THE FOURTH COMMANDMENT
The Fourth Commandment
The first three commandments of the Decalogue forbid worshiping other gods, corrupting worship through idolatry, and abusing God’s name. As noted, the First Commandment tells us whom we are to worship, and the Second Commandment tells us how we are to worship Him. The Third and Fourth Commandments provide further instructions on how we are to worship Him.
Many believe nine of the Ten Commandments were brought forward to the New Covenant, the Fourth Commandment being the only exception. Apparently, some suppose that the command to keep the Sabbath holy is more ceremonial than moral, and that it is the one commandment that cannot be naturally discerned.
It is true that nothing in nature indicates that the seventh day is any different from the other days of the week, but to suggest that the Fourth Commandment is devoid of moral content is clearly erroneous. What can be more “moral” than a Sabbath of holy worship?
All our time belongs to God. We are to honor Him every day in all that we do, but He established the seven-day week and commands that we devote one day—the seventh day—of every week as a day of rest and time for special worship. The seventh day is “a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation” on which “no work” is to be done (Leviticus 23:3; cf. Exodus 20:9–10; Deuteronomy 5:13–14). It is a divinely appointed time for God’s people to assemble in worship, sing praises and offer thanks to Him, and build one another up in faith, love, and hope.
The Sabbath is rooted in God’s creative and redemptive acts. In Exodus 20, the Sabbath is linked with God’s work of creation (verse 11). In Deuteronomy 5, the Sabbath is linked with God’s work of delivering Israel from Egypt (verse 15). Thus, the Sabbath is both a celebration of creation and of redemption. This means the Sabbath has special significance for members of the New Covenant community, for they are a “new creation” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15) and have been redeemed through the blood of Christ from the bondage of sin (Romans 3:24; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; 1 Peter 1:18–19).
A Covenant Sign for Israel
In Exodus 31, God links the Sabbath with His creative acts and the redemption of Israel and, in this light, emphasizes the critical importance of keeping the Sabbath.
And the LORD said to Moses, “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you. You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among the people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed’ ” (Exodus 31:12–17).
The expression “Above all” emphasizes the importance of keeping the seventh day holy, and the sentence of death for breaking the Sabbath underscores the gravity of this sin. The day is to serve as a perpetual sign of the Covenant, reminding the people of Israel that God, the Creator of heaven and earth, redeemed them from Egypt and set them apart as His special people. It was not a “god” who delivered Israel from bondage; it was the God—the one and only true God, Maker of the heavens and the earth—who redeemed the people of Israel and made them His special people. The Sabbath was to perpetually signify all this.
Unfortunately, Israel “greatly profaned” the Sabbath (Ezekiel 20:13). Because of this and other grave sins, God refused to bring the Exodus generation into the Promised Land. But profaning the Sabbath did not cease with the Exodus generation. It was a major problem throughout the history of Israel.
The prophets often singled out the Sabbath because it stood for the whole law. They understood that the Sabbath was a sign of the Covenant, so when they spoke of profaning the Sabbath they were speaking of Israel’s unfaithfulness to the Covenant in general.
The fact that the Sabbath was given to the people of Israel while they were in the wilderness (Exodus 16) and served as a sign of the Covenant God made with them at Sinai, separating them from the other nations, has led some to conclude that the Sabbath was for Israel only and is inseparable from the Mosaic Covenant.
As we shall see, however, the Sabbath long predates the Mosaic Covenant.
A Creation Ordinance
Many claim that the Sabbath was first instituted in the time of Moses, but the commandment itself points to a much earlier origin. All the Israelites and the sojourners who dwelt among them were to refrain from work on the Sabbath, “For in six day the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:10–11).
When did God bless and make holy the Sabbath day? Shortly after He delivered Israel from the land of Egypt? In the wilderness during the time of Moses?
No! Genesis 2 tells of the origin of the Sabbath:
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested [ceased] on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation (Genesis 2:1–3).
The Sabbath and the marriage covenant (Genesis 2:22–24) have been called the two great creation ordinances. Both were instituted at the beginning of human history. It is illogical to assume that the latter is permanently binding while the former would remain in suspension until the time of Moses and later be abolished.
