The Meaning of the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11)
As I sat at breakfast with a friend this week, discussing this message, I told Don that I could not conceive of a way to teach on the Sabbath in less than two lessons. He confessed to me that he was wondering how I would “fill up” one message with the subject. The reason why so much time is required is that there are so many other texts in the Scripture which deal with the Sabbath. To illustrate how much material there is to cover beyond the Old Testament texts, in one of the books recently published on the Sabbath243 the one chapter dealing with the Sabbath in the Old Testament has about 20 pages, including numerous footnotes. There are ten additional chapters, containing over 350 additional pages. Thus, if we are to understand the Sabbath, we must consider more than its Old Testament texts. If you look up the terms “Sabbath,” “Sabbaths,” and “rest” in a concordance you will find the reason for a more extended study of this subject.
There is another reason why the Sabbath is a subject worthy of our thorough investigation: the Sabbath is one of the most important commandments of the ten. It is a part of those commandments related to our relationship with and our worship of God. It is also the commandment chosen to be the “sign” of the entire Mosaic Covenant (Exodus 31:13). A violation of this commandment is to result in the death penalty (Exodus 31:14).
Last, learning the meaning of the Sabbath will provide us with a most valuable lesson in how to study, interpret, and apply the Scriptures. The difference between education and indoctrination is the difference between a process and a product. Indoctrination gives you the product—what you should think—but it does not convey the process—how to think. Given this distinction, most sermons would have to be called indoctrination, not education. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with indoctrination, other than the fact that without education, those who are taught will always be dependent upon the teacher, who must tell them what to think.
In my sermons I have always sought to combine indoctrination and education. I attempt to communicate the process by which I have arrived at my product so that sooner or later you will discover, to your delight, that you have gained a fair bit of information, but that you have also learned how to study the Bible on your own. One of the greatest rewards I ever receive as a teacher is to see my listeners become students of the Word, so that they see for themselves whether or not my conclusions are rooted in the text of Scripture.
The most difficult portion of Scripture to study for most Christians is the Old Testament. Not only do we find the culture of the Ancient Near East foreign and the events unrelated to us, but when we do discover a biblical principle we are not sure that it applies to the New Testament saint, and if so, how.
The Fourth Commandment provides us with an excellent opportunity to sharpen our interpretive skills. The commandment is found early in the Pentateuch (the five books of the Bible written by Moses, the first five books of the Bible). Two related texts come before Exodus 20:8-11, but there are many Sabbath passages in the rest of the Old Testament and in the New. Because this passage comes so early in the Bible, we are able to learn how the later Old Testament writers interpreted and applied the Sabbath teaching of the Fourth Commandment. We then can turn to the New Testament, to see how the Pharisees misinterpreted and applied this commandment, and how our Lord corrected them. Finally, we can find the interpretation of the Sabbath as provided us by the teaching of the apostles and the Book of Hebrews. We have the privilege to look over the shoulder of the prophets, apostles, and even our Lord, to learn from them the way to interpret and apply the Old Testament Scriptures. This, my reader friend, is a rare privilege, which should make better Bible students of all of us.
And lest you think that all of my comments above are but a preparation for the study of an irrelevant text (where we learn a method, but get no message), I can assure you that the Fourth Commandment is related to more than the question of whether or not the State of Texas should repeal its “Blue Laws.” Surrounding the subject of the Sabbath are many differences of opinion, some of the strongest opinions are held by those who are Christians. There is one denomination (which some call a cult), the Seventh Day Adventists, who have chosen to hang their hat on this commandment as one of the touchstones of the faith. The principles we will discover from our study of the Sabbath will take us to where “the rubber meets the road.”
In this lesson, then, we will focus on the meaning of the Sabbath to the Old Testament saint. We will study the major Sabbath texts in the Law (the Pentateuch) and the Prophets (the rest of the Old Testament). We will then isolate several principles from these passages and explore their practical implications for each of us. In the next lesson we will turn to the New Testament, where we will first consider the twisted view of the Fourth Commandment held by the scribes and Pharisees, who were ready to stone our Lord as a Sabbath-breaker. We will consider our Lord’s defense of His actions and learn the correct interpretation and application of the Sabbath. Then, we will study the meaning of the Sabbath as taught by the apostles through their epistles. Finally we will attempt to determine the meaning and application of the Sabbath for the New Testament Christian.
