Everlasting Kingdom: Unraveling the Bible’s Secrets

Remember the Sabbath Day, to Keep It Holy [Kadosh]

The Sabbath Is a Test Commandment!

Article Preview: This article further elaborates on the Eternal Life issue. While this was originally written to long time “Church of God” Sabbatarians, as the opening statements indicate, anyone wanting to obey the Ten Commandments would benefit from this.

The Good Shepherd

You know the commandments in Exodus chapter 20, right? You know the fourth commandment by heart, right? After all, you have observed the Sabbath for many years now. For years you have attended the “Church” of God every Sabbath day, unless sick or otherwise unable to do so.

You also know that before his death Mr. Joseph W. Tkach did his utmost to convince members of the Worldwide Church of God that the Sabbath commandment is not binding on Christians today. It was this false teaching by Mr. Tkach which triggered the mass-exodus from the Worldwide Church of God in 1995. You didn’t accept this false teaching; you know that you really should observe the Sabbath.

So, do you really keep the Sabbath day holy? How do you know that you’re keeping it holy? What exactly do you do to keep it holy? How do you understand God’s instructions for the Sabbath day?


You have been in God’s Church for a number of years, and the chances are that you are indeed observing this day as God intended. After all, this is not some mysterious and difficult subject. Since coming into God’s Church your understanding has in all likelihood been basically correct, and you have observed the Sabbath in accordance with that understanding. So this article is not about presenting some “new truth” which would cause you to suddenly keep the Sabbath in a totally different way. But nonetheless we can all benefit from a greater or fuller understanding about any subject. That is what many sermons are aimed at: giving us a fuller understanding of something we had basically already understood.

So what exactly are God’s instructions in this regard?

The Hebrew Word for “Sabbath”

The Hebrew word “shabbath” is used for the first time in the Bible in Exodus 16:23:

“And he said unto them, This [is that] which the LORD hath said, to morrow [is] the rest of the holy Sabbath unto the lord: bake [that] which ye will bake [to day], and seethe that ye will seethe; and that which remaineth over lay up for you to be kept until the morning” (Exodus 16:23).

Here the noun “shabbath” is introduced to us without being defined, other than specifying when it would be. It is assumed that the meaning of this word “shabbath” will be obvious to the people. This noun has been formed from the primitive root verb “shabath.” Without this verb “shabath” there would be no noun “shabbath.”

To illustrate this in English: we only have the word “runner” in the English language because there is a verb “to run.” Without the verb “run” there would be no noun “runner.” Furthermore, the meaning of the word “runner” is readily apparent to anyone who understands the word “run,” in that a runner is someone who engages in the action described by the verb run.

That’s what it is like in Hebrew with this noun “shabbath”; its meaning is closely linked to and understood from the verb “shabath,” from which it is derived.

And while the noun “shabbath” is never used in the Book of Genesis, this verb “shabath” is used repeatedly, starting with the account of the re-creation week. Notice:

“And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and HE RESTED on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. 3 And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it He had rested from all his work which God created and made” (Genesis 2:2-3).

In these two verses the Hebrew verb “shabath” is twice translated as “rested.” Thus this verb means “to rest.”

However, it is not quite as simple as that. In the Hebrew of the Old Testament there are at least eleven different root verbs, all of which are at times translated into English as “rest.” So in order to be more precise in exactly what is conveyed by this verb “shabath,” we need to briefly examine all of these verbs. That will highlight the different perspectives with which the word “rest” is presented in the KJV of the Bible.

Hebrew Verbs Translated into English as “To Rest”

When we talk about a “primitive root verb” in Hebrew, we mean a word which has not been derived from any other word in the language, and its meaning is not based on any other word. Instead, it itself is the root word from which other words have been formed. The following eleven verbs are all primitive roots; none of them are related to each other etymologically, though their meanings certainly overlap in certain ways. Here are some brief facts about these words. The definitions I present are all based on Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament.

1) Shabath: this word is used 71 times in the Old Testament. In the KJV it is translated as:

“CEASE” 47 times
“REST” 11 times
Miscellaneous, 13 times

In Exodus 12:15 this verb is translated as “put away,” illustrating the scope of this verb. Notice this example.

“Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread; even the first day ye shall put away [SHABATH] leaven out of your houses: for whosoever eateth leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel” (Exodus 12:15).

The word is defined as: to rest, to cease from doing, to leave off, to sit down, etc.

2) nuwach: this word is used 64 times in the Old Testament and in the KJV is translated as:

“rest” 55 times
“ceased” 1 time
miscellaneous, 8 times

Exodus 23:12 is an interesting verse which uses both of the above words. Notice:

“Six days thou shalt do thy work, and on the seventh day thou shalt rest [shabath]: that thine ox and thine ass may rest [nuwach], and the son of thy handmaid, and the stranger, may be refreshed” (Exodus 23:12).

So we see that here a totally different verb is used to describe the “resting” of domestic animals, which results from their owners “resting” on the Sabbath. (Elsewhere the word “nuwach” is certainly also used for people and even for God.)

The word is defined as: to rest from labor, to sit down (as if to draw breath), etc.

3) sha’an: this word is used 22 times in the Old Testament and in the KJV is translated as:

“lean” 9 times
“stay” 5 times
“rely” 4 times
“rest” 3 times
“lieth” 1 time

This word is used by Abraham in speaking to Christ and the two angels in Genesis chapter 18:4.

“Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves [sha’an] under the tree:” (Genesis 18:4).

The word is defined as: to lean upon, to rest upon, etc.

4) sha’an: while this Hebrew verb is transliterated into our alphabet in exactly the same way as the previous word, it is in fact a different word, spelled differently in Hebrew and not related to the previous word. This word is used 5 times in the Old Testament and in the KJV translated as:

“at ease” 2 times
“quiet” 2 times
“rest” 1 time

Job 3:17-18 uses two of the above words, plus another word we will see in a moment. Notice:

There the wicked cease [chadal] from troubling; and there the weary be at rest [nuwach]. 18 [There] the prisoners rest [sha’an] together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor (Job 3:17-18).

Job is venting his frustrations here and he is speaking about death. He mentions three different categories of people and he uses three different words for “resting” in death for these people. He says: the wicked rest (chadal), the weary rest (nuwach) and the prisoners rest (sha’an). More about these two verses in a moment.

This word “sha’an” is defined as: to be tranquil, to be quiet, etc.

5) chadal: this word is used about 57 times in the Old Testament and translated in the KJV as:

“cease” 20 times
“forbear” 16 times
“leave” 5 times
“left off” 5 times
“rest” 1 time
miscellaneous, 10 times

Thus we see that in the above two verses Job is saying that in death:

the wicked leave off causing trouble (chadal)
the weary sit down and rest from labor (nuwach)
the prisoners have peace and tranquility (sha’an)

The word “chadal” is translated as “rest” in Job 14:6:

“Turn from him, that he may rest, till he shall accomplish, as an hireling, his day” (Job 14:6).

This word is defined as: to leave off, to become loose, limp, etc.

6) shaqat: this word is used 41 times in the Old Testament and translated in the KJV as:

“rest” 16 times
“quiet” 16 times
“quietness” 4 times
“still” 2 times
miscellaneous, 3 times

The word is used, for example, in the Book of Judges:

“And the land had rest forty years. And Othniel the son of Kenaz died” (Judges 3:11).

“So Moab was subdued that day under the hand of Israel. And the land had rest fourscore years” (Judges 3:30).

The word is defined as: to rest, to have quiet, to lie down, etc.

7) shakan: this word is used 129 times in the Old Testament and is translated in the KJV as:

“dwell” 92 times
“abide” 8 times
“place” 7 times
“rest” 3 times
miscellaneous, 19 times

The word is used in Psalm 16:9:

“Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope” (Psalms 16:9).

The word is defined as: to let oneself down, to settle down, etc.

8) shakab: this verb is used 212 times in the Old Testament and is translated in the KJV as:

“lie” 106 times
“sleep” 48 times
“lie down” 43 times
“rest” 3 times
miscellaneous, 12 times

The word is used in Ecclesiastes 2:23:

“For all his days [are] sorrows, and his travail grief; yea, his heart taketh not rest in the night. This is also vanity” (Ecclesiastes 2:23).

The word is defined as: to lie, to lie down, etc.