The entire creation narrative focuses on the arrival of man. God prepares an environment suitable for humans and then creates man and puts him in a place specially prepared for him. On the seventh day—the day after man’s creation—God “rests” from His work and makes the seventh day holy. This is the first recorded example of God making a thing holy. Obviously, the Sabbath was not created in a vacuum, as if God’s making the seventh day holy were unrelated to the origin of man. God was not exhausted; He didn’t need to rest. When He “rested” and made the seventh day holy, He had man in view. The Sabbath was made for man. It signifies communion between the Creator and the creature who bears the Creator’s image.
The Sabbath was instituted long before there were any Jews. It took on new meaning under the Mosaic Covenant, but it predates the Covenant by many centuries. Its new function as a sign of the Mosaic Covenant could not negate its previous function as a creation ordinance signifying God’s relationship with man; nor could the cancellation of the Covenant nullify the Sabbath or its original function and intent.
Some argue that there is no evidence that the patriarchs who lived before Moses kept the Sabbath. This, they claim, is evidence that the Sabbath was unknown before the time of Moses, and that the Sabbath rest of the creation narrative simply reflects a Mosaic interpretation.
Indeed, while we could show from the book of Genesis that worshiping false gods, idolatry, blasphemy, dishonoring parents, murder, adultery, theft, lying, and covetousness were all sins long before the time of Moses, there is no passage stating that any one of the patriarchs kept the Sabbath. There’s no mention of the righteous men and women who lived before Moses resting on the Sabbath. But we do find some bits of information that may suggest an awareness of the Sabbath before the time of Moses.
In Genesis 26:5, God says, “Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” The mention of “commandments…statutes…and laws” suggests a system of law was in place in the time of Abraham. If this system of law included commandments against serving false gods, idolatry, blasphemy, adultery, and so on, we may logically assume that the creation ordinance of the Sabbath was included as well.
Genesis 29:27–28 shows that the “week” was known in the days of the patriarchs. With Mosaic authorship as a given, we might assume that the week known to the patriarchs was seven days in duration. An awareness of the weekly cycle of seven days may also be suggested in Noah’s sending out a dove from the ark every seven days until the dove did not return (Genesis 8:10–12).
Since the seven-day week instituted at creation concludes with the Sabbath day, it is reasonable to think that the week known to the patriarchs was the seven-day week and that they kept the Sabbath. Of course, the passages cited above do not prove this, but they do provide evidence for that possibility. In any case, the lack of clear references to the Sabbath in the accounts of the patriarchs’ lives does not support the view that the Sabbath was unknown to them. A section of Scripture that covers a vast period of Israel’s history makes no mention of the Sabbath or anyone keeping it, though we know it was being kept during that time. So the lack of any mention of the Sabbath in the Genesis narratives proves nothing.
Jesus and the Sabbath
Jesus Christ was an observant Jew. He called the temple “my Father’s house” (John 2:16; cf. Matthew 23:16–22), upheld tithing laws (Matthew 23:23), recommended Mosaic sacrifices (Luke 5:14), taught in the synagogues on Sabbath days (Mark 6:2; Luke 4:16; 6:6; 13:10), and observed festivals (Matthew 26:17–20; Luke 2:41–42; 22:15; John 7:10). He clearly respected customs normally deemed “Jewish.”
While He respected “Jewish” institutions such as the temple and priesthood, He did speak of the termination of the temple and its services (Matthew 23:37–39; 24:1–2; John 4:21); but He said nothing similar about the Sabbath or the Decalogue. On the contrary, He plainly said that He did not come to abolish the law (Matthew 5:17), declaring that “whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (verse 19).
Obviously, Jesus recognized the distinction between the moral law (the Ten Commandments) and the ceremonial law. In His “Sermon on the Mount,” He cites several laws from the Old Testament and brings to light their true meaning. As noted earlier, Jesus takes issue, not with the law, but with erroneous interpretations of the law.
Through His personal example, He also underscored the true meaning of the Sabbath day. He ignored the unscriptural traditions the scribes and Pharisees had tacked to the Sabbath; and, in so doing, He brought to light the Sabbath’s meaning as a day picturing liberation from bondage. In short, He restored the original meaning and purpose of the Sabbath day.
In Deuteronomy 5:14–15, Moses links the Sabbath rest with Israel’s liberation from bondage in Egypt, thus showing that the Sabbath is a day picturing redemption and liberation. Similarly, Jesus—the “Prophet like Moses”—performed numerous healings on the Sabbath, linking the day to liberation and demonstrating His power to forgive sins. (See Matthew 12:10–13; Luke 13:10–17; 14:1–6; John 5:5–13; 7:21–24; 9:1–34.)
