Sabbath Series, Part 1 – The Nature of the Fourth Commandment

12 08 2008

Westminster Shorter Catechism

Question 57 – Which is the fourth commandment?

Answer – The fourth commandment is, “Remember the sabbath-day to keep it holy. Six days shall you labor, and do all your work: but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord your God: in it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your man-servant, nor your maid-servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath-day, and hallowed it.”


God, through Moses, gave the Ten Commandments to His people. The fourth commandment requires the sanctification of the Sabbath Day. Of all the commandments, this is perhaps the most controversial, for there are many who accept the validity of the other nine, but insist that the 4th commandment ceased to be binding upon Christians after the resurrection of Jesus. 


We will seek to demonstrate that the Lord’s command to set apart one day in seven for worship and works of mercy and necessity continues to be an essential part of the life of the Christian, the neglect of which will inevitably bring serious consequences. On the other hand, we will see that the keeping of the 4th commandment brings wonderful blessing to those who learn to “call the Sabbath a delight” (Isaiah 58:13).


The importance of this matter is seen in God’s pronouncement of judgment upon Judah and Jerusalem for the disregard of the fourth commandment:

Jeremiah 17:19-27 Thus the LORD said to me: “Go and stand in the gate of the children of the people, by which the kings of Judah come in and by which they go out, and in all the gates of Jerusalem; and say to them, ‘Hear the word of the LORD, you kings of Judah, and all Judah, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, who enter by these gates.  ‘Thus says the LORD: “Take heed to yourselves, and bear no burden on the Sabbath day, nor bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem; nor carry a burden out of your houses on the Sabbath day, nor do any work, but hallow the Sabbath day, as I commanded your fathers. But they did not obey nor incline their ear, but made their neck stiff, that they might not hear nor receive instruction.  And it shall be, if you heed Me carefully,” says the LORD, “to bring no burden through the gates of this city on the Sabbath day, but hallow the Sabbath day, to do no work in it, then shall enter the gates of this city kings and princes sitting on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their princes, accompanied by the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and this city shall remain forever. And they shall come from the cities of Judah and from the places around Jerusalem, from the land of Benjamin and from the lowland, from the mountains and from the South, bringing burnt offerings and sacrifices, grain offerings and incense, bringing sacrifices of praise to the house of the LORD. But if you will not heed Me to hallow the Sabbath day, such as not carrying a burden when entering the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched.”

1. The 4th commandment is unique in the decalogue


The first thing that most people reading through the 10 commandments recognize about the 4th commandment is that it is considerably longer than the other nine. This is but one of several distinguishing characteristics of the Sabbath law. It is also the only commandment that includes a historical account of its institution, which ties it into the pattern of Creation. 


It is the only commandment delivered both positively and negatively (“You shall” and “You shall not”). And, it is enforced with more arguments to strengthen it than any other commandment. Yet far from the uniqueness of the 4th commandment arguing for its eventual exclusion from the decalogue, it is as though God anticipated that men would try to sweep this commandment away, and so He gave it extra anchors. 


2. The Sabbath is a Creation Ordinance.


     Genesis 1:14-19 Then God said, “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so.  Then God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night. He made the stars also.  God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth,  and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good.  So the evening and the morning were the fourth day.

Genesis 2:1-3 Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. 2 And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made. 

In the first chapter of Genesis, we read that God placed the sun, moon, and stars in the heavens “for signs and seasons, for days and years.” In other words, God set up the universe to run according to a time clock of His devising. The Sabbath is built-in to the very fabric of this divine time-clock. 


The pattern of six days of labor and one day of rest and worship is a creation ordinance – that is, an ethical norm based upon God’s work in creation. A creation ordinance, according to Walter Kaiser, is designed to “depict ‘the constitution of things’ as they were intended to be from the Creator’s hand.  They cover and regulate the whole gamut of life: bearing children, superintending the earth as a responsible steward before and under God, responsibly ruling the creatures of all creation, finding fulfillment and satisfaction in work, labor and resting on the Sabbath, and enjoying marriage as a gift from above.” Creation ordinances are binding upon all mankind throughout every generation, since God built them into the very structure of His creation. 


