OUTH WIDE OPEN, I’M SITTING in the dentist’s chair and listening to the chitchat between him and his assistant. They’re talking about a young married couple, one of whom appeared to be the dentist’s son. The couple is about to have a baby, and the dentist’s assistant wants to know about that and about how they’re keeping house.
Assistant: How did [your son] fare in the recent snowstorm?
Dentist: He failed the test.
A: How so?
D: Well, he didn’t get the snow removed till late Sunday.
A: Didn’t have a shovel?
D: Yes, he did. But, you know, they’re not supposed to remove the snow on Saturday.
D: He could have removed it Saturday night, but somehow he didn’t. So when I got there Sunday, it had hardened. . . .
Well, didn’t he have to use the car?
D: They don’t drive on Saturdays. I do, but they don’t.
D: I suppose if the baby comes on Saturday, we won’t know until sometime Saturday night or Sunday.
A: How so?
D: They don’t use the telephone on Saturdays.
A: But how will they get to the hospital?
D: Oh, they can drive in that case, because it would be an emergency.
As I listened, I couldn’t help thinking how much more liberal we are as Adventists in our Sabbath practices, compared to Orthodox Jews—and (in my thinking) how much more reasonable.
But is there a flip side to this?
When Jesus came, He found a nation riddled with a multitude of human-made Sabbath rules, misguidedly designed to protect the sacred day. Recently while reading in John’s Gospel, I found myself shaking my head as if I’d not read the passage a hundred times before. Its setting was that depressing scene at the Pool of Bethesda, where “a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.” Coming upon the gloomy spectacle, Jesus discovers an invalid of 38 years, heals him, then commands him to “‘Get up! Pick up your mat and walk’” (see John 5:1-8).
What would be the reaction of the religious leaders to this astonishing development? Rejoicing—to see this erstwhile wretched man brimming with radiant health, all pain and misery gone? There was just one problem: the whole joyful, life-giving, thrilling incident had taken place on Sabbath! “‘It is the Sabbath,’” they said to the beaming man, and “‘the law forbids you to carry your mat.’” “‘Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?’” (John 5:9-12).
Incredible! Instead of being simply dumbstruck with wonder and astonishment and joy, they’re looking to kill somebody for breaking one of their own concocted Sabbath rules.
That kind of Sabbath abuse has made us gun-shy about any discussions on Sabbathkeeping. But wisdom is all about knowing when pendulums have swung too far. If Jesus came into our situation today, would His emphasis about Sabbathkeeping be the same? Or, quite to the contrary, would He charge us with doing to this sacred day what the Jews of His time had done to the Temple?
We should welcome all attempts to rescue the Sabbath from legalism and human-made regulations alien to its spirit and purpose. And I’m glad for efforts over the past 50 years or so to develop a theology of the Sabbath that points to the institution’s deeper meaning and significance in the modern context. But with hundreds of thousands of new people coming into the Adventist Church every year, it seems altogether proper to focus from time to time on the important issue of Sabbathkeeping. My fear is that if we take this vital element for granted, the time will come when our Sabbath observance is no different from the way the majority of our fellow Christians keep Sunday.
Sabbath at Sister Davidson’s
A young Anglican boy, I’d always known about Adventists in the small community where I grew up; and together with the rest of my family, I despised them. But just before enrolling in secondary school, I happened to attend some evangelistic meetings they were holding in a public place, and was impressed. I set out for secondary school away from home, and by sheer coincidence (in retrospect, providence) found myself as a boarder in the home of Sister Susannah Davidson, an Adventist woman of long and prominent standing in her local church. Here I would encounter Sabbath up close for the first time.
In Sister Davidson’s house, everyone had their chores come Friday afternoon, working together toward the single goal of having everything done by sundown. By sundown, the house was clean, the showers had been taken, our clothes were ready, the Sabbath meal had been fixed; and as everyone gathered around the piano in the living room for sundown worship, the aroma of freshly-baked bread filled the entire house—a mouthwatering reminder that supper was to follow. For someone just getting acquainted with Sabbathkeeping, I couldn’t have asked for a better example.
Sabbath was a time for wearing your best, whatever that was. You dressed in a manner that showed you valued the day enough to save the best you had for it. And it was considered a part of good Sabbath practice to come to church smelling fresh. When Ellen White spoke about the baths being taken before Sabbath, I think she was talking against the background of her time. In those days, taking a bath was a major effort. The water had to be fetched—likely from a well—and carried into the bathroom. If it was winter, a fire would have been needed to heat it up. And when you consider that in most cases we’re talking about large families, it’s not hard to see the need to have these chores cared for before the Sabbath.
The principle behind that standard still holds today, I think. And I find it hard to begin the Sabbath properly without taking a shower first. With a good deodorant, one shower can hold most people through the Sabbath; but for those whose body chemistry demands it, it would seem appropriate for them to take a second shower Sabbath morning. Christians should not smell, and we should not interpret Ellen G. White in such a way as to give us excuse for offending other worshippers in this way.
It’s at Sister Davidson’s that I learned many of the things I now practice automatically in regard to Sabbath: secular magazines and books on my coffee table put away or hidden from plain view; secular radio and television off; religious music playing—or just plain quiet filling your space; special food prepared.
I learned that Sabbath is about atmosphere; about a radical change of pace; about finding space for God; about making time for special communion with Him. It’s about expelling every intrusion within our power so as to create an environment in which spirituality can strengthen.
