The Fourth Commandment
September 23, 2021
“Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy” is the fourth of the Ten Commandments — and the one that causes the most controversy among Christians. I’ve heard discussions on how best to keep the other commandments, but this is the only one that I have seen debated regarding its relevance and application for today. Some people may even go so far as to say that this commandment is not valid for Christians today, and those who think it is valid have vastly different applications of it. The differences in contemporary Christians understanding this commandment may very well stem from the fact that this commandment has the biggest variation in its explanation in the two places where it is found (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5). Considering those frames, and then how the commandment is discussed in the New Testament, can help us think through what it means for us today.
Two Frames for the Fourth Commandment
Here is the way this commandment reads in each text (ESV translation):
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, 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)
“Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:12-15)
There are some subtle differences between the texts. For example, in Exodus we are commanded to “remember” the Sabbath and Deuteronomy commands us to “observe” the Sabbath day. However, one big difference is that Exodus focuses on creation, while Deuteronomy focuses on redemption; Exodus 20 points out that God created the world in six days and then rested, but Deuteronomy 5 states that observing the Sabbath was a way to remember that God brought the Israelites out of Egypt when they were slaves. These rationales mean that there would be different things to remember on the day. If we focus on creation (Exodus), we are reminded that we are finite, so we need rest (if God can do all His work in six days, surely we can do our work in that same amount of time!). If it is redemption (Deuteronomy) that we’re looking at, then it is a way of remembering that God brings salvation to His people, not through their works, but through His work and because of His promises.
These different frames raise the question of whether or not the command to rest on the seventh day is something that is true for all times and places or if it was a special mark of Israel for them to remember the day along with all the other various ceremonial laws about sacrifices and festivals. We can see support for both positions even within the Book of Exodus as the people are called to rest from gathering manna on the Sabbath day in chapter 16 (even before the Ten Commandments are given), but in Exodus 31:13-17, God speaks of it as a special sign between He and His people Israel (He also calls it a special sign for His people in Ezekiel 20:12).
In light of the two rationales given for the command and the different ways it is discussed even within Exodus, perhaps it is best to say it has two purposes – to remind us of creation and redemption. It is something that has both universal relevance and also special significance for the people of Israel. Thus, the Israelites resting on the Sabbath day (and the fact that it was on the seventh day) was tied to their covenant with God in which He would bless them in the land if they remained obedient. We, too, should rest and worship one day a week because of the created order (although most Christians observe it on Sunday, we do have more freedom on the day we choose as well as a bit of how to go about doing it). Such a hypothesis is supported by what I see in the New Testament concerning the Sabbath.
The Sabbath Commandment in the New Testament
We must remember that Jesus said he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). Thus, it does not seem proper to say that a law is not valid unless we see an affirmation of it by Jesus. Rather, we should see that Jesus directs us to the true intent of the law. He does so with many of the other Ten Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount by contrasting what they have heard versus what he says. For example, he show that we should not only avoid the act of murdering someone, but we are commanded to not even have hateful thoughts (see Matthew 5:21-48). Jesus does not address the Sabbath day in the Ten Commandments, but he does talk about it elsewhere, and often performing miracles on the Sabbath and doing what the religious leaders would have forbidden (see e.g., Matthew 14:1-12; Mark 2:23-3:6; Luke 13:10-17; 14:1-6). He shows that the goal of the Sabbath was not to bind people from action, but to free them to do good — that it was made for the good of humans rather than made for humans to keep the day holy. He tells them that they have missed the importance of the day, which was meant to point them to dependence upon God and share His goodness with others rather than another opportunity to try to impress God through our own works. They had complexified the nature of this commandment, going beyond what was written in the law in terms of what you could and could not do, and in the process, had lost the point.
The Apostle Paul also does not point to the Sabbath being abolished, but to the fact that it had a ceremonial and symbolic significance (see Colossians 2:16-17) and allows some freedom in terms of one’s conduct on the day (Romans 14:5-6). The symbolic significance seems to come from the fact that the Sabbath day was meant to point us to the coming of Christ to save us, a day where we will rest from our works (see Hebrews 4:9-10). Thus, some of the ceremonial elements of keeping the day can go away. The freedom found in the Romans passage points out that Christians don’t seem bound to keep a particular day – the seventh day as was the case in the Old Testament – with Christians historically viewing the first day/eighth day as the day that Jesus rose from the dead, and thus, God did His work of new creation as the fitting day to have a day of rest and worship (this is the Lord’s Day).
The Sabbath command thus seems to have enduring significance, with elements of it fading away as it was tied to the Mosaic covenant. However, we should discover how to honor and keep it while also not judging how others observe/obey this command (something that I will admit Christians have not been good at doing).
Thoughts to Consider in Keeping the Sabbath
When reflecting on the Ten Commandments, I often turn to some Reformed Catechisms (the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechism) to see how they interpreted the command and sought to apply it. While these documents provide great insight, and even a couple of different viewpoints (Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 103 seems to focus on the need to rest for the sake of gathering to worship while Westminster Larger Q & A 115-21 and Westminster Shorter Q & A 57-62 highlights the need to rest from “recreations that are lawful on other days” and to refrain from even thinking about them), as I have studied them I couldn’t help but remember that they were focused on how to apply the commandment in 16th and 17th century Europe. There are some different dynamics in 21st century America that we may need to think about when considering this commandment.
We live in a world in which there is no rest and life seems nonstop, so it is especially important for Christians to reclaim this principle of the Sabbath. In fact, this was a way God’s people stood out from the world around them (other cultures didn’t have this day of rest, which led to charges that the Israelites were lazy people; they responded that we can do more in six days than others can in seven) and continues to be a way that makes a statement to the world. (For instance, some may be surprised that Chick-Fil-A is closed on Sundays, but people recognize it and respect it….and they seem to be doing just fine business wise!) We should have one day that is different from the other days of the week. We should make worship with God’s people a weekly priority, and we should also refrain from doing whatever occupies our time during the rest of the week. I think it is important not to legislate what you can or cannot do on that day, as each might have their own definition of what is “restful”, but we should make it a practice to say there are certain things you look forward to doing on that day. While some might say you can only do “holy” things on that day, I think we need to be careful in too closely defining that. We should always try to refrain from sinning, but especially on that day as you are giving greater focus on the Lord. We also need to remember that worship is not just reading the Bible and singing, but also by reflecting on God’s good gifts and using them as He intends for you to do. The day should remind you that all you have comes from God and that you are depending upon Him for all things — not the least of which is salvation.
Taking a day to cease from our labors is important as it reminds us that we are finite beings and shouldn’t think that we are so important that the world will stop if we stop working. We also do this to remember that we are saved not by working, but by resting in Christ and His work. Observing/honoring the Sabbath is a command that we should strive to obey today.
Questions about the Bible or theology? Email them to Pastor Brian at Theology@WeAreFaith.org. You can also request to receive weekly emails with our blog posts by filling out the information on the right side.