The Sabbath in the Pentateuch
Our study has been one of the birth of the nation Israel, as depicted in the Book of Exodus. There are two crucial passages which we must first consider, for they not only precede the Fourth Commandment, they actually lay the foundation for it, on which foundation the commandment is based. We shall first consider the “Sabbath rest” of God in Genesis 2:1-3 and then the “Sabbath rest” of Israel related to the gathering of the manna in Exodus 16:22-30.
Thus, the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. And by the seventh day God completed 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 (Gen. 2:1-3).
The principle contribution of this text is to establish a precedent on which future Sabbath commandments will be based. The precedent is one that God Himself established with regard to the seventh creation day. The work of creation had been completed on the sixth day. On the seventh day, God rested because He had finished the work of creation. He then blessed and sanctified this day because it was on this day that He rested. This text draws together three separate, but related, events:
- God finished His work of creating the universe.
- God rested on the seventh day because His creation work was finished.
- God blessed and sanctified the seventh day because on it He rested.
The important thing to notice is this: no commandment is made in this text. The seventh day is not even called the Sabbath. But the seventh day is differentiated and set apart (sanctified) from the other six creation days. It is assigned a special significance (blessing) by God, based on the fact that it was the day on which God rested. All subsequent commands to keep the Sabbath assume that this sanctity of the seventh day has already been established (here, at creation) by God. Thus, the Israelites are not commanded to sanctify the Sabbath, but to conduct themselves in such a way as not to profane it (Exodus 31:14; Isaiah 56:2), because it has already been declared holy. The declaration of its sanctity is found in Genesis chapter 2:1-3. God’s act of resting and then of sanctifying the seventh day is the basis for all subsequent commands related to the Sabbath. Israel was to treat the seventh day as holy because God had done so, and had declared it so. This brief statement in Genesis is pregnant with future meaning, as further study will reveal.
Now it came about on the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers for each one. When all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, then he said to them, “This is what the Lord meant: Tomorrow is a Sabbath observance, a holy Sabbath to the LORD. Bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning.” So they put it aside until morning, as Moses had ordered, and it did not become foul, nor was there any worm in it. And Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will be none.” And it came about on the seventh day that some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. Then the LORD said to Moses, “How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My instructions? See, the LORD has given you the Sabbath, therefore He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day. Remain every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.” So they rested on the seventh day (Exod. 16:22-30).
This text makes several significant contributions to the developing doctrine of the Sabbath. First, it is the first occurrence of the term “Sabbath”244 in the Bible. Second, it is the first time in the Bible that Israel is commanded to observe a Sabbath practice of any kind. Here, the practice is specifically related to resting from the work of gathering manna. Third, manna was not to be gathered on the seventh day because it was a “Sabbath to the Lord” (vss. 23, 26). In the context, I believe we see that it was first a “Sabbath to the Lord,” and secondarily a “Sabbath for the Israelites.” God did two things differently to set this Sabbath aside as something distinct, something sanctified. (1) God caused manna not to fall on the Sabbath (v. 27). (2) God kept the double portion of manna gathered on the sixth day from rotting, as it did on all other days (cp. vss. 20, 24).
There are two additional features of this “Sabbath instruction” in the light of Israel’s past. The first is that this command not to gather manna was a very gracious and positive gift from God. Moses told the Israelites that God had given them the Sabbath (v. 29). There were few if any days off in Egypt for slaves. The gift of one day off a week was indeed intended to be a blessing, to be gratefully received. The second feature of the Sabbath was that it established a seven-day week. We might assume that this is always the way men have divided time, but research has shown that the Egyptians followed a ten day week.245 Thus, God was reordering Israel’s conception of time.
In the light of the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus chapter 20, the “Sabbath instructions” of Exodus 16 are preparatory for what will soon follow. God told the Israelites to keep a form of Sabbath observance several weeks before it was laid down as one of the Ten Commandments (and one with a death penalty attached). Once again, God’s dealings here are preparing His people for the future.246
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:8-11).
