Among the Ten Commandments, the fourth commandment remains the most controversial, misinterpreted and misapplied. It has been a source of conflict among evangelical Christians. Because of this, some Christians wish it was not part of the Ten Commandments. Others wish they could make some modifications to it so as to make it easier to obey. Still others wish it was completely obliterated from the pages of Scripture.

Despite the human confusion that reigns around the fourth commandment, it proffers the greatest fulfilment and blessing to those who obey it. God mind on this commandment is as simple as the commandment itself: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” There is no ambiguity about that! We must, therefore, apply ourselves to its correct interpretation and practice, as God would desire us to.

The institution of the Sabbath

  1. God appointed the Sabbath at creation

In Genesis 2:1-3, it is clear that the appointment of the Sabbath took place at creation. God, having made all things in six days, rested on the seventh day. God then blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, i.e. made it holy. It is worth noting here, therefore, that the Sabbath as a creation ordinance was instituted before the Mosaic law was given. The law, given on Mount Sinai, was a mere repetition of what was already given at creation and observed under the Patriarchs. Therefore, everyone is under obligation to keep it, because it was appointed to serve creation and not just Israel.

  1. God appointed the Sabbath by his own example

Sabbath keeping is to be patterned after the example of God himself. The Bible says, “And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done” (Genesis 2:2). “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (Exodus 20:11). It is clear from the two texts that God sets forth an abiding example on how all human beings ought to conduct themselves in light of the Sabbath commandment. We are to work for six days, and then rest on the seventh day. Therefore it is not up to human beings to devise what and how they should go about with the observance of this command. The example set by God remains the standard for all human beings to imitate.

The supreme God has appointed one day out of seven to be a day for the worship of his great name. Surely, no one should be surprised that God appoints the time for his worship (Exodus 20:8-11). The Lord Jesus Christ confirms this in the New Testament. He states in no uncertain terms that the institution and regulation of the Sabbath reside in the authority of the Lord of creation. He says, “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). As Lord, he protects it from the abuse and distortion caused by the Pharisees. Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath, preserves it for man as it was designed from the beginning.

  1. God appointed the Sabbath in the Ten Commandments

As noted above, the keeping of one day in seven as special was instituted in Paradise at creation. God also promulgated it in the Decalogue. The fact that the law of the Sabbath was incorporated in the moral law is already an argument for its perpetuity. When God gave Moses the moral law for people of Israel he included the fourth commandment relating to the Sabbath. Isolating it from the other nine when trying to understand and apply the Ten Commandments today is a common mistake made by some Christians. Because of this it is approached with a lot of prejudice and suspicion.

John Murray makes the following comment on this matter:

“The fourth commandment belongs to all that is distinctive and characteristic of that summary of human obligation set forth in the Decalogue. It would require the most conclusive evidence to establish the thesis that the fourth command is in a different category from the other nine. That it finds its place among the ten words written by the finger of God upon tablets of stone establishes for this commandment, and for the labour and rest it enjoins, a position equal to that of the third or the fifth or the seventh or the tenth” (Murray, p.207).

The fourth commandment is a part of the moral law. Therefore, this commandment is just as abiding as any of the remaining nine. It is important to understand that the moral law stands as one and should be kept as such. The Ten Commandments are a summary of how we are to love of God and man. They were written on the heart of Adam before the Fall and were kept in substance by the Patriarchs before they were written on tablets stone.

The sanctity of the Sabbath

The sanctity of the Sabbath is described for us in the words “keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). To sanctify is to set something apart from common usage and for God’s own use. God sanctified the seventh day. It means this day is not only special; it is to be treated differently from all other days. It is to be set apart for God’s own use. Moses makes this point very clear when he says, “Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh day shall be holy for you, a Sabbath of rest to the Lord. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death” (Exodus 35:2). Why? This is so, because the Lord rested on it and therefore set the day apart as a Sabbath.

