What are Christians to do with the fourth commandment?
If you’ve seen the 1981 movie “Chariots of Fire” you know about a great athlete in the early 1900s named Eric Liddell of Scotland, also known as the “Flying Scotsman.” He was favored to win the hundred meter sprint in the 1924 Olympics, which was his best event. On the ship over to Paris where the games were to be held, when he learned that the qualifying trials for the hundred meters were to be held on a Sunday, Liddell decided not to run, because he believed so strongly that Sunday was the Christian Sabbath, that it was not a day for secular work or recreation. It was a day in his mind for worship and rest. The English Olympic Committee, the Prince of Wales and a host of others tried to convince him to run, saying, “Come on, Liddell, for the sake of your King and your country, set aside these little convictions just this once and run the race. It will only be for a few minutes.” But Liddell held fast to his convictions. Many Scottish people were angry at him. He was criticized in newspapers. Some even called him a traitor. But he stood firm. He had never run on Sunday and never would, not even for an Olympic gold medal and the favor of his country.
Another famous man who had the same kind of convictions about Sunday was General Stonewall Jackson of the American Civil War. If you know much about him you know he was a man of great principle and character. His widow Mary Anna Jackson writes this in his biography:
“Certainly he was not less scrupulous in obeying the divine command to ‘remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy’ than he was in any other rule of his life. Since the Creator had set apart this day for his own, and commanded it to be kept holy, he believed that it was as wrong for him to desecrate it by worldly pleasure, idleness, or secular employment, as to break any other commandment of the Decalogue. Sunday was his busiest day of the week, as he always attended church twice a day and taught in two Sabbath schools! He refrained as much as possible from all worldly conversation, and in his family, if secular topics were introduced, he would say, with a kindly smile, ‘We will talk about that to-morrow.’ He never traveled on Sunday, never took his mail from the post-office, nor permitted a letter of his own to travel on that day, always before posting it calculating the time it required to reach its destination; and even business letters of the utmost importance were never sent off the very last of the week, but were kept over until Monday morning, unless it was a case where distance required a longer time than a week. One so strict in his own Sabbath observance naturally believed that it was wrong for the government to carry the mails on Sunday. Any organization which exacted secular labor of its employees on the Lord’s day was, in his opinion, a violator of God’s law.”
Certainly Eric Liddell and Stonewall Jackson are to be commended for their uncompromising commitment to their convictions. But do they model the proper Christian application of the fourth of the ten commandments? Are we to share their convictions regarding Sunday?
We’ve been studying the ten commandments. We’re on the fourth this morning, Exodus 20:8-11, which says, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the 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.”
It’s generally agreed upon by Christians that the other nine commandments are still God’s will for us today, because you find them also commanded of us by Jesus and His apostles in the New Testament (NT). But this Sabbath commandment is not so agreed upon as to its application to us today.
Many, like Eric Liddell and Stonewall Jackson, believe we are to take the OT Sabbath regulations that were for Israelites’ Saturdays and apply them in this Christian age to our Sundays, that Sunday is to be to us what Saturday was to be to the Israelites.
Let me read to you a statement from the Westminster Confession of Faith, which is a document that expresses the beliefs of the Presbyterian denomination, and beliefs very similar to those of other denominations. Westminster Confession 21.7, “As it is the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in his Word, by a positive, perpetual commandment binding all men in all ages, he 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, in Scripture, is called the Lord’s day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian sabbath.”
But others, like Seventh-Day Adventists and Seventh-Day Baptists, believe that the command is still the same for the same day, that we are still to treat the seventh day of the week as a Sabbath just as the Jews did.
Then there are others who don’t find a requirement of us in the fourth commandment, believing that it was just a part of the old law for the Israelite people, not the law that we are under today, the law of Christ. Yet they may take some principles from it that we can apply to our lives.
So what are we supposed to do with the fourth commandment? What application does it have to us? We’re going to try to work to some conclusion on that this morning.
Let’s first try to come to an understanding of…
The Sabbath Observance in the Old Testament
The word “Sabbath” is simply an englishy way of saying the Hebrew word “ shabbath.” It’s a word that means stoppage, cessation or resting. So Sabbath day literally means resting day. The Israelites were instructed to keep this day holy. Holy means set apart, special. It was to be a day set apart from the other six days of the week as a day of rest for themselves and everyone around them, their children, their servants and even for their animals. They were to imitate the actions of God in the first week of creation. In six days He did all His work of creating and on the seventh day He rested.