This text is the basis of this lesson. This series of messages is focused on a study of the Book of Exodus. We have looked at Genesis 2 and Exodus 16 as preparation for our passage. We will study later texts as well, to see how they explain and expand on this commandment. This passage in Exodus 20 is the first proclamation of the Fourth Commandment, as a part of the entire Ten Commandments. It will be reiterated, in a somewhat different form in Deuteronomy chapter 5. The commandment to observe the Sabbath which is given here builds upon the two texts which we have previously considered. Let us see how this commandment builds upon the previous revelation.247
There are six important features of this passage which I wish to point out here:
(1) This commandment looks back for its basis. The first word of this commandment is “remember.”248 “Remember” points back, first to the rest of our Lord on the seventh day, the day which He sanctified and blessed in Genesis chapter 2. Second, we are reminded of the “Sabbath commandment” given Israel in Exodus chapter 16, which forbade the gathering of manna on the Sabbath. The two previous texts are thus viewed as foundational for the Fourth Commandment, as specified in Exodus 20.
(2) The Fourth Commandment is not just a requirement to “keep the Sabbath,” but more than this is the instruction to “keep the Sabbath holy” (cf. Exodus 16:23; 20:8). The Sabbath day is commemorated as a holy day, one designated such by the Lord (Genesis 2:1-3) and declared to be such in Exodus 16:23. Keeping the Sabbath involves much more than abstinence from labor, it requires the acknowledgment of the sacredness, the sanctity, of this day because of God’s deeds and declaration.
(3) The Fourth Commandment instructs each Israelite to plan and to finish his week’s work by the Sabbath. The reason why men do not wish to stop what they are doing is most often that they have not finished. The Fourth Commandment deals with this problem by instructing the Israelites to plan to be finished by the end of the sixth day, and to see to it that they do finish.
(4) The commandment here is broadened from the command given in Exodus chapter 16. In that passage, God specifically prohibited the Israelites from gathering manna on the seventh day of the week. Now, all labor is prohibited. This command is now so general it will require further clarification. We are thus prepared for the next revelation God will give the Israelites. Also, the number of those prohibited to work is significantly increased to include the Israelites’ servants and their beasts. Not only was rest guaranteed for all, but this would constitute a nation-wide shut down, which would make it more difficult for any who might be tempted to overlook this commandment.
(5) This commandment is not given in isolation, but it is given in relationship, in concert with the other nine. We cannot understand this command in isolation, apart from its relationship to the other commandments. We shall wait until our next passage to consider the relationship of the Fourth Commandment to the commandments as a whole. Here, I wish to point out the relationship of the Fourth Commandment to the preceding three, those which bear upon Israel’s relationship to her God. I believe that the Fourth Commandment makes a significant contribution to the Israel’s (true) worship of God.
(6) This commandment in verse 11 we are reminded that the Lord “made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them.” Previously in the Commandments, God had forbidden the worship of other gods and the use of idols and images. Specifically, God said, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). We find that the Israelites would be tempted to make images of those things which God created, either in the heavens above, on the earth, or in the sea. After they were forbidden to fashion any images in the form of any creatures in these three spheres, God then refers to the fact that He rested after having finished creating everything in the heavens above, on the earth, and in the sea (Exodus 20:11). Is there any significance to the repetition of these three spheres? I believe so. I believe that God is teaching a very important lesson about worship: ISRAEL WOULD BE WRONG TO TRY TO WORSHIP GOD BY IMITATING HIS CREATURES (MAKING IDOLS), BUT THEY WERE TO WORSHIP GOD BY IMITATING HIS ACTIONS AFTER CREATION—BY RESTING AS HE DID.
To summarize this matter concisely we might say that Israel could not worship with idols, but was to worship by being idle. Here is a crucial difference between false worship and the true. We are wrong to worship God by making imitation gods; we are right in imitating God in His response to having finished His creation. God is worshipped as we imitate His actions and character, not as we serve the things He created.
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘You shall surely observe My Sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you. Therefore you are to observe the Sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall surely be put to death. So the sons of Israel shall observe the Sabbath, to celebrate the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant.’ It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed.” And when He had finished speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God (Exodus 31:12-18).
Several new dimensions to the Sabbath commandment are given in this text:
(1) This passage refers to the Sabbaths as “MY” Sabbaths (v. 13). The Sabbaths which Israel are to observe are the Lord’s. This is undoubtedly related to the Sabbath rest of God after creation, referred to once again in verse 17.
(2) The observance of the Sabbath is extended in time, so that it becomes a permanent one (throughout your generations, v. 13) for Israel.