9) charash: this verb is used 73 times in the Old Testament and is translated in the KJV as:

“peace” 26 times
“plow” 13 times
“device” 5 times
“keep silence” 5 times
“hold tongue” 4 times
“rest” 1 time
miscellaneous, 19 times

The word is used in Zephaniah 3:17:

“The LORD thy God in the midst of thee [is] mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).

The word is also used in Deuteronomy 22:10 for example:

“Thou shalt not plow with an ox and an ass together” (Deuteronomy 22:10).

The word is defined as: to cut into, to inscribe, to plow, to be deaf, to put to silence, etc.

10) shamat: this verb is used 9 times in the Old Testament and is translated in the KJV as:

“release” 2 times
“throw down” 2 times
“rest” 1 time
miscellaneous 4 times

The word is used in Exodus 23:11:

“But the seventh [year] thou shalt let it rest and lie still; that the poor of thy people may eat: and what they leave the beasts of the field shall eat. In like manner thou shalt deal with thy vineyard, [and] with thy olive yard” (Exodus 23:11).

The word is defined as: to smite, to strike, to throw down, to let lie (i.e. a field untilled), etc.

11) raga: this verb is used 13 times in the Old Testament and is translated in the KJV as:

“rest” 5 times
“divide” 3 times
“suddenly” 2 times
“broken” 1 time
“ease” 1 time
“moment” 1 time

The word is used in Isaiah 51:4:

“Hearken unto me, my people; and give ear unto me, O my nation: for a law shall proceed from me, and I will make my judgment to rest for a light of the people” (Isaiah 51:4).

It is also used in Jeremiah 47:6:

“O thou sword of the LORD, how long [will it be] ere thou be quiet? Put up thyself into thy scabbard, rest, and be still” (Jeremiah 47:6).

And it is also used in Job 7:5:

“My flesh is clothed with worms and clods of dust; my skin is broken, and become loathsome” (Job 7:5).

The word is defined as: to terrify, to restrain by threatening, to be afraid, to tremble, to be still, etc.

All of the above 11 primitive root verbs are at times translated into English by the verb “rest.” To clearly understand the Hebrew verb “shabath,” we should notice how it differs from some of these other verbs.

Since some of these words clearly have other meanings, we can narrow down our examination to these 5 verbs:

sha’an (to be tranquil, quiet, etc.)

So let’s notice some passages where two or even three of these words are used in the same context. This can help to illustrate differences in focus. We have already seen Exodus 23:12 and Job 3:17-18, where two and three of these words are used respectively. Now notice a few other passages.

“And it shall come to pass in the day that the lord shall give thee rest [nuwach] from thy sorrow, and from thy fear, and from the hard bondage wherein thou wast made to serve, That thou shalt take up this proverb against the king of Babylon, and say, how hath the oppressor ceased [shabath]! the golden city ceased [shabath]! (Isaiah 14:3-4).

“And they shall burn thine houses with fire, and execute judgments upon thee in the sight of many women: and I will cause thee to cease [shabath] from playing the harlot, and thou also shalt give no hire any more. So will I make my fury toward thee to rest [nuwach], and my jealousy shall depart from thee, and I will be quiet [shaqat], and will be no more angry. (Ezekiel 16:41-42).

“The mirth of tabrets ceaseth [shabath], the noise of them that rejoice endeth [chada], the joy of the harp ceaseth [shabath]” (Isaiah 24:8).

“And it came to pass, when Baasha heard [it], that he left off [chadal] building of Ramah, and let his work cease [shabath]” (2 Chronicles 16:5).

“But fear not thou, O my servant Jacob, and be not dismayed, O Israel: for, behold, I will save thee from afar off, and thy seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall return, and be in rest [shaqat] and at ease [sha’an], and none shall make [him] afraid” (Jeremiah 46:27).

“Moab hath been at ease [sha’an] from his youth, and he hath settled [shaqat] on his lees, and hath not been emptied from vessel to vessel, neither hath he gone into captivity: therefore his taste remained in him, and his scent is not changed” (Jeremiah 48:11).

With this background we come to basically the following meanings for these verbs:

Shabath: This verb means to stop doing something; stop sinning, stop mirth, stop oppression, stop having leaven, etc. The consequence of stopping these things is rest. But the main focus of the word is to stop doing something that had been going on until then.

