The Fourth Commandment

Exodus 20:8-11

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
March 2014

We have been studying the Ten Commandments.  If you remember the Ten Commandments were divided into two parts. The first part of the Ten Commandments deal with God (religious duties). The second part of the Ten Commandments deal with duties to people (moral duties). Today, we will be studying the Fourth Commandment. It is the last commandment that deals with God.

Last week, we looked at the Third Commandment, the commandment about not misusing God’s name by taking His name in vain.  The Third Commandment dealt with WORDS. The Fourth Commandment deals with WORK. The Third Commandment deals with the TONGUE.  The Fourth Commandment deals with TIME.  The Third Commandment deals with SWEARING.  The Fourth Commandment deals with the SABBATH.  Before we look at the Fourth Commandment in depth, there are four things that you need to know about this commandant.

Four Facts about this Commandment

  • It is a long commandment.

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.

  • It is a positive commandment.

Most of the Ten Commandments are negative.  This one is positive.  Commandment one said, “You shalt NOT have an idols before me”.  Commandment two said, “You shalt NOT make an image of anything and worship it”.  Commandment three says, “You shall NOT take the name of the Lord in vain”.  This one says, “Remember the Sabbath”.

  • It is a controversial commandment.

God’s people are probably divided more over the Fourth Commandment than all of the other nine commandments put together.  Whole denominations have started over the interpretation of the Fourth Commandment (Seventh-Day Adventists). There are many misconceptions that people have about the Fourth Commandment that we will try to correct as we study this.  We may not all agree on the Fourth Commandment.

  • It was an important commandment.

Exodus 31 tells us why this commandment was important to the Jews.

“Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it is to be put to death; those who do any work on that day must be cut off from their people. For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is a day of Sabbath rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day is to be put to death. The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. 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 31:14-17)

This one was important because it was a sign of the covenant that God made with the Jews (31:13, 17).  It was a sign of the Mosaic Covenant.  It was also important because, if you broke this one, you died.  This was a mandatory day of rest for the Jews.  If you did ANY WORK on this day, you were to die.

“While the Israelites were in the wilderness, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the Lord commanded Moses”. (Numbers 15:32-36)

This is an interesting passage.  Here you have a man gathering wood on the Sabbath.  Why was he gathering sticks?  The text does not say.  You have to infer the answer.  They were in the wilderness.  He wanted to build a fire so he could cook.  He wanted to have a hot meal on the Sabbath (some eggs and pancakes).  He did not want to eat raw meat on the Sabbath.

What is wrong with cooking on the Sabbath?  Isn’t that a necessity?  You have to eat. 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.

What was his punishment?  He was stoned and he was not killed by an angry mob in the wilderness.  God was the one who laid down the sentence (15:35).  That seems a little harsh.  What is wrong with picking up some sticks?  Picking up sticks is not a sin.  If it is wrong, why would the punishment for this be death?  Why would this poor man get the death penalty for picking up sticks?  Why would he get the same punishment that someone else would get for murder? Wouldn’t that be like giving someone who litters the same punishment as a serial killer?

The reason that this was taken so seriously is that it was an example of open rebellion.  This was not a sin of ignorance.  It was a man who was openly defiant.  He knew that he was not supposed to do this but he deliberately did it anyway.  It is what the Bible calls a presumptuous sin and presumptuous sin was no small matter to God. That is clear from the verse right before this passage.

But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or foreigner, blasphemes the Lord and must be cut off from the people of Israel. Because they have despised the Lord’s word and broken his commands, they must surely be cut off; their guilt remains on them.’” (Numbers 15:30-31)

What I want to do today is look at three things.  First, I want to look at what the Fourth Commandment actually says.  Second, I want to look at how this commandment relates to the church.  Are Christians today under the Sabbath?  Third, I want to look at some applications and lessons that we can draw from this commandment.  How do we apply this commandment today?

