The fourth commandment is found at Exodus 20:8-11:
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
The Sabbath, seen superficially by some as a marker of legalism, is actually a sign of righteousness by faith. It is a resting from works; Sabbath-keeping is not a work invested with human merit.
The seventh day is God’s day (“My holy day,” Isaiah 58:13). Although it is His day, it is made for man (Mark 2:27). Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath (2:28). Jesus recognizes the perpetuity of the Sabbath. He cautions His followers that, decades later, when Jerusalem is surrounded by armies, they should pray that they will not have to flee the city on the Sabbath day (Matthew 24:20). Nowhere in the New Testament do we find a cessation of the seventh day Sabbath or a transference of its observance or holiness to another day. The New Testament church normally met on the seventh day Sabbath.
The conflict between God and pharaoh (church and state) in Exodus may have had at its center the Sabbath commandment (Exodus 3:18; 5:1, 3; 7:16; 8:1, 20, 27; 10:3; ch. 16). The preamble of the Ten Commandments is a special reminder that God brought the Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt (Exodus 20:2). Under conditions of slavery, it would have been impossible for them to observe the seventh day Sabbath. Bringing them out from under the Egyptian state, Sabbath-observance became possible again.
Time is a commodity. It is limited; it has scarcity. One man who employs another can pay him on a per job basis or per hour basis. Either way, he pays him for his time. The state does not own us or our time.
God owns time as much as He owns us. We are His twice over: first, by creation; second, by redemption. Not only does He own us, but He declares His ownership of our time. He owns 100% of our time. He asks us to return one seventh of that to Him as Sabbath. In any case, it is good for us to observe the Sabbath. It reminds us that He is Creator and Recreator, and that things having to do with His kingdom are superior.
Since the Sabbath is God’s property (“My holy day”) the state has no business legislating about it, defining it, encroaching upon it.
Church and state have often blended their energies to persecute those who saw things otherwise than the accepted pattern. The seventh day Sabbath has been one of these. The first law affecting Sabbath and Sunday observance came under Emperor Constantine in A.D. 321.
Later, the Holy Roman Empire persecuted Radical Reformation preachers Andreas Fischer (1480-1539) and Oswald Glaidt (1480-1546) for teaching sabbatarianism (see Andreas Fischer and the Sabbatarian Anabaptists, by Daniel Liechty, Scottdale, Pennsylvania, Herald Press, 1988, 167 pages). Fischer raised up several Sabbath-keeping congregations, received the death penalty, and was hanged. For several hours he hung by the neck, but somehow survived and escaped to found more Sabbath-keeping churches. Glaidt was killed by drowning—a common practice employed against Anabaptists. Countless Anabaptists were killed although only a few for heresy; most were put to death by the state because they refused to fulfill their “obligation” to serve as soldiers in national wars.
As recently as the past century and a quarter, Seventh-day Adventists in the United States have been imprisoned for their practices relating to the Sabbath. In Arkansas and Tennessee they have even been compelled to labor in chain-gangs. The same commandment that tells us to rest on the seventh day also tells us that the other six days are working days. Hence, laws which restrict labor on Sunday have a testing aspect quite similar to the seventh day Sabbath.
Even in 2009, many blue laws continue to exist throughout the United States. Some have been repealed, but some persist, outlawing in one way or another business transactions on Sunday. The original intent of blue laws was to encourage church attendance on Sunday, but in the process Seventh Day Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Jews, and others, have been inhibited. In fact, everyone’s property rights are inhibited when they are prevented by law from buying or selling on a certain day.
The seventh day Sabbath is a part of God’s Ten Commandment law. As such, it is a helpful part of understanding His character. Whereas many of the Ten Commandments are framed in terms of “thou shalt not,” the Sabbath commandment is presented with great positivity, starting with the plea to “remember.”
As usual, the state stands ready to legislate and plunder to its own satisfaction. It is not content to impose its financial burdens upon us, but at times it has gladly insisted that citizens involuntarily serve time in its armies. It is no surprise, then, that the state, machine of coercion that it is, has its hands in laws impacting conscientious observance of the seventh day Sabbath.
Seventh-day Adventists, based upon their understanding of the Bible prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, fully anticipate the development of a situation in which the state will seek to enforce the observance of Sunday. There have been attempts at national Sunday laws in the past, especially in the decades centering in the 1890s. Time will tell whether we have been right.
The observance of the seventh day Sabbath ever remains a marker, a reminder, that the state is not supreme, that personal conscientious conviction takes a higher place, and that when God’s law and man’s law collide, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Revelation 13:11ff proposes that the state will interfere under economic auspices, restricting buying and selling. In 2009 the state is Pharaoh. It remains a dangerous machine ready to interfere. To this sabbatarian, Edmund Opitz’ warning seems especially prescient:
If the state sets itself up as the supreme arbiter of human affairs, it must domesticate the individual lest any lingering remnants of self-reliance weaken the state’s authority. The state must restrict the individual’s effort to follow the dictates of his conscience, lest they conflict with the decrees of Caesar. In the interests of its own safety the state must eventually deny that the individual is a person, for the individual can be a person only when he puts his obligation to God ahead of his obligation to Caesar” (Edmund Opitz, The Libertarian Theology of Freedom, p. 145).