Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Exodus 20:8-11 ESV
As we continue our study of the Ten Commandments, we arrive at the Fourth Commandment, keeping the Sabbath day holy. While the Second Commandment may have sparked more fierce debates throughout history, this command likely holds the trophy for having the largest variety of interpretations, which stems from the reality that the nature of the Sabbath under the New Covenant in Christ is more nuanced than the other commandments within the Ten.
The questions regarding the current state of the Sabbath are numerous. Should we still observe the Sabbath on Saturday as it was in the Old Testament, or has it now moved to Sunday? Are we even still commanded to take a Sabbath, or did Jesus do away with this commandment entirely? While we certainly won’t be able to address this commandment exhaustively, I pray that we will gain a deeper understanding of the Sabbath day and how we relate to it now in Christ.
SABBATH & THE GOD OF REST
In order to begin our study of the Fourth Commandment, we must first establish a basic understanding of the Sabbath day. As verse 11 makes clear, the Sabbath day is rooted in God’s process of creation in Genesis 1-2. For six days, God formed the cosmos, but on the seventh day, He rested from His labor of creation. Because of this pattern, God has blessed the Sabbath day as holy. Even the name of the Sabbath in Hebrew means to cease, thus reflecting that God ceased to create on the seventh day.
Flowing from this pattern, God commands His people to remember the Sabbath, to recall God’s own rest, and to keep that day holy. This holy observance would come through the cessation of all ordinary work. Six days were for labor, but the seventh was for ceasing. The Sabbath was holy because it was to be different from the others. The chief purpose of Sunday-Friday was work, eating our food by the sweat of the brow, but the goal of Saturday was rest and remembering God.
Before we enter into the discussion over whether the Sabbath day still stands as a commandment, we should pause to consider what kind of God this is who gave such a command. To be honest, this one feels a bit different from the others. Prohibiting the worship of other gods makes sense and so does outlawing murder, adultery, theft, lying, and coveting. But commanding a mandatory day of rest doesn’t feel as weighty or as serious, right? We, of course, know that each commandment is for God’s glory and our good, but this one feels like it leans on the latter side. God obviously still tied the Sabbath day to His glory, which is why violating this commandment incurred the death penalty according to the law, yet the concept of a fixed day of rest seems to be more for our good than for God’s glory.
But even if the idea of spending an entire day each week on rest seems like a dream come true, the reality is that we rebel against it continuously. The history of Israel throughout the Old Testament records this fact. They constantly fought against the notion of resting from their labor, of keeping a Sabbath day. And if we were in their shoes, we would too.
So why do we fight against the wonderful idea of rest? In general, we like to act like we are masters of our own fate. We tend to find our security and even identity in our activities because we tend to equate action with control. As long as I am doing something, the often-subconscious reasoning goes, then I am at the steering wheel of my own life. Even idleness falls under this category since it is the willful choosing of some nonwork activity. It is a kind of inactive action, an assertion of self-will.
Rest, while sounding pleasant, is often a dreadful practice. You see, rest is not idleness. Idleness is rest’s counterfeit. The idle choose meaningless activity over meaningful work. Rest, however, is a meaningful cessation from work. Unlike idleness, rest is not an act of neglecting labor; rather, proper rest actually enhances the labor to come. For instance, any physical trainer will tell you that properly resting muscles is just as critical as properly exercising them. In fact, the two feed into each other. Rest, therefore, prepares and equips us for fruitful labor, and fruitful labor should make us long for true rest. Yet our perpetual need for rest is a continuous reminder that our labor will never be as fruitful as we might desire. Our need for rest is limiting and rest itself is a reminder of those limits. We hate rest because it dispels the myth that we are more than human, that we are more than created things. Rest is dreadful because it uncloaks our mortality. It screams to us that there is one God, and we are not Him.
Bound, therefore, to the very concept of rest is the notion that our value is not found in what we produce nor that we can sustain ourselves by our own labor. For previous generations, the struggle of work was not so much about feeling important; it centered upon survival. Sabbath, therefore, was a reminder that their work alone could not provide. The LORD was their provision. If He withheld their daily bread, no amount of work could ever make it appear. For instance, farmers even today are constantly establishing new technologies and techniques to improve production, but if God does not provide the rain, the harvest will be ruined. For many of us today, however, the great appeal of our work is often as an affirmation of our worth, value, and usefulness. Again, to this mentality, a Sabbath rest speaks clearly that our value is not tied to our work. As humans, we are bearers of God’s image, and as Christians, we are the body and bride of Christ, children of the Most High. We cling to the worth that God has bestowed upon us, not to our own efforts.
