This past summer during the July series I was given the
assignment to teach on Seventh-Day Adventism, and that
message was recorded and widely distributed on the Internet.
In the process I mentioned a message I did almost fifteen
years ago on the Fourth Commandment. (It was part of a
series I did on the Decalogue.) And ever since, I've been
getting Tweets and e-mails from people looking for that
sermon on the Sabbath, so I thought it might be good to
revisit that passage and get a fresh look at the fourth
So Turn to Exodus 20. This is the first of two places in the
Pentateuch where the Ten Commandments are listed (the
other being Deuteronomy 5), and in both places, the fourth is
the longest and most detailed of all the commandments. The
shortest commandment is the eighth, just four short words in
English: "You shall not steal." The sixth commandment is
likewise four words in English: "You shall not murder," but it
takes more letters to spell. In the Hebrew text, the sixth,
seventh, and eighth commandments are all just two words.
The Second Commandment (against making graven
images) is three verses long and 91 words in the ESV. But
the Fourth Commandment covers four verses and takes 98
words in the ESV. In Deuteronomy, it's 136 words over the
span of four verses, but the second commandment in
Deuteronomy is only 90 words spanning three verses. In the
Hebrew, you have roughly the same proportional length.
More words are devoted to the Fourth Commandment than to
any other. So the sheer amount of space given to this
commandment suggests we should pay close attention to it.
There is no end of opinion on this passage, and it remains
a point of fierce controversy even among the theologians
whom I most respect. At least one Baptist fellowship I am
aware of split into three separate groups because they had
differences of opinion about how the Fourth Commandment
was to be interpreted and applied. This is a controversial
passage, and let's just acknowledge that at the outset.
Here is the Commandment itself, from Exodus 20:8-11:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work,
10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your
God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or
your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant,
or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your
11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the
sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day.
Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it
The Fourth Commandment 3
Now, the commandment itself is not all that hard to
understand. "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" (v. 8).
That sets aside a special day, a particular day, as a holy day
unto the Lord. The precise day is then specified. It's the
seventh day of the week (v. 10): "The seventh day is a
Sabbath to the LORD your God." And then a reason is given
why it's the seventh day, rather than the first or the third or
the sixth: because "For in six days the LORD made heaven and
earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh
day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it
holy." That verse (v. 11), is a reference to Genesis 2:2-3,
which says, "On the seventh day God finished his work that he
had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work
that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it
holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had
done in creation."
So one day in seven was set aside as holy, and it was the
seventh dayCSaturday on our calendarsCbecause that is
when God rested from His creative work. The Israelites were
to observe that day each week, setting it aside for the Lord.
The rest of the Mosaic law then includes numerous specific
laws that severely restricted what the Israelites were allowed
to do on the Sabbath.
But the commandment itself is simple and
straightforward, establishing a fixed day of rest and worship
each week for all of Israel to observe.
Exodus 20:8-11 4
Now, why is this commandment such a source of
controversy? Because there is widespread disagreement in
the church about whether it applies at all to Christians, and if
so, how it is to be applied.
Opinion ranges from those who think it calls for strict
observance of a seventh-day Sabbath forever, to those who
don't think it applies to the church at all.
At one end of the spectrum you have the Seventh-Day
Adventists, and their predecessorsCa small group that arose
in the 1700s, known as the Seventh-Day Baptists. In their
view, this commandment sets up an eternal moral principle
that imposes a strict Saturday-Sabbath observance on all
people of all time. We'll call them the strict seventh-day
At the other end of the spectrum, you have Christians who
believe that not only the Fourth Commandment, but the
entire decalogue, is irrelevant to Christians anyway, because
it belongs to the Mosaic Covenant and has nothing to do with
us. So they wouldn't trouble themselves about how to apply
this commandment today, because they believe every aspect
of the law has been abolished under the New Covenant and
therefore the Ten Commandments simply don't apply to
Christians. They would oppose the application of any legal
principles for believers today, and therefore they are properly
called antinomians. In this category are many
hyper-Calvinists, most old-line Scofield-style dispensationalThe
Fourth Commandment 5
ists, and some who hold to a more recent view known as
New Covenant Theology.