Even if the Christian Sabbath were rejected by every person on the face of the earth, the world would continue to run on the basis of a repeating pattern of 7-day weeks. The Inventor of time has imposed this pattern upon His world. In His infinite wisdom, God has provided for the periodic refreshment (both physical and spiritual) of His creatures and even of His creation itself (the land also needs a sabbath rest in order to remain productive). 

Leviticus 26:33-35  I will scatter you among the nations and draw out a sword after you; your land shall be desolate and your cities waste.  Then the land shall enjoy its sabbaths as long as it lies desolate and you are in your enemies’ land; then the land shall rest and enjoy its sabbaths.  As long as it lies desolate it shall rest — for the time it did not rest on your sabbaths when you dwelt in it.

Jonathan Edwards wrote, “What could be the meaning of God’s resting the seventh day, and hallowing and blessing it, which he did, before the giving of the fourth commandment, unless he hallowed it and blessed it with respect to mankind?  For he did not bless and sanctify it with respect to himself, or that he within himself might observe it: as that is most absurd.  And it is unreasonable to suppose that he hallowed it only with respect to the Jews, a particular nation, which rose up above two thousand years later.”


Further, the Sabbath serves as a regular reminder amidst the drone of daily life and labor that we are not independent beings, but the products of a Divine Creator and responsible to Him for the use of each day.


3. The Sabbath is part of the moral law, not the ceremonial.

Exodus 16:23-30 And he said unto them, This is that which the LORD hath said, To morrow is the rest of the holy sabbath unto the LORD: bake that which ye will bake to day, and seethe that ye will seethe; and that which remaineth over lay up for you to be kept until the morning.  And they laid it up till the morning, as Moses bade: and it did not stink, neither was there any worm therein.  And Moses said, Eat that to day; for to day is a sabbath unto the LORD: to day ye shall not find it in the field.  Six days ye shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is the sabbath, in it there shall be none.  And it came to pass, that there went out some of the people on the seventh day for to gather, and they found none.  And the LORD said unto Moses, How long refuse ye to keep my commandments and my laws?  See, for that the LORD hath given you the sabbath, therefore he giveth you on the sixth day the bread of two days; abide ye every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.  So the people rested on the seventh day.

Those who argue against the continuing obligation of the Sabbath base their case on the assertion that the Sabbath was ceremonial, and therefore was fulfilled by Christ and is no longer part of the life of the New Testament believer.  


A few important observations answer this misconception. 


First is the fact that the Sabbath law was given to Adam, long before Israel or Moses, as the representative head of the whole human race, and prior to the entrance of sin into the world. If Adam had not fallen, the sabbath ordinance would still have regulated the activities of himself and his posterity.


Note this carefully:  “The seventh day in which God rested was man’s first full day of existence, the first full day of unfallen communion and fellowship with God.  Thus, not only was Adam to pattern himself after the divine example, but Adam’s rest was spent in celebration of God the Creator.  The sabbath rest was not just the cessation of labor but a time of worship, fellowship and the celebration of God.  God fully intended that unfallen man in his task of godly dominion would ‘need to suspend his weekly labours in order to refresh himself with the exercises of concentrated worship.'”


If this was the case for unfallen man, how much more does it remain the case for us?


Second, the Sabbath was instituted before Adam and Eve fell into sin, whereas the ceremonial law came as a response to sin, in order to point Israel toward their only hope of salvation through God’s promise to send Christ. The ceremonial law had a specific design and purpose: namely, to teach the people of God certain truths concerning the Messiah who was to come and to set them apart from the pagan nations around them. But the weekly sabbath was instituted before sin, and therefore the need of a savior, ever entered the world.  It simply cannot be considered as part of the ceremonial law. 


The sacrifices were part of the ceremonial law, but they weren’t commanded until after Adam fell into sin.  It would have been meaningless for God to command Adam to offer a blood sacrifice before he had sinned. The idea that the weekly sabbath was part of the ceremonial law comes from confusion over the fact that the ceremonial law did include various sabbath laws which were based upon the perpetual moral Sabbath, but which had only temporary application until the coming of Christ.