All of this brings us back to the original question: what kind of God commands His people to rest? The answer can be nothing less than a good God, a loving God, a God of rest. Like a father who forbids his toddler from climbing a ladder alone, our Father loving establishes limits for our own good and protection. We are all merely high-functioning toddlers who think that we can do everything ourselves. To our own detriment, we often refuse aid because we want to do it on our own. If I do not force my daughter, who is a toddler, to sleep, she will never willing do so of her own accord. Establishing naps and a regular bedtime is a critical component of my paternal responsibility for disciplining her, even for discipling her. In fact, she is distinctively more disobedient whenever she deviates from her normal routine of rest.
At 29 years of age, I am no different. How much easier would my wrestling against sin be if I rested in the form and schedule that God has designed? Like a toddler, I hate being limited. I despise needing to rest. Yet without a healthy pattern of rest, my work often descends into busyness, which ends up collapsing into idleness. As my loving Father, God speaks to me through His Word and commands me to rest, to stop, to cease.
If we ever doubt that God’s commands are for our benefit, look no further than the Fourth Commandment.
A PERPETUAL SABBATH
Unfortunately, by the time of the first century, the Sabbath was anything but restful for the Jewish community. The loving principle of rest had been usurped with a zealous religious legalism that made not laboring on the Sabbath day into a tremendously difficult work. One example (of many!) is found in John 5 where Jesus heals a paralytic man by telling him to grab his bed and walk. Yet when the religious leaders saw the man, they did not rejoice that the man was healed; rather, they scolded him for carrying his bed on the Sabbath day. They failed to see that God’s commands are for our good (Deuteronomy 10:13). Their zealous observance of the Sabbath kept them from delighting in the miraculous healing before their eyes. They, as the saying goes, missed the forest for the trees. Indeed, John goes on to say that these Jews were persecuting Jesus “because he was doing these things on the Sabbath” (5:16). Don’t miss the tragic irony here! They persecuted the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28) because He did not conform to their own traditions regarding the Sabbath.
Yet Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath in more than simply reserving the right for Himself to dictate what we do on the seventh day of the week. Indeed, the author of Hebrews speaks of a much larger Sabbath rest than Saturday could ever hold. Hear his words: “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (4:9-10). What Sabbath rest and what works is the author describing?
In a nutshell, he is speaking about the gospel.
The works being described are good works, religious works, sacrifices made to God in payment for our sins. As Hebrews 10:11 says, “And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” Like those Old Testament sacrifices, our good works and acts of obedience can never make up for our disobedience. Because God is holy, He cannot tolerate even the slightest stain of sin. Consider that since God is truly and entirely good how vile and repugnant even the smallest trace of evil must be to Him. We who are saturated in a sinful world and sinful ourselves can scarcely imagine such things. Our obedience simply cannot cover up our disobedience, especially since obedience was required of us in the first place! We earn no extra credit for obeying God because submission to His commands is our primary duty. Any religious or sacrificial work that we do in penance for our sins is futile. They “can never take away sins.”
The Sabbath rest being described is not Saturday; instead, it is the rest of God given to us through the work of Jesus Christ. It is a rest from the sacrificial work of vainly trying to atone for our sins. It is a rest in the finished work of Christ. Comparing Jesus’ sacrificial death to the priestly sacrificial system, the author of Hebrews states, “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (10:12-14). Notice the efficacy of Christ’s offering! Jesus made a single sacrifice for sins that now stands for all time! As God the Son, Christ’s blood is eternally effective for paying our debt of sin, and so now He is seated at the Father’s right hand, waiting to return as king over all things.
This is the ultimate fulfillment of the Fourth Commandment for Christians. Christ is our Sabbath rest. He is our rest from working to earn God’s favor, from laboring to atone for the guilt of our sins. Of course, we still wrestle against our sin. We fight our idolatrous and blasphemous hearts. Yet we are striving each day to enter this rest (Hebrews 4:11); we are being sanctified continuously while trusting that Christ “has perfected for all time” by a single offering we who are trusting in Him. This is the perpetual Sabbath for God’s people, the greatest rest. Regardless of how we believe the Fourth Commandment applies physically to us today, we should all agree that it applies spiritually to us in this way. We are saved by the atoning blood of Christ alone. His work alone is sufficient; therefore, let us strive to rest in Him. Jesus is our Sabbath.
THE SABBATH PRINCIPLE
Now that we have established the perfect fulfillment of the Fourth Commandment in Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath, let us now address other principles for obeying God’s command to rest.
