Here’s another commandment given to Israel, but still a commandment to help us Christians keep on track. It’s longer than any of the others, which could suggest we will try to find ways to avoid what it says!
‘Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy…’. He tells us there are six days for getting all our jobs done—for us and for everyone we are responsible for. Then, there’s a day of rest—which is what Sabbath means.
The Lord’s talking about time. When we’re busy, forgetting is easy! This may be why the command is, ‘Remember!’ It’s here to help us guard our time—so that we don’t entertain other gods in place of the Lord.
We can gather up what this command means under two headings.
First, we are creatures and not slaves
The Lord’s reason for requiring a Sabbath comes from the creation story. He shows what is important to him by resting on his last day of making everything. He doesn’t need a day off! It’s more a celebration of work completed. And he calls us to share this day with him—a holy day.
We need to know that the world we live in doesn’t just happen, or continue, by our ceaseless activity. God makes everything. We are not merely the result of time and chance. We are what God makes. Everything is for the Lord—that is, holy. And he wants us to share in the delight of that being so.
By stopping for this Sabbath, we acknowledge that the Lord makes things and looks after them and determines their purpose and progress. So, if worship doesn’t affect our time table, we’re missing out on something.
God not only calls his rest day holy. He blesses it. Everything else God blesses in creation is so something can be ‘fruitful and multiply’. So, if we have a sabbath, what will happen? We will have the pleasure of seeing that everything works because of God—not because of us.
One Psalm tells us about how risky this world seems to be—‘mountains fall into the heart of the sea’. But then he says how peaceful it is knowing who is in charge of it (Psalm 46). Then he says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God’. The word for ‘be still’ actually means, simply, ‘stop!’
Another Psalm tells us, ‘In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for he grants sleep to those he loves’ (Psalm 127:2).
There’s a second reason we are given this command. Moses, later on, repeats the command and says, ‘Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm’ (Deuteronomy 5:15).
Slaves can’t plan their own time table. That’s why Israel had to leave Egypt and worship the Lord in the wilderness. Like them, we need to be delivered from this present evil world—it’s goals of self-sufficiency, self-sovereignty and self-determination. These things don’t set us free. They make us their slaves.
So, remembering to stop for long enough to acknowledge and enjoy that God is Creator, and Redeemer, is essential to true worship. It is also essential for human health and social well-being.
Second, Sabbath is a sign not a ceremony
God says the Sabbath is ‘a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so that you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy’ (Exodus 31:12; Ezekiel 20:12). They stop for a day, and God is able to show them that they belong to him.
But Sabbath also shows other nations that Israel belongs to the Lord. They are not slaves to the creation but belong to its Maker, and this affects everything.
But then, when Jesus comes, Sabbath keeping has fallen on bad times. Israel’s leaders have made it a time to signal how pious they are, not how good God is.
First, the Pharisees hate what Jesus does on a Sabbath. He is living in Sabbath rest—all the time. The Pharisees are ‘up tight’—all the time, and their Sabbath is only a ceremony.
Second, Sabbath points to something—to Christ who has come to give Sabbath rest. It takes more than just a day off to know that our life is made useful by God and not by us. Jesus will fulfill what Sabbath means.
Our Lord says, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28). Only Jesus, making himself an offering for our sins, can give us rest from trying to be something by ourselves. Coming to him is the way we enter Sabbath rest (Hebrews 4:10).
So how can Christians go about keeping the third commandment? First, we need Christ to take from us the ‘puff’ of making out we are good. We need him to be our Saviour. But then, we, like Israel, need a sign that we are the Lord’s workmanship—a time to know the Lord is God, and that we are not! It needs to affect our time table!
Paul notes that some people keep a special day and some don’t (Romans 14:5). Clearly, the sign is what is important, not the ceremony.
The first Christians start meeting together on the day Jesus rises from the dead. Gradually, this becomes the pattern (Acts 20:7). Sabbath, for us, is a day, or a time, to be with the Lord, to hear his word and to be with others who trust and love him. Hebrews warns us about missing out on getting together with others (Hebrews 10:25).
As the gospel crosses cultures, each Christian and each church must decide how to regulate their time to remember the Lord. It takes time to know that we are made for God—holy. It requires some stopping of our usual things to realise that God makes us fruitful. It takes time hear and know his word. It takes time to build others up in faith, hope and love.
Those who expect their Christian life to just happen—without heeding the third commandment—may find they drift, or become unfruitful. Or worse.
The Lord finishes his creation by resting. He shows Israel he is their Creator and Redeemer by commanding them to rest on their Sabbath. He sends Christ to make this rest actual and permanent. And then, by resting in the Lord now, we look forward to the day when the whole creation will be fully cleansed, developed and glorious, and ruled over by Christ and all his followers. It is the final Sabbath to which all creation is moving (Revelation 14:13).