The 4th commandment is in a way unique among the 10. It is unique in at least this way, that there is nowhere near the level of controversy about the proper interpretation of any of the commandments as there is over this one.
The Sabbatarian argument is that though all of the calendar observances of the Jews are no longer binding on the Christian, that which is contained in the Ten Commandments itself continues to be binding. They argue that the Sabbath was ordained not at Sinai but in the Garden of Eden. It is a creation ordinance and is therefore binding in perpetuity. Jesus’ statements about the Sabbath were never intended to attack the continuing observance of the Sabbath but rather the illegitimate and extrabiblical interpretations and additions of the Pharisees. Paul’s statements regarding observance of days were not directed at the one-in-seven Sabbath itself but rather at the observance of the Jewish calendar of feast days. By the example of the Apostles, we see that the day of worship was changed in the New Testament to the first day instead of the seventh, in honor of the Lord’s resurrection (and therefore it is called the Lord’s Day), but otherwise the Christian day of worship is in all respects the Sabbath which the Lord commanded here. Further, all of the other Ten Commandments are essentially the same in their observance, both outward and inward, from the Old Testament to the New, and therefore the Fourth should be as well.
The counter-argument is this:
First, there is no record or evidence of the observance of the Sabbath before Exodus 16, when the Jews were in the desert. It appears very much that God instituted the Sabbath at that time, and then expanded on it at Sinai. Genesis 2:3 simply indicates that God did bless the seventh day and rested that day, but says nothing about when this was applied to people for their observance. Remember that Genesis was written by Moses after the actual institution of the Sabbath Day in Exodus 16. Likewise, the 4th Commandment simply says that the institution of the seventh day rest was done because of God’s rest on the seventh day. It doesn’t say when God instituted that 7th day rest.
Further, God states clearly that the Sabbath Day rest was a sign (Exodus 31:13). None of the other commandments are said to be signs. A sign is a tangible thing which points to some spiritual truth. The prohibition against murder or adultery or blasphemy are not signs of anything. They are reflections of God’s own moral nature. Nonetheless the Sabbath is said to be a sign to Israel from God. In particular, in Ezekiel 20 this point is made, as well as clearly distinguishing between God’s Sabbaths and His statutes and judgments, which refers to moral law. What is the Sabbath a sign of? That it is God that sanctifies us. The Sabbath principle is beautifully illustrated, that we can rest from our human attempts to make ourselves righteous or blessed, to trust in God and obey His word.
Jesus’ statements in the gospel regarding the Sabbath certainly are primarily aimed at exposing the false interpretations of the Pharisees. However, there is more to them than just that. See Matthew 12. There, after being accused of violating the Sabbath, Jesus refers to the occasion when David, on the run from Saul and starving, came into the tabernacle and was given the showbread to eat, which only priests were allowed to eat. He then quotes from the Psalmist, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” Both of these statements are intended to show that some things are ceremonial and some things are more important than ceremonies. But what relevance would that have to the context of Matthew 12, unless Jesus was making the point that Sabbath observance was a ceremonial matter, and not to be elevated above more fundamental moral concerns like mercy?
Paul’s statements are clear as well. In Romans 14, referring to disputes among brethren, he mentions “observance of days” generally. They are not to be matters of disputes between brethren. He does not limit his statements, merely referring to “days” in general and the religious observance of them. In Colossians 2:16, he says that the believer should not allow his liberty to be stolen and his reward cheated away from him, by being required to observe “festivals or new moons or sabbaths”. The word there for Sabbath is the same construction used everywhere in the New Testament for the one day in seven observance. In Galatians 4:10 his language is even stronger, saying that their observance of days make him fear for their salvation, since they make it a condition of true Christianity.
We have no early record of the Sabbath being observed by Christians. We know in fact that they were flexible about the days that they gathered together for worship, sometimes in the morning and sometimes at night, sometimes on the seventh day and sometimes on the first. This was necessary since they were often under persecution and also many of the early believers were slaves and lacked the freedom to worship whenever they desired. The Emperor Constantine in the 4th century declared the first day of the week a day of rest and this was the first uniform observance of a first-day worship.
John Calvin was opposed to any religious observance of days. He supported a one-day-in-seven day of rest, for good order and so that servants and others who lacked freedom would be guaranteed the opportunity to go to church. He also recognized the principle that people needed to rest from their labors, and unless that rest was forced, many would not have the opportunity to take it. But he rejected the idea that any day should be viewed as religiously different than any other day, calling it “crass and carnal sabbatarian superstition.” (See Institutes, Book 2, Chapter 8, sec. 28-34)
Do we believe then that the 4th commandment has been abrogated? Not at all. The continuing truth of the 4th Commandment is that the Christian is to trust God for his salvation, resting from his works, and being careful to take time out of our schedules to gather together with the saints for worship and study, and to make time for private worship as well. But it is my position that the 4th Commandment’s requirement of a religious observance of a 24-hour period of rest was ceremonial and symbolic in nature, and has been abrogated in the New Covenant.The 4th commandment is explicitly part of the 10 Commandments, the covenant that God made with the nation of Israel on Sinai. That covenant was a covenant of works, a republication of the covenant God made with Adam. It was given as part of God’s plan of redemption, but in a negative way- it functioned to show them the impossibility of ever finding God’s blessings through their own efforts. It was given to make sin exceedingly sinful. The Covenant at Sinai was also given in its particular form to the nation of Israel in order to “shut them up”, to keep them under guard and separate from the other nations until Christ came. These unique functions of the Sinaitic Covenant all expired when Christ came. God’s moral principles never expire. But the signs and shadows that point to Christ do expire when Christ came, and the Sabbath observance is just such a shadow. It is part of what Paul calls the “bondwoman” in Galatians 4, before telling us to cast out the bondwoman and her son. Christ is our eternal Sabbath. He has achieved all of God’s blessings for us and guaranteed them for us forever. Those blessings can no more be earned by Sabbath keeping than they can by any other ceremonial observance. The New Testament believer therefore begins to enter into the eternal Sabbath now, resting in Christ not one day in seven, but every day of the week.