From my new book, The Way of the Lord: A Study of the Ten Commandments. Click here to buy the book and Bible study so you can use it devotionally or work through it with a small group of Christian brothers and sisters… or to even give away to someone who desires to learn more about the way of the Lord.
First, under the repose of the seventh day the heavenly Lawgiver meant to represent to the people of Israel spiritual rest, in which believers ought to lay aside their own works to allow God to work in them. Secondly, he meant that there was to be a stated day for them to assemble to hear the law and perform the rites, or at least to devote it particularly to meditation upon his works, and thus through this remembrance to be trained in piety. Thirdly, he resolved to give a day of rest to servants and those who are under the authority of others, in order that they should have some respite from toil. (John Calvin)
Q. 103. What does God require in the fourth Commandment?
A. In the first place, God wills that the ministry of the Gospel and schools be maintained, and that I, especially on the day of rest, diligently attend church to learn the Word of God, to use the holy sacraments, to call publicly upon the Lord, and to give Christian alms. In the second place, that all the days of my life I rest from my evil works, allow the Lord to work in me by His Spirit, and thus begin in this life the everlasting sabbath. (The Heidelberg Catechism)
How do we keep the fourth commandment? By worshiping the Lord on his day. To keep something holy in the biblical sense is to dedicate it exclusively for worship. …To keep the Sabbath “to the Lord” is to give the day over to God, setting it apart for him and his glory. …The Sabbath is not only a day for worship, but also a day of rest. It is a day for ceasing from work, and especially from common labor. (Philip Ryken)
We have now arrived at the most controversial of the commandments. Throughout church history, there have been a variety of perspectives on what the fourth commandment means and does not mean. What makes this commandment especially difficult to honor today is that our culture largely ignores it. It is merely the second day of the weekend. It’s a day for sleeping in and reading the paper, or it’s the last day of our child’s soccer tournament or our round of golf. It is a day for traveling home from a weekend getaway or vacation. Honoring it as a holy day does not appear to be on the radar screen of the world in which we live. In fact, some treat it as any other day of regular work. But that ought not be the way Christians view the Sabbath. But therein lies the question: How should Christians view this sacred, set-apart day?
A minority view has been that this commandment has been abrogated by virtue that the Sabbath day of the old covenant, Saturday, has been replaced with Sunday as the Lord’s Day, changed because it was the day our Lord rose from the dead. It is functionally the day the church still makes holy through rest and worship, but primarily because it is practical to do so, not because God has commanded it. Christians are called to gather corporately to worship God and since this day has already been set aside, it makes sense to keep it as a special day on the Christian’s weekly calendar.
On the other side of the spectrum, from a Christian perspective on Sabbath-keeping, is that Sunday is indeed the Sabbath of the new covenant. Christians are, therefore, commanded to focus on God in worship, both corporate as well as private, including with one’s family. It is also a day of rest from one’s regular work. This stricter view would prohibit any sports or leisure activities that were not focused upon, and set apart for, worshiping the Lord. This view does not intentionally promote legalism, but does emphasize that Sunday is a day to be made holy unto the Lord and therefore, the Lord’s should be our focus. I even read one proponent of this view that suggested naps would not be considered in keeping with this commandment.
A third option is not quite in the middle of the previous two; it leans closer toward understanding Sunday as the Christian Sabbath, or Lord’s Day. It is grounded in an understanding that the Sabbath is based in creation, following the example of God who worked for six days and rested on the seventh. Thus, not only does it emphasize resting from regular work on the Sabbath, but like the people of Israel who were called to remember their escape from slavery in Egypt, Christians are called to remember God delivering us from slavery to sin and death through the redemption Christ won for us through his Cross and Resurrection.
In Luke 4 we read that it was our Lord’s custom to worship on the Sabbath, so he clearly did not think it had been abolished. Yet, he did indicate in Mark 7 that all food was now permissible to eat, in the apparent abolishment of the Mosaic dietary restrictions. Furthermore, keeping the Sabbath was included in the decalogue, a summary of the moral law of Israel, which as we saw in an earlier lesson, remains authoritative and required for Christians to obey today. This view would not prohibit doing household chores, enjoying family recreation, and the like. Yet, it might still encourage one to ask: “Am I honoring the Lord on this day?”
Thus, the issue for most Christians today is not whether or not the Sabbath should be kept, but how it should be kept. What does it mean and not mean to keep the Sabbath holy? What is prohibited and what is permissible? Moreover, even if something is not expressly forbidden, what is the best and most integrity-filled way of keeping the spirit of the commandment, without degenerating into legalism? Paul cautioned his readers to beware of doing whatever they desired and hiding behind a claim of grace to cover their licentious decision. That seems an especially apt caution for Christians today when it comes to the fourth commandment. We want to walk the right path that guides us between the ditch of legalism on one side and licentiousness on the other.
Hopefully, the questions below will help you better understand the intentions and requirements of this commandment and enable you to find ways to obey and honor God’s desire for you to set apart the Sabbath as a special day to rest from your labor and to honor God with your worship of him. This lesson will also focus on the nature of work, rest, and time. May God help us employ all these spheres of our life to bring him glory and be a blessing in the lives of others.
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