(Now, let me say something here as a footnote, because
many of these people would reject the label of
antinomianism. They think it has the sound of libertinism to
it, as if it signified that they promoted immorality. But I do
not use that term in order to be derogatory. Antinomianism is
the proper theological term for the view that the Ten
Commandments are not binding on Christians. Look it up in
the Oxford English Dictionary or any theological dictionary
if you don't believe me. I'm using the term in its technical
sense. If you believe the Ten Commandments have no
application whatsoever to the Christian, you are against the
law in a theological sense, and the name for that kind of
theology is antinomianism.)
Now, between those two extremes, there is still quite a
wide variety of opinions. The typical Reformed view, spelled
out in most of the classic Protestant creeds of the 17th
century, is that the Christian Sabbath has been changed from
the seventh day of the week to the first. Here's what the
Baptist Confession of 1689 says about the question:
[God] hath particularly appointed one day in seven for a
Sabbath to be kept holy unto him, which from the
beginning of the World to the Resurrection of Christ, was
the last day of the week; and from the resurrection of
Christ, was changed into the first day of the week which is
Exodus 20:8-11 6
called the Lords day; and is to be continued to the end of
the World, as the Christian Sabbath; the observation of
the last day of the week being abolished.
And many of those who hold to that view want to impose
most of the Old Testament restrictions against work and
travel on Christians, merely moving the Sabbath to Sunday.
That was the classic Puritan view, and it is still the view of
most who would call themselves "Reformed" today. We'll
call that view Christian sabbatarianism.
In recent years, as more and more people have returned to
confessional Reformed theology, this type of Puritan
Sabbatarianism has been growing in popularity. There is a
revival of the kind of sabbatarianism that was enforced by
the Puritans. Some people think if you hold to Calvinism at
all, you must embrace this kind of sabbatarianism. So this
has become a hotly-debated issue in the very theological
circles some of us travel in.
There is one other classic Reformed view on the Sabbath,
and it happens to be where my own sympathies lie. So for
those of you who have been eager to hear what position I
would take, this is it. This was the view of Calvin and most
of the early continental Reformers: There is an eternal moral
principle contained in the Fourth Commandment, and that is
why it is part of the decalogue. But there is also a ceremonial
aspect of this law that was abolished under the New
Covenant. And the specific Old Testament Sabbath
The Fourth Commandment 7
restrictions pertain to the ceremonial ordinances that were
abrogated by Christ.
Here's what Calvin had to say about the Fourth
Commandment: He wrote, "with the seventh day of rest the
Lord wished to give to the people of Israel an image of
spiritual rest." And, "As to [this] reason, there is no doubt
that it ceased in Christ; because he is the truth by the
presence of which all images vanish."
"Hence," Calvin said, "superstitious observance of days
must remain far from Christians. . . . As the truth therefore
was given to the Jews under a figure, so to us on the contrary
truth is shown without shadows in order, first of all, that we
meditate all our life on a perpetual Sabbath from our works
so that the Lord may operate in us by his spirit."
So, Calvin said, the weekly Sabbath observance was
ceremonial. The Sabbath day pictures a reality that
prefigured Christ and was fulfilled by Him. He offers the
perfect Sabbath rest. The Old Testament Sabbath
observances merely foreshadowed something that was made
clear in Christ. And when you have the substance of the real
thing, there's no need to hang onto mere shadows and
symbols of that thing.
Let me illustrate: When I went to Asia for a couple of
weeks last year, I took a picture of Darlene with me. It was
something I could take out and look at to remind me of her.
Exodus 20:8-11 8
And I took out that picture every day and counted down the
days until I could see her for real.
But when I came home and saw her after two weeks of
being away, I didn't pull out that picture and kiss it. I kissed
her. On the way home in the car, I didn't pull out that picture
and look at it; I looked at her. It would be folly, and an insult
to her, if I gave my attention to a mere symbol of her, when I
had the real thing right there beside me.