Exodus 23:12 gives a purpose of this day. Ex 23:12, “Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves.” God wanted people and animals to get a break, a refreshing day off once a week.
Exodus 16:29, Moses tells the Israelites that “the Lord has given you the Sabbath.” The Sabbath was a gift from God, created not for His benefit, but for theirs. Jesus had to remind the Pharisees of this since they’d made the Sabbath into a stressful burden on people by coming up with 1,521 rules for what you can and can’t do on the day. He told them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27).
Then if we turn over to Exodus 31, we find God telling the people that this Sabbath observance would be something that would distinguish them from the nations around them. Exodus 31:12, “You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you.” And at v14 we see that it was not a command to be taken lightly. v14, “Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall surely be put to death.” That doesn’t mean if you broke the Sabbath by ignorance or mistake that you were to be put to death. If that was the case you could offer a sin offering and be forgiven. But it was talking about an Israelite who deliberately treated the Sabbath day as a common work day like the other six. That person was to be put to death.
If we turn over to Leviticus 23 we can find that the Sabbath day was not intended to be just a day of rest and idleness. It was intended to be a day of worship and spiritual development. Leviticus 23:1ff, “The Lord spoke again to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘The Lord’s appointed times which you shall proclaim as holy convocations — My appointed times are these:…” The word there translated “convocations” means assemblies, gatherings, meetings. So these are the appointed times on which they were to have holy assemblies, gatherings that served to worship God and enrich them spiritually… perhaps in small groups in their homes, gathering the family and servants together for some prayer and maybe some singing and conversation or teaching about the LORD. Notice in v3 the first appointed time mentioned for holy assemblies: “For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation. You shall not do any work; it is a sabbath to the Lord in all your dwellings.” It’s a day off from work and it’s a day of holy convocation, a day for sacred assembly. It was a day for the body to rest that the soul might be developed. It was a day of rest and religion. This is why later in Jewish history synagogues developed. Synagogues were places in cities and villages where Jews gathered on Sabbath days for prayer, Scripture reading and teaching.
Isaiah 58:13-14, “If because of the sabbath, you turn your foot From doing your own pleasure on My holy day, And call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the LORD honorable, And honor it, desisting from your own ways, From seeking your own pleasure And speaking your own word, Then you will take delight in the LORD, And I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; And I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” God was saying to the people through Isaiah, “The Sabbath is not your day. It’s My day. So stop seeking your own pleasure and your own interests and speaking your own word on the Sabbath.” It’s a day to seek God’s pleasure, His interests and speak His word. It’s a day for worship and spiritual development.
Certainly we can see…
The Wisdom of this Commandment
What does farm land, shoes, bowling pins and people all have in common? Answer: They all need periodic times of rest. That’s why farmers will occasionally let their fields lie fallow for a year. After a year of rest the land will yield a much more bountiful crop. I have here a quote from the David Roberts Shoes website: “One tip to remember is that all shoes need time to rest after being worn, so never wear a pair of shoes day after day as you will shorten its life quite considerably. Try to rotate your shoe selection giving the worn shoes time to rest.” Supposedly, if you wear the same pair of shoes each and every day, they will last, on average, six months. But if you buy two pairs of shoes, and alternate them between days, you will be able to get two years worth of wear out of them. And I kid you not, even bowling pins need to rest. So most bowling alleys will have at least two full sets of bowling pins. And about every other week they’ll swap the set that’s being used and the set that’s sitting on the shelves. If they don’t let the wooden pins rest they lose their vitality and not bounce around as much when they’re hit. But if you give them some time off on a shelf for while, they’ll come back more lively than ever. And I hear they will also last through more use if they get periodic times of rest.
We are the same way. Just do a little research and you’ll find lots of articles and studies about how cognitive function and productivity declines when people are not getting time off, and how often by working 40-50 hr weeks you’ll get as much done in a month as you would in a month of working 70-80 hr weeks. We need time off not just for the sake of productivity but also for the sake of our marriages and our kids and our health.
