The Fourth Commandment?

Jack M. Lane

Every Sabbath keeper knows the fourth commandment says "Keep the Sabbath" -- right?

There are a number of Sabbath keeping churches and congregations around the world. At times the only discernible difference between people who go to church on Sunday and those who go to church on Saturday is the Sabbath doctrine.

The Sabbath observers point to the fourth commandment, showing that it says the seventh day is the Sabbath of Yahweh. The Sunday observers follow the teaching that the church (specifically, the Roman Catholic Church) had the authority to change the Sabbath from the seventh day of the week to the first day of the week, even enforcing the change by the edge of the sword.

Many Sunday keepers and Sabbath keepers alike have learned the fourth commandment inaccurately. It seems most church-going people are confident that the commandment says, "Keep the Sabbath." As just mentioned, we speak about "keeping the Sabbath" as opposed to "keeping Sunday."

What does it mean to "keep" one day or the other? Does it mean to "keep" the day in a certain way? Does it mean to observe the day, or hold onto the day? How does one "keep the Sabbath"?

Whether we favor Saturday or Sunday as our Sabbath day, perhaps it's time to examine this oft-used phrase, "keeping the Sabbath," more closely, so we can gain a better understanding of what it is God wants us to do with one specific day out of seven.

The Fourth Commandment

Let's begin by examining the commandment.  It begins, "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Exodus 20:8, KJV).

Notice first of all that the commandment is not "Keep the Sabbath," but rather, "Remember the Sabbath." The opposite would be to forget the Sabbath; we don't want to forget it, we want to remember it. Why do we remember it? In order "to keep it holy."

But now, if the commandment is not "Keep the Sabbath," but rather, "Remember the Sabbath," does that mean that the Sabbath was not instituted at Mount Sinai?  Was the Sabbath already in existence, and the commandment was to remember this pre-existing thing?  In fact, that is the case.  The Sabbath was established during Creation Week, as God finished His creation and rested on the seventh day.  He was, in effect, creating a rest day after He had created everything else.  In fact, the Sabbath day is the first thing mentioned in the Bible as being holy, or set apart for holiness.  (See Genesis 2:1-3.  See also the article, "The First Holy Thing.")

Keep in mind that God had just brought the nation of Israel out of slavery in Egypt.  For generations the Israelites had been forced to labor in Egypt, under harsher and more difficult circumstances, with the Egyptians giving no consideration to the Israelites for a "day off" for religious observance.  It was hard work every day.  So, after God brought Israel out of Egypt, as they were assembled in the wilderness on their way to being established as a nation in their own land, God thundered the Ten Commandments from the mountaintop.  Commandment number four was to remember the Sabbath day, and to keep it holy, or set it apart. 

This commandment is comprised of eight words in English, but only four words in Hebrew. "Remember," "Sabbath," and "day" are each represented by a Hebrew word, but the final phrase, "to keep it holy" is from the one word qadash (pronounced kaw-dash', Strong's #6942), which means to set apart as sacred, to observe as holy. Perhaps a better translation would be, "Remember the Sabbath-day to sanctify it" (Young's Literal Translation), or "Remember to observe the Sabbath as a holy day" (The Living Bible).

If this is the case, then it may not be accurate to think of the fourth commandment as telling us to "keep the Sabbath." We have historically said that one of our distinguishing features is that we "keep" the Sabbath and holy days, while other groups "keep" Sunday, Christmas and Easter. Perhaps it's time to realize that this may not be appropriate biblical phraseology, after all.

What about Deuteronomy chapter 5, the other location where the Ten Commandments are listed? There, the Israelites were told to "Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee. ... And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the LORD thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day" (Deuteronomy 5:12, 15).

In verse 12, "keep" is translated from the Hebrew word shamar (shaw-mar', Strong's #8104), which means to guard, to observe and celebrate, to protect and preserve -- to "keep" something in the sense of having custody of it.

In effect, God is telling us, "Remember the Sabbath day to observe it as holy, for I have charged you with the job of protecting it. It's in your custody."

