God's Test Commandment

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God's Test Commandment

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Does it matter whether we obey the Ten Commandments? Most Christians would certainly say yes. But what about the Fourth Commandment, "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy"? (Exodus 20:8). Does God really expect us to set aside one day of the week on which we are not to work? (Exodus 20:9-10). Is it realistic in today's world to take a whole day off each week? Is God really a stickler on this particular commandment, as He seems to be on the other nine?

Why is the Sabbath important to God? Because God wants us to have a proper, loving relationship with Him. To do that we must spend time with Him.

If we are to keep the Sabbath day holy, we first have to know what day that is. Like most people, I commonly assumed the Sabbath was Sunday, since that was the day on which my friends and relatives went to church rather than to work. But then I found out that some people observed Saturday as the Sabbath. Which is the true biblical Sabbath day? And does it really matter?

Look around you. It's obvious that most people don't think too highly of the Fourth Commandment. Saturday and Sunday alike, people fill amusement parks, movie theaters, shopping malls and sports stadiums, with more than a few also using that time to mow the lawn, wash the cars or catch up on other chores if they're not at their regular job that day.

Clearly the Sabbath seems to be the most ignored of the Ten Commandments. The one that God said to remember is easily the one most people forget.

Examining the Fourth Commandment

Let's take a closer look at the Fourth Commandment to better understand what it says:

"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: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it" (Exodus 20:8-11).

Let's notice several important points in these verses:

"Remember the Sabbath day ..." The Sabbath is something to remember. Many assume this is the first time God expected anyone to observe the Sabbath day. But the fact that He commanded the Sabbath to be remembered should help us to realize that it already existed before the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. Indeed, He had revealed it to the Israelites earlier, in Exodus 16. But its origins go much further back, as we will see. It is in that regard that the Sabbath was to be observed as a remembrance—a memorial of something of great importance.

"... To keep it holy." The Sabbath is to be kept holy. Holy means set apart for God's use and purpose rather than our own.

"... The seventh day is the Sabbath ..." The Sabbath day is the seventh day of the week (observed Friday sunset to Saturday sunset, as the Bible counts time; compare Leviticus 23:32). Most people go to church on Sunday—which is the first day of the week, as shown by most calendars and almost any encyclopedia. (To learn when, why and how this was changed, see "From Sabbath to Sunday").

"... Of the Lord your God." The Sabbath belongs to God, not to the Jewish people, as many people assume.

"In it you shall do no work ..." One aspect of keeping the Sabbath holy is to do no regular work on that day.

"... You, nor your son, nor your daughter ..." The Sabbath is to be kept by all members of the household, as well as employees and guests. Even animals were given the day to rest.

"... For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day." Here is what the Sabbath memorializes. It is linked to God's creative acts in Genesis 1, thus pointing to Him as the true God, the Creator, as distinct from the false gods of human invention. After creating Adam and Eve on the sixth day, God rested on the seventh day (Genesis 1:27-2:3). He instituted the Sabbath at that time in the presence of the first two human beings—long before there was a nation of Israel or a people known as the Jews. And, in resting on that first Sabbath, God set us an example to emulate.

"Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it." Again we see that God established the Sabbath day and hallowed it. Hallow means to make holy. By definition, God alone can make things holy, dedicating them for His use. Man cannot make anything holy, nor can he make unholy anything God has made holy—an important consideration when we examine whether we should still observe the Sabbath and, if so, on which day.

"I will test them ..."

As touched on already, a telling event is recorded in Exodus 16, several weeks before God personally spoke the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. The Israelites began to complain about the lack of food some time into their desert journey after leaving Egypt. Notice God's words to Moses when He announced that He would provide manna to sustain them during their journey:

"Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you. And the people shall go out and gather a certain quota every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in My law or not. And it shall be on the sixth day that they shall prepare what they bring in, and it shall be twice as much as they gather daily'" (Exodus 16:4-5, emphasis added throughout).