Let’s start by reading the text.  There are actually two versions of the Ten Commandments.  The Ten Commandments are found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5.  As you read both passages, there are just a few differences.

“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” (Exodus 20:8-12).

“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. 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 ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:12-15)

Difference between Exodus 20 & Deuteronomy 5

Are there any differences between these two versions? While Deuteronomy says to “keep the Sabbath,” Exodus says to “remember the Sabbath”.  To remember the Sabbath implies that the Sabbath was not new.  It had already been in existence and they were to remember it.  The reason for keeping the command is a little different.  Both deal with what God did.  Deuteronomy says that the reason for keeping the Sabbath is the Exodus from Egypt.  It commemorates God delivering the Jews from Egypt.  Exodus says that the reason for keeping the Sabbath is creation, not redemption.  When God created the world, He worked six days and rested on the seventh day of creation.  God kept the Sabbath.

Two Introductory Questions

This commandment says that we are to keep the Sabbath holy.  That leads to two questions.  First, what day is the Sabbath?  Exodus 20 gives the answer.  It is the seventh day of the week.  Look on the calendar and you will see it is Saturday.  Every Jew knows that the Sabbath is Saturday.  The Jews call it Shabbat (the Hebrew word for “Sabbath”).  It goes from Friday evening to Saturday evening.  Jewish days begin at Sundown, going back to Genesis 1 (“there was evening and there was morning – the first day”).  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. Sunday is the first day of the week on the calendar. The Sabbath was Saturday and was the culmination of the week.

Second, what does it mean to keep it holy? The word holy means to be consecrated or set apart for God, How do they keep it holy?  The text tells you.  You keep the Sabbath holy by doing two things. There are two parts to the Fourth commandment.   Most think there is only one part.

The Two Parts to This Command

The first part is a COMMAND TO WORK.  God says that we are to work and he says that we are to work six days.  Exodus 20:9 says, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work”.  That was a command.  Notice that it does not say, “Work five days and rest two”.  It says, “Work six days and rest one”.  Any work you do, you were to do in the first six days.  It does not say “Do some of your work in the first six days” or “Do most of your work in the first six days.  It says, Do ALL of your work in the first six days”.

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.

Forbidden Activities on the Sabbath

This day of rest was not optional. It was a command.  You can work for six days but not on the seventh day.  That leads to this question.  What is work?  What was forbidden to do on the seventh day?  The Jews came up with 39 things that were forbidden on the Sabbath.  You can find this list in the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 7:2).[1]  The Bible only mentions five things that you were not allowed to do on the Sabbath.  Fortunately, Sex was not one of them.  I guess that is not considered work.

  • You were not allowed to farm on the Sabbath (Exodus 34:21).

The Jews lived in an agrarian society.  Exodus 34:21 says, “even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.”

  • You were not allowed to travel on the Sabbath (Exodus 16:29).

The Jews later added to this command and said that you can travel but only a half a mile. The Israeli airline normally does not fly on the Sabbath.

  • You were not allowed to buy and sell on the Sabbath (Nehemiah 10:31; 13:15-17).

There was to be no shopping on the Sabbath, even for groceries. You can’t buy gas. You won’t need any if you don’t go anywhere on the Sabbath. Today most retail purchases are done on the weekend.  When people changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday (which I believe is a mistake), we ended up with blue laws.

  • You were not allowed to cook on the Sabbath (Exodus 16:5; 23; 35:3).

You cannot collect manna on the Sabbath.  You had to do that the day before (Exodus 16).  You can’t light a fire on the Sabbath, although Jews do light candles on the Sabbath. Lighting a fire was the way they used to cook. They didn’t have a stove. Some Orthodox Jews have interpreted this to mean that they cannot even turn on electricity.  That is why some Jews think it is wrong to push an electric button on an elevator on the Sabbath.