In verse 15, however, "keep" is translated from another Hebrew word, 'asah (aw-saw', Strong's #6213), which means to do, to make, to act. This verse is reminding the Israelites that God had brought them out of slavery by His mighty hand and outstretched arm, and this is why they were to do the Sabbath day.

Here we can see that, while the two English language verses say "keep the Sabbath day," we have missed some important understanding by not knowing what was really said. There's more to Sabbath observance than many of us had thought! God has placed His Sabbath day into our custody, and has commanded us to remember it.

Other References

This same word "keep" is used in other contexts in scripture. As an example, in Nehemiah chapter 13, Nehemiah is recounting how he stood up to those who were buying and selling on the Sabbath day, and how he threatened them with legal action if they did not stop doing business on the Sabbath. He even had the city gates closed on the Sabbath to prevent merchants from coming in and setting up shop!

"And I commanded the Levites that they should cleanse themselves, and that they should come and keep [shamar, #8104] the gates, to sanctify [qadash, #6942] the sabbath day. Remember me, O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness of thy mercy" (Nehemiah 13:22).

Notice that the Levites weren't coming to "keep the Sabbath," but to "keep the gates"! The NIV uses more modern English in this verse: "Then I commanded the Levites to purify themselves and go and guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath day holy. Remember me for this also, O my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love."

From this we can see that the fourth commandment tells us to remember the Sabbath day, and guard it!

But what about other scriptures that talk about keeping the Sabbath? Let's examine those passages and see if the English is translating the Hebrew appropriately. As we have seen in the past, the King James Bible does not always do the original languages justice.

"Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. ... Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant" (Exodus 31:14, 16).

In both instances here, "keep" is translated from shamar (#8104), to guard and protect. It is becoming clear that God's people are instructed to guard the Sabbath!

On another occasion, Moses was telling the people about the holy days of the seventh month: "Also in the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when ye have gathered in the fruit of the land, ye shall keep a feast unto the LORD seven days: on the first day shall be a sabbath, and on the eighth day shall be a sabbath" (Leviticus 23:39).

In this case, the word "keep" is translated from the Hebrew chagag (khaw-gag', Strong's #2287), which means to hold a feast, to celebrate, to make a pilgrimage, to dance and reel -- even to stagger! In today's vernacular, party! The holy days are special times of joy and celebration.

Later on, God tells Moses, "Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath unto the LORD" (Leviticus 25:2). Can land -- real estate -- keep a sabbath? Here "keep" is translated from a variation on the word "Sabbath" itself, the Hebrew word shabath (Strong's #7673), which means to cease, to rest -- in effect, the land shall rest a rest, or sabbath a sabbath.

From what we have seen, there is more to "keeping the Sabbath" than many of us had thought!

Breaking the Sabbath

If our common expression, "keeping the Sabbath," is not biblically accurate, then what about another much-used expression, "breaking the Sabbath"?

When we first decided to observe the Sabbath, there were many questions we needed to have answered, such as, "How do I keep the Sabbath?", and "How do I avoid breaking the Sabbath?". Many of us spent years learning how to walk the fine line (or the narrow path to the strait gate, Matthew 7:14) of Sabbath observance. We observed strict lists of do's and don'ts, fearing lest we offend God or man. On the whole, that wasn't a bad idea, but did we ever look to the Bible to see if there was a place that mentioned "breaking the Sabbath"?

In fact, there is only one place, and it is a false accusation against the Messiah: "Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God" (John 5:18).

Had He done those things? Here's what happened: Yeshua had healed a man at the pool of Bethesda, and had told the man to take up his bed and walk (John 5:1-9). Of course, this wasn't a huge four-post bed with a canopy he was struggling with, but more likely a small, light-weight mat of some kind. But the Jews, who were very physical in their Sabbath observance, saw the man carrying this bed-roll, and reminded him that it was the Sabbath. The man told them that the One who had healed him had told him to carry it. "Oh, really," they responded. "And who was this man?" They wanted to find out who had encouraged this fellow to carry his bed around on the Sabbath day. When he found out it was Yeshua, he told the Jews, who then began to persecute Yeshua (verses 10-16). All the Jews could see was a man carrying his mat around. They couldn't see the bigger picture, that a crippled man had been healed! Instead of rejoicing, they accused the Messiah of Sabbath-breaking!

