The Fourth Commandment

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it (Exodus 20:8-11).

The Gospels are filled with the tension between Jesus and the Pharisees over the observance of the Sabbath (cf. John 5). Biblical history has shown the observance of the Sabbath day has been very important to the Israelite community; if one deliberately violated the Sabbath, judicial execution was the penalty (Exodus 31:14). To stay painfully close to the “letter of the law,” the Pharisees “strove to complete a formal code for Sabbath observance.” During one part of their history, Jewish armies refused to take up arms on the Sabbath. According to the Mishna (a collection of Jewish writings, compiled around A.D. 200), there were 39 forms of labor prohibited on the Sabbath. (McClintock-Strong, pp. 190 ff).

Are Christians obligated to observe the Sabbath? No, for two reasons: first, the Sabbath was given to the Israelite nation and no other (Exodus 31:15-17). Notice, it was exclusively to the Israelite nation. Secondly, under the New Covenant, the Old Law (Old Covenant) was nailed to the cross and this includes the specific command of Sabbath observance given to Israel (Colossians 2:14-15; cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:7-12). Thus, when the Lord came, He took with Him to the cross the exclusivity of the entirety of the old Law with Him. The commands, all the commands and ordinances given to Moses to teach the community of Israel were put to death.

Some of those commands given by God to Moses transcends covenants; that simply means the positive application or the negative prohibition always apply regardless of which covenant is in force. In the case of Israel, most of those commands given by God to Moses were narrowly focused in an Israelite application, such as Leviticus 23. Under the New Covenant, there is no exclusivity to an ethnic people like there was under the Old Covenant.

Sometimes there is an objection offered such as the following: “Are you telling me God nailed only the fourth command of the Decalogue to the cross, but left the other nine for a New Testament implementation? Where is that in the New Testament [NT]?”

With this objection, what is in mind is the disconnect in understanding why the Lord would take all but one command from the Ten Words (commandments),and bring them into a NT application, leaving out only the fourth command out. There might be a ready acceptance of the Lord taking out (or nailing to the Cross) all the other ordinances given by Moses, such as one reads in Exodus 22-24, but since the NT does not make this express delineation, how is there any justification for others to do so?

This is a failure to understand the role of the Law of Moses to an exclusive people. The Sabbath Day was a day to keep holy, to set apart as a day of rest. It is important to notice the sabbath command is not given to any people as the command to be observed previous to Exodus 16. Many “Sabbatarians” (people who insist on observing the sabbath day command in a New Testament context) would have you understand the sabbath command goes back to the time of Genesis 1 and 2, but this is false. When the Lord made the seventh day of the week holy, He made it holy but obligated, as far as the Record is concerned, no people to observe a seventh-day rest from work, or anything else. It’s not until one reads Exodus 16, thousands of years after creation, that the Lord enjoined the Israelites to this command.

If you took a look at the reference to Jeremiah 31 from above, you will notice the Lord’s words to Jeremiah are prophetic in nature, saying the New Covenant is not like the Old Covenant, thus the complete putting away of the Old for the New (31:31-32). The value of what we call the Old Covenant is as Paul said in Romans 15:4,

For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that through patience and through comfort of the scriptures we might have hope (ASV)

There is a principle for us in “the day of rest” command given to Israel. Many people have negatively influenced themselves and family members with continued secular working on the first day of the week, failing to put any degree of priority on one’s spiritual health or on God’s desire and demand to meet with the saints. It will catch up with those so guilty. RT