The songwriter had it right:
“How sweet upon this sacred day,
The best of all the seven,
To cast our earthly thoughts away,
And think of God and heaven!”
Does God Care How We Keep Sabbath?
As we know, the Sabbath had its origin at Creation when God set the supreme example by resting from His creative work. Later He would make His will explicit in the heart of the Decalogue, enjoining us to “do no work” in this sacred time (see Ex. 20:8-11, NKJV).*
It’s a 24-hour period, however; we are human beings; and life must go on. So the command to “do no work” calls for some interpretation.
In this connection, I accept as relevant the clarification we find in connection with the Feast of Passover since, as we may logically assume, the rest connected to it (and to the other ancient observances) was patterned after that of the weekly Sabbath. On both the first and seventh days of the Passover celebration the people were to “hold a sacred assembly.” They were to “do no work at all on these days, except to prepare food for everyone to eat—that is all you may do” (Ex. 12:16).
Here we see a critical interpretation of the “do no work” stipulation. The Sabbath is not for fasting; food must be prepared, and that entails some work.
From Exodus 16 we get a hint, however, as to the kind of work envisioned here. The people were to collect only so much manna each day, with any surplus going bad overnight. On Friday, however, they were to gather enough for two days, with no spoilage. Explaining the phenomenon, Moses says: “‘This is what the Lord commanded: “Tomorrow is to be a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning”’” (Ex. 16:23). (Whether out of stubbornness or curiosity, some people went out Sabbath in search of the product, “but they found none”—verse 27.) Thus God made a clear distinction between Sabbath and the rest of the week. Exactly what they fixed and how they ate it, we do not know. But according to Exodus 35:3, they were not to “light a fire in any of [their] dwellings on the Sabbath day.”
Does this mean that we today should eat cold food on Sabbath? I once learned what it would mean to answer yes to that question. As is often the case while on itinerary, I’d not had a proper supper that Friday evening, and breakfast consisted of what little my hosts had stashed away in the refrigerator in the guest apartment they’d arranged for me. So all morning I’d been looking forward to lunch, especially after preaching in two different churches before midday—and also because I’d been scheduled for two more sermons in different churches in the afternoon.
Alas, however, lunch was beastly cold—the rice, the potatoes, the entrée, everything. I always try to be flexible, but that day I found it impossible to get things down, and so I preached that entire Sabbath hungry.
Is this what God wants? I doubt it.
One way to understand the passage about not making fire, I believe, is to see it in context. When you try to imagine what it would have looked like in the Israelite camp with the smoke of 100,000 fires covering the grounds, then you get the sense that that was not the atmosphere God wanted for this sacred time. In many places today, on the other hand, the process of producing heat to warm our food is as easy as brushing our teeth. And while I think that we, like the ancient Israelites, should still prepare the bulk of our food ahead of Sabbath, I can see no good reason to eat it cold. The effort to warm it is no more than what’s needed to bring it to the table. Making food palatable is the kind of work anticipated in Exodus 12:16.
God’s intention is that the Sabbath should be a day of renewal. In a passage filled with poetic beauty, “the gospel prophet” Isaiah paints a picture of the blessings that await all who honor God in the context of this sacred day: “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” (Isa. 58:13, 14).
Comparing this text to its sister passage in Jeremiah 17:19-26, I take it to mean that on the Sabbath my activities and thoughts should be channeled in a different direction than on other days of the week, as befitting the sacredness of these special hours.
If I’m a merchant, I don’t do sales on Sabbath. If I’m a schoolteacher, I don’t do class on Sabbath. If I’m an electrician, I don’t string wires on Sabbath. If I’m an attorney, I don’t do cases on Sabbath. If I’m a student, I don’t do books on Sabbath. And if I’m a pastor, a physician, or a nurse, then Sabbath brings a modification (though not necessarily a complete stoppage) of my work.
There are exceptions, of course—for emergencies or special situations. When disaster strikes, for example, you respond in whatever way seems appropriate: You fix tires; you rescue from a burning building; you cook; you haul wood; you dig ditches; you build a house; you travel long distances; you bake bread—whatever is needed in the crisis. But when under regular circumstances (and to prove a point), we deliberately single out the Sabbath as the time to paint widow Jane Doe’s house or cut her grass—things that could well wait till Sunday or even Wednesday, then something’s wrong with that picture.
Here in Isaiah God is saying that if I’m careful to observe the Sabbath His way, then He will bless me with a whole bundle of good things I don’t even fully understand—like “feed” me with “the heritage of Jacob” (KJV) and all that rich stuff. Don’t know what it all means, but it sounds mighty good to me!
Adventists, especially in the industrialized world, are awful busy during the week, and so they tend to pack a lot of stuff into the Sabbath hours. But our aim always should be to free up the Sabbath from all unnecessary clutter. One of the best Sabbath afternoons I’ve ever spent was on the island of Tobago in the Caribbean, when the young people planned a relaxed youth meeting and Sabbath vespers in a field down by the seaside. As the big, red sun dipped behind the horizon, its golden afterglow filling the western sky with beauty, the evocative words of Henry de Fluiter flowed out in grateful song, blending with the sound of the lapping waves before us and reminding all of that glorious day to which every Sabbath points:
“Over yonder, down by the crystal sea,
Over yonder, there’s where I long to be,
No more sorrow, toil, grief, nor care,
In the homeland bright and fair,
Over, over there.”
What wonderful Sabbaths with Jesus when we get there!
*Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Roy Adams is an associate editor of the Adventist Review.