The apostle Paul said that's how we should regard all the
ceremonial elements of the Old Testament law. The
priesthood, the sacrifices, the ceremonies, and the ritualsCall
these were symbols that prefigured Christ in various ways.
And when you have the real thing, it is a sin to go back to
observing something that was merely symbolic.
The animal sacrifices, for example, were object lessons
that pictured the atoning work of Christ. Now that His
atoning work is finished, it would be wrong to observe the
symbols. The passover, and all the other Jewish holidays,
also pictured various aspects of the work of Christ. Now that
the full light of divine revelation has shown us the realities
that were only symbolized by those things, we do not need to
maintain the symbols.
And the apostle Paul expressly includes the weekly
Sabbaths among those types and symbols that have passed
away. Turn for a moment to Colossians 2. In verses 13-14,
Paul talks about the finished work of Christ and how it has
The Fourth Commandment 9
liberated us from our sin and from the condemnation of the
law. Verses 14-15 say, "by canceling the record of debt that
stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside,
nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities
and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him."
In other words, He freed us from all the ordinances that
condemned us and utterly defeated the forces of evil. All of
that is done. His redemptive work is finished. There's
nothing left to be foreshadowed by any kind of types or
symbols. And therefore in verse 16, he says,
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of
food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon
or a Sabbath.
17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the
substance belongs to Christ.
Now, the typical sabbatarian will look at that passage and
say, "But that has nothing to do with the weekly Sabbaths.
That refers to certain feast days, and perhaps the sabbatical
years, and the year of jubilee."
But, no, Paul uses a clear progression here in order to
make his meaning absolutely clear: "Let no man therefore
judge you . . . in respect of an holyday." That refers to the
annual feasts of the Jewish Calendar. "Or of the new moon."
Those were monthly celebrations. "Or of the Sabbath days."
That can be none other than the weekly Sabbaths. We are
under no more obligation to observe the ceremonial
Exodus 20:8-11 10
requirements of the weekly Sabbaths than we are to follow
the dietary laws of Old Testament Judaism, circumcision, the
priestly ceremonies, or any other ceremonial aspect of the
law. Those things were merely pictures that illustrated Christ
and His redemptive work. And now that we have the real
thing, we don't need to be fixated on the pictures.
Now, let me say this: all Reformed theologiansCeven the
ones who argue for strict observance of Sunday as the
SabbathCmust ultimately acknowledge that there is a
ceremonial aspect to the Old Testament Sabbath.
You'll remember from our study of the Ten
Commandments several years ago that the decalogue is a
simple summary of the moral law. But even though this
commandment falls here in the middle of this outline of the
law's moral precepts, it nonetheless deals with a ceremonial
and symbolic observance. And even the strictest Reformed
Sabbatarian ultimately must concede that point, because the
commandment itself spells out which day is to be regarded as
the Sabbath, and it's Saturday. But not one Reformed creed
or theologian of any stature has ever argued that this
commandment should be observed without any change in
form from how Moses delivered it on Sinai. (The only ones
who argue that way are the Seventh-day Adventists and a
few Seventh-day Baptists. And they are in clear violation of
the principle set forth in Colossians 2:16.)
The Fourth Commandment 11
So ultimately, Protestant theologians have never disagreed
on whether this commandment has a ceremonial aspect.
Where they disagree is on the question of whether Sunday is
given to us as a Christian Sabbath, and if so, how is that
Sabbath to be observed? Those questions have prompted no
end of debate, and to cover every aspect of that debate would
take several weeks.
So what I want to do this morning is give you five
principles to keep in mind about the Sabbath, to help you
think through the question of how we as Christians should
regard the SabbathCapart from the ceremonial ordinances
that governed how the Old Testament Israelites were
commanded to observe it.
And at the end, I will show you that there is an
eternally-binding moral lesson in this law. In fact, there are
several moral principles we ought to draw from this
commandment. And the moral aspects of this commandment
are applicable to us as Christians today. I hope this will help
you see how this law fits in the decalogue and why it is there
as part of God's eternal moral law.
Principle number 1:
1. THE SABBATH LOOKED BACK TO CREATION.
The first inkling of the Sabbath appears in Genesis 2,
where we read this description of the seventh day of the
week of creation (Genesis 2:2-3):
Exodus 20:8-11 12
And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had
done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work
that he had done.
