The Biblical Fourth Commandment of Exodus 20
Sabbath, Ancient and Modern
that so-little understood subject!
thou also unto the children of Israel, saying,
My Sabbaths ye shall keep:" -Exodus 31:13
Millenniums ago, God gave our Biblical forefathers a special day of religious observance far surpassing in importance any human "holiday" ever conceived by the mind of man. That day was "the Sabbath." It was a day of rest, for worship in the Temple, for contemplation of the things of God, and for the ceasing of all ploughing, harvesting, business, and labor. What purpose did God have in all of this, and has that purpose now changed? For answers, let us go back to the origins of Sabbath observance and listen to what God says about it.
ORIGINS OF THE SABBATH:
In Genesis 2:2 we read, "And on the seventh day, God ended His work which He had made; and He RESTED on the seventh day from all His work which He had made." The Hebrew word translated, "rested" in our Bibles is "SHABATH' (pronounced shaw-bath'; modern English word, 'Sabbath'). Strong's Concordance #7673 gives a very fine definition of this word, Shabath or Sabbath:
"To repose, i.e., desist from exertion, ...to cease, celebrate, ...leave, put away or down, make to rest, (be) still, take away."
So this is the day that all "exertion " stops, when our own work is "put away," when we instead "rest and be still," and "celebrate" the countless blessings which God has given to us. The late Bishop Daniel Wilson called it, "an indispensable preparation for the heavenly blessedness." Yes, Sabbath observance is a foretaste of the Kingdom! The Sabbath Day symbolizes the 'everlasting Sabbath' of the Kingdom of God; it allows us on this one day per week to emulate that future Sabbath rest which will be seven days per week, every week, when Christ's Kingdom has overspread the earth. As such, the Sabbath plays an important, central part of "Kingdom living" for believers, both now and in the ages to come. It is one of our most ancient institutions; from earliest times, the keeping of the Sabbath was the mark of God's servant people. During the persecutions in the early Church, many became Christian martyrs after being asked this key question by the Roman authorities: "Do you keep the Lord's Day?" Yet as moral law from God dating back to the time of creation, it is binding upon all men, not just Christians; and it is the Sabbath DAY which is to be kept holy, not merely the part of the day spent in congregational worship. It is first of all, a memorial of God's Sacred Rest on the seventh day of creation; and the Reformer, Martin Luther, expressed that "if Adam had continued in innocency, yet he would have had a sacred seventh day." Has the Sabbath changed to meet our modern needs? Times change, but eternal truths do not!
Today a major concern on the minds of working people is "job security." In ancient times, there often was none, as family existence and well-being tenuously depended upon a successful harvest. Yet, the Sabbath commandment expressly includes the times of ploughing and reaping in which it was very, very hard for them to interrupt work. Exo. 34:21. Why would they cease work, even when it appeared to interfere with their own "well-being"? The key to God's purpose, I believe, is in the words of our definition: CELEBRATE and REST.
A CELEBRATION OF GOD'S GOODNESS
The company of nations known as "Christendom" (which, by the way, means, 'Christ's Kingdom') have had at least one other thing in common since receiving the glad tidings of the gospel: they've set aside one day in seven as a national observance, calling it "the Sabbath," and "the Lord's Day." The significance of our keeping of this day is found in a statute containing a very early prophecy from patriarchal times.
In Exodus 31, verse 12, we read: "And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying,. 'Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying, Verily, My Sabbaths ye shall keep; for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that ye may know that I am the Lord that doth sanctify you...Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. IT IS A SIGN BETWEEN ME AND THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL FOREVER; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He rested, and was refreshed."
We learn from these verses that the Sabbath was to be kept by Israel as a sign that they were indeed the people of God. It was an outward symbol of God's covenant with Israel! Moreover, this was a perpetual covenant between God and Israel which they were to observe and obey. No other race can be found throughout history that have continuously kept such a national holy day, and it is even today only found among the Christian-Israel people of the world. Former U.S. Supreme Court justice, David J. Brewer, in his 1905 book, "The United States: A Christian Nation," well stated that the Christian Sabbath is "a day peculiar to [the Christian] faith, and known to no other." Was this sign annulled at Calvary? No! For not only do we find it evident in the earth today among God's own people, but we are expressly told that "it is a sign...forever." How then do some call it abolished?
Read the language of Exodus 31, Deuteronomy 5, and Ezekiel 20 and notice the great New Testament themes of covenant, sanctification, and redemption that are bound up with the Sabbath. "And remember...that the Lord thy God brought thee out thence (from Egypt) through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm; therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath day." (Deut. 5:15, the Fourth Commandment). Through the Sabbath, we celebrate God's redemption of His Israel people from Egypt (and many times since), as well as their sanctification (Ezek. 20:12) from sin and wickedness. It is also a sign of our covenant relationship with God. (Ezek. 20:20) These material and spiritual blessings were given to Israel, and through these chosen servants the entire world has been blessed! Truly, we offer thanks to God, and a celebration for His goodness when we observe the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.
