The Fourth Commandment says, “Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy; six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work” (Exodus 20:8-9).
Some of us remember December 7, 1941. It was a Sunday morning. Pearl Harbor was bombed and United States involvement in the Second World War had begun. The strategists in Japan had determined that early on a Sunday morning (after a Friday on which the men in the U.S. army and navy got paid), would be the ideal time to attack. It would be the time of a general hangover resulting from carousing the night before. The attack came on Sunday morning, December 7, and the men were caught off guard. America’s desecration of the Lord’s Day led to a serious judgment from Heaven.
Nehemiah went to Jerusalem (after the Babylonian Captivity) and supervised the rebuilding of the City walls. There had been a spiritual revival in Jerusalem, and Nehemiah was happy. But when he went back to Persia and when he returned again to Jerusalem he found the evidences of revival had all but disappeared. Non-Jewish merchants were conducting business in the City on the Sabbath Day, and so were the Jewish businessmen. It is no wonder the heathen had little respect for the Sabbath, when those who claimed to be the people of God had adopted such a careless attitude. The account is given in Nehemiah 13:15-22. We want to notice several things about the Sabbath Day.
1. The Setting Apart of the Day
It was God who set aside one day of the week for rest and worship. God set aside the day long before He gave the Ten Commandments. The Sabbath was observed (as one day of rest out of seven) from the beginning of man’s existence on earth. In Exodus 16, (before the giving of the Ten Commandments), the Children of Israel were instructed not to gather manna on the Sabbath. What is special about the Sabbath?
The word “sabbath” does not mean a particular day. It does not even mean “seventh” (as some people wrongly suppose). The words “sabbath” and “seventh” do not come from the same root word. They have no relationship to each other. The word “sabbath” simply means “rest” or “a cessation from labor”—and it does not have to be on the seventh day. Any day that is set aside for rest is a sabbath. There can be a Saturday sabbath, a first-day sabbath, and in fact, there can be a sabbath on any day.
There were a number of Jewish sabbaths (in addition to the seventh day sabbath). For example, the Feast of Trumpets is called a “sabbath” (Leviticus 23:24-25), and yet it was always observed on the first day of the seventh month. But each year the first day of the seventh month falls on a different day of the week!
The Fourth Commandment says “Remember the sabbath day.” It does not say, “Remember the seventh day,” nor does it say, “Remember the first day.” We are to “remember the rest day, and to keep it holy.” The Jews observed the seventh day (in memory of the finished work of creation); the early church commemorated the first day (in memory of the finished work of redemption). The Fourth Commandment is so worded that either day can be kept, and still not violate the Commandment!
It is almost impossible to select a particular period of time (a 24-hour period), and say that this is the sacred period specified in the Bible for the sabbath. For one thing, the calendar has been changed several times since New Testament days, and we have no way of being sure that the day we call “Saturday” is in the same sequence as the original seventh day of creation. Our present calendar was revised in 1582 because the seasons in the old calendar were being moved a bit farther out of alignment each year. And so from the dawn of creation, on down through the chaotic years of time, no continuous calendar has ever been kept. Thus no one can be absolutely sure that the Saturday and the Sunday we observe (whichever day one thinks is right) are precisely in a sequence which is a multiple of 7 from the week of creation.
Another reason why it is difficult to select a 24-hour period of time and say that “this is the sabbath,” is because of the International Dateline. The imaginary line runs north and south over the Pacific Ocean. When people on the eastern side of the Dateline get out of bed—it is Saturday, let’s say. But when people (on the same morning) on the western side of the Dateline (only a few miles away), get out of bed—it is Sunday. If you were living in that area of the world, which would you call the Sabbath? This may seem confusing—but the fact is, any technical argument about which 24-hour period constitutes the Sabbath, is a sheer waste of time. Those who insist that one must observe Saturday as a day of rest in order to please God, are distorting the truth.
It is very obvious from the Scriptures that God expects His people to observe a sabbath (to observe one day in seven), and it is altogether proper that we keep the first day of the week because that is when Jesus by example met with His disciples. As far as can be gleaned from the Bible record, Jesus never observed the seventh day sabbath after the time of the resurrection. On the evening of the resurrection Jesus appeared to His followers (John 20:19), and one week later (again on the first day of the week), He met with the disciples (John 20:26). And Christians in the early church followed this example of Jesus, so that little by little the seventh day sabbath receded into the background, and another day came to the front (the first day of the week). Acts 20 tells how the Apostle Paul arrived in Troas early in the week, but stayed and took in the Sunday services (Acts 20:7). It was their practice to gather on the first day of the week, and we simply follow their example.