3 So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy,
because on it God rested from all his work that he had
done in creation.
There is no mention of the word Sabbath anywhere in
Scripture until Exodus 16, when manna began to come down
to feed the Israelites in the wilderness. There's no suggestion
here in Genesis that God imposed Sabbath observance on
Adam. In fact, he didn't, and he couldn't have, because Adam
was less than a day old and had no works to rest from.
Furthermore, if Adam had obeyed God in the garden and
abstained from eating the forbidden fruit, his life was
designed to be a perpetual Sabbath rest, living in the garden
and enjoying the presence of God, with a daily existence that
was free from any kind of exhausting labor.
But the Sabbath was instituted after the fall, after the
flood, and after the Israelites left Egypt. It was a gracious gift
to the Old Testament Israelites that enabled them to
experience one day each week a small taste of what life in
Eden was supposed to be. So keep this in mind: The Sabbath
was supposed to be a sample of what humanity forfeited in
EdenCbut it was not instituted as an ordinance until the time
The Fourth Commandment 13
Around the time of Christ, legalistic Pharisees made the
Sabbath law the focus of rigid enforcement, and they turned
the Sabbath into a drudgery, but it was originally intended to
be a nothing more than a day of rest and pure refreshment for
God's peopleCa gracious gift from God. In Isaiah 58:13, God
pleads with Israel to "call the Sabbath a delight," and to seek
pleasure in what pleases God, to honor the Lord's rest, and
enter into that rest, instead of seeking pleasures of their own.
So the Sabbath day was a commemoration of day 7 of
creation week, when God rested, and hallowed the day. Now
again, there is nothing anywhere in the Old Testament that
suggests God demanded His people to observe the Sabbath
before the time of Moses. Nowhere in Scripture do we read
that Abraham or any of the patriarchs ever observed the
This is one of the questions about the Sabbath that is hotly
debated: Was the Sabbath a creation ordinance, or was this a
commandment that was initiated at Sinai? And you will find
that most theologians have inferred from Scripture that the
Sabbath was a creation ordinance, because the reason for
observing the Sabbath was to commemorate God's own rest
(Two notable exceptions are John Bunyan and John Gill,
both of whom pointed out that nothing anywhere in Scripture
suggests that anyone prior to Moses' time was ever
commanded to observe the Sabbath, and no one prior to
Exodus 20:8-11 14
Moses' time is ever said to have rested on the Sabbath.
Bunyan pointed out, "In all the Scriptures we do not read that
the breach of a [weekly] Sabbath was charged upon [any
man from Adam to Moses]." John Gill said, "None but the
Jews were ever charged with the breach of the [weekly]
And this goes to the question of whether the Sabbath
commandment is moral or merely ceremonial. If it wasn't
given as a commandment to humans until Moses' time, it
must be mainly ceremonial, because if the commands and
restrictions associated with Old Testament Sabbath
observance were purely moral principles, they would have
been eternally binding on all people at all times, like the
commandments against murder and adultery.
Again, I think the proper biblical view is that there are
both moral and ceremonial aspects to the fourth
commandment. The ceremonial aspect, which calls for
observance of the seventh-day in particular, could not have
been a creation ordinance, because if it were, it would never
have been subject to change. Saturday Sabbaths would be
But at the same time, it is important to see that whatever
eternal moral principle is found in this law is eternally
binding, and therefore must have been engraved on the heart
of Adam from creation. So that aspect of this law was indeed
a binding ordinance from the time of creation. My own
The Fourth Commandment 15
conviction is that in its broadest form, there is a moral aspect
to this law that was indeed a creation ordinance, binding on
all men of all time. But the specifics regarding the seventh
day, and all the rules about traveling and building fires on the
SabbathCthe external features of Old Testament Sabbath
observanceCthose things are purely ceremonial and not
eternally binding on believers. (Precisely which aspects of
this commandment pertain to the eternal moral law, we will
take up in my final point, but for now, let me just say that it
mainly involves the necessity of resting from our works, and
the necessity of seeking our rest in the Lord.)
