The Fourth Commandment (Phil Johnson)

Exodus 20:8-11   |   Sunday, November 9, 2014   |   Code: 2014-11-09-PJ

This past summer during the July series I was given the

assignment to teach on Seventh-Day Adventism, and that

message was recorded and widely distributed on the Internet.

In the process I mentioned a message I did almost fifteen

years ago on the Fourth Commandment. (It was part of a

series I did on the Decalogue.) And ever since, I've been

getting Tweets and e-mails from people looking for that

sermon on the Sabbath, so I thought it might be good to

revisit that passage and get a fresh look at the fourth


So Turn to Exodus 20. This is the first of two places in the

Pentateuch where the Ten Commandments are listed (the

other being Deuteronomy 5), and in both places, the fourth is

the longest and most detailed of all the commandments. The

shortest commandment is the eighth, just four short words in

English: "You shall not steal." The sixth commandment is

likewise four words in English: "You shall not murder," but it

takes more letters to spell. In the Hebrew text, the sixth,

seventh, and eighth commandments are all just two words.

The Second Commandment (against making graven

images) is three verses long and 91 words in the ESV. But

the Fourth Commandment covers four verses and takes 98

words in the ESV. In Deuteronomy, it's 136 words over the

span of four verses, but the second commandment in

Deuteronomy is only 90 words spanning three verses. In the

Hebrew, you have roughly the same proportional length.

More words are devoted to the Fourth Commandment than to

any other. So the sheer amount of space given to this

commandment suggests we should pay close attention to it.

There is no end of opinion on this passage, and it remains

a point of fierce controversy even among the theologians

whom I most respect. At least one Baptist fellowship I am

aware of split into three separate groups because they had

differences of opinion about how the Fourth Commandment

was to be interpreted and applied. This is a controversial

passage, and let's just acknowledge that at the outset.

Here is the Commandment itself, from Exodus 20:8-11:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work,

10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your

God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or

your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant,

or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your


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


The Fourth Commandment 3

Now, the commandment itself is not all that hard to

understand. "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" (v. 8).

That sets aside a special day, a particular day, as a holy day

unto the Lord. The precise day is then specified. It's the

seventh day of the week (v. 10): "The seventh day is a

Sabbath to the LORD your God." And then a reason is given

why it's the seventh day, rather than the first or the third or

the sixth: because "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." That verse (v. 11), is a reference to Genesis 2:2-3,

which says, "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. So God blessed the seventh day and made it

holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had

done in creation."

So one day in seven was set aside as holy, and it was the

seventh dayCSaturday on our calendarsCbecause that is

when God rested from His creative work. The Israelites were

to observe that day each week, setting it aside for the Lord.

The rest of the Mosaic law then includes numerous specific

laws that severely restricted what the Israelites were allowed

to do on the Sabbath.

But the commandment itself is simple and

straightforward, establishing a fixed day of rest and worship

each week for all of Israel to observe.

Exodus 20:8-11 4

Now, why is this commandment such a source of

controversy? Because there is widespread disagreement in

the church about whether it applies at all to Christians, and if

so, how it is to be applied.

Opinion ranges from those who think it calls for strict

observance of a seventh-day Sabbath forever, to those who

don't think it applies to the church at all.

At one end of the spectrum you have the Seventh-Day

Adventists, and their predecessorsCa small group that arose

in the 1700s, known as the Seventh-Day Baptists. In their

view, this commandment sets up an eternal moral principle

that imposes a strict Saturday-Sabbath observance on all

people of all time. We'll call them the strict seventh-day


At the other end of the spectrum, you have Christians who

believe that not only the Fourth Commandment, but the

entire decalogue, is irrelevant to Christians anyway, because

it belongs to the Mosaic Covenant and has nothing to do with

us. So they wouldn't trouble themselves about how to apply

this commandment today, because they believe every aspect

of the law has been abolished under the New Covenant and

therefore the Ten Commandments simply don't apply to

Christians. They would oppose the application of any legal

principles for believers today, and therefore they are properly

called antinomians. In this category are many

hyper-Calvinists, most old-line Scofield-style dispensationalThe

Fourth Commandment 5

ists, and some who hold to a more recent view known as

New Covenant Theology.