But even more importantly this Sabbath command ensured that people would not totally neglect their relationship with God. People haven’t really changed. They were the same back then as we are… Notorious for letting mundane earthly temporal things take up every square inch of every day so we have no time for worship, prayer, study of the word, teaching our kids about God, those sort of eternally significant things. We work overtime at our jobs and then we’ve got to clean the house and the garage and the kids have hockey practice and homework and the dog needs a haircut and the oil in the cars needs changed and the tires need rotated and we’ve got to get our taxes done and we want to see if it’d be profitable to refinance the house and we’ve got to keep everybody on facebook informed of everything we’re doing all the time and we’re going 90 mph till we go to bed. Then we wake up and repeat. And if we’re not giving some time to draw near to God in worship and prayer and study at least once a week our relationship with Him begins to deteriorate. Like any relationship if you don’t stay in touch much or spend much time with each other, you grow apart. God wanted the people to stay close with Him. So He told them you’re going to stop from all your other business and concerns for one day each week and you’re going to have holy convocation…. you’re going to church, in other words.
So whether we think this command is still binding on our Saturdays or our Sundays or not at all, I think we should at least take from this command that we need at least about a day’s break from work each week and we need to reserve a block of time in our weekly schedules for worship and spiritual development, a block of time that we refuse to let be overtaken with mundane earthly concerns. Also, if we are employers we need to learn from this that God cares about our employees getting the weekly time off that they need.
Now, with the rest of our time, let’s just answer two questions. What does God’s word tell us Christians about our Saturdays? And second, what does God’s word tell us about our Sundays?
What is God’s will regarding our Saturdays?
Seventh Day Adventists and Seventh Day Baptists, who believe our Saturdays are still to be treated as Sabbath days, agree that the Law of Moses was abolished at the death of Christ. They agree that the NT is pretty plain that when Christ died the authority of that Law that God gave the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai came to an end. It has been made void. Nobody is accountable to that law anymore (Acts 15; Gal 3:23-25; Eph 2:14-15; Col 2:14, 16-17; Heb 7:12; 8:13, etc.). That’s why they agree the dietary regulations and the observance the Jewish Feast days and sacrificing sheep and goats and cattle are no longer required of us.
But they say that the Sabbath law was not just a part of the Law of Moses. They say the Sabbath was a command of God to all mankind from the beginning of creation. So though the Law of Moses has been annulled, they say the Sabbath command has not been.
The main argument used to say that God has always required the seventh day Sabbath observance since creation is what’s said in Genesis 2:2-3, “By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.” So that verse says that God made the seventh day a special day. He blessed and sanctified it. Sanctified means set apart. He made it a special day. But I think it’s reading too much into it to say that the way God made it a special day was by commanding all mankind from then on to set it apart as a day of rest. The passage does not say that. God made it a special day by resting on it Himself and deciding that He would make the observance of this day in the future a sign between Him and His people, Israel.
You don’t read in the book of Genesis that anybody was observing the Sabbath day or that God required anybody to do that. The first time you ever read of God commanding people to observe the Sabbath was when He brought the nation of Israel out of Egypt and He started feeding them the manna in the wilderness. He told them that they are not to go out and gather manna on the seventh day. That’s the first time you see God instructing anybody to treat the seventh day as special. So I really don’t think it was a requirement of everybody since creation.
Let’s look real quick at two passages from the apostle Paul where I think he clarifies that the Jewish Saturday Sabbath observance is not binding on Christians.
In the context he’s been saying that if you’re in Christ, if you’re trusting and following Jesus, you are complete, you have all you need. “Therefore,” 2:16-17, “no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day — 17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.” So notice he groups the Sabbath day with other elements of the Jewish Law like dietary regulations and the annual festivals and monthly new moon observances. And he says no one is to judge you on the basis of whether or not you do these things. These observances are not longer required of us today. He says that these OT observances, including the Sabbath day, were a shadow of something to come. Like if somebody is coming around the corner you first see their shadow on the ground. When all you can see is the shadow that’s what you have to deal with. But when the substance comes, when the real person that cast the shadow comes, then you don’t deal with the shadow anymore, you deal with the person. Paul says the substance of the shadow has come. It’s Christ. So don’t get your guidance from the shadow, get it from the substance of the shadow, from Christ. Just listen and follow Jesus. That’s all you need to do for your relationship with God. And Jesus has not commanded that we observe the Sabbath. His apostles in their writings in the NT gave Christians commands on all kinds of issues, on how to treat their spouses, how to raise their kids, how to be at work, how their language should be, how their attitude should be, how to dress, how to use their money, etc. But never do they instruct Christians to observe the Sabbath.
