the fourth commandment
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (Exodus 20:8–11).*
Right from the start, we notice a couple of things about the fourth commandment. First is the opening word “Remember.” Only the fourth and fifth commandments are not prohibitions. And the second thing we notice is the instruction to keep it holy in the context of your labor, your work—that which you do in order to survive.
But note whose Sabbath it is—not yours, not mine, not Israel’s. The seventh day is the “Sabbath of the LORD your God.” It belongs specifically to “the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (verse 2).
How did it become His Sabbath? Verse 11 provides the answer: “In six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.”
But this isn’t the first place in Scripture we hear of the connection between the Sabbath and Creation. The Creation story itself includes it: “Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (Genesis 2:1–3).
Notice the point here. God established the Sabbath to commemorate His great work of creation. He worked, and by working, He accomplished for us a great work we could not accomplish for ourselves. When He finished, He rested, and that is what made the day special.
Now note: It is not God doing something that makes a day special. If that were the case, then every day would be special because, as Jesus comments, God is always working (John 5:17). He works as a general rule. But in creating this world, when He had finished something particularly wonderful, He commemorated the completion of that great work by doing that which is not His usual routine—He commemorated His great work by resting. That is what God did at the end of Creation, and that act of not working forever made the day His Sabbath—“the Sabbath of the LORD your God.”
remember the God of rest
Now, there is a second level to all of this. The fourth commandment specifically spells out what we are to do to “remember” the Sabbath day. We are to “remember” the Sabbath of the Lord our God—the day the Lord our God made holy by resting when He had finished His work of creation. We “remember” and “keep holy” the Lord’s Sabbath by doing ourselves what God did on that first Sabbath. We cease our labors. What we “do” is refrain from doing work for ourselves. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates” (Exodus 20:9, 10).
Well, OK. But what do we not do? Herein lies the trouble. For some people, determining what we do not do results in endless rule making that only turns the day into a ceaseless burden. For many, it creates such confusion that it renders them incapable of keeping the day holy.
My purpose is not to provide a definitive list of dos and “not dos” regarding Sabbath keeping because I think you are able to figure that out for yourself. Furthermore, Jesus never gave such a definitive list. He could have if it was important, but He didn’t. And in fact, He was frequently accused of breaking the established list of Sabbath rules in His day. Although we will not explore a definitive list of dos and don’ts, we will explore what that list must be based on. And the basis comes straight from the commandment itself.
remember who gives you life
Do your work in six days and rest on the seventh. Why? Because that is the way God did it in the beginning when He created you. And when you “remember” the Sabbath, you remember that He is the one who gave you life.
There are two important lessons for us in this remembering. The first is that God is the Creator, and we are part of what He created. That is the primary reason we should have no other gods before Him (the first commandment). The second lesson to remember is that we remain completely dependent upon our Creator for our very existence. We had nothing to do with conceiving the idea of our own existence and nothing to do with bringing it about.
When we remember the Sabbath day, we remember that it is by God’s divine purpose alone that we have life. And so, God has made this easy for us to remember. He has commanded keeping the Sabbath by a cessation of all that we do in order to sustain ourselves and stay alive. Why? So that we will never forget that it is not by our cleverness or will or cunning or strength that we have life, but rather, it is by His will alone that we live and breathe. As the Bible says, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
By remembering the Sabbath, we remember that we have life in Him. We also remember that He is a loving Father who knows our weaknesses and needs. Indeed, He is the One who so knew our need that He gave us Jesus. Remembering the Sabbath shows that we accept the vital truth that we are dependent on our Creator God for both our initial existence and continued survival.
a remedy for selfishness
God also knows that our hearts are sinful, and we are ever prone to selfishness. When He gave the fourth commandment, He knew we would continually seek to amass goods beyond our needs. He knew we would soon forget that it is not the abundance of possessions that sustains us. Rather, it is God Himself who is our life and hope. And so, this commandment directly addresses that point. It tells us to do our work in order to survive for six days and then do nothing to survive on the seventh day. This way we remember that it is God who gives strength to our bodies and wisdom to our minds and who fills the earth with good things for our lives. The Sabbath is not about works that earn favor. The Sabbath is about recognizing favor already granted and living in peace and joy.
Sabbath keeping does grant you rest. Sabbath keeping does restore your soul and refresh your spirit. And it does remind you that it is God who gives life. But Sabbath keeping doesn’t keep you from being lost when you die. Jesus keeps you from being lost when you die. “Well then,” one might say, “if keeping the Sabbath does not save me, then I just won’t bother to keep it.”
Really? Can we be that foolish? Consider how we hurt ourselves when we don’t remember the Sabbath. It’s pretty simple and straightforward. If we do not keep the Sabbath, we do not have rest. Why? First, because we directly withhold rest from ourselves. And we know that others won’t give us rest either. Furthermore, the fight to survive certainly won’t give us rest. Only God gives us rest.
a prescription for what ails us
It is amazing that this is the commandment most often broken, given that it is the perfect prescription for what most ails humankind in this age. Is it not the constant lament of nearly everyone in our day to complain of weariness, exhaustion, lack of rest, and inability to break away from a world of constant demand and constant contact? Yet the world just goes on with what it is doing, endlessly living the restless life of commandment breaking and forgetting that God created us.
God’s commandment is a gift! He wants you to experience rest—true rest. That is what the Sabbath is all about and actually what the word means. And His gift of rest extends beyond mere rest from physical labor. The Sabbath is a sign of the salvation found in Jesus. “Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you” (Exodus 31:13).
The Sabbath is given as a sign to us—a sign that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And when we acknowledge that sign by remembering the day, as the commandment directs, we affirm our faith that God our Creator saves us from our own selfish ambition and the frantic pace and pressure it causes.
Jesus says: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). The Sabbath is the sign and reminder of the rest Jesus gives. The Sabbath was made for you and given to you. So, take it, accept His deliverance, and have rest.
Geoffrey E. Patterson writes from Colorado, where he serves as a pastor.
* Bible texts in this article are from the NKJV.