But as far as worshiping on the seventh day is concerned,
no such ordinance is either given or implied in Scripture, and
there is no example of a seventh-day Sabbath anywhere in
the Old Testament until the time of Moses.
Nevertheless, this commandment, when given to Moses at
Sinai, looked back at creation, and its whole rationale was
drawn from the example of God Himself, who rested from
His works on the seventh day. That's precisely what Exodus
20:11 says, "For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day.
Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy."
So that is principle number 1: The Sabbath looked back to
creation. Now, here is principle number 2:
Exodus 20:8-11 16
2. THE SABBATH LOOKED FORWARD TO REDEMPTION.
This is a major point according to the writer of Hebrews.
Turn for a moment to Hebrews 4. Notice verses 4-5:
For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this
way: "And God rested on the seventh day from all his
5 And again in this passage he said, "They shall not enter
Notice the point he is making. The Sabbath pointed
backward to creation and the example of God's rest. But it
also looked forward toward a future rest, which the people
had not yet entered into. And they could not enter that rest if
they remained in rebellion against God. Disobedience would
keep them outCand the Bible uses a word for disobedience
that speaks of obstinate disbeliefCdefiance against God.
Verse 6: "Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and
those who formerly received the good news failed to enter
because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day,
Now what kind of rest do people not enter into because
they harden their hearts against God? This is talking about
the rest that comes with redemption. And what is the
appointed day? "Today." The day of grace. That's every day
until the Lord returns.
The writer of Hebrews is relying on some familiar
typology here. He is quoting Psalm 95:11, which recounts
The Fourth Commandment 17
how God forbid an entire rebellious generation of Israelites
from entering into the promised land. And Canaan itself was
a picture of paradise and redemption for God's people. So the
writer of Hebrews applies Psalm 95:11 this way: he sees it as
a graphic lesson about ultimate redemption. He says it's
talking about something more than the Israelites entering
literal Canaan. He says there is another rest, a greater
restCan eternal heavenly restCyet to come. And that is what
the Sabbath pictures.
Look at verse 7: "Again he appoints a certain day, 'Today,'
saying through David so long afterward, in the words already
quoted, 'Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your
hearts.'" Now, that is also a quotation from Psalm 95 (vv.
7-9): "For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand. Today, if you hear his voice, do not
harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in
the wilderness, when your fathers put me to the test and put me
to the proof, though they had seen my work." And the writer of
Hebrews points out that David wrote that psalm many years
after Joshua's time, when the people finally did enter
Canaan, and yet David was speaking of a still-future rest.
Hebrews 4, verses 8-9: "For if Joshua had given them rest, God
would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there
remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God."
And here is his point: The Sabbath points forward to a
yet-future rest. It is the rest of redemption. It is the rest of
Exodus 20:8-11 18
salvation by grace through faith. Verses 10-11: "for whoever
has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God
did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no
one may fall by the same sort of disobedience."
So the typology of the Sabbath was a lesson about
redemption and how we enters into it. Redemption is not
obtained by working, but by entering into the Lord's rest
through repentant faith.
This, by the way, is why Jesus was so incensed at the
corruption of the Sabbath by the Pharisees. They had made
the Sabbath into a drudgery that was all about rigid laws and
stern punishments. It was never supposed to be that. It was
supposed to be a refreshing rest from labor, signifying the
way of salvation. That is why Jesus said in Mark 2:27-28,
"The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So
the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath." He is Lord of the
Sabbath because He is the Lord of our redemption.
So the Sabbath wasn't just a backward-looking ordinance.
It was a forward-looking object lesson about the way of
redemption. And that brings us to principle number 3:
3. THE SABBATH HAS REFERENCE TO GOD'S REST.
The Sabbath was a reminder that God rested, and it
graciously invited the people of God to enter into His rest.
Now, the nature of this rest is extremely significant.
Remember, it signified God's rest. That means it wasn't the
The Fourth Commandment 19
rest of exhaustion. It wasn't a rest that signified weariness.