Some say that observing the Sabbath in this present age of grace is not very important. They say that the Ten Commandments are all repeated in the New Testament, except the Fourth Commandment. But such statements are misleading. The Fourth Commandment is not repeated word for word in the New Testament, but it is exalted in the New Testament just as it was in the Old Testament. Jesus did with this Commandment what He did with the other nine Commandments. He expanded its scope and explained its typical meaning.
When Jesus was criticized for the things He had done on the Sabbath, He said, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Jesus distinctly says that the sabbath day (the rest day) was made for man’s well being; it was intended to be a blessing for mankind in general. Jesus never denied the holiness of the Day, nor did He seek to discredit it as one of the Ten Commandments. Instead of casting aside the Fourth Commandment, He reinforced it! When Jesus was criticized for what He did on the Sabbath, this would have been a good time for Him to do away with it—if He intended to do so. God had said in the Old Testament that the seventh-day sabbath is a “sign between me and the Children of Israel forever” (Exodus 31:16), but in the New Testament, Jesus broadened the scope of the sabbath and says it was not only designed for Israel, but it was made for the common benefit of all mankind. The Fourth Commandment is just as binding today as it ever was.
2. The Purpose of the Sabbath
Jesus said that God had set aside the day for the benefit of man. There are several clear purposes for observing the Sabbath.
(a) The Sabbath is intended for the relaxing of the body. God created our bodies for six days of work—not seven. It has been proved many times that a man can do more by working six days and then resting one day, than he can by working seven days a week without any rest. Charles Allen tells of two parties of people in pioneer days who were going west to California. One party was led by a religious man who stopped each Lord’s Day for worship and rest. The other party (which started at the same time and about the same place), was so eager to reach the gold in California, that they took no time to stop. The men in that party drove every day. The amazing thing is that the party which observed the Sabbath arrived first!
God made man’s body out of the dust of the ground and it is designed in such a way that it must have adequate rest. God could have made our bodies out of iron and stone, or concrete, but He chose to make them in such a way that they need rest.
(b) The Sabbath is needed for refreshing the mind. Even though we try hard to keep God in our thoughts during each day of the week—and many times we are successful—nevertheless, in our complicated world, it is becoming more and more difficult to do so. Most of us have our minds cluttered with hundreds of things (other than the gracious words of God), and so on the Sabbath, each of us ought to give himself a chance to refresh his mind with the wondrous acts of the Lord.
(c) The Sabbath is needed for restoring the soul. Our souls need to be replenished from time to time. Man is not an animal—born to eat and labor and then perish. Each human being is a living soul created to live on forever. And we need a time set apart for soul nourishment, a time to take a look at the inner man and see whether or not we are properly prepared for Heaven. The Lord’s Day is a time to forget the cares of life and to feed the spiritual man.
Thus the Sabbath Day is designed for relaxing the body, refreshing the mind, and for restoring the soul. Part of the Fourth Commandment says, “Six days shalt thou labor.” Life is not a grand frolic; God expects every able-bodied person to work; but then, after six days of labor, a day of rest is necessary for good health.
3. The Desecration of the Lord’s Day
Today, Sunday has become a day for sleeping and recreation and boating and other kinds of activities. It is rapidly becoming a day for shopping and for big sports events. But the Fourth Commandment says, “Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy.” We want to look now briefly at each word of the Commandment.
The word “holy” means that it is to be a day dedicated to sacred use. The word translated “holy” literally means “to set apart” or “different.” The Sabbath is “different” in the sense that it especially belongs to God. It is a day that we keep separate and different from other days.
The word “remember” means that we must plan ahead. We must be careful about the time for getting to bed on Saturday night, so that we can get up on a Sunday morning, relaxed and ready to go. Clothes ought to be lying ready; shoes cleaned up; Sunday lesson studied—everything ready to go when the Lord’s Day dawns.
The word “day” means that we have responsibilities for keeping the whole day. It is not a matter of going to the morning service, and then spending the rest of the day as we please.
The word “keep” means that we must guard and preserve the day. The word “keep” implies that there is going to be a struggle. Nehemiah learned that in order to keep the day holy, he had to close some City gates and put watchmen on duty.