(3) The observance of the Sabbath is declared to be the sign of the Mosaic Covenant between God and His chosen people Israel. The obligation is restricted to Israelites (“It is a sign between Me and you,” v. 13; “It is holy to you,” v. 14). The fact that this commandment comes virtually at the middle of the commandments, bridging Israel’s obligation to God with her duties to men, conforms to the pattern of the treaties of the Ancient Near East. Note that the reiteration of the Fourth Commandment is God’s final word at the giving of the Mosaic Covenant on Mt. Sinai.
(4) The importance of obeying this commandment is emphatically stressed. Since Sabbath observance is the sign of the covenant, observing the Sabbath was the Israelites’ pledge to keep the whole Law. To break this commandment was to reject all of the Law. Consequently, obedience to this commandment was vitally important. The urgency of obedience is stressed by the word “surely” (“You shall surely observe My Sabbaths”) in verse 13. It is even more urgent in the light of the death penalty which is prescribed for violation of the Sabbath, twice stated (vss. 14, 15).
(5) The Sabbath is said to be profaned by any who work on this sacred day. Are we to say that work is profane? In the sense that work is common, everyday, the answer is clearly yes. What is common or profane is not necessarily evil (after all, God worked 6 days to create the heavens and the earth), but neither is it holy in the sense of being special. That which is holy is set apart, distinct, put to different use. Thus, God distinguished the seventh day by resting, as opposed to working. Israel must do likewise, so that what happened on the Sabbath was to be different, somehow, from what happened on any other day.
(6) The purpose of Israel’s Sabbath observance was to teach them about sanctification—namely their sanctification. God said that Israel was to observe the Sabbath perpetually, “that you might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (v. 13). Just as God had set the seventh day apart from the other six at creation, so He had set Israel apart by His divine calling and their deliverance at the Exodus. The godly Israelite, who wished to observe the Sabbath with his whole heart, would meditate on what God intended him to do in order to keep the Sabbath as a holy day. In so doing, he would also be learning much about what it meant for him to keep himself holy as well. The keeping of the Sabbath thus became an object lesson in sanctification.
The Sabbath in Other Pentateuchal Passages
These four passages provide us with the most extensive teaching on the Sabbath. There are several other passages to which we shall briefly refer, pointing out the unique contribution of each to the Sabbath theology.
Exodus 34:21: Adds “in plowing time and in harvest you shall cease to work”—thus more specifically applying Sabbath instruction to new conditions in land.
Exodus 35:2-3: No fire can be kindled on the Sabbath in Israelite homes. While alluded to in Exodus 16, it is clearly prohibited here. This prevented the women from becoming absorbed in preparation of “hot” meals. In effect, this clarification meant “cold cuts” for dinner on the Sabbath.
Leviticus 23:3: Leviticus provides the Israelites with instruction concerning their worship which included the Sabbath. The various religious Sabbath celebrations for which Israel will gather (convocation) include:
(1) A convocation each Sabbath (23:3).
(2) A celebration of the Passover (23:4-8).
(3) A convocation on the seventh month, including a celebration of the day of atonement and the Feast of Booths (23:23-38).
Leviticus 25 and 26: In Leviticus 25, God adds the requirement that the land must have its Sabbath rests, just as the people and their animals do. On every seventh year, the land must not be worked, as in the other six years.
Every 50 years (7 X 7) there was to be a year of jubilee (25:8-17). The land was again to lie fallow. Property was to be restored to its original owner. Since the land belonged to God, He had every right to require this (25:23).
Failure to give the land its Sabbath rests would lead to Israel’s dispersion and captivity, at which time the land would get its rest (26:32-35).
Numbers 28:9-10: Here, the Sabbath day sacrifice (two male lambs) is prescribed.
‘Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you, so that your male and your female servant may rest as well as you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the Sabbath day’ (Deut. 5:12-15).
Essentially, this passage is a reiteration of the Ten Commandments, spoken by Moses in the light of Israel’s upcoming entrance into the land of Canaan. There are, however, a few differences between this text and that of Exodus 20:8-11. These are:
(1) This time, the commandment begins with the word “observe” rather than “remember.”
(2) “Ox” and “ass” are added to those animals which cannot be worked on the Sabbath.
(3) The statement, “that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you,” is added.
