As a pastor, I’m frequently asked whether the fourth commandment in Scripture to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” still applies to believers today. This is an honest question as many Christians strive to uphold the Ten Commandments, yet there appears to be little consistency and even little explanation pertaining to the commandment to honor the Sabbath day and to keep it holy.
Here is a short list of some of the typical responses with regard to the different views of how the fourth commandment fits in to the church today (Ex 20:8-11):
- The Sabbath commandment is just as applicable today as it was in the days of Moses,
- The Sabbath commandment is no longer applicable at all under the New Covenant,
- The Sabbath has moved to Sunday because Jesus Christ rose on Sunday, and lastly
- I haven’t given it much thought.
With these typical responses in mind, let’s look more closely at the first Sabbath so we can gain a better understanding of the Sabbath commandment.
The Bible tells us that, after creating the entire universe in six days, God then rested on day seven: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 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” (Genesis 2:1-2).
And there it is – the very first Sabbath in all of creation, which landed on the final day of the first week in all eternity, when God rested from His work. Now, there are some who might be inclined to think that God rested because He needed a nap after His work in creation, but, of course, that’s just not true for the All-Powerful, All-Mighty God. He had no need to lie down and go to sleep, as if He became weary from all the work He had done. Isaiah 40:28 teaches us that “The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary.” In fact, Isaiah goes even further than that when he teaches that God is actually our source of strength and power! So, if God needs to take a nap then we are in a lot of trouble – it is God Himself who upholds the universe by the power of His hand. It is God who holds all things together, it is in Him that we live and move and have our existence, and it is by His power that all things continue to exist (Col 1:17; Acts 17:28; Ps 36:6; 1 Cor 8:6).
So, if God wasn’t tired and didn’t need to rest, why did He rest? Well, He rested simply because His work in creation was complete. The Hebrew word for rest that’s used in Genesis 2 means “cessation of work or inactivity.” The idea here is that God stopped His work; therefore, it is appropriate to say that He rested from His work.
Rest is one thing that sets this day apart from the previous six days. On each of the previous six days, God worked, but on this day God rested from His work.
Not only is the seventh day significant because God rested from His work, but it’s also significant because it’s the only day that God blessed and made holy. During days one through six, the Bible tells us that God looked at His creation and saw that it was good, but day seven was different: God blessed that day and made it holy. God set that day apart from the other days of creation (Genesis 2:1-3).
Before we go any further, let’s take a look at God’s words from Exodus chapter 20. In verses 8-10 God 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 to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work.”
He goes on to provide the reason for keeping the Sabbath holy in verse 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 holy.”
So, with that in mind, what is the appropriate attitude for a 21st century Christian regarding the Sabbath commandment?
Well, first of all, if this commandment is still required, most Christians are guilty of breaking the Sabbath many times over, because Saturday is actually the seventh day of the week, as opposed to Sunday. However, in order to overcome this inconsistency, some Christians refer to Sunday as the Christian Sabbath, because Sunday is the day that Christ rose from the grave.
But this type of language is not biblical nor is it consistent with New Testament practice. What is consistent with New Testament practice is the observance of the Lord’s Day, but observing the Lord’s Day does not necessarily negate the Sabbath commandment.
In order for us to gain a better understanding of the Sabbath it is important to understand what the Sabbath is pointing to. (Stay with me – We’re almost there!) Upon reading Hebrews 3:7-4:10, we see that God’s promise of Sabbath rest was ultimately not a physical, earthly rest but a heavenly, eternal rest. Just as the physical sacrifices of animals that took place in the Old Testament point to a greater reality (the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ), so too the physical day of rest points to something much greater: This physical day of setting everything aside in order to rest in God points to the eternal rest that we have in Christ. Christ is calling us to come to Him, and He will give us rest. In Matthew 11, Jesus calls to the weary and heavy-laden saying: “Come to me…and learn from me…and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt 11:28-29). Therefore, the Sabbath commandment is still required of us today, but it’s so much greater than just setting aside one day out of the week; the Sabbath requires us to rest daily in Jesus Christ.
Jesus did not come to do away with the Sabbath, for He is the fulfillment of the Sabbath, just as He is the fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrifices (Matthew 5:17). That is why we can now find our Sabbath rest in Christ.
In conclusion, the way for 21st century Christians to honor the Sabbath day and to keep it holy is by resting daily in Christ, looking to Him alone, for only in Christ is there true rest. We do not have to work our way into eternal rest, for we can rest in the work of Christ, who came to earth, lived a sinless life, and fulfilled the requirements of God’s Law. And although He was without sin, he died a sinner’s death so that we might live in His resurrection power and spend eternity in His rest.
Might we keep the Sabbath by resting in Christ and resting from our own works, for the Sabbath is fulfilled in Christ, and this ultimate rest will be fully ours in the age to come.