The 4th Commandment; Keeping a Day of Rest on God’s Holy Day

February 25, 2024 / No. 4234

Dear Radio Friends,

The fourth commandment of God’s law regards keeping the Sabbath. Let us note how the day of rest was kept, or observed, in Jesus’ day. The gospel accounts tell us that Jesus was in the synagogues regularly on the Sabbath, teaching. He also did many miracles of healing on the Sabbath; we do not read of Him doing miracles of a different kind on the Sabbath. A man with a withered hand (Luke 6), a lame man (John 5), a blind man (John 9), and a woman with an infirmity (Luke 13) were all healed on the Sabbath. When He was accused of breaking the Sabbath for doing these miracles, and for letting His disciples pick corn to eat, He defended Himself.

By contrast, He accused the Pharisees of breaking the Sabbath. Outwardly, they kept the Sabbath religiously. They walked only a Sabbath day’s journey; they did nothing considered work; and they ate and drank, even feasted, on the Sabbath–it was, after all, a day of rest. But Jesus pointed out their inconsistency: if necessary, they would remove their animal from a pit into which it had fallen; and they would circumcise their male sons. Even more, Jesus accused them of not keeping the Sabbath in their heart, of not being concerned about mercy, and of not honoring Him as the Lord of the Sabbath.

In our day, American society thinks nothing of a sabbath. Even many Christians view the Sabbath day as a day for themselves, not for God and others. At the same time, some are prone to act as if the keeping of the Sabbath is about rules, do this, and don’t do that.

So let us go to school again today, and learn about God’s holy day: what it is, why it is, and how to observe it as He requires. The fourth commandment reads (Ex. 20:8-11): “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.”

One great principle of true Sabbath-keeping Jesus taught the Jews after healing a woman who had an infirmity and could not stand up straight. We read in Luke 13:14-16: “And the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because that Jesus had healed on the sabbath day, and said unto the people, There are six days in which men ought to work: in them therefore come and be healed, and not on the sabbath day. The Lord then answered him, and said, Thou hypocrite, doth not each one of you on the sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering? And ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound, lo, these eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?”

From the fourth commandment we learn the necessity and urgency of observing God’s holy day as a day of rest.

The first lesson we need to learn is, what really is the Sabbath? For Old Testament Israel, in the fourth commandment God required them to set aside the seventh day of every week—that would be our Saturday—as a day of rest. The word “Sabbath” means literally “rest.” It involved putting aside their daily work. In the body, they would have rest. Not that they were to sleep all day, or lounge around inactive; but the work that they were busy with during the first six days of the week, they were to put aside. We are reminded of the need for physical rest and refreshment. In our age, society and life go on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is good to put the business of life aside regularly and rest.

But God was not simply giving the Israelites a day for themselves. The Sabbath was a holy day; it was to be set apart for God. Bodily rest was not the real goal of the Sabbath; rather, resting from work enabled them to have time to worship God. The wording of the fourth commandment hints at this: “to keep it holy.” Other laws required the priests to offer more sacrifices on the Sabbath than on other days. Later in Israel’s history, the Jews went to the synagogues on the Sabbath.

So a key point: the Sabbath is God’s day; putting aside our work does not merely mean that we have a day to ourselves, but that we devote the day to Him.

This is how God Himself kept the Sabbath, as the reason for the fourth commandment makes clear. The very first week of history, God worked six days, in creating every creature. On the seventh day, He rested. The word “rested” in this connection does not mean that God slept in and took it easy; rather, it means that, having finished the work of creation, He received the praise and glory that the finished, perfect work afforded Him.

Likewise, Jesus kept the Sabbath day. The main way in which He did so was to magnify God on this day. Now the point is not that on the other six days He did not serve God; He certainly did, in doing the works of God, in teaching, and in living a life of obedience. But particularly on the Sabbath He would point to the great rest that He was providing us.