A REST UNTO THE PEOPLE OF GOD
But keeping the Sabbath is not just a matter of celebration. As its name indicates, it is also a day of rest. In Old Testament times, the land was to have a Sabbath or rest every seven years, during which time no planting or harvesting was to be done. (Exodus 23:10). Some modern scientists say that this was done to break the life-cycle of the soil insects, so that most would die off and the crops would be almost insect-free (without pesticides!) the following year. Others add that the land rest allowed it to lay fallow and rejuvenate; this prevented it from becoming worn out through over-use. God decreed essentially the same type of Sabbath for man, a rest one day out of seven. The human body needs a time of rest and relaxation to re-invigorate and rebuild damaged tissue. There's no such thing as a non-stop human dynamo; and a vacation once a year is just not enough!
But to clarify one common misconception regarding
the Sabbath rest, it was not to be just a day of idleness, sloth, and inactivity.
A wonderful and inspiring passage of scripture is to be found in Isaiah 58, verse
13, where we read: "If thou turn away thy foot from the Sabbath, from doing
thy pleasure on My holy day; and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord,
honorable; and shalt honor Him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure,
nor speaking thine own words:"
Then comes the promise: Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it." God's Sabbath day is a rest from the cares of this world that weigh us down. It is not sloth, but a setting aside of our own duties and obligations and turning unto His. We are thus commanded to make Him the center of our lives, thoughts, and actions on this day. Worship Him! Serve Him! Earnestly seek to let nothing interfere with a proper observance of the Sabbath, for He has declared it a sacred holiday. And if we will do that, then the greatest (spiritual and material) blessings which God gave to Jacob and the Patriarchs will be ours. A prize immeasurable!!
I would lake to share with you some insightful remarks by two well-known Christian expositors. Bishop Westcott wrote: "The Sabbath is the Lord's Day, not ours. Man's true rest is not a rest from human, earthly labor, but a rest for divine, heavenly labor." Dr. Benjamin P. Warfield had this to say: "Rest is not the true essence of the Sabbath, nor the end of its institution; it is the means to a further end, which constitutes the real Sabbath 'rest.' We are to rest from our own things that we may give ourselves to the things of God."
Yes, do we indeed keep the Sabbath rest, or do we remember God only if there is time after our weekend "chores" are finished? Does God come last or first in your life on the Sabbath day? This is the true rest so many lack, for Bible reading, prayer, and worship are the best means available to soothe and comfort our worried, overburdened minds and hearts. Please try it - do it with vigor - and you will be blessed.
QUESTIONS ON CHRISTIAN HEARTS
Many today have been led to believe that the Sabbath was part of the ceremonial laws of the time of Moses; and if ceremonial, then transitory, temporary, and abolished when Christ came to inaugurate the Age of Grace. Many, in fact, believe that Christ came to earth in order to sweep all of God's laws right out the door. "We're New Testament Christians," they say, thinking that the Sabbath is removed along with everything else that belongs to the 'old dispensation.' But such would be license, not grace! In answer to this, the New Testament declares in Hebrews 4, verse 9: "There remaineth therefore a rest (literal translation: a Sabbath) to the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from His. Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest..."
This leads naturally to one final question. What if we must work on the Sabbath, either for needed services, civic protection, or some other reason? Then keep another one day out of seven if you must, but at least fulfill the principle behind God's commands. The Sabbath principle is an eternal truth for our continual well-being!
PENALTIES FOR DISOBEDIENCE
A law without a penalty to encourage compliance would be weak and ineffectual indeed. We therefore find these pointed but heartfelt words of admonition from the mouth of Jesus Christ Himself, in Matthew 7, verse 21: "Not every one that saith unto Me, 'Lord, Lord' shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of My Father which is in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy Name? And in Thy Name have cast out devils? And in Thy Name done many wonderful works?' And then will I profess unto them, 'I never knew you! Depart from Me, ye that work iniquity.'" Iniquity means 'lawlessness,' or disobedience to God's laws and commands. We may profess the Name of Christ, but it is by our "fruits" or actions that God will know our heart's true desires. If we love Him, we will be obedient to Him. Believer, do you have Christian "fruit?"
We pray that this brief study will encourage you to make the Sabbath a matter of prayerful consideration, and to strive to ever be more obedient to Him from Whom all blessings flow. Dear reader, why not worship God this coming Sabbath!