The 4th Commandment
Exo 20:9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:
Exo 20:10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:
Exo 20:11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
We are living in an age of great evils and apostasy. The Evil One attacks the Church from every front; ranging from overt false doctrines to subtle ways to undermine and weaken the Church. One of the ways to undermine and weaken the Church is to make Christians indifferent about Sabbath observance.
Today, many Christians disregard the Sabbath Day. Some Christians have thrown the Ten Commandments out of the window, saying that we are living under grace and hence the 4th Commandment is no longer applicable to them. Others, who still hold to the keeping of the Ten Commandments, would keep all the nine, except the 4th Commandment. They contend that by attending worship service, they have already fulfilled their obligations to the 4th Commandment. Once the worship service is put aside, they would have the entire Sunday for their own pursuits of pleasures, business and worldly entertainment. There are yet other Christians who think that Sabbath observance is in the realm of Christian liberty i.e. something neither commanded nor forbidden by God. They argue that every day is alike and that we are not to observe one day as more ‘holy’ than another.
Given what’s happening in today’s Christian world, there is an ever more urgent need, in fact a very URGENT need, for the Church today to take heed to the teaching of Scriptures regarding Sabbath observance.
Admonition to Remember
If we were to do a quick survey of the Ten Commandments, it is easy to note that only the 4th and the 5th Commandments are worded differently. They are worded positively. The other Commandments start negatively with “Thou shalt not…” and the First Commandment has it in a negative way “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”. But interestingly, the 4th Commandment begins with the word “Remember”. I submit to us that God has deliberately used the word “Remember” for a good reason.
Our Jehovah God knows our weaknesses and sinfulness. We have a great tendency to forget the Lord’s Day. First, we tend to forget because of the depravity we inherit from Adam. As Christians, despite regeneration, we still have the old man of sin constantly struggling against the new man in us. We struggle against our sinful flesh and often do not have the desire to keep the Sabbath.
God knows our tendency to order our life’s priorities wrongly. Therefore, He says in the 4th Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy. We are commanded to remember the Sabbath Day. It is an active and deliberate act of remembering. It is not to remember the Sabbath Day when we feel it is convenient to do or have the time for it. It is not to remember the Sabbath Day so long as we are able to schedule it in our calendar of events. It is not to remember the Sabbath Day so long as we feel like it or so long as we wake up on Sunday morning feeling good. It is not up to us to decide if we would like to remember the Sabbath Day. We are commanded to remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy! Just like any of the Ten Commandments, if we fail to keep any, we have broken all the Commandments. So it is for the 4th Commandment. Failing to remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy, is therefore a sin against the Lord.
Second, we allow the Sabbath to be crowded out of our lives. There are many things we want to do, and often, we let these things have priority over the Sabbath, choosing rather to give Sabbath a miss because it comes in the way of our pleasures, business, or studies etc. The Lord’s Day is quickly forgotten. It is used as though it does not belong to the Lord, but to us. Some of us even have the strange notion that the Sabbath can be occasionally broken. Some supposed that if I remember the Sabbath for 51 weeks of the year, it is ‘OK’ to forget the Sabbath for one week. We justify it by saying that our Lord understands the situation. Perhaps we reason that examinations are coming soon and so it is more important for me to study and skip the worship service, just this once. Perhaps we reason that we can keep the Lord’s Day by reading the Bible, listening to a tape (or CD) and doing some meditations by the beach while we go on vacation. Perhaps we reason that the foreign lecturers from the overseas university come once a year over the weekends, so it is alright to miss just one Lord’s Day and attend the classes on Sunday, after all “I have paid so much for the course fees already”. Perhaps we reason that the Lord understands when we skip Church for only one Sunday to spend time with our families on a special leisure trip. Perhaps we reason that the Standard Chartered Bank Marathon and the New Paper Big Walk only happen once a year, so it is alright to participate in these events on the Sabbath Day. We have a lax view of Sabbath observance and have many excuses for not keeping the Sabbath! The keeping of Sabbath has taken the backseat! Our Jehovah God knows that we are so consumed by our daily affairs (work, studies, business, leisure etc.) that we need to set aside a day in seven to worship and praise the Creator.
The tendency of God’s people to profane the Sabbath Day is shown in the history of God’s people. In the days of Nehemiah, he had to remind the people that God was angry with them because they had once again profaned the Sabbath. We can read this in Neh. 13:15 – 22. Nehemiah reminded them in verse 18 that they had forgotten God’s wrath. He reminded them that Judah’s profaning of the Sabbath had caused God to banish them to 70 years of captivity in Babylon and yet they were still profaning the Sabbath by buying and selling. Judah was disregarding the holy day of the Lord again and was profaning it. Judah had not learned her lesson. She was about to bring more wrath upon herself.