Third, the moral law of God is found in the Ten Commandments, written upon stone by the very finger of God Himself. 

Exodus 31:12-18 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,  “Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: ‘Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you.  ‘You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people.  ‘Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.  ‘Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant.  ‘It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.’ ”  And when He had made an end of speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses two tablets of the Testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.

This was to demonstrate their unity and their lasting authority. The idea that God would have included one specific ceremonial law in the middle of the ten commandments, inscribed with his own finger, but which He fully intended to remove later, while leaving the other nine intact, is absurd. 


Fourth, if the Sabbath were part of the ceremonial law, it would be sinful and immoral for Christians to observe the Lord’s Day, just as it would be sinful and immoral to continue to offer sacrifices or observe the other types and shadows after their fulfillment in Christ. There are few anti-sabbatarians who are willing to take their contention that the sabbath was part of the ceremonial law to this logical conclusion.


4. The Sabbath is both a type and a memorial.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15  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 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 ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you.  And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.


Hebrews 4:1-11  Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it.  For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it.  For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said: “So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest,’ ” although the works were finished from the foundation of the world.  For He has spoken in a certain place of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all His works”;  and again in this place: “They shall not enter My rest.”  Since therefore it remains that some must enter it, and those to whom it was first preached did not enter because of disobedience,  again He designates a certain day, saying in David, “Today,” after such a long time, as it has been said: “Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts.”  For if Joshua had given them rest, then He would not afterward have spoken of another day.  There remains therefore a rest for the people of God.  For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His.  Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience.

While it is incorrect to say that the weekly sabbath was part of the ceremonial law, it is nevertheless true that even the moral Sabbath law was designed to serve as both a type and a memorial. As a type, the Sabbath anticipated the rest that would come through God’s covenant promise to the fathers – first realized in the settling of Israel in the land of Canaan, but ultimately in the rest from sin accomplished in Christ. As a memorial, the Sabbath pointed back to the deliverance of Israel from bondage in Egypt. 


The author of Hebrews tells us that the Sabbath continues to serve as a type for us.  Though Christ has given us rest from sin, the consummation of that eternal rest is still future, when we enter into His eternal glory in heaven.  “There remains, therefore, a rest for the people of God.” Likewise, the Sabbath continues to point us back to the accomplishment of our deliverance from bondage through Christ’s finished work.


5. The Sabbath is designed for our benefit.

Isaiah 58:13-14 If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, From doing your pleasure on My holy day, And call the Sabbath a delight, The holy day of the LORD honorable, And shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, Nor finding your own pleasure, Nor speaking your own words,  Then you shall delight yourself in the LORD; And I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth, And feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father. The mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Mark 2:23-28 Now it happened that He went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and as they went His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain.  And the Pharisees said to Him, “Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”  But He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him:  “how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat, except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?”  And He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.  “Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.”

It is unfortunate that so much of the discussion around the keeping of the Sabbath day seems to presuppose that its observance is a cumbersome chore laid upon the shoulders of men. Yet John tells us that the commands of God are not burdensome (1 John 5:3). The Lord’s Day is not an imposition, but a gift from God to His people. The desire of God expressed through Isaiah was that His people would learn to “call the Sabbath a delight.” It is only man’s sin that has caused him to see this blessing as a curse. 


One way that this happens is when men add their own restrictions to God’s law, seeking to bind the consciences of others to their own list of permissible activities.  This is generally referred to as “legalism.” The legalistic Pharisees had perfected this perversion, and it is to them and their spiritual seed that Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” In other words, this day of rest and worship was not designed to be a heavy weight upon men’s shoulders, but to free them from their daily labors to serve God with delight. 


But there is another class of professors, commonly called “anti-nomian,” who would use the gift of God to indulge their own desires. For those who would be tempted to turn liberty into license, concluding that they were free to do whatever they wanted on God’s holy day, Jesus added, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Those who determine to forsake self-seeking, and by God’s grace turn their hearts toward Him, will find wondrous delight in the practice of consecrating the Sabbath.




One response

12 08 2008
Benjamin P. Glaser

Great way to start out your blog.

Even better play on the name.

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