Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On if you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates, for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (
A few years ago a friend telephoned with an urgent request. "Phil," he said, "I'm calling to ask a favor. I need the most precious thing you have."
Can you guess what he needed?
He was asking for my time, of course. As the pastor of a large church - not to mention the father of a growing family - few things are more precious to me than my time. I need time to work, time to worship, time to rest, and time to play. I need time to spend with the Lord. I need time to prepare sermons and meet with people. I also need time to love my family. It all takes time, and there never seems to be quite enough.
Many people have the same frustration. We often feel rushed. We never seem to have time for work and leisure, for family and ministry. So we complain, "If only I had one extra day this week; then I could get all my work done." Or we say, "You know, I could really use some time off." Or, "If only I had more time to study the Bible and serve the Lord." Thus, we grumble about being overtired and overworked. It is all part of the frustration of living as finite creatures in a fallen world.
Out of His great mercy, God has provided a remedy: one whole day out of seven to rest in His grace. He has given us a rhythm of work and rest, with six days for labor and one day for leisure. And He grants us our leisure specifically for the purpose of His praise. The Sabbath is a day for worship, a day for mercy, and a day for rest.
Keeping the Sabbath holy may not seem very productive. In fact, sometimes it keeps people away from Christ. They would rather do something else - anything else - than go to church on Sunday.
When billionaire Bill Gates was asked why he didn't believe in God, he said, "Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There's a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning." 1
Remembering the Sabbath
Devoting a whole day to God may not seem very efficient, but it must be important, because God has commanded it:
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (
This is the longest commandment, and it comes in three parts. Verse 8 tells us what to do, verses 9 and 10 specify how we are to do it, and verse 11 explains why.
What God wants us to do is to "remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy" (Exodus 20:8). The word remember has a double meaning. For the Israelites, it was a reminder that they had heard about the Sabbath before. On their journey to Mount Sinai, God provided manna six days out of seven. The seventh day was meant to be "a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD" (
This was something they needed to remember not just once, but every week. It is something we need to remember, too, so the fourth commandment calls us to a weekly remembrance of the Sabbath. We are prone to forget. We forget the great work of God in creation and redemption. And when we forget, we fail to praise Him for making us and saving us. But the fourth commandment is a reminder. It is God's memorandum to His people, reminding us to give Him glory for His grace.
Remembering involves more than our memories. It demands the total engagement of our whole person in the service of God. Remembering the Sabbath is like remembering your anniversary. It is not enough to say "Oh, yes, I remember: It's our anniversary." It takes dinner and flowers - maybe even jewelry - and a romantic evening for two. In much the same way, remembering the Sabbath means using the day to show our love for God in a special way. It means "keeping it holy." Literally, we are to "sanctify it," to set it apart for sacred use.
Keeping the Sabbath Wholly
How are we to do this? The fourth commandment gives explicit instructions for keeping the Sabbath holy. God begins by telling us what He wants us to do with the rest of our week: "Six days you shall labor and do all your work" (
People generally have a negative attitude about work. Work is treated as a necessary evil. In fact, it is sometimes thought that work is the result of sin. In a column for TIME magazine, Lance Morrow claimed that "When God foreclosed on Eden, he condemned Adam and Eve to go to work. From the beginning, the Lord's word said that work was something bad: a punishment, the great stone of mortality and toil laid upon a human spirit that might otherwise soar in the infinite, weightless playfulness of grace." 2 This is false. Work is a divine gift that goes back before the Fall, when "The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it" (
According to the Puritan Thomas Watson, having six days to work is a divine concession, and thus a sign of God's favor. God would have been well within His rights to make every day a Sabbath. Instead, He has given us six days to do all our work. Watson thus imagined God saying, "I am not a hard master, I do not grudge thee time to look after thy calling, and to get an estate. I have given thee six days, to do all thy work in, and have taken but one day for myself. I might have reserved six days for myself, and allowed thee but one; but I have given thee six days for the works of thy calling, and have taken but one day for my own service. It is just and rational, therefore, that thou shouldest set this day in a special manner apart for my worship." 3
Watson was right: six days are for work, but the seventh day is for worship. How do we keep the fourth commandment? By worshiping the Lord on His day. To "keep something holy" in the biblical sense is to dedicate it exclusively for worship. Whereas the other six days of the week are for us and our work, the Sabbath is for God and His worship. This is the positive aspect of the fourth commandment, as emphasized in verse 10: "the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God" (
To keep a Sabbath "to the Lord" is to give the day over to God, setting it apart for Him and His glory (which, remember, was the whole point of the exodus). The book of Leviticus calls the Sabbath "a day of sacred assembly" (
We meet with God by prayer and the ministry of the Word. We meet Him by singing His praises and presenting Him our offerings. We meet Him by celebrating the sacraments and sharing Christian fellowship. The result, according to Watson, is that "The heart, which all the week was frozen, on the Sabbath melts with the word." 7