They do not even turn lights on but turning on a burner on the stove is not work.  This goes beyond the point of the passage.  The Sabbath was made for man.  It was meant to improve the quality of life, not make it worse.  It was not intended to be a huge burden on people.  It was intended to be a blessing, not a curse.  It is a day of rest.

  • You were not allowed to carry burdens on the Sabbath (Jeremiah 17:21-22).

It is not a day for moving to a new place. I guess this means that you can’t lift weights on the Sabbath. Jews got into arguments as to what constitutes a burden. Could you move a lamp into another room?

The Church & the Sabbath

How does the Fourth Commandment relate to the church? Is it still binding today? Is the Sabbath Law for the church age? Are Christians today still under the Sabbath Law? Not all Christians throughout church history have agreed on that question.

Some believe that the Sabbath is still binding today. There were some very good men who held this view, such as the great evangelist D. L. Moody and Jonathon Edwards.  People who believe that the Sabbath is still binding today are divided into two camps.

Some who believe that the Sabbath is binding today believe 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”.  Others argue 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.

Why Some Believe the Sabbath is Still Binding Today

1)  The Ten Commandments are part of the moral law, not the ceremonial law.

The Fourth Commandment is just as binding today as the other nine commandments. It is engraved on a stone tablet written by the finger of God.

2)  The Sabbath goes all the way back to creation (Exodus 20:11), which is a reason why it should still be observed today.

3)  It is called a lasting or perpetual covenant that is to be a sign “forever” (NIV, KJV, ESV), according to Exodus 31:17.

4) Jesus said that He did NOT come to abolish the Law (Matthew 5:17).

5) It was not made only for the Jews but for mankind in general. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). It is not a Jewish Sabbath. It is called “the Sabbath of the Lord” (Exodus 20:10 KJV) but is never called “The Sabbath of the Jews”.

Why Some Believe the Sabbath is Not Binding Today

1) If the Sabbath Law is still in force today, then you have to observe the proper day.

The Sabbath was always Saturday, not Sunday. Nowhere is Sunday ever called the Sabbath. The early church met for worship on Sunday but that was not their Sabbath. It was actually a day of work. They met either really late or really early on that day. Sunday did not become an official day off until 321 AD under Emperor Constantine.

2) If the law is still in force then you would have to do absolutely NO work on Saturday.  You could not even drive to church.

That means not only do you not go to work but you do not do any work at home (working on your car, cleaning your house, working in the garden, cutting the grass).

3) If the Law is still in force, you would have to execute people who break the Sabbath today.

Death was the punishment for Sabbath breakers in the Law of Moses (Exodus 35:1-2; 31:14-15; Numbers 15:32-36) and I do not know anyone who believes we should do this today. You can’t say the law applies today but the punishment for breaking it doesn’t. The Law of Moses was a unit, as James said (2:10). It was made up of 613 commands.

4) If the law is in force today, we should observe the yearly Sabbath as well.

There was a yearly Sabbath as well as a weekly Sabbath (cf. Exodus 23:10-11; Leviticus 25:1-7; Deuteronomy 15:1-2). The land was to rest on the seventh year. They were not to farm on that year and they were to cancel all debts on the seventh year. You can’t say that the weekly Sabbath is in force today but the yearly Sabbath is not. You cannot say that the yearly Sabbath is part of the ceremonial law but the weekly Sabbath is part of the moral law.  You have to apply the consistency rule. If one is binding today, the other should be as well.

5) The Sabbath Commandment is NOT repeated in the NT.

Christians are never commanded in the NT to keep the Sabbath. You say, Well that is an argument from silence. Yes, but one has to wonder why are all of the other Ten Commandments repeated in the NT but not this one and furthermore, the NT calls this a shadow ordinance (Colossians 2:16). We are not to judge other Christians for what they do or do not do on the Sabbath.

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”.

6) The Sabbath was a sign of a perpetual covenant but that sign was between God and the Jews, not God and mankind in general (Exodus 31:12-13).