For in addition to the earthly, bodily toil with which we are to busy ourselves, we have a spiritual toil; we labor under the heavy burden of sin and guilt. God provided the Sabbath day as a day for Israel to turn to Him, to see that He had removed that burden from them. It is significant, in this connection, that the fourth commandment comes to Israel after she is delivered from Egypt. And the second giving of the law, in Deuteronomy 5, refers to Israel being burdened in Egypt, and God delivering her from Egypt, as another reason for keeping this commandment. The point is that we toil under bondage to sin. But God has delivered us from that bondage, in Jesus Christ. The Sabbath day is an opportunity to be taught again about that deliverance, and a day to enjoy the benefits of that deliverance.

That was Jesus’ point in doing what He did on the Sabbath. He taught. But He did not teach mathematics, or agricultural studies, or any such thing; He taught about God, and God’s mercy and grace to sinners. He expounded the Scriptures, which spoke of these truths. It was fitting, then, that He heal the sick, for this was a picture of His healing us from sin. And after teaching, He didn’t say: “Well, I gave God His part of the day; now it is time to go harvesting.” Rather, when He plucked grain on the Sabbath, He was saying that the spiritual labors of the day left him needing food, and He, in accordance with the laws of the day, took that food from the rows of grain that were nearest the road.

Let us sum up the first lesson we are learning. The lesson regards what the Sabbath day is: a day set apart for God, because God delivered us from sin in Jesus Christ. Any prohibition of an action, such as work, is to allow us to praise and worship God. But works of mercy, such as Jesus’ healing, or of necessity, such as eating food, are not inherently wrong.

The second lesson of the day regards the day of the week in which we observe the Sabbath in the New Testament. The fourth commandment designated the seventh day of the week as the Israelite’s Sabbath day. Soon after Jesus arose on the first day of the week, Christians began observing the first day, our Sunday, as a day of rest. For this we have drawn the charge that we are breaking God’s law. Let us respond to that charge.

First, the charge underscores this point: which day is the Sabbath for us is not up to us to decide. God tells us when the Sabbath is. This is necessary to drive home. I may not pick Tuesday as my Sabbath, and you pick Thursday. Whether we have Tuesday or Thursday off from work is not the issue; but which day do we join with other believers to worship God? God determines that day. And in the Old Testament, He designated the seventh day.

Second, the charge ignores that God Himself changed the day to the first day of the week  in the New Testament. Admittedly, He did not give us a revised ten commandments, in so many words. No New Testament text states dogmatically that the first day of the week is now the day of rest. However, we have the practice of the apostles, who were sent forth by Christ to spread the news about His death and resurrection. We see the early church meeting on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7, I Cor. 16:23), and we see John being in the spirit on the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10).

Even the church’s practice is not determinative. But in two ways, God implicitly sanctioned the change of the Sabbath from the seventh day to the first. The first way is that our Lord Jesus Christ, who died as the Passover Lamb, died the day after the Passover, and who arose as the Lord of life, arose the day after the Sabbath. The second is that the Holy Spirit, whose outpouring was foreshadowed by the Old Testament feast of Pentecost, was poured out the day after Pentecost; as Acts 2:1 says, when the day of Pentecost had fully come, that is, when it was now ended.

We are observing a general rule that man did not invent: the New Testament fulfillment of the Old Testament pictures consistently happened one day after the Old Testament picture. The transition of the Sabbath from the seventh to the first day of the week corresponds with this rule.

Third, we must ask: What is God teaching us, in changing the Sabbath from the last day of the week to the first? He is teaching us that He has made a significant advance in providing salvation for us, and that we can enjoy the day of rest in an even deeper sense. He is teaching us that the blood of Christ, shed on the cross, was complete atonement for sin; that the guilt of sin is completely removed. He is teaching us that the Spirit, poured out on Pentecost, sanctifies us and devotes us to God, such that He writes the law in our hearts. Now, in the Old Testament the sins of God’s people were forgiven, and the people were regenerated and sanctified too, but they lived in the day of promise, in the day when they had only pictures of what would happen when Christ came. And now we enjoy the fulfillment! Therefore, we experience more deeply the joys of salvation.

This change of day on which we observe the Sabbath underscores another point: rather than working hard, and then enjoying rest, as in the Old Testament (work the first six days and rest the seventh), God has provided us a rest in Christ; we can rest the first day, and in the strength we receive from that, we can work the next six.