God didn't rest because He needed the refreshment. He rested
because His work was finished. Therefore, the rest pictured
by the Sabbath is not a rest made necessary by fatigue; it is a
rest that celebrates a finished work.
In other words, the Sabbath signified entering into God's
rest with Him. He was graciously sharing with His people the
rest of His finished work. And that is why the
forward-looking aspect of the Sabbath is so central to the
meaning of the Sabbath. The eschatalogical rest of
redemption, like the historic rest of creation, signifies the
finished work of God Himself. The Israelites were not to
think that they were earning their own rest by working the
other six days of the week. Their earthly work was never
complete. And yet God graciously gave them one day each
week to rest and celebrate His finished work.
This is absolutely central to the meaning of the Sabbath. It
was a token of divine grace. It pictured the rest we obtain
through salvationCit is not a rest we earn by our own works;
it is a rest that is graciously given to us through Christ, who
has done all the saving work on our behalf.
In other words, the purpose of this law was theological,
not utilitarian. It was given because it teaches us something
about God, not because it is useful to us. It reminds us of the
eternal Sabbath rest that is entered into by those who cease
from their labors and find their salvation in Christ alone.
Exodus 20:8-11 20
That is what it prefigured, and that is why as Christians we
regard the form of Israel's Sabbath observance as
predominantly ceremonial. We who have entered into the
true rest purchased for us by Christ don't need to retreat to
the shadows of holy days, or new moons, or Sabbath days.
Those things "are a shadow of the things to come, but the
substance belongs to Christ."
Principle number 4:
4. THE SABBATH OBSERVANCES HAD A UNIQUE
SIGNIFICANCE TO NATIONAL ISRAEL.
The Sabbath commandment is found here in the Ten
Commandments for a particular reason. It was the formal
sign of the Mosaic covenant.
Every divine covenant came with a sign that sealed the
covenant. When God made a covenant with Noah, he gave
the sign of the rainbow. Genesis 9:12-13: "And God said,
'This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you
and every living creature that is with you, for all future
generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a
sign of the covenant between me and the earth.'"
When God made a covenant with Abraham, circumcision
was the sign. Genesis 17:11: "You shall be circumcised in the
flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant
between me and you."
The Fourth Commandment 21
And in precisely the same way, when God made a
covenant with the people of Israel through Moses, the
Sabbath was the sign of that covenant. Look at Exodus 31.
And the LORD said to Moses,
13 "You are to speak to the people of Israel and say,
'Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign
between me and you throughout your generations, that
you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you.
14 You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you.
Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever
does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among
15 Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a
Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does
any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.
16 Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath,
observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a
17 It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel
that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on
the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.'"
Notice, now, that this sign had special significance for the
Israelite nation. Nothing in Scripture ever suggests that God
demanded seventh-day Sabbath observance from any other
Exodus 20:8-11 22
So, someone might ask again, why does this
commandment appear in the decalogue, which is a
compendium of moral laws that God requires of all people of
The reason is found in the form of the covenant itself.
When covenants were made between kings in the time of
Moses, it was common to incorporate a sign into the treaty
that would seal the covenant. The sign had special
significance. If you made a covenant with a king and broke
any other part of the covenant, you could find forgiveness,
and the covenant remained intact. But if you abandoned the
sign of the covenant, it signified that you had forsaken the
covenant altogether, and the covenant as a whole was
deemed irreparably broken.
The structure of the decalogue is exactly like those kingly
treaties. In fact, Exodus 34:28 refers to the Ten
Commandments as "the words of the covenant, the Ten
Commandments." If you are still in Exodus 31, look at verse
18, the verse immediately after I stopped reading: "And he
gave to Moses, when he had finished speaking with him on
Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone,
written with the finger of God."
