-day affair, where people would sit in their pews for hours on end listening to their priest or pastor preach to them. However, in time, church services were shortened to just a couple of hours, and when the service was over, people went back to their homes.
For many Christians, after church the men, especially, would sit around at home doing nothing except resting physically, while the woman only tended to fixing meals but rested from doing other household chores such as house cleaning, laundry and sewing. Or at least, that was what they were supposed to do, although not everyone kept the sabbath as it was preached to them.
Even up until the late 1950s most stores were closed on Sunday in observance of God’s law to keep the sabbath day holy. Yet, in time the Sabbath became something that was only viewed as being a day of rest, and the idea of it being “holy” included watching sporting events on TV or using it as a day to go on a picnic or even to get caught up on some of the unfinished chores around the house.
But beginning in the early 1960s the Christian churches began to downplay the importance of keeping the sabbath day, claiming that such a law had been done away with by Christ, and that we no longer needed to follow it. To justify their belief they quote the words of Jesus when he said that “the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27), and they interpret this to mean that man decides what he wants to do on Sunday and that we are no longer chained to living by a ridged set of rules of what we can and can’t do on Sunday.
It didn’t take long after that before stores started staying open on Sundays, and people started a tradition of going out to eat Sunday brunch at a restaurant immediately after the worship service was over, which now usually only lasts for one hour. Sundays also became the prime day for most sporting events, which attract thousands of attendees, as does many other activities that take people away from their homes. So now the sabbath is not only no longer considered to be a holy day, but it is not even considered to be a day of rest. For all practical purposes Sunday has basically become a weekly holiday, even for Christians.
However, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declares that the Lord still requires us to not only rest from our labors on the sabbath day but to keep it holy. But as more and more people become converted to this faith, the question invariably arises of what does it means for us to “rest from our labors,” and exactly how do we keep this particular day “holy?”
Does “resting from our labors” mean sitting around doing nothing except literally resting our bodies? Since we all have to eat, even on Sundays, then what about cooking? If a wife and mother has to cook a meal for her family on Sundays, then how is that resting from her labors? Is watching a football game or a movie on TV in keeping with Sunday being a holy day? If we are to rest from our labors, then what about all the Sunday church meetings we have to attend? Isn’t that doing work? If Sunday is supposed to be a holy day does that mean we can only do gospel related things? And what about children? They are full of energy and have a natural desire to play. Are we not allowed to let them play on Sundays, and instead make them do only spiritual things?
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has put out general guidelines to help answer these questions, but even so, people are still unsure what they should or shouldn’t do to properly keep this commandment. Many members have said they wish the church would put out a list of things that specifically details what is acceptable and not acceptable behavior for Sundays, but the church has said it is up to each individual and family to make that determination for themselves, based on the general guidelines they have been given. However, many people are still struggling to know how to keep this day holy.
The ancient Jews had a long list of things that spelled out in detail what they could and couldn’t do on the sabbath day, but this created as many problems as it solved, one of which is that people focused on the list rather than on the principle behind the law of the sabbath. Therefore, if we want to truly know how to keep the sabbath day holy, we first have to understand the purpose behind why God gave us this law.
The Lord explained, “If 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: Then 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)
In these two short verses we learn a number of things. The first is that we are to “turn away… from doing thy pleasure on my holy day.” But what does it mean to keep from doing what pleases us? What if it pleases us to serve the Lord? Does this imply that we should just sit around and do nothing that gives us pleasure?
The New International Version (NIV) renders this as saying, “keep… from doing as you please on my holy day.” The Lord has given us six days to do whatever we want to accomplish, including serving him, but on the sabbath the Lord wants us to set aside one day that is wholly dedicated to serving him. He wants us to take one day to focus our attention on him. Going to church and listening to inspiring gospel messages is one way to do that, but our time in church doesn’t take up the entire day, therefore, we need to decide what other things we can do that will turn our focus away from worldly things and concentrate more on godly things.
Isaiah further explained that the sabbath is not a time for us to find pleasure in doing those things that we want to do or to speak those things that we want to speak. Rather, it is a time for us to draw closer to God and learn what he wants us to do, and to meditate on and better understand his words. With all the many things we have to do throughout the week to make a living, to take care of our family responsibilities, and to maintain the upkeep of our homes, God gives us one day a week to take a break from all of our worldly worries, and take time to recharge our spiritual batteries.
There are things we have to do in order to survive in this world, but our life in mortality is only a very temporary condition, and God wants to prepare us for the next stage of our existence, where we will live for a much longer period of time once we lay our physical bodies in the grave. Sundays are designed to help us keep our focus on the long-term, eternal perspective, that we can easily lose sight of by all the worldly things that confront us.
The second thing we learn from Isaiah is that the sabbath day should be a delight. The sabbath was not meant to be a day we dread, but one we look forward to with joy and gladness. It should be a day to be happy. But, instead of gladly laying aside the things of the world, we tend to worry about all the things that we could be doing if it wasn’t for “resting from our labors” on Sunday. We find ourselves, “chomping at the bit” to use our extra time to get done those things we didn’t have time to get to during the rest of the week.