The battle to uphold the Sabbath Day was also evident in the history of the Churches. The problems were so serious that at the Synod of Dordrecht on 17 May 1619, six formulations ‘Concerning the removal of the dishonouring of Sabbath” were passed.
They were (translated in English) as follows:
- There is both a ceremonial and moral element in the fourth commandment of the divine law.
- The ceremonial [element] is the rest of the seventh day after creation, and the strict observance of the same day was especially enjoined upon the Jewish people.
- The moral [element] is that a certain and definite day be set aside for worship, and for the purpose that as much rest as is necessary for worship and for pious reflection upon it [be provided].
- The Jewish Sabbath having been abolished, Christians must solemnly keep Sunday [in the original Dutch it is “the day of the Lord,” RJS] holy.
- This day has always been observed from the time of the apostles in the ancient Catholic Church.
- This day must be so set aside for worship that on it people may rest from all ordinary labors (excluding those that love and present necessity demand) together with all such recreations that hinder worship.
Some of the problems against which the Synod of Dordrecht wrote are the same problems that our Churches face today. History is simply repeating itself! Many Christians today are not concerned about keeping the Lord’s Day anymore!
Keeping the 4th Commandment is a question of love for the Lord. The whole summary of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) is to first of all to love God with all our heart, soul and mind; and the second is to love our neighbour as ourselves. Rom 13:10 tells us that love is the fulfilling of the law. If we fail to keep the Sabbath, we do not love the Lord and as a result transgress against the first table of the Law. Love requires us to want to spend time communing with God, to serve Him and to keep his laws. If we say we love the Lord, we would want to set aside the Sabbath, as commanded, and spend as much time as possible with the Lord. It is just like a husband or a wife telling the better half, “Honey, I love you very much, but I don’t have the time for you. I have more important things to do than to spend my precious time with you.” This is what we are telling the Lord when we skip the Lord’s Day for some events which we deem to be more important or if we totally ignore the Lord’s Day. This is what we are telling the Lord when we have the notion that after the morning worship service, the rest of the Sabbath is mine to spend and use as I like. This is what we are telling the Lord when we cannot wait for the worship service to be over, so that we can be about our own business. We see this in Amos 8:5, “When will the new moon be gone that we may sell corn? And the Sabbath, that we may set forth wheat …” The wicked people were so eager for the Sabbath to be over so that they could get on with their lives. Is this our attitude? If we love God, we would want to spend time to commune with Him as much as possible. We would want to keep the Lord’s Day!
How are we to remember the Sabbath Day?
Are we to remember the Sabbath Day by coming up with a list of Dos and Don’ts? You may do this, and you may not do that?
Legalism is a great enemy to Sabbath observance not because it disregards the Sabbath but because it destroys the joy of the Sabbath by making Sabbath observance a matter of keeping endless rules and regulations. It makes obedience to the 4th Commandment become mere external behaviour and actions. It stresses the keeping of man-made regulations and traditions but ignores the spiritual significance of the Sabbath. We can see this in the example of the Pharisees. They were very careful about the external acts of the Sabbath. They accused the disciples of breaking the Sabbath by picking and eating a few ears of corn (Mark 2:23-28). In Luke 13, the Pharisees accused Jesus of healing a woman who had a spirit of infirmity for eighteen years. They were so diligent in adding precept upon precept, and law upon law, that Sabbath observance became nothing more than a joyless burden. Sabbath observance, in this case, becomes outward conformance to some strict regulations of Dos and Don’ts.
Our Lord Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28), condemned the outward observance of the Sabbath by the Pharisees when He told them that the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). Sabbath is not given by God to be a burden to man by simply keeping some Sabbath regulations or traditions. God, in His infinite wisdom, gives man the Sabbath for man’s good so that he can rest from all his earthly labours and worship Him. Man is to use the given opportunity to show and declare God’s glory.
If having a list of Dos and Don’ts is improper, how then are we to remember the Sabbath Day?
Exo 20:11 says that we are first and foremost to remember to “keep it holy”. There are some passages that show us the nature of the Sabbath (Exo 31:15, Exo 35:2, Lev 23:3). These passages tell us that the Sabbath is holy to the Lord. Sabbath is a holy day; a holy convocation and God hallowed it and we are enjoined to keep the Sabbath holy.
Keeping the Sabbath holy means setting it apart from ordinary use. It is to be devoted to the Lord. It is for the sacred use of worship and to serve God. The Sabbath Day is, therefore, not a common day, but a sacred and holy rest unto the Lord.
