On the Command to Keep the Sabbath

Copyright: enterline / 123RF Stock Photo

Not long ago, I was challenged to clarify my thoughts with regard to the Fourth Commandment of the Decalogue. The Fourth Commandment is found in Exodus 20:8 where it says, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (NASB). The results of my investigation appear below.

I apologize in advance for the length of this post; it is more than twice as long as what is normally published here. I tried to be brief, but did not want to leave out what I considered important to the discussion.

The first question

The first question that needs to be addressed in considering the fourth commandment is whether the command is strictly a part of the Mosaic Law or if the practice of Sabbath predates the receiving of the law on Mt. Sinai.

Some have argued that with the initiation of the church age, the Sabbath is no longer relevant to Christian life and practice. Lewis Sperry Chafer is one example of an author in my library that would take this position.

There are two main arguments argue against Chafer’s position. The first is the language of Genesis 2:3 and the second is the inclusion of the Fourth Commandment in the Decalogue.

Genesis 2:3

In the NASB, this verse reads, “Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created 1and made.” The natural implication is that by sanctifying the day (declaring it holy or set apart – the idea of separation) the seventh day is different from the other six.

While Scripture does not give specific instances of Sabbath observation before the Mosaic Law, the implication is that God established a principle that the seventh day is to be set apart for rest and worship from the beginning of time.

The Decalogue

The Ten Commandments are generally considered to be a succinct overview of the moral law. The moral law being such that it is applicable to all men, without distinction of race, culture or gender. Few, if any, conservative scholars would conclude that the other nine commands in the Decalogue have been abrogated by the death and resurrection of Jesus. For this reason, I find it impossible to believe that the command to honor the Sabbath is any different than the other nine.

Based on these two arguments, I conclude that the Fourth Commandment is part of the moral law that is universally applicable to all men.

Sabbath in the Church

The Apostle Paul tells us that we have died to the law and that the ceremonial law as presented by Moses is no longer operative for the Christian. From this, we conclude that any rules regarding the Sabbath that are part of the ceremonial law are no longer applicable to Christians.

But how do we maintain that Sabbath keeping is part of the moral law but the Sabbath regulations stipulated by God through Moses no longer apply? How can we separate which commands regarding the Sabbath are ceremonial and which are moral? Or to put it another way, how can we keep the fourth commandment without falling into legalism against which Paul argues in the book of Galatians?

Help from John Calvin

In his Institutes, Calvin says this about the Forth Commandment, “Still there can be no doubt, that, on the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, the ceremonial part of the commandment was abolished. (Book II, Chapter VIII, Paragraph 31)” He uses Col. 2:16-17 in support of this statement. In comment upon this passage, Calvin writes that “Christians, therefore, should have nothing to do with a superstitious observance of days.”

Calving goes on to say that even though the Mosaic laws surrounding Sabbath keeping are nullified, there are two things that should be practiced by Christians to fulfill the moral law associated with this commend. He writes,

“there is still room among us, first, to assemble on stated days for the hearing of the word, the breaking of the mystical bread, and public prayer: and secondly, to give our servants and laborers relaxation from labor. It cannot be doubted that the Lord provided for both in the commandment of the Sabbath” (Paragraph 32).

Help from Charles Hodge

In his discussion of the Fourth Commandment in his Systematic Theology, Hodge writes:

“It is admitted that the precepts of the Decalogue bind the Church in all ages; while the specific details contained in the book of Moses, designed to point out the way in which the duty they enjoined was then to be performed, are no longer in force. The fifth commandment still binds children to obey their parents; but he Jewish law giving fathers the power of life and death over their children, is no longer in force. The seventh commandment forbids adultery, but he ordeal enjoined for the trial of a woman suspected of that crime, is a thing of the past. The same principle applies to the interpretation of the fourth commandment. The command itself is still in force; the Mosaic laws respecting the mode of its observance have passed away with the economy to which they belonged. “

Hodge goes on to give two rules to guide our thinking about what is and what is not appropriate with regard to how the Sabbath is to be observed. He writes:

“The first is, the design of the commandment. What is consistent with that design is lawful; what is inconsistent with it is unlawful. The second rule is to be found in the precepts and example of our Lord and of his Apostles.”

He identifies two main categories of what is consistent with the design of the Sabbath. Here, he follows Calvin. The first is “rest from all worldly cares and avocations.” The second is that “God should be properly worshipped, his word duly studied and taught, and the soul brought under the influence of the things unseen and eternal.”

With regard to the second rule, Hodge provides three case studies. The first is based on Christ’s statement that “the Sabbath was made for man.” From this he concludes that the life, health and well-being of a man are higher ends than any regulation and therefore doing good to others is in keeping with the moral law.

The second case study is where Jesus states that “the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are blameless (Matt. 7:5).” Hodge states, “From this we learn that whatever is necessary for the due celebration of religious worship or for attendance theron, is lawful on the Sabbath.”

The third case study is based on the story found in Luke 14 where Jesus attends a dinner on the Sabbath. From which Hodge concludes, “Christ, therefore, thought right, in the prosecution of his work, to attend on such entertainments on the Sabbath.”

These are some examples of how the example of Jesus should inform our understanding of what it means to keep the moral command regarding the Sabbath.

My understanding of the Sabbath

From all this, I conclude that the moral implications from the Fourth Commandment are still valid for the church today but the ceremonial aspects are not. Therefore, I find three categories in which our obedience to the Fourth Command should be comprised:

  1. Rest
  2. Assembling together for worship and instruction
  3. Doing good works for the benefit of others

The danger is that we can become legalistic in our application of these categories to ourselves and others. An activity that one person finds restorative, another may think to be in violation of the principle of rest. Each of us should be certain of his own calling with regard to keeping the Sabbath and allow freedom to others to form their own convictions.

Secondly, there is a difference of opinion among conservative scholars with regard to how Col. 2:16-17 should be applied to the practice of both individual believers and the church at large. This difference of opinion should caution us against formation of rules regarding Sabbath keeping.

Thirdly, there is silence in the epistles about how the moral law regarding the Sabbath should be applied in the church, therefore care should be taken in creating and applying rules.