Here we see several other points that relate to the Sabbath. First, we see that God will test them. On what? "Whether they will walk in My law or not." The fact that God here announced that He would test whether the Israelites would obey His laws—several weeks before He inscribed the Ten Commandments in stone at Mount Sinai—tells us that His divine laws already existed (compare Exodus 16:28; Genesis 26:5). He would soon reveal them anew at Mount Sinai.

Continuing the story in Exodus 16:15-30, we see that God provided manna on every day of the week but one. On the sixth day of the week, what we would today call Friday, each household was to gather up twice as much as on the other days, because no manna would be provided on the Sabbath and no one was to violate the Sabbath by working to gather it. The Sabbath would not be simply any day they chose. It was a specific day of the week.

Over a 40-year span God performed recurring miracles to reinforce which day was the Sabbath. Every week for 40 years (Exodus 16:35)—more than 2,000 times in all—God provided manna on every day of the week but one. Every time the Israelites tried to gather up more manna than they could use in one day, "it bred worms and stank" (Exodus 16:20). Only on the days when they were to gather up enough to carry them through the Sabbath did the manna remain fresh.

Was it important that they observe the Sabbath on the correct day? Absolutely, because to not do so would mean they would have suffered from real hunger. God reinforced the importance of the Sabbath, and of keeping it on the seventh day, through miracles repeated literally thousands of times throughout the 40 years in the wilderness.

A test of faith

Through providing manna on six days of the week but not the seventh, God was testing His people. But how was He testing them? As noted in Exodus 16:4, God was learning "whether they will walk in My law or not." Would they choose God's way, or their own way? Some immediately failed the test (Exodus 16:27-29).

God wanted to see whether the Israelites would really believe Him. Did they accept that He really meant what He said? Would they take Him at His word? Would they learn to trust Him to provide for their needs and sustain them?

Would they believe God was really acting in their best interests through the laws He revealed to them? Time and time again God stated that His laws would bring blessings and benefits if obeyed. For example, immediately after giving them the Ten Commandments, God exclaimed: "Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!" (Deuteronomy 5:29; Deuteronomy 4:5-8; Deuteronomy 7:12-15; Deuteronomy 28:1-14).

God wanted the Israelites to have a heart of obedience, to recognize that His laws are an expression of His holy, righteous, loving character (1 John 4:8; 1 John 4:16). He wanted them to recognize that His laws reveal a way of life based on love (Leviticus 19:18; Romans 13:9-10; Galatians 5:14; 2 John 1:6) and that by living that law they would develop character like His. God also told the Israelites that the Sabbath would be "a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you" (Exodus 31:13). It would be a sign that they were God's people.

Failing the test

Regrettably, the Israelites failed the test. Looking back on Israel's history centuries later, God lamented: "I made them go out of the land of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness. And I gave them My statutes and showed them My judgments, 'which, if a man does, he shall live by them.' Moreover I also gave them My Sabbaths, to be a sign between them and Me, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them.

"Yet the house of Israel rebelled against Me in the wilderness; they did not walk in My statutes; they despised My judgments, 'which, if a man does, he shall live by them'; and they greatly defiled My Sabbaths. Then I said I would pour out My fury on them in the wilderness, to consume them" (Ezekiel 20:10-13).

That first generation that left Egypt died out in the wilderness. God, however, remained faithful. Regardless of their failings, He brought those Israelites' descendants into the Promised Land and established them as a nation.

Yet they ultimately were just as faithless. By Ezekiel's time centuries later God was punishing them, too, through a devastating national defeat and captivity. Why? "Because they despised My judgments and did not walk in My statutes, but profaned My Sabbaths; for their heart went after their idols" (Ezekiel 20:16).

Is the Sabbath important to God? He specifically stated that one of the Israelites' most flagrant sins that led to their national downfall and captivity was profaning the Sabbath (Ezekiel 22:26; Jeremiah 17:21-27).