The third lesson of the day is that, in this day of rest, God is still pointing us forward. Another rest, that of heaven, awaits us. For, although Christ has died and risen again, and although we have sweet friendship with God now, it is still hindered and interrupted by sin–our sin. And our daily life during the six days in which we are permitted to work can be toil, can take our mind off God, and leave us needing rest–a rest that satisfies.

That rest God provides us in heaven. When God’s people go to heaven at death, and when the entire church is brought there after Christ’s return, we will toil no more. Work, we will: in heaven, God’s perfected kingdom, each of us will serve. But the service will not be toil. Sin will not hinder our service to God. Even more, our fellowship with God will be constant, continual, and delightful.

Imbedded in this are two principles for our daily life. First, we have a glorious hope; a rest awaits us. Second, we, for whom Christ died, in gratitude for all He has done for us must begin to enjoy in our earthly life now that true, heavenly, spiritual rest that He provides.

So how is the fourth commandment pertinent for us today? What does it require of us? This will be our fourth lesson that we take from this commandment.

At the outset, let us not forget that it requires us to work six days: “Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work.” The point is not necessarily that we work for our employer six days a week, or that, if self-employed, we are serving the customer six days a week. Rather, the point is that we are involved in productive activity six days a week; in addition to whatever work we do to pay the bills, the upkeep of our homes and cars, and volunteer work for schools and churches and other charitable organizations, is productive activity. We live in a society that wants to work only to the minimal extent necessary, and to enjoy recreation as much as possible. God’s law requires us to work six days.

Now admittedly, we need policemen, nurses and doctors, and other occupations, even on Sunday. We call these works of necessity. It is not wrong for the child of God to serve in such occupations on Sunday. But one who does serve in these occupations must also do what he or she can, on Sunday, to serve the risen Lord.

For the Sabbath day is a day in which sinners enjoy rest and peace in their souls. This involves worship, and worship involves going to church. This aspect of the keeping of the fourth commandment also seems out of vogue in our day. Go to church? Perhaps even going more than once? Why would I do that? The answer is that in church we fellowship with God most intimately. In a church in which the gospel is preached, we hear God declare to us that He sent Jesus Christ to the death of the cross to earn rest for sinners, and caused Christ to rise from the dead to give us that rest. In church, not only do we hear that God provided rest for us; we also enjoy that rest. Putting aside our work, our recreation, our hobbies, and tuning out the world as best we are able, we rest, and have peace.

Do you go to church on Sunday? If your church has more than one service, do you go more than once? If one can never get enough rest, then one can never get enough of hearing the gospel.

In addition to going to church, Sunday is a day for family worship and private devotion to God. There comes a stage in the life of many families, as the children get older, when it is difficult to get the whole family together: This child has a sporting event, and that child has a job after school. If we put aside our work, and our recreation and hobbies, Sunday will be a time for the family to be together. That means that, when not in church, the father or head of that home can spend time leading the family in devotion to God, study of Scripture, prayer, and singing. And each of us has an opportunity to do the same as individuals.

Jesus’ instruction and examples of healing teaches that, in addition to going to church,  works of mercy are appropriate for the Lord’s Day. Who in your church needs a visit? Are your parents elderly and infirm? Are there poor nearby to whom you can minister? When we put aside our work, Sunday gives us an opportunity to attend to these matters.

Yes, in the process, we will get hungry, and we may prepare food. Perhaps while traveling to church or to visit another, we will have a flat tire and need to change it. We may attend to these needs on Sunday; but that is not first of all what Sunday is about. Sunday is about fellowship with God, with other saints, and doing works of mercy.

So we have examined the first four commandments, and the first table of the law. They taught us how to love God: first, we are to acknowledge that He is the only God, and live unto Him alone; second, we are to worship Him as He commanded us in His word; third, we are to use His name always with fear and reverence, because He is holy and His name is holy; and fourth, as a token that we live unto Him entirely, we are to set aside one day a week to worship Him and to serve fellow believers. These are commands from God, but He reminds us that He has delivered us from sin’s bondage, in order that we should love Him in this way.