Remember the Sabbath

Remember the Sabbath

The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11)

There are plenty of ceremonial laws that were not inherently right or wrong in and of themselves. They were temporary laws meant for a specific people in a specific time and place. An example would be how certain food was forbidden under the Mosaic dietary laws, but are now permitted (1 Cor. 10:31; 1 Tim. 4:3-5). Ceremonial laws have been fulfilled, moral laws are permanently binding on all people. A summary of the moral law is contained in the Ten Commandments.

Although they will not say it so plainly, most Christians would agree with the following statement: “I believe in all nine of the ten commandments”. Guess which one most people have trouble accepting today? The fourth commandment is the one commandment that we try to avoid talking about at all costs. Either we feel too much conviction about it or we don’t feel enough conviction, and we would like to keep it that way. Due to the significant amount of confusion regarding the fourth commandment we will likely spend three weeks dealing with it.

This week we will look at the origin of the Sabbath commandment leading up to and including our passage. We will go all the way back to the account of creation in Genesis and trace some important passages leading up to the observance of the Sabbath as described in Exodus 20:8-11. 

Next week I hope to focus on the purpose of the commandment. This is the first commandment that is worded in a positive way, but we still tend to treat it in the negative. We focus upon all of the things we cannot do. And that is certainly part of the commandment itself. But whenever we downplay the positive side of this command, we lose sight of its primary purpose. 

Finally, we will close out by focusing on the several New Testament passages that address the Sabbath. That is when we will consider questions about why we worship on Sunday rather than Saturday, what aspects of Sabbath worship are still binding today, and possibly some practical steps for observing the Christian Sabbath in our modern context.

Read Exodus 20:8-11

  1. The Origin of the Sabbath
  2. The Observance of the Sabbath

The Origin of the Sabbath (Genesis 2:1-3)

We need to focus upon the origin of the Sabbath because that is the reason mentioned in verse 11. We are to rest after the manner in which God rested from his work of creation. It is important to note that God’s rest was not inactivity, but the cessation of his creative activities. We see this in Jesus’ statement that “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17). So there is a sense in which the Father is both resting and working. He is resting from His creative activity and engaging in the ongoing work of preserving His covenant people.

God rested for at least three reasons:

  1. His work as Creator was complete.
  2. To express His delight in His creation (cf. Gen. 1:31; Exod. 31:17). Not weary from creation, but joyful contemplation of its beauty and perfection.
  3. God pictured the rest that He would provide for man (Heb. 4:1-10).

If God’s rest on the seventh day serves as a model for our sabbath rest, then it should involve cessation from our labors on the other six days. God’s final creative act was to sanctify the seventh day. He set it apart from the rest of the week. God’s example of rest has a morally-binding force as soon as he “sanctified” it. He set the day apart for a unique purpose in relation to the other six days.

In 1 Kings 7 Solomon builds a palace for himself. A few chapters later he builds a house for the Lord, the Temple. What made the temple special compared to Solomon’s house? The fact that God sanctified the temple, made it more special than any other building. And, in sanctifying it, he gave it a purpose unique to all other structures.

Last week we considered the idea of profaning God’s name. It is treating His holy name as if it were common. Likewise, we profane His holy day when we treat it as common. On the other hand, when we remember the Sabbath day we receive the blessings associated with undistracted communion with the Lord. By blessing the day it becomes God’s vehicle for blessing mankind.

The fact that the Sabbath is a creation ordinance implies perpetuity. It belongs to the same category into which marriage and work fit. These ordinances will continue until they are consummated in glory. Since the Sabbath is a creation ordinance violating it is on par with violating the institution of marriage or work. Apart from the Fall, the world requires three fundamental things: marriage, work, and Sabbath.

God made the Sabbath for Adam and Eve before the fall. If a perfect man in a perfect world needed the Sabbath, how much more do we? The greatest motivation to keep the Sabbath is to imitate God. 

John Murray We are never more like God than when we keep the Sabbath day.”1

Why don’t we continue to honor the seventh day? Certain moral laws have ceremonial elements attached to them. The day changed, but the moral obligation to observe the day remained the same. The Sabbath was honored on Saturday until Christ’s resurrection when it shifted to Sunday as the Christian Sabbath (WCF 21.7).

But God didn’t command Adam and Eve to honor the Sabbath! Neither did He command marriage, but we agree that he established it as a creation ordinance (Matthew 19:4-6; Genesis 2:24). He did not forbid murder, but Cain knew it was wrong because it was written on his conscience. 

Maybe you have heard your parents say, “As long as you are living under my roof, you must follow my rules.” That is equally applicable to the Sabbath. As long as we are living in the Lord’s world, we must observe the rules he has established. 

Some argue that Jesus fulfilled the fourth commandment so that we no longer have to observe it. But, do we think like that regarding any of the other commandments? Jesus Christ fulfilled all of the Ten Commandments perfectly. And He did so on behalf of all who place their faith in Him. This is a glorious truth that we must keep in mind as we learn about the implications of each commandment. 

