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Picture of a church board with the creed, the commandments and the Lord's prayer.

A Weekly Blessing

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Posted by Ros Clarke, 9 Mar 2018

Ros Clarke considers the fourth commandment and its ongoing relevance for Christians in the next of our series of Lent blogposts on the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer. Catch up with the whole series here.

The fourth commandment

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping 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, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” Exodus 20:8-11

“If you don’t work, you don’t eat”, is a rule that still holds true for many people around the world, even if in our wealthy society most people are sheltered from that reality to some extent by the welfare state.

But the Sabbath always stood as a God-given exception to this rule. Keeping the Sabbath was an act of faith. It meant trusting that God would continue to provide for his people even if they did not work. Sabbath was a demonstration of grace: God provided for his people what they had not earned. The Sabbath year was an even more extreme example of this (Leviticus 25:1-7) – and the Israelites never had sufficient faith to put it into practice (2 Chronicles 36:21).

The commandment was to keep the Sabbath day holy. That is, to keep it separate, to keep it special. It was a day for the Lord, and not for the people. It was the day for the people to gather together (Leviticus 23:3) and a day to make offerings to God (Numbers 28:9-10).

Keeping the Sabbath holy involved resting. Six days to work and one to rest followed the pattern God set in making all creation. The seventh day was blessed by God and made holy. And so one important way of keeping the Sabbath holy was by resting from work. No one in the whole household was to work, not the servants, not the foreigners, not even the animals!

Finally, the Sabbath was a day for remembering what God had done. The Israelites were to remember how God had saved them out of slavery in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:15). They were to tell each generation the stories of the plagues, the Passover, the escape through the Red Sea, the miraculous provision in the desert – over and over again. And yes, they were supposed to do this every day, but Sabbath provided a special opportunity to do so, free of all the normal chores of daily work.

How is the fourth commandment a mirror?
The Sabbath reflects God’s holiness. It is a holy day, set apart from the others, distinguished from them by its focus on God. God’s holiness is illustrated for us in the way he sets aside holy times, holy places, holy objects and holy things. Holy things must be separated from ordinary things. They must be kept special and different. 

The commandment to keep a Sabbath reveals something about ourselves too. We are faithless people and we forget so quickly that we can and should trust God. We find it hard to trust that God will provide for us and our families. It is much easier to believe that we can do it ourselves. We need the weekly reminder that it is God who provides for us. Having to stop work for one whole day every week is a tangible expression of our faith in God’s gracious provision.

The command to keep the Sabbath holy reminds us that we need to keep our lives focussed on God. We need to meet with God’s people, to make our freewill offerings to him, to be reminded of how God has saved us. One day a week is set aside for us to do those things, free from our normal responsibilities.

We’re sometimes surprised how quickly the Israelites began complaining and groaning in the wilderness. How could they have forgotten God’s amazing salvation so soon? But we are no different! We need reminding every week, because we can forget so easily.

How is the fourth commandment a deterrent?
There is no explicit warning in the commandment, though we know that Sabbath-breaking was punishable by death (Numbers 15:32-36).

The commandment motivates obedience by giving us God’s example to follow. If God himself worked for six days and then rested, who are we to think we can work for seven full days a week?

More even than that, we’re told that God blessed the Sabbath. It is a gift he gives us, not a burden to be carried. A holy day, a special day, rest from daily work, a chance to gather together to hear once again the great story of God saving his people – what’s not to love?

How does the fourth commandment set the standard for our behaviour?

The Sabbath commandment had civil and ceremonial aspects to it, as well as a moral aspect. Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial aspect of this law just as he did for the whole ceremonial law. We no longer need to make Sabbath sacrifices, for example. And we no longer live in a nation where Sabbath breaking could, or should, be punishable by law.

But as with all the commandments, when Jesus fulfilled the law, he did not abolish it. We still need to keep trusting that God will provide for us. We still need a constant, regular reminder of what God has done in saving us. We still need a time to gather together with God’s people and offer ourselves to God. And we still need a day to rest from our work, because we are still not stronger than God who rested after all his work.

Christians don’t keep Sabbath as the Israelites did, on the seventh day of the week. Instead we celebrate the instigation of the new kingdom through the resurrection of Christ on the first day of the week, that is, Sunday. But though the day has changed, and the ceremonial requirements are no longer relevant, we should not just throw out the fourth commandment. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)

We still need the pattern of Sabbath-keeping that God has blessed us with, as we follow the example of Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath.

Questions for reflection:
1. Why did God establish the Sabbath for his people?
2. In what ways has Jesus fulfilled the fourth commandment?
3. Why is it still important for Christians to keep a special day and a day of rest?

Prayer: Heavenly Father, who provided miraculously for your people in the wilderness, teach us to trust that you will provide for us. May we gladly rest from all our work one day each week, and make that day holy to God. Let us never give up meeting with your people to be reminded of our salvation in Christ. Let us never forget what you have done for us in the past and let us never give up hoping in the future Sabbath-rest you have promised us. Amen.

Ros Clarke is Associate Director of Church Society

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