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The Ten Commandments for Today
The fourth commandment is: “Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.” And in the event we don’t know what that means exactly, God gives us instructions—exactly. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall do no work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath Day” (Deuteronomy 5:12-15, NIV).
At some point every one of the Ten “Prime Directives” as Star Trekkies would say, has created controversy, but none as much as this one. Let’s divide our discussion into pieces then put the pieces back together.
1. Old Testament Sabbath
2. New Testament Sabbath
3. Post Resurrection
OLD TESTAMENT SABBATH
The idea of a seventh day rest begins in Genesis. After six days of creative genius, Genesis 2:2, 3 (NIV) tells us that, “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” God Himself set the example. That tells us something important. God doesn’t get tired and doesn’t need a rest. Psalm 121:3, 4 (NIV) tells us: “He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber or sleep.”
The word “rest” here means, “ceased” as in “stop.”
Notice a second word here. Not only did God stop the work He had been doing, but He declared the day, “holy” or set apart, or, according to the dictionary, dedicated to God for a religious purpose.
In other words, this seventh day, the Sabbath, is a day when ordinary work stops, and a day dedicated to God. This becomes important. And the fact that God not only told us to do it, but did it Himself as an example to follow, adds emphasis to that importance.
Much later in the story of Israel, while the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, they were worked hard (Exodus 1). They likely worked seven days a week—most slaves would. The idea of a Sabbath rest didn’t come into the picture again until Moses was leading the Hebrews out of Egypt and God sent them manna to feed them. They were instructed to gather manna every morning for the day’s meals, except on the day before the Sabbath, when they were to gather twice as much (Exodus 16:4, 5). This was because God was going to follow His own instructions and “rest”—He wasn’t going to send them food from heaven on the seventh day so they had to gather twice as much on the sixth if they wanted to eat on the seventh. They were to prepare all the food on the sixth and follow His example and stop work on the seventh. The Sabbath was, “a holy Sabbath to the Lord” (Exodus 16:23, NIV).
How serious was God about the Sabbath? Exodus 31:14-17 sums it up: “Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death; whoever does any work on that day must be cut off from his people. For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death. The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he abstained from work and rested.”
Notice the words again: rest, holy to the Lord, a lasting covenant, forever. God took this so seriously that the penalty for breaking the Sabbath was a stiff one—you ended up being, as the mafia might say—a stiff.
Even animals were to observe the Sabbath.
What else was the Sabbath designed for besides rest? Leviticus 23:3 tells us: “There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the Lord.”
So now we have “a day of sacred assembly.”
The land was to have a Sabbath. Every seventh year property that had been cultivated was to be allowed to rest for a year before it was put into production again (Leviticus 25:1-7). But notice that the Old Testament Sabbath was not always on the seventh day of each week. This becomes particularly important when we get to the New Testament and some of the statements Paul makes.
As you read through Leviticus you will discover that there were other days that God declared to be “Sabbaths” even when they were not the seventh days of the week. There were times when Israel was to celebrate something special in its spiritual journey. For example, in Leviticus 23:27-32 (NIV): “The tenth day of the seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present an offering made to the Lord by fire. Do no work on that day, because it is the Day of Atonement, when atonement is made for you before the Lord your God. Anyone who does not deny himself on that day must be cut off from his people. I will destroy from among his people anyone who does any work on that day. You must do no work at all. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live. It is a Sabbath of rest for you, and you must deny yourselves. From the evening of the ninth day of the month until the following evening you are to observe your Sabbath.”
The phrase translated in the NIV “deny yourselves” is translated “afflict your souls” in the King James version. I think the King James is better translation here because of the nature of the Day of Atonement. Humility, a recognition of sin, sadness because of sin, an acknowledgement of what God had done in forgiving and saving was basic to this day. This Sabbath is not just resting and the idea of doing worship or sacred assembly, but of an emotional response.
