The Fourth Commandment
Taken from an appendix to a forthcoming new book on holiness by Sinclair B. Ferguson, entitled Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification.
In almost any discussion of the role of the law in sanctification there is one commandment that causes considerable debate—the commandment on the Sabbath day (Exodus 20:8-11). It is certainly the commandment that seems to give evangelical Christians the greatest difficulty. Many, while holding that the other nine commandments remain in place, believe that the fourth commandment has ceased to have an obligatory role to play in the Christian life.
Here, more than anywhere else, any suggestion that there might be a moral commandment related to the way we use Sunday as a Christian Sabbath is likely to be described as ‘legalism’ 1
The debate here is both sensitive and important. On the one hand if we observe what God has not commanded us to do, we are at the very least in Paul’s category of ‘the weaker brother’.2 And on the other hand if we insist that other Christians observe what God has not commanded, we are in danger of a form of legalism.
While we cannot in a brief article settle a dispute that has been extended through centuries, it may be helpful to some readers to note the following:
The biblical considerations appealed to in favour of dismantling the fourth commandment are several:
1. The New Testament sees the Sabbath commandment as a type of our rest in Christ. It is part of the law that has found its fulfilment in him. This is indicated by Paul’s teaching in Romans 14:5 and hinted at in Colossians 2:16.
2. While the other nine commandments appear to be quoted or alluded to in one way or another in the New Testament, the fourth commandment is conspicuous by its absence.
3. While the other nine commandments are clearly of a moral nature, the Sabbath commandment is a ceremonial ordinance given to the old covenant people. Like all liturgical and ceremonial laws that were part of the Mosaic ordinances it is no longer applicable to the new covenant people.
To these considerations the following responses may be made:
1. What Paul refers to in Romans 14:5 and Colossians 2:16 is not the weekly Sabbath as such but the application of the Sabbath principle— i.e. the additional ‘Sabbaths’ or holy days in the Levitical law. While he regards these as no longer binding on Christians he does not regard their observance by Jewish Christians (and perhaps by others influenced by them) as a wholesale denial of the gospel—although he does see it as the sign of a ‘weak brother’ whose conscience has not been fully liberated by all the implications of the gospel.3
2. An argument can be made on the basis of the flow of 1 Timothy 1:8-11 that Paul includes the fourth commandment in his general thinking about the law of God:
The law is laid down for the lawless and disobedient, for the
ungodly and sinners, for:
• The unholy and profane
• Those who strike fathers and mothers (commandment 5)
• Murderers (commandment 6)
• Sexually immoral (commandment 7)
• Enslavers (commandment 8)
• Liars, perjurers (commandment 9)
• Whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine
Here there is clear and ordered reference to commandments five to nine. It is certainly arguable therefore that the reference to those who are ‘unholy’ and ‘profane’ has in view the breach of the fourth commandment since the Sabbath day was ‘holy’.4
3. The fulfilment of this commandment in Christ does not mean that the law is now a dead letter. After all he fulfils not only the fourth commandment, but all of the commandments.
4. The fourth commandment summoned Israel to ‘remember’ the Sabbath day. It is natural to understand this as a reference back to a reality already in place (and rooted in Genesis 2:2-3) rather than referring to something altogether new in Moses’ day.
5. The Exodus and the giving of the Law to govern new life in the Promised Land suggest a return to Eden. New creation echoes and restores original creation. In this latter context God made man as his image and gave him a Garden-Temple to expand to the ends of the earth.
The Cosmic Gardener worked for six days and rested on the seventh in order to provide a pattern for the Earth Gardener. So ‘God … rested on the seventh day … 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.’ This explains why the Exodus people knew of Sabbath days before the law was given.5
Thus, Sabbath is not, first of all, a redemptive ordinance but a creation ordinance that is shaped in Scripture to each major stage in biblical history (Adam to Moses; Moses to Christ; Christ to the end of history). As such it may now be ‘de-Mosaicized’ in certain respects, but it continues to be an integral part of God’s pattern for his image, in creation, in typological redemption in the Mosaic ordinances, and in the fulfilment of his promise to give rest in Jesus Christ.
6. A further consideration here is rarely recognized. If there is no Sabbath, is the seven-day week simply an accident of history? Is there no divinely-planned rhythm to life? Often in this debate it is forgotten that the fourth commandment regulates not merely one day in the week but seven. It is actually a commandment about work as well as rest!
