The Fourth Commandment


Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it

This command calls us to set aside our work for one day and rest upon God by giving special attention and focus upon His worship.

To begin, there is a difference to be noted in how this 4th command is delivered here in Exodus 20 compared to the Ten Commandments’ reiteration in Deuteronomy 5. When one contrasts the the two passages, there are a few differences that can be noted. The difference that I want to point out is not so much the different call of God for the people to “remember” versus “observe” as some would want to do, we cannot get too hung up on the difference between these words because they are similar in meaning. But the significant difference to note for our purposes are the reasons for obeying this command. The grounds for why the people ought to remember or observe the sabbath day in both accounts are different. In Exodus, the reason for remembering the sabbath day is grounded in the created order: “For in six days the Lord made the heaven and the earth…” Yet in Deuteronomy, the deliverance from bondage is cited in this command and is given as the grounds.

What we see here is no contradiction between the two accounts, as some may try to argue, but it is rather a reinforcement of this command. It can be read as the Bible giving us two different reasons for attending to the sabbath. It is like saying the first reason we should observe this command is because, after His work of creation, our God rested from His labor and He has created us to pattern our lives after this. Genesis shows us that we are to observe the sabbath as a sanctified day, created as a set apart and sanctified people, and be wholly devoted on this day to the worship of God. He has ceased from His work of creating new things, and so we are to cease from our work so that we may give undivided glory to our creator. And the second reason to follow this command is because we have been shown grace and deliverance by God. In Deuteronomy, we are given the redemptive reason for worship. We are to meditate upon His gracious work of salvation for His people. Through these two instances of the same command, God reveals that He is to be worshiped as both Creator and Redeemer. Creation and redemption are the two great themes of worship.

This is some speculation, but think for a minute upon Genesis 2 and 3. Those chapters give the account of man’s creation and fall. Ask yourself, what seems to be the most natural way to read these chapters and then what would be the most natural conclusion from this natural reading? The creation of Adam, his commission, the naming of animals, the creation of Eve, the marriage of Adam and Eve, and the fall. It reads naturally of it all happening on the same day. God says that creation was “very good” within the 6th day, but before Eve was created, God said that it was “not good that man was alone” and Eve was the fitting part to make it very good. From this manner of reading and from this perspective, it becomes evident that Adam and Eve fell on the very day they were created, which was the 6th day, so they never made it to the 7th day. If this is the case, then it makes sense that this restful day is eschatological because it is the day that we as humans failed to enter without sin.


This command has created a lot of controversy over the centuries, and still is controversial today. The reason why it has been controversial is because people say that it is a mixed command that is both moral and ceremonial. The moral aspects of laws are perpetual and never change (e.g. idolatry is always a sin in all times), but we see that the day has changed from Saturday to Sunday. How is it that we have a moral imperative that is perpetual, yet has changed? What we have here is fundamentally and primarily a moral law with a ceremonial element. As is inferenced in the New Testament (John 20:19-26; Acts 20:6-7; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2), Sunday has become the appropriate day in view in light of Christ’s resurrection to set aside our work, rest, and worship.

But does Sunday replace the 7th day or does it add to it? And what right do we have to proclaim a new day? There are two options that give us indication that we are either permitted or mandated to change aspects of the ceremony. The first option is is we have a divine institution of this change itself. Or, option 2, if we set the day as circumstantial. In both days, we are making a distinction between the moral and ceremonial. On one hand, you say God Himself chooses this day, on the other, the distinction between the moral and the particular day is a matter of circumstance and is up to the church. There is also a compromise between the two views. We can ask ourselves- is it Apostolic? Whether it is the apostles acting with authority granted to them, by virtue of us being in the apostolic age, we are bound to keep it. This makes it both circumstantial and a command.

But if it is circumstantial, what if a certain people were in a country where they could only get a Friday off? Circumstantially, are they allowed to worship on a Friday instead of following the Apostolic precedence of worshipping on a Sunday? In a case like this, yes. There are many instances where the ceremonial is excused for the sake of the moral. God can excuse people from the ceremonial when necessity demands of it because the moral always trumps the ceremonial. The particular day is considered to be ceremonial, it is thus changeable, provided there is a sufficient, pressing, moral reason to change it- it ought not be changed for loose reasons. It is not something to be trite with. The church cannot simply establish whatever day it wants, we are to give due regard and place to the fact that there is a positive command for the day of observance. Yet at the same time, we are to know that not all obligations to God are equally weighty given the circumstance. If there are moral consequences that get in the way of observing the sabbath, then those conflicts trump (think in terms of having to save a life may require you to drop your direct worship/prayer/meditation and attend to this matter). But the moral 1 day in 7 is not changeable. But since this 1 day in 7 pattern is grounded in the created order, how can it be changeable? This doesn’t mean that the nature of creation compels it to be on that day. Since the early Christians have changed it, the very changeableness of the day shows it to be ceremonial.