Sabbath does not imply total non-activity. Its emphasis is on not working so that the time (and energy) is spent in the worship of God. There are some Christians who think that it is not necessary to distinguish or sanctify one day from the rest. They say that all days are to be lived unto God. Whilst there is truth in that, it is also true that God has hallowed one day out of seven.

John Murray cautions against such an attitude, “To obliterate this difference may appear pious. But it is piosity, not piety. It is not piety to be wiser than God; it is impiety of the darkest hue. The Sabbath day is different from every other day, and to obliterate this distinction either in thought or practice is to destroy what is of the essence of the institution” (Murray, p.209).

Note, furthermore, that this holy day is unto God. It is not what man thinks he can do on it, but what God has said. We are to live unto him. The Bible says, “But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:10). Man has six days to do all this work, but when the seventh day comes “it is a Sabbath of rest to the Lord” (Exodus 35:2). God owns it and marks what is done on this day.

Its continuation into “the Lord’s Day”

A good question arises from the truth that Sabbath keeping is part of the moral law: What about the change of the day? Can a moral law be subject to such a change? Although we see a change of day in the New Testament from the seventh day to the first day of the week, the substance of the commandment does not change. In Matthew 12:1-14, our Lord Jesus Christ upholds the Sabbath and shows us how we are to conduct ourselves on this day. While the seventh day is observed on the basis of creation, the first day of the week is kept on the basis of redemption.

The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith beautifully puts it thus: “He (that is God) has particularly appointed one day in seven for a Sabbath to be kept holy unto him, which from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ was the last day of the week, and from the resurrection of Christ was changed into the first day of the week, which is called the Lord’s Day: and is to be continued to the end of the world as the Christian Sabbath, the observation of the last day of the week being abolished.” This can be observed in the New Testament:

  1. From the rising of Christ on the first day of the week “after the Sabbath” (Mt 28:1; Mk 16:1; Jn20:19). The writers of the gospels seem to be pointing out something we must pay particular attention to when they draw our attention to the rising of Christ from the dead on the first day of the week. This is repeated five times! I think they do so for emphasis and to show the significance of the day. Sam Waldron in commenting on this occurrence makes an extraordinary and scrupulous observation:

“Is this five re-occurrence of the phrase “the first day of the week” merely an interesting detail or is it of religious significance? The singular importance of this repeated reference to the first day of the week may be seen by asking the question, how many times are days of the week mentioned by their number in the New Testament? The answer is not once. The third day after Christ’s death is mentioned. The Lord’s Day is also mentioned. The preparation day for the Sabbath is mentioned. Yet, there is no other reference to a day of the week by its number in the entire New Testament. This being the case it is difficult to think that the mention of “first day of the week” five times by the evangelists is incidental. We are constrained to think that it has religious significance. But what is that significance? It appears to be recorded to show the origin of the church’s practice of observing the first day. There is no other natural explanation of this peculiar insistence on the ‘first day of the week’ in the resurrection account” (From unpublished lecture notes by Richard Barcellos, p.107).

  1. From the pattern of meetings in the New Testament. The gathering of the church during the apostolic period was on the first day of the week, i.e. on Sunday. They participated in the Lord’s Supper and the preaching of God’s Word on Sunday (Acts 20:7) in keeping with the practice in Acts 2:42. Money was collected on Sunday (1 Corinthians 16:2). The Corinthians were to give their substance in keeping with apostolic practice and the command given to other churches (verse 1).
  2. From Christ’s redemptive lordship. “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). Christ here claims lordship over the Sabbath, not as the Son of God but as the Son of Man, i.e. in his messianic office as he executes and applies redemption. It is in this office that he ensures the Sabbath is maintained for the good of man and defends it before the Pharisees. The New Testament tradition of the church meeting on his resurrection day under the direct oversight of the apostles, confirms the authority of Christ to change the day. You must either say that the apostles were wrong to keep this day or they were right, and that they obtained sanction from the Lord of the Sabbath himself!
  3. From “the Lord’s Day”. The name “Lord’s Day” assists us to establish the change of the seventh day into the first day of the week under the New Covenant. In Revelation 1:10, John, on the island of Patmos, saw the Lord Jesus as a resurrected Lord (verses 5 &7) on “the Lord’s Day”. The Greek word (kuriako) translated in Rev 1:10 as “the Lord’s Day” is not “the day of the Lord” as in 2 Peter 3:10. It is the day that belongs to the Lord. It is the same word that appears in 1 Corinthians 11:20 for the Lord’s Supper, i.e. the supper that belongs to the Lord. It is true that all meals come from the Lord, but not all belong to the Lord. Likewise all days come from the Lord but not all are the Lord’s.