(Now, let me say something here as a footnote, because

many of these people would reject the label of

antinomianism. They think it has the sound of libertinism to

it, as if it signified that they promoted immorality. But I do

not use that term in order to be derogatory. Antinomianism is

the proper theological term for the view that the Ten

Commandments are not binding on Christians. Look it up in

the Oxford English Dictionary or any theological dictionary

if you don't believe me. I'm using the term in its technical

sense. If you believe the Ten Commandments have no

application whatsoever to the Christian, you are against the

law in a theological sense, and the name for that kind of

theology is antinomianism.)

Now, between those two extremes, there is still quite a

wide variety of opinions. The typical Reformed view, spelled

out in most of the classic Protestant creeds of the 17th

century, is that the Christian Sabbath has been changed from

the seventh day of the week to the first. Here's what the

Baptist Confession of 1689 says about the question:

[God] hath particularly appointed one day in seven for a

Sabbath to be kept holy unto him, which from the

beginning of the World to the Resurrection of Christ, was

the last day of the week; and from the resurrection of

Christ, was changed into the first day of the week which is

Exodus 20:8-11 6

called the Lords day; and is to be continued to the end of

the World, as the Christian Sabbath; the observation of

the last day of the week being abolished.

And many of those who hold to that view want to impose

most of the Old Testament restrictions against work and

travel on Christians, merely moving the Sabbath to Sunday.

That was the classic Puritan view, and it is still the view of

most who would call themselves "Reformed" today. We'll

call that view Christian sabbatarianism.

In recent years, as more and more people have returned to

confessional Reformed theology, this type of Puritan

Sabbatarianism has been growing in popularity. There is a

revival of the kind of sabbatarianism that was enforced by

the Puritans. Some people think if you hold to Calvinism at

all, you must embrace this kind of sabbatarianism. So this

has become a hotly-debated issue in the very theological

circles some of us travel in.

There is one other classic Reformed view on the Sabbath,

and it happens to be where my own sympathies lie. So for

those of you who have been eager to hear what position I

would take, this is it. This was the view of Calvin and most

of the early continental Reformers: There is an eternal moral

principle contained in the Fourth Commandment, and that is

why it is part of the decalogue. But there is also a ceremonial

aspect of this law that was abolished under the New

Covenant. And the specific Old Testament Sabbath

The Fourth Commandment 7

restrictions pertain to the ceremonial ordinances that were

abrogated by Christ.

Here's what Calvin had to say about the Fourth

Commandment: He wrote, "with the seventh day of rest the

Lord wished to give to the people of Israel an image of

spiritual rest." And, "As to [this] reason, there is no doubt

that it ceased in Christ; because he is the truth by the

presence of which all images vanish."

"Hence," Calvin said, "superstitious observance of days

must remain far from Christians. . . . As the truth therefore

was given to the Jews under a figure, so to us on the contrary

truth is shown without shadows in order, first of all, that we

meditate all our life on a perpetual Sabbath from our works

so that the Lord may operate in us by his spirit."

So, Calvin said, the weekly Sabbath observance was

ceremonial. The Sabbath day pictures a reality that

prefigured Christ and was fulfilled by Him. He offers the

perfect Sabbath rest. The Old Testament Sabbath

observances merely foreshadowed something that was made

clear in Christ. And when you have the substance of the real

thing, there's no need to hang onto mere shadows and

symbols of that thing.

Let me illustrate: When I went to Asia for a couple of

weeks last year, I took a picture of Darlene with me. It was

something I could take out and look at to remind me of her.

Exodus 20:8-11 8

And I took out that picture every day and counted down the

days until I could see her for real.

But when I came home and saw her after two weeks of

being away, I didn't pull out that picture and kiss it. I kissed

her. On the way home in the car, I didn't pull out that picture

and look at it; I looked at her. It would be folly, and an insult

to her, if I gave my attention to a mere symbol of her, when I

had the real thing right there beside me.

