The Sabbath is beautiful in concept, but like fine china sometimes seems fragile and we are advised to take care not to break it. But unlike breakable china or crystal the Sabbath remains completely indestructible.

by Jack Hoehn  |  December 9, 2018  |

If there is one unique thing about Seventh-day Adventists among Christians it must be the 7th-day (Saturday) Sabbath observance. You can be a vegetarian, tithe-paying, non-smoking, Bible-reading Christian but unless you have some kind of a seventh-day Sabbath observance, you could not call yourself a Seventh-day Adventist.

In the past when there was a six-day work week, some Reformed Jews in Germany went to synagogue on Sundays and were still considered Jews, but I suspect that “reformed” Seventh-day Adventists who worship on Fridays or Sundays have reformed themselves right out of Adventism. But just how to observe our 7th-day Sabbath is not a uniform and monolithic subject, and never has been.

Eden and Sticks

Since trees weren’t diseased or dying, and presumably no warming or cooking fires were necessary for our scantily clothes progenitors, I suspect that the picking up of sticks and cooking was not a Sabbath-keeping issue in the garden of Eden. But clearly for those Israelite slaves recently reintroduced to the Sabbath, in the warm Wilderness of Sin[1] picking up sticks and cooking with them was a huge life and death issue.[2]

I have met ardent Sabbath-keepers unwilling to contextualize those “no cooking” Bible commands who demand only precooked unwarmed food for 24 hours from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Not a pleasant thought in Nunavik.

Others say only making campfires was forbidden, so it is OK to use your electric stove or microwave to warm Sabbath lunch. But observant Orthodox Jews are scrupulous to avoid even the little spark when you click a switch to turn on or off electric lights, elevator buttons, or the starter motor in your automobile. So, they walk, not drive, to synagogue. There are elevators in some observant hotels that automatically stop at every floor of the hotel or apartments for Sabbath-keepers. You can install Sabbath light switch timers that can be programmed when to turn lights on and off during Sabbath hours without your touching the switch. Even some refrigerators come with a “Sabbath Mode.” [3] Activating this mode will turn off interior lights, control panel displays, ice-makers, water dispensers, sounds, and any advanced features that activating might cause an electric switch to spark during holy Sabbath hours. Thus, technically “kindling a fire.”

Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Sabbath keepers don’t follow such ultra-orthodox practices. Perhaps because Ellen G. White was so radical as to dismiss entirely (by contextualizing it) Exodus 35:3. “Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.” Forget about it; that was then, this is now, and it was temporary: “During the sojourn in the wilderness the kindling of fires upon the seventh day had been strictly prohibited. The prohibition was not to extend to the land of Canaan, where the severity of the climate would often render fires a necessity; but in the wilderness, fire was not needed for warmth.”[4]  (Understanding, as Ellen White did, some Biblical commands like that one to be contextual and of limited duration helps me deal with advice given by Paul regarding certain women in a Corinthian church 2,000 years ago that seems strikingly inappropriate now.[5])

Sabbath Fun?

wading, looking for tadpoles, was permitted, but swimming?

I was raised, as were many of my contemporaries, thinking that play on the Sabbath was to be strictly restrained. Not doing “thy pleasure” or “thine own ways” of Isaiah 58:13 was emphasized in my upbringing instead of “call the Sabbath a delight.” So it was a cultural surprise in my youth when I found out that unlike in California, in Austria (the place with no kangaroos) at the ultra-conservative Seminar Schloss Bogenhofen, Sabbath afternoon walks included playing group games like Blind man’s buff! I realized I had internalized that if it was fun, it was breaking the Sabbath, to my detriment.

So then, wading, looking for tadpoles, was permitted, but swimming was not? In Hawaii could one snorkel? what about scuba? Sabbath afternoon walks were OK, but Sabbath biking was not? Snowshoeing was permitted in Canadian winter, but no skis? Or Sabbath cross-country skis were OK in Finland, but not downhill? Ring around the rosy was Sabbath, but soccer wasn’t? So many issues for young Sabbath-keepers.

Sabbath Cents and Sense

Rest from labor for animals is one of the surprising and deeply principled parts of the Sabbath command often overlooked. Making sure that those under our influence have their chance to rest surely goes for our oxen and mules, but what about our postal carriers? What about waiters, waitresses, and cooks in restaurants?

