When reading through the Bible, you’ve probably come across the word “Sabbath.”
This word is used 172 times throughout the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments. It’s also the fourth of the Ten Commandments and was first celebrated by God Himself right after He created the earth.
What is the Sabbath?
We can trace the Sabbath’s roots to the beginning of the world. While creating each part of the earth itself, God also created the concept of a seven-day week.
God created the world incrementally, one day at a time, from the major necessities (light, air, water, etc.) to the most intricate creation of all—human beings, made in His own image (Genesis 1). He did all that in six days. Then He made a point of doing something different on the seventh day.
“So the heavens and the earth and everything in them were completed. On the seventh day God had completed His work that He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work that He had done. God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, for on it He rested from all His work of creation” (Genesis 2:1-3, CSB).
Not a bad idea to create set-aside time to enjoy the wonders of His creation. The last day of each week is a time to rest from the work of the week, finding refreshment in God and His creation.
It wasn’t named “Sabbath” yet, however, until the book of Exodus, when the Israelites had just escaped captivity and slavery in Egypt. They were making their way through the desert to the Promised Land of Canaan, and God had just established a way to provide daily food for them to gather each morning. Except on the seventh day.
“’This is what the Lord has said: Tomorrow is a day of complete rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord. … set aside everything left over to be kept until morning. … Eat it today,’ Moses said, ‘because today is a Sabbath to the Lord. Today you won’t find any in the field. For six days you will gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will be none’” (Exodus 16:23-26, CSB).
The origin of the Hebrew sabbat . . . is uncertain, but it seems to have derived from the verb sabat, meaning to stop, to cease, or to keep. Its theological meaning is rooted in God’s rest following the six days of creation ( Gen 2:2-3 ).Quoted from https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/sabbath/
This was even before the Ten Commandments were written in stone. God was teaching His followers to observe a six-day work week with a seventh-day Sabbath. Then, in Exodus 20, God gives Moses the Ten Commandments. The fourth commandment reads:
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. You are to labor six days and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. In it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:8-11, NASB).
God gave the Israelites specific instructions on how to keep this weekly Sabbath. They were to rest from their work and trust Him to provide for them on that day. The Sabbath was posed to them as an eternal reminder that it was God who created the world, and He wanted them to enjoy it with Him.
Fast forward to the New Testament, when Jesus came to earth. He kept the Sabbath throughout His life and ministry…even though some of the corrupt religious leaders of the time tried to get Him in trouble for healing during the Sabbath. That was considered “work” to them.
But Jesus corrected them—it was “lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:12, NASB). He also declared to them the whole purpose of the Sabbath was that it was “made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27, NASB).
The Sabbath was created to be a gift. Yes, it’s a “commandment,” as sometimes we need to be told, “Hey, you need a break. Put your work aside and take it easy for a bit. Stop and smell the roses” …and acknowledge the Creator who made them.
What happened to the Sabbath? Why don’t we hear about it anymore?
Generations later, as Christianity spread across the world, an imperfect human element began to creep into the principles taught by clergy to the people in their churches.
Fewer people were reading the Bible for themselves, and some highly influential churches began setting aside Sunday instead, as the holy day.
In fact, in the 321 AD, Emperor Constantine I even declared officially that Sunday would be observed as a “day of rest” for Rome. Choosing this day was likely because of his observance of pagan sun worship (“sun” day), but also because many churches by then were holding Sunday services.
This became tradition, even though there was no biblical basis for making any change to the blessed memorial established at Creation.
Instead of the “Sabbath,” it’s often referred to as the “Lord’s Day.” This is still practiced in the majority of Christian denominations today.
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Where do the Seventh-day Adventists come in?
As you may have guessed, a distinguishing characteristic of “Seventh-day” Adventists is they uphold the biblical seventh-day Sabbath. But why did this group of committed Christians go back to keeping Sabbath when most others worshipped on Sunday?
It all started in the 1800s. For a long time, Christianity had been largely tradition-based rather than spiritually, biblically grounded. Many Christians became complacent, merely going through the motions of church worship and rarely picking up the Bible to read for themselves.
Soon, however, the historical pendulum began to swing the other way and in North America there was a period of spiritual revival, a “Great Awakening.” During this time, a man named William Miller wanted to actually study the Bible, rather than just listen to preachers talk about it. He wanted to know if it was really God’s inspired Word to humanity.