What this kind of attitude reflects is a desire to focus our attention on worldly things instead of on eternal things. It reflects a concern for the here and now rather than on preparing for the hereafter. This is the same attitude a young person has when working at a job. Their primary concern is about making money so they can spend it on things they want rather than investing it towards their future retirement. God is like an investment advisor who encourages us to invest a minimum of one day a week toward our spiritual retirement fund so that when we leave this mortal world we have a treasure waiting for us on which we can draw on in the next world.
The purpose of earth life is to help us to become as perfect as our father in heaven and the commandment to keep the sabbath day holy is designed to help us achieve that goal. When viewed from this perspective, we should be delighted for the opportunity to take time away from the stress of daily life so we can draw closer to God and to learn how to become more like him.
The third thing we learn from Isaiah is that if we keep the sabbath day holy God “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.” The NIV translates this as “I will cause thee to ride in triumph on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
God deals with us in much the same way as a father deals with his children. When a child does what his parents tell him to do, they are rewarded for their good behavior. That reward may come in the form of money, or in extra privileges, or with some other benefits. In the same way, when we do what God asks of us, he rewards us. In fact, he has promised, in writing, that if we keep the sabbath day holy, he will bless us for our obedience. Therefore, we should be happy to keep the sabbath day as God has commanded, knowing that we will receive blessing for doing so.
But there is more to keeping the sabbath day holy. Although the Hebrew word sabbath implies a “cessation of work inside the house, however, it has a covenant attached to it. This covenant envelopes or brings further meaning to the cessation of activity. It points toward purpose” (from thehebrewscholar.com).
A covenant is a sacred agreement made between God and man that connotes a partnership arrangement. God wants to save us but to do that we have to agree to following the course of instruction he gives us. It’s similar in nature to that of someone making a contract with a college that says, if the student will attend all of their classroom instructions, do the homework assigned them, and promises to study the information the professors give them, the colleges promises to award them a diploma when the course has been completed. In such an agreement, the college promises to do everything they can to teach the student, and the student promises to work diligently to learn what is being taught. Under this kind of an arrangement there is a partnership where both sides are working together to achieve the same goal.
At the time of our baptism we make a covenant with God to take upon ourselves his name and promise to keep the commandments he gives us (Alma 5:5,8). This means, when we are baptized we make a promise to God that we will keep the sabbath day holy because it is one of the commandments God has given us.
However, since each of us have different circumstances, therefore, the way people choose to keep the sabbath day will vary. For example, a young single adult will not keep the sabbath day the same way a married couple with four young children will, or how an older couple whose children have all left home will, or how a member of the church who lives with someone who doesn’t believe in keeping the sabbath day. For this reason, there is not a one-size-fits-all way to keep the sabbath day holy. Therefore, the Church leaders can only give general guidelines and then leave it up to each individual or family to determine what is the best way for them to keep this commandment.
Since the most important unit of the church that will live on in eternity is the family, parents with small children may choose to do things on Sunday that helps foster closer bonds between them and their children. This might include time playing together, mingled with some time devoted to reading the scriptures, and later watching a wholesome movie as a family, while also allowing for some free play time. For those whose children are in their teenage years, it may include visiting someone in a nursing home, or working together in the kitchen to make cookies for someone who is a shut-in, or working together on a genealogy project. It may include holding a monthly family counsel where the children have a voice in the family decision making process. But whatever the activities, they should be fun-filled as much as possible because nothing brings a family closer together than having fun with one another.
For those who live with someone who doesn’t believe in keeping the sabbath day holy, they may find themselves limited in what they can do. However, the principle of forming bonds of love between family members is a holy endeavor, as long as the activities are within the principles of the gospel that are suitable.
In addition to this, we are all at different levels of spirituality and not everyone is as capable of using Sundays for what they were intended. This is no different than any other principle of the gospel. For example, there are some members who struggle with the idea of paying their tithing or keeping the word of wisdom, and not all members serve as diligently in their calling.
In the same way, to some people, the idea of keeping the sabbath day holy merely means coming to church, while others will also refrain from doing any shopping, but think nothing about spending the afternoon mowing their lawn or watching a sporting game on TV. Still others will choose to use their Sundays to work on their genealogy or do some scripture study, or prepare for their next Sunday’s lesson, or do work associated with their church calling.
What we have to keep in mind is that our life here on earth is a journey. We came here to progress from where we were as innocent spirit children of God to becoming as wise and knowledgeable as our Father in heaven. Some people are moving along their journey at a brisk pace, while others are taking their time, while still others have become distracted and are not going anywhere.
But an important part of that journey involves self-learning. Our journey to become like God is a personal one and so each person has to decide for themselves what they want to do in order to draw closer to God. The way we choose to keep the sabbath day holy depends on how far along our spiritual journey we’ve advanced. Those who choose to make their Sundays more worldly than spiritual are merely people who haven’t yet advanced as far in their spiritual progression as others because the more spiritual we become the more we will desire to make our Sundays holier. Therefore, the Lord leaves it up to each of us to determine how holy we want to make the sabbath day
Related articles can be found at The Nature of Salvation