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The Third Commandment 

Remember the Sabbath-day to keep it holy.

What does this mean?

We should fear and love God that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.

“As the head of the family should teach them in a simple way to those of his household.”  (Martin Luther)

The Third Commandment is the only commandment with a significant difference of meaning for Old Testament children of God and New Testament believers. In both cases, however, the commandment serves God’s holy purposes.

Old Testament

Through Moses God declared to the children of Israel, His chosen people, that the seventh day of every week should be a day of rest. In the Hebrew language the word for rest is “sabbath.” On the seventh day of the week God rested after the six days of creation (Exodus 31:17).

This rest day served several purposes for the children of Israel. Since the fall of Adam and Eve into sin in the Garden of Eden, obtaining daily bread was toilsome; it required sweat and labor (Genesis 3:17-19). For physical reasons a rest day was necessary. Physical rest was intended to rejuvenate all workers and the beasts of burden as well, for God said regarding the Sabbath, “In it you shall do no work; you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your man servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates” (Exodus 20:10).

The sabbath rest also served as a means of setting God’s people apart from the heathen Gentiles around them. It served as a reminder that their God had sanctified them—set them apart, made them holy—just as He had set apart a holy day of rest (Ezekiel 20:12,20). Ritual sacrifices and the rite of circumcision served the same purpose.

The most important purpose of the Sabbath rest for Old Testament believers, however, was that it served as a reminder of the eternal rest that was to come. The Lord had rescued them from their Egyptian oppressors and granted them a new home in the promised land. He had provided for their daily needs in the wilderness for forty years by supplying them with food, drink, and leadership. He had taught them to rely on Him by not providing food on the Sabbath Day but allowing them instead to gather extra on the previous day (Exodus 16:29-30). He was also the One who would send His Son, their Savior, into the world to rescue them from the oppression of sin, death, and the devil.

These lessons proved difficult for those of the children of Israel who did not trust the Lord but disobeyed Him. The punishment was severe—death (Exodus 31:14).

New Testament

Jewish church leaders of Jesus’ day lost the focus of the true purposes of the Third Commandment. They polluted it with Pharisaic man-made rules and regulations with which they attempted to trap Jesus. We can rest assured, though, that Jesus fulfilled God’s holy law perfectly in connection with all the commandments, including the Third. In the epistle to the Hebrews Jesus is described as “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners” (7:26). Jesus alone has kept this commandment perfectly.

So, how then is the Church of the New Testament era to obey the Third Commandment?

Holy Scripture clearly teaches that certain rules and regulations of the Old Testament, including those governing the Sabbath Day, no longer apply. “Therefore let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17). And again, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1).

Although the time and day of worship are no longer prescribed for us (see Romans 14:5-6), Scripture does provide many principled guidelines for worship. In regard to the church setting we are told, “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40). Christian congregations heed this directive when establishing the times, days, and locations of public worship.

New Testament believers are also directed to receive the Word of God with meekness (James 1:21), with joy (Psalm 122:1), with ready ears (Ecclesiastes 5:1) and ready hearts (Luke 11:28). We are encouraged to listen, as Mary did, to the “one thing needful” by sitting at the feet of Jesus to hear His Word (Luke 10:38-42). We are privileged to search the Scriptures daily, as the Bereans did, to ensure that what’s being taught to us is truly God’s Word (Acts 17:11).

We are also instructed to join together with like-minded Christians for mutual edification and fellowship, “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some” (Hebrews 10:25). We are told to “let the Word of Christ dwell in [us] richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Colossians 3:16). In other words, with the Spirit’s power and urging we are directed to look for every opportunity to find joy, peace, and rest for our souls in the gospel message of the forgiveness of sins through our Savior.

I conclude with some of Dr. Luther’s thoughts on this commandment: “Whenever God’s Word is taught, preached, heard, read, or meditated upon, then the person, day, and work are sanctified. This is not because of the outward work, but because of the Word, which makes saints of us all. Therefore, I constantly say that all our life and work must be guided by God’s Word, if it is to be God-pleasing or holy. Where this is done, this commandment is in force and being fulfilled” (Large Catechism, The Ten Commandments, para. 92).

In every season, every place
May we regard Thy Word of grace
Until, when life’s brief day is past,
We reach eternal joy at last.

And keep with angels in Thy rest
The endless Sabbaths of the blest.
This grant to us through Christ,
Thy Son, Who reigns with Thee
upon Thy throne.

(TLH #7:3-4)