sabbath observance

The problem with learning how to observe the Sabbath day, how to keep it holy, is that making something holy is a deeply personal thing. There is a lot that goes into turning just another day of the week into the one day of the week we spend in the worship of our God. There are changes needed in attitudes, behavior, habits, and expectations. The prophets have said a lot about keeping the Sabbath day holy, so this article will only touch on parts of what it takes to make the personal transformation from someone who lives through another Sunday, to someone who lives all week to worship on this sacred day.

Disclaimer: I was given three scriptures to study to try to figure out how to keep the Sabbath day holy. When I first read the scriptures I was just tripping all over the actual words. It wasn’t until I did some pondering, study, research, and some praying and more pondering, that I began to connect some of the dots. This is the result of my search for meaning. This is not an end product, but a search in progress. The conclusions in this article are mine, and mine alone. You will have to ponder and pray on your own to see if you land anywhere near where I did. Sabbath observance is a deeply personal thing. I am just trying to put into words what has been floating around in my head and heart. I hope this helps you find your own path. This article is the least basic thing I have ever written for to date. Please forgive me if it is difficult to understand. I did my best to simplify the process of learning how to keep the Sabbath day holy.

Three scriptures

We (our High Council) were given three scriptures to research to help us start our personal journey to understanding how to make the Sabbath day a holy day. Here are the three scriptures. I will be referring back to these as the article goes on. I suggest you read them in full now, and just note key words like “sacraments,” “oblations,” “sabbaths,” “devotions,” “vows,” and “sign.”

Exodus 31:13

Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying, Verily my sabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the Lord that doth sanctify you.

D&C 59:9 – 12

9 And that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day;

10 For verily this is a day appointed unto you to rest from your labors, and to pay thy devotions unto the Most High;

11 Nevertheless thy vows shall be offered up in righteousness on all days and at all times;

12 But remember that on this, the Lord’s day, thou shalt offer thine oblations and thy sacraments unto the Most High, confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord.

Isaiah 58: 13 – 14

13 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.

Level one – looking at words

The Lord is a master wordsmith. Since His power is in the words He uses, we should pay close attention to the choice of words. The Lord never uses words carelessly. But we also have to remember that meanings change over the course of time, so we may need to be open to alternative definitions that don’t come readily to mind.

Let’s look at Isaiah first. The Lord is telling us that if we will turn out of the course we set for ourselves (thy foot or path), and stop doing what pleases us, and instead do what pleases God, He will give us special blessings reserved for those alone who delight to serve Him.

The high places are historically the lush, more fertile places (referring to the lands where the children of Israel lived). The valleys were hot, dry, and pretty barren most of the year. Water and green pastures, those things that represented life and prosperity were higher up in the mountains where it was cooler and more hospitable. And when there was no temple in Israel, it was to the tops of the mountains, the “high places” the prophets went to commune with God. These were the sacred places of revelation and salvation, both physically and spiritually.

The promise the Lord is making is that if we can learn to love and to serve Him more than we love to serve ourselves, He promises us the blessings of the “high places of the earth.” He promises to feed us or sustain us with the heritage of Jacob. What is the heritage of Jacob, but the new and everlasting covenant, the covenant given to Abraham? This is the same covenant we all work so hard to get to the temple to experience. This covenant is what we will live off of, the covenant with which He will feed or sustain our souls.

In the Exodus verse the Lord says that the Sabbaths (plural) He gave to Israel were to be used as a sign between Him and Israel that He was their God and they were His people, forever. He actually gave Israel multiple Sabbaths or holy days. Each one was to be celebrated at a specific time of the year and was used to remind the people of His involvement in their lives in a specific way. There were seven official yearly Sabbaths, besides the weekly Sabbath. For starters, you can read more about the different Sabbaths at the link in blue.

A sign is a visible distinction that anyone can see that sets the children of Israel apart from their neighbors. Remember that what really set Israel apart from all the nations of the earth were the covenants they made with their God. Circumcision was one such sign of a covenant. It was an outward symbol of the promises made between God and His people that anyone could see. If you converted, even as an old man, you had to be circumcised. It was the visible, outward sign of the covenant. The Sabbath was also an outward sign of Israel’s covenants with their God.

The Lord makes three points in the Exodus verse:

  1. We are to keep the Sabbath of the Lord as a sign that we are His chosen people.
  2. The command to keep the Sabbath will not be rescinded. We are to keep this observance as long as the earth lasts (throughout our generations).
  3. By keeping the Sabbath day holy, the Lord promises that we will come to know that it is He who is purifying us (sanctifying us).

In the Doctrine and Covenants verses, the term “sacraments” is used. We are accustomed to only one sacrament, that of the bread and water. Originally, in Latin, the root word used was sacramentum. This is the oath taken by the Roman soldiers when they swore their lives to Caesar. It was a sacred, unbreakable oath. They would obey him to the death. Fast forward more than a thousand years, and the Church picked up the word to make reference to our covenants with God. So a sacrament is any kind of sacred vow we make to God.

