Keeping the Sabbath Holy

Catechetical sermons preached in PCC Evening Worship Services, Feb 2013 to Dec 2017

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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: 14  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

WSC 60. How is the Sabbath to be sanctified? 

A. The Sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day,1 even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days;2 and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship,3 except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.4  

1Ex 20:8, 10; 16:25–28; 2Neh 13:15–22; 3Lk 4:16; Acts 20:7; Ps 92 title; Isa 66:23; 4Mt 12:1–31. 

WSC 61. What is forbidden in the Fourth Commandment? 

A. The Fourth Commandment forbiddeth the omission or careless performance of the duties required,1 and the profaning the day by idleness,2 or doing that which is in itself sinful,3 or by unnecessary thoughts, words, or works, about our worldly employments or recreations.4 

1Ezk 22:26; Amos 8:5; Mal 1:13; 2Acts 20:7, 9; 3Ezk 23:38; 4Jer 17:24–26; Isa 58:13.

We began our study of the Fourth Commandment in our previous message. We considered the what, who, when and why of this commandment. 

  • On the question “What?” we noted that the Sabbath is both a creation ordinance and a moral obligation. The Sabbath is about setting aside one day in seven to be holy unto the Lord. All other days are appointed for us to order according to our discretion. The Sabbath is to be ordered according to the Lord’s instruction. On the Sabbath, whatever is not appointed is forbidden, whereas on all other days, whatever is not forbidden is allowed. 
  • As to “Who?” we saw that Gentiles and Jews alike are to observe the Sabbath. The Sabbath is for all men, Christian or not. A believer sins when he profanes the Sabbath, and so does the unbeliever. Believers, however, must especially keep the Sabbath, for it serves as a sign to distinguish God’s people from the world (cf. Ex 31:16-17). 
  • As to the question, “When?” we saw that in Old Testament days, the Sabbath was to be kept on the last day of the week, whereas since the resurrection of Christ, we are to celebrate it on the first day of the week, for Christ rose from the dead on the first day of the week. 
  • As to “Why?” we noted that principally, God wants us to observe a day of rest for our body and soul, as we remember He is our Creator and Redeemer. 

In this follow-up message, we want to answer the question, “How?” But we would learn anything useful, we must bear in mind what we have learned thus far. Without the background, we shall descend into legalism in our attempt to keep the Sabbath holy. 

With this in mind, the Lord helping us, let us enter into the subject: How should we observe the Fourth Commandment? How should we keep the Sabbath holy? Our Shorter Catechism, Q. 60, asks: “How is the Sabbath to be sanctified?” Answer: 

“The Sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.” 

The Westminster Larger Catechism has a fuller answer: 

WLC 117. How is the Sabbath or Lord’s day to be sanctified? A. The Sabbath or Lord’s day is to be sanctified by an holy resting all the day, not only from such works as are at all times sinful, but even from such worldly employments and recreations as are on other days lawful; and making it our delight to spend the whole time (except so much of it as is to be taken up in works of necessity and mercy) in the public and private exercises of God’s worship: and, to that end, we are to prepare our hearts, and with such foresight, diligence, and moderation, to dispose and seasonably dispatch our worldly business, that we may be the more free and fit for the duties of that day.

We would do well to study this question thoroughly and use it as a mirror to examine and measure our own Sabbath-keeping. But for now, I would like to give you seven pointers on how to get the most out of the Sabbath Day. 

1. Seek to Fulfil the Purpose, Not the Form 

It is unfortunate that many modern Christians think of the Sabbath in terms of a list of dos and don’ts. As a result of this thinking, whenever the subject of the Sabbath comes up, a flurry of questions relating to outward behaviour starts popping up: Can I kick a ball? Can I watch TV? Can I buy something on the way home from church? Can I take my professional exam? Can I put the laundry in the washing machine? Can I study for my exam? Can I read the newspaper? Can I check my email? Can I go for a swim? Can I go to the park? Etc. 

But let us realise, brethren, that this is not the right approach to keeping the Sabbath Day. Instead of asking what you should or should not do, you should ask: Why? What is the purpose of the Sabbath? And then seek to fulfil that purpose by God’s grace. 

The purpose of the Sabbath is to free you from the bondage of the busyness of life in this world, to remember God as Creator and Redeemer, and to rest and worship. Think about how best you can fulfil that purpose today. And remember that the Sabbath Day does not belong to you. It belongs to the Lord. And yet it has been given to you to rest your body and soul, and to free you to enjoy the Lord. 

