(Westminster Shorter Catechism Q: 57-62)
by Bob Burridge ©2011
We each have 168 hours every week. We have to budget them for time to sleep, work, eat, buy things, and fix what breaks. We never seem to have enough hours to do all we want. As we develop our time budget, we need to remember that 24 of those hours are not ours to spend. They belong to God. He calls us to devote one seventh of our lives to him in a special way.
Exodus 20:8-11 explains this moral principle which God built into his world at creation. The 4th of the Ten Commandments says,
8 Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work,
10 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.
11 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.
God commands one whole day out of every seven to be dedicated to him, and he carefully prescribes how that day is to be kept.
Like the first three Commandments, this principle is part of how God is to be honored in the world he made. Unlike the whole system of laws about sacrifices, feast days, diets, and ceremonies, the Sabbath was not set up to teach about our redemption through the work of Christ. It was mandated even before sin came into the history of the human race. It is a demonstration of God’s continuing Lordship over all as the Creator of everything.
Since it is that important, it understandably becomes a prime target of Satan. He takes advantage of the weaknesses and greed of us fallen people. Every one of the Commandments is twisted around by making up excuses to disobey them. The Sabbath is openly challenged by many churches which reject its place as a guide for godly living in our present world.
Some theorize that the Sabbath was only for Israel, that it was never intended for the church. Those who divide up God’s plan like that, attack his unchangeable decree for the ages. They assume that his purposes changed depending upon human decisions and rebellion.
Some misunderstand how it was that Jesus fulfilled all of God’s law. He fulfilled the law’s demands by paying the price demanded in our place when he died on the Cross. He also fulfilled the perfection of the law by obeying it perfectly. He fulfilled all that is needed for his people to be declared innocent based upon his death, and declared to be righteous because of his holy life as their representative. Nowhere are we told that Jesus came to eliminate the moral principles laid down at Creation. Jesus himself made this very clear in Matthew 5:17-20. Those who dismiss this 4th Commandment based upon the fulfillment argument are usually quite defensive about the other nine.
Part of the problem is the distorted way
this commandment is understood.
The word Sabbath is the Hebrew word shabat (שבת). It means to cease doing something.
It does not mean “seventh” as some seem to think. The word for seventh is shevi’im (שביעים). That word has a very different spelling and origin.
The word Shabbat does not mean the kind of rest where you recuperate or get your needed sleep. As a day of rest it does not mean that you should take it easy, sleep late, or get a good nap. The English word “rest” had a different meaning when the early translations were made.
One of the original meanings of the English word “rest” is the same as this Hebrew word. It means to cease. We still use the word rest that way in music notation. A rest symbol in a musical score does not mean the musician takes a nap or goes for a break. It means that the sound he was making stops for a specific count.
Certainly God was not tired out after his work of creation. He did not need to rest in that sense. In Genesis 2:3 it says that God “rested from all his work.” Today it is more literally translated that God “ceased from all his work.” The work he had been doing was that of creating things. When he finished he stopped creating. He rested, ceased from creating things. He did not take a vacation to get his strength back.
The expression Sabbath Day literally means “a day of ceasing”.
The 4th Commandment tells us what we
are to cease from doing on the Sabbath Day.
Exodus 20:9-10, “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.”
The word for labor here is ‘avod (עבד). It is the normal word for the work we do to earn our provisions. In verse ten it means we are to stop doing what we were just commanded to do on the other six days in verse nine.
Labor is not a penalty of sin. It is what God directed us to do while we were still an unfallen race. In Genesis 1:28 God told Adam to subdue the earth and to rule over it. This subduing and ruling means to make responsible use of it: to provide for our daily needs, and to act as God’s managers of the world to promote his glory.
Some try to excuse themselves from keeping Sabbath by saying that every day is the Lord’s Day. That sounds very pious, but it is not consistent with what God says. Certainly every moment belongs to him and must be used for his glory. It was God himself who set aside the Sabbath Day to be special from our other days of work.
God did not called us to become idle on the Sabbath Day.
The work you are to stop doing is that by which you earn your daily provisions. Your other moral duties continue on the Sabbath. There are three kinds of activities God specified to be done on the Sabbath. They are works of worship, works of necessity, and works of mercy.
We are to be busy with worship on the Sabbath.
The whole point of the Sabbath Principle is the honoring of our Creator in a special way. Worship involves many things that need to be done on the Sabbath. God commanded those who lead as Elders to be very busy on that day. However, their work was never considered labor in Patriarchal times, in God’s law, or in the New Testament church. They serve God’s Kingdom, and are supported from the tithes of those under their care. (That is a point taken up in our study of the 8th Commandment.)
