The Fourth Commandment

Exodus 20:8-11

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
October 2016

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping 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, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

We have been studying the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments, as you know, are divided into two parts. The first part of the Ten Commandments deals with God (God’s worship, God’s Name and God’s Day).  The second part of the Ten Commandments deals with duties to people. Today, we will be studying the Fourth Commandment. It is the last commandment that deals with God.

It is a very controversial commandment.  It has led to all kinds of debate and disagreement among Christians. People are more divided over this commandment. Different  denominations have started over the interpretation of the Fourth Commandment.  It is not a simple issue.  There have been some fierce debates among Christians on this topic.  What is the debate all about?

What day is the Sabbath?  Is it Saturday or Sunday?  Some groups say that the Sabbath is Saturday.  They have worship services on Saturday.  Others say that the Sabbath has been changed to Sunday.  They call Sunday “the Christian Sabbath.”

That is what the Puritans believed and it is what many in the church today believe. Is this commandment still binding today? Are Christians today still under the Sabbath Law? It is a sin to work on Sunday?  Is it wrong to cut the grass or do housework on Sunday?

Is the Sabbath Law for the church age?  Those are some of the questions that Christians disagree about.  We will try to clear some of the confusion up this morning, as we work through this commandment. Today, we will deal with some controversial questions.

Two Commandments Compared

Today, we will look at the Fourth Commandment. Let’s begin by comparing it to the Third Commandment.  It is a little different from the last one.

The Third Commandment is SHORT.  The Fourth Commandment is LONG.  This is the longest of the Ten Commandments.  God says more about this than He does about adultery or murder.  It is four verses long, almost one third of the fifteen verses which make up the Ten Commandments.

The Third Commandment was NEGATIVE (you shall not take the name of the Lord in vain).  The Fourth Commandment is POSITIVE (Keep the Sabbath).  Most of the Ten Commandments are negative but this is one of the two that are positive.

The Third Commandment deals with the TONGUE.  The Fourth Commandment deals with TIME.  In this commandment, God lays claim on our time.

The Third Commandment dealt with WORDS. The Fourth Commandment deals with WORK. We focus on the second half of the commandment but the first part says “six days shall you labor and do all your work” (20:9)

The Third Commandment deals with SWEARING.  The Fourth Commandment deals with the SABBATH and the word Sabbath means rest.

The Fourth Commandment is divided into two parts.  There is a command to work and a command to rest.  Work six days and rest on the seventh.  He did not say, “Work five days and rest two.”  He said, “Work six days and rest one.”  Any work you do, you were to do in the first six days.  He did not say “Do some of your work in the first six days” or “Do most of your work in the first six days.  He said, “Do ALL of your work in the first six days.”

The word Sabbath means “rest.”  The second part is a command to rest.  The seventh day is a day of rest.  You are to rest and everyone in your whole house is to rest.  No one is to work.  You do not work.  Your kids do not work.  Your wife does not work (no cooking, dishes, no laundry).  Your animals do not work.  You are not to do any work on that day.  This means more than not going to work on that day.  You cannot do any work at home either.

Questions about the Fourth Commandment

1) What is considered work?

The Bible only mentions six things that you were not allowed to do on the Sabbath.  According to the Law of Moses, only six things were specifically forbidden on the Sabbath.

  • Farming was work (Exodus 34:21).

You were not allowed to plough on the Sabbath.  The Jews in the OT lived in an agrarian society.  Many were farmers.  Work in the modern society looks a little different than it did in the day of Moses.  We live in an industrial society.

  • Traveling was work (Exodus 16:29).

That did not mean that you could not go outside at all on the Sabbath.  Jews went to the Temple and synagogue on the Sabbath.  The Bible even talks about “a Sabbath day’s journey” (cf. Acts 1:12).  Jewish law stated that you could not travel more than a half a mile on the Sabbath.

  • Buying and selling were work (Nehemiah 10:31; 13:15-17).

That is where “Blue Laws” (which have been a part of our country) come from.  It is based on the idea that you can’t buy things on the Sabbath.

  • Gathering food was work (Exodus 16:5, 23).

Gathering food was forbidden on the Sabbath.  The Jews could not collect manna to eat on the Sabbath.

  • Cooking food was work (Exodus 35:3).

Not only was gathering food on the Sabbath forbidden, cooking food on the Sabbath was also forbidden.  You can’t light a fire on the Sabbath. Lighting a fire was the way they used to cook.  There was a man in Numbers 15 who breaks the Sabbath by collecting sticks.  He was out collecting sticks so he could start a fire in order to do some cooking, so he could eat something.

You could not cook on the Sabbath.  Apparently God considers cooking work.  It is hard work to be a good cook, especially when you do not have an oven or grocery store.  You were supposed to do all of your food preparation on the day before the Sabbath.

  • Carrying burdens was work (Jeremiah 17:21-22).