Nuwach: This verb focuses on resting; resting from labor, resting from sorrow, etc. The focus is on being refreshed as a result.

Shaqat: This verb also refers to resting, but the focus is on an atmosphere of calm, peace and tranquility.

Sha’an: This verb is similar to “shaqat” and also refers to resting in peace and quiet, with a focus on being freed from troubles and stresses.

Chadal: This verb is somewhat similar to “shabath” in that it refers to stopping doing something; but the focus is specifically on stop causing trouble, stop breaking God’s laws, leave off doing what is wrong, etc.

With this general understanding we can now look at the noun “Shabbath,” always translated as “Sabbath.” The Hebrew dictionary will tell you that the noun “shabbath” is an intensive form of the verb “shabath.” The noun “shabbath” emphasizes the activity (in this case “lack of activity”) of the verb “shabath.”

Thus the main and the immediate and the inherent meaning of the Hebrew noun “shabbath” is:


The immediate focus of the word is not on resting, on peace and quiet and tranquility, though all these things should be the automatic results of stopping the activities previously engaged in. The immediate focus is on “STOP DOING”!

With this background we are now ready to look at the Commandment itself.

The Fourth Commandment

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8).

The command starts with the instruction to bring to mind (Hebrew verb “zakar”) the day of stopping activities. This is an obvious reference back to Genesis 2:2, where God had stopped from doing all His work.

The Hebrew verb translated as “to keep it holy” is “qadash.” This word means to set apart for a special use, to hallow, to sanctify. Here this verb is used with the Piel stem, which signifies intensive or intentional action. So this tells us that we are to intentionally set the Sabbath day apart from the other days of the week. The reason for this is given at the very end of this specific commandment in verse 11: because God intentionally hallowed it (“qadash”) to start with.

The commandment continues:

“Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work:” (Exodus 20:9).

The verb for “you shall labor” is “abad” and the verb for “do” is “asah.” Both verbs are quite commonly used in the Old Testament: “abad” is used 290 times and “asah” is used 2633 times, a very common verb. “Abad” is translated as “serve, work, do, till (the ground), labor,” etc. and “asah” is translated as “do, make, deal, execute, perform, work, keep,” etc.

This verse sums up all the activities we may typically be involved with in the course of our everyday lives. The emphasis in this verse is on doing things, on being active.

The next verse introduces a contrast:

“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:” (Exodus 20:10).

First of all, this defines when the Sabbath day (the day when we are to stop doing things) is to be. It is to be the seventh day of the week. Next, this verse tells us what we are to do. We are to stop doing the things we do on the other days of the week. This phrase (“you shall not do any work”) is an expression of the meaning of the Hebrew noun “shabbath.” It means: cease from doing things.

The noun translated as “work” is “melakah.” This word is used 167 times in the Old Testament and is mainly translated as “work” (129 times) and as “business” (12 times). But then it is also translated by a variety of other words and expressions. For example: in Genesis 33:14 it is translated as “cattle”; in Exodus 22:8,11 it is translated as “goods”; in Exodus 31:3; 35:31 it is translated as “workmanship”; in Leviticus 7:24 it is translated as “in any other use”; in Leviticus 13:48 it is translated as “in any thing made”; in Judges 16:11 it is translated as “that (never) were occupied”; in 1 Chronicles 25:1 it is translated as “workmen”; in Jonah 1:8 it is translated as “your occupation”; etc.

All of these uses of the word “melakah” seem to indicate that this word “work” should not be restricted to our specific profession by means of which we earn a living, but that it means our “work” in a more general sense, including basically all our activities and endeavors. {Other Scriptures relating to the Sabbath, which we will look at later, will also bring out this more general application of “work.”}

he command is extended to include all those over whom we have authority: our children, our employees and our livestock. But it is jointly addressed to both spouses in a marriage.

The next verse introduces a reason for this instruction.

“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 20:11).

The reason given here is that God made (“asah”) things for six days. God was involved in certain activities for six days. And then God rested (“nuwach”) on the Sabbath day. And because God stopped doing things and He rested, therefore He blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart for a special use (i.e. hallowed it).