The same is true for the worshipers. It is not labor to do all that is needed to go to church. God commands the gathering of his people under the Elders for worship on the Sabbath Day. It is a direct violation of this Sabbath Principle to use rest and recuperation as excuses to sleep in on Sundays, or to go fishing so that you neglect coming to church.
Works of necessity should continue on the Sabbath.
These are the things needed to preserve life. God’s word shows that it is expected of us on the Lord’s Day to feed and care for our families, house-guests, and animals. We are to defend against lawbreakers, and save those in danger. The things we think we need to make life more enjoyable or relaxing are not necessities of life.
Jesus illustrated these provisions of the Sabbath Principle in Matthew 12:1-8. The corrupted religious leaders accused Jesus and his disciples of breaking the Sabbath when they picked grain to eat while walking through a field. Jesus explained that eating and preparing food was never forbidden by God. It is wrong to buy food, or to sell meals or foods on the Sabbath, but it not wrong to prepare meals for yourself, and for the guests in your home.
It is also our obligation to keep the peace by protecting against crime and aggression. We are not to close police stations, or to give our armed forces a day off.
We do not cease from our kitchen work, let criminals run loose, or leave crashed cars dangerously scattered on roads until Monday. To avoid buying on the Sabbath, you can prepare before Sabbath comes. Be sure your car is gassed up, and your refrigerator and cupboards are supplied adequately. Peacekeeping agencies should avoid doing routine office work on the Sabbath, while they continue to protect the population against illegal activity. Even churches should do their regular office work on the other six days and restrict Sabbath activity to what is necessary to carry out proper worship.
The Sabbath should be a day for doing works of mercy.
These are activities that show our compassion and love for the truly needy. This includes helping or comforting the lonely, sick and infirm, or rescuing those in danger. Hospitals and nursing care centers do not close down all day on Sundays, and hope those under their care survive until Monday.
In Matthew 12:10-14 Jesus used an example to show that mercy was never forbidden in God’s Sabbath law. No one was expected to leave sheep that fall into a pit to suffer and die on the Sabbath. In Luke 13:12-17 he said that we do not stop caring for our ox or donkey because it is the Sabbath. In both passages Jesus was being criticized for healing someone on the Sabbath Day. There are emergencies that come up which ought to be taken care of.
These activities stand in contrast with our regular labor by which we earn our living. It’s that work that is forbidden on the Sabbath Day. To do it is open rebellion, and disregards one of God’s most basic commands.
The employer, not the worker, bears the greater responsibility for Sabbath. In Egypt, Israel was held as a nation of slaves. They were not permitted to keep the Sabbath holy. God held their captors and taskmasters guilty. For that they paid a heavy price. Workers should do their best not to work on the Sabbath. If they are required to do so by threats, the employer faces God’s judgment for this sin.
The Commandment holds you responsible if you cause others to break the Sabbath. Verse 10 of the commandment in Exodus 20 says, “… 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.”
It is your duty to see that all those you care for, host, or pay to serve you, keep the Sabbath Day holy to the best of your ability. This applies to your children, your servants (all those you hire to work for you, those you pay to serve you), even the animals you might use to get your work done, and any guest who is staying with you.
We should not support Sabbath labor that is performed for our own pleasure, rest, or personal gain. This was always the practice of God’s people until very recent times. The Reformers suffered greatly for opposing businesses being open on the Lord’s Day.
The rise of radically dispensationalized theologies have denied God’s continuing moral principles. They encourage people to violate this Sabbath Principle by paying others to work for them, or to serve them with pay on Sundays.
As much as it goes against our modern culture and the accepted practices in some churches, paying others to work for you when you go to restaurants, professional sports games, commercial tourist attractions, or stores to shop on the Lord’s Day is wrong, even if it is to take advantage of special sales or promotions. If all believers in Christ stopped paying others to serve them or to sell to them on Sundays, many businesses would find it more profitable to be closed on the Lord’s Day.
The reason for the Sabbath is to honor God as our Creator.
The Creation Sabbath is often confused with the Levitical Sabbaths.
The Levitical Sabbaths were set up under Moses as temporary holy days for Israel. They were about God’s plan to redeem us from sin and its devastating effects. The ceasing they promised was from the dominion and corruption of sin.
