The Purpose of the Sabbath

The Purpose of the Sabbath

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

The first four commandments reflect our instruction to love God. Commandments five through ten reflect our instruction to love our neighbor. There is only One true God and He is worthy to be worshiped in the way that He has revealed. We are to honor Him in thought, word, and deed. This final commandment in the first section that deals with our love for God meets the greatest amount of resistance, but it really follows in line with the first three. I like how Jonathan Edwards puts it:

It is the very design of the command to fix the time of worship. The first command fixes the object, the second the means, the third the manner, the fourth, the time.

Disagreements over this topic are inevitable, but they should not disrupt our fellowship. Much of the discussion surrounding the Christian Sabbath are secondary matters. We can take a firm stance on this commandment and still allow room for brothers and sisters to disagree on matters of conscience. 

In fact, there have been significant differences among reformed Christians throughout history. The Second Helvetic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Catechisms all have different interpretations regarding the Sabbath. The Westminster provides the most detail and therefore it is prone to receiving the greatest amount of pushback. 

However, none of that implies that we can ignore the issue altogether. It is a subject of tremendous import to God. “Sabbath” is mentioned in at least 159 verses of the Old Testament. Considering this is a subject we often feel free to neglect, Dr. John Gerstner would simply read those passages out loud to his students. By the end of class, no one could say it is an insignificant topic.

I have likened my studying the Lord’s Day to Josiah finding “the book of the law” and repenting, followed by eagerly reforming worship in Judah (2 Kings 22:8-23:27). He tore down the idols and restored the Passover. What are the idols associated with Sabbath-breaking in our day? How might we restore Sabbath-keeping? How do we ensure that the Sabbath remains a priority weeks, months, and years from now (long after spending three sermons discussing it)?

Review: The Origin and Observance of the Sabbath

Last week we considered the origin and observance of the Sabbath. In Genesis 2:1-3, on the seventh day, we learn that God rested from his creative work the previous six days. If the Sabbath is a creation ordinance then it is on par with work and marriage. These were some of the few instructions given prior to the fall. 

This instruction seems to have been passed on and practiced by the patriarchs. It seems likely that Cain and Abel offered their sacrifices at the end of the week, on the seventh day. This would imply that the day already had a component of worship attached to it. The Sabbath was explicitly mentioned in Exodus 16 and reflected in the details regarding the collection of manna. When the Israelites rebelled against the Lord and broke the Sabbath command by going out to gather manna, the Lord said, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws?” (Exodus 16:28). The implication in the language is that this was one of their repeated failures.

Then we considered the four general principles we learn from the Fourth Commandment. I want to reiterate them and remind you to recognize the simplicity of the commandment. It is not a complicated command, but we contort ourselves in all kinds of positions in order to talk ourselves out of taking it seriously.

The Sabbath commandment has two positive and two negative principles:

  1. Remember the Sabbath Day – Implies prior knowledge, not forgetting, observing, and celebrating.
  2. Keep it Holy – Set apart. Not common. When the Lord declares something to be holy, who are we to make it common?
  3. Do Not Do Any Work – Not inactivity (cf. Gen. 2:1-3).
  4. Do Not Employ Others – The commandment has universal application. How can we pay someone to perform a task that would be sin for us to perform?

Today I want to consider the purpose of the commandment. Since we often find ourselves focused on all of the things we are not supposed to be doing, we can easily dismiss the positive purpose.

Read Isaiah 58:13-14

I. The Conditions of Keeping the Sabbath (v.13)

Although Isaiah’s ministry occurred before the Babylonian exile, his prophetic message paints a narrative of life before, during, and after that exile. This particular section reflects upon their return from exile. The Sabbath was just as important after exile as it was before. This is consistent with what we learn from Ezekiel and Nehemiah.

One of the primary reasons Israel was sent into exile was due to their idolatry and Sabbath-breaking. One of Ezekiel’s most powerful visions was of the glory of the Lord departing from the holy of holies, then the past the threshold and cherubim, outside of the temple and the city (Ezekiel 10). The Lord departed because of their repeated rebellion against Him. And that rebellion was described in terms of how they profaned the day that He had sanctified (Ezekiel 20:12-13).

Nehemiah is recorded much later after several waves of exiles had returned to Jerusalem (445 B.C.). But, although many had returned, the city and its walls were still broken down. Nehemiah along with Ezra lead the people in rebuilding the wall and reestablishing everything according to the law of God.

Deep moral and spiritual crisis exist even after returning from the exile. As Ezra expounded from the Book of the Law the people wept over their neglect of God’s Word. They specifically understand their need to obey the Sabbath commandment (Nehemiah 9:14). They Recommitment to honor the Sabbath day by not buying when foreigners come with their goods (Nehemiah 10:28-31). However, their promises were quickly forgotten. 

How did the people break the Sabbath? Working, but also selling (v.15) and buying (vv.16, 20). Nehemiah’s response was to shut the gates in order to prevent commerce altogether (vv.19-20). The Fourth Commandment was applicable to Gentile merchants even when Israel was a vassal state, under foreign rulers (Nehemiah 13:15-22). 

Isaiah lays out the conditions of Sabbath observance in negative and positive terms:

  • Negative: Turn away from your pleasure/business on the Sabbath (Isaiah 58:13). Continuing to do as you please will profane the holy day.
  • Positive: Honor and revere the day. “Call the Sabbath a delight!” How do I honor the day?
    1. Do not do your regular work (business, housework, homework, chores).
    2. Do not seek to mindlessly amuse yourself (TV, movies, sports). Pipa, “God is calling us to turn aside from lesser pleasures in order to seek the greater pleasures He has in store for us in the day.” Not inactivity, but meaningful activity. This includes teaching our children that there is greater enjoyment than entertainment.
    3. Do not have idle conversations (WSC Q.61).