In Leviticus 23:33-36, God tells Moses: “Say to the Israelites: ‘On the fifteenth day of the seventh month the Lord’s Feast of the Tabernacles begins, and it lasts for seven days. The first day is a sacred assembly; do no regular work. For seven days present offerings made to the Lord by fire, and on the eighth day hold a sacred assembly and present an offering made to the Lord by fire. It is a closing assembly; do no regular work.” Here, the Israelites work between the two Sabbaths.
So “Sabbaths” of rest and assembly could happen at other times besides on the seventh day of the week. Again, this becomes important when we get to the New Testament.
Throughout the Old Testament the importance of the Sabbath was highlighted. Nothing was to be bought or sold, no work was to done, no heavy load carried etc. etc. When Israel was disobedient to the Lord, her God, the breaking of the Sabbath was one of the major things that was mentioned as being offensive to God.
One of the Old Testament chapters that most impresses me on this subject is found in Isaiah. When we were looking for a name for our church in Venezuela, someone hit upon Isaiah 58:11, which was where we eventually got our name. But as I was reading the context around the verses from which the name came, I discovered some interesting things. First of all, Isaiah is bawling out the Hebrews because they are not being obedient to God. They are putting on a good show of being religious, but it’s all just a show—their heart is not engaged with God. They don’t love Him with all their hearts, souls and minds. And Isaiah tells them that if they don’t get their act together, especially when it came to issues of social justice like feeding the poor, and defending people’s rights, they shouldn’t expect a blessing from God. Then he gets to the end of chapter 58: “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob” (Isaiah 58:13, 14, NIV).
There is a promise of blessing attached to keeping the Sabbath.
By the time we get to the New Testament, we discover that the religious authorities and those who were extremely religious were really good at keeping all the Sabbaths. The trouble was that their observance, and their demands that others follow their lead, had become legalism. Law without love degenerates into legalism. Love has to be the motivating factor when it comes to how we keep the commandments and to why we keep them.
What did Jesus have to say about the Sabbath? We know that Jesus was always found in the synagogue on the Sabbath: “They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach” (Mark 1:21, NIV). There is something we need to take note of here. God said that no one was to do any work on the Sabbath. In the Old Testament the priest and Levites were very busy on the Sabbath doing all the tasks that were required for worship, teaching, and all the rituals involved with the sacrifices. In the New Testament, Jesus taught on the Sabbath. Jesus also did some things on the Sabbath that got Him severely criticized by others. In this same passage in Mark, He healed a sick man on the Sabbath. In Matthew 12, He was criticized for walking through a cornfield and picking some ears of corn to eat, then for healing a sick man. This is such an important passage to our discussion that we need to take it apart a little.
First Criticism: walking through the cornfield and picking the grain to eat. Under the law this would normally be considered work and was therefore forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus pulls out an Old Testament example to teach that where NECESSITY demands God doesn’t consider the Law broken. He cited a story with which all the religious authorities of His day would have familiar. David was on the run from Saul. He and his men were starving and weak and stopped at a house of worship. There were the loaves of bread used in worship that were only to be eaten by the priests. Because of their desperate need, they took the bread and were not condemned for doing so.
Then Jesus uses a second example. We have already mentioned the priests in the Old Testament performing their duties on a Sabbath without being condemned. Jesus Himself taught on the Sabbath. These men were not guilty of breaking the Sabbath even though they were “working.” Why? Because of NECESSITY.
Extreme human need overrules the regulation and working for God overrules the regulation.
But don’t forget there is a difference between NEED and WANT.