What he discovered was bigger than he could have dreamed. While studying the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, Miller saw how many biblical prophecies pointed to Jesus coming to earth to minister to us. But other prophecies referred to something completely different—something that was going to happen in the future.
Further study led him to believe these prophecies were pointing to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ—which around that time was believed to be metaphorical rather than literal.
This was big. And though Miller was wrong about when Jesus was coming back (there’s no exact date or timeframe given!), his followers continued his studies on this Second Advent (hence the name, Advent-ists). They also discovered other biblical truths that were neglected or smothered throughout the years—one of them being the fourth commandment about the Sabbath.
One of the early scholars of this Advent Movement, Ellen White, was a prolific writer and later a leader in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. She found this belief important enough to spread the word to whoever would listen. She wrote:
The Spirit of God impressed the hearts of those students of His word. The conviction was urged on them that they had ignorantly transgressed this precept by disregarding the Creator’s rest day.Ellen White
They began to examine the reasons for observing the first day of the week instead of the day which God had sanctified. They could find no evidence in the Scriptures that the fourth commandment had been abolished, or that the Sabbath had been changed; the blessing which first hallowed the seventh day had never been removed.
This conviction about the Sabbath only grew as the people of the Advent Movement continued their studies. The more they read, the more they were convinced Sabbath was truly God’s day, and by keeping Sunday, they’d been getting things all mixed up.
It was more than a question of one day versus another. These people knew if they were going to trust God and remain loyal followers of His, they’d have to do things His way, not just what everyone else does.
They began to focus on passages of Scripture such as Luke 4:16, Acts 13:14, 44; 15:21; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4 and Hebrews 4:9. These verses showed how people kept the Sabbath even after Jesus went back to heaven. They used it as a time to “stop” or “cease,” which is the literal meaning of the Hebrew word shabbat. They used this time away from work to meet together, to “reason” together, to pray together, and to remember Him. So the early Adventists sought to do similarly, claiming the blessing God offers to us in His Sabbath.
Because of this, Adventists developed a distinct identity. They were regarded as a collective group of studious Christians, their name highlighting the two key beliefs that caused them to stand out from other Christians of the time:
- The Seventh-day Sabbath
- The Second Advent (Second Coming) of Christ
Seventh-day Adventists are Bible-believing Christians, just as many modern denominations are. But two significant concepts frame their priorities as a faith group. Adventist look back at Scripture for the full meaning of two extremely important events—one happening in the future, and one that comes around each week.
Seventh-day Adventist History
Want to know more about how Seventh-day Adventists became a denomination? Read more here!
Why Adventists keep the Sabbath
Even today, Adventists’ emphasis on the seventh-day Sabbath remains a distinctive characteristic when compared to other Christian denominations. While Sunday is recognized as “church day” even by non-Christians, Adventists continue to keep Sabbath even though it can be inconvenient at times.
Why? Because God said so! Not only does the Bible talk about Sabbath all the way through, but if God establishes a commandment, why would He change it (see Malachi 3:6 and Numbers 23:19) when He hasn’t changed the other 9?
By establishing Sabbath observance as part of His perfect law—which is meant to establish harmony between God and humans, and among humans—you can see the weight it carries. It’s one of the commandments based on relationships, as the Sabbath was created as a time to stop your work, rest, depend on God, and get to know more about Him and His creation.
That’s why Adventists are historically careful about keeping the Sabbath holy, even if it’s more difficult when others keep Sunday. It’s just that important. It’s that much of a blessing!
Adventists realized that remembering the creation through the Sabbath means remembering the Creator Himself. It maintains the loving relationship of Maker and Made, reminding us that it’s not our own works that keep us living our lives—it’s God. He created us and sustains us. And it not only honors God when we keep His Sabbath, but it’s healthy for us, too! Sabbath rest is like no other rest.
But while it seems like rest should be easy, our sinful nature makes everything more challenging. Surely we want to have time to rest, but we want this rest on our terms. We want to be in charge, make our own decisions, and do things that match the way we’re thinking at the moment.
That’s another reason to rest on God’s terms. It builds faith. It allows us to rely on God. And it’s the perfect time to disconnect from the cares of life, such as work, finances, and other obligations.
