Principles and Theology of Sabbath Observance

3 min


1) Nature and Purpose of the Sabbath. The origin of the Sabbath lies in Creation when God rested from His work on the seventh day (Gen 1-3). The Sabbath has significance as a perpetual sign of the everlasting covenant between God and His people in order that they might know who it is that created them (Ex 31-17) and sanctifies them (Ex 31:13; Ezek 20:12), and that they might recognize Him as the Lord their God (Ezek 20:20).

2) Uniqueness of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a special occasion for worshiping God as Creator and Redeemer and as the Lord of Life with whom the human family will be reunited at the second advent. The Sabbath commandment forms the center of the moral law as the seal of God’s authority. Since it is a symbol of God’s love relationship with His earthly children, human beings are obliged to respect this gift in the sense that they will do everything in their power to promote and engage in activities that will help establish and enhance a lasting relationship with God. Thus His people will engage only in those activities that are directed toward God and their fellowmen and not in those that lean toward self-gratification or self-interest.

3) Universality of the Sabbath. The universality of the Sabbath is rooted in Creation. Thus its privileges and obligations are binding in all nations, sectors, or classes. (See Ex 20:11; 23:12; Dent 5:13; Isa 56:1-8.) Sabbath observance pertains to all members of the household including children and extends even “to the stranger that is within thy gates” (Ex 20:10).

4) Time Frame of the Sabbath. Biblical Data: The Sabbath starts at the end of the sixth day of the week and lasts one day, from evening to evening (Gen 1; Mark 1:32). This time coincides with the time of sunset. Wherever a clear delineation of the time of sunset is difficult to ascertain, the Sabbath keeper will begin the Sabbath at the end of the day as marked by the diminishing light.

5) Principles Guiding Sabbath Observance. Although the Bible does not deal directly with many of the specific questions we may have regarding Sabbath observance in our day, it does provide us with general principles that are applicable today. (See Ex 16:29; 20:8-11; 34:21; Isa 58:13; Neh 13:15-22.)

“The law forbids secular labor on the rest day of the Lord; the toil that gains a livelihood must cease; no labor for worldly pleasure or profit is lawful upon that day; but as God ceased His labor of creating, and rested upon the Sabbath and blessed it, so man is to leave the occupations of his daily life, and devote those sacred hours to healthful rest, to worship, and to holy deeds.”–The Desire of Ages, p 207

This concept, however, is not supportive of total inactivity. Both the Old and New Testaments invite us to care for the needs and alleviate the sufferings of others, for the Sabbath is a good day for all, particularly the lowly and the oppressed (Ex 23:12; Matt 12:10-13; Mark 2:27; Luke 13:11-17; John 9:1-21).

Yet even good works on the Sabbath must not obscure the chief Biblical characteristic of Sabbath observance, namely, rest (Gen 2:1-3). This includes both physical (Ex 23:12) and spiritual rest in God (Matt 11:28). The latter leads the Sabbath observer to seek the presence of, and communion with God in worship (Isa 48:13), both in quiet meditation (Matt 12:1-8) and in public worship (Jer 23:32, 2 Kings 4:23; 11:4-12; 1 Chron 23:30 ff; Isa 56:1-8). Its object is to recognize God as Creator and Redeemer (Gen 2:1-3; Dent 5:12-15), and it is to be shared by the individual family and the larger community (Isa 56:1-8).

6) Sabbath and the Authority of God’s Word. Ellen White points out that the Sabbath commandment is unique, for it contains the seal of God’s law. It alone “brings to view both the name and title of the Lawgiver. It declares Him to be the Creator of the heavens and the earth, and thus shows His claim to reverence and worship above all others. Aside from this precept, there is nothing in the Decalogue to show by whose authority the law is given.”–The Great Controversy, p 452.

The Sabbath as a sign of the Creator points to His ownership and authority. Meaningful Sabbath observance, therefore, indicates the acceptance of God as Creator and Owner and acknowledges His authority over all creation, including oneself. Sabbath observance is based on the authority of God’s Word. There is no other logical reason for it.

Human beings have the freedom to enter into a relationship with the Creator of the universe as with a personal friend.

Sabbath keepers may have to face resistance at times because of their commitment to God to keep the Sabbath holy. To those who do not recognize God as their Creator, it seems arbitrary or inexplicable for someone to cease from all work on the Sabbath day for merely religious reasons. Meaningful Sabbath observance testifies to the fact that we have chosen to obey God’s commandment. We thus recognize that our life is now lived in obedience to God’s Word. The Sabbath will be a special test in the end time. The believer will have to make a choice either to give allegiance to God’s Word or to human authority (Rev 14:7, 12).


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