So We Now Have the Following Points:

1) God Stopped doing things: His work of re-creating.

2) God rested (as an example for us).

3) God blessed the Sabbath day.

4) God set the Sabbath day apart for a special use.

5) We are to stop doing the things we normally do.

6) We are to rest on the Sabbath.

7) In so doing we will reap a blessing.

8) We are to maintain the set-apart (i.e. hallowed) status God gave to the Sabbath day.

That is the whole Sabbath commandment.

Here is a point to keep in mind:

Even though this commandment contains a specific “you shall do something” (work for six days) and a specific “you shall not do something” (not work on the Sabbath), it is nevertheless still primarily a statement of a principle!

In this commandment God has not given us any lists of the things we may not do or a list of things we may do on the Sabbath. There is no such God-inspired list anywhere in the Bible.

So here is something we need to understand.

The Sabbath Is a Test Commandment

Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong explained many times that the Sabbath is a test commandment, and that it is a sign between God and His people (Exodus 31:13-17). Actually, the Sabbath command is a test in more ways than we may have realized.

1) The way Mr. Armstrong meant this is as follows: once we understand that God commands us to keep His Sabbath days holy, then we are tested as to whether or not we are willing to put God first and willing to obey this commandment.

But once we have accepted this point, then there is another way in which we are tested by this Sabbath commandment. And that is as follows:

2) The Sabbath commandment is nothing more than a statement of principle regarding the seventh day of the week. We are tested as to whether we will seek out the principles involved! And we are tested as to how we will then apply those principles to every single aspect of our lives on the Sabbath!

Can you grasp this?

God intentionally did not give us any lists of do’s and donts for this day. That is not because God could not have devised some list of do’s and donts regarding the Sabbath. Actually there are very definite things that are not appropriate for the Sabbath-but God expects us to seek these out for ourselves and to then apply new and deeper understanding as we come into it.

Sabbath keeping is a way of testing our consciences before God!

When we are new to Sabbath keeping, we may start out copying other people-doing the things they do on the Sabbath and not doing the things they don’t do on the Sabbath. That’s fine for our initial learning phase. But we must go beyond that point. We need to get to the point where we clearly and correctly understand the principle of this commandment. Why did God give us this commandment? What is this commandment supposed to achieve?

And once we understand the principles correctly, then we need to make decisions about how to best apply those principles to every potential Sabbath activity.

That’s part of our character development process!

This is extremely important to understand. People who say: “just tell me what I can do and what I can’t do on the Sabbath and I will do that,” are in fact short-circuiting their own character development to some degree.

God is not looking for “yes-men” to resurrect into His Family. “Yes-men” often lack character and often they lack convictions. God wants to know whether we are able and willing to correctly grasp principles which He has set in motion, and whether or not we have grown to the point where we can correctly apply those principles to any situation that may arise.

Specific do’s and donts cover one specific situation at a time. This is typically the way human laws are formulated. Additional situations require additional instructions. But principles, by contrast, cover any situation that may develop or come about.

Now God does not operate in the realm of specific do’s and donts, each of which regulates one specific situation. God’s existence and His lifestyle is based on principle. Those principles cover every possible situation that has ever arisen or that may ever arise in the future. No new additional laws are required to regulate new conditions that may come about, as far as the continued existence of God is concerned. The principles cover everything!

And so God gave us human beings the Sabbath commandment.

Keeping the Sabbath holy is a training-ground for us. It is training in taking specific principles and correctly applying them to a variety of situations. And as with any form of training, we are likely to make some mistakes in applying these principles. It is from the fruits (i.e. the results), which those mistakes will produce that we will learn that we in fact made a mistake.

And so part of this learning process will reveal that at times we were too strict in applying the principles, while at other times we may have been too liberal in the things we allowed for the Sabbath. That is par for the course when we ourselves have to translate principles into specific actions.

The Sabbath is not an end in itself, but it is a very powerful tool for learning to think like God.

When you understand this, then you should also realize that those people who want a minister to spell out and either approve or else disapprove every single activity as far as Sabbath-keeping is concerned, are in fact stunting their own character development. Doing or not doing something on the Sabbath simply because someone else either approved or rejected the activity does not really develop Godly character. Yes, certainly, we can seek guidance and counsel from a minister about such questions. But ultimately we must reject dubious activities because we ourselves understand the principle involved and we ourselves understand how this principle needs to be applied to the specific situation we have in mind.

