Are Christians required to keep the Sabbath? (Part 1)

Q. Is it honoring to God for Christians who are Gentiles to keep the Sabbath? If so, how should they observe it? Or it is not required of them to observe the law in any shape or form? I had never observed the Sabbath or other laws on the understanding that as Christians, we weren’t required to do so. But a few years ago, when I was worn down from overwork, I prayed about the issue and I felt led to observe the Sabbath. (Not that I thought it would make me more righteous, or that I was trying to be.) But now that I have largely recovered from being worn down, I’d like to be able to do some of my academic research work on that day, or simple things like cooking, which I haven’t been doing. Would that be all right?

My answer your question will have three parts. In this post, I’ll talk about the general difference between the obligations of the Old Covenant and the opportunities of the New Covenant. In my next post, I’ll apply those biblical and theological observations specifically to Sabbath observance. And in my final post, I’ll offer some practical suggestions in response to your concerns.

I was reading just the other day in 2 Chronicles about how Abijah, the king of Judah, warned Jereboam, the king of Israel, that he shouldn’t try to attack him, because God wouldn’t be with him. Abijah said:

“You are indeed a vast army and have with you the golden calves that Jeroboam made to be your gods. But didn’t you drive out the priests of the Lord, the sons of Aaron, and the Levites, and make priests of your own as the peoples of other lands do? Whoever comes to consecrate himself with a young bull and seven rams may become a priest of what are not gods. As for us, the Lord is our God, and we have not forsaken him. The priests who serve the Lord are sons of Aaron, and the Levites assist them. Every morning and evening they present burnt offerings and fragrant incense to the Lord. They set out the bread on the ceremonially clean table and light the lamps on the gold lampstand every evening. We are observing the requirements of the Lord our God.”

On this basis, Abijah argued, Jereboam couldn’t hope to defeat Judah—and he was right. Jereboam lost the battle. But I was struck by the way that faithfulness to the Lord was defined at this time as scrupulously following the specific commandments God had given, not just for who could be priests, but even for how the bread should be set out on the table in the temple.

An artist’s rendition of the showbread on the golden table in the temple.

Now it wasn’t thought that these observances, in and of themselves, would have some specific effect. Rather, following God’s commandments accurately and carefully was an expression of the people’s loyalty, obedience, and devotion. God was their Lord and Master, and it was their duty as faithful servants to carry out his wishes to the letter. But it was their devotion that really mattered, not the specific arrangements.

We get evidence of this distinction later in 2 Chronicles itself. The book records how, during the reign of Hezekiah, the king and the people realized that they needed to start celebrating Passover once again in order to be faithful to the Lord’s instructions. They were supposed to have done this in the first month of the year, but by the time they realized this, it was too late for them to organize a celebration in that month. So they decided to celebrate Passover in the second month instead. This was not following God’s commandments to the letter, but “the plan seemed right both to the king and to the whole assembly.” It’s better for a person to have a heart that seeks to obey, even if they can’t do so exactly, than for a person not to try to obey at all.

And once the celebration got going, “although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, ‘May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets their heart on seeking God—the Lord, the God of their ancestors—even if they are not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.'” And the Lord accepted Hezekiah’s prayer.

So even within the Old Covenant itself, there’s a movement from an emphasis on a scrupulous observance of specific commandments to an emphasis on a person’s heart genuinely seeking God. Jesus took that developing emphasis and made it explicit in his teaching. In terms of the food laws, for example, he said that it wasn’t what went into a person (what they ate) that made them unclean, but what came out of them, because “from the inside, from your heart, come the evil ideas that lead you to do immoral things.” To give another example, the Law of Moses was very specific that the people of the Old Covenant were to worship the Lord in only one place, Jerusalem. But when a Samaritan woman asked Jesus whether she should worship in Jerusalem or on the mountain where her ancestors had always worshiped, he replied, “A time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem . . . a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” So once again it’s the devotion of the heart, not the letter of the law, that matters.

In this light, the obligations of the Old Covenant are transformed into opportunities under the New Covenant. Tithing provides a good example of this. Under the Old Covenant, the people were required to give a tithe (that is, 10%) of their crops and other income to the Lord. But the New Testament never speaks of tithing as a requirement. Rather, it says things such as, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (Another way to put this is, “Don’t give if you wish you could keep it; don’t give if you feel you have to. God loves those who give because they want to give.”)

So the emphasis in giving is on the desire of the heart to honor and obey God. This doesn’t mean, however, that Christians shouldn’t tithe. Tithing is actually a very good spiritual discipline for us to adopt. A spiritual discipline is a structure that we build into our lives to make sure that we actually do what we want to do in our hearts. So by keeping track of our giving, and making sure that it’s at least 10% (after all, those who give because they want to can reasonably be expected to give at least as much as those who give because it’s a requirement), we structure our lives in such a way that our good intentions are actually fulfilled.

When we do carry out the desire of our heart to express our devotion to God in tangible ways, then we take advantage of an opportunity to do good. In the conclusion to the passage about the “cheerful giver,” Paul explains, “This service that you perform [i.e., your giving] is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people, it is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.”

Perhaps you can already see the implications of all this for Sabbath observance, but I’ll talk about those in my next post.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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