Should Christians have not only acquiesced but positively encouraged the proposal during the days of the French Revolution to move to a tenday week? But if the concept of the week is an element in the structure of creation, we are bound to recognize the significance of the day of rest—and then to understand that the resurrection of Christ changed the day from the end of the week to the beginning and on this day the Lord’s people sought to meet together. Many of them were not at liberty to choose which if any day in the week they might use for their own rest and refreshment since they were slaves. This advises us both that we should not under-read the significance of the Sabbath-Lord’s Day, nor perhaps should we over-read how it was used by the earliest Christians
7. There is a further general consideration here that rarely seems to enter the debate about the Decalogue, although it is important to it. Twice in his ‘word of exhortation’ the author of Hebrews cites Jeremiah 31:33:
For this is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws on their hearts,
and write them on their minds.6
In the context of our discussion the question arises, ‘which laws does God put on the hearts of the people and write on their minds’? Presumably the author of Hebrews did not think this included the ceremonial and civil aspects of the law, since he is teaching believers outside the Promised Land that the ceremonies were all fulfilled in Christ. Is this then merely a broad metaphor for the idea of obedience? To his first readers and hearers the most natural way to interpret his words was as a reference to the Decalogue. Was he therefore crossing his fingers behind his back hoping that they would all understand he meant that only nine of the laws would be written on their hearts?
If the fourth commandment continues to be God’s word for our blessing and for the shape of the Christian life, how is this relevant to our ongoing sanctification? The Sabbath was not inaugurated at Mount Sinai but in the Garden of Eden. The giving of the Ten Commandments contained a deliberate echo of the pattern that God had given to Adam and Eve. He had worked for six days in bringing creation into being. They were his image—and therefore he made provision for them to imitate him. So he therefore ‘blessed’ the seventh day and set it apart from the other days (Gen. 2:1-3). It was not only the seventh day, it was the rest day—a day free from work; a day to bless and call holy, just as God himself had done—a day to reflect on and enjoy the wonders of God and to worship him for them.
The significance of this should not be missed. The gift of the Sabbath provided a wonderful way of regulating the whole of life. It provided an inbuilt weekly time-and-motion study to help us to live well.7
When the fourth commandment was given it was set within the context of the Exodus. It had, as at creation, a weekly application. But the seven-fold rhythm was extended further and applied to the whole of life in the regulation of the Sabbath years and every fifty years in the Sabbath-Sabbath Year of Jubilee. So there was a basic application of the commandment each week, and an extended application of it every seven years, and then in a major way every fifty years. Not only weeks but years were governed by this principle of working and looking forward to the time of rest.
But when Moses received the commandment at Sinai it was also a reminder that the people had been redeemed from their bondage in Egypt. Now it was a reminder of both creation and redemption. Yet something remained—whether in Eden or at Sinai the time of rest lay at the end of the week, and at the end of six years, and at the end of forty-nine years.
This was what the resurrection changed.
Although no commandment is given to this effect, and indeed the New Testament provides us with no extended explanation, it is a very remarkable phenomenon that Christians seem to have begun almost immediately to live life according to a different weekly rhythm. They met on the first day of the week, not the last day;8 they called that day ‘The Lord’s day’. It was the day on which the Lord had risen, and the day on which he had gathered with them. What creation had looked forward to—the new creation in Christ; what the Exodus had pre-figured—the exodus that Jesus would accomplish in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31)—had now been realized. Now the new creation had been inaugurated—and it had a different calendar from the old. The Lord of the Sabbath had come; he had entered into his rest from his atoning labours; now he fulfilled his promise to give rest to the weary and heavy-laden who trusted in him.
Old covenant believers lived by faith looking forward to the dawning of the new age of restoration; new covenant believers live in the light of its dawning (1 Cor. 10:11), and in the power of the Spirit. So there is discontinuity; but there is also deep-seated continuity. We can put the big picture in the following way:
Creation covenant believers (Adam and Eve) had God’s law clearly written in their hearts. In addition they were given a further commandment related not so much to God’s character as to his activity in creation which they were to image: six days of work followed by one day of rest.
So they received God’s law directly from God’s hands.
Old (Sinaitic) covenant believers were sinners. Their understanding and their instincts were now distorted. In order for them to know God’s will for his image-bearers they now needed to have his law given to them in writing. Further, they needed it to be expressed in a way that was appropriate for sinners (‘You shall not …’). In addition, since for the time, until the coming of Christ, they were a single people group in a specific land, it was shaped to their particular national experience. They received the law in an appropriate way through Moses.
This leads us to the third stage. In the new covenant in Christ, with the promise of the Spirit at its centre, the law is now written in our hearts again by the Holy Spirit. In this sense, while Adam received the law from the hands of the Creator, and Israel received it from the hands of Moses, we now receive it from the hands of Jesus. The rhythm of our obedience is transformed. Unlike old covenant believers we are not waiting for the day of fulfilment—it has already come in Christ. Our Sabbath day is therefore changed from the last day to the first day (since we live the whole week in the light of the resurrection and in the presence of the risen Christ who has given us rest).