You must have some conviction on what you should or should not do, but do not make a list and go about keeping the Sabbath legalistically and joylessly. Ask instead: (1) Am I fulfilling the purpose of the Sabbath? (2) Am I doing good?  

2. Always Prepare for It 

If we want to keep the Sabbath Day holy and delight in it, we must seek to prepare for it deliberately. Don’t ever begin to take the Sabbath lightly or for granted.  

You must always seek to finish up all your work by Saturday. If you know you are going to do some cooking on the Sabbath Day, you would do well to do most of the preparation by Saturday. It is said that when Dr JG Patton preached the Cannibals in the New Hebrides, Saturday became a cooking day so that on the Lord’s Day, the whole day could be spent worshipping and learning.  

Students, if you prepare for the Lord’s Day by completing all your assignments and studies by Saturday night, you will be better able to enjoy the Sabbath. Sisters, if you finish your shopping and laundry by Saturday night, you will not find the Sabbath burdensome. It will not do for you to do these things on the Lord’s Day. The Lord’s Day, the Christian Sabbath, does not belong to you. It belongs to the Lord.  

So, always try to rest early on Saturday night. How can you benefit from the Sabbath Day if you spend the whole Saturday night watching TV, playing computer games, or attending a wedding party? 

3. Beautify the Day with Worship 

Worship, especially public worship, is the most crucial activity of a Christian on the Lord’s Day. You must resolve always to be found in church on the Lord’s Day to worship your creator and redeemer and to hear him speak to you. Remember that the Sabbath is not just for you to rest but to worship. This is what is meant by keeping the Sabbath holy. Being idle on the Sabbath Day profanes the Sabbath. 

How sad that many Christians today take the worship service simply as a duty to be done. How sad that instead of looking forward to it, many look forward to its conclusion. This attitude is reflected in the fact that the evening service in most churches is poorly attended, if there is an evening service at all. Worse still, many have no qualms about missing worship services. Some, of course, are hindered by health and distance from coming for two services. We are not talking about this. We are talking about those who can attend two services but choose instead to come for only one. And many would attend service in the morning and skip the evening service. Many will only come for evening service only if they have to miss morning service for some reason. Some also claim that having family devotion is better than attending church in the evening because they can rest better at home. 

But this is all very wrong. Remember, brethren, first, that the Sabbath is not primarily about bodily rest. Instead, it is first and foremost about spiritual rest and refreshment. It does not burn many calories to collect manna. It is undoubtedly not a tiresome activity. Even a child could do it. Yet the Lord forbade the people from collecting manna on the Sabbath. Why? Because it would distract them from worship and meditation upon God! 

And remember also, in the second place, that faith comes by hearing God’s Word preached. It is through the preaching of the Word by lawfully ordained ministers that we hear the voice of our Great Shepherd. It is primarily through faithful preaching of the Word that we will grow in grace. Also, let us remember that God loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob (Ps 87:2). God is more pleased and more greatly magnified when His people gather for public worship than for private family worship. 

But this is not to say that private devotions and family worship are not necessary. They are. They are to take precedence over everything else after public worship on the Sabbath! 

4. Break from Unnecessary Chores 

Yes, every day in a Christian’s life should be the Lord’s Day, but on the Sabbath, the Christian is called not to engage in his secular vocation, but to rest and worship.  

“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” (Ex 20:9-10).  

The Lord does not mean that you are to do nothing, but that you should seek to do those things that tend to serve the purpose for which the Sabbath is appointed.  

Remember how the Lord has appointed this day for you to remember him as Creator and Redeemer? How best can you do that but by worshipping Him, meditating upon Him, talking about His love for you, and doing good works in His name? Thus, works of mercy and works of piety are appointed for us on the Sabbath. 

But, we must understand that works of necessity and emergency are not forbidden. This is what the Lord Jesus is seeking to teach us by His examples in the Gospels. However, let us be careful not to over-broaden the meaning of ‘necessity.’ 

What kind of work does repairing your roof fall under? Well, if your house is going to be flooded or is going to collapse if you do not do it immediately, then it is an emergency, and you need not feel guilty about repairing it. But you should not do it if it can wait until Monday. 

What kind of work does washing your car come under? It is certainly not a work of mercy. It is neither a work of piety nor an emergency or a necessity. Remember that the Sabbath belongs to the Lord. Break away from unnecessary chores. 

But on a positive note: Are there not many things that should occupy your time on the Sabbath Day? During the week, we frequently have little time to spend in our private and family devotions. What better time to make up for the deficiency than the Sabbath? During the week, you receive a letter from a brother who is depressed, and you have not been able to reply to it. What better time than the Sabbath Day to reply to the letter? The Sabbath is also an excellent time to catch up with your reading of Christian literature. If we spend our sabbaths properly, we need not complain any more that we have no time to read.  

5. Avoid Making Others Work for You 

Remember that the Sabbath is not only for you. The Lord Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for man.” It is for all men. The Fourth Commandment indicates this:  

“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” (Ex 20:9-10).  

Even the animals had to rest. Christians should not work, but it does not mean they should make others work on their behalf.  

Of course, there are moments of emergency: if your car breaks down in the middle of the road and you need to call a tow truck, you need not feel guilty about doing so. Of course, you should not tell the mechanic: “You may as well service my car and wash it for me.” The way to define an emergency is this: if it can wait till Monday, it is not an emergency. 

Then, of course, there are some services which are necessary in modern society—public transport, utilities, etc. We need not feel guilty about using these services. But, we should, for example, avoid going shopping or to a restaurant to eat on the Sabbath Day. We can shop another day, and we can also prepare a simple meal for ourselves rather than making someone work for us. Is this my own opinion? Look at the example of Nehemiah. 

Nehemiah 13:15-21: 

 In those days saw I in Judah some treading wine presses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses; as also wine, grapes, and figs, and all manner of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath Day: and I testified against them in the day wherein they sold victuals. 16 There dwelt men of Tyre also therein, which brought fish, and all manner of ware, and sold on the Sabbath unto the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem. 17 Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said unto them, What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the Sabbath Day? 18 Did not your fathers thus, and did not our God bring all this evil upon us, and upon this city? yet ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the Sabbath.

Neh 13:15-18

Notice that it was not the Jews who were selling. Nehemiah was angry at the Jews for buying from the Gentiles. In chapter 10, Nehemiah and the people had covenanted: “If the people of the land bring ware or any victuals on the Sabbath Day to sell, that we would not buy it of them on the Sabbath…” (Neh 10:31a). Someone may say, “But Nehemiah did not say that the Jews could not go out of the city to shop!” But that is grasping straw. We read on in Nehemiah 13, and we see how the men of Tyre set up store outside the city walls, and how Nehemiah drove them away!  

The application of this passage is straightforward. Christians ought to avoid all forms of shopping and worldly entertainment on the Sabbath, for doing so would require others to break the Sabbath for us. Shopping and entertainment can be carried out on any other day. They are inconsistent with the spirit sanctifying the Sabbath Day unto the Lord. 

But having said these, we must consider our sixth point, namely… 

6. Tackle Conflicts & Conundrums with Humility & Charity

I know that as soon as we begin to say we should not be doing certain things on the Sabbath, some of us will feel quite uncomfortable. And some of us who sincerely want to be obedient to the Lord will begin to have many questions or even be troubled by our conscience.  

Well, I want to offer you a little leeway, for conscience’s sake. I cannot be your conscience, and you cannot be mine, but I do not want to burden your conscience more than necessary. I realise that we live in a very different time from the days of Moses, the days of the Apostles, or, for that matter, the days of our parents.  

In those days, you might be able to get away if you refuse to work on the Lord’s Day. But today, if you refuse to work on the Lord’s Day at all, you may end up not being able to find any jobs at all. Know that there is a difference between wanting to work on the Lord’s Day and having to work on the Lord’s Day. Christians must always desire to have their Sabbath free from worldly employment as far as possible. If you can help it, you should look for jobs that will not force you to work on the Sabbath frequently, and it will be good for you to say so during your interview. But if you are in a job that requires you to return occasionally to work, I suggest that you be realistic about the situation even as you pray that the Lord will spare you from this torment.  

If you work in the airline industry or as a systems programmer, for example, and you have to test your system on Sunday; or you work in a factory, and the machines must be kept operating, and you have to go back occasionally; or you work for a multinational corporation and you are required occasionally to have to participate in a international conference call, I do not think it should burden your conscience. But, of course, if you are required to go back to work frequently or constantly have to take work home to work on the Sabbath, you may want to look for another job. But otherwise, I think you should be realistic. 