(4) The basis for observing the Sabbath is different. In Exodus, the basis for the Sabbath was the creation-rest of God. In Deuteronomy, it is Israel’s slavery and release from Egypt in Deuteronomy. In Exodus, the focus is on creation, while in Deuteronomy it is redemption. In the first giving of the Fourth Commandment, Israel is instructed to imitate God in His rest; in the second, Israel is to imitate God in His redemption, in His compassion on the oppressed. Thus, just as they were given rest from their slavery, so the Israelites must give their slaves rest.249
The Sabbath in the Prophets
The rest of the Old Testament (which I am referring to as the “prophets”) has some important insight for us regarding the observance of the Sabbath.
Psalm 92: Psalm 92, subtitled “A Psalm, a Song for the Sabbath Day,” is one which we often sing. At this time we will only point out that this psalm is suggestive of the kinds of worship activities which are appropriate on the Sabbath day.
Isaiah 56:1-8: In Isaiah chapter 56, the prophet dwells on the blessings which will come to those who keep the Sabbath, “in spirit and in truth” (we might paraphrase). Several new emphases can be found here in regard to the Sabbath:
(1) Sabbath-keeping is no mere external ritual, it must be accompanied by righteousness and justice.
(2) Blessings are promised to two specific groups, who may have been considered ineligible. The foreigner (vss. 3, 6-8) and the eunuch (vss. 3-5) who keep the Sabbath are promised those blessings most significant and encouraging to them. The eunuch will not need to bear children to carry on their name for God will give them an everlasting name (vss. 4-5). The foreigner will no longer be an outsider, but will be joined with God and with His people (vss. 6-8). How great a comfort Gentiles find here.
Isaiah 58:13-14: It would seem that Sabbath-keeping had become tedious and mundane for many of the Israelites. Instead of using the Sabbath as a day of worship, selfish pleasures were pursued. God here promises blessing to those who delight in Him and who forsake the pursuit of pleasure on the Sabbath for the pursuit of God.
Jeremiah 17:21-27: Through the prophet Jeremiah, God speaks of the abuses of the Sabbath, especially as it relates to the city of Jerusalem. Commercial enterprise was being carried on during the Sabbath. Specifically, goods were being transported into and out of the city. The Fourth Commandment is thus applied specifically to the city and to commerce. God promises to bless Jerusalem as a city if the people keep the Sabbath, but to destroy the city if they refuse. We know that Jerusalem will fall and go into captivity from the entire prophecy of Jeremiah. Israel’s refusal to keep the Sabbath (and thus to cast aside her covenant with God) was a substantial part of the reason for her captivity.
Ezekiel 20:12-26; 22:8, 16, 26: Ezekiel’s prophecy in chapters 20 and 22 simply reiterates and reinforces God’s warning that the neglect of God’s covenant and Israel’s failure to keep the Sabbath would result in her judgment and captivity.
Nehemiah 10:28-31; 13:15-22: Nehemiah was one of the Post-exilic writers. The Book of Nehemiah reflects the commitment of Nehemiah and of the godly Israelites who returned to the promised land to observe the Law of God and specifically to keep the Sabbath.
Principles and Practical Implications
We have briefly surveyed the principle texts of the Old Testament which teach the Israelites how and why they should keep the Sabbath holy. Let us now sum up what we have learned, as well as explore some of the principles underlying this instruction and their implications for us.
(1) The Principle of Progressive Revelation. The progressively unfolding teaching on the Sabbath in the Bible is an excellent illustration of the principle of progressive revelation. Essentially, the principle of progressive revelation recognizes that God reveals important doctrines and concepts gradually and sequentially. Major lines of biblical truth (e.g. doctrine, prophecy) are first revealed in broad, general terms, and then filled in with more and more detail. Thus, we would expect that the great doctrines of the Bible would likely occur first in the Old Testament (very often in the Pentateuch), would then be clarified by the Old Testament prophets, interpreted by our Lord, and then finally explained and applied by the New Testament writers. The revelation of truth in the Bible is thus like the blooming of a beautiful flower. First the seed is planted, the plant grows, the flower appears as a bud and finally is seen in full bloom.
The implications of this principle are simple, yet vitally important. If we are to study a particular doctrine in the Bible we must do so consistently with the principle of progressive revelation. We should being at the beginning and study its development to the very end of the New Testament. In order to do this one should make good use of topical Bibles, marginal references in their Bibles, and a complete concordance.
The cultists and false teachers often do great violence to the principle of progressive revelation. They often find their “revelations” in one or a few obscure texts. They hop about the Bible in random fashion to justify their preconceived ideas. They then assign a very high level of importance to their unique (offbeat) interpretation. The principle of progressive revelation should help us to spot such scriptural charlatans. Any important doctrine should be frequently mentioned in Scripture. The development of that doctrine should be clearly evident as one works through the Scriptures from beginning to end. The truth will not be obscure, missed by most (we all want to know something which the less enlightened have missed), but evident to many Christians, throughout the ages of church history.
Let me briefly review what we have learned about the Sabbath from the Old Testament, to show how carefully Sabbath instruction has been given:
Sabbath established by deeds and decree of God.
Sabbath first commanded. Applied by God to the Israelites in the wilderness, related to the gathering of manna.
Sabbath first given as the Fourth Commandment. Application broadened to all work, and to all in Israel, including servants and animals.
Sabbath specifically identified as Israel’s sign of the Mosaic Covenant, with death penalty prescribed for violators.
Leviticus and Numbers
Sabbath rest to include the land. Religious celebrations and sacrifice given more detail.
The Fourth Commandment reiterated, but now with emphasis on God’s redemption and Israel’s responsibility toward slaves.
Description of the kinds of worship appropriate on the Sabbath.
Israel’s errors in understanding and carrying out the Sabbath exposed (pursuit of own pleasure; ritual without mercy, justice, and Ezekiel righteousness). Blessings promised those who keep Sabbath in spirit and in truth; judgment (captivity) if Sabbath is continually profaned.
Post-exilic books (Nehemiah):
Emphasis on care given to keep the Sabbath.
(2) True religion requires the imitation of God. Idolatry seeks to create imitations of God, by creating man-made idols which represent and reflect God to men. True religion seeks to imitate God by being like Him and by obeying His commands. Israel was set apart by God to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). She was to manifest God to men by being like God in holy conduct, outlined by the Law which God gave at Mt. Sinai. God is made known to men when God’s character and conduct are reflected in and through men.
This principle is true today. Christ came to the earth to reveal God to men in His earthly body. Now that He has ascended to heaven, it is the church which is the manifestation of Christ to the world. We are His body. Just like Israel, we who constitute the church are called to be “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that we may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called us out of darkness into light” (cf. 1 Peter 2:9). Just as God commanded Israel to be holy because He is holy, so He has given this same command to the church (1 Peter 1:16).
Some would tell us that in this age of grace the Christian need not concern himself with commandment-keeping. I would remind you that just as keeping the commandments guided the Israelites as to how they were to live in a God-like way, so God’s commandments (as clarified and reiterated in the New Testament) inform us about living lives which imitate God’s character and conduct. Our Lord’s final words to His disciples in John 14 and 15 had much to say about keeping His commandments (cf. John 14:15; 15:10).
Keeping God’s commandments reveals God to men in a different way. When we keep God’s commandments it often creates situations in which God is able to manifest His power and provision for His people in a magnificent way. Let me illustrate this truth in a couple of ways. First, suppose that you were an Israelite, and that the weather forecast was for a hailstorm, which would arrive on the first day of the week. Your crops had not been fully harvested and the sixth day of the week was just drawing to a close. To obey the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy would require you not to harvest your crops, knowing full well that the hailstorm might destroy them before you could finish the harvest. All of your pagan neighbors would be watching, I can assure you. They would watch to see the measure of your faith in God to protect your crops and to provide for you. They would also watch to see what your God would do. By obeying this commandment a situation is created in which God can prove Himself to be God.
The same is also true for the New Testament saint who faithfully lives in accordance with God’s word. I once heard a professor say that any businessman who attempted to live by the Sermon on the Mount would go broke doing so. Humanly speaking this may be true. Spiritually speaking, this affords a wonderful opportunity for God’s people to demonstrate their faith, and for God to demonstrate His faithfulness. I have heard similar statements related to our ecclesiology (the biblical principles of running the church). I believe that God gives us commands which test our faith and which give the opportunity for Him to demonstrate His faithfulness.
(3) The relationship between time and godliness: It takes time to be holy. The relationship between the first three commandments and the fourth is becoming increasingly clear. The first three commandments impress upon the saint the necessity, indeed the priority, of worship. The fourth commandment insures the time which is required for worship. When viewed together these commandments inform us that it takes time to be holy. The fourth commandment prohibits preoccupation with the normal activity of work so that men may worship God.