What was on those stone tablets? the Ten
Commandments. And those two tablets of stone were the
formal covenant document. And therefore they had to
include the sign of the covenant. They represented the whole
The Fourth Commandment 23
covenant in shorthand form. And as a written form of the
covenant, they had particular significance to national Israel,
with whom the covenant was made. Yes, they summarized
God's moral law for all people of all time, but as a written
record of the covenant, they had special significance for
Israel. And the covenant sign was therefore prominently
featured in this document that represented the whole
covenant. The Fourth Commandment was the sign of the
Now, other, more specific laws pertaining to the Sabbath
spelled out precisely how Israel was to observe the covenant
sign. And virtually all of these commandments were
ceremonial in nature. For example, the Jewish Sabbath
observance required a special offering. Numbers 28:9-10:
"On the Sabbath day, two male lambs a year old without blemish,
and two tenths of an ephah of fine flour for a grain offering,
mixed with oil, and its drink offering: this is the burnt offering of
every Sabbath, besides the regular burnt offering and its drink
offering." That is clearly ceremonial in nature and is not
observed even by the most rigid sabbatarian today.
Other specific laws forbid the Israelites to travel, kindle
fires, or bake bread or boil water. They couldn't gather sticks,
do their housework, or do any work of any kind. And those
were all symbolic ordinances that signified their utter
separation unto the Lord and their seclusion from the rest of
Exodus 20:8-11 24
But those restrictions pertained to covenant Israel only,
and they were never enforced by God on any other people
either before Moses or after the appearance of Christ. They
were ceremonial in nature, and the proof that they were
ceremonial is found in God's own words through the prophet
Isaiah, when God tells Israel that He despises their
Sabbath-keeping. Isaiah 1:13: "Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and
the calling of convocationsCI cannot endure iniquity and solemn
assembly." And in Hosea 2:11, God says, "I will put an end to
all her mirth, her feasts, her new moons, her Sabbaths, and all
her appointed feasts." Those Sabbath restrictions were merely
ceremonies, and the hypocrisy of the Israelites had made the
Sabbath observance itself an abomination to God.
So the Old Testament Sabbath restrictions were very
clearly part of the ceremonial law. And as such, they were
abolished when Christ fulfilled the ceremonial meaning of
That is why nothing in the New Testament ever
commands Christians to observe the Sabbath or obey any of
the Old Testament restrictions related to the Sabbath. When
the Jerusalem Council met in Acts 15 to consider which
aspects of the law pertained to the Gentiles, no mention was
made of the Sabbath. That would be remarkable if any
ceremonial observance of the Sabbath was supposed to be
required of Christians. Furthermore, nowhere in the New
The Fourth Commandment 25
Testament are we ever warned that any breach of the Sabbath
was a sin, and nowhere are we ever commanded to observe a
As a matter of fact, in Romans 14 the apostle Paul
portrayed the weaker brother as the person who observes
holy days, and the stronger brother is the one who esteems
every day alike (Romans 14:5). Paul regarded it is a matter
of utter indifference whether we observed any holidays or
not. And as I have already pointed out, in Colossians 2, he
taught that we should let no man judge us in the matter of
Sabbath observance. So there are no ceremonial restrictions
against Sabbath activities for Christians like those that were
binding on an Old Testament Israelite.
And that brings us to our final principle:
5. THE SABBATH IS FULL OF MORAL SIGNIFICANCE.
Please don't get the idea that I am saying the Sabbath is
utterly devoid of any moral principle that is still binding on
us today. I'm not suggesting that the Ten Commandments
have been reduced to nine. But I am suggesting that we as
Christians need to understand this law apart from the
ceremonial trappings of the Mosaic covenant. To reinstate
the ceremonial Sabbath laws is as wrong as going back under
any of the priestly, dietary, or ritualistic principles of the Old
Exodus 20:8-11 26
But there is a moral aspect to the Fourth Commandment.
To quote Turretin, it is a mixed commandment, moral as to
its substance, ceremonial as to its circumstance.
So what are the moral principles that underlie this
This is a unique commandment. To quote Calvin once
more, "Since this commandment has a particular
consideration distinct from the others, it requires a slightly
different order of exposition." We must take care to separate
that which is moral from that which is ceremonial. Without
reconstituting the ceremonial aspects of this law, we must be
careful to affirm that which is still morally binding in it.