Is paying for something on Sabbath the problem? It might seem so when our denominational meetings place an emphasis on “buying tickets before Sabbath” for a meal after the Sabbath worship service, as if the transaction of cash (or the use of a credit card) would be profane, but handing the cashier a pre-printed ticket purchased on Friday made the work of the cashier less profane?

My father in his boyhood saw a Saskatchewan Jewish shopkeeper require customers on Saturdays to place the exact cash for a purchase on the counter, where he would rake the exact change into his cash drawer with a small wooden rake for Sabbath purchases. This let the shopkeeper maintain that he “never touched money on the Sabbath” as some sort of righteousness? Well, he was, in some sense (if not cents), “remembering” Sabbath. Is Adventist Sabbath keeping a question of cents or sense?

Is it OK to work on Sabbath if we don’t get paid for it? A principled SDA physician who was called out for emergencies on Sabbath sent me all his fees earned for Sabbath work, for my African mission hospital. I and our indigent patients were delighted when he had to “work on the Sabbath!” Another SDA physician I knew held scheduled office hours out of compassion for needy patients on Sabbaths, but didn’t charge fees for services during those few hours. Was he keeping the Sabbath holy? He knew Jesus healed on the Sabbath.

I have wondered if American SDAs have become “7th-day-Weekendists”

If it is OK for nurses and doctors and medical professionals to work on Sabbaths, what about policemen, firemen, child care providers, electric plant operators, hotel keepers, and restauranteurs all doing things that have to be done 7 days a week, 24 hours a day by someone.  Is it OK for Sabbath keepers to “let the Sunday-keepers” or “Nones”[6] do Sabbath work, while we Seventh-day Adventists “keep it holy?”  And if we let them work for us on Sabbath, are we willing to cheerfully come in on Sunday to work for them? At times I have wondered if American SDAs haven’t become “7th-day-Weekendists” holding our weekends holy at all cost, happily letting immigrants or the less-educated bear all the burdens of weekend labor. Some of us seem to need to keep both Saturday church and Sunday football games holy.

Worst Sabbath-breakers

If there is one class of Seventh-day Adventist most guilty of doing their hardest and most arduous work of the week, Sabbath after Sabbath after Sabbath after Sabbath, with apparent impunity, it is of course our clergy. (I think the General Conference Compliance Committees could investigate this problem at once.)

And I have heard one of those week-after-week Sabbath-breaking pastors in this town preaching against those in his congregation who went home from service to a restaurant, as obvious Sabbath-breakers.  Well, perhaps we were (although on the Sabbaths that I needed a meal in a restaurant I am always sure to leave a generous tip for those kindly serving me). Was this just conscience money for my guilt? Or was it genuine holy concern for those “manservants and maidservants” who were helping me give my wife and me a Sabbath free from meal preparation and cleanup? I don’t mail letters after sundown on Fridays; does this count? Am I doing OK, Sabbath-breaking pastors?

Generously Unspecific

In the wisdom of God, the 4th commandment is conspicuously unspecific. Remember. Keep. Holy. Don’t be lazy the rest of the week.  Consider the needs of employees, children, and animals and the non-believers—the aliens, immigrants, non-Christians in your world. These are goals, targets, aspirations–not detailed rules. No threshing on the Sabbath sounds wise, but Jesus said it didn’t apply to his hungry disciples.[7]  What supports or overrides any Sabbath behavior rule or regulation is how it affects people.

the 4th commandment is conspicuously unspecific

How it affects you is also important. The discipline of stopping gainful employment for at least 24 hours is of amazing benefit to your spirituality and physical health. Not studying chemistry or German or history for 24 hours is healing for mental as well as spiritual health.

But how Sabbath affects those about you is also important. I can request my contractor to not work on my renovation from Friday sundown till Saturday sundown. But if a subcontractor shows up, uninformed, on Saturday morning at my house with equipment and crew ready to go at 8 am, is it holiness to send him and his crew home having wasted his day and his income for my righteousness? Is Sabbath valuable enough to me for me to pay him and his crew for the whole day’s work so they can fully enjoy their own Sabbath, if I require him to reschedule the job for another day? Or if rescheduling is not convenient due to his other commitments, can I let him do what he came to do for his good, not mine?

