“Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy.’ ”
“Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” Of what do you first think when you hear these words?
What do these words of the first sentence of the fourth commandment really mean? I would like to begin by considering some important but solemn information from the past. We need to really think about the following questions, not just rehearse the words on auto pilot. God calls us to dig deep, to think and to reason. Did the Jews believe that the true day of worship was on the seventh day of the week? Did they have guidelines as to what the Sabbath was about and how to keep it? Yet, and here is a thought that is staggering to my mind, with this Sabbath doctrine, or truth, and their dedication to this truth, they crucified the Messiah, the Lord and Creator of the Sabbath, and the very central figure of their religious beliefs. Then, in consequence, they were completely and utterly destroyed as a nation. The question is, What happened? What went wrong? How is it they could keep the seventh day Sabbath and yet be utterly lost and destroyed? Does that situation startle and alarm you? It should. It pertains directly to us.
In our quest for an answer let’s first go to the fourth commandment itself. The very first sentence says, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” Exodus 20:8 KJV. I propose to you that here is the very heart of the matter. The very first sentence of the fourth commandment is just that, a command. It says of the Sabbath that we are “to keep it holy.” Understanding and acting upon this command is essential to our salvation. God didn’t just say, “Remember the Sabbath day to go to church,” or “Remember the Sabbath day to catch up on your rest” or “Remember the Sabbath and don’t go to work on that day.” He said, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” Just what does that mean in terms of personal and practical application?
The Desire of Ages, 283 gives a very short, succinct explanation. “In order to keep the Sabbath holy, men must themselves be holy.” We need now to ask ourselves a question in order to rightly comprehend the significance of our situation in relation to God’s command to “keep the Sabbath day holy.” The question is this, Are we holy? Are you holy? Am I holy? Just in case there is any doubt about that, let’s turn to several texts and see what God has to say about that.
Jeremiah 13:23 says, “Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.” Jeremiah 17:9 KJV adds, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; Who can know it?” These texts and many others decisively answer that question. We are not and cannot be holy of ourselves. It is impossible.
If God commands us to keep the Sabbath day holy (and He does have the right and the authority to do so, does He not?) and we have no hope of being holy, it sounds like He is requiring something of us that we cannot do. But is this our situation, our predicament? No, it is not. God does not require something of us that is not possible for us to do. So how do we reconcile this situation? God requires us to keep the Sabbath holy. In order to keep the Sabbath holy, we must be holy. We are not holy and have no way to make ourselves holy. So what is the solution to this problem in which we find ourselves?
In Exodus 31:13 we read, “Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy.’ ” Here is our answer. God says, “I am the Lord, who makes you holy.” Isn’t that a wonderful promise? Consider the following beautiful and profound statement: “The Sabbath given to the world as the sign of God as the Creator is also the sign of Him as the Sanctifier. The power that created all things is the power that re-creates the soul in His own likeness.” God’s Amazing Grace, 156.
Do you or I have the power to bring ourselves back to a likeness of the image of God? No. Adam and Eve, after their sin, “were told that their nature had become depraved by sin.” Patriarchs and Prophets, 61. Later in the same book, on page 595, it says, “Sin has marred and well-nigh obliterated the image of God in man.” And The Review and Herald, February 4, 1890, says, “Man cannot possibly meet the demands of the law of God in human strength alone. His offerings, his works, will all be tainted with sin.”
We are not holy. It is impossible for us to make ourselves holy. But God, in His love, in His mercy has provided the solution. Since we have no power or capability whatsoever to change our state of degradation, of having a depraved nature, He created the plan of salvation to rescue us from this dilemma. Patriarchs and Prophets, 595, says it this way: “It was to restore this [the image of God—holiness] that the plan of salvation was devised.”