The historic Reformed position regarding the continuity of ceremonial things has always assumed continuity unless there is a compelling reason that shows a clear discontinuity. Like the sign and seal of God’s covenant of grace upon the children remains, but the thing that has clearly changed is that its form has changed from circumcision to baptism, from males only to include females. So, we assume that the moral imperative for the 1 day in 7 pattern continues because there is no clear indication that this moral aspect of humanity has been discontinued, the only aspect that has discontinued is the day. We Reformed look for patterns of how we are to keep the sabbath in the New testament. We cannot have a position of assuming discontinuity unless something is explicitly re-affirmed because if we start with assuming discontinuity, we will be in trouble with a lot of things. Where is bestiality in the New Testament? Where are a host of a lot of other moral imperatives? Assuming discontinuity fosters the error of antinomianism.

Since the day of Christs’ resurrection is called the Lord’s Day in the New Testament, there is a sense that if one were to hold on to the 7th day as the day of rest, then there is an implicit denial of the resurrection and a trying to rest in the types of Christ when He has already come. It is like the an 8th day after the Feast of Tabernacles, after things have been accomplished of the culmination of holy days. So we observe the 1st weekday because we are already brought in to the age where reconciliation with God is accomplished. Yet, we live in an already-not-yet age where some things still point to the future, so we still work 6 days, and set apart 1.

What about Colossians 2:16-17? It reads: “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.”

The typical argument here is that this is a verse that shows us that the sabbath is abrogated. It is common acceptance and knowledge that the dietary code from the Old Testament ceremonies is rescinded, and now we are permitted to eat pork and the like, and so the words “food and drink” are the same sentence as “sabbaths.” So, it seems to make sense that the sabbath would be done away with, too. But if we take a minute to look at this verse and its context, we will see that this abrogation not the case.  Though this verse calls us to not  let anyone judge us in food or drink, but we yet read in the New Testament that we are not to be gluttons or drunkards. This can be read as a dietary code, instruction concerning food and drink. We are also called to be careful not to eat or drink anything that would be offensive to other people. So, there are still moral imperatives regarding what we do with our food and drink. There is similar instruction with the sabbaths in other epistles in that we are commanded not not neglect meeting together like they had been doing in the synagogues. Also, if we compare Hosea 2:11 in the Septuagint with this text, this is a phrase that is used as a blanket term for all the ceremonies. The call to not pass judgment would be directed at the Judiazers and ascetics who were pressing for something far more strict than what was necessary. So, “sabbaths” in this verse does not equal no proper observation of a sabbath day, but rather its focus is on the manner of the strict ceremonial observations that are within it.


ox in a ditch


The scope of this command is strictly speaking of the 7th day in the 6 + 1 structure. But this command has to do with all 7 days. God has given us the structure of time in the form of a week. For a calendar and for life cycles, the week generally is the basic unit of time. Since it coincides with the phases of the moon, all cultures feel compelled to adopt a 7 day week. So, this command has to do with all of time and its use. It has in mind a kind of work ethic in that we are to work in a way that is in accordance with this pattern. It is saying that work is important, it is good for people to work, and that there is something to be achieved, but it is not ultimate. It is also saying that the pursuit of a life of leisure is not Biblical. Contrary to popular opinion, eternity in Heaven will not be sitting on a porch drinking lemonade.

The force of this command is that we are to use all of our time to the glory of God, being sure to observe a holy rest 1 day in 7 that is devoted primarily to worship, a delight in the means of grace, and to delight in God Himself. And we must not use our labor and time in these 6 days to some other end than the glory of God, and we are to not neglect to set apart a day for holy rest and due worship of God.

