Living Christianity: The Ten Commandments (Part 3)

December 18, 2018

by Peter Amsterdam

The fourth commandment is the last of the commandments that focus on humanity’s duty to God. 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 to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and 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.1

The Israelites, as an agrarian people, toiled hard to put food on the table. God gave them the Sabbath commandment so that they would take one day each week as a day of rest from their labors. God blessed the Sabbath day and made it a blessing for the people. It wasn’t meant to be a burden or to impose restrictions on their activities. The book of Isaiah spoke of the Sabbath as being a “delight.”

If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.2

Over time, Jewish tradition adopted legalistic interpretations of the Sabbath and added detailed rules regarding which activities were or were not permitted. In Jesus’ time, these rules had become part of the oral tradition, which was later written down in the Jewish Mishnah and then the Talmud. Here are two examples that give an idea of the detailed regulations that developed:

If a gentile lighted a lamp an Israelite may make use of the light, but if he lighted it for the sake of the Israelite it is forbidden. If he filled [a trough] with water to give his cattle to drink, an Israelite may give his own cattle to drink after him, but if the gentile did it for the Israelite, it is forbidden.3

If a stone lay on the mouth of a jar, the jar may be turned on its side so that the stone falls off. If the jar was among other jars it may be lifted up and then turned on its side so that the stone falls off.4

Jesus and His disciples were often accused by the Pharisees of breaking the fourth commandment by “doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.”5 However, in each of these instances they weren’t disobeying the original meaning of the commandment, but rather were disobeying the additional rules added by the religious leaders.

Throughout history, there have been Christians who see Sunday as being the counterpart of the Old Testament Sabbath day. As such, they consider that Sunday is a day in which they are to cease from all work, employment, and in some cases recreation and spend the day in public and private worship. Those who hold this position often call their position “Sabbatarian” because it reflects the Old Testament Sabbath, though observed on Sunday rather than Saturday. They believe it is a moral requirement established by God in Genesis 2:2–3 when He rested on the seventh day and blessed it and made it holy. Also, in Exodus 20, the reason given for observing the Sabbath was that God rested on the seventh day.

Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.6

Sabbatarians also believe that because the fourth commandment is part of the Ten Commandments, it is a permanent moral requirement, as all the rest of the commandments are. They believe that there is nothing in the New Testament which abrogates the Old Testament Sabbath commandment.

Most Christians aren’t Sabbatarians and don’t observe the Sabbath as prescribed in the Old Testament, though traditionally Sunday has been understood as a day for worship, and many Christians the world over attend church or fellowship gatherings on that day. However, most don't consider it to be morally wrong and a sin if for some reason they have to miss church or do some necessary work on Sunday.

As explained in “Living Christianity: The Old and New Covenants,” nine of the Ten Commandments are reaffirmed in the New Testament, with the fourth commandment being the one exception. This indicates that keeping the Sabbath was not a moral law that was instituted for all people at all times, but was rather a specific law for the people of Israel who were living under the Mosaic Law. The apostle Paul wrote that the Sabbath was a “shadow” which has been fulfilled in Christ.

Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.7

In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul wrote that believers should respect one another’s decisions about whether or not to observe special days.

One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.8

Though the New Testament doesn’t teach that Christians must esteem Sunday above other days, some Christians feel it is an obligation to do so. According to what Paul said, those who believe Sunday is the equivalent of a Christian Sabbath day, a day in which one must not work and is to spend the day in rest and worship, should be respected. Those who feel that Sunday is the proper day to worship, but don’t treat it as a day in which no work or secular activities should be done, should also be respected. Likewise, those who believe that no specific day is more holy than another should be respected as well. For some Christians, it’s just not possible to gather together on Sunday, so instead they come together for prayer and worship on a weekday.

In the book of Galatians, Paul expressed surprise that the churches were going farther than allowing people to observe specific days, and instead were demanding that they do so.

Now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years!9

He wrote to the Colossian church:

Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.10

Because there is no specific command or moral requirement for Christians to keep a Sabbath day (Sunday), we are not bound to do so, and we’re free to decide if we choose to or not.

While the New Testament doesn’t require regular times of worship, prayer, and fellowship with other believers, Scripture does strongly make the case that Christians should do these things. In the book of Hebrews we read:

Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.11

Throughout the Epistles, there are a number of instances which speak of Christians meeting together for fellowship, prayer, and worship. Welcome one another;12 Greet one another;13 comfort one another;14 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart;15 teaching and admonishing one another;16 encourage one another and build one another up;17 confess your sins to one another and pray for one another;18 Show hospitality to one another;19 and love one another.20 While it is not morally binding on Christians to keep the Sabbath, it is clear that Christians should gather together for fellowship, prayer, and worship.

While we as Christians are not bound by religious law to take time off, it is spiritually and physically healthy for us to do so. Taking time off restores mental energy, helps one to be more creative, reduces stress, is physically and mentally refreshing, and allows time with family and friends, as well as with the Lord.

Taking time off doesn’t have to be done on a Sunday, though for many in the West that is the day (along with Saturday in some countries) when many companies, businesses, public entities such as government offices, schools, etc. close, so it’s convenient to take that day off. Of course, many people’s jobs require them to work on Sundays—for example, pastors, doctors, nurses, and other hospital workers, restaurant and shop owners and employees, etc. Scripturally, no day is better to take off than another, neither is it religiously demanded to take a weekly day off from work—though it is a wise thing to do as often as possible.

Not only is it wise to take some time off weekly (some are able to take a full weekend off), but it is also beneficial to take longer periods off of work from time to time if possible. In Old Testament times, the Mosaic Law commanded longer periods for rest from labor, including various feasts, some of which lasted seven days. Jesus also took His disciples away to rest from time to time.

He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.”21

There are mental, spiritual, and physical benefits to getting away for longer periods of rest.

Through the pattern of work, rest, and worship which God established, we understand work is ordained by God, that He is pleased when we productively work in the callings and jobs to which He has led us, as it benefits society. We also understand that God wants us to rest from our labors, to take time to be refreshed and refilled in spirit.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1 Exodus 20:8–11.

2 Isaiah 58:13–14.

3 Herbert Danby, trans., The Mishna (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), 115. (Mishnah, Shabbath, 16.8).

4 Ibid., 118. (Mishnah, Shabbath, 21:2).

5 Matthew 12:2.

6 Exodus 20:11.

7 Colossians 2:16–17.

8 Romans 14:5–6.

9 Galatians 4:9–10.

10 Colossians 2:16.

11 Hebrews 10:24–25.

12 Romans 15:7.

13 Romans 16:16.

14 2 Corinthians 13:11.

15 Ephesians 5:19.

16 Colossians 3:16.

17 1 Thessalonians 5:11.

18 James 5:16.

19 1 Peter 4:9.

20 1 John 3:23.

21 Mark 6:31.