The Fourth Commandment

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.” – Exodus 20: 8 – 11

What does the Bible teach and calls us to do in regards to the fourth Commandment? Is the Sabbath observant in the Old Testament simply a mosaic institution? Does the New Testament anywhere teach that we are obligated to keep Sunday as a sabbath or to worship on Sunday? I think these questions should be taken seriously in light of the fact that God highly regards His Sabbaths observant to the point that He demanded the death penalty for whomsoever among the people of Israel profanes it (Exodus 31:12-18). We have a tendency in our day to consider God’s law as completely irrelevant to our lives. I think it is often the case that we look at the law as something bitter and utterly distasteful. Christians ought to be able to say with the Psalmist (119:97), “Oh, how I love your law!”

“The man who does not know the nature of the law cannot know the nature of the sin, and he who does not know the nature of sin cannot know the nature of the saviour” – John Bunyan.

When Jesus said (Matthew 5:17), “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them,” I believe he was saying that he came to obey them. Jesus lived to be perfectly obedient to the law of God not simply so that he can keep a list of rules but because he wanted to do the will of the Father. He [Jesus] later went on to say, “Therefore, whosoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do likewise will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whosoever practices and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” – Matthew 5:19.

Our obedience to the law of God should be motivated by a desire to demonstrate our love for God because Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” – John 14:15. “But how can you love Him if you don’t know Him? Nothing can be in the heart that is not first in the mind. And if you want to have an experience of God directly, particularly in worship where you bypass the mind, you’re on a fool’s errand. It can’t happen. You might increase emotion. You might increase entertainment. You might increase excitement, but you’re not going to increase the love of God because you can’t love what you don’t know. A mindless Christianity is no Christianity at all. If I want to love God more, I have to know Him more deeply.” – R.C. Sproul.

Out of the Ten Commandments inscribed by the very finger of God (Exodus 31:18), the fourth commandment is probably the most misunderstood by believers. For example, Saint Augustine, apparently believed that nine out of the ten commandments were reiterated in the New Testament law of Christ, but that the fourth commandment (Sabbath observation) had being set aside, or at least certain elements of it. This was because it was clear to him that the New Testament community shifted their corporate worship from the seventh day of the week, to the first day of the week. “A number of authors point out that the command is not ‘remember the seventh day,’ but ‘remember the Sabbath.’” – Terry L. Johnson. In the Old Testament, the Sabbath day was observed on the seventh day of the week. But in the New Testament, the Sabbath Day is observed on the first day of the week so as to:

  • Commemorate the resurrection of Christ which took place on the first day of the week.
  • The Holy Spirit descending on the day of Pentecost – the first day of the week (Acts 2).
  • The early church worshipping on the first day of the week (Act 20:7).

For these reasons (at least to my knowledge), the first day of the week is known as the Lord’s Day, the Christian Sabbath day, a day set aside for rest; corporate gathering to worship God; a day devoted to public worship, and also to family and private worship, Bible reading, the singing of praises, and godly conversations. This has been an apostolic practice that has endured for the last two thousand years.

In the history of the church, there has been significant debate about the first day of the week [Sunday]. In the first few 100 years of the life of the church (the period of the church fathers), the general attitude of the early church was that Sunday worship bore no relationship to the fourth commandment. They wanted to make clear that the church was not bound by Jewish regulations so they basically said that the teachings of the fourth commandment were irrelevant to the church. In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas sees the fourth commandment as still speaking to the church. He distinguishes the Lord’s Day from Sabbath, but he said the fourth commandment still applies to us.

The prevailing view many reformed theologians hold to is that Christians are commanded to keep the Sabbath day as giving in the fourth commandment, but that the Sabbath day was not any longer to be observed on the seventh day, but on the first day of the week. This was the view of many, if not most of the Puritans. In fact, the 1689 Baptist Confession states that Christians are to treat Sunday as a new sabbath, and to follow generally the prescriptions and limitations placed upon the old sabbath. But, are they correct?

“We don’t ever really celebrate a sabbath in the Mosaic sense because it is a ministry of death. But we can celebrate a sabbath in the Genesis sense as we celebrate God as our Creator, and then on the first day of the week as we celebrate Him as our Redeemer” – John MacArthur.

When Christ was on earth, he said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore, the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.” – Mark 2:27-28. By declaring himself to be the Lord of the Sabbath, He is making it clear to all that He is the creator of sabbath and that he is sovereign over the sabbath. For it written, “all things were created through him and for him” – Colossians 1:16. In doing so, Jesus freed the Sabbath day from under the legalistic approach which the scribes and Pharisees had put it and gave it its true place. By healing the sick on the Sabbath day, Jesus made it clear that it is lawful to do good on the sabbath (Mark 3:1-6). It is necessary to do those works of mercy that are required for the well-being of life on the sabbath day. “Whatever, in short, is necessary to preserve and maintain life, whether of ourselves, or of the creatures, or to do good to the souls of men, may be done on the Sabbath day without sin’’ – J.C Ryle. We have to be careful about falling into the trap that the pharisees fell into with their legalistic approach to the sabbath day. But the fundamental concept, is, “Do we honour God with the sabbath day?”

One of my favourite heroes of the faith is a man by the of Eric Henry Liddell. He was probably the fastest man on planet earth in the early 1920s. Eric ran so fast that people called him the flying Scotsman. He was best at short, fast races and the race he liked running the most was the 100 metres. During the summer of 1924, when the Olympics were hosted in the city of Paris, Eric found out that in order to participate, he had to run a 100m heat first on a Sunday at the Olympics. As a devout Christian, the thought of doing something like this on the Lord’s Day was against is conscience, and so he stood by his conviction and gave up the opportunity to win a gold medal by refusing to run on Sunday. Eric however competed in the men’s 400 metres and he not only won the race, but he broke the existing world record time. Apparently just before the race kicked off, someone handed Eric a handwritten note with the following words (from Scripture):

“Those who honour me I will honour.” – 1 Samuel 2:30

Our understanding of the sabbath influences how we worship and spend our time on Sunday. We are called to remember that this is a day that belongs to the Lord (not just an hour). The reality that the day belongs to the Lord needs to shape our whole attitude towards the day. It is clear that Lev 23:2-3 makes the Sabbath “a day of holy convocation” and not idleness. Is what you’re doing on the Sabbath considered to be holy? That is, dedicated or consecrated to God; sacred; set apart? “Our rest is to be a holy rest. Our worship is to be a holy worship. Our leisure is to be a holy leisure” – Terry L Johnson. More than any other given-day, I think we ought to affirm joyfully with the Psalmist (118:24) on the Sabbath that, “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it”

The word ‘Sabbath’ means ‘Rest’ and the meaning of the word gives a hint as to the true way to observe the day. “Do you ever think about what a strange thing sleep is and how much of our lives are lived in an unconscious state? We can’t live very long without rest because of how we are made. Not only does God appoint a partial period of time in the cycle of life for daily sleep but also, there is this weekly pattern of rest from our normal labour.” – R.C Sproul. We are called to, Remember the rest-day to keep it holy (Ex. 20:8). It is the day when the body can be refreshed and strengthened after six days of work and the soul can be drawn into closer fellowship with its Maker.” – D.L. Moody.

To conclude with, I think the most important thing to remember is that we can only find true rest ultimately by looking to Jesus! “The place of ultimate rest is found nowhere else but in intimate relationship with the Lord” – Dr. Michael Youssef. Saint Augustine mentioned in his memoir confessions how he overcame his lustful pursuits when he came to the realisation that, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” – Saint Augustine. This is what the Lord of the Sabbath [Jesus] says:

Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30.