In the Old Testament temple worship, the tables and utensils were called ‘holy’ because they were to be devoted exclusively to sacred use. They could not be used for other purposes but only for the worship of God. In the same way, when the word of God says that we are to remember to keep the Sabbath holy, it means that the Sabbath Day is exclusively for sacred use. The Sabbath Day is only for spiritual use. It is the holy day of the Lord. God has staked His claim upon it. It belongs to Him. We are therefore required to deliberately set the Sabbath Day aside for spiritual use.
If the Sabbath Day belongs to the Lord, we have to keep the Sabbath in the way He wants us to keep it. We should not keep it in any way other than the way prescribed by the Lord Himself. We have to keep the whole day holy unto the Lord. Not just the morning worship service only, but the entire day is the Lord’s! Let us ask ourselves honestly, what do we do after the morning worship service? If we are not found in the House of the Lord the second time, what do we do to keep the Lord’s Day holy?
The Sabbath is a day of rest. First, the word “Sabbath” means “rest.” Second, God called Israel’s weekly Sabbath “the Sabbath of rest” (Ex. 31:15, 35:2; Lev. 23:3; see also Ex. 16:23). Third, God’s law prescribes that on the Sabbath Day, we rest from our ordinary daily labours (Ex. 20:10; Deut. 5:14).
However, Sabbath as a day of rest is not to be understood as a day of idleness and minimal physical exertion as the Pharisees conceived and manipulated it to be. The Pharisees had all kinds of man-made rules and traditions to enforce the day of rest and those were not pleasing to God.
We are to keep the Sabbath Day as a day of rest by patterning it after God’s rest. In the Creation account in Gen 2:2-3, we notice that God created all things in six days and on the seventh day He ceased from His work of creation and enjoyed the works of His hands. This is the Lord’s Sabbath or Rest. Just like God ceasing from His work of creation and enjoying the works of His hands, we are to cease from our daily labours and enter into His rest. We enter into God’s rest by enjoying His wonderful work in Christ. We enjoy His work of salvation in saving His people from sin and destruction. We enjoy by worshipping God in the hearing of His Word and in the use of the sacraments. In this way we are spiritually strengthened and refreshed.
We are to keep the Sabbath Day by patterning after how our Lord Jesus kept the Sabbath. Our Lord Jesus frequented the Synagogues and preached the Word. He was also always doing good to the distressed, healing them and destroying the power of the Devil on the Sabbath Day. This is evident in many passages in the New Testatment (Matt 12:9, 13:54; Mar 1:21, 6:2; Luk 4:16, 4:31, 13:10; Jn 8:59, 18:20). Our Lord Jesus performed many works of mercy on the Sabbath Day. He healed the man with an unclean spirit in Mar 1:23; He healed Peter’s mother-in-law in Mark 1:31; He healed a man with a withered hand in Mar 3:1; He healed a woman with a spirit of infirmity in Luk 13:12; in John 5, He healed the lame man on the Sabbath Day. When the Pharisees objected, Jesus said in verse 17 “My Father worketh hitherto and I work”. Let us emulate our Lord Jesus by frequenting the Church and doing works of mercy on the Lord’s Day.
Negatively, the 4th Commandment gives us clear instructions of what we are not to do on the Sabbath Day. The Lord has given us six full days to do all our labours and enjoy our pleasures. We are therefore to plan all our activities, including our leisure activities, during these six days. However, on the Sabbath Day, we are not to do any work. The purpose for the command not to work is not for one to remain idle. The reason for commanding not to work is so that we can enjoy our spiritual rest. When the Israelite worked on the Sabbath in Num 15:32, he was later stoned to death. The sin was not that he picked up sticks on Sabbath Day, but that by doing so he was despising the spiritual rest of God i.e. the Rest that Christ purchased for His people at the cross. This man revealed himself to be an ungodly man and he deserved the death penalty.
Notice here that in the 4th Commandment God addresses the head of the home, the husband and the father, “in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter…” The father is responsible for the obedience of his house. The wife is not mentioned, because she is supposed to be one with the husband. And if the husband sanctifies the Sabbath, it is taken for granted that she will do likewise. The father is to rest with his family. It is his duty to see to it that his family sets aside all the ordinary work that they do in the week and devote the Sabbath Day to the Lord. It is his duty to see that not only the working adults put aside all ordinary work and play on the Sabbath Day, but even his school-going children should also put away their ordinary work of study and homework in order to keep the Lord’s Day holy.