Jesus also gets into trouble in this passage because He heals a sick man. Jesus’ point here is that there is no breaking of the Law when an act of MERCY is involved (See also John 7:21-24). One commentary says it this way: “These two cases determine what may be done on the Sabbath. The one was a case of necessity; the other of mercy. The example of the Saviour, and his explanations, show that these are a part of the proper duties of that holy day. Beyond an honest and conscientious discharge of these two duties, men may not devote that Sabbath to any secular purpose. If they do, they do it at their peril. They go beyond what his authority authorizes them to do. They do what he claimed the special right of doing being Lord of the Sabbath. They usurp his place; and act and legislate where God only has a right to act and legislate” (Comments in Barnes Notes)
Because Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath, He has every right to interpret the rules. When we interpret the rules to satisfy our own wants, we make a false god to put in His place—ourselves. This brings us to a verse much misused: Mark 2:27 (NIV), which says, “And he said to them. ‘The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: Therefore the Son of Man is Lord also of the sabbath.’” We said that the Ten Commandments were not given by God to limit our freedom, but to protect us from ourselves and I think that’s the way we need to look at this statement. The rest and spiritual aspects of the Sabbath are meant for the benefit of man. Man wasn’t meant to overrule the rule.
Jesus never said that the fourth commandment was obsolete, neither did the apostles and the leaders of the early church. They simply straightened out the abuses associated with it.
Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week—on our Sunday. (I guess we could say He kept the Sabbath right to the end by not coming back from the dead till the Sabbath was over)! The tradition of Christians keeping Sunday as their “Sabbath” began on that first day of the week when Jesus rose from the dead. John 20:19 (NIV) says, “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them…” Then, in the same chapter we read: “A week later his disciples were in the house again…” (20:26, NIV). There is never any formal instruction to keep Sunday as a meeting day for worship or prayer, it seems like it just sort of happened.
All through the book of Acts, after Jesus had died, been resurrected and had ascended to heaven, the apostles and followers of Jesus met in the Temple, or in the local synagogues on the Jewish Sabbath. In fact, they met daily in the Temple and they also met in their homes but as time went on this “first day of the week” begins to take precedence.
1 Corinthians 16:1, 2 seems to indicate that the tithe was collected on the first day of the week, our Sunday, among the Galatian churches.
Acts 20:7 tells that when Paul was in Troas he met with the believers to “break bread” and to preach—something he did until midnight and poor Eutychus fell out the window.
The last two mentions of the Sabbath in the New Testament are two passages that are often used to try to convince us that the Fourth Commandment isn’t current any more.
We look at Romans 14:5, 6 first.
“One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so the Lord…” (NIV)
“One esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he does not regard it…” (KJV)
The King James Version uses stronger language what we have in the New International. “Esteem” carries the idea that the day described here is highly regarded, considered important. “Consider” is a much milder word.
The last mention of the Sabbath in the New Testament is in Colossians 2:16 and this verse is probably pivotal in the argument as to why many people believe that the fourth commandment can now be ignored. However, a closer look shows us that the passage says nothing about trashing the Fourth Commandment.
“Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration* or a Sabbath day.” [*New moon in the beginning of October was observed as a festival because it was the beginning of their civil year (Leviticus 23:24, 25).]
The context here is this: Paul is discussing the challenges surrounding bringing together Jewish believers and Gentile believers. The Jewish believers still held on to their traditions—the celebration of all the feasts and special days outlined in the Old Testament. It is important to note that they are never told that they shouldn’t. The Gentile believers had no such traditions and so ignored them. This was bound to cause some challenges because some of the Jews might criticize the Gentiles for not following their traditions, and some of the Gentiles might complain that the Jews were doing things that were now meaningless. Paul is saying here to the Gentiles that they don’t need to pay any attention to those who might judge them for not keeping the feast and celebrations and sacrifices because Christ has freed them from that.
The word “Sabbath” here applied to more than just the seventh day. It applied to all the days of rest that were part of the various feasts and festivals and celebrations that were part of Jewish tradition.
All the experts in the subject seem to agree (and back up their arguments) that Paul was not referring to the Fourth Commandment at all. Jamieson-Fausset-Brown say this: “The weekly sabbath rests on a more permanent foundation, having been instituted in Paradise to commemorate the completion of creation in six days. Le 23:38 expressly distinguished
‘the sabbath of the Lord’ from the other sabbaths.” Matthew Henry comments: “The setting apart a portion of our time for the worship and service of God, is a moral and unchangeable duty, but had no necessary dependence upon the seventh day of the week, the sabbath of the Jews.”
