The fourth commandment: the one most disputed within the broadly evangelical church. Does it still apply? Is it binding on the New Testament believer? What does it mean? How should we keep it?
Many committed Christians would stake their personal reputation on their belief that the command no longer applies. They take issue with it Sunday being called the Christian Sabbath, they acknowledge only nine commandments still in force. Yet by their practice they view the setting apart of one day in seven as just as important as those do who believe the fourth command still is in force.
Were there particular regulations regarding the appointed activities of the Sabbath day that are no longer in force? Of course; but we must be careful to distinguish between the command itself and regulations that God gave in addition to it.
The command is given in Exodus 20:8-11 and set in a context that covers more than one-day-in-seven. The implications of the command extend just as much to the “other” six days as to the seventh. That is necessary for the command to make any sense – if one day is to be set apart, it is by definition distinguished from the other days. Something must be different about the other days or there is no distinction.
The command and its regulation is given to us in three places in the Old Testament: Exodus 20:8-11, Exodus 31:12-18, Deuteronomy 5:12-15. Jesus refers specifically to the sabbath ordinance in Mark 2:27. In three of four instances the ordinance is presented in the context of creation, explicitly in both Exodus passages, implicitly in the Mark passage by Jesus’ use of ginomai, referring to the “making” or “creating” of the Sabbath.
Clearly, the institution and practice of the Sabbath rest pre-dates Mount Sinai; the Sabbath was already being practiced in Exodus 16 when manna was first given and before the giving of the Law to Moses. The implication there is that it was an established practice as would be expected if it truly is a creation ordinance.
Genesis 1:26-2:3 provide the first significant teaching and example of Sabbath rest. There God made man in His image (important point), gave him two specific tasks – work and reproduction, and then rested. The seventh day rest is set over against the first six days of labor; the sanctified seventh day is set over against the creation mandate to be productive, to work. It is at that point that Jesus’ teaching that the Sabbath was made for man, was a gracious gift of God to mankind, comes into focus.
We are commanded to work at our normal labors, subduing the creation, for six days and then rest from those labors on the seventh day. We are not to burn out by becoming workaholics. Nor are we to become so wrapped up in work and “self-sufficient” that we forget God and that He gave it all to us in the beginning. Don’t forget, this applied to Adam before sin and it certainly applies to us today.
Further, as beings created in the image of God, we are to follow His example, established in the first week of creation. He labored for six days, then rested from those labors on the seventh and set apart the seventh day to a holy purpose. God’s rest on the seventh day was not a rest of idleness; it was a cessation of his creative labors of the first six days and occupation with different activities on the seventh day.
It is important that Jesus conveyed in his response to the Pharisees that the Sabbath rest had as its purpose man’s good – it was made for the good of man, not as a straitjacket or goad to force him into a certain pattern of behavior. We can see two areas of significance in the two givings of the law – Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. In the first we see the importance of rest from labor; in the second we see the importance of regular focus on remembering our redemption.
Overarching both of these considerations is the foreshadowing of that eternal rest in the next life that we get a taste of in our weekly sabbath. Hebrews 4 alludes to the rest into which our Savior has already entered (remember he said “It is finished”!) and that still awaits us.
“For He spake in a certain place of the seventh day on this wise, And God did rest the seventh day from all His works” (verse 4). God’s rest on that primitive seventh day possesses at least a fourfold significance. First, it denoted His own complacency, His satisfaction in what He had made: “And God saw everything that He had made and, behold, it was very good.” Second, it was the Creator setting before His creatures an example for them to follow. Why had God taken “six days” to make what is described in Genesis 1? Had He so pleased, all could have been done in one day, yea, in a moment! Obviously it was for the purpose of teaching us. Just as the great God employed in works of usefulness, in providing for the temporal necessities of His creatures, so should we be. And just as God has ceased from all the works of those six days and on the seventh day “rested,” so must we. Third, that primitive Sabbath was the prophetic pledge of the “rest” which this earth shall enjoy during the reign of Christ. Fourth, it was a foreshadowing and earnest of the eternal Sabbath, when God shall “rest in His love” (Zeph. 3:17).
“There remaineth therefore a Sabbath-keeping for the people of God.” The reference is not to something future, but to what is present. The Greek verb (in its passive form) is never rendered by any other English equivalent than “remaineth.” It occurs again in Hebrews 10:26. The word “remain” signifies “to be left after others have withdrawn, to continue unchanged.” Here then is a plain, positive, unequivocal declaration by the Spirit of God: “There remaineth therefore a Sabbath-keeping.” Nothing could be simpler, nothing less ambiguous. The striking thing is that this statement occurs in the very epistle whose theme is the superiority of Christianity over Judaism; written to those addressed as “holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling.” Therefore, it cannot be gainsaid that Hebrews 4:9 refers directly to the Christian Sabbath. Hence we solemnly and emphatically declare that any man who says there is no Christian Sabbath takes direct issue with the New Testament scriptures.
Thus, the Holy Spirit here teaches us to view Christ’s rest from his work of Redemption as parallel with God’s work in creation. They are spoken of as parallel in this respect: the relation which each “work” has to the keeping of a Sabbath! The opening “for” of verse 10 shows that what follows furnishes a reason why God’s people, now, must keep the Sabbath. That reason invests the Sabbath with a fuller meaning than it had in Old Testament times. It is now not only a memorial of God’s work of creation, and a recognition of the Creator as our Proprietor, but it is also an emblem of the rest which Christ entered as an eternal memorial of His finished work; and inasmuch as Christ ended His work and entered upon His “rest” by rising again on the first day of the week, we are thereby notified that the Christian’s six work-days must run from Monday to Saturday, and that his Sabbath must be observed on Sunday. This is confirmed by the additional fact that the New Testament shows that after the crucifixion of Christ the first day of the week was the one set apart for Divine worship. May the Lord bless what has been before us.” A. W. Pink, Exposition of Hebrews