Let me suggest several moral principles that we need to
draw from the Fourth Commandment. Calvin himself named
three. This is from Calvin's catechism, the Genevan
What then? Is there anything in [the Fourth Commandment]
beyond ceremony? [Answer:] It was given for three
reasons. . . . 1) To figure [or give us a picture of] spiritual
rest; 2) for the preservation of ecclesiastical polity [in
other words, to give the people of God a day each week
on which to come together]; and 3) for the relief of slaves
[or as Calvin wrote elsewhere, ["to give a day of rest to
servants and those who are under the authority of others,
in order that they might have some respite from their
The Fourth Commandment 27
As I said at the beginning, many Christians believe that
SundayCor the Lord's day, as it is commonly referred to in
Scripture and in the early church's writingsCis the "Christian
Sabbath." They believe when Christ rose from the dead on
the first day of the week, God thereby changed the Sabbath
from the seventh day to the first.
I won't spend a great deal of time answering that, except
to say that the whole idea is sheer conjecture. Nothing in
Scripture ever refers to Sunday as the Sabbath. In fact,
throughout the book of Acts, the seventh day was still
referred to as the Sabbath. I don't see any biblical warrant for
treating Sunday as the Christian Sabbath. Neither did Calvin,
by the way. Nowhere did he ever refer to the Lord's day as
the Sabbath or suggest that it should be regarded as such.
That was an innovation by the later Reformers. And the
Puritans, especially, wrote it into most of their creeds. But it
was not the view of the earlier Reformers. I love the Puritans
and I don't often voice disagreement with them, but they did
sometimes have some legalistic tendencies, and their
tendency to multiply Sabbath restrictions was one of them.
Still, I think there is a moral principle in the Fourth
Commandment that warrants setting aside a day each week
for ceasing from our labors and worshiping the Lord. And
we accomplish this when we devote the Lord's day to Him.
Exodus 20:8-11 28
There may also be a moral principle in the
six-to-one/work-to rest ratio. God has made us so that we
function best with a day off work each week.
And conversely, one of the moral principles underlying
the fourth commandment is the principle of work: "Six days
shalt thou labour, and do all thy work." Christians ought to
work hard when it is time to work, and rest in the Lord when
it is time to rest.
So the reason for the Sabbath is a moral principleCa full
day each week devoted to the Lord. The ratio is a moral
principleCone day of rest for every six days of work. And
above all, I believe the rest commanded by the Sabbath
contains a moral principle.
Now listen closely, because I believe this is the most
important principle of all. Here's the rest-principle that lies at
the heart of the Sabbath law: It is in worship that we are to
find our primary refreshment.
What do you do when you seek refreshment for your
soul? Do you turn first of all to television and worldly
entertainments? Do you seek your rest principally in
recreational activities and spiritually empty amusements?
Those things have their rightful place, but it is certainly not
the prominent place our society has given them. If you can
do them as unto the Lord and glorify the Lord in them, that is
fine. I'm not suggesting that you should never watch
footballCor even play footballCon the Lord's day.
The Fourth Commandment 29
But that is not the first thing you should turn to in order to
refresh your soul from the toil and labor of the work week.
The Lord should have that priorityCand not just on Sunday,
but every day of your life. You need the spiritual
refreshment of communion and fellowship with Him more
than you need the carnal refreshment of exercise and
recreation. You need the rest of worship and fellowship with
the people of God more than you need the mindless
entertainments this world has to offer.
It always troubles me when someone tells me he skipped
church because he felt he just needed some time off. Time
off from what? If you don't see worship and devotion to the
Lord as more restful than any earthly form of entertainment,
then you have the wrong idea of worship. If you're not
coming to church with the idea of refreshing your soul and
invigorating your spirit, then you're coming with the wrong
thing in mind.
Psalm 37:7 says, "Rest in the LORD." In Matthew
11:28-29, Jesus said, "Come to Me, all who are weary and
heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and
learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU
WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS."
That is the best rest of all. That is what the Sabbath speaks
of. And I would urge you to seek your ultimate rest right
there, in the finished work of Christ. It is a complete rest
Exodus 20:8-11 30
from all your labors, from the weariness of sin, and from all
the trials of this life.
That is the true Sabbath.