Level two – Searching the prophets

Now that I am satisfied that I have at least a rough understanding of the words used in these verses, it is time to look at what the prophets have to say about this topic. This is when researching comes in very handy. There are many Conference talks and articles written on the subject. Here are just a few references I found to help me expand my thinking on the subject.

Elder L. Tom Perry said the following in the April 2011 General Conference:

What does it mean to offer up our sacraments to the Lord? We acknowledge that all of us make mistakes. Each of us has a need to confess and forsake our sins and errors to our Heavenly Father and to others we may have offended. The Sabbath provides us with a precious opportunity to offer up these—our sacraments—to the Lord. He said, “Remember that on this, the Lord’s day, thou shalt offer thine oblations and thy sacraments unto the Most High, confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord.”

Elder Melvin J. Ballard has suggested, “We want every Latter-day Saint to come to the sacrament table because it is the place for self-investigation, for self-inspection, where we may learn to rectify our course and to make right our own lives, bringing ourselves into harmony with the teachings of the Church and with our brethren and sisters.”

An oblation is any kind of charitable or religious gift, usually referring to the sacrament of bread and water, but it could refer to any offering of a religious nature. In the larger context of these paragraphs and verses then, offering up our oblations and sacraments to the Lord refer to the giving of all that we hold sacred or all that is holy to us to God. It is the honoring or execution of the covenants we have made.

Elder Perry says that the confessing and forsaking of our sins is what makes up our sacraments, our sacred covenants with God. When we go to Church to partake of the sacrament of bread and water, we should also actively be seeking to confess our sins, forsake our sins, and make peace with our neighbor for offenses we may have caused.

Elder Melvin J. Ballard further says that the sacrament table is a place of personal inspection and reflection. This is the place where we correct our course or path in life (rectify our course) to bring ourselves into harmony with God’s laws. This sounds an awful lot like the Isaiah scripture that says that if we turn away our foot or turn from doing our will and instead learn to find joy in doing the Lord’s will on the Sabbath, the Lord can give us wonderful blessings.

In a talk on Sabbath day observance, President Howard W. Hunter quoted David O. McKay:

Who can measure the responsibility of such a covenant? How far reaching! How comprehensive! It excludes from man’s life, profanity, vulgarity, idleness, enmity, jealousy, drunkenness, dishonesty, hatred, selfishness, and every form of vice. It obligates him to sobriety, to industry, to kindness, to the performance of every duty in church and state. He binds himself to respect his fellowmen, to honor the Priesthood, to pay his tithes and offerings and to consecrate his life to the service of humanity.” (David O. McKay, Millennial Star 85:778.)

This quote expands the depth of what is required to keep the Sabbath day holy. Not only are we to be self reflecting, and seeking to come into line with the will of the Lord on this day, but President Hunter says that the sacramental covenant includes cutting out of our lives “profanity, vulgarity, idleness, enmity, jealousy, drunkenness, dishonesty, hatred, selfishness, and every form of vice.” Our sacramental covenants also are expanded to include obligations of sobriety, industry, kindness, the performance of every duty to both church and state (in other words we must be a model citizen of the country where we reside), and we bind ourselves to respect our fellowmen, honor the priesthood, pay our tithes and offerings, and consecrate our life to the service of all humanity.

Wow! How did we get from point A to point B? We started by looking at some pretty generic scriptural references, and ended up completely redefining our lives.

Elder Mark E. Petersen gave a talk about the Sabbath that is very powerful. I have included a number of paragraphs from his talk here. If you click the link in blue you can also watch the video of the talk. For me, this was a life-changing sermon on the sanctity and meaning of the Sabbath.

I have handpicked some paragraphs that make my point. You can see what is missing when you read or watch the whole talk.

However, on his holy day we must do more than merely go to church. We must worship him, of course; but we must also cleanse ourselves in preparation for that worship by confessing our sins and repenting of them. This reminds us of what the Lord said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;

“Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” (Matt. 5:23–24.)

In the time of Moses, the Lord impressively declared that the manner in which we spend the Sabbath is a sign of our inner attitude toward him. It is a measure of the sincerity of our faith. “It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever,” God declared (Ex. 31:17), and added: “Ye shall keep the Sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you.” (Ex. 31:14. Italics added.)

He also gave the Sabbath to ancient Israel as a sign that he lives—a sign, as he said, “that ye may know that I am the Lord.” (Ex. 31:13.) Then the Sabbath becomes a testimony builder, for if we keep it, our knowledge of and faith in the Lord will increase; and this should be very important to us.

If we violate his holy day—willingly and willfully—to that extent do we not become enemies of God? We do most certainly become covenant breakers, for he gave us his Sabbath by covenant—a perpetual covenant throughout all generations. (See Ex. 31:16.)