There were many arguments among the rabbis as to what constitutes a burden. Could you move a lamp into another room?  The Jews were not satisfied with this list.  They added to the Bible.  They came up with all kinds of other things which were forbidden on the Sabbath and many of these things were ridiculous.  They said that you can’t tie your shoes on the Sabbath or write more than two letters down.  In the Jewish Talmud, there is a list of thirty-nine things forbidden on the Sabbath (Tractate Shabbat 7:2). [1]

2) What day is the Sabbath?

The text tells us what day is the Sabbath. Exodus says that the Sabbath is on the seventh day of the week.  It says that you are supposed to work the first six days of the week and rest on the seventh day.  If you look on the calendar, you will see that the seventh day of the week is Saturday.

The Jews call Saturday the Sabbath.  They call it Shabbat (the Hebrew word for “Sabbath”).  The Jewish day starts at night, going back to Genesis 1 (“there was evening and there was morning – the first day”). The Sabbath for them goes from Friday evening to Saturday evening.  The Sabbath is on Saturday.  It is not on Sunday.

Sunday is the first day of the week.  We think of Sunday as the end of the week, since our work week starts with Monday but Saturday is the seventh day of the week on the calendar. Sunday is the first day of the week.  Sunday is never called “the Sabbath” in the Bible.  It is never called a day of rest.

Many Christians think it is on Sunday. Over thirty years ago, there was a popular Christian movie out called Chariots of Fire.  It is a classic.  It is the true story about the Eric Liddell, the famous track star who set a new world record.  In 1924, he became the fastest man in the world.  He won a gold medal in the Paris Olympics.  He was also a strong Christian. The movie does not tell us what happened to him after the Olympics.

Eric ran in the Olympics at twenty-two.  At the age of twenty-three, he went to China to become a missionary.  At the peak of his career, he became a missionary to China.  He must have been the first missionary with a gold medal.  Eric had a degree in chemistry.  He taught science in a college in China.  He was also the Sunday school superintendent at his church and led Bible studies for students at the college as well.

There is moving scene in the movie Chariots of Fire in which Eric Liddell finds out that the 100 meter race in Paris and he refuses to run, because he thought it was a sin.  He was the man who would not run on Sunday.  He has to be commended for standing up for what he believed in and keeping to his convictions but that is all based on the idea that the Sabbath is on Sunday.  It is to be a day of rest.

Where did that idea come from?  It does not come from the Bible.  It comes from the Emperor Constantine. Constantine made Sunday a day of rest.  He made a law in 321 A.D. that said everyone was to rest and all of the workshops were to be closed.[2]

The Council of Laodicea said that Christians were not allowed to rest on Saturday. In 364 A.D., this council stated “Christians must not judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honoring the Lord’s Day; and, if they can, resting then as Christians. But if any shall be found to be Judaizers, let them be anathema from Christ” (Canon 29).

This council outlawed keeping the Sabbath on Saturday and ordered people to keep on Sunday.  They even said that it was a sin to keep the Sabbath on Saturday and, if you do it, you could be excommunicated. The word “anathema” is like excommunication.  The idea that you should not rest on Saturday but on Sunday does not come from the Bible but from church tradition.  The Bible says something different.

3) Is this command still binding today?

Are Christians under this law today?  There are two views.  Some believe that the Sabbath is still binding today. The Fourth Commandment is just as binding today as the other nine commandments. They are all engraved on a stone tablet written by the finger of God.  This was the view of the great evangelist D. L. Moody and the great theologian Jonathon Edwards.  People who believe that the Sabbath is still binding today are divided into two camps.

Some believe that the Sabbath is binding today say that the Sabbath is Saturday (Seventh-Day Adventists).  They have worship services on Saturday.  Others in church history who believe that the Sabbath is still binding today believe that the Sabbath has been changed to Sunday (Puritans).  They call Sunday “the Christian Sabbath.”

Other Christians believe that the church is not under the Sabbath Law today. It is not just dispensationalists who believe this. It goes back to Saint Augustine and John Calvin, who believed that the Fourth Commandment was part of the ceremonial law, not the moral law.  If the Sabbath is part of the moral law, it is eternal.  If it is part of the ceremonial law, it is temporary.  The question we have to decide is this:  Who is right?

Evidence of a Ceremonial Ordinance

I believe that Calvin and Augustine were basically right. There are three indications that the Sabbath Law is not part of the moral law.  It is not a moral absolute.  It is not something that is always wrong at every time and in every place. How do we know?

1) There is no known analogy to this command in the ancient world (so Sarna).

Commands that are moral absolutes we find in every culture and race.  Murder is wrong everywhere, so is stealing, lying and stealing.  There is no universal recognition among the cultures of the world of a Sabbath or even of a seven day week.  This one does not seem to be a commandment that people know instinctively.

