The Ten Words: The Fourth

Let’s consider the Fourth Commandment carefully: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8). There are two parts to this: 1. Remembering the Sabbath; 2. Keeping the Sabbath holy.

First, let’s answer the following questions: What and when is the Sabbath day? The original Sabbath day was Saturday. After having created the cosmos in six days (Sunday-Friday) God rested on the seventh (Saturday). So it was that “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” (Gen. 2:2-3).

God designed that first week to be analogous to our own week; just as God worked for six days and rested on the Sabbath, He commanded man to rest from His labor on the Sabbath. Thus, to keep the Sabbath holy meant to set apart the seventh day of the week from all others. It was a day to cease from striving and working and to instead enjoy rest (Ex. 20:9-11).

The Sabbath served as both a kind and merciful act of God, wherein He called His people to rest from their busyness. It was also a reminder that true Sabbath rest can only come through God.

Sunday has since become the Sabbath day for Christians because it is the day that Christ rose from the grave. When He said from the Cross, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30) He meant it. We need not struggle to merit God’s favor for Christ has merited God’s favor on our behalf. We need not try to earn forgiveness, because Christ has paid the wages of our sin in full and earned forgiveness for us. We can truly rest in Christ.

During Jesus’s incarnation, however, we see the Sabbath turned upon its head. Rather than being recognized as a day created by God as a gift for man, many Jews treated the day as though man was created for the Sabbath. The difference in understanding meant that legalistic attitudes ruined the joy of a Sabbath day of rest, instead cultivating burdensome laws that no man could hope to keep. Jesus challenged this, though, by asking a simple question: “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4). Of course, as the one who came to fulfill the Law,[1] and as the one who created the Law, He had perfect understanding of how to interpret it. Thus, He was prone to healing on the Sabbath,[2] and permitted his disciples to pluck heads of grain on the Sabbath.[3] During an exchange with the Pharisees, Jesus declared, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:27-28).

The point of the Sabbath was never legalistic burdens or tiresome demands. It was a day created by God as a gift to His people, wherein they were called to both rest in Him and worship Him. The major Reformed Confessions understood this:

“This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts, about their worldly employments and recreations; but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy” (WCF 21.8; 2LB 22.8).

So, the Sabbath is about ceasing from work. More than that, however, it is a special day meant for the communion of the saints in corporate assembly, the proclamation of God’s Word, worshipful singing, the breaking of the bread of life, and joyous feasting, for the joy of the Lord is now our strength.[4]

Yet, the universal proclivity of man is to refuse the Fourth Commandment and its wisdom. Why rest when, in Christ, the Law is fulfilled? Can not the Christian now work on the Sabbath without fear of judgment?

Such thinking is misguided. It’s precisely because Christ has fulfilled the Law on our behalf that we should even more earnestly desire to keep the Sabbath holy. Our rest on the Lord's Day, corporate assemblies, and worship gatherings evidence to our busy world that we have found the source of true satisfaction and the means by which we can joyfully rest, and His name is Jesus Christ.

Jacob Tanner is pastor of Mt. Bethel Church of McClure in Central Pennsylvania. He has spent time as a reporter, journalist, and editor, and has written for various Christian websites. He and his wife, Kayla, have one son, Josiah. He is currently completing his M.Div. through Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.



[1] Matt. 5:17.

[2] Mk. 3:1–6, Lk. 6:6–10; 13:10–17; 14:1–6; Jn. 5:1–18

[3] Mk. 2:23.

[4] Neh. 8:10.


Jacob Tanner