Understanding the basics of the fourth of the ten commandments is fairly simple. It says not to work on the seventh day (sunset Friday to sunset Saturday) because God rested on the day when he made everything. Even though that is all there is to the commandment, it does not take a theologian to understand there are left many unanswered questions.
Any Bible verses, outside the commandment itself (Exodus 20), that discusses or references it is a JUDGMENT. Judgments are administrative statements applying the law to a particular situation.
There has never been a law given which does not require interpretation. If there is to be official interpretation, then some official administration must be in place. Someone must have decision-making powers in any governmental structure - and ancient Israel was no exception.
8 It may be that some cases will be too difficult for the local judges to decide . . . When this happens, go to the one place of worship chosen by the Lord your God, 9 and present your case to the levitical priests and to the judge who is in office at that time, and let them decide the case. 10 They will give their decision, and you are to do exactly as they tell you. 12 Anyone who dares to disobey either the judge or the priest on duty is to be put to death (Deuteronomy 17)
How did JESUS interpret it?
In Jesus' time Jewish religious leaders had made the seventh day of rest unrecognizable from what God intended. Following what they THOUGHT was the example of the prophet Nehemiah, they decided how far a person could walk, the weight they could carry, and even whether or not they could be HEALED on God's Sabbath! Jesus' approach to the Sabbath, however, was based on common sense. He and the disciples usually totally ignored the unbiblical traditions of the Jews regarding the Sabbath.
On a Sabbath day when they were passing through grain fields Jesus and his followers were plucking ears of grain to eat as they went. When the self-righteous Pharisees saw this they challenged Jesus on his 'improper' reverence for the fourth commandment. To them they saw no difference between the act of plucking grains to eat and carrying out a full harvest. Obviously, there is a difference between getting a few heads of grain and harvesting crops for a living. The difference is in the intent. Jesus replied to the rigid religious leaders who criticized him.
'Have you never read what David did that time when he needed something to eat? He and his men were hungry, 26 so he went into the house of God and ate the bread offered to God . . . According to our Law only the priests may eat this bread - but David ate it and even gave it to his men.' (Mark 2)
Jesus was trying to teach his critics that a human need like hunger, on occasion, could take precedence over God's Sabbath commandment. Such exceptions, however, do not nullify the rule (or in this case commandment). Jesus even acknowledged that there could arise a conflict between two laws.
5. Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbaths the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? (Matthew 12:5, HBFV)
Who would argue that the Levitical laws on sacrifice would be greater than the fourth commandment? God commanded the priests to sacrifice on the seventh day. The commandment forbade work. Which took precedence? The sacrificial law took precedence. The Sabbath was made FOR man. The offerings were a part of worshipping God.
6. But I say to you, there is one here Who is greater than the temple. 7. Now if you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless. (Matthew 12:6-7, HBFV)
Mercy, according to Christ, was far more important than rigid adherance to the law.
Preparation for the Sabbath
The first lesson we learn from what happened to the Israelites in Exodus 16, when bread rained down from heaven, is that the proper observance of the Biblical day of rest requires forethought and preparation:
"Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you. And the people shall go out and gather a certain quota every day, that I may test them (it was a test commandment), whether they will walk in My law or not. And it shall be on the sixth day that they shall prepare what they bring in, and it shall be twice as much as they gather daily.'" (Exodus 16:4-5).
God gave them a very simple procedure. Gather just enough for your family each day and eat it all. If you gather too much and try to hold it over, it will breed worms and stink. It was their daily bread in every sense of the term. On the sixth day, they could take twice as much to prepare extra for the next day. This time it did not breed worms and stink. They were starting to learn how to prepare for rest. The lesson we learn is that God's rest could not be ANY day in seven. It was on a specific day.
What we learn from these judgments is that the Sabbath is on a specific day, and that proper observance of it requires preparation. There is nothing in Christ's teaching to change that.
Can we benefit from others?
There are extreme views on just about every teaching or doctrine in the Bible. Extremes regarding keeping the Sabbath are no exception. Some, such as very strict Jews, argue that not only should we abstain from work on the day and also not benefit from the work of others. This means, for example, that electricity should not be used on the rest day since it benefits from the work others do on the day to create and maintain the power plants, power lines, etc. Those who believe this use candles to light their homes - and even light them before sunset Friday - so that the "work" of "kindling a fire" is not done on the seventh day. The home delivery of a newspaper on Saturday is also stopped, since work is required to get the paper to them.
Such practices, however, are going far beyond the requirements of the law and may well defeat the very purpose of the commandment. Notice that the fourth commandment says that not only should YOU not work, but also YOUR son, daughter, servants, cattle, etc.
The commandment forbids you to require work of anyone who is under your control. Notice the use of the possessive: YOUR servant, YOUR daughter, even YOUR stranger. The commandment is for you. It is for what you do and require. The person who delivers the paper does not work directly FOR you. They make their own decisions about when to work and when to take off. They would still work on the day even if they did not deliver your paper. The same holds true for those who make possible electricity and the other conveniences of life. The commandment does not call on us to prevent work by others who we do not direct employ and control. It does not prevent those who keep the Sabbath from benefiting from the labors of others who decide to work.
Example of a strict judgment
Some buildings in areas with a large Jewish population use a "Shabbat elevator." Such elevators are able to work in a "Sabbath Mode" that fulfills a Jewish (not Biblical) tradition that requires abstaining from operating electric switches on the seventh day.
Some Jews believe that since pressing a button closes a circuit, it violates the Old Testament's laws on not building (working) on God's rest day! When an elevator is in this special mode, it stops automatically at each floor, and allows people to step in and out without having to press any buttons.
Keeping both the day and your job
There is the delicate balance between business and beliefs. Personal experience shows that many in supervisory positions, or who own their own business, are usually reasonable in accommodating others. A hard-working employee who is an asset to the company, who plans skillfully and wants to make up for missed time, can usually keep the Sabbath and his or her job. A good employer knows that a faithful employee increases the company's profit. Five or six days from one hard worker are better than six or seven days from a lazy one. If you let your employer know your religious beliefs in a positive way then there is a good chance they will honor your request for resting on the seventh day.
Did Jesus answer all questions?
Jesus realized that there was no way He could answer all questions for all generations on the Sabbath or any other teaching. There is a continuing need for interpretation.
The Sabbath is a day special to God. In it he gives us all the time we need - time for reading his Word, prayer, gathering with other people of like mind, time to enjoy children and, above everything else, time to get to know our Creator.