Let’s look at a common situation, one which most ministers will have faced at one time or another.

A Common Situation

You or your friends have thought up a great activity. But it is either totally or partially on the Sabbath. Or it may require long distance travel on the Sabbath to get to the potential activity. You would really like to do the activity, but you wonder whether you should be doing it on the Sabbath. So you go to your pastor, and you say:

“John Brown is organizing activity X for the weekend three weeks from now. There are about a dozen of us who want to take part in it. Since it does involve a little bit of time on the Sabbath, do you think it would be okay for us to go ahead with the activity?”

What is happening here?

You see the potential for a very enjoyable activity. You would like to participate in that activity. You have already been keeping the Sabbath for quite a number of years. But you are avoiding making a decision based on the understanding that you already have of the Sabbath commandment. This means that you are avoiding learning to think like God by correctly applying the principles of His laws to your specific circumstances. Instead, you would like someone else to make a decision for you-and you are hoping to receive approval for what you really want to do.

The result?

Irrespective of whether the minister says “yea” or “nay” to your request, you will have missed an opportunity for developing a little bit more of the mind of God. Abiding by the minister’s “yea” or “nay” will not really develop any character in you. You have not made any effort to think through and then to apply any principles at all: you have simply hoped for approval for your request.

Now please don’t misunderstand. I do not mean that it is wrong to go to your minister for advice and counsel. Certainly you should feel free to seek his counsel on many questions. But there are also many cases where you yourself already know that probably what you would like to do is not suitable for the Sabbath: but you just don’t want to make the final decision. Either you are hoping that maybe the minister will actually approve your doubtful request, or you feel more secure hiding behind a statement like: “Well, the pastor said we can’t do it,” rather than saying up front: ”As far as I am concerned, that activity is not appropriate for the Sabbath, so count me out, gang.”

A variation of this situation arises when the wedding or the funeral of a relative or a friend is scheduled for a Sabbath day. Possibly it even involves another church, one you don’t really feel comfortable with. In your own mind you have some reservations that this occasion is really compatible with keeping the Sabbath holy. But you’d rather not make the decision regarding going or not going yourself. You want the minister to tell you what you should do. By all means ask your minister for advice. But in explaining the situation to him be sure to state very clearly what you yourself feel you should do-and ask the minister to correct you if what you intend to do is not right in his opinion. Don’t go to him without first having thought through the whole situation and having reached a tentative conclusion, one you make known to him.

Thinking the whole situation through, discerning which principles are involved and then reaching the right conclusion, one you fully intend to implement, is what develops your character. Having reached a conclusion, by all means seek counsel before you put that conclusion into action. That can help you avoid making mistakes. But if you have already observed the Sabbath for quite a number of years (I am not speaking about novices to Sabbath observance), then always try to avoid the indecision of telling your pastor: “Here is the activity that is planned or where I am expected to take part-and I just don’t know what I should do. Should I go or should I not go? I just don’t know. What do you think?”

Faced with that sort of question, the minister should at least turn the question around and ask the person: “Well, what do you think that God would expect you to do under these circumstances? Can you think of any principles that God would want you to apply here?” If the person still says: “I really don’t know,” then the minister should realize that he is dealing with someone who is reluctant to make commitments. That is a weakness. With God we simply have to commit! Both, hot and cold, are better with God than lukewarm. Convictions require us to make commitments.

Understand something else: in those cases where an activity is not really appropriate for the Sabbath, but you take part in the activity, then God will hold you accountable for that. Whether a minister approved the activity or not has absolutely nothing to do with your accountability before God. If it is indeed wrong, then you are accountable-irrespective of who may have expressed approval for the activity. Your accountability for anything you do in life (not just for Sabbath activities) is never diminished because other people promoted the activity or gave their consent to it.

Therefore beware of ever seeking approval for activities about which you yourself have serious doubts. If you are not convinced that something is really right, then don’t do it! And don’t look for people who will talk you out of your doubts about the activity. As Paul explained:

“And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because [he eateth] not of faith: for whatsoever [is] not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).

