Are Christians required to keep the Sabbath? (Part 2)

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?

Based on what I wrote in response to your question in my last post, in which I explained how the obligations of the Old Covenant become opportunities under the New Covenant, you won’t be surprised to learn that I do encourage Christians to continue observing the Sabbath, as a spiritual discipline and as an opportunity to do good. So the answer to the first part of your question is yes, it is honoring to God when we keep the Sabbath in those ways. And this brings me to the second part of your question: How should we observe it?

The New Testament suggests that there are different ways a person can fulfill the purposes behind the Sabbath. One way is indeed to refrain from work on a given day of the week. The definition of “work” is very much up to the individual under the New Covenant; as with giving, it’s a matter of what you “determine in your heart.” But I’d say generally that any activity that interferes with the purposes of the Sabbath is likely “work” and should be left aside during Sabbath time. (I’ll say more shortly about what those purposes are.)

Some people choose to do no work on Saturday, the seventh day, the day God “rested” after creation and the day that was observed under the Old Covenant. Others choose Sunday, the first day, the day of Christ’s resurrection, symbolic of our entrance into new life. Both choices have good theological foundations and are time-honored practices in the community of Jesus’ followers.

However, in his letter to the Romans, Paul says that the Sabbath can also be kept as an everyday practice. When discussing two issues about which believers in his day had different convictions, Sabbath observance and eating meat that had been offered to idols, he wrote, “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.” We can infer from this overall argument that Paul would also say that “whoever considers every day alike does so to the Lord.” So it’s also possible for a person to keep the Sabbath by looking for opportunities every day to fulfill its purposes.

And what are those purposes? One primary reason for the Sabbath is to allow weary bodies to rest and recover. The Law of Moses said, “The seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do.” God designed for all creatures, human and animal, to have regular opportunities for their finite bodies to recover from the exertions of life.

No one who had power over another person or animal was to deny them this necessary refreshment: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” It’s crucial to emphasize, in our overworked culture, that this also means we must not deny our own bodies the opportunity to rest. I’m glad that you recognized this in your own case and that you have pursued this purpose of the Sabbath to the point where you feel largely recovered.

But there are other purposes for the Sabbath as well. As an admission of our creaturely finiteness, it is also supposed to be an act of humility and worship, in acknowledgment of God’s infinite greatness. And so it’s appropriate that communities of believers that observe a given day as the Sabbath also tend to hold worship services on that same day. One inference is that anyone who keeps the Sabbath as an everyday spiritual discipline should look for opportunities each day to express humble and grateful worship.

The book of Hebrews, however, suggests another very intriguing purpose of the Sabbath. Its author writes, “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for all who enter God’s rest also cease from their works, just as God did from his.” This means, for one thing, that we cease from trying to be righteous before God through our works and instead rely in faith on what Jesus has done for us. In light of this, it’s certainly appropriate that you haven’t been keeping the Sabbath itself to try to become more righteous before God.

But there’s a lot more going on here. The Gospel of John relates how, one Sabbath day, Jesus healed a man who couldn’t walk. When the Jewish leaders criticized him for doing this, he replied, “My Father is always working, and so am I.” In my study guide to John, I explain what Jesus meant by this:

The Jews of his day already accepted that God had to be at work sometimes on the Sabbath. They believed, for example, that God actively sent rain, and it often rained on the Sabbath. But human work was forbidden. Jesus explained, however, that the work he was doing was not his own, but the Father’s: “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can only do what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” This is actually a good description of Jesus’ “glory”: his intimate relationship with the Father and his sensitivity to the work that the Father wanted to do through him at any given moment. The point is that followers of Jesus can have this same kind of relationship with the Father and be actively involved in God’s own work on every single day of the week.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “Christ healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda” (1667-70), The National Gallery, London

In other words, if the Sabbath is a time when we refrain from our own work, that only means that it’s the ideal time for us to take our part in God’s work, which He is always doing. This is the idea of “co-operation” that’s a leading theme of the Gospel of John: God operates and we operate with Him, discerning where and how He is acting and joining in. This understanding of the Sabbath clearly calls for us to approach it as a sacred time that’s not limited to one day of the week, even though we may still “consider one day more sacred than another” as we seek to fulfill other Sabbath purposes.

But there’s a paradox here, which the author of Hebrews notes: We are called to join with God in his work, “and yet his works have been finished since the creation of the world.” After all, Scripture says, “On the seventh day God rested from all his works.” Jewish interpreters were fascinated to note that while Scripture marks the ending of the first six days of creation with a repeated formula about mornings and evenings, no ending is specified for the seventh day. So God’s “rest” has continued from then until the present. In effect, it’s still the seventh day of creation, and God is still resting. So how can He be working?

The solution to this paradox is offered in the specific instructions for the Sabbath in the book of Exodus, which say, “For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, holy to the Lord. . . . For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.”

In what way could an infinitely powerful God be refreshed, if by definition He could never get tired in the first place? Many interpreters consider the “refreshment” of God to be, in effect, the “aaah” feeling He got when He surveyed “all that He had made” and saw that it was “very good.” While God first got this overview at the end of the sixth day, He devoted the entire next day to contemplating and admiring the beauty of the entire finished creation.

And apparently that day extends right down to the present. This means that God’s “work” flows from his unending seventh-day “rest,” that is, from his view of the finished creation as very good. This means that God has never acted out of desperation to try frantically to fix something that has apparently gone wrong with the world He made. I’ve discussed in other posts on this blog how God built freedom into the creation, and with it the possibility that people might choose things that were contrary to His  purposes. But God has known from the start that this is something He can accommodate within His original plans, as He takes an active part to bring the creation to its intended fulfillment. (As I write in another post, for example, “God is able to work through the free choices, both good and bad, of moral agents to accomplish His purposes.”)

So God’s actions flow from his Sabbath rest, his confident assurance, informed by his survey of the finished creation, that all of His purposes will be accomplished and that the beautiful world of creatures He made will ultimately fulfill its intended purpose. We are to lay aside our own work and join in His work with that same confident assurance, in our case based on faith in Him, informed by our understanding of His works from creation down to the present. This is what it means, in the deepest sense, to keep the Sabbath.

But I would like, in my final post in this series, to offer some specific suggestions for how you can work a Sabbath observance into your life that will fulfill all of its purposes, from this most lofty one to the practical necessity of bodily rest.

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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