The Sabbath is not only a day for worship, but also a day of rest. It is a day for ceasing from work, and especially from common labor. Here we need to notice that the fourth commandment is stated both positively and negatively. It is the only commandment to do this explicitly. The positive requirement comes first: "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy" (
The word Sabbath comes from the Hebrew word meaning "to cease or to rest." It is not a day for "business as usual." It is a day for relaxation and recuperation. It is a day to step back from life's ordinary routines in order to rediscover God's goodness and grace. To quote again from Thomas Watson, "To do servile work on the Sabbath shows an irreligious heart, and greatly offends God. To do secular work on this day is to follow the devil's plough; it is to debase the soul. God made this day on purpose to raise the heart to heaven, to converse with Him, to do angels' work; and to be employed in earthly work is to degrade the soul of its honour." 8
To see how strict this command was under the law of Moses, consider the man who gathered wood on the Sabbath (
This rest was for everyone to enjoy: "On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates" (
What are we commanded to do? To keep the Sabbath holy. How do we do this? By working six days and then by dedicating a day to the Lord for worship and rest. This is summarized in Leviticus: "There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the LORD" (
God's Work, God's Rest
The reason for this commandment is very simple. We are called to work and rest because we serve a working, resting God. Why should we remember the Sabbath? Because "in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy" (
There are many additional reasons for keeping the Lord's Day holy. It promotes the worship of God. It restores us, both spiritually and physically, so it is for our benefit. As Jesus said, "The Sabbath was made for man" (
We serve a working God, who has been at work from the beginning. The Scripture says that "By the seventh day God had finished the work He had been doing" (
We also serve a resting God. Once His creative work was done, God took His divine leisure. The Scripture says that "on the seventh day He rested from all His work" (
There is one further reason for keeping a day of rest. Although it is not mentioned here in Exodus, it is mentioned in Deuteronomy, where the Ten Commandments are repeated. There the first part of the commandment is virtually identical (
There is no contradiction here. The Sabbath looked back not only to creation, but also to redemption. It reminded God's people that they had been delivered from slavery in Egypt. One of the benefits of their rescue was that now they didn't have to work all the time. Back in Egypt they had to work seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, without ever getting a vacation. But now they were set free. The Sabbath was not a form of bondage to them, but a day of freedom. It was a day to celebrate their liberation by giving glory to God.
Business as Usual
Sadly, the Israelites often forgot to remember the Sabbath. And when they did, they inevitably fell back into spiritual bondage. There is a story about this in the book of Nehemiah - the story of the governor and the salesmen.
God's people had returned from their captivity in Babylon to rebuild the city of Jerusalem. Under Nehemiah's leadership, the whole community was restored. They rebuilt the city walls. They reestablished their homes. They started gathering again for public worship, to read the law and keep the feasts. They repented of their sins and promised to keep covenant with God. They reestablished the priesthood. The Levites were serving, the choirs were singing, and God was blessing the city in every way. Then the governor went back to Babylon. When Nehemiah returned, he found that the Israelites were failing to keep God's covenant. In particular, they were breaking the Sabbath by using it as a day to conduct commerce. They had promised, "When the neighboring peoples bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on any holy day" (
In those days I saw men in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys, together with wine, grapes, figs and all other kinds of loads. And they were bringing all this into Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Therefore I warned them against selling food on that day. Men from Tyre who lived in Jerusalem were bringing in fish and all kinds of merchandise and selling them in Jerusalem on the Sabbath to the people of Judah (
These businessmen were not residents of Jerusalem. They were traveling salesmen. To them, one day was no different from the next, so they assumed that the Sabbath was a day for business as usual. This proved to be a source of temptation for the people of God. Many of the people in Jerusalem were genuine believers. They attended public worship. They supported God's work with their tithes and offerings. They knew God's law, including all ten of the commandments (see
Nehemiah needed to take strong action. First he spoke out against their sin: "I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, 'What is this wicked thing you are doing - desecrating the Sabbath day? Didn't your forefathers do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity upon us and upon this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath' " (
Nehemiah did more than preach, however. The governor also enforced public laws for keeping the Sabbath special: "When evening shadows fell on the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I ordered the doors to be shut and not opened until the Sabbath was over. I stationed some of my own men at the gates so that no load could be brought in on the Sabbath day" (
We need to be careful how we follow Nehemiah's example. God is not calling us to establish the Sabbath by force. However, there is a principle here that we can apply. In order to preserve a day of worship and rest, we need to bar the gates against the clamor of our culture. Otherwise, we will end up mixing the business of this world with the pleasure of spending time with God.