Now, I know that getting into the details can feel so restrictive that it feels like it defeats the purpose. I don’t want us to lose sight of the blessing the Lord’s Day is meant to be for believers. 

We read Hebrews 4 earlier in the worship service. We stopped at verse 13 as it marks the end of the author’s discussion on Sabbath rest. What immediately follows the topic of rest is an appeal to consider Christ as our high priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses. He was tempted in every way that we are, yet without sin! It is only because of the perfect work of our Savior that we can fumble our way through life striving to enter the rest (Hebrews 4:11) that He alone is able to provide. 

We might conceive many profitable things to do on the Lord’s Day, but the PCA’s Directory of Worship provides a helpful summary of ideas:

“Let the time not used for public worship be spent in prayer, devotional reading, and especially in the study of the Scriptures, meditation, catechizing, religious conversation, singing of psalms, hymns, or spiritual songs, visiting the sick, relieving the poor, teaching the ignorant, holy resting, and in performing such like duties with piety, charity, and mercy.”

But why should our day look like that? Because there is great joy in honoring the day.

II. The Joy of Keeping the Sabbath (v.14)

Let us not forget the blessings attached to this commandment! The Puritans called the Lord’s Day “The Market Day of the Soul”. It is like going to the grocery store when you’re hungry. Everything looks so appetizing. You wind up getting far more than you intended. Sundays should be like that for the believer. It is the most appropriate day of the week for saints to feed their souls upon Christ and His word throughout the day. 

Joey Pipa When we grasp the privileges of the Sabbath as the market day of the soul, it will be your favorite day, better anticipated than Saturday, more joyful than your birthday, more restful than a vacation.

  1. “You will take delight” – Joyful communion w/ God. Not impatiently longing to be elsewhere, pouting about what we might miss… We should never be called “the chosen frozen”. Our worship can and should be both joyful and reverent (Psalm 4:7). Warnings and conviction of sin are necessary, but they should not remove joy. Help the children to focus on the delight of the day, not constantly scolding them.
  2. “I will make you ride on the heights of the earth” – Victory over our enemies (Isaiah 33:16).
  3. “I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father” – Enjoyment of the benefits of our salvation (Psalm 105:10-11). Sabbath or Lord’s Day worship is a celebration, a feast! No one feasts alone! We gather and enjoy corporate worship and fellowship.

During this time of chaos and unrest we ought to be delighted to find a command from God that has so much joy attached to observing it. Sabbath rest actually preserved Israelites from oppressive economic practices. It was greed that drove many to ignore the Sabbath. 

When we forsake our own pleasures on the Sabbath (v.13) we find a superior pleasure satisfied in God (v.14). Keeping Sabbath rest is about entering the joy of communion with God through Jesus Christ.

That pleasure is found in our communion with God and it will overflow onto our neighbors as well. The Sabbath has a direct relationship to Christ’s summary of the two greatest commands. Observing this command involves a love that will not remain internal, but it will extend in sacrificial service of others.

Even with the promise of great blessing, many bring up a list of…

III. The Objections to Keeping the Sabbath

Isn’t the covenant made between God and Israel (Exodus 31:12-18)? How can we say it applies to other nations? There are distinctions between the Civil, Ceremonial, and Moral laws. When the theocratic state of Israel ended, its judicial and ceremonial code ceased. There are also moral principles that can be extracted from the civil and ceremonial laws. WCF 19.4 speaks of the principle of “general equity”. They may have moral application based upon “general equity” (moral principles with universal application). 

Examples: The application of the fourth commandment will differ from Jewish ceremonial custom (we are not required to keep dairy and meat separate), but that is true of all the Ten Commandments.

Some have argued that the fourth commandment is ceremonial and therefore it has been fulfilled much like the sacrificial system. They argue that the Sabbath ultimately foreshadowed the spiritual rest and is therefore fulfilled by Christ. Jonathan Edwards points out that this interpretation abolishes the law rather than fulfilling it. 

  • Moral Aspects: It belongs to the universally applicable Ten Commandments (WLC Q.93, 98). The theological basis for the Fourth Commandment is the creation ordinance. It is a continuing sign of the covenant pointing us back to Christ’s resurrection and forward to His return.
  • Ceremonial Aspects: A covenant sign for Israel (vv.16-17) which included seventh-day worship, special Sabbaths, and feasts. All of the Ten Commandments have civil and ceremonial ramifications that passed away under the New Covenant. Since the civil law has passed away, the death penalty no longer applies to Sabbath-breakers today (Num. 15:32-36).

Our attitude towards the fourth commandment may reveal the state of our heart. How do you fight formalism (going through the motions) in worship? You prepare your heart for worship and anticipate to delight in singing, praying, sitting under the preaching, celebrating the Lord’s Supper, enjoying the fellowship of the saints.

What do you say to the person/child for whom the Lord’s Day is not a delight? Should we discourage them from honoring the day until they can do so cheerfully? Should we only give when we can be a cheerful giver (1 Cor. 9:7)? The conditions and the promise is bound together (Psalm 119:35). Faith and obedience feed into each other constantly (1 John 5:2-3).


Under the old covenant the Sabbath-breaker was to be executed (Numbers 15:32-36). Sounds harsh to kill a man for gathering sticks, but God’s command was quite clear. 

Campbell Now the law-breaker, instead of being stoned to death outside the camp, may come to Jesus, who suffered there for us.

Matthew 11:28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Have you come to Jesus? Only Jesus can satisfy the rest that you so desperately long for right now. Only in Christ are you set free from all of your burdens.