Misunderstood purpose of the Sabbath

The Israelites never properly understood the purpose of the Sabbath. They failed to understand that God earnestly desires a sincere, loving relationship with mankind.

In Isaiah 59 God tells us that our sins have separated us from Him (Isaiah 59:2). But, in this discussion, He also tells us how to be reconciled to Him—through humility and calling on Him (Isaiah 58:1-12). But then He reveals another aspect of building that kind of right relationship between God and man:

"If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord's holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord ..." (Isaiah 58:13-14, New International Version).

Why is the Sabbath important to God? Because God wants us to have a proper, loving relationship with Him. To do that we must spend time with Him. He wants us to surrender one of our most precious possessions—our time—so He can teach us through His Word, the Bible, and through the ministry of His Church. He wants the Sabbath to be a time and a way to "find your joy in the Lord."

A divine appointment

Notice another aspect of what God says about the weekly Sabbath day and His other annual festivals: "Speak to the Israelites and say to them: 'These are my appointed feasts, the appointed feasts of the Lord, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies'" (Leviticus 23:2, NIV). God plainly says these are His feasts, His "sacred assemblies."

The Hebrew word moed, the plural form here translated "appointed feasts," means "appointed time" or "meeting" (Lawrence Richards, Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, 1985, "Feast/Festival"). The word assemblies is translated from the plural form of miqra, denoting a summoned gathering. In other words, God says His Sabbath is a divine appointment that He commands His people to keep through their gathering before Him to build their relationship with Him and other believers (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Notice that He is the one who sets the appointment, not us. He is the one who determines the time—His weekly Sabbath and annual festivals.

That raises an interesting question: If we don't come before Him at the time He commands, either by not coming at all or coming on a different day, are we really keeping an appointment with Him?

If someone makes arrangements to meet with you next Wednesday but decides to show up on Thursday instead, would you think he had kept the appointment? Of course not. So why should we think God would find it acceptable if we decide to assemble on a day different from the one He commands?

The Sabbath is God's day, not yours or mine. It is a time He wants to meet with you, a time for reading His Word, for prayer, for fellowship with other believers, for your family—but, most of all, a time for God's presence with you, especially as you are taught at His commanded assembly.

A test for you?

By now perhaps you've realized that most of mankind has failed the test when it comes to God's Sabbath. Much of humanity ignores God altogether and couldn't care less about setting aside a day to honor and worship Him.

Maybe you're one of the many who've been told that the Sabbath command has been transferred from the seventh day of the week, Saturday, to Sunday, the first day of the week. Or maybe you've been told that it's no longer necessary to keep it at all.

Sadly, traditional Christianity has for the most part turned its back on the Fourth Commandment—considering the Sabbath obsolete, fulfilled by Jesus Christ, replaced by Sunday or somehow negated by the dozens of arguments that have been marshaled against it over the centuries. However, we shouldn't be surprised at this widespread disdain for the Sabbath day, since God's Word tells us that "the sinful mind is hostile to God" and "does not submit to God's law" (Romans 8:7, NIV).

What about you? What's your view of God's most-ignored commandment in light of the clear instructions in His Word? The simple fact is that nowhere in the Scriptures will you find that the day God established at creation as the proper day of rest and worship has been changed or abolished. Most religious groups don't have a problem with the other nine commandments, but few are willing to submit to God's will on the Fourth.

Rarely will a church organization change its beliefs. But, with God's help and guidance, you as an individual can change yours and begin patterning your life according to His instructions. You would do well to ask yourself: If God made the Sabbath holy at creation, if He made it a part of the Ten Commandments, if Jesus Christ, the apostles and the early Church kept it (as the New Testament and history shows they did), doesn't it make sense that He would want you to keep it?

Will you pass the test? Are you willing to surrender a portion of your time to build the kind of relationship God wants to enjoy with you?