What does the fourth commandment mean for the Christian? Like the Israelites, we are made in the image of a working, resting God. We still need to work, we still need our rest, and we can still receive the creation blessing of God's holy day.
What has changed is that we have received a new and greater deliverance. We no longer look back to the old exodus for our salvation; we look to Jesus Christ, who accomplished a greater exodus by dying for our sins and rising again. Jesus is the fulfillment of the fourth commandment, as He is of all the rest. The Old Testament Sabbath pointed to the full and final rest that can only be found in Him.
Jesus gives a whole new meaning to work, and a whole new meaning to rest. He came into the world to finish the work of His Father (
Christ's saving work has transformed the weekly Sabbath. It is no longer the seventh day of the week, but the first. And it is no longer called the Sabbath, but the Lord's Day. This is because the apostles observed their day of worship and rest on the day that Jesus rose from the dead (
Keeping the Lord's Day holy preserves the Sabbath principle of resting one whole day out of seven. Although the specific day was provisional - a sign of Israel's coming salvation - the commandment is perpetual. Like the rest of the Ten Commandments, it was written in stone. We have drawn a distinction between three types of law: the moral, the civil, and the ceremonial. The Old Testament teaching on the Sabbath included aspects of all three. As a nation Israel executed strict civil penalties for Sabbath - breaking. Since these are no longer in effect, to a certain extent the fourth commandment has been made less strict, less severe. There was also a ceremonial aspect to the Sabbath. The rest it provided was a sign pointing to salvation, and its observance on the seventh day was part of the whole Old Testament system that found its fulfillment in Christ (see
The way to avoid all this legalism is to remember that the Lord's Day is for celebrating the freedom that we have in Christ. Jesus said, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (
Keeping the Lord's Day holy begins with working hard the rest of the week. In America we usually work at our play and play at our work, but God has given us six days for the ordinary business of life, and we are called to use them for His glory. Christians ought to be the most faithful and diligent workers. Our industry is an important part of our piety, while sloth is a very great sin. To waste our time is to squander one of the most precious resources that God has given us.
The duty to work is for everyone, not just for people who get paid. It is for housewives, for retired people, for the disabled and the unemployed - all of us are called to do something useful with our time. Even if we don't need to earn an income, we need to glorify God in whatever work we do. Today many Americans assume that they will work for the sixty years of their lives, and then take the rest of their lives off. That's not the biblical view of work and leisure, because the Bible calls all of us to maintain the rhythm of work and rest that is essential to our humanity.
The work week begins with the Lord's Day. This is not a day for inactivity, but a day for worship, mercy, and rest. One of the best summaries of how to keep the day holy comes from the Westminster Confession of Faith: "This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs before-hand, do not only observe an holy rest, all the day, from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy" (XXI.8). The choice of the word recreation is unfortunate, because one purpose of the Lord's Day is to refresh us in the joy of our Creator. It is a day to "catch our breath," which can include God-centered recreation. But the Confession is right that this is not a day for worldly recreations.
The Lord's Day is for worship. It is a day for attending corporate worship, for enjoying fellowship with the people of God, for catching up on our spiritual reading, and for spending the whole day in ways that really make it the Lord's Day. In order to worship well, we need to be prepared. Thus keeping the Lord's Day holy also means getting ready the night before. Thomas Watson wrote, "When Saturday evening approaches, sound a retreat; call your minds off from the world and summon your thoughts together, to think of the great work of the approaching day.... Evening preparation will be like the tuning of an instrument, it will fit the heart better for the duties of the ensuing Sabbath." 12
The Lord's Day is for mercy. This was one of the things the Pharisees failed to understand. Some rabbis maintained "that if a wall fell on top of someone on the Sabbath, only enough rubble could be removed to find out how badly the person was injured. If he was not injured too badly, then he must be left until the Sabbath ended, when the rescue could be completed." 13 But Jesus said it was a day for mercy, which is why He performed so many miracles on the Sabbath. He was not violating the fourth commandment - as the Pharisees thought - but fulfilling its true purpose. We follow His example whenever we use the Lord's Day to welcome the stranger, feed the poor, or visit the sick.