People who believe the Sabbath command is binding today point out that the Sabbath goes back to creation.  They are right.  God worked seven days and rested on the seventh (20:11).  God rested in the creation week but there was no command for people to rest until the time of Moses.

2) This command is not repeated in the New Testament.

All of the other Ten Commandments are repeated in the NT.  This one is not.  In fact, Paul says that “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5).  Paul could not say this if the Sabbath was part of the moral law.

The moral law is not up to what people think.  You could not say, “Some people consider murder wrong.  Other people think it is okay.  Let everyone decide for himself and make up his own mind”.  He says that we are not to judge other Christians for what they do and do not do on the Sabbath day (Colossians 2:16).  That can only be true of non-moral matters.

3) It is specifically called a sign of God’s covenant with Israel

The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. 17 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 rested and was refreshed. (Exodus 31:16-17 NIV)

The Sabbath day is specifically tied to Israel and is the sign of a covenant between God and the nation of Israel (Mosaic Covenant), which is no longer in effect[3]. If it was still in effect, you would have to execute Sabbath breakers.  Death was the punishment in the OT for anyone who broke this law (Exodus 35:1-2; 31:14-15; Numbers 15:32-36).[4]

What This Commandment Says Today

When we come to the Fourth Commandment, many think it is not very relevant or important for us today.  Now we are told that it is not even binding.  Why do we waste our time studying it?  All Scripture us inspired and is relevant to our lives.  Even if we are not under the commandment as law, there is a lot we can learn from it.  This commandment can be life-changing.  Why is it so important?  What does this commandment say to us today?

1) It says we need a day of worship

The Sabbath was not just a day of rest; it was a day of worship.  The Jews gathered together for worship on that day. It wasn’t just a day to sleep in. Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath (Luke 4:16).  The Sabbath is called in Leviticus 23:3 “a day of sacred assembly.”  Even if the Fourth Commandment is not binding today, it is still a good idea to have one day of the week devoted to public worship

2) It says that work is important

Many have a negative view of work.  We should have a positive view of work.  Work is good.  God wants us to work.  Work is important. God created work.  God gave Adam some work to do.  There was work in paradise before the Fall of Man.  There will be work in heaven.  This commandment gives us a biblical perspective on work.  It shows the dignity of work.  Whether we have a five or six day work week, this principle still applies.

3) It says that we need to rest our bodies.

That is still true today.  Some of us do not work hard enough but some of us work too hard.  We love work so much that we are addicted to it.  We are workaholics.  We are the first one to get to work and the last one to leave.  We are always at work and never at home.  We come to work even when you are sick.We never take a vacation and, if we do, we are doing work on our vacation.

God designed our bodies to need rest.  If you don’t sleep, you die.  We have to rest every night.  We also have to rest every week.  If you do not rest, you pay a penalty. The Fourth Commandment is God’s word to workaholics. God actually commands us to take some time off of work.  He doesn’t want us to work too much.  This command is good for us.  If we do not rest, our bodies will suffer.

4) It says the lowest members of society have rights

This command was given to former slaves.  The Jews were slaves in Egypt for four hundred years.  They worked sundown to sunup, seven days a week, with no rest, no vacation and no time off. God says in this commandment that, even slaves has fundamental human rights.   God tells the Jews, not only are you allowed to take time off from work now, you are commanded to take time off of work, and this command extends to slaves.

5) It says that even animals have rights

This command, not only says something about slaves; it says something about animals.  Not only were people to rest on the Sabbath day, so were the animals.  They did not go to church but they were to rest on the Sabbath, which makes the Fourth Commandment the first national law in history on behalf of animals.  It is the first animal welfare act. Animals were to be treated with dignity and still are today.

[1] The list includes sowing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, washing wool, beating wool, dyeing wool, Spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying, untying, sewing stitches, tanning, scraping hide, marking hides, cutting hide to shape, writing two or more letters, erasing two or more letters, building, demolishing, extinguishing a fire, kindling a fire, putting the finishing touch on an object, transporting an object between a private domain and the public domain, or for a distance of four cubits within the public domain.

[2] Codex Justinianus III.12.3.

[3] Some argue that it must still be in effect because Jesus said that He did not come to abolish the law (Matthew 5:17) but that passage cannot mean that the entire Mosaic Law is still in effect today (including kosher food laws and animal sacrifices) because that would contradict the rest of the NT.  The moral law was definitely not abolished by Jesus and seems to be context of what Jesus was talking about (adultery, murder).

[4] Some point out that this sign is “forever” in Exodus 31:17 in some translations (NIV, KJV, ESV) but the word “forever” in Hebrew does not always mean everlasting. It can mean that but the same word is used in other placed in the OT of temporary ordinances (Ezekiel 46:14).  The OT also said that the Day of Atonement and the Levitical Priesthood were to be lasting ordinances as well (Leviticus 16:29; Exodus 40:15).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *