The Sabbath Day: the Fourth Commandment
God’s law is summed up in the Ten Commandments. They are our basic guide for living, showing us how to have a proper relationship with our Creator and our fellowman.
However, the most universally misunderstood and misapplied commandment is God's command to "remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Exodus 20:8). Many people view the Sabbath as a quaint relic of history, perhaps a nice idea at some time in the past but altogether impractical in today's busy world. Some think the Sabbath is Sunday and that spending an hour or two at church on Sunday morning fulfills the intent of the Sabbath commandment. Others think Jesus Christ did away with any specific day of rest, or the need to worship on a particular day, and that whatever time we choose to revere God is holy.
Questions About Sabbath Rest Abound
The questions and opinions about this commandment are endless. Did Jesus keep the Sabbath or did He break the Sabbath command? Did the apostle Paul, in writing more books of the New Testament than any other writer, show that the Sabbath is no longer necessary for Christians, or did he uphold it?
Was the Sabbath condemned and changed in the early New Testament Church, or confirmed? Did God sanctify the Sabbath at the time He created Adam and Eve, or did He first set it apart as holy time at the Exodus more than 2,000 years later? Was the Sabbath changed from the seventh day of the week to another day, and if so, when?
Why did God command a day of rest to begin with? Did He have a purpose for it, and, if so, what is that purpose? Is the Sabbath relevant at all for humankind today? Does it make sense in today's world? The questions go on and on.
Why should there be such confusion about one of the 10 basic guiding principles and laws God gave mankind? Why is there such controversy and confusion over this one commandment when most people, including religious leaders and their churches, have little quarrel with the other nine?
There are answers to these questions, and you don't have to look far to discover them. They can be found in the Bible. In this online Bible study booklet, Sunset to Sunset: God’s Sabbath Rest, we will answer these basic questions.
Below we’ll delve into one section of the booklet to get you started into this fascinating and essential subject.
Which Day Is the Sabbath?
Since most churches observe Sunday as their day of rest and worship, many people assume that Sunday is the Sabbath.
The Fourth Commandment states: "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work..." (Exodus 20:8-10).
God commanded that the seventh day be observed as the Sabbath. A glance at almost any dictionary or encyclopedia will show you that Saturday is the seventh day of the week, while Sunday is the first day of the week. The seventh day according to God's calendar is—and always has been—the Sabbath day. Although man has modified calendars through the centuries, the seven-day weekly cycle has remained intact throughout history. The days of the week have always remained in their proper order, with Sunday as the first day of the week and Saturday as the seventh.
"The oracles of God"—His divine words and instructions—were entrusted to the Jewish people (Romans 3:1, 2), and they have preserved the knowledge of the seventh-day Sabbath faithfully since well before Christ's time to this day.
Sabbath’s Day of Observance Changed Without Biblical Authorization
How did Sunday become the primary day of rest and worship? Although the concept of rest has largely disappeared, most denominations continue to hold their worship services on Sunday. You can search throughout the Bible, but you will find no authority to alter the day of worship.
James Cardinal Gibbons, Catholic educator and archbishop of Baltimore in the late 1800s and early 1900s, was blunt about the change: "You may read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, and you will not find a single line authorizing the sanctification of Sunday. The Scriptures enforce the religious observance of Saturday, a day which we never sanctify. The Catholic Church correctly teaches that our Lord and His Apostles inculcated certain important duties of religion which are not recorded by the inspired writers...We must, therefore, conclude that the Scriptures alone cannot be a sufficient guide and rule of faith" (The Faith of Our Fathers, John Murphy Company, Baltimore, 1917, p. 89).
Did you grasp that? The writer admits that Sunday observance is nowhere authorized in the Bible and that the seventh day is the only day sanctified by the Scriptures. His justification for changing the day of rest and worship assumes that authority exists apart from the Bible to define the necessary truths and practices for salvation.
Sabbath Change Made After the New Testament Was Written
The change from Sabbath to Sunday was made long after the writing of the New Testament. No clear references to Sunday as a day of Christian worship are found until the writings of Barnabas and Justin, c. A.D. 135 and 150, respectively. Observance of Sunday as the primary day of worship appears to have solidified in the reign of Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-135), who harshly persecuted Jews throughout the Roman Empire. Hadrian specifically prohibited practices of Judaism, including observance of the seventh-day Sabbath.
These oppressive measures apparently influenced many early Christians in Rome to abandon the seventh day and turn to Sunday, historically observed by the Romans as a day of veneration of the sun. Within a few centuries Sabbath observance by Christians was virtually eliminated within the confines of the empire and replaced by Sunday.
Although the Protestant Reformation brought some doctrinal and administrative changes, observance of Sunday as a day of rest and worship continued from the Roman Catholic Church into subsequent Protestant denominations. Whereas the Catholic Church claimed authority to establish its own times of worship, Protestant churches generally justified Sunday observance on the grounds that the seventh-day Sabbath was replaced in the New Testament by worship on Sunday in honor of Christ's resurrection (see "Was Sunday the New Testament Day of Worship?").
As confirmed by Cardinal Gibbons above, there is no biblical authority for changing the day of rest and worship from the seventh day to Sunday. As shown throughout our online Bible study booklet about the Sabbath, Jesus Christ, the apostles and Jewish and gentile members of the early Church alike continued to observe the seventh-day Sabbath. This is the only day authorized in the Bible.
The Sabbath and the New Testament
Jesus Christ and the apostles lived and taught in a Sabbath-keeping society. Jesus' confrontations with the Pharisees were over how to observe the Sabbath, never over whether to observe it.
The examples of Jesus and the apostles confirm that they believed in and obeyed all of the Ten Commandments. Throughout the book of Acts—written by Luke, a gentile—the Sabbath and the annual Sabbaths described in Leviticus 23 are mentioned quite routinely (Acts 13:14, Acts 13:42, Acts 13:44; Acts 16:13; Acts 17:2; Acts 18:4, Acts 18:21; Acts 20:6, Acts 20:16; Acts 27:9). Whether to observe them simply wasn't a question.
Read more about God’s Sabbath Rest online today.