And let’s look at…
In the chapter where Paul is trying to help the church in Rome made up of Jews and Gentiles to deal with their differences, he says, “One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.” He goes on to explains that they are not to judge each other or look down on each other over differences of opinion like this. I think probably the situation he’s addressing is that the Jewish Christians in the congregation were still observing the Sabbath day, because they’d never worked a Saturday in their whole life. I doubt that when they became Christians they just immediately started working on Saturdays. Probably they kept taking that day off, and using that day to grow in their relationship with the Lord. But the Gentile Christians worked on Saturday, because Saturday had always been a work day for them. Paul tells them this difference is okay and they need to accept each other with this difference. He says each “must be fully convinced in his own mind.” In other words just do what you know the Lord is okay with. If you’re a Jewish Christian and you think the Lord wants you to continue to take Saturday off and especially focus on your relationship with Him that day and it would violate your conscience to start working on Saturday, then just continue to use your Saturdays how you have. And if you’re a Gentile Christian and it would violate your conscience to start making Saturday a special day, then don’t do that. Do what you are convinced in your mind is what the Lord would have you to do? It’s okay to rest on Saturday. It’s okay to work on Saturday. Just use it as you believe the Lord would want you to in your personal circumstances and don’t judge or look down on your brother if he does something different with that day.
What is God’s will regarding our Sundays?
Let’s look at Revelation 1:10 where the apostle John begins to talk about when he received the visions that he records in the book of Revelation. Revelation 1:10, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day…” “The Lord’s Day” – that kind of sounds like what the Sabbath day was called in the OT. You remember Isaiah 58, God calling the Sabbath day, “My holy day.” God’s day in the OT was the Sabbath day. What did John mean by “the Lord’s day”? About every scholar you’ll find will say John means Sunday.
Sunday became known among the early Christians as “the Lord’s Day” for many reasons. Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday. Jesus made appearances to His disciples on Sundays. In Acts 2, the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was our poured out upon the apostles and they spoke in all these other languages and the good news of Christ’s resurrection and Lordship and salvation in Him was first preached and three thousand souls were saved, all of that was on a Sunday. And the early Christians in every village and city all over, as far as we know, gathered together on Sundays for prayer and Scripture reading and teaching and to take the Lord’s Supper together and to sing hymns and to encourage and take care of each other.
There are several indications of this. Acts 20:7, “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight.” There’s a very similar statement in Syrian Christian document called the Didache that dates to somewhere around the turn of the 2nd century. Didache 14:1, “On the Lord’s Day, gather together, break bread and give thanks…” Doesn’t that sound a lot like the beginning of Acts 20:7. Acts 20:7, “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread…” Didache 14:1, “On the Lord’s Day, gather together, break bread and give thanks…” I think those are parallel statements. “The Lord’s Day” is the same as the “first day of the week.”
Let’s listen to another early Christian. This is Justin Martyr in about 150 A.D. in a writing of his that we call the “Apology.” That doesn’t mean it’s purpose is to say, “I’m sorry.” “Apology” was a word that meant defense. It’s a writing where Justin Martyr makes a defense for the Christian faith to the persecuting Roman government. Well, here’s what he said to Roman government about what Christians everywhere were doing on Sundays. He said, “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks has been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors [helps] the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead.” (Apology 1.67.7)
You might also think of I Corinthians 16 where Paul gives the church in Corinth instructions about the collection for the destitute believers down in the Jerusalem area. He told them, “I want you to do what I also instructed the churches of Galatia to do. On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside for this fund, as he may prosper…” Why would he tell them to do that on the first day of every week? Because that’s the day they were all coming together.
If we want to follow the example of the apostles and first Christians under their leadership then Sunday is to be a special day to us when we get together with other Christians to do all the “together” things that we’re instructed to do in the NT, like greet and encourage one another, sing to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, pray for one another, take of bread and fruit of vine in remembrance of Jesus together… (That it is to be a together thing is something Paul was explained to the Corinthians (I Cor 11:33).) It’s a day for Scripture reading and teaching and preaching and edifying one another.