John Murray says, “The two pivotal events in this accomplishment are the death and resurrection of Christ, and the memorial ordinances of the New Testament institution are the Lord’s Supper and Lord’s Day, the one memorialising Jesus’ death and the other his resurrection” (From unpublished lecture notes of Richard Barcellos, p.258). The New Testament clearly distinguishes the Lord’s Day from all other days as the first day of the week, i.e. Sunday.

It’s Obligation

There are several challenges that are associated with the keeping of the Christian Sabbath if its fruit is likely to impact our lives. There are some things to keep in mind if we are going to observe this day correctly. You are to keep in the mind the fact that:

  1. It is a day to be set apart weekly: To sanctify the Lord’s Day means to set it apart from common use and to use it solely for God. We must, therefore, be conscious of that fact even as we enter into that day each week. It belongs to the Lord (Genesis 2:3, Isaiah 58:13).
  2. It is a day of commemoration: The Sabbath is a memorial of God’s works in creation and redemption. In creation there is remembrance that God made heaven and earth, and everything in them, in the space of six days (Exodus 20:11). In redemption there is remembrance that God has quickened our spirits through a mighty salvation wrought for us in Christ Jesus (Exodus 20:5; Duet 5:15).
  3. It is a day of worship: The Lord’s Day is fundamentally a day for the worship of the God of heaven. We are to thank God for our labours in the previous six days and to engage specifically in various acts of worship, in both private and public. Our worship ought to manifest joy, pleasure and delight in God (Isaiah 58:13). This worship of God must be more than just attending a worship service but committing the whole day to the Lord in corporate, family and individual worship.
  4. It is a day when you can do works of mercy and of necessity: Any reading of the gospels soon shows that it was on this point that the Lord of the Sabbath clashed the most with the religious leaders of his day. The Bible says, “Therefore, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (cf. Matthew 12:9-13). So, if you see a situation that involves human suffering, you must be at liberty to attend to it and relieve the suffering you have witnessed. Works of necessity are those that are essential for life and living, e.g. the provision of transport, health care, electricity, etc. (Matthew 12:1; Luke 14:1, 7; John 5:8-11; Joshua 6:1-6).

 

Its usefulness and blessedness

The Puritans delighted in the Christian Sabbath and called it the Queen Day of the week, the market day of the soul. It is God’s Harvest Day because more of his truth goes out and more fruit is gathered in on this day than on any other day of the week. In that sense, it has its own unique blessings as a blessed day of the Lord! God created it for the good of man to rest and be refreshed from his six days of labour. It is a religious day but its “rest” also makes it a social day, resulting in physical benefits (Exodus 23:12). Blessed is this day because man can meet God and have rest and communion with his Creator. Is there anything more one can long for than this? It is heaven on earth when the immortal and holy God meets with his mortal and saved people for holy communion. No wonder God wants us to delight in it (Isaiah 58:14).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The Ten Commandments-Thomas Watson

A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of faith- Samuel E. Waldron

Systematic Theology- R. L Dabney

The Collected Writings of John Murray Vol. 1

The Lord’s Day – Joseph A. Pipa

The functions of the Decalogue with Special Emphasis on the Christian Sabbath- Richard C. Barcellos

The Ten Commandments for today – Brian H. Edward

Whatever Happened to the Ten Commandments – Ernest C. Reisinger