The Creation Sabbath is very different in God’s word. It was set up even before sin entered the human race. It was to be a ceasing from our labors to remember God as Creator for one day each week. It was not given to just one nation. There were no nations then. It was mandated to Adam as the representative of the whole human race.
Right after God created all things, he declared the Sabbath principle in Genesis 2:1-3, “Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.”
In those first moments after creation was completed, God set our calendar in motion with a seven day cycle which was to last all through history. The seven day week is the basic time structure God gave us. It should govern all schedules. For one whole day, after every 6 days of work, we are to stop to honor our Creator.
What day of the week did God set aside? Saturday? Sunday?
The problem with that question is that there was no calendar with named week days back then. That came much later in human history. Even in today’s Hebrew language the days of the week are numbered, not named. The week begins with the Day One, and after that Day Two, and so on. After Day Six, the next day is not called Day Seven, but Shabbat, the day of ceasing.
There is no way of knowing which day of our present week the original Sabbath Day first fell upon. It was not until the time of the Roman Calendar, shortly before the Birth of Jesus, that the Jews fixed the Sabbath to what we call Saturday. Before the time of Moses, for thousands of years, people worked for 6 days, then stopped for one day to honor God. There was no other God-given calendar.
After the Exodus, God added Ceremonial Sabbaths along with the Creation Sabbath.
These Ritual Sabbaths taught about the rest God’s people would one day have in Christ, the ceasing of sin’s dominion. They represented the liberty believers will have by being set free from guilt at the Cross.
In that ritual system, according to Leviticus 23, there was a double Sabbath once each year. After two days of not working, the 7-Day Cycle would start up again. They would expect to work 6 days before they again stopped on the 7th. This means that if the Sabbath was on what we today would call Saturday one year, it would shift to Sunday for a year. Then when the double Sabbath came it would shift to Monday for the following year, and so on. If it did not shift, they would have only worked 5 days between Sabbaths that week. That would have directly violated God’s law that required 6 work days between Sabbaths.
The Rabbis actually were rejecting the calendar of Moses when they fixed the Jewish Sabbath to the Roman Saturday long after the Old Testament had been completed. God only allowed that corruption to last for a short time.
Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the Roman week.
For the first time in history God assigned the Sabbath to one specific calendar day, Sunday.
The 4th Commandment is not about those redemptive Levitical Sabbaths. At Mt. Sinai there was no call to do something new, but to “remember” the Sabbath, to “keep” it holy. Obviously he was talking about a day the people already knew and were honoring prior to the later giving of the Levitical laws and calendar. God made it holy from the beginning in Eden. He set that day aside as special. It was clearly based upon Creation, not upon the need for redemption which became the focus after the fall of humanity.
The Commandment as recorded in Exodus 20:11 makes this purpose very clear. It says, “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.”
When Jesus fulfilled everything the Ritual Sabbaths of the Levitical Period illustrated, their purpose was completed and they were no longer binding upon anyone. However, the purpose of the Creation Sabbath continues as long as creation exists.
This is what Paul was referring to in Colossians 2:16-17 where he said, “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” This comment was about the end of the Levitical Ritual Sabbaths. They were the Sabbaths that were a shadow of what Christ would do. The weekly Creation Sabbath was to remember Creation, not the coming of the Messiah.
Once that redemption was accomplished at the cross, the church started gathering for weekly Sabbath worship on Sundays. The change was to remember the day on which Jesus rose from the dead. That marked a new start for the 7-day cycle. It did not end that cycle.
The Apostles appointed by Jesus directed the New Testament Church to meet on the first day of the week for Sabbath worship. We see this practice in effect in several passages in the New Testament.
Early records from the first centuries of the church confirm that this apostolic practice continued.
Ignatius of Antioch (who personally knew the Apostles) said, Christians were, “no longer observing the seventh day, but living in the observance of the Lord’s day,…”
Justin Martyr said, “the day called Sunday is an assembly of all who live either in cities or in rural districts … because Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the dead upon it.”
It is not a minor thing to make excuses to break this 4th Commandment.
When people abandon the Sabbath, or just celebrate it for a few hours on Sunday mornings, they miss the blessings God promises that go along with honoring him in his way.
When you reclaim God’s ways and honor the Sabbath for one whole seventh of your life, you will find greater peace and happiness than the world can ever understand, greater satisfaction than if you took God’s time and spent it on yourself.
Honor your Creator, your Redeemer — even in the management of your time. Love him without limits. It is always best to enjoy his promises in the way he prescribes. When you do, God is honored, and his promised covenant blessings are advanced in your life.
(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)