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A Call to Sabbath Rest
The Fourth Commandment
Have you ever considered that many Christians today are ready to keep all of the Ten Commandments with the exception of the fourth command? Frankly, that is something that should alarm us. The idea that most professing Christians do not even concern themselves with the question of whether or not the fourth commandment has any bearing on us today, much less with how we should understand and obey the commandment.
“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
The command to observe the Sabbath is not only one of the Ten Commandments, but it is rooted all the way back to Creation when God created the world in six literal days and then rested from his work on the seventh day. As if this was not enough to convince us that the fourth commandment should be taken seriously, the punishment for not observing this command was death. We see this play out in the account of a Sabbath-breaker in Numbers 15:32-36.
“While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. And the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the Lord commanded Moses.”
We see Christ address this issue in Matthew in Matthew 12:1-14, when the Pharisees confront him about his disciples “harvesting” grain on the Sabbath. He doesn’t quibble with them about the Sabbath’s importance, but instead proclaims himself “Lord of the Sabbath.” Jesus made a claim here to his kingship and put the Sabbath into perspective, outside of manmade traditions.
Sabbath Rest As A Gift
In Mark 2:27-28 it says, “And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” So the Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
The Sabbath was given to man as a gift. It is a blessing from God. In Creation, God revealed the goodness of resting from labor, even though God does not grow weary or faint. It is good to rest. It is good to set down your burdens. It is good to set our common worries aside and to devote ourselves uniquely to the worship of, and enjoyment of God. That is exactly what God did on the seventh day. He took time to simply enjoy Himself and to revel in the goodness and beauty of His Creation. Even after the Fall, when the failure of Adam cursed the earth and increased the need for toil and struggle, God yet declared that man must regularly rest from his toil and observe a Sabbath unto the Lord. It was a gift to men, a mercy.
Applying the Fourth Commandment Today
God always meant for Sabbath rest to be an integral part of the Christian’s life. This is an issue that has been largely ignored in the church for at least the last generation. I honestly think that if our culture had not been so uniformly influenced by biblical law in the past, such that it remains the norm even today that the rhythm of life and business is paused, or at least significantly altered on Sundays, then most professing Christians would treat the Lord’s Day like any other.
Setting aside those vocations that deal with issues of mercy or necessity, how many professing Christians would risk affluence or success if working on Sundays became an expected part of the business world? It is typically convenient and risk-free to refrain from working on Sunday, so many don’t, and at least on that level honor the Lord’s Day. But I would wager that very few have any well-considered convictions on the matter.
In fact, other than going to church in the morning, for those who actually follow through with that commitment, most professing Christians do not treat the Lord’s Day any differently than they do Saturday. They are both commonly viewed as project days, a time to get busy with the kind of work that is harder to do during the week.
Differing Positions on the Sabbath
There may be different positions that well-intentioned, faithful and orthodox Christians will arrive at concerning what it means for us to obey the fourth commandment, yet it should never be that we simply ignore any part of God’s moral law. We can’t be that careless with the revelation we have been given about what God approves of and what He requires of us. After all, we do believe in the regulative principle of worship.
We sometimes come to different conclusions when we search God’s Word to determine how we ought to live. This issue in particular had widespread agreement for much of church history across a number of traditions and denominations. For example, the Baptist Confession and the Westminster Confession are virtually identical on the subject. It is only in more modern times that it has been reimagined or seen as unimportant.
According to the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, Chapter 22, paragraphs 7-8 states:
It is the law of nature that in general a portion of time specified by God should be set apart for the worship of God. So by his Word, in a positive-moral and perpetual commandment that obligates everyone in every age, he has specifically appointed one day in seven for a sabbath to be kept holy to him. From the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ the appointed day was the last day of the week. After the resurrection of Christ it was changed to the first day of the week, which is called the Lord’s Day. This day is to be kept to the end of the age as the Christian Sabbath, since the observance of the last day of the week has been abolished. The Sabbath is kept holy to the Lord when people have first prepared their hearts appropriately
and arranged their everyday affairs in advance. Then they observe a holy rest all day from their own works, words and thoughts about their secular employment and recreation. Not only that, but they also fill the whole time with public and private acts of worship and the duties of necessity and mercy.
A Unique Commandment
The fourth commandment is unique among the ten, in that it contains both a moral and ceremonial component. That explains why the exact manner in which the commandment is obeyed may be changed, while the fundamental principle remains in force.
As moral law, the commandment maintains its force, even in the New Covenant. In the New Covenant it is tied back to Creation and is reflective of the nature and pleasures of God. As ceremonial law, the specifics of how and when it is to be observed have changed – as redemptive history has been revealed and fulfilled.