The apostle Paul said that's how we should regard all the

ceremonial elements of the Old Testament law. The

priesthood, the sacrifices, the ceremonies, and the ritualsCall

these were symbols that prefigured Christ in various ways.

And when you have the real thing, it is a sin to go back to

observing something that was merely symbolic.

The animal sacrifices, for example, were object lessons

that pictured the atoning work of Christ. Now that His

atoning work is finished, it would be wrong to observe the

symbols. The passover, and all the other Jewish holidays,

also pictured various aspects of the work of Christ. Now that

the full light of divine revelation has shown us the realities

that were only symbolized by those things, we do not need to

maintain the symbols.

And the apostle Paul expressly includes the weekly

Sabbaths among those types and symbols that have passed

away. Turn for a moment to Colossians 2. In verses 13-14,

Paul talks about the finished work of Christ and how it has

The Fourth Commandment 9

liberated us from our sin and from the condemnation of the

law. Verses 14-15 say, "by canceling the record of debt that

stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside,

nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities

and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him."

In other words, He freed us from all the ordinances that

condemned us and utterly defeated the forces of evil. All of

that is done. His redemptive work is finished. There's

nothing left to be foreshadowed by any kind of types or

symbols. And therefore in verse 16, he says,

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of

food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon

or a Sabbath.

17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the

substance belongs to Christ.

Now, the typical sabbatarian will look at that passage and

say, "But that has nothing to do with the weekly Sabbaths.

That refers to certain feast days, and perhaps the sabbatical

years, and the year of jubilee."

But, no, Paul uses a clear progression here in order to

make his meaning absolutely clear: "Let no man therefore

judge you . . . in respect of an holyday." That refers to the

annual feasts of the Jewish Calendar. "Or of the new moon."

Those were monthly celebrations. "Or of the Sabbath days."

That can be none other than the weekly Sabbaths. We are

under no more obligation to observe the ceremonial

Exodus 20:8-11 10

requirements of the weekly Sabbaths than we are to follow

the dietary laws of Old Testament Judaism, circumcision, the

priestly ceremonies, or any other ceremonial aspect of the

law. Those things were merely pictures that illustrated Christ

and His redemptive work. And now that we have the real

thing, we don't need to be fixated on the pictures.

Now, let me say this: all Reformed theologiansCeven the

ones who argue for strict observance of Sunday as the

SabbathCmust ultimately acknowledge that there is a

ceremonial aspect to the Old Testament Sabbath.

You'll remember from our study of the Ten

Commandments several years ago that the decalogue is a

simple summary of the moral law. But even though this

commandment falls here in the middle of this outline of the

law's moral precepts, it nonetheless deals with a ceremonial

and symbolic observance. And even the strictest Reformed

Sabbatarian ultimately must concede that point, because the

commandment itself spells out which day is to be regarded as

the Sabbath, and it's Saturday. But not one Reformed creed

or theologian of any stature has ever argued that this

commandment should be observed without any change in

form from how Moses delivered it on Sinai. (The only ones

who argue that way are the Seventh-day Adventists and a

few Seventh-day Baptists. And they are in clear violation of

the principle set forth in Colossians 2:16.)

The Fourth Commandment 11

So ultimately, Protestant theologians have never disagreed

on whether this commandment has a ceremonial aspect.

Where they disagree is on the question of whether Sunday is

given to us as a Christian Sabbath, and if so, how is that

Sabbath to be observed? Those questions have prompted no

end of debate, and to cover every aspect of that debate would

take several weeks.

So what I want to do this morning is give you five

principles to keep in mind about the Sabbath, to help you

think through the question of how we as Christians should

regard the SabbathCapart from the ceremonial ordinances

that governed how the Old Testament Israelites were

commanded to observe it.

And at the end, I will show you that there is an

eternally-binding moral lesson in this law. In fact, there are

several moral principles we ought to draw from this

commandment. And the moral aspects of this commandment

are applicable to us as Christians today. I hope this will help

you see how this law fits in the decalogue and why it is there

as part of God's eternal moral law.

Principle number 1:


The first inkling of the Sabbath appears in Genesis 2,

where we read this description of the seventh day of the

week of creation (Genesis 2:2-3):

Exodus 20:8-11 12

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.

3 So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy,

because on it God rested from all his work that he had

done in creation.

There is no mention of the word Sabbath anywhere in

Scripture until Exodus 16, when manna began to come down

to feed the Israelites in the wilderness. There's no suggestion

here in Genesis that God imposed Sabbath observance on

Adam. In fact, he didn't, and he couldn't have, because Adam

was less than a day old and had no works to rest from.

Furthermore, if Adam had obeyed God in the garden and

abstained from eating the forbidden fruit, his life was

designed to be a perpetual Sabbath rest, living in the garden

and enjoying the presence of God, with a daily existence that

was free from any kind of exhausting labor.

But the Sabbath was instituted after the fall, after the

flood, and after the Israelites left Egypt. It was a gracious gift

to the Old Testament Israelites that enabled them to

experience one day each week a small taste of what life in

Eden was supposed to be. So keep this in mind: The Sabbath

was supposed to be a sample of what humanity forfeited in

EdenCbut it was not instituted as an ordinance until the time

of Moses.

The Fourth Commandment 13

Around the time of Christ, legalistic Pharisees made the

Sabbath law the focus of rigid enforcement, and they turned

the Sabbath into a drudgery, but it was originally intended to

be a nothing more than a day of rest and pure refreshment for

God's peopleCa gracious gift from God. In Isaiah 58:13, God

pleads with Israel to "call the Sabbath a delight," and to seek

pleasure in what pleases God, to honor the Lord's rest, and

enter into that rest, instead of seeking pleasures of their own.

So the Sabbath day was a commemoration of day 7 of

creation week, when God rested, and hallowed the day. Now

again, there is nothing anywhere in the Old Testament that

suggests God demanded His people to observe the Sabbath

before the time of Moses. Nowhere in Scripture do we read

that Abraham or any of the patriarchs ever observed the


This is one of the questions about the Sabbath that is hotly

debated: Was the Sabbath a creation ordinance, or was this a

commandment that was initiated at Sinai? And you will find

that most theologians have inferred from Scripture that the

Sabbath was a creation ordinance, because the reason for

observing the Sabbath was to commemorate God's own rest

at creation.

(Two notable exceptions are John Bunyan and John Gill,

both of whom pointed out that nothing anywhere in Scripture

suggests that anyone prior to Moses' time was ever

commanded to observe the Sabbath, and no one prior to

Exodus 20:8-11 14

Moses' time is ever said to have rested on the Sabbath.

Bunyan pointed out, "In all the Scriptures we do not read that

the breach of a [weekly] Sabbath was charged upon [any

man from Adam to Moses]." John Gill said, "None but the

Jews were ever charged with the breach of the [weekly]


And this goes to the question of whether the Sabbath

commandment is moral or merely ceremonial. If it wasn't

given as a commandment to humans until Moses' time, it

must be mainly ceremonial, because if the commands and

restrictions associated with Old Testament Sabbath

observance were purely moral principles, they would have

been eternally binding on all people at all times, like the

commandments against murder and adultery.

Again, I think the proper biblical view is that there are

both moral and ceremonial aspects to the fourth

commandment. The ceremonial aspect, which calls for

observance of the seventh-day in particular, could not have

been a creation ordinance, because if it were, it would never

have been subject to change. Saturday Sabbaths would be

eternally binding.

But at the same time, it is important to see that whatever

eternal moral principle is found in this law is eternally

binding, and therefore must have been engraved on the heart

of Adam from creation. So that aspect of this law was indeed

a binding ordinance from the time of creation. My own

The Fourth Commandment 15

conviction is that in its broadest form, there is a moral aspect

to this law that was indeed a creation ordinance, binding on

all men of all time. But the specifics regarding the seventh

day, and all the rules about traveling and building fires on the

SabbathCthe external features of Old Testament Sabbath

observanceCthose things are purely ceremonial and not

eternally binding on believers. (Precisely which aspects of

this commandment pertain to the eternal moral law, we will

take up in my final point, but for now, let me just say that it

mainly involves the necessity of resting from our works, and

the necessity of seeking our rest in the Lord.)

But as far as worshiping on the seventh day is concerned,

no such ordinance is either given or implied in Scripture, and

there is no example of a seventh-day Sabbath anywhere in

the Old Testament until the time of Moses.

Nevertheless, this commandment, when given to Moses at

Sinai, looked back at creation, and its whole rationale was

drawn from the example of God Himself, who rested from

His works on the seventh day. That's precisely what Exodus

20:11 says, "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 that is principle number 1: The Sabbath looked back to

creation. Now, here is principle number 2:

Exodus 20:8-11 16


This is a major point according to the writer of Hebrews.

Turn for a moment to Hebrews 4. Notice verses 4-5:

For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this

way: "And God rested on the seventh day from all his


5 And again in this passage he said, "They shall not enter

my rest."

Notice the point he is making. The Sabbath pointed

backward to creation and the example of God's rest. But it

also looked forward toward a future rest, which the people

had not yet entered into. And they could not enter that rest if

they remained in rebellion against God. Disobedience would

keep them outCand the Bible uses a word for disobedience

that speaks of obstinate disbeliefCdefiance against God.

Verse 6: "Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and

those who formerly received the good news failed to enter

because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day,


Now what kind of rest do people not enter into because

they harden their hearts against God? This is talking about

the rest that comes with redemption. And what is the

appointed day? "Today." The day of grace. That's every day

until the Lord returns.

The writer of Hebrews is relying on some familiar

typology here. He is quoting Psalm 95:11, which recounts

The Fourth Commandment 17

how God forbid an entire rebellious generation of Israelites

from entering into the promised land. And Canaan itself was

a picture of paradise and redemption for God's people. So the

writer of Hebrews applies Psalm 95:11 this way: he sees it as

a graphic lesson about ultimate redemption. He says it's

talking about something more than the Israelites entering

literal Canaan. He says there is another rest, a greater

restCan eternal heavenly restCyet to come. And that is what

the Sabbath pictures.

Look at verse 7: "Again he appoints a certain day, 'Today,'

saying through David so long afterward, in the words already

quoted, 'Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your

hearts.'" Now, that is also a quotation from Psalm 95 (vv.

7-9): "For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture,

and the sheep of his hand. Today, if you hear his voice, do not

harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in

the wilderness, when your fathers put me to the test and put me

to the proof, though they had seen my work." And the writer of

Hebrews points out that David wrote that psalm many years

after Joshua's time, when the people finally did enter

Canaan, and yet David was speaking of a still-future rest.

Hebrews 4, verses 8-9: "For if Joshua had given them rest, God

would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there

remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God."

And here is his point: The Sabbath points forward to a

yet-future rest. It is the rest of redemption. It is the rest of

Exodus 20:8-11 18

salvation by grace through faith. Verses 10-11: "for whoever

has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God

did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no

one may fall by the same sort of disobedience."

So the typology of the Sabbath was a lesson about

redemption and how we enters into it. Redemption is not

obtained by working, but by entering into the Lord's rest

through repentant faith.

This, by the way, is why Jesus was so incensed at the

corruption of the Sabbath by the Pharisees. They had made

the Sabbath into a drudgery that was all about rigid laws and

stern punishments. It was never supposed to be that. It was

supposed to be a refreshing rest from labor, signifying the

way of salvation. That is why Jesus said in Mark 2:27-28,

"The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So

the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath." He is Lord of the

Sabbath because He is the Lord of our redemption.

So the Sabbath wasn't just a backward-looking ordinance.

It was a forward-looking object lesson about the way of

redemption. And that brings us to principle number 3:


The Sabbath was a reminder that God rested, and it

graciously invited the people of God to enter into His rest.

Now, the nature of this rest is extremely significant.

Remember, it signified God's rest. That means it wasn't the

The Fourth Commandment 19

rest of exhaustion. It wasn't a rest that signified weariness.

God didn't rest because He needed the refreshment. He rested

because His work was finished. Therefore, the rest pictured

by the Sabbath is not a rest made necessary by fatigue; it is a

rest that celebrates a finished work.

In other words, the Sabbath signified entering into God's

rest with Him. He was graciously sharing with His people the

rest of His finished work. And that is why the

forward-looking aspect of the Sabbath is so central to the

meaning of the Sabbath. The eschatalogical rest of

redemption, like the historic rest of creation, signifies the

finished work of God Himself. The Israelites were not to

think that they were earning their own rest by working the

other six days of the week. Their earthly work was never

complete. And yet God graciously gave them one day each

week to rest and celebrate His finished work.

This is absolutely central to the meaning of the Sabbath. It

was a token of divine grace. It pictured the rest we obtain

through salvationCit is not a rest we earn by our own works;

it is a rest that is graciously given to us through Christ, who

has done all the saving work on our behalf.

In other words, the purpose of this law was theological,

not utilitarian. It was given because it teaches us something

about God, not because it is useful to us. It reminds us of the

eternal Sabbath rest that is entered into by those who cease

from their labors and find their salvation in Christ alone.

Exodus 20:8-11 20

That is what it prefigured, and that is why as Christians we

regard the form of Israel's Sabbath observance as

predominantly ceremonial. We who have entered into the

true rest purchased for us by Christ don't need to retreat to

the shadows of holy days, or new moons, or Sabbath days.

Those things "are a shadow of the things to come, but the

substance belongs to Christ."

Principle number 4:



The Sabbath commandment is found here in the Ten

Commandments for a particular reason. It was the formal

sign of the Mosaic covenant.

Every divine covenant came with a sign that sealed the

covenant. When God made a covenant with Noah, he gave

the sign of the rainbow. Genesis 9:12-13: "And God said,

'This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you

and every living creature that is with you, for all future

generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a

sign of the covenant between me and the earth.'"

When God made a covenant with Abraham, circumcision

was the sign. Genesis 17:11: "You shall be circumcised in the

flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant

between me and you."

The Fourth Commandment 21

And in precisely the same way, when God made a

covenant with the people of Israel through Moses, the

Sabbath was the sign of that covenant. Look at Exodus 31.

And the LORD said to Moses,

13 "You are to speak to the people of Israel and say,

'Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign

between me and you throughout your generations, that

you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you.

14 You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you.

Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever

does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among

his people.

15 Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a

Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does

any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.

16 Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath,

observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a

covenant forever.

17 It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel

that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on

the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.'"

Notice, now, that this sign had special significance for the

Israelite nation. Nothing in Scripture ever suggests that God

demanded seventh-day Sabbath observance from any other


Exodus 20:8-11 22

So, someone might ask again, why does this

commandment appear in the decalogue, which is a

compendium of moral laws that God requires of all people of

all times?

The reason is found in the form of the covenant itself.

When covenants were made between kings in the time of

Moses, it was common to incorporate a sign into the treaty

that would seal the covenant. The sign had special

significance. If you made a covenant with a king and broke

any other part of the covenant, you could find forgiveness,

and the covenant remained intact. But if you abandoned the

sign of the covenant, it signified that you had forsaken the

covenant altogether, and the covenant as a whole was

deemed irreparably broken.

The structure of the decalogue is exactly like those kingly

treaties. In fact, Exodus 34:28 refers to the Ten

Commandments as "the words of the covenant, the Ten

Commandments." If you are still in Exodus 31, look at verse

18, the verse immediately after I stopped reading: "And he

gave to Moses, when he had finished speaking with him on

Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone,

written with the finger of God."

What was on those stone tablets? the Ten

Commandments. And those two tablets of stone were the

formal covenant document. And therefore they had to

include the sign of the covenant. They represented the whole

The Fourth Commandment 23

covenant in shorthand form. And as a written form of the

covenant, they had particular significance to national Israel,

with whom the covenant was made. Yes, they summarized

God's moral law for all people of all time, but as a written

record of the covenant, they had special significance for

Israel. And the covenant sign was therefore prominently

featured in this document that represented the whole

covenant. The Fourth Commandment was the sign of the


Now, other, more specific laws pertaining to the Sabbath

spelled out precisely how Israel was to observe the covenant

sign. And virtually all of these commandments were

ceremonial in nature. For example, the Jewish Sabbath

observance required a special offering. Numbers 28:9-10:

"On the Sabbath day, two male lambs a year old without blemish,

and two tenths of an ephah of fine flour for a grain offering,

mixed with oil, and its drink offering: this is the burnt offering of

every Sabbath, besides the regular burnt offering and its drink

offering." That is clearly ceremonial in nature and is not

observed even by the most rigid sabbatarian today.

Other specific laws forbid the Israelites to travel, kindle

fires, or bake bread or boil water. They couldn't gather sticks,

do their housework, or do any work of any kind. And those

were all symbolic ordinances that signified their utter

separation unto the Lord and their seclusion from the rest of

the nations.

Exodus 20:8-11 24

But those restrictions pertained to covenant Israel only,

and they were never enforced by God on any other people

either before Moses or after the appearance of Christ. They

were ceremonial in nature, and the proof that they were

ceremonial is found in God's own words through the prophet

Isaiah, when God tells Israel that He despises their

Sabbath-keeping. Isaiah 1:13: "Bring no more vain offerings;

incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and

the calling of convocationsCI cannot endure iniquity and solemn

assembly." And in Hosea 2:11, God says, "I will put an end to

all her mirth, her feasts, her new moons, her Sabbaths, and all

her appointed feasts." Those Sabbath restrictions were merely

ceremonies, and the hypocrisy of the Israelites had made the

Sabbath observance itself an abomination to God.

So the Old Testament Sabbath restrictions were very

clearly part of the ceremonial law. And as such, they were

abolished when Christ fulfilled the ceremonial meaning of

Moses' law.

That is why nothing in the New Testament ever

commands Christians to observe the Sabbath or obey any of

the Old Testament restrictions related to the Sabbath. When

the Jerusalem Council met in Acts 15 to consider which

aspects of the law pertained to the Gentiles, no mention was

made of the Sabbath. That would be remarkable if any

ceremonial observance of the Sabbath was supposed to be

required of Christians. Furthermore, nowhere in the New

The Fourth Commandment 25

Testament are we ever warned that any breach of the Sabbath

was a sin, and nowhere are we ever commanded to observe a

certain day.

As a matter of fact, in Romans 14 the apostle Paul

portrayed the weaker brother as the person who observes

holy days, and the stronger brother is the one who esteems

every day alike (Romans 14:5). Paul regarded it is a matter

of utter indifference whether we observed any holidays or

not. And as I have already pointed out, in Colossians 2, he

taught that we should let no man judge us in the matter of

Sabbath observance. So there are no ceremonial restrictions

against Sabbath activities for Christians like those that were

binding on an Old Testament Israelite.

And that brings us to our final principle:


Please don't get the idea that I am saying the Sabbath is

utterly devoid of any moral principle that is still binding on

us today. I'm not suggesting that the Ten Commandments

have been reduced to nine. But I am suggesting that we as

Christians need to understand this law apart from the

ceremonial trappings of the Mosaic covenant. To reinstate

the ceremonial Sabbath laws is as wrong as going back under

any of the priestly, dietary, or ritualistic principles of the Old


Exodus 20:8-11 26

But there is a moral aspect to the Fourth Commandment.

To quote Turretin, it is a mixed commandment, moral as to

its substance, ceremonial as to its circumstance.

So what are the moral principles that underlie this


This is a unique commandment. To quote Calvin once

more, "Since this commandment has a particular

consideration distinct from the others, it requires a slightly

different order of exposition." We must take care to separate

that which is moral from that which is ceremonial. Without

reconstituting the ceremonial aspects of this law, we must be

careful to affirm that which is still morally binding in it.

Let me suggest several moral principles that we need to

draw from the Fourth Commandment. Calvin himself named

three. This is from Calvin's catechism, the Genevan


What then? Is there anything in [the Fourth Commandment]

beyond ceremony? [Answer:] It was given for three

reasons. . . . 1) To figure [or give us a picture of] spiritual

rest; 2) for the preservation of ecclesiastical polity [in

other words, to give the people of God a day each week

on which to come together]; and 3) for the relief of slaves

[or as Calvin wrote elsewhere, ["to give a day of rest to

servants and those who are under the authority of others,

in order that they might have some respite from their


The Fourth Commandment 27

As I said at the beginning, many Christians believe that

SundayCor the Lord's day, as it is commonly referred to in

Scripture and in the early church's writingsCis the "Christian

Sabbath." They believe when Christ rose from the dead on

the first day of the week, God thereby changed the Sabbath

from the seventh day to the first.

I won't spend a great deal of time answering that, except

to say that the whole idea is sheer conjecture. Nothing in

Scripture ever refers to Sunday as the Sabbath. In fact,

throughout the book of Acts, the seventh day was still

referred to as the Sabbath. I don't see any biblical warrant for

treating Sunday as the Christian Sabbath. Neither did Calvin,

by the way. Nowhere did he ever refer to the Lord's day as

the Sabbath or suggest that it should be regarded as such.

That was an innovation by the later Reformers. And the

Puritans, especially, wrote it into most of their creeds. But it

was not the view of the earlier Reformers. I love the Puritans

and I don't often voice disagreement with them, but they did

sometimes have some legalistic tendencies, and their

tendency to multiply Sabbath restrictions was one of them.

Still, I think there is a moral principle in the Fourth

Commandment that warrants setting aside a day each week

for ceasing from our labors and worshiping the Lord. And

we accomplish this when we devote the Lord's day to Him.

Exodus 20:8-11 28

There may also be a moral principle in the

six-to-one/work-to rest ratio. God has made us so that we

function best with a day off work each week.

And conversely, one of the moral principles underlying

the fourth commandment is the principle of work: "Six days

shalt thou labour, and do all thy work." Christians ought to

work hard when it is time to work, and rest in the Lord when

it is time to rest.

So the reason for the Sabbath is a moral principleCa full

day each week devoted to the Lord. The ratio is a moral

principleCone day of rest for every six days of work. And

above all, I believe the rest commanded by the Sabbath

contains a moral principle.

Now listen closely, because I believe this is the most

important principle of all. Here's the rest-principle that lies at

the heart of the Sabbath law: It is in worship that we are to

find our primary refreshment.

What do you do when you seek refreshment for your

soul? Do you turn first of all to television and worldly

entertainments? Do you seek your rest principally in

recreational activities and spiritually empty amusements?

Those things have their rightful place, but it is certainly not

the prominent place our society has given them. If you can

do them as unto the Lord and glorify the Lord in them, that is

fine. I'm not suggesting that you should never watch

footballCor even play footballCon the Lord's day.

The Fourth Commandment 29

But that is not the first thing you should turn to in order to

refresh your soul from the toil and labor of the work week.

The Lord should have that priorityCand not just on Sunday,

but every day of your life. You need the spiritual

refreshment of communion and fellowship with Him more

than you need the carnal refreshment of exercise and

recreation. You need the rest of worship and fellowship with

the people of God more than you need the mindless

entertainments this world has to offer.

It always troubles me when someone tells me he skipped

church because he felt he just needed some time off. Time

off from what? If you don't see worship and devotion to the

Lord as more restful than any earthly form of entertainment,

then you have the wrong idea of worship. If you're not

coming to church with the idea of refreshing your soul and

invigorating your spirit, then you're coming with the wrong

thing in mind.

Psalm 37:7 says, "Rest in the LORD." In Matthew

11:28-29, Jesus said, "Come to Me, all who are weary and

heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and

learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU


That is the best rest of all. That is what the Sabbath speaks

of. And I would urge you to seek your ultimate rest right

there, in the finished work of Christ. It is a complete rest

Exodus 20:8-11 30

from all your labors, from the weariness of sin, and from all

the trials of this life.

That is the true Sabbath.