Keeping the Sabbath is not limited to his family. If he has employees and if he has cattle or an ox or an ass (likened to our businesses today), the head of the house has to make sure he does not require them to work. The 2nd giving of the Law in Deut 5:14, adds “that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou.” The master of the house should not require his servants to work just as he does not work on the Sabbath Day. His servants are to rest as well. He has to enforce it for his business as it is obvious that if the animals do not rest (in our case, if his businesses are opened), his servants will have to work on the Sabbath Day too!
Positively, we are to devote the Sabbath to the Lord. The Apostolic Church gathers on the first day of the week to worship: to hear the Word; to break bread; to pray and to lay aside gifts for the poor. This is what we should follow.
Specifically, we are to attend to the public worship. We are to attend Church to hear God’s word. We are to do this whole-heartedly and with joyful eagerness. We are to attend the worship service as often as the services are being held each Sunday. The Heidelberg Catechism, in the commentary on the 4th Commandment, speaks of diligently frequenting the church of God on the Sabbath Day. The question on your mind: Is attending one service is good enough? Well, it is true that the bible did not speak about attending two or more services on the Lord’s Day. It is silent on it. However, we do know that it is a Reformed tradition to attend two services. This is a good practice since the whole day belongs to the Lord and what better way to spend the day hearing God’s word than to spend our time at home, often being tempted to take a ‘deserved’ nap, do some secular work, or engage in some leisure pursuits. We should come together as often as we can to praise and worship Him, who deserves all our praises, by attending the worship service the second time. After all, the Lord’s Day is the Lord’s and we have been commanded to keep the whole day holy. It requires diligent effort on our part to come to the 2nd Service. This is especially true since it is not our practice, nor our habit, to attend two services. However, let us not use cultural difference as a reason for not attending the 2nd Service. Attending 2nd Service is not a matter of culture. Rather, it is a matter of the heart. I would like to encourage us to attend the 2nd Service and may we encourage one another to frequent the House of the Lord on the Sabbath Day.
On the Sabbath Day, there can be private worship. Our families can discuss the sermon on the Sabbath Day. Our families can also read, study the bible and sing together. Parents can use the Sabbath Day to teach their children Catechism and assist them in their Catechism homework.
Sabbath is a good day for meaningful Christian fellowship with one another. It is a good time for us to encourage one another in the Lord. It is good to invite each other over for dinner fellowship. We can spend the Sabbath Day meaningfully by praying, reading the scriptures, and reading books (good, solid theological books) and magazines that explain the scriptures. We can also visit lonely saints and bring comfort to the distressed.
Sabbath is a day for thinking holy thoughts. It is a good day to think spiritual thoughts especially after six days of much secular concerns. We can meditate on the truths of God’s word on the Sabbath Day. We can meditate on the wonder of God’s great love for us in Jesus Christ. We can meditate on the Christ and our redemption, the glory of God and His love for the Church. There is so much to do on the Sabbath Day that the day seems all too short to do all these.
Our Eternal Rest
Finally, the sharing is incomplete if we do not talk about the eternal rest that we as people of God are looking forward to.
The Sabbath we keep here on earth is a foretaste of the eternal rest! It is an emblem of the eternal rest that God promises. Hebrews 4:9 tells us of “a rest remaining for us”. There is still a rest remaining for us as we are yet to enter into the eternal Sabbath, our eternal rest where we will enjoy the presence of God. The weekly Sabbath we keep here points to that eternal Sabbath with the Lord. When our Lord Jesus shall come again, our weekly Sabbath here will end and we shall enjoy the eternal Sabbath with God. This is what the bible says in Rev 21:3. It will be the culmination of all things, where our eternal Sabbath begins, though it has already begun in principle while we are here on earth. We shall dwell with our covenant God forever in heaven and have covenant fellowship with Him forever and ever.
Beloved people of God, think of the eternal Sabbath wherewith we will enjoy God’s everlasting presence. If we do not desire the weekly Sabbath we have on earth, if we do not desire to keep the weekly Sabbath holy, how can we really enjoy the eternal Sabbath that awaits us? May God help us, and give us the grace to really desire to keep His Sabbath Rest diligently.
I would like to quote these verses by way of conclusion. May we find it a great joy and privilege to come to the House of God for worship. May we have an earnest longing for the House of God. If ‘a day in thy courts is better than a thousand’, than coming for 2nd Service should indeed be our great joy and longing.
Ps 122: 1 I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go up into the house of the Lord!
Psa 84:1 How amiable (lovely) are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts!
Psa 84:2 My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God.
Psa 84:10 For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness. AMEN.
Remembering the Lord’s Day by Prof David J. Engelsma
Call the Sabbath a Delight by Walter Chantry
Written by: Elder Wee Gim Theng | Issue 6