Then, to make matters worse, Yeshua answered their accusations about working on the Sabbath with this response: "'My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.' For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God" (verses 17-18, NIV).

What about these serious charges? Was He the Son of God? Well, yes, He was! But from their standpoint, He was claiming something that was utterly impossible.

Had He broken the Sabbath, or encouraged someone else to break the Sabbath? To our manner of thinking, the healing of the crippled man would have been so much greater in value that it would make carrying his mat around simply proof that the man had been healed! But the Jews (to whom the Sabbath had been entrusted, both by God and by Nehemiah) were jealously guarding the Sabbath! Their way of guarding it, though, was purely physical, and as a result they missed many spiritual lessons along the way.

If we in the Body of Christ do have the Holy Spirit, as these ancient Jews did not, we should meditate on the spiritual lessons of the Sabbath, so we don't fall into the same ditch of looking only to physical fulfillment of the Sabbath. We of all people should have a better grasp of God's spiritual Sabbath rest for His people.

In the eyes of the ancient Jews, Yeshua healed on the Sabbath day, then commanded the healed man to pick up his bed-roll and do what he could not do before -- walk! To top it off, He then claimed that God was His Father, and that both He and His Father work on the Sabbath day! As far as the people there could tell, Yeshua was, indeed, a Sabbath breaker and a blasphemer! But we, in the retrospect of history, can see the bigger picture. Let's apply that lesson in our lives.

As for "breaking" the Sabbath, this word is from the Greek luo (Strong's #3089), which means to loosen or dissolve, in the sense of loosening the bands that tie up something. The Jews were accusing Yeshua of loosening the Sabbath, or "breaking" the bonds that held people to the Sabbath!

Actually, He was doing things they would never do, because their teachers had created these bonds of slavery to the Sabbath for the very purpose of protecting them from violating the Sabbath! In effect, the Sabbath had become a master to the people. As a result, they were conditioned to think only in the physical realm of observing the Sabbath, by doing physical things and following physical rules to "keep the Sabbath day holy." One of those rules was to not lift a finger to do any physical exertion.

On that basis, the man carrying his mat around was definitely violating the Sabbath day. However, he wasn't violating any biblical command, but one of the many rules and regulations with which the teachers had saddled the people.

Sabbath Breaking Today

When we are afraid we might be "breaking" the Sabbath day, we should ponder if we are violating the spirit of the Sabbath, or possibly just a man-made rule we picked up along the way.

The commandment isn't "Don't break the Sabbath," it's "remember the Sabbath"! If you bring the meaning of the Sabbath day to mind, you will better be able to guard it and keep it in its original intent, both physically and spiritually.

When we were babes in the faith, we had pastors and elders, teachers and preachers, and we could go to them with our questions about how to properly observe the Sabbath.

Now, many of us are on our own, meeting in little groups or spending Sabbaths alone, reading literature and listening to tapes. Today, there are thousands of people who must rely on their Bibles and on God's inspiration to help them know how to observe the Sabbath day the best way. The responsibility is on each of us to guard the Sabbath in our own lives, and in what we do.

The Sabbath is a Sign Between God and Israel

God didn't give the Sabbath to mankind as a harsh bond, but rather to be the identifying sign between God and His people.

From the top of Mount Sinai, God commanded, "Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: 'Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep [shamar, guard], for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you. You shall keep [guard] the Sabbath, therefore, 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. Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. Therefore the children of Israel shall keep [guard] the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.' And when He had made an end of speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses two tablets of the Testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God" (Exodus 31:13-18, NKJV)

In a later age, God told Ezekiel: "Also I gave them my Sabbaths as a sign between us, so they would know that I the LORD made them holy" (Ezekiel 20:12, NIV).

A prevailing theme of New Testament scripture is that when one is called into the Body of Christ, he or she becomes a child of God and an heir of the promises to Abraham. We refer to the New Covenant ekklesia as "spiritual Israel," in contrast to "Israel in the flesh" (1 Corinthians 10:18).

"Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in [national or physical] Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near [into "spiritual Israel"] through the blood of Christ" (Ephesians 2:12-13).

"Consider Abraham: 'He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.' Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: 'All nations will be blessed through you.' So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. ... If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Galatians 3:6-9, 29).

"Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring -- not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: 'I have made you a father of many nations.' He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed -- the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were" (Romans 4:16-17).

The promise Paul is referring to comes by faith. It is the promise of spiritual blessings on those who come into "spiritual Israel" -- the ekklesia of God.

Is It Our Sabbath?

Does it matter if we choose to celebrate Saturday or Sunday -- or Tuesday, for that matter -- as a sabbath? Does it make any difference which day we choose to be a day of rest?

God isn't interested in our sabbaths. He proclaims His own Sabbath day, and commands us to observe that one!

"There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the LORD" (Leviticus 23:3).

"If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the LORD honorable, and shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, nor finding your own pleasure, nor speaking your own words, Then you shall delight yourself in the LORD; and I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth, and feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father. The mouth of the LORD has spoken" (Isaiah 58:13-14, NKJV)

"Then he [Messiah] said to them, 'The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath'" (Matthew 2:27-28, NIV).

The Sabbath is special in that it looks backward toward creation week: "By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done" (Genesis 2:2-3).

But the Sabbath is also special in that it looks forward to the Millennium. There are a number of scriptures suggesting that God is working out a 7,000-year plan on earth with the human race, with the seventh 1,000-year period to be a global "day" of rest -- the Millennium!

Notice how the Book of Hebrews likens both the weekly Sabbath and the 1,000-year reign of Messiah on earth as entering into His rest:

"Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they [ancient Israel] did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith. Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said, 'So I declared on oath in my anger, "They shall never enter my rest."' And yet his work has been finished since the creation of the world. For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: 'And on the seventh day God rested from all his work.' And again in the passage above he says, 'They shall never enter my rest.' It still remains that some will enter that rest, and those who formerly had the gospel preached to them [ancient Israel] did not go in, because of their disobedience. Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today, when a long time later he spoke through David, as was said before: 'Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.' For if Joshua had given them rest [by leading Israel into the Holy Land], God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience" (Hebrews 4:1-11).

The reference in Hebrews 4:9 to "a Sabbath-rest" is translated from the Greek sabbatismos (Strong's #4520). It is a unique word, used only this once, and is a verb form of the noun "Sabbath." It states, in effect, that there remains a "Sabbath-ing," or a Sabbath observance, for God's people.

God created the Sabbath, as a day of rest, as a sign, and as a way of acting out the prophecy of the Millennium. It's more than just resting one day out of seven!

Is Sabbath Observance All That's Required?

Is the Sabbath a sign to show the world that we are God's people?

We shouldn't misunderstand this vital principle: To be children in whom God is well pleased, to find favor with God, to truly be God's people, requires more than simply observing the Sabbath!

The Sabbath is not a sign between God's people and the rest of the world. It is a sign between God and His people! "Sign" is translated from the Hebrew word 'owth (Strong's #226), which means a sign, a signal, or a distinguishing mark. When God looks down on His Sabbath day, he can see who is observing His Sabbath day and who is not. He can quickly discern among those who are observing the Sabbath day, and everyone else in the world!

However, even though the Sabbath is a sign between God and His people, it is not the only requirement. We must be diligently striving to obey all ten commandments! There are people who go to church on Saturday, but spend the rest of the week doing wickedly. Our job is to make sure we are following God in every way!

Several times throughout the gospel accounts, Messiah showed His disapproval of many of the Jewish practices of the time, including how they revered the Sabbath day beyond anything God expected or demanded.

We are to revere God, and especially on the Sabbath day. By keeping the principles in this article in mind, we should be able to increase our joy on the Sabbath, and increase our fellowship with our Father, while avoiding some of the traps into which earlier followers of God fell.

As we trudge along the narrow path toward the strait gate, which way do we go? Follow the sign!

For further reading on this subject, please see our Sabbath Articles page.
For further in-depth study on this subject, please see our Sabbath Booklets page.