But with that said, I’m not a fan of calling Sunday the Christian Sabbath, because I really don’t think God requires that we not work on Sunday. There is no instruction in the NT saying don’t work on Sunday. And it appears that most of the early Christians did work on Sunday. Sunday was a normal work day in the Roman Empire. And as far as we can tell the typical time of day on Sunday when Christians met was either early in the morning before dawn (before the work day started) or late in the evening (after everybody got off work). In Acts 20:7 when it says there were together on the first day of the week and Paul prolonged his message until midnight, do you think he’d been preaching since 10 o’clock in the morning? I really doubt it. I think they gathered that evening after everybody got off work and Paul taught them for a few hours, but not all day. In another writing from antiquity that dates 112 A.D. written by Pliny, governor of Bithynia, to emperor Trajan. He told Emperor Trajan something that he found out about Christians. He said, “they are accustomed to meet on a certain fixed day before dawn and sing in alternate verses a hymn to Christ as to a god“. They met on a certain fixed day? Pretty sure that was on Sunday, the Lord’s Day. And they met before dawn. Who in the world holds church services before dawn? A church full of a bunch of people that have to work that day do.
So there’s similarities and differences between what Sunday is to be to us with what Saturday was to the Jews. It is a day for holy convocation, a day for assembly, for worship and edification. But it does not have to be a day of rest.
Another similarity is that it’s a sign of God’s people today. As God told the Jews that the observance of the Sabbath would be a distinguishing sign that they are His people, gathering weekly with other Christians for worship and edification is sign of God’s people today.
But what about in regard to importance? (And we’ll end with this.) Is it just as important that we attend and participate in the Lord’s Day assembly as it was for the Jews to observe the Sabbath? Commonly today Christians don’t see it as that important. Many Christians let the slightest things keep them from coming to the assembly. They have company in town or their kid has ball games on Sunday or they’re on vacation. How important is the assembly? What’s an acceptable reason for skipping it? I’m not going to answer that for you. I’m just going to read to you one more thing from the first few centuries about how important the assembly and the Lord’s Supper was to some early Christians. And I’m going to leave it to you to just mull over and consider for yourself, “Were they right to attach such importance and priority to it?”
This is a record of a trial that took place in Carthage before the Roman proconsul on February 12, the year 304 A.D. In this record you will hear the term “eucharist.” That’s what the early Christians came to call the Lord Supper. “Eucharist” is a Greek term that means thanksgiving. But it became a title for the Lord’s Supper.
The charge against the accused read like this, “These persons, being Christians, have held an assembly for the Eucharist, contrary to the edict of the Emperors Diocletian and Maximilian.”
“What is your rank?” inquired the proconsul Anulinus of the first prisoner presented to him.
“I am a senator,” replied Dativus.
“Were you present in the assembly?” the proconsul asked.
“I am a Christian and I was present in the assembly.”
Straightway the proconsul ordered him to be suspended on the rack and his body torn by the barbed hooks. . .
Then Saturninus, the preacher, was arraigned for combat. The proconsul asked, “Did you, contrary to the orders of the emperors, arrange for these persons to hold an assembly?”
Saturninus replied, “Certainly. We celebrated the Eucharist.”
“Because the Eucharist cannot be abandoned.”
As soon as he said this, the proconsul ordered him to be put immediately on the rack with Dativus…
Then Felix, a son of Saturninus and a reader in the Church, came forward to the contest. Whereupon the proconsul inquired of him, “I am not asking you if you are a Christian. You can hold your peace about that! But were you one of the assembly; and do you possess any copies of the Scriptures?”
Felix replied, “As if a Christian could exist without the Eucharist, or the Eucharist be celebrated without a Christian!” answered Felix. “Don’t you know that a Christian is constituted by the Eucharist, and the Eucharist by a Christian? Neither avails without the other. We celebrate our assembly right gloriously. We always convene at the Eucharist for the reading of the Lord’s Scriptures.”
Enraged by the confession, Anulinus ordered Felix to be beaten with clubs.
Last of all, the lad Hilarion, another son of Saturninus, remained to be tried. The proconsul said to him, “Will you follow your father and your brothers?”
“I am a Christian,” he confessed in his youthful voice. “Of my own free will I joined the assembly with my father and my brothers.”
The proconsul then tried to terrify the boy by threatening torments and said, “I shall cut off your hair and your nose and your ears, and then let you go.”
To this Hilarion replied clearly, “Do what you please. I am a Christian.”
The proconsul ordered him to be returned to prison. And all heard Hilarion’s voice crying with great joy, “Thanks be to God.”
We live in a different world today, don’t we?… To them the assembly and the Lord’s supper was not just something to do when it was convenient. It was important enough that they wouldn’t miss it even when it was risking their lives to attend. They would have been ashamed of Christians today who will miss the assembly for such trivial reasons. Were they right to see it as that important? Do you think the Lord was pleased with their commitment to it?
– James Williams