The Shift from Saturday to Sunday
A big question for Christians is why do we gather for worship on Sunday, and take that day, the Lord’s Day, as the day of rest as prescribed in the fourth commandment?
Sunday is often called the Christian Sabbath. After all, the Jews were commanded to Sabbath on the last day of the week, as modeled by God as He rested from His work of creation on the very first Saturday (long before it was called Saturday).
Only one event in history could explain that kind of monumental change, the resurrection of Christ and the institution of the New Covenant in His blood. God rested from His work of Creation on the seventh day, which was then given for man as a Sabbath. The Son of God rested from His work of redemption on the first day of the week, which has since been given to the church as the Lord’s Day.
Under the Old Covenant there was a call to labor and work to earn the promised blessings of God, not salvation itself, but the blessings promised for obedience, and after to rest. Under the New Covenant we begin with rest, as Christ has completed the work on our behalf, and then we go out and work out of that blood-bought position of grace.
A Continued Call to Sabbath Rest
The Sabbath isn’t trivial or obsolete. It is important. It was instituted at Creation, it was included in the summary of God’s moral law, and it has continued, if slightly altered in the change of day, as the Lord’s Day under the New Covenant in recognition of the New Creation work of Christ in the redemption of His people. If we accept that the Sabbath retains its importance under the New Covenant, how then should the Christian relate to the commandment?
The Sabbath Is Still A Part of God's Moral Law
First, as we would with all other laws, we must remember that the perfect fulfillment of the laws demands, the Sabbath included, was fulfilled for us in the life and ministry of Jesus. Therefore, as the New Testament continues to call us to uphold God’s moral law, it does so not as a means of obtaining God’s favor, but because it continues to reveal God’s nature and intention for His creation. It continues to be the means through which God typically chooses to bless.
The Sabbath is a Blessing, Not a Burden
Second, we need to understand what the Pharisees did not. The Sabbath was always meant to be a blessing, not a burden. It is a blessing to be able to rest from our labor. It is a blessing that God recognizes the frailty of His creatures and grants them a rhythm of life that provides for their restoration and
rejuvenation. It is a blessing that we have been given a special day each week so that we can leave behind the normal cares and fears of life and focus uniquely on the worship of our God.
As the Sabbath is a blessing from God, we must avoid the error of the Pharisees. The complex web of traditions and regulations around the Sabbath may have been meant to protect God’s people from accidentally profaning God’s command, yet in the end it did not bring the freedom to obey the Sabbath it promised. It instead brought slavery underneath it. Christ has set us free. In that freedom we are enabled to truly obey in the way that God desires. We can relate to God’s law as it is, a blessing.
The Sabbath Calls for a Change in Focus
Third, when we consider how we observe a weekly Sabbath unto the Lord, understanding it as a blessing and not a burden, we should consider what it allows us to do rather than what it keeps us from doing. The right question is not, "What must I not do," as though we would follow the footsteps of the Pharisees, but "What am I free to do if I set aside my normal labors and cares for a whole day each week?"
The Sabbath is a God-given opportunity to regularly set aside those burdens that we must carry on every other day. It is a God-given time of rest. Notice the difference between the focus on rest and a focus on relaxation. It isn’t a call to idleness, but to a change in focus and purpose. Work is good. Mankind was created to work, therefore work is not a result of the Fall. The Fall just made that work wearisome and a burden. Even in paradise it was necessary that a man rest from his labors one day in seven. How much more so now that those labors break his mind and his body?
On the Lord’s Day we have the blessing of setting aside our normal burdens and devoting ourselves entirely to the worship of our God and resting in His completed work. It is a unique chance to revel in the majesty of who God is and what He has done. Should we do that throughout the week? Sure. Yet God deserves, and we need, time to do so without distraction and burden.
Did you enjoy this? Check out our Podcast Episode on the same topic!
Podcast Episode 9: Is the Command for Sabbath Rest Still Relevant Today?
Have you ever considered that the majority position of the modern church today is to hold readily to the Ten Commandments with the exception of the fourth commandment to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy?
We live in a culture that is self-centered and chronically distracted. It is an unpopular message to preach that an entire day is to be set aside to worship the Lord and rest from our earthly cares. We make the case that a command rooted in Creation is above any covenantal or cultural arguments. The call to Sabbath rest is more than just a suggestion, because in Old Testament Israel the punishment was death for not observing it. This is a command to take seriously today.
Listen in as Caleb and Lindsey discuss the theological basis for Sabbath rest, alternative views concerning it, as well as some practical tips to guide you and your family as you intentionally observe this command.
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Caleb Stomberg is husband to Lindsey and father to their seven children. He is pastor at Legacy Reformed Baptist Church in East Grand Forks, MN. Caleb enjoys woodworking, hunting, and anything Tolkien.