Let us understand the situations that our brethren in Christ are facing. Remember that there is a difference between choosing to work on the Sabbath (which every Christian ought not to) and having to work on the Sabbath. Let us be very charitable in our dealings with one another. Let us be especially charitable to parents and little children. Do not let an over-zealousness for Sabbath-keeping compel children to become adults every Sabbath Day. You will make them hate the Sabbath, and you will do a greater disservice to the ordinance than if you would try to steer them to meaningful activities if you can. 

Never allow difficulties to distract or discourage you from seeking to keep the Sabbath. Take difficulties in stride. Tackle conflicts and conundrums with humility and charity as you seek to keep the Sabbath out of gratitude to the Lord. 

7. Honour the Lord by Delighting in the Sabbath 

Isaiah 58:13-14: 

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: 14 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.

Two things may be said about this verse.  

First, there are promises, and secondly, there are conditions. So, the Lord is issuing a conditional promise. 

What are the promises? They are in verse 14, and there are three things: 

(1) You shall delight in the LORD and increase in your enjoyment of God; (2) You will ride in high places of the earth, i.e. you will have spiritual victory; and (3) You will be fed with the heritage of Jacob, i.e. you will more and more enjoy the rich blessings that Christ your Redeemer has purchased for you. 

In short, you shall grow in Christ. This is the promise. But it is a conditional promise. Notice the “if” in verse 13. 

What is the condition? Two things. 

Firstly, we must sanctify the Lord’s Sabbath by not doing our own pleasure, whether in deeds or words (v. 13). The Fourth Commandment is not just about unnecessary work—which is clearly forbidden. It is also about one’s attitude. The general principle is that whatever tends to personal pleasure rather than God’s glory should be avoided. A stroll in the park to enjoy God’s creation and to refresh one’s body between services is surely not wrong. But going for a marathon or a cycling trip on the Sabbath is surely wrong. So is playing games, watching Tiktok videos with the mobile phone, or doing things with it on Sabbath Day. Switch your mobile phone off to avoid temptation! 

Secondly, Isaiah tells us we must “call the Sabbath a delight.” The Sabbath, then, is not to be viewed with negativism with a long list of prohibitions. Instead, the Sabbath must be kept with a worshipful attitude of joy and gladness. Only then will the Lord’s blessings be experienced (v. 14).  

This, of course, does not mean we are free to do anything which we would like to. But it does mean that Christians should enjoy keeping the Sabbath holy.  

The commandments of God are not grievous to the child of God, says the apostle John. It is not grievous because every child of God has a changed heart, which loves the law of God. It is this changed heart that cries, “O how love I thy law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps 119:97); “Thy law is my delight!” (v. 77, cf. v. 143); “And I will delight myself in thy commandments, which I have loved” (Ps 119:47).  

So in the New Testament, Paul declares: “I delight in the law of God after the inward man” (Rom 7:22). If the Sabbath is not a delight unto you, but it is a burden unto you, must seriously question your spiritual state, because Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath said: “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15). The soul who loves Christ must love His day.  

Therefore, beloved brethren and children, honour the Lord by delighting in His day out of love and gratitude. 


We must now conclude. How should we keep the Sabbath holy? 

  1. Seek to fulfil the Purpose, not the Form 
  2. Always Prepare for it. 
  3. Beautify the Day with Worship 
  4. Break from Unnecessary Chores. 
  5. Avoid Making Others Work for You. 
  6. Tackle Conflicts & Conundrums with Humility & Charity  
  7. Honour the Lord by Delighting in the Sabbath. 

May the Lord grant us that we may observe the Sabbath with delight and consecration. It is my firm conviction that the sorry state of Christendom today is largely due to the failure of Christian men, women and children to observe the Sabbath according to the Scriptural principles. As a result, many have starved their souls to their own detriment. Are not these perilous days wherein men are “lovers of their own selves… unthankful, unholy…lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof” (2 Tim 3:1-5)?  

Is not the widespread desecration of the Sabbath in Christendom today both instrumental and indicative of the sad condition of the church described by the Apostle Paul some 1,900 years ago?  

May the Lord be pleased to awaken some of us from spiritual slumber unto godliness and holiness through God-honouring observance of the weekly Sabbath. May Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath, be greatly exalted as we seek to make it known to the world that we belong to Him by making His day a delight. And as we enjoy the Sabbath, may we delight in Him who is our Rest more and more until, at length, we enter into everlasting rest in Him.  Amen.  

—JJ Lim