Whatsoever is not done in faith will destroy your character.

The Principles Involved in The Sabbath Commandment

It should be clear that a range of principles can apply to Sabbath-keeping. Many of these principles are either exemplified in biblical examples or they are found in further biblical instructions. So let’s notice some of these principles.

Stop Doing Our Normal Weekday Activities:

As the word “Sabbath” inherently tells us, it is a commandment to stop doing something. However, this does not mean that God wants us to spend the Sabbath doing nothing at all! The commandment is not about how many calories or kilo-joules of energy we may or may not expend on the day. Nor is it a commandment that restricts us from putting forth effort towards some purpose. It is a command to stop doing the things we do on the other six days.

This is made clear by a statement God makes through the prophet Isaiah. Notice:

“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, honorable; and shalt honor 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).

Here God lists three categories of things that can break the intent of what God wants the Sabbath day to be. These three things God refers to as:

doing or going our own ways
seeking our own pleasure or desires or delights
speaking our own words or about our matters of concern

Notice that here God does not even use the word “melakah,” translated as “work” in the commandment in Exodus chapter 20. Instead, here God focuses on three other words: ways, words and pleasures.

Isaiah 58:13 is an expansion of the principle inherent in the commandment in Exodus 20. Isaiah 58:13 reveals what God intended when He gave the commandment originally. So here is the very first principle we need to understand about the Sabbath commandment:

Sabbath keeping is about controlling our minds more than about controlling our actions!

The first consideration about any potential Sabbath activity is the motivation for engaging in the activity. For example:

it’s our job; it’s what we do to earn a living
it’s what we enjoy doing for our leisure time
it’s our entertainment (TV shows, etc.)
it’s a subject we enjoy discussing or studying
it’s something we didn’t have time for on the other days

These are the type of things we are to stop doing on the Sabbath! [Obviously some of the things that are acceptable for the Sabbath could also be described in some of the above terms. Later we can be more specific in this regard.]

For some people their jobs may involve a great deal of physical work. Other people earn a living simply by being somewhere without having to do very much. They are paid for their presence. In some cases they are even allowed to sleep “on the job.” It doesn’t matter whether people spend a lot of energy, or whether they don’t do anything at all: if it is the thing they do to earn a living, the thing they are paid for, then the Sabbath commandment says: don’t be involved in that on the Sabbath!

People who focus on whether someone is actually “working” or not miss the principle. Some people may reason: “But on this job I am not actually doing anything: I am just physically there, but I can do what I want to do, like pray, study the Bible, sleep, etc.” And the answer is: “Yes, but you haven’t stopped doing what you do on the other days for the purpose of earning a living: you are there!”

The same applies to our hobbies, our leisure activities, our sporting activities and the entertainment we seek on television. Some of you might remember a Bible Study Mr. Armstrong gave back in the early 1980’s, and which was then played in all congregations, in which he mentioned that in many cases “even the television newscasts had been turned into a type of entertainment,” the format and the manner of presentation being guided by the motivation to entertain the viewers. That may or may not be the case today, but it was a concern Mr. Armstrong did nevertheless at least express. His point, amongst other things, was that you had to watch for half an hour in order to get five minutes worth of news. And then it was dramatized out of proportion to attract the viewers and to boost the ratings.

Isaiah 58:13 simply says that on the Sabbath we are not to look for our own pleasure. Can we ourselves apply the principle of this instruction to all of the above activities? As far as television viewing is concerned, the underlying motivation is the key: why do we want to watch something on television?

People will sometimes reason as follows: “I want to watch this because it is so educational or so profitable. And it is after all something about nature, about animals or about the universe, about God’s creation. So that should make it suitable for the Sabbath, right?” Well, actually that depends-it depends on your perception and your level of understanding. Is the Sabbath the day we are to be educated about secular matters? Or is secular education only an incidental and occasional concomitant of spiritual education? Is the Sabbath the time to watch all your “National Geographic“ videos? And if it is okay to watch a video about animals, then is it also okay to attend a biology or zoology lecture at a university, where the same video may possibly be screened? In what way do these activities contribute towards setting the Sabbath “apart” from the other days of the week?