What is this rest that God is calling us to have? Is this day to be a day full of napping and fun things? Is Sunday supposed to be Funday? If it were simply leisure, we would have a hard time squaring it with what Jesus did on the Sabbath. Matthew chapters 12-13 all seem to take place on a single sabbath, and a lot of teaching and healing is done in those chapters- Christ, the Lord of the sabbath, is busy, not napping the day away. Paul and Barnabas, too, show that their sabbaths are full days not given over to leisure or idleness. This rest is not a day of leisure, idleness, or a mindless, inactive day of doing nothing, nor is it an absence of activity, but it is a way of being active. It is full of particular kinds of activities, the kinds that ought to refresh your soul. It is full of activity in ministry.  The activity of the day is devotion and worship of God and delighting in Him. We are to keep it properly by putting off work and putting on prayer, meditation, works of mercy, edifying activities, and joyous delight and worship in our God.

This 1 day in 7 order is to be built into the pattern and fabric of our lives. This day of rest contextualizes your entire week. You work in hope looking forward to the day of rest. Many of us certainly seem to work for the weekend with great anticipation, but this is only so that they can engage in a plethora of self-serving activities, and any idea of going to church seems to be a waste of the weekend. How many of us, when we Biblically “work for the weekend,” have our hopes transfixed on this day of rest and worship? The numbers are pitifully low, I’m sure.

However, instead of having the work week flow into the sabbath day, I would wager that, since we are in the New Testament era and our day of rest in on the first day of the week, our work week should flow out of the sabbath day’s rest. From the time of the fall forward, the idea of rest or sabbath is a theme that is tied to our eschatological hope of deliverance. This rest points beyond itself and day 7 was always before them in the Old Testament. However, it is day 1 for us because we are already in these end times and are walking in a newness of life delivered from the bondage of sin. We have already entered into the rest that is eschatologically promised in that we now have peace with God in the forgiveness of sins through Christ. This peace is a present reality and orders the work we do throughout the week.

There is an allowance for works of necessity to be done on the Sabbath day because they are necessary. But what constitutes a work of necessity? A work of necessity are things that are necessary for the safety and function for daily workings of society. This country is so concerned with its wealth that things are pressured and argued as a work of necessity when they really aren’t. It becomes about disregarding the word of God so that we can live the life we want to live. And we have all kinds of ways of justifying this lifestyle, ignoring the sabbath is only one way.

Anxiety in our work is the opposite of faith. We need to rest in the provision of God, that He will provide our daily bread and that He has placed us in the location or vocation that He wants us to be in. We are to have a hopeful labor, receiving the good things that God has placed before us to do. Our work is being ordered to sabbath.

What about retirement? Retirement in the way that Americans normally think of is a life of vacation and travel. You put in your years of work, and then at 65, you do not have to work any more. However, this idea is an un-Biblical concept, we were created to work and the proper end of our labor is not leisure. Think of all the retired people who have given themselves to leisure and no longer work. If they do not find something to do they are miserable, depressed, and typically die earlier. But, it is not wrong to slow down in one’s old age, to step away from gainful employment and give yourself to good things, but to cease from work entirely is to step away from the good intentions that God has given mankind.

This command calls us to rest and trust upon God as the Creator and Sustainer of our lives, and the way to do this is to set aside your work for 1 day in 7 as an act of faith so that you may give special focus and attendance to His worship. He certainly has given you good work to do throughout the week, but your life does not depend upon your work. He sufficient to provide for your earthly lives just as His power is sufficient to create you and sustain your existence, so take this day as an act of faith to look to God as your object of sufficiency for existence and life. Not only this, but He is sufficient for your sins, too- to be your redeemer and Savior. He has provided salvation and deliverance for us, and has given us a new family united in Christ. It is salvation from the punishment of our own sins, ultimate deliverance from the turmoil of this world that we face week to week, and the peace of Christian fellowship and love.

This is what you are to digest and meditate on for this day. Put away your distractions. Exercise your faith in this, put down your work for a day and recognize that He is your provider. Your ultimate reason for existence is not to be an accountant, salesman, or a farmer- though these things are important and there may be pressing things to do regarding your career, but you have a greater vocation- to worship the Creator and Redeemer. Your chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. And He gives us a taste of this on this sabbath’s day rest.


Disclaimer: The content of this series is drawn from much of my notes of Dr. Bruce Baugus’ lectures. The language and arguments are adjusted to fit an easier reading flow, the content is catered to my writing style, and may not always accurately reflect Dr. Baugus’ sentiments or statements. Other sources are also used to draw in information.


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