A “How To” Guide to Keeping the Sabbath

by Cory Barnes | May 10, 2023

I was in graduate school when I first started taking the biblical teaching about keeping the Sabbath seriously. As I came to realize how central the Sabbath was to the biblical story and how clearly the Bible admonished God’s people to keep the Sabbath, I realized my family and I needed to obey God by setting one day a week aside to remember the Sabbath. The problem was that my wife and I really did not know where to start.

To say our family needed a day of rest was an understatement. I was working a full-time job, teaching several classes, drowning in doctoral work, and serving as an interim pastor at a small church. My wife Kayla was teaching at the homeschool co-op and taking care of a three-year-old and a newborn. As Kayla and I came to see the purpose of keeping the Sabbath in the Scriptures, we saw the desperate need for Sabbath in our own lives. 

The problem was we did not know where to start.

Thinking through some basic questions about the Sabbath helped us develop a deeper celebration of Sabbath rest.

When to Keep the Sabbath?

The word Sabbath is actually connected to the Hebrew word for seven, so it is no surprise that Sabbath was kept on the seventh day by God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments. One of the ways some Jewish people approached the Sabbath during Jesus’s time was to come together for worship and prayer in a gathering called the synagogue. After the resurrection of Jesus, Christians began to gather for worship on Sunday—the day of Jesus’s resurrection— rather than Saturday. For this reason, there is a rich Christian tradition of keeping the Sabbath on Sunday, often called the Lord’s Day. 

Some Christians feel strongly that the day of worship and Sabbath rest needs to return to Saturday. The purpose of Sabbath being kept on the seventh day in the Old Testament, however, is not about legalistic adherence to one day versus the other. The number seven represents completion and reminds us that on the seventh day of creation, God rested in his completed creation. For Christians, we are not just remembering the completion of God’s creative work. We are also anticipating the completion of Jesus’s redemptive work when he brings his kingdom into its fullness. As long as we remember that our rest is found in the completion of God’s work, the specific day of the week does not seem as important.

The Sabbath and Congregational Worship

Another question regarding when to keep the Sabbath is whether the Sabbath must be kept on a day of congregational worship—Sunday for most Christians. The answer is there is no mandate in the Bible for God’s people to gather corporately on the same day they celebrate Sabbath.

While keeping the Sabbath on a day of corporate worship is not a necessity, it can be beneficial. Gathering together with other believers to praise God is a powerful reminder of God’s presence.

Where to Keep Sabbath?

Part of our celebration of Sabbath may take place in a church building, but this is not the only place in which we can keep the Sabbath. One of the central places for Sabbath observance is the home. This does not mean you have to stay inside or even at your residence all day. There is, however, a powerful proclamation to remembering the holiness of the Sabbath in the home God has provided.

Getting outdoors is also an excellent place in which to keep the Sabbath. Psalm 19:1–6 reminds us that creation declares God’s glory. Surrounding ourselves with the glory of God manifest in creation is a powerful way to be reminded about the purpose of Sabbath celebration.

The Sabbath is About God’s Presence

The Sabbath is about God resting in his creation and creation resting in God. This should guide our Sabbath activities. On the Sabbath we should do things that remind us of God’s presence with us and the rest he provides for us through his good work on our behalf.

On the Sabbath day, enjoy being present with others God has placed in your life. For me, that is my wife and children and sometimes our friends. If you are single, consider making lunch or dinner with friends and/or family a regular part of your Sabbath observance. The rest into which God is bringing us is experienced in community—it is helpful for our Sabbath celebration of that coming rest to also have this element of community.

Reject Boredom and Embrace Joy

We have already discussed that one powerful Sabbath activity is to worship with God’s people. If you do not celebrate the Sabbath on the same day you partake in congregational worship, then I recommend spending additional time that day in God’s word. Consider singing hymns with other believers, listening to a sermon on a podcast, etc. 

Sabbath is not a day of boredom, but it is a day of rest, so do restful things on the Sabbath. That might change drastically depending on your personality and even on what your normal day looks like. My family enjoys working around our yard on the Sabbath day. We find this a restful and enjoyable way to spend time together. If your job is landscaping, however, that is probably not the way you want to rest!

Avoid Toil

Here is a guiding principle for Sabbath rest—avoid toil. The opposite of rest is not work; it is toil. Toil is work corrupted by the curse of sin. God tells Adam that part of the punishment for sin is that work will be cursed and we still feel that punishment to this day (Gen 3:17). Avoid work that reminds you of the fallen state of things during your day of Sabbath rest. This will change from person to person. In our home, this means we wash dishes and tidy bathrooms on Saturday so that these tasks are not a burden to us as we keep the Sabbath. We may work in the yard, fold a load of laundry while having a conversation or watching a movie we enjoy, but we do not toil on the Sabbath. This is a reminder to us that Jesus is removing the curse from all aspects of life—including the curse of toil.

The possibility for Sabbath activities are expansive! Take walks, sing, nap, talk, eat good food, but in all of these things remember why you are resting. God created you to rest in his presence. This affects each and every day of our lives, but setting one day apart as a holy remembrance that God created us for rest and Jesus redeemed us to that rest is a deep blessing for God’s people!

Cory Barnes

Cory Barnes has been blessed to teach God’s Word to college and seminary students since 2015. His research interests include biblical theology, intertextuality, and the ancient Near Eastern context of the Old Testament. In addition to his teaching role, Cory works with distance learning at NOBTS. He is the co-author of Kingdom Students(B&H Academic, 2020) and the author of From Creed to Canon (Borderstone Press, 2014).