It is the sign of a covenant between God and the nation of Israel. While the sign is said to be “forever”, 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 (Leviticus 24:8; Numbers 19:2; Ezekiel 46:14).  The OT also said that circumcision, the Day of Atonement and the Levitical Priesthood were to be lasting or perpetual ordinances as well (Genesis 17:13; Leviticus 16:29; Exodus 40:15).

7) While the Sabbath actually goes back to creation, it was not COMMANDED until the time of Moses. God rested on the Sabbath on the seventh day of creation, not man.

8) Some argue that the fact that the Sabbath is called “holy” proves that it is still binding today, It is called “a holy day” (Exodus 35:2; cf. 31:14).  This argument does not work because other things in the Mosaic Law were also to be holy that are not longer binding today.

Exodus 30:10 says, “Aaron shall make an atonement upon the horns of it once in a year with the blood of the sin offering of atonements: once in the year shall he make atonement upon it throughout your generations: it is most holy unto the Lord”.  The trespass offering was most holy (Leviticus 7:1).  The meat offering was holy (Leviticus 2:10).  Wave offerings were to be holy (Leviticus 23:20).  The year of jubilee was to be holy (Leviticus 25:2) and that is no longer in effect today.

Does Matthew 5:17 prove that the

Sabbath is still binding today?

What about Matthew 5:17? Does that verse prove that the Sabbath is still binding on Christians? The problem is that most people only read the first half of the verse (“Think not that I have come to abolish the law”). The rest of the verse reads, “I have not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:18).

The opposite of abolish is not to establish the law but to fulfill the Law and the whole OT, which Jesus certainly did. If you use Matthew 5:17 to say that people should keep the Sabbath today, you would have to use it to say that people have to eat only kosher foods today and that people would have to offer animal sacrifices today.

According to the Mosaic Law, there were clean and unclean foods and Jews were supposed to eat only clear or kosher food. The NT says ALL foods are now clean (Mark 7:19; Acts 10:9-15). According to the Mosaic Law, people were supposed to offer animal sacrifices for sins. The NT says that we don’t need to do this anymore because of the death of Christ. Animal sacrifices had to be repeated over and over again and never took away sin anyway (Hebrew 10:4, 11). The Book of Hebrews says that Jesus’ once for all sacrifice is all that we need to take care of our sins (Hebrews 7:27; 9:26).

There are several important lessons from the Fourth Commandment.  These lessons apply today, even if the Fourth Commandment is not binding today.

Lessons from the Fourth Commandment

The Importance of Work

Work is good.  We should not hate work.  We should love it.  God wants us to work.  We should work hard and not be lazy. 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 shows the dignity of work.  Whether we have a five or six day work week, this principle still applies.

The Importance of Rest

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 tells the Jews, not only are you allowed to take time off from work now, you are commanded to take time off of work, 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.

We need to rest. 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 the first one to get to work and the last one to leave.  We are always at work and never at home.  We will work right through lunch.  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.  If you do not rest, you pay a penalty.

The Importance of Planning Ahead

It is an important biblical principle to plan ahead for the future, whether you are talking about planning for a career, planning for college, planning for marriage, planning for a baby, planning for retirement. In order to keep the Sabbath, Jews in the OT had to plan ahead so they did not work on the seventh day. They had to get all of their food on the sixth day, so they did not have to cook on the seventh day.  Planning ahead is a biblical concept.

Proverbs 20:4 says, “Sluggards do not plow in season; so at harvest time they look but find nothing”.  Proverbs 6:7-11 says, “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!  It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest. How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man.”

The Importance of Worship

In the OT, the Sabbath was not just a day of physical rest. It had a religious purpose. Leviticus 23:3 says, ‘There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, a day of sacred assembly.”  It was to be a day set aside and dedicated to God. The Sabbath did not just involve the absence of work but the presence 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). It is still a good idea today to have a day devoted to public worship.


[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.

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