Are Christians required to keep the Sabbath? (Part 3)

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?

In my first post in response to this question, I described generally how the obligations of the Old Covenant, such as keeping the Sabbath, become opportunities under the New Covenant. In my next post, I talked about the reasons for the Sabbath: rest for weary bodies; worship of our Creator; and becoming part of God’s own work, which flows from His “rest.” In this post, I’d like to conclude this series by offering some suggestions for how you might keep the Sabbath practically.

The first important question is whether to keep the Sabbath as one particular day during the week or instead try to fulfill the purposes of the Sabbath on each day of the week. This will be a matter of individual guidance and conviction for each believer, but allow me to make a suggestion that may prove helpful. It seems to me that if your “work” is usually done at a particular place (for example, an office, a factory, or a shop), it’s prudent to make sure you get away from that place and get a good, solid break for at least one day every week. (Nothing wrong with a whole weekend, either.) But if your work can be done, and is done, in a variety of settings because it depends primarily on your inspiration, insights, and creativity (this would apply, for example, to writers, artists, researchers, composers, inventors, strategists, etc.), then you might repeatedly be frustrated if you tried to keep your work out of a specific day of the week. Chances are that the break you gave yourself from the usual routine would release your creative processes and you’d be flooded with ideas that you weren’t supposed to pursue that day! So think about what kind of work you do and whether it would lend itself best to “honoring one day as more sacred than others” or “honoring all days alike.”

A related question is the definition of “work.” Assuming that, for the most part, we are supposed to rest rather than work on the Sabbath, how can we know when we’re working and when we’re at rest? As I said in my second post, in general, anything that interferes with the purposes of the Sabbath should be recognized as “work,” while anything that promotes those purposes should be considered “rest.”

The Gospel of Luke reports how Jesus healed a woman who’d been disabled for eighteen years, unable to stand up straight. “He put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.” But the synagogue leader criticized him for doing this on the Sabbath. Jesus responded, “Should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” This was one of the many times when Jesus offered an “argument from the lesser to the greater”: If it was appropriate for people to be granted rest from fatigue on the Sabbath, how much more appropriate was it for this woman to be granted freedom from her disability on the Sabbath! Or as Jesus put it on another occasion, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, when he healed a man’s withered hand, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.

Alexander Master, “Jesus Heals the Crippled Woman” (detail)

So, to use your specific example of cooking, if cooking is more for you than just getting meals on the table—if it’s a creative outlet and a source of joy and refreshment for you—then by all means, go ahead and cook, even on a day you might have set apart from “work.” It’s lawful to “do good” on that day. In the same way, if your research isn’t just a job, if it’s a way for you to use your talents to pursue something that you’re passionate about, then don’t feel that you have to shut it down for a whole day once a week—particularly not if some of your best insights occur to you on that day! But you’re on the honor system here. You’ll know in your own conscience whether you’re “pushing” to keep going when you should really be resting.

One other observation to make is that in the Old Testament, there wasn’t just a weekly Sabbath. There were also several week-long annual festivals that began and ended with days free from work. (And we can safely assume that in many cases, the entire festival was different from the usual work week; for example, during the Festival of Tabernacles, the Israelites lived in temporary shelters—kind of like going camping!) God also commanded the Israelites to give their farmland a sabbatical year every seven years. And beyond that, they were to observe a Year of Jubilee every fifty years, when all debts were cancelled and everyone returned to their ancestral property. This had the effect of freeing the rising generation from any bad financial legacy the older generation may have left, and at the same time it required each generation to make its own way in the world.

So let me leave you with this question and challenge: How will you observe the Sabbath over longer time periods? Will you make sure you get vacations every year and that they are genuine times of refreshment, restoration, and adventure? I trust that, as an academic, you’ve already had sabbatical experiences every several years that have permitted breakthroughs in your research and at the same time enabled you to step out of your regular life in a significant way so that you could return to it as a fresh person. And have you experienced a “Jubilee”? Around age 50, many people move from a traditionally defined position into a more creatively designed one that suits them personally and will allow them to use their gifts with maximum effectiveness for the rest of their careers. (This can happen within an institution they have been serving, or it may take them out of that institution into a consultancy, freelance, or similar role.)

There seems to be a biblical precedent for this type of move. God told Moses that Levites who were “twenty-five years old or more shall come to take part in the work at the tent of meeting, but at the age of fifty, they must retire from their regular service and work no longer. They may assist their brothers in performing their duties at the tent of meeting, but they themselves must not do the work.” So the more senior Levites became advisors and assistants who were not to keep doing the regular work themselves. Sounds to me as if they were then observing the Sabbath for the rest of their lives.

However, it may not not be practical or possible in many situations for our outward work to be transformed in this way. Nevertheless, we can all be transformed inwardly so that we are no longer restlessly striving for the rewards of work. Instead, may our work flow from who we are and who we are becoming, by the grace of God, so that we may truly “enter His rest” and, as God’s co-workers, cease from our labors as He ceased from His on that first Sabbath day.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. 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 Scriptures 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 has an A.B. 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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