First, we should consider the powerful reality that the pattern of observing a day of rest is grounded in God’s pattern of creation. Even though Christ has liberated us from the legalistic demands of maintaining Saturday as a Sabbath, we should take note that Jesus never argued against the principle of resting one day in seven. God perfectly summarized His law in Ten Commandments, and He used one of them to command us to rest. Interestingly, only the Fourth and Fifth Commandments are not prohibitions. God prohibits idolatry, blaspheme, adultery, theft, and the others because He knows that we will commit such sins when given the opportunity. Likewise, He commands us to rest and to honor our father and mother because He knows that we will not do those things naturally.
The concept, therefore, of taking a day of rest should not be flippantly neglected. Our notion of only using vacation days to rest simply does not work. Fourteen days off work cannot effectively replace the fifty-two that God has prescribed for us. In fact, we may benefit from viewing a Sabbath day as a prescription. Can we live without observing this weekly pattern? Of course, the majority of people throughout history have done just that. Yet I believe that the question is not must we but should we. Should we weekly take a day of rest? Why would we not? Sure, not working is harder than it looks. Resting requires planning. It requires a degree of work beforehand. Resting is a discipline. It is not always easy, but it is good. Like prayer and reading the Bible, resting does not always feel delightful in the moment, but these disciplines are for our benefit. Work, therefore, at learning to rest, particularly one day a week.
Second, we must learn to rest in Christ. Hear Christ’s call to you today: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). We certainly go to Christ for our spiritual rest from attempting to earn our own salvation, yet we also go to Him for wholistic rest of heart, soul, and body.
Brothers and sisters, let us learn this easily ignored truth: we have terrible judgment of what kind of rest is best for us. We often turn to entertainment to “unwind,” yet rest is hardly ever the result. Should we not instead take Christ at His word and go to Him for rest?
The Christians of the New Testament seemed to do this very thing. Rather than continuing to observe the Sabbath day, Christians (who were mostly Jewish at the time) quickly began to gather for worship on Sunday instead, calling it the Lord’s Day (Revelation 1:10). Evidently, they considered the resurrection of Christ to be significant enough to completely shift their pattern of rest and worship. Because Sunday was still a workday, they would have needed to gather in the morning before work or in the evening after work. It would be like us today meeting together on Monday for worship. Yet they did not seem to consider this an inconvenience. As Mohler notes, “The early Christians yearned to arrive at the Lord’s Day, knowing that if only they could survive the week, they would once again hear the preaching of the Word of God and fellowship with the saints of God” (79).
Today, by contrast, many consider this gathering for worship together to be an optional form of worshiping God. After all, if we can read the Bible, pray, sing, and even listen to sermons on our own, what harm is there in not gathering together on the Lord’s Day? The question should never be whether we should worship collectively or individually because the answer is yes to both. We are to do one without neglecting the other. Our worship should by no means be limited to Sunday, but neither should we fail to worship together, particularly on Sunday if at all possible. Indeed, how are we able to fulfill the various one another commands of the New Testament if we do not meet together?
The early Christians also understood that their gathering for worship on the Lord’s Day was a message to the world. It was a public and weekly witness that Christ was truly alive, that He rose from the grave! And it publicly attested where their loyalties lay. Not only did the early church suffer for their confession that Jesus is Lord (not Caesar); they purposely called Sunday the Lord’s Day. Their worship was a public declaration of their faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. Actions really do often speak louder than words. We call Jesus Lord, but does our weekly routine reflect our submission to His Lordship? We believe in Christ’s resurrection, but do we hallow that glorious day as now belonging to our Lord? We believe that Jesus is building His church so that the gates of hell will not stand against it, but do we actually try to spend time with our particular communion of saints? These are not legalistic dos-and-do-nots; they’re simply questions of priority. As we prioritize gathering together to worship our risen King, we collectively declare that a new creation work is afoot and that Jesus is bringing His kingdom through His church.
None of this is to imply that I believe Sunday to be the Christian Sabbath, although many Christians do hold that view. It seems to me that the principle has been transformed in much the same way as the Lord’s Supper has replaced the Jewish feasts and festivals and baptism has replaced circumcision. In Christ, we honor the Lord’s Day as we celebrate the resurrection of Christ together and proclaim that He will one day come again, and we set aside a day for resting physically in Christ, which is also likely to be Sunday. Yet this pattern is not burdensome. It certainly requires discipline, but it is not arduous for us. Even the fact that we now worship on the first day of the week should remind us of our gospel rest in Christ. We begin the week by resting before we work. Similarly, we were saved to do good works and faith without works is dead, but these works come after our justification once for all in Christ. We rest and then work, not the other way around.
Since, therefore, Jesus is our Sabbath rest, may we rest and worship with great joy in Him. Furthermore, out of the good news of Jesus, may our rest always be worshipful, and may our worship always be restful.