Jesus was considered a Sabbath-breaker. But he was the Sabbath-maker, not its breaker. Jesus was very clear for whom he made the Sabbath.[8] It was not made for church or religion. It was not made for God. It was not made for pastors, bishops, church boards, or Unity Enforcing Committees. It was made for humans–women, men, girls, boys, daughters, sons, nieces, nephews, immigrants, refugees, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Jesuits. Here is what Jesus said, according to the NLT: “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath.”[9]

Constructing Sabbaths

What is right for Sabbath is to stop and do it differently from the rest of your week. To set something apart, to make it different from the rest, is what makes something sacred, holy. If you work in a nursing home, don’t go and sing in a nursing home on Sabbath; get away to a lake or river. If you work all week in a kitchen; don’t cook on Sabbath. But if you work in a cubicle with a screen and keyboard, missing your kitchen, then make a wonderful, relaxed, restoring feast with great joy Friday night or Sabbath afternoon. Working with and stressed by people all the time? Spend your Sabbath with a book or music. Never have time to visit with friends? Invite them all over for the Sabbath, or why not a Friday night sleepover? Do what God shows you will feed your, and their, tired souls.

Whatever you do, take the holy time to remember who you are and why you were created. And don’t forget to provide this same rest and contemplation time for others your life touches. Do it as much of the time, as often, as

certainly a custom that Jesus supported

fairly and as generously as you possibly can.  Someone has to work on a Sabbath? Make sure that next week they are off, that the weekend rotation is fair to all. Remember that some practices and commands for the Sabbath were suitable for the wilderness, with different ones suitable for Canaan. And please, pastors, judge us not that ye big Sabbath-breakers (and thank you for that) be not judged.

Is going to church an appropriate Sabbath activity? Well, it was certainly a custom that Jesus supported.[10]  And so did St. Paul, the father of world-wide Christian behaviors.[11]  Scripture enjoins us to keep on meeting together and not make a habit of non-attendance.[12] But there was no church or synagogue in Eden when Sabbath started. And meeting people’s needs will obviously sometimes take priority over “Sabbath-school and church.”

Sabbath’s Power

Am I a Sabbath-breaker? Of course I am, and so are you. The Sabbath is a very vulnerable, precious, but fragile castle-in-time. It is terribly easy to spoil its intended holiness and restoring restfulness. But let me remind you of its secret power.

No matter what the Sabbath wasn’t last week due to carelessness, thoughtlessness, fear, ambition, avarice, greed, or just plain laziness, it will always be back full-strength, precious, holy, perfectly designed to meet our physical, mental, social and spiritual needs every Friday evening at sundown. And this will happen again week after week after week.

For although as beautiful, fragile, and valuable as the finest china or most exquisite crystal, the holy Sabbath day is actually completely indestructible by anything you or anyone else does to it. All the next Sabbath needs to resurrect its full healing power, is not to be enforced nor regulated nor legislated–all it needs is to be remembered.



[1] The wonderful English transliteration of an enigmatic place where the children of Israel wandered en route from Egypt to Canaan, presumably on the Sinai Peninsula.

[2] Numbers 15:32-26.


[4] Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 409.

[5] 1 Corinthians 14:34, etc. Jack has published on the texts about women in Corinth in a recent Adventist Today article here.

[6] Nones, a term sometimes used for people with no religious affiliation in the United States. Sometimes known as the “nones and dones” for those who have given up their religious affiliation.

[7] Matthew 12:1-8.

[8] Mark 2:27,28.

[9] New Living Translation for Mark 2:27.

[10] Luke 4:16.

[11] I recently visited ancient Philippi in Greece, where St. Paul being on the Sabbath in a Roman town without a synagogue went down to the beautiful banks of the Krenides River where other Sabbath-keepers were known to pray (there meeting Lydia, “Seller of Purple”). See Acts 16:12-15 and Acts 13:14; 14:1; 18:4; 19:8, and many other references to his Sabbath synagogue attendance habit.

[12] Hebrews 10:25.

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Jack Hoehn is a frequent contributor to both the print and online versions of Adventist Today. He has served on the Adventist Today Foundation board since 2012. He and his wife Deanne live in Walla Walla, Washington. He has a BA in Religion from Pacific Union College, and an MD from Loma Linda University. He was a licensed minister of the Adventist church for 13 years when serving as a missionary physician in Africa. 

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