Finally, the Lord's Day is for rest, for stopping from our labor. The fourth commandment teaches us to have a leisure ethic as well as a work ethic." The businessman should rest from his business, the housewife from her housework, the student from his studies. Of course, Christians have always recognized that some work is necessary. Workers that provide medical care or preserve public safety need to do their jobs, as do ministers and various workers in the church. There are also some basic daily chores need to be done. But this is a day to close the calendar, go off the clock, and put away the "to do" list. It is a day to step out of the frenzy, stop buying and selling, and quit worrying about the profit margin. In a culture that increasingly treats Sunday like any other day of the week, thereby turning what is sacred into something secular, we need to resist the tendency to let our work enslave us. Keeping the Lord's Day holy is the biblical answer to workaholism. 14
At this point many Christians still want to know what they can and cannot do on the Sabbath. Can I watch TV? Can I play frisbee? Can I go to a restaurant? Can I catch a flight back home? Can I play Monopoly, or do I have to stick to Bible trivia games? The danger in making universal applications is that we are prone to Pharisaism, so it is easy for us to slip back into legalism. In keeping the fourth commandment there is room for Christian freedom, the wise exercise of godly judgment. For example, even the Puritans recognized that there were times when it might be appropriate or even necessary to dine at a public inn. 15
However, when we start asking these kinds of questions, it is usually because we want to know what we can get away with. We want to know how far we can go without actually breaking the fourth commandment. But if we are looking for a loophole in the Lord's Day, then we are missing the whole point of the fourth commandment, God is calling us away from our own business to transact the most important business of all, which is to glorify Him in our worship. And when we try to make as much room as we can for our own pleasures, then we miss the greatest pleasure of all, which is fellowship with the living God.
Our problem is that we find it so hard to take genuine delight in the sanctified pleasures of God. Dare I say it? God bores us. We are willing to spend some of our time worshiping Him, but then we feel like we need a break, and so we go right back to the world's lesser pleasures. But the more we learn to delight in God, the more willing we are to keep His day holy. And then we discover that we are able to answer the questions that once seemed so vexing: Can I take a job that will require me to work on Sundays? Is it okay for me to catch up on my work? Should we let our kids play Little League on Sunday? Is it a good day for watching commercials? Most of the practical applications are easy when we want to honor the Lord on His day. The strain and struggle come when we want to use it to do our own thing.
Dr. Robert Rayburn once told the story of a man who was approached by a beggar on the street. 16 The man reached into his pocket to see what he had. Finding seven dollars and feeling somewhat sorry for the beggar, he held out six bills and said, "Here you go." Not only did the beggar take the six dollars, but with his other hand he struck his benefactor across the face and grabbed the seventh dollar, too. What do you think of the beggar? Don't you think he was a scoundrel? Then what do you think of a sinner, saved by the grace of Jesus Christ, who insists on taking seven days a week - or even six and a half - for himself?
Remember the Lord's Day by keeping it holy.
1 Bill Gates, quoted by Walter Isaacson, "In Search of the Real Bill Gates," TIME (January 13, 1997)7.
2 Lance Morrow, quoted in Mark E. Dever, "The Call to Work and Worship," Regeneration Quarterly (Spring, 1996),5.
3 Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments (1890; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965),93.
4 Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the book of Exodus, trans. By Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1967),244.
5 See James T. Dennison, Jr. The Market Day of the Soul: The Puritan Doctrine of the Sabbath in England, 1532-1700 (New York: University press of America, 1983).
6 Watson, 97.
7 Watson, 95.
8 Watson, 99.
9 Leland Ryken, Redeeming the Time: A Christian Approach to Work and Leisure (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2995), 178.
10 Ignatius, Letters to the Magnesians, quoted in Douma, 139.
11 Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970),319.
12 Watson, 101.
13 David C. Searle, And Then There Were Nine (Fearn, Ross-Shire: Christian Focus, 2000), 67.
14 The best book on this subject is Leland Ryken's Redeeming the Time, previously cited.
15 See Dennison, 94.
16 Roberts G. Rayburn, "Should Christians observe the Sabbath?", quoted in a sermon by George W. Robertson at Covenant Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Missouri.
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