Q: Does good Sabbath observance preclude things like cooking meals?

If a Christian accepts the Ten Commandments as his eternal blueprint for obedient living, then the guideline is simple and straightforward: In it [the Sabbath day] thou shalt not do any work. God’s purpose in giving his children a Sabbath is for their benefit – to give them each week a day of respite and recovery. It is actually nice to be told by a strong and loving authority figure: “Just stop. Now. I want you to rest.”

God’s Word doesn’t go into great detail about how a follower of God will observe the Sabbath day. There is a built-in dilemma to Sabbath-keeping in a fallen world; even the most loyal Christian may sometimes have to work in a hospital or feed himself and others. There will always have to be some policemen on duty and a comfortable hotel room where a stranger in your town can stay. Even a Christian school or camp ground will need to have people go into the kitchen and prepare meals on the Sabbath.

In Mark 2, Jesus and his disciples did a minimal bit of “work” when they picked some grain in a field and ate it – a violation of the Jewish code at that time. His reply to the critics is an eye-opener: The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the rules about Sabbath should be liberating, not binding; they should ease our anxiety and not add to it. (One fretful Christian went so far as to unplug his refrigerator and stove so that his appliances could “rest” during the sacred hours.) It’s good news that Isaiah 58 describes the Sabbath as a “delight” for the loyal Christian.

When it comes to the myriad of possible do’s and don’t’s we could consider, the believer can be guided by what we know for sure:

  1. The Sabbath is holy time, sacred and special. Gen. 2:3, Ex. 20:11.
  2. It’s a day for rest, not just for us but also – as far as possible – for those we love and care for.
  3. We should avoid doing our usual financial business on that day (Nehemiah 13).
  4. It’s always appropriate to do good on the Sabbath, to heal and bless others (Matt. 12:12).

The best approach is to think of Sabbath as a profoundly abundant day where God wants to enjoy fellowship with us for the entire twenty-four hours. Eating is part of that joyous ambience – but do we really want to spend several of those hours fixing a six-course meal when most of that work could be done earlier? On the other hand, if a warm bowl of oatmeal topped with raisins and brown sugar is your epitome of relaxed pleasure on a Sabbath morning, then the few moments to prepare it would be joy and definitely not work.

In her book, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, Marva Dawn describes some of the elegant Sabbath feasts she lovingly prepares for her most treasured friends. Since she craves as much face time with her pals as possible, she carefully creates the recipes the day before. The table is set with white linen, she puts out her finest china and silverware; there are flowers in the center of the table. But this is all done ahead of time! Why? Because she doesn’t want her guests to cool their heels in another room while she is separated from them, doing all this unnecessary work.

When the meal is done, there is a mountain of dirty dishes! Oh no! But Marva never does them that same day. Not on “Queen Sabbath”! And she refuses to let her honored guests do any work. Instead, they simply put the dishes in the kitchen, shut the door . . . and she waits until another day, a less special and sacred day – and a day when her beloved friends are back at their own homes. As Jesus taught: “Nobody fasts when they’re with the bridegroom!” And she poignantly observes: “Such intentionality is not legalistic; on the contrary, it frees us to see and make manifest to others in new ways all the lilies of life.”