Think about it— when we’re working, we’re taking care of our own needs and providing for our families. Yes, our work is our responsibility, but while we’re in the thick of it, it’s easy to forget we’re not the real providers—God is. So God set one day apart from the rest of the week to remind us that we can rely on Him. He is “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8).
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What the Sabbath is not
It’s not hard to understand why some might struggle with the concept of something wonderful, like a day off, being a “commandment.” Why would it need to be part of the law?
As mentioned before, however, the fourth commandment is a call to rest on God’s terms, rather than our own, because He knows our needs more than we do. So when Adventists discovered how this truth can have a profound effect on everyone’s lives, no wonder they took it to heart and couldn’t wait to proclaim it to other believers!
But change isn’t easy. Deep-seated traditions are difficult to adjust, even in the face of evidence. Humans tend to cling to the familiar. For that reason, not all who heard the message of the persevering biblical Sabbath saw it as a blessing.
Sadly, many perceived this new focus on the Sabbath as something they “had” to do…or they would be breaking God’s law and wouldn’t, or couldn’t, receive salvation. This is what’s called “legalism,” and it refers to the belief that believers must keep “the law” (Ten Commandments, and other biblical principles suggested as a means of living a better life for God) in order to be saved.
This kind of misconception can sometimes happen when God’s law is the topic of discussion. But Adventists continued to teach about this commandment because its importance had been overlooked for so long.
They usually accompanied that message by emphasizing how following all God’s commandments can make a positive difference in the world, when regarded as an ideal to strive toward. As students of the Bible, Adventists upheld the belief that we are saved by grace, not by works.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, NASB).
Turning the Sabbath into a burden, into an obligation, is a lie of the devil.
That might seem like a bold statement, but it exactly matches Satan’s nature. His very drive is to turn us against God and to make it seem like God isn’t fair. He wants humanity to view God as harsh and oppressive. Satan is still mad from His fall from heaven. He knows he’s ultimately going down, and he wants to drag us all with him.
When Christians of the Advent Movement examined the Sabbath in their studies, they took it to heart with excitement! There was joy and the thrill of discovery, learning something new about God and the ways He shows His love for us. The thought of obligation or anything legalistic was far from their minds.
If you ever hear Seventh-day Adventists proclaim the importance of the Sabbath, rest assured this comes from deep-seated appreciation. It comes from recognition for its profound meaning when it comes to our relationship with Him.
Sometimes human fervor for a certain principle can unintentionally come across in the form of “shoulds” or “musts,” but when you know the biblical ideal, that is all you need. God gives you the answers in a prayerful study of His Word.
It’s true that early in the Old Testament, the details that surrounded Sabbath-keeping might sound a bit extreme. God called out someone “gathering wood” on the Sabbath?1 And those that “profane” the Sabbath must be “cut off from his people”?2
The context of the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy is all about bringing the Israelites out of slavery. They were used to working constantly. They were used to living primitively. They hardly knew about things as basic as personal hygiene or orderly conduct! So the concept of a Sabbath rest on each seventh day, as a memorial of the creation week in Genesis (“Remember” the Sabbath day…), took some explaining. It took soul-searching. And in some cases, they needed concrete enforcement so they could get it through their heads that yes, this rest with God is important!
Later on, in the New Testament, God had to speak directly to people who treated the Sabbath legalistically, or as a rigid, burdensome requirement for salvation. The Pharisees (the religious rulers of the time) even got upset that Jesus and His disciples were picking heads of grain as they walked through a grainfield, saying it was “not lawful” to do on the Sabbath!
That’s why Jesus had to emphatically clarify things in the verse you read earlier, that the “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27, CBS).
But while Sabbath-keeping is a big part of Seventh-day Adventists’ identity, it’s meant to be part of the identity of all followers of Christ. All people are welcomed into this rest of God. All are encouraged to push pause on the rat race of life and stop to focus on the God who made the world, and who made us.
The Sabbath is not “an Adventist thing,” but rather a biblical truth Adventists noticed was brushed aside, so they sought to bring it back into the light.
The Sabbath is made for you, and God wants you to be able to experience its blessings as well.
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- See Numbers 15:32
- See Exodus 31:14