The Father and His Son devised the great and wonderful plan of salvation on our behalf such that we can have God’s image, His holiness, recreated in our souls. So in order to really keep the Sabbath holy we must understand and implement in our lives the great plan of salvation, the new covenant. It is impossible to obey the fourth commandment without the plan of salvation, or the new covenant. Is it any wonder that under Inspiration these words were spoken, “Those who would share the benefits of the Saviour’s mediation should permit nothing to interfere with their duty to perfect holiness in the fear of God. The precious hours, instead of being given to pleasure, to display, or to gain seeking, should be devoted to an earnest, prayerful study of the word of truth. The subject of the sanctuary and the investigative judgment should be clearly understood by the people of God.” The Great Controversy, 488. It is only through the plan of salvation, carried out in the heavenly sanctuary, that we can obey God’s command to keep the Sabbath day holy, because there is no other way that we can become holy.
Let’s review what we have covered so far.
1 God says, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.”
2 In order to keep the Sabbath holy, we must be holy.
3 We are not holy. Our natures are depraved by sin.
4 We cannot meet the demands of the law of God in human strength alone.
5 God has devised a plan whereby our natures can be recreated in His image; whereby we can become holy. It is known as the plan of salvation, the new covenant.
6 As we accept this plan of salvation in our lives, we can now obey God’s command to keep the Sabbath holy.
Let’s go back to our example of the Jews. We left our earlier discussion of the Jews without answering the question, Did they keep the Sabbath day holy?” Let’s look at that now. Remember first, that in order to keep the Sabbath day holy we must ourselves be holy. We just learned that it is through Christ alone and the plan of salvation carried out in the sanctuary of heaven that we can become holy. How do we become holy? We become holy by going to Jesus in the heavenly sanctuary. It is there that we confess our sins and overcome them in the strength of Jesus.
Now, did the Jews as a nation accept this plan and go to Jesus in the heavenly sanctuary? No. Rather than transfer their confession from the “shadow,” that is the ceremonies of the earthly sanctuary, to the true “High Priest” in the “true tabernacle” in heaven, the very next morning after Jesus’ death they resumed their sacrifices in their earthly temple. They continued these useless sacrifices for the next 40 years. By doing this they rejected the One true Sacrifice, the offer of the only One who could make them holy. So did they have the slightest hope of being holy? Not the least. Could they and did they keep the Sabbath holy? No, they could not, and they did not. They rejected and crucified the very One who gave His life to secure for them forgiveness, pardon, and a holy character, and then rejected His ministry on their behalf in the sanctuary in heaven! Therefore, they could not become holy, and since they were not holy, they could not obey God’s command to “keep the Sabbath holy.”
Now, what connection is there between the Jews and what they did and us today? In the book Counsels for the Church, 262, it says, “To us as to Israel the Sabbath is given ‘for a perpetual covenant’ (Exodus 31:16). To those who reverence His holy day the Sabbath is a sign that God recognizes them as His chosen people. It is a pledge that He will fulfill to them His covenant. In other words, He will sanctify us, or make us holy. Every soul who accepts the sign of God’s government places himself under the divine, everlasting covenant [also known as the plan of salvation].”
So if we truly keep the Sabbath holy, it is a sign that we have accepted God’s plan, God’s covenant for the “restoration in the human soul of the image of God.” Education, 371.
It is impossible to keep the Sabbath day holy if we do not connect to the great plan of salvation, the new covenant, made by God the Father and Jesus and which is carried out in the “true tabernacle” (Hebrews 8:2), the sanctuary in heaven. We do not want to repeat the fatal mistake made by the Jews in rejecting the ministration of Jesus, our great High Priest in heaven. This plan of salvation is our only option for obeying God’s command to “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.”
I invite you to make the commitment to “permit nothing to interfere with [your] their duty to perfect holiness in the fear of God” (The Great Controversy, 488), and thereby fulfill the command of God, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” Exodus 20:8.
(Unless appearing in quoted references or otherwise identified, Bible texts are from the New International Version.)
Brenda Douay is a staff member at Steps to Life. She may be contacted by email at: email@example.com.