This commandment is probably the most controversial of them all:
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”
The Israelites had already been introduced to the concept of a weekly day of rest on their way to Mount Sinai. When God provided them with manna, it was for only six days out of seven. There was no point in searching for manna on the seventh day. “Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God.”
God gave the Israelites two reasons for keeping the Sabbath.
Firstly, the Sabbath has its origin in the very fabric of our world. “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.” (Exodus 20:11) God ‘rested’ one day in seven – and we, who are made in His image, need to do the same. Seven is the number of perfection: it suggests that without a day of rest, the week is incomplete. For every six days that we spend engaging with the world (‘labour’), we should therefore spend one day enjoying the world (which includes worshipping the One who made it).
Secondly, the Sabbath was a badge of freedom from slavery. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:15) Slaves didn’t get holidays; but now the Israelites had the freedom to choose not to work. In Israel, slaves and even animals were all entitled to a day of rest; the Israelites were not to exploit the weaker members of the community while enjoying rest themselves!
The purpose of the Sabbath
The fourth commandment is usually bracketed with the first three as comprising “man’s duty to God”. But this is to overlook the fact that originally the Sabbath was God’s gift to His people. (Exodus 16:29) Jesus had to remind the Pharisees of this fundamental point. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) So the Sabbath is for our benefit, not for God’s!Should keeping the Sabbath be thought of not as one aspect of Jesus’ ‘first’ commandment to love God but as part of the ‘second’ commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves?
The Sabbath was intended as a ‘sign’ – one of the things that made Israel distinct from other nations. (Ezekiel 20:12) This would have been especially obvious during the ‘Sabbatical year’ every seventh year, when no agricultural work was to be done at all and the land itself would have a chance to rest (Leviticus 25:1-7).
It was also a prophetic sign (Colossians 2:16,17); it pointed to the ‘rest’ that all believers will enjoy in Christ, a foretaste of life in the age to come (Hebrews 4:9,10). It was a regular reminder that our lives are ultimately not in our own hands, but God’s – and thus it is a rebuke to all ‘workaholics’, secular or spiritual (Psalm 127:1,2).
To keep the Sabbath is an act of faith in a God who will look after those who obey Him and put Him first. It requires us to ‘lose’ a day’s labour and income, to resist the pressures of commerce and the lure of overtime. It teaches us “to distinguish the important from the urgent, to realise that God has given us enough time to do what He calls us to do.” (Stanley Wells) Tithing of income is a similar principle; both time and money are limited resources that must be managed wisely. To set aside a part is to acknowledge God’s lordship over the whole. And since this requires a certain amount of preparation and forward planning, it teaches us to be self-disciplined in our use of what God has given us.
The abuse of the Sabbath
Needless to say, Israel was no better at observing the Sabbath than at keeping any of the other commandments! Under the Old Covenant, it was either neglected or abused; the prophets regularly had to remind the people not to work on the Sabbath (e.g. Jeremiah 17:19-27). Even when they kept it, it was often in totally the wrong spirit (Amos 8:4-7). And after the Exile, the Jews came under a great deal of pressure to conform to the seven-day week of the other nations around them (Nehemiah 13:15-22).
Nor is there any record in Scripture that the ‘Sabbatical year’ was ever observed in Israel. One of the reasons given for the Exile was so that the land could have the Sabbaths that it had ‘missed’ (Leviticus 26:33-35; II Chronicles 36:21)
But after this, and especially during the final century before Christ, many Jews became more zealous for observance of the Law. In the New Testament, we find the Sabbath being observed by the majority of Jews (e.g. Mark 1:21-32; Luke 23:56). Yet out of the Ten Commandments, this is the only one that does not receive a ringing endorsement in the New Testament letters. Why is this? Probably because it is the one most open to abuse by legalists. What should be defined as work? Inevitably, a list was created of “inappropriate” activities – and the list became longer and longer, stricter and stricter, and more and more detailed. It got to the point where the Sabbath became a burden rather than a blessing. The rules became more important than the principle: the Pharisees criticised Jesus repeatedly for healing people and for allowing His disciples to indulge in ‘forbidden’ activities on the Sabbath (e.g. Matthew 12:1-14).
Some churches have made the same mistake: don’t play football or watch TV (or do anything that might be described as pleasurable) on “the Lord’s Day”! Such an attitude focuses attention on all the restrictions, and makes a duty out of what should have been a delight. But cessation from work is not an end in itself; it’s meant to make space for something else (Isaiah 58:13,14). Whether resting or working, what we do should be glorifying to God and beneficial to us and to other people. And therefore, “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:12)
Sunday or Sabbath?
The Christian Sunday is not exactly equivalent to the Jewish Sabbath. It began not as a day of rest but as a day of celebration – a weekly reminder of the Resurrection. The first day of the week (Acts 20:7; I Corinthians 16:2) was the day on which the early Christians met together (if they were Jews, they usually went to synagogue as well, the day before – Acts 18:26). In time, the day of rest was moved to join the day of worship. But there is no New Testament ‘rule’ about this. Even in the early Church, there were differences of opinion – and Paul urged believers to be ‘relaxed’ about this (Romans 14:5,6).
So should we observe the Sabbath? I think we should. When Jesus declared, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:5), He was surely affirming the Sabbath, not abolishing it – and if we observe it, we do so in His honour.
Man’s nature has not changed since God created us. Our need for physical rest and refreshment is as great under the New Covenant as under the Old. Why do people complain so much about busy, stressful lives? If you work continuously with no ‘Sabbath’ break, then you are a slave.
So yes – we need a day off once a week, and for the same reasons that the Israelites did: it’s good for us, it’s a ‘sign’ to unbelievers, and it promotes a healthy relationship with our God. But we need to refrain from making rules about the ‘when’ (does it have to be Sunday?) and the ‘what’ or ‘how’ (one man’s work is another man’s relaxation). In a society where most of us have sedentary jobs, what we probably need on our Sabbath is not a day of rest but a day of exercise!