Very few would advocate that our sabbath should be a day of hundreds of prohibitions. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day had discovered 1,521 ways by which one could break the sabbath. There were 39 sets of 39 laws. It was a violation of the Sabbath to tie a knot, to carry a pen, or even to pull out a gray hair. (It was okay to pull out a black hair, but not one that was gray, because a gray hair was one that was ripe and mature and ready to harvest—and harvesting on the Sabbath was not permitted). In other words, the scribes and Pharisees had made the Sabbath a day of bondage, and it became a burden to the people. And so Jesus reminds us in Mark 2:27 that the sabbath was made for man’s benefit and for his welfare. In Luke 13 and 14 we read how Jesus stripped the Sabbath of certain man-made regulations which had made it a heavy burden (see Luke 13:10-17; Luke 14:1-6; John 5:2-18). And thus we are not advocating that Sunday become restrictive and oppressive, and that Christians must observe the Sabbath by sitting stock still in a corner somewhere, spending their time only in prayer and in reading the Bible.
Our observance of the Sabbath is to be governed by the principle of grace. The Bible doesn’t spell out exactly how we should keep the day—but one thing sure—Sunday is no time to be tinkering with the car, working in the garden, mowing the grass, painting the house, or going on a fishing trip. The Christian should observe the Lord’s Day with all the sacred reverence with which his new nature is capable of keeping it. And when we recognize that one of the purposes for the Sabbath is to provide rest for the body, surely it is a desecration of the Lord’s Day to do unnecessary work on that day.
Stephen Girard was a wealthy businessman in Philadelphia and had a large number of men employed. One Saturday Mr. Girard asked his employees to work the following day. One man stepped up to his desk and said, “Mr. Girard, I can’t work tomorrow because it is the Lord’s Day.” Girard said, “You do as I ordered, or else you lose your job.” The man’s face turned pale. He had a family to support and a widowed mother to care for. But he said, “I simply cannot work on Sunday.” Girard sent him to the cashier’s desk and he was paid off and fired.
For three weeks the young man tramped the streets of Philadelphia looking for work. One day a bank president asked Girard if he knew of any trustworthy person he could hire as a cashier in a new bank about to be opened. After a little thought, Girard named the man he had fired a few weeks before. Girard described him to the banker, and went on to say, “Any man who will lose his job in order to stand for the principle of sabbath observance, is a man whom you can trust with your money”—and the young man got the job!
We are aware of course that Jesus taught that works of necessity, works of mercy, and works of piety—are permitted on the sabbath. Works of necessity include the care for livestock. Jesus told the Pharisees that they loosed their ox and took it to water on the Sabbath, and He did not rebuke them for it (Luke 13:15). Works of mercy include ministering to the sick. Jesus healed the man with a withered hand, the crippled woman, the man at the Pool of Bethesda, all on the Sabbath Day (Luke 14:1-6). Works of piety include such activities as preaching the Gospel. Jesus said, “Have ye not read in the law how that on the sabbath days, the priests in the temple profane the sabbath (that is, work on the sabbath) and are blameless?” (Matthew 12:5; Numbers 28:9). There are occupations that require work on the sabbath, but such persons should take another day and set it aside for prayer and for rest.
If we love the Lord, we will want to serve Him every day, and live for Him every day, and seek to do His will every day—but still, one day in seven belongs to God in a very solemn way. Keeping the Sabbath involves relaxing the body. This may include such exercises as walking, reading, and family recreational activities. Keeping the Sabbath should include worship. According to the New Testament, the first day of the week was a time for public gatherings (Acts 20:7), for systematic giving (1 Corinthians 16:2), and for spiritual rejoicing (Revelation 1:10). Keeping the Sabbath should include serving. Much work is required if the church is to carry on its ministry effectively, and each of us can perform some of those duties. Sunday is a day of opportunity—a day for doing visiting, studying, fellowshipping, and bringing encouragement to someone who needs cheer.
One of God’s ten basic laws is to remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy. The first day of the week is intended to give man a day of rest for the body, and a day of worship for the soul. What we do on the Lord’s Day will largely determine the strength of our spiritual lives. A bit of verse says: “A Lord’s Day well spent, brings a week of content, and strength for the toil of the morrow. But a Sabbath profaned, whatever the gain, is surely a forerunner of sorrow.”
Our great-grandfathers used to call Sunday “The Holy Sabbath.” Our grandfathers referred to it as “The Sabbath.” Our fathers called it “Sunday.” Our present generation calls it “The weekend.” Let us take seriously the admonition to remember the sabbath day to keep it holy.
Happiness comes not merely (nor even primarily) by keeping the sabbath day holy. True happiness comes from a right relationship with God, and we become children of God through faith in Jesus Christ. One who meets the conditions of salvation and receives Christ into his heart, becomes a new creature with new aims and new goals in life. If you will surrender your will to the will of God as given in the Bible, and let Jesus reign in your heart—you will have a new outlook on God’s Word. His commandments will not seem grievous. The sabbath day will not seem to be a burden. You will look forward to a day of worship, fellowship, and receiving instruction from God’s Word.