So what is the principle about “education on the Sabbath”?

The Sabbath is about spiritual education, not just about education in a general way. Yes, there may very well be exceptions, times when some secular education (i.e. non-biblical education about nature or other “profitable” subjects) demands a certain amount of prominence within the context of the Sabbath; but the motivation remains the key: why are we doing this?

What about the instruction to not speak our own words? What is it that our words reflect? They reflect our thinking, what our minds are on. And as I said earlier, Sabbath-keeping is about controlling our minds. As Christ said, it is out of the abundance of our hearts that we speak (Matthew 12:34); our words reflect, sometimes in disguised ways, our innermost thoughts and concerns. So the things we say on the Sabbath can sometimes indicate that we haven’t really “stopped” at all-with our actions we comply with the command, but with our minds we are still on the other wavelength. You know that is true some of the time, right? And you and I are tested as to how we apply the principle of this instruction.

Isaiah 58:13 spells out in detail just what a tall order the Sabbath commandment really is! It shows us what God is really looking for in us when we observe His Sabbath days. This verse shows that God meant the word “work” (“melakah”) in Exodus chapter 20 in a fairly general, though not necessarily in an all-inclusive way.

That tall order from God is that first we are to submit our minds to His instructions, and then the right actions will follow. Any wrong actions (through a lack of understanding) do not affect our integrity before God. If we knowingly engage in the wrong actions, then at that point in time our minds are not submissive to God. But if we lack understanding and err in the integrity of our hearts, then God will “wink” at the times of our ignorance.

On the other hand, when people submit to the right actions without first submitting their minds to God, then the actions alone will not achieve any character development!

Understand something:

At no point is godly character ever developed in the absence of the total and unconditional submission of the mind to the will of God!

And the right actions (i.e. physically abstaining from working on the Sabbath) are of no value before God without the submission of the mind. The submission of the mind is the important thing, and the right actions are only secondary to this. Remember that man looks on the outside, but God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). The heart must be right first before the right actions are of any value.

So understand this first and most important principle that applies to the Sabbath commandment, that Sabbath-keeping revolves around controlling the mind.

Let’s look at the next principle.

Call the Sabbath “A Delight”

Isaiah 58:13 not only tells us to stop doing certain things; it also instructs us in what we are to do. We are to call the Sabbath “a delight,” or “pleasant,” something to be happy about. As the next verse points out, we are to “delight ourselves in the Eternal.”

So what is the principle that is involved here?

We are to seek out and do (!) those things that will please God. Delight results from the things we do, not from a state of total and utter inactivity.


we are to seek out the things that please God, not our own pleasures
we are to seek out God’s ways, and not our own ways
we are to speak God’s words, and not our own words

This means that we use the Sabbath to seek contact with God. We seek to understand the mind of God more clearly. So the things we not only “can do,” but really “should do” on the Sabbath include spending additional time in prayer to God and spending additional time in studying the Word of God, the Bible. And while the diligent involvement in these activities is certainly a form of work or labor, and the mental energy involved may be very considerable (comparable to that of many office-type jobs), it is assuredly not the type of work Exodus 20:10 commands us to cease from.

It is not the “working” per se that Exodus 20:10 legislates against; it is the motivation for working that needs to be examined. Thus: carefully studying a business report or a market research paper in order to reach decisions that will affect the course of some economic venture is prohibited by God’s commandment; but carefully studying any book or passage of the Bible in order to more fully understand the will of God is not only acceptable, but is in fact highly desirable. Yet the level of concentration and of mental focus may be identical for both activities.

Similarly: seeking contact with a financial institution (in person or by phone) for the purpose of obtaining financial support for some business opportunity is not acceptable for the Sabbath, but prayerfully seeking the help and intervention of God in your personal trials and affairs is very much something you can and should inculcate into your Sabbath activities: and you may end up expending more energy on your knees before God than you would have spent on the phone talking to your bank manager. And so the activity that involves “more work” is desirable for the Sabbath, while the activity requiring “less work” is forbidden.

Now for Part 2

Part 2 Chapters Articles

Intro Disclaimer

Frank W. Nelte
Everlasting Kingdom
only search Everlasting Kingdom
Minor update January 21, 2012