Every once in a while I will have an epiphany of some sort, and put it down on paper (you know, on my iPhone...). This was one of those moments. As I was listening to an old Hugh Nibley lecture at work, the Spirit was present, and I suddenly realized how truly important the Sabbath is, and why. Needless to say, this is something I will pay more attention to from here on out!
When the Lord commanded His ancient covenant people to perform animal sacrifices, it was to keep their lives and their minds focused on the Messiah who was to come, continually looking forward to a specific event. They were given specific directions as to how to perform these sacrifices because of their importance, and because they represented an actual event that was forthcoming.
A careful study of the scriptures will reveal that God works in patterns. When He said "I am the same yesterday, today, and forever", this is what He meant. Not that he would always do the same things over and over again, but that what things He did do would always be done in the same manner. "[The Lord's] house is a house of order".
Another pattern of symbolic action is Elisha's commandment for the leprous Naaman to be healed by immersing himself completely seven times in the Jordan River, the exact same river where Jesus himself was later baptized, even the Savior who would later "take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people." (Alma 7:11; see also 3 Nephi 9:13)
In our day, we take the sacrament each week to remember the Savior and renew our covenants with God. This is a symbolic action to help keep our minds focused on the Atonement.
So, let us then examine the commandment to keep the Sabbath Day holy to find out if we can discover the true meaning and purpose of this practice.
Naaman's experience was a one-time event, just like baptism. Keeping the Sabbath, however, is a repetitious event, just like the sacrament. Repetition, we are told, is a tool God uses to keep us from forgetting. So, we know that whatever the Sabbath represents, we are meant never to forget it.
Sacrifices, baptism, and the sacrament are all things that must be done, with specific actions that must be performed. Keeping the Sabbath, on the other hand, is a period of time rather than an action, and it is defined more by what we are NOT to do, than what we must do.
What are we not to do on the Sabbath? Work. We also do not cause others to work on the Sabbath. The Sabbath is to be a day of rest. So, we must remember, and never forget, some period of time within which we cannot work.
Is there anything we must do on the Sabbath, besides rest? Worship the Lord. This is mandatory. In D&C section 59, the Lord commands us to "offer up [our] oblations and [our] sacraments unto the Most High" on "[His] holy day". We have also been instructed by modern leaders about other things that are acceptable Sabbath activities: spending time with family, visiting relatives or the sick, fulfilling church callings, and doing family history work, are a few examples. In other words, enjoying our family units, and serving the Lord.
Another clue lies in who the keeping of the Sabbath applies to. According to Deut. 5:14, it is required of not only those who have made covenants with the Lord, but also all the servants and even strangers. In other words, the Sabbath is for everyone.
How often are we to observe the Sabbath? Every seven days, the scripture says. A day is a period of time. Do we have reference to any other seven periods of time in the scriptures? In fact, we do. In the beginning, of course, we know that God made all things in six days, and then rested on the seventh. Here is the origin of our Sabbath pattern: no work is to be performed during the seventh period of time.
There is scriptural reference to another seven periods of time, which might help us in our journey to understand the Sabbath. It is found in the Doctrine and Covenants, section 77. In this section, the Lord is explaining to Joseph Smith some of the symbolism used in the book of Revelation. There is a book with seven seals, which, the Lord explains, is a symbol of the earth and its seven thousand years of temporal existence, each seal representing a period of one thousand years. Seven thousand years, seven periods of time. Could this perhaps be the final clue we need to discover the identity of our mysterious Sabbath symbol?
What do we know so far? Every seven periods of time, everyone must remember, and never forget, some future seventh period of time within which we cannot perform works of labor, but instead will spend our time with our families, resting from our labors, and serving the Lord.
Can the Sabbath be anything but a constant reminder of the Millenium, and the impending finality of our own mortality?
Earlier I mentioned the commandment not to work on the Sabbath. How serious is this injunction? In Old Testament times it was important enough to the Lord that He declared: "Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people." In our own day, we don't have to worry about suffering physical death for disobeying God; rather, we face the much more serious consequence of experiencing the second death - separation from God and our family units forever.
"For behold," says Alma, "this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors. And now... I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity..." Remember that a day is merely a time period. The fact that we are given six days between Sabbaths should remind us of how merciful the Lord is; He wants us to have as much time as possible to repent. Then, Alma continues: "...behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed."
"And the Lord spake unto Moses," in Exodus 31, "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."
When we keep the Sabbath day holy, we show the Lord that we recognize that this life is the time period we have been given to show our obedience to Him. We recognize the importance of our daily decisions, and of not procrastinating.
As Alma said, "behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed." Alma 42:4 says "And thus we see, that there was a time granted unto man to repent, yea, a probationary time, a time to repent and serve God." The Sabbath is a constant reminder that our life is a probationary period. If we do not use our probationary period to repent, we will suffer the second death because the Lord has said so, and He cannot lie.
The degree to which we seek to obey and honor the Sabbath is, I believe, a direct reflection of how seriously we take the Lord at His word.
Exodus 23:13, 31:12-17
2 Kings 5:10
D&C 59:9-10, 12
D&C 77:6-7, 10, 12
3 Nephi 9:13