But if the day of fulfilment has come why would we need a Sabbath day? Because the day of fulfilment is not yet the day of final consummation. Yes, we have been raised with Christ, but he has not yet returned. Yes, we have died to sin, but sin has not yet died in us. Yes, we have been set free from bondage to the evil one, but we still live in the world he influences, deceives, and blinds. The Christian life is therefore marked by a new setting in time between the ‘already’ (Christ’s death, resurrection, and Pentecost) and the ‘not yet’ (his return and our glorification with him). Using the first day of the week well, like using the other six days well, involves discipline and, yes, self-denial. That is written into the gospel we believe.
The Pharisees who entered into controversy with Jesus got all this disastrously wrong not only in relation to the fourth commandment but in relation to all of the commandments. Our Lord’s teaching makes this crystal clear. They were not, and are not, to be trusted. We do not receive the law from the hands of the Pharisees but from the hands of the Lord Jesus. Because we are not yet set free from the presence of sin we will still find that our sinful wills can both twist and resist the commandments. In our fallen nature we often fail to keep them fully even while overall we find them our delight. It should no more surprise us that this is true of the fourth commandment than it is, say, of the commandment not to covet, or of Jesus’ insistence that the seventh commandment has got to do with our eyes and our inner thoughts and desires and not only with outward actions.
Perhaps a simple if personal illustration will help here. I was brought up by devoted parents who—although they did not attend church until after I became a Christian in my early teens—made sure I ‘kept the Sabbath day’. No work was done in the house; the idea that I would be allowed to go out to play was as remote as my flying to school! And so the Sabbath day was a day of prolonged misery; a real burden; a day of ‘not doing’; not a day to which I looked forward.
I can still sense the transformation that took place in my experience of Sunday when I became a Christian. It was now no more of a burden than a bird’s wings. Rather than crush me it seemed to sustain me. Boredom was gone. It became the best day of the week. And yet it was still Sunday; it was still the first day of the week. But the sense of duty in going to the church services which I had attended and the Bible reading which I had been doing for several years, believing that doing these things might make me a Christian—these seemed overnight to be transformed into a delight.
What was the explanation? Simple: we need to come to Christ to find true Sabbath rest. For then God writes his law into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Then at last we receive the law from the hands of the one who came to bring us forgiveness and power, and no longer from the hands of the Pharisees. Then we can ‘call the Sabbath a delight’ (Isaiah 58:13).
- In some ways this is the least helpful of criticisms because of the undifferentiated use of the term ‘legalism’—what is meant by it in this context? And why would obedience to this commandment constitute ‘legalism’ whereas in the case of the other nine it would be commendable? If keeping the Sabbath day is ‘legalism’ this needs to be demonstrated theologically not simply announced arbitrarily.
- See his extended discussion in Romans 14:1–15:7. Notice the paradox in this context: those who would say they had a ‘strong conscience’ about observing days and not eating meat are described by Paul as ‘weaker’ Christians. The paradox is that such usually regard themselves as ‘strong’, not weak.
- See, for example, the brief discussion in John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959, 1965), 2, 257-259.
- Cf. George W. Knight III, The Pastoral Epistles—A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 83-85, especially 84. Cf. Gen. 2:3.
- Exodus 16:22-26. It may be responded that there is no reference to the Sabbath day between Adam and Moses. There is nothing particularly surprising about this. The New Testament tells us that the early Christians met on the first day of the week, but this fact is almost entirely absent from the greater part of the New Testament. What happens regularly often goes without mention precisely for that reason.
- Cited in Hebrews 8:10; 10:16.
- When Christians ask: ‘Is it ok for me to do X on Sundays?’ the first response should normally be not ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but ‘Why would you be doing it?’ The most common answer to that question is probably ‘Because I don’t have time for it in the rest of the week.’ This highlights the importance of understanding the whole of the fourth commandment. The problem here is not how we spend Sunday; it is how we are using Monday to Saturday. We are living the week the wrong way round, as if there had been no resurrection! Use Sunday as a day of rest, worship, fellowship first and we will almost inevitably begin to discipline our use of time in the other six days of the week. Grasp this and the Sabbath principle becomes one of the simplest and most helpful of all God’s gifts. The burden-free day at the beginning of the week both regulates the days that follow and refreshes us for them. The Old Testament (perhaps to our surprise) tells us very little about how believers actually kept the Sabbath day. Its regulations were few and simple and focused on the twin principles of resting from work and delighting in the Lord. By either neglecting God’s gift, or by going beyond Scripture in the way we regulate it, we may forfeit both rest and delight.
- The reference to ‘the first day of the week’ in 1 Corinthians 16:2 is not because offerings should be calculated on Sundays per se but because this was the day Christians gathered. The offering in view here was the special collection Paul discusses in 2 Corinthians 8-9, not what churches today call ‘the offering’.
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