How should a believer view the fourth commandment of Exodus 20, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”?
The provision of the Sabbath was a token of divine grace to the Israelite. It provided him with a day of rest, a weekly respite from the toil of servile work. Though its significance was eventually obscured by the legalistic codicils of Second Temple Judaism, which made the keeping of the Sabbath burdensome, it was introduced by God as “the rest of the holy Sabbath” (Exo 16:23, KJV). It was a sign of God’s covenant relationship with Israel (Exo 31:13) and a reminder to them of God’s rest on the seventh day of creation.
Though the giving of the Sabbath was a token of divine grace, the keeping of it was a solemn responsibility. The warning of Exodus 31:14 is uncompromising in its clarity: “Ye shall keep the Sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.” The man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath learned at great cost the importance that God attached to the keeping of the Sabbath holy (Num 15:32–36, KJV).
This was the significance of the Sabbath to the Jews under Law. And it still has relevance for today. Like the other feasts of Jehovah detailed in Leviticus 23, the Sabbath has a spiritual significance for the believer in the day of grace. This significance is outlined in Hebrews 4, where we are told that “a Sabbath rest remains for the people of God” (Heb. 9:4, NET). This Sabbath rest is the believer’s rest from his works, enjoyed by faith and, while there is debate about whether it is present or future, it is certainly not the weekly cessation of physical toil that the Israelite enjoyed that is in view. So, like the other feasts, the Sabbath has a spiritual significance for saints in the current dispensation. We should no more think of observing it literally than we would of sacrificing the Passover or waving the sheaf of the first fruits.
The NT makes it very clear that the Sabbath is not a requirement for the people of God in this dispensation. This is implicit in Hebrews 4, and may also be implied in the way in which the day of the resurrection is described in Matthew 28:1 (literally “at the end of the Sabbaths”) and Mark 16:1 (“when the Sabbath was passed” KJV). The obsolescence of the Sabbath is also explicitly stated in Colossians 2:16-17: “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ”(KJV). And this is so because the Law, as a whole, has been rendered obsolete (see, for example, 2Cor 3:7–11; Gal 3:13, 25–27; Eph 2:15; Heb 8:13). The believer in the dispensation of grace is not under Law, and is not bound by its regulations. This is true even of the Ten Commandments, though, with one exception, these commandments are reiterated for believers today in the NT.
The exception, of course, is the fourth commandment, to “remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” This being so, the simple answer to the question is that the believer should view the fourth commandment as having no more relevance for today than, for example, the proscription of garments made of a blend of wool and linen in Deuteronomy 22:11.
This simple answer has been complicated for many believers by centuries of teaching that has failed to clearly distinguish between Israel and the Church, Law and grace, and the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day. As a result of this, though very few Christians would wish to keep the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week, very many of them are inclined to transfer to the Lord’s Day some of the significance of the Sabbath. This confusion is regrettable, for it tends to obscure the true nature of the Lord’s Day.
It is clear from the Acts of the Apostles that the first day of the week quickly came to have a special significance for Christians. How could it not? This was the day of resurrection, and also the day when the Holy Spirit was given, and both the Church, the Body of Christ, and the local assembly in Jerusalem came into being. On the first day of the week the disciples gathered together for the breaking of bread, and the preaching of the Word of God (Acts 20:7). On the first day of the week, believers were to set aside a portion of their income as an offering to God (1Cor 16:2).
Scripture, then, will teach us that the first day of the week should be marked by gathering, remembering, preaching, and offering. Apart from these blessed activities, the NT contains no directions for the first day of the week, and we should be careful to respect the silence of Scripture and not attempt to fill in the blanks by ascribing to the Lord’s Day that which belongs properly to the Sabbath.
This is not to make the first day of the week a day like any other. After all, it is spoken of in Revelation 1:10 as “the Lord’s day.” Even in his lonely exile on Patmos, this was a day that John distinguished from all others. It was the Lord’s Day, and it took its character from Him.
We are not under Law, but grace. The NT contains no list of “thou shalt not” for the Lord’s Day. For early Christians, as for believers in Muslim countries today, it was a normal working day. In an increasingly secularized Western society, Sunday is given no special status. But for the believer it is still the Lord’s Day. It is a mistake to confuse it with the Sabbath, but it is equally a mistake to confuse it with every other day. We should mark it, enjoy its privileges, and exploit its opportunities for service, not because of the fourth or any other commandment, but because we recognize it as the Lord’s Day, the day of resurrection, remembering, and rendering to Him.