This post is by Mark Rooker (Ph.D., Brandeis University). Rooker serves as Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Rooker is the author of The Ten Commandments in The NAC Studies In Biblical Theology series.
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The reason or rationale for obedience to the fourth commandment is provided in Exod 20:11. Man is not to continue his work on the seventh day of the week because this is exactly what took place during the creation week after God created “the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them” (Exod 20:11a). By working six days and resting on the seventh man imitates the pattern of God during the creation week and thereby is reminded of God’s work in creation.
The fourth commandment calls for one to remember and “to dedicate” the weekly Sabbath. As a holy day the Sabbath is removed from the mundane sphere of secular time. The Sabbath belongs to the Lord and it must be used for God’s purposes, not for our own (Isa 58:13).
For the Israelites the Sabbath was a day of worship and service to the Lord their God and it testified to His sovereignty over creation and their dependence upon Him. The significance of the Sabbath commandment can be observed from the fact that it is not only the longest commandment but occupies the center of the Decalogue.
Reading of the Torah on the Sabbath is mentioned in Acts 15:21. We find that Jesus remained faithful to the Old Testament scripture as He attended the synagogue each Sabbath (cf. Mark 1:21,29; 3:1; Luke 4:44; 13:10). The same pattern was also exhibited by Paul as he routinely entered synagogues on the Sabbath, and he took the opportunity to preach the Christian gospel (e.g., Acts 13:14,42,44; 17:2; 18:4). Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath was in line with its true intention that the Sabbath be a benefit to all creation.
The theme of rest is seen in New Testament texts such as Matt 11:28–30 and Hebrews 4. In Christ we have entered the fulfillment of the Sabbath already as we have spiritual rest but there remains the ultimate rest that is yet to come (Ps 95). Thus the Sabbath is a type of Christ. Jesus spoke authoritatively about the intention of the Sabbath law as He was the Lord of the Sabbath who gave its true meaning (Matt 12:8; Mark 2:28; Luke 6:5).
Paul supported the believer’s freedom either to observe or not observe a particular day of the week (Rom 14:5). Paul showed tolerance toward those who had a special conviction about Sabbath observance while still affirming that rest should be given to workers.
The fourth commandment occupies a unique place in the Decalogue. It is the only commandment that is specified in the creation account and it is the only commandment that is said to be a sign for Israel (Exod 31). In addition, it is the only one of the Ten Commandments that is not repeated in the New Testament. The New Testament instead speaks of its typical nature. As a shadow it was fulfilled in Christ’s ministry in giving rest but it also awaits a future fulfillment. And yet, the fourth commandment is not without relevance to the modern Christian. The principles involved in the observance of the Sabbath law are still applicable today. The principles of work, rest, and worship that emerge from the Sabbath law are extremely meaningful in their application to the contemporary Christian.
One day a week should be set apart for the Lord to remember God’s creation and redemption. The commandment teaches that the Lord should be sovereign over our time and in ceasing to work one day a week we show our faith and offer our praise to the One who is the true ruler of time (Ps 74:16). On this day we turn from the world of creation to the creation of the world. We express our belief that ultimately we are not dependent upon our own work and human efforts but that God is sovereign in our lives and our work and our lives are under His control. It is a day to be still and know that He is God. Sabbath observance places a clear limit on human autonomy. And as we follow God’s example we endeavor that we do not make life too difficult for others.