But Christ’s fulfillment never negates the Christian’s duty to obey them. We don’t have permission to murder now that Christ fulfilled the sixth commandment. We don’t have permission to steal because Christ perfectly fulfilled the eighth commandment. No, in fact, it is because of Christ’s fulfillment that we can have confidence in our ability to observe the commandments—however imperfectly in this life—through our union with Christ, by the help of the Holy Spirit.

The first question regarding this commandment that we need to ask ourselves is: Do we treat Sunday any different than Monday-Saturday? How are you honoring the whole day that the Lord has sanctified? We will continue to define what that looks like in a moment, but take some time to reflect whether or not Sunday is any different than the rest of the week.

There are also a few passages to consider before we get to Sinai…

The Observance of the Sabbath (Genesis 4:3-4; Exodus 16:1-30; 20:8-11)

Some have argued that Scripture is silent between the creation account and Exodus 20. This is important to consider. If the patriarchs honored the Sabbath then we have further evidence that it is a creation ordinance.

We don’t have record of everything the Lord told Adam and Eve so there may have been direct instruction regarding how to remember the Sabbath. Abraham gave Melchizedek a tithe prior to any formal commandment is recorded. There is no instruction regarding sacrifices, yet we see Cain and Abel offering them. Moses did not write a history of marriage, work, or Sabbath observance, but they were all creation ordinances that appear to have been practiced according to God’s moral law. 

A.W. Pink No less than twenty-five hundred years of human history are covered by those first sixty-eight chapters of the Bible. Thus it is evident at once that the Holy Spirit has seen fit to give us little more than a fragmentary account of what transpired during the infancy of our race.

In Genesis 4:3-4, we learn that Cain and Abel each brought offerings to the Lord. Cain brought a fruit offering, while Abel brought “the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions.” They did this “in the course of time” which, in the Hebrew, is literally “at the end of days.” In light of Moses’ use of the same word “day” (yom) in the opening chapters of Genesis, the best interpretation might actually be “at the end of the week.” If that is true, then it means that we have the example of Cain and Abel offering sacrifices on a sacred day of worship. So the first principle we learn regarding Sabbath observance is special worship.

Another important passage to consider is Exodus 16:22-30. Israel was aware of Sabbath laws before they received the Ten Commandments. When God established the rules for collecting manna he instructed them to gather twice as much on the sixth day so that they could have enough left over to eat on the seventh day. This instruction was given so that they could observe “a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord.”

The purpose of this instruction was for moral testing of the people (Exodus 16:4). The Lord’s rebuke for those who broke the Sabbath rule indicates a long-standing pattern (Exodus 16:28).

What do we learn about Sabbath observance from this passage? The Sabbath is “given” (Exodus 16:29) to man. Both the day and the manna were gifts from God. This implies that we should refrain from ordinary work on the Sabbath. The day belongs to the Lord (Exodus 16:23). The sixth day is a day of preparation for the worship and rest that will be enjoyed on the seventh day.

Four General Principles in the Fourth Commandment:

  • Two Positive
    1. Remember the Sabbath Day – “Remember” implies prior knowledge, not forgetting, as well as observing and celebrating (Anniversary; Deut. 5:12). Devoting the time requires that we keep our schedule free from other arrangements. The entire day is “booked” for the Lord.
    2. Keep it Holy – Set apart. Not common. Whether the context is private, family, or public, it should have a holy purpose.
  • Two Negative
    1. Do Not Do Any Work – Not inactivity (cf. Gen. 2:1-3). Keeping the Sabbath holy is not defined by sleep. Worship and service for God will involve energy (possibly even more than our secular work requires), and may even require a nap!
    2. Do Not Employ Others – Specifically, we are not to require work of our “sons and daughters…” Parents, set an example, teach, and help their children honor the Lord’s Day. We are also forbidden from causing our “…servants and animals…” to work. In an agrarian society, animals were used for work. The animals needed rest. Lastly, we should not employ the “sojourner”, those outside the Church. The commandment has universal application. Examples: Unnecessary Shopping, Dining Out, Paid Recreation (TV? Vacation?).

Chantry, “It is important that, before you face the dazzling complexities of supposed difficult cases, you ponder the simplicity and practicality of this law.”2


When the rich young ruler asks Jesus what he must do to have eternal life, Jesus teaches us that the Ten Commandments are morally binding (Matt. 19:18, 19). That means we cannot disregard the fourth commandment any more than we would disregard the other nine. 

However, we should also recognize that our obedience to the fourth commandment will always be imperfect in this life. It will always be tainted by impure motives and easy distractions. 

We need a Savior who satisfied the righteous requirements of the law. We need a Savior who observed the fourth commandment, and all of God’s moral law, without a moment of compromise. When we fail to live up to the standard set before us in this commandment, we don’t excuse it or minimize its importance, rather we confess our sin and we rest in the forgiveness that is found in Christ alone.

Now, in the midst of a restless and chaotic world, we need to be able to set apart a day to focus our minds and hearts upon God. Let us find the rest we so desperately need on this Lord’s Day.

  1. John Murray, Principles of Conduct, 34 ↩︎
  2. Walter Chantry, Call the Sabbath a Delight, 23. ↩︎