Think through the Old Testament passages which we have studied in this lesson for a moment. There are two related subjects: work (or the absence of it) and worship. The initial teaching on the Sabbath focuses on the absence of normal labor on the seventh day. Eventually the Scriptures begin to develop principles and a structure for Israel’s worship. The two things are directly related: Israel’s cessation of normal work was to facilitate her worship.
I have to smile to myself at this point. If many of the electronic preachers of our day had a voice in the choice of topics to be addressed in the Ten Commandments, one high priority topic would surely be money (some might make most of the commandments money-oriented). While money is dealt with somewhat, I find that time is given a higher order of priority. That is because it is easier to worship God in the absence of money (blessed are the poor) than it is in the absence of time. Isn’t it interesting that some attempt to substitute their money for their time?
I am now better able to understand a statement in the Book of Exodus which has always puzzled me: “‘Let My son go, that he may serve Me’” (Exodus 4:23; cf. 5:1, 3).
What is it, I have long wondered, which made Israel’s freedom essential to her worship? Now I better understand, in the light of the Fourth Commandment. Slaves have no time of their own. The Israelites did not have the necessary time to worship God and to serve Him. In order for them to serve God it was necessary for them to have sufficient freedom to do so. Bondage with regard to time is thus a hindrance to worship.
If this is true (as I believe it is) think of how successful Satan has been in hindering the worship of Christians in 20th century America. We are workaholics, and, in addition, worn out by the time demands of our day. It is no wonder that the quality of our worship is so shoddy. We must have free time to worship, and we must plan our week so that we finish in time to have that time. It does take time to be holy.
Yet we live in a day when everything is supposed to be done quickly and efficiently. We eat fast foods, drive in the fast lane. And thus, when we come to church, we want our worship pre-digested, pre-planned, and quickly served up so we can get on to other (better?) things. God save us from those time eaters which cause us to abbreviate our worship.
One more thing on the subject of time. We seem to think that our priorities are always in direct proportion to our time. The Old Testament teaching on the Sabbath destroys this as a myth, in my opinion. We suppose that those who are the most spiritual spend the most time in “spiritual” activities. Thus, full-time ministry is placed on the highest level, on a kind of spiritual pedestal. Let me remind you that while the seventh day was set apart as a holy day, it constituted only one-seventh of the week’s time. God labored on six days and rested on but one. Experience and Scripture join together to point out that what is most important does not always take the most time.
244 Some have attempted to discern the meaning of the term “Sabbath” by exploring its etymology (root meaning and development). Frankly, this has brought about many differing opinions, none of which has very compelling evidence. Thus, Dressler seems to conclude that etymology will not be of much profit, as can be seen from his summary of the conclusions of various scholars. Harold H. P. Dressler, “The Sabbath in the Old Testament,” From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, pp. 23-24. The Scripture itself best explains the meaning of “Sabbath.”
245 “Their sojourn in Egypt had taught them the ten-day ‘week.’” Ibid, p. 24. Dressler quotes here from Richard Parker, “The Calendars and Chronology,” Legacy of Egypt (Oxford: University Press, 1971), p. 17.
246 “Thus, viewed within the chronological scheme of the narrative, a few months before the actual commandment of the Sabbath (i.e., in the Decalogue), the people of Israel were trained in the keeping of the Sabbath as a day in which there was no need to do the daily chore since the Lord had provided for them a rest.” From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 24.
247 It is probably worth mentioning that Moses undoubtedly wrote much of the Pentateuch at the same time. Thus, while the events of the preceding Book of Genesis and the earlier portions of Exodus may have been separated by some considerable period of time, their time of writing was quite confined in time. The point is that what God inspired and directed Moses to write was intended to buttress and undergird Israel’s actions, as prescribed in the Law.
248 The first statement of the Fourth Commandment in Exodus 20 begins with the words, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” The restatement of this command in Deuteronomy chapter 5 begins, “Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” The change from “remember” to “observe” may be significant and worth further study, but that goes beyond the scope of this message.
249 This is a bit of an aside, but I think we should keep this text in mind whenever (or if we ever) we glibly state that the Bible sanctions slavery. There are many kinds of slavery, and the kind of slavery which God tolerates are vastly superior to the kind we most often observe. For some “freemen” in our world, God’s kind of slavery would be a step up.