Why Studying The Fourth Commandment Will Help You Understand The Other Nine

Think you have a handle on the Ten Commandments?

So did I.

Jukka Zitting (CC)

That is, until I started studying the fourth. You know, the Sabbath 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... Exodus 20:8-10a

This one seems out of place in the list. The rest are fairly obvious: don't kill, steal, worship other gods. But keeping the Sabbath holy? Stopping work one day of the week?

Does this even apply to us Christians?

One Reason You Might Struggle with the Fourth Commandment

On a typical Sunday, I used to play a mental tug-of-war between my to-do list and the command to rest on the Sabbath. This battle raged serving only to demonstrate the obvious:

Of all the Ten Commandments, I struggle with the fourth the most. By struggle, I don't mean that I break it the most or that I am tempted by it the most. Rather, I understand it the least. The other nine seem pretty clear to me, and I understand the intent behind them.

One reason for this struggle is that I am a rules-oriented person, a tilt which can lead to legalism. And you can see the logical extension of legalism by looking at what the Pharisees did with the commandment: they twisted it so much that not even healing on the Sabbath was allowed. Jesus famously asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil?” (Mark 3:4).

That the question sounds silly yet is applicable is telling. They took something that God made holy and regulated it to the point where logic was thrown out, negating the spirit of the law. How did they get it so wrong? How can we avoid the same fate?

The secret is to understand the intent behind the commandment—something the Pharisees obviously did not comprehend. Had they understood the intent, they would have behaved differently on the seventh day.

Why is the Fourth Commandment so difficult to understand? Perhaps it is because the Fourth Commandment is, on the surface, the most ambiguous. The others, maybe not so much. “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). Pretty simple right? But then Jesus comes along and says:

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. Matthew 5:21-22

Jesus equated hate to murder. And John put it more plainly when he said that “anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer” (1 John 3:15).

What about adultery? That’s cut and dry: don't have sex with someone other than your spouse. Then Jesus had to go and say, “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). What did He just say?

Now these commandments are no longer simple either. Now they involve your intent.


You must take the same tack when studying the fourth commandment. Otherwise you end up like the Pharisees, contriving arbitrary rules about how far one can walk on the Sabbath. If God wanted you to limit your steps, He would have told Moses. Instead we are tasked with something much harder.

It's your heart that counts when obeying God. Don't ever lose sight of that.

And if you'd like to learn more about the Sabbath commandment, you can download a free excerpt of my book, Do No Work. Just enter your email address and I'll send it your way:

Rest well!

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