In each of these instances, the Pharisees accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath. It was the Pharisees, not Jesus, who abused the Sabbath. Through their erroneous traditions, they had made the Sabbath burdensome. Jesus’ actions were in complete accord with the intent and purpose of the Sabbath. He pointed out that “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Mathew 12:12), and informed His accusers that the “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), meaning that it was to be a delight (Isaiah 58:13), not a burden.
On one occasion, Jesus’ disciples plucked heads of grain and began to eat as they passed through a grainfield on the Sabbath. The Pharisees accused them of breaking the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1–2). Of course, there is nothing wrong with satisfying hunger on the Sabbath. Plucking a few heads of grain and eating is hardly the kind of “work” the Fourth Commandment forbids. Jesus refuted the Pharisees’ accusation by citing the example of David, who violated a ceremonial law in a time of need and was excused, and by pointing out that the priests perform temple duties on the Sabbath but are guiltless (verses 3–6).
Jesus used this occasion to show that the One who permitted the disciples to pluck heads of grain and eat on the Sabbath is greater than the temple (verse 6). The Pharisees must have been stunned when He declared, “For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (verse 8). In making this statement, He was affirming His Messiahship and declaring His dominion over creation and redemption, both of which are pictured in the Sabbath day.
Far from abolishing the Sabbath, Jesus confirmed it, declaring His lordship over it, and restoring its true meaning and intent.
The Sabbath and the Early Church
The earliest Christians observed the Sabbath and the annual festivals. The New Testament church was born on the Day of Pentecost, an annual holy day (Acts 2; cf. Leviticus 23:4–7, 15–16). The coming of the Holy Spirit at that time gave new meaning to the day, just as Christ’s death at the time of the Passover sacrifice gave new meaning to the Passover festival. No doubt, the New Covenant community—entirely Jewish at first—came to recognize the Christological and New Covenant significance of all the festivals and holy days, including the weekly Sabbath.
The writer of the book of Hebrews would later link the seventh day of creation (Hebrews 4:4; cf. Genesis 2:2) with the “Sabbath rest” awaiting the people of God in the future (Hebrews 4:9), showing that the Sabbath continues its function as a shadow of future realities. The Sabbath, then, is much more than a Covenant sign for Israel. It symbolizes the eschatological “rest” promised to the New Covenant community. The shadow and the reality have not yet merged, so the Sabbath has not been abolished.
The apostle Paul observed the Sabbath (Acts 13:14; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4). The thousands of Jewish believers at Jerusalem were “zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20). They were Sabbath-keepers. James, writing to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (James 1:1), identified as Christians (James 2:1), mentions “your assembly” (verse 2). Stern writes, “The word [assembly] in Greek is ‘sunagoge’; it appears 57 times in the New Testament. Fifty-six times it refers to a Jewish place of congregational assembly and is translated ‘synagogue’ in virtually all English versions” (David Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 728). James’ use of the term suggests the “twelve tribes” to whom the epistle was addressed observed the Sabbath.
Some cite Colossians 2:16–17 as proof that the Sabbath was abolished. But the passage does not say that at all. Paul writes, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” The false teachers insisted on “asceticism and worship of angels” (verse 18), with “regulations—‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings” (verses 20–22). They were passing judgment on the Colossian believers for the manner in which the believers were keeping the Sabbath and festivals. The false teachers insisted on observance of the Sabbath and festivals according to their man-made “regulations.” Paul reminds the Colossians that the Sabbath and festivals are a “shadow” of which Christ is the “substance.”
The “days and months and seasons and years” the Galatian believers were observing (Galatians 4:10) were probably related to Jewish astrological beliefs. These were the “weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more” (verse 9). Paul would not have described simple Sabbath observance in such a way.
In Romans 14, Paul says, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord” (verses 5–6). This probably refers to days set aside for fasting—perhaps the well-known fasts and partial fasts traditionally observed by the Jews. (Rome had a large Jewish population, and the churches of Rome were made up of Jews and Gentiles.) The Sabbath is a time for community worship; this text speaks of observing days as a matter of personal devotion. Paul was not opposed to traditions that did not conflict with God’s law. He simply didn’t want members of the New Covenant community judging each other over such matter.
The New Covenant community is made up of “those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 12:17). The commandments of God include the Fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy.”