It was not until Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor, declared Sunday to be the Roman day of rest some three hundred years after Christ’s resurrection that Sunday became “official.”
I keep the Lord’s day (and you’ll note that it says that the Sabbath is “to the Lord your God”) not because it’s an obligation, a duty, or because I’m afraid God’s going to zap me if I don’t. I keep it because I love Him and because He personally set the example by doing it Himself, which must mean that it’s important.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us with: We still need a “Sabbath” no matter what day we call it because God said so and showed us so by His own personal example.
SO WHAT NOW?
TAKE A BREAK
Everything lasts longer and functions better if it undergoes regular maintenance.
Thousands of years ago God told us what doctors, statistics, and production managers have finally figured out: reasonable breaks from work increase productivity and reduce illness. God built a work break into the system so our bodies could recuperate.
While our challenge today is not so much physical as it is emotional, stress and its consequences are the same. We have to walk away, and God always intended that we do exactly that.
There are people who have to work on Sunday but I believe that is covered under the “necessity” and “mercy” clause we saw in the New Testament examples, although some would argue that if you can find a way to get out of a job that requires you to work Sundays that doesn’t fall into those categories, God will honor you for it and make provision. We need to remember that the early Christians didn’t enjoy a 40-hour work week with weekends off. Many believers were slaves or servants—they had to work all the time, including on the Lord’s Day. So the challenge associated with taking time to rest, and to meet for worship, is not a new one. In fact, the early Christians probably had much more legitimate reasons for breaking the Sabbath rule than we do.
But there is more to the fourth commandment that simply resting. It’s a holy day for holy purposes—it says so. It’s a “sabbath to the Lord.” The pattern is clear in Scripture. The Hebrews gathered at the Tabernacle, and later at the Temple. Jesus “as was his custom” (Luke 4:16) went to the synagogue. Remember, if anyone had a good reason NOT to go, it was Jesus, the Son of God. The practice of the early church was to go to synagogue as well as meet on the Lord’s Day and during the week.
Hebrews 10:25 (NIV) tells us: “Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
After being drained by the world we live in over six days, we all need to be refreshed, renewed, and refocused by our exposure to the Word of God and the fellowship of other believers. Notice that Hebrews says that coming together is a way of being encouraged and encouraging others.
Over the decades we have marginalized the Lord’s Day. The pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other; from a time when we weren’t allowed to lift a finger on Sunday (a la Pharisee) to we can use the day in whatever way we please.
If you are waiting for a list of “do’s and don’ts” for what is, and isn’t, allowed on Sunday, you won’t get one from me. But here are some important questions to ask ourselves when it comes to deciding what is appropriate to keeping the “sabbath” holy:
Is what I am planning to do a necessity or an act of mercy?
Does what I am planning to do detract from my worship of God?
Does what I am planning to do make someone or something else a priority over God?
Am I fully disengaged from what I have to do or where I have to go or who I have to see in the coming week?
Is what I am planning to do encouraging to other believers and profitable for building up the body of Christ?
If, for legitimate reasons, I can’t keep the Lord’s Day for rest and worship, have I built in another time when I can honour the Lord by keeping a “sabbath” during the week?
J. John brings up an interesting point when he writes about this fourth commandment. You’ll notice that the instruction was that no one in the household should be working on the sabbath, the master of that home was to ensure that his slaves or servants were not to work and even the animals were to get a break. John suggests that, taking this a step further, we are to make sure that others have the right to rest too and cites some examples of businessmen who have taken the risk to close the doors to their shops and close down their businesses on Sundays in order to ensure that their workers get a rest even if those workers are not believers. God honoured them for that move. He writes: “For one day a week, the Sabbath is a reminder that we are dispensable to work and the world but not to our families, community and God. Set an example, and by your use of your precious time, show that God is Lord.” (Ten Laws of Love Set in Stone, page 163).
To love the Lord our God with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our minds, and with all our strength, we need to follow His example and do what He did—rest and renew our physical, mental and emotional selves, and give ourselves to the other part of us that needs renewal as well—our spirits.