President David O. McKay called attention to another most important phase of this subject. He said that the Christian Sabbath of course is Sunday, in commemoration of the resurrection of the Savior on the first day of the week. He calls the resurrection of Christ the greatest event in all history and notes that by proper observance of the Sabbath we show our respect for the Lord’s passion and his resurrection from the dead. (See Gospel Ideals, Deseret News Press, 1953, pp. 397–98.)

With this thought in mind, let us ask ourselves how important the Lord’s atonement is to us. How dear to us is the Lord Jesus Christ? How deeply are we concerned about immortality? Is the resurrection of vital interest to us?

We can readily see that observance of the Sabbath is an indication of the depth of our conversion.

Our observance or nonobservance of the Sabbath is an unerring measure of our attitude toward the Lord personally and toward his suffering in Gethsemane, his death on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead. It is a sign of whether we are Christians in very deed, or whether our conversion is so shallow that commemoration of his atoning sacrifice means little or nothing to us.

Level three – back to the source of all gospel life, the atonement

Reading all these references has revealed some consistent threads found in each prophet’s words. The Sabbath day is about our relationship with others and with God. Elder Petersen and President McKay both say that the sacredness of the Sabbath comes from our attitude about the Savior’s atoning sacrifice and how we feel towards Christ.

I can understand how feeling a sacred reverence for Christ and His atonement will help me feel more worshipful in Sacrament meeting. I can understand that a pervasive sense of indebtedness to him will help me feel less like partying on Sundays and more like reading scriptures and going to church. But what about all the references to how I treat other people and how I am supposed to repent of offenses, and so forth? How does that figure in? I think the answer is found in the Book of Enos in the Book of Mormon.

I don’t have room here to quote the whole Book of Enos. I suggest you go read and study it. Enos went to the forest to hunt and started to ponder on the words of his father about the atonement of Christ (paraphrasing here). He knelt down to plead with the Lord for his own witness of the words of his father. After great effort he received forgiveness for his sins.

When he learned that he had been forgiven because of his faith in Christ, he said this:

9 Now, it came to pass that when I had heard these words I began to feel a desire for the welfare of my brethren, the Nephites; wherefore, I did pour out my whole soul unto God for them.

Now that his own soul was at peace, his love expanded to include his own people. Once he exercised even greater faith in Christ, he received a promise from God for the welfare of his brethren the Nephites.

11 And after I, Enos, had heard these words, my faith began to be unshaken in the Lord; and I prayed unto him with many long strugglings for my brethren, the Lamanites.

Interesting. Each time he exercises faith in Christ and receives his heart’s desire, both his faith in Christ grows, and his ability to experience charity, or the pure love of God. At first he is only able to feel for his own people, but then his love and concern expand, through his exercise of faith in Christ, to his enemies, the Lamanites.

Level four – The love of God makes things holy

Enos reveals a very real pattern that applies to the Sabbath day. When we first begin to struggle with how to keep the Sabbath day holy, we often resort to checklists of behaviors. This may help, but it misses the mark of what we need to hit.

As we repent of our sins and treat the sacrament as a time and place to reflect on our progress in being forgiven, and in forgiving others, our appreciation for what Jesus has done for us grows. We begin to have a deepening sense of appreciation for His sacrifices for us, and an awareness of our need for and dependence on him.

As our gratitude grows, we begin to see several changes slowing taking place in our lives simultaneously. We begin to feel uncomfortable with behavior that is not reverent. We begin to feel a desire to be better as a person. Our honesty is refined, our respect for others increases, and our patience with others expands. The more we seriously we take our time at the sacramental table offering up our sacraments, our vows of obedience to the Lord, the more our hearts swell with love for Him and for what He has done for us.

It is impossible to truly love God and hate our fellowmen. As our love for God increases, our respect for his laws deepen, so too does our ability to desire the happiness of our neighbor, and eventually even our enemy. Just like Enos we progress from level to level. All it takes is the exercise of faith in Christ, the forgiveness of sin then the exercise of even greater faith for more forgiveness.

Final Thoughts

My mother has always told me that when it comes to dealing with other people and their problems, the answer is always love. At least love is always part of the answer. As we seek to learn what the Lord would have us do to keep His special day holy, we should be seeking forgiveness and reconciliation, gratitude and resolution. As we obtain these attributes, our deepening respect and devotion to God spills out into our attitudes towards the members of our family, our ward, our neighbors, and finally to the family of man.

The blessings promised us in Isaiah that the Lord will see to it that we ride among the high places of the earth, and that He will feed us the heritage of Jacob, take on new meaning as we realize that keeping the Sabbath day holy is how we honor the covenants of Abraham, the heritage of Jacob. It is through the honoring of this sign between God and man that our Father in Heaven is able to prosper us by showing us how much He truly loves us as we live and ride among the high places of the earth, the places most sacred.

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Sabbath Observance