Old Testament Laws: Another Letter to an Adventist
After I sent the first letter to Will Eva, he responded with a letter of his own. I respond to it here.
You asked for a concise explanation of why we do not believe that the Sabbath is required for Christians.
Let me begin, as you asked, as to the authority of Genesis in this question. Even if Genesis called the seventh day a Sabbath and a commanded day of rest, I would still allow the epistles to overturn that commandment, in the same way that I allow the epistles to overturn the command for circumcision (which is in Genesis), or the worship practices found in Genesis (altars, sacrifices, etc.). You would probably allow the epistles to do that, too – the question is whether the epistles actually do that or not.
The status of the Sabbath in Genesis is not determinative for the question, yet it is an important supporting argument. If the Sabbath were in Genesis, then it would be found outside of the old covenant and therefore better rooted, like circumcision. I agree with you that Genesis and Exodus were written about the same time, from the same theological perspective. I agree that Exodus 20 commands humans to rest on the seventh day because God rested on the seventh day of creation. The language of Genesis 2:1-2 and Exodus 20:8-11 is similar.
But when God says, I want you to rest as a memorial of what I did at creation, he does not necessarily mean that all good people have done so ever since creation. That is possible, but it is not shown by the text. Since Genesis was written by a Sabbath-keeper, it is interesting that he never editorializes to say anything about the Sabbath, not for Adam, Noah, or any patriarch. The Sabbath was a sign of the covenant between God and Israel (Exodus 31), but Abraham was given a different sign. If the Sabbath marked the people of Israel as distinctively God’s, couldn’t it just as easily mark Abraham as distinctively belonging to God? But the author says nothing about it. When Jacob is fleeing for his life, willing to make promises to God if God would only protect him, Jacob promises to worship and to tithe, but he says nothing about the Sabbath. It seems that he did not view it as a major component of worship.
If the author of Genesis wanted to promote Sabbath-keeping, he could have easily inserted the Sabbath somewhere in the book, but I think it is a mark of historical accuracy that he did not. We credit him with historical accuracy when we take his silence seriously. He viewed the Sabbath as a sign given to Israel only, not to any other descendants of Abraham. But what can we learn from silence? It shows that the issue was not important to the author. He was not worried about whether Abraham kept the Sabbath – his concern was only that the Israelites should keep the Sabbath.
Jewish interpreters believed that Abraham did not keep the Sabbath – what seems clear to you, did not to them. The evidence of Genesis can be interpreted either way. Some Sabbath-keepers conclude that Adam was told to keep the Sabbath and Abraham kept it; other Sabbath-keepers do not. What do we do with such evidence? I think it is fair to put it on the shelf, so to speak, and come back to it later. But when we are dealing with commands for Christians today, particularly a command that divides Christians from one another, we need a “Thus saith the Lord,” and Genesis doesn’t have it.
Which laws are permanent?
Obviously, some old covenant laws were nullified; that is why Paul had to clarify that “the law” is not nullified. Some people were worried that Paul was doing away with the law, and apparently some people were afraid that Jesus was also doing away with the law, and that is why he had to say, “Don’t think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets.” These clarifications were necessary then, and are still needed today. Some laws are done away, but there is another law that is not. So our task is to rightly divide the law(s).
What sorts of laws came to an end with Christ? They are described as the Law of Moses (Acts 15), the old covenant (Hebrews), the laws that divided Jew from Gentile (Ephesians 2), the ceremonial, sacrificial and ritual laws. These include laws that came through Moses and laws that came before Moses, too.
What sorts of laws continued in force, or even increased in force? Moral laws, laws rooted in the character of God, laws that are inherent and essential in showing love to others. These, being eternal principles, were true before Moses and are also found within the Law of Moses, the old covenant. The eternal and the temporary are mixed together in the Pentateuch. I think you can agree with this so far.
The laws that showed people how to express love for God are especially interesting. We might assume in advance that these laws were the most important, and yet it is these that are (for the most part) obsolete. Within the old covenant, the sacrificial and ceremonial rituals were the laws that told the Israelites how to express their love for God. But our love for God is expressed in a very different way in the Christian era. This doesn’t mean that we don’t need to love God, nor that our love should not be expressed in particular ways, but it does mean that we must be open to the possibility of significant changes in this area.
Is the decalogue ceremonial? Most of it is not. Most of it is quoted with approval in the New Testament. You are mistaken when you write that we have “gathered the decalogue or ten words in with that [the ceremonial aspects of things], seeing no distinction at all between the logically eternal principles of the decalogue and the ceremonial and cultic aspects of the OT.” There is certainly a distinction between the eternal principles of the decalogue and the ceremonial laws – but we do not believe that all of the decalogue is eternal.
There is a distinction even within the decalogue between eternal principles and ceremonial aspects. The validity of the eternal principles is not because they happened to be included in the decalogue, but because they existed long before Moses, long before Adam, and will exist forever. The legal authority lies not in the stone tablets, but in the eternal principles that transcend those tablets, and I suspect those eternal principles are “the law” that Paul viewed highly.
The “second table” (the last six commandments) is quoted in the NT. The way we express love to other humans has changed little, except that Jesus has deepened the meaning. (Much more could be said here, but the point right now is that most of the decalogue continues into the Christian era.) These moral laws are timeless.
What is a ceremonial law?
But is all of the decalogue moral, or is it possible, like the rest of the Mosaic law-code, that it is a mixture of ceremonial and moral? (Even the ceremonial laws are moral in one sense, of course; they are not immoral. But I am speaking here of moral in a more restricted sense, as concerning eternal principles of interpersonal relationships.) I see no biblical reason to assume in advance that they are all eternal. I believe that the decalogue has a ceremonial law in it.
Ceremonial laws, if I may speak in generalities, are based in special revelation rather than natural law or general revelation. By nature, a person could be aware that God exists, and that he has standards of behavior that humans should abide by. By nature, a person can be grieved in conscience when he falls short of the ideal, and he might sense a need to sacrifice as an expression of his repentance. But by nature, he has no way of knowing whether a camel is an appropriate sacrifice, or whether a water buffalo would be better. If he feels unclean in some way, he has no way in general revelation of knowing about the ashes of a red heifer, sprinkling and touching the right ear lobe and right thumb, etc.
The ceremonial laws often contained a specificity that could appear arbitrary. God may have had a reason for specifying the right earlobe, but he has not told us what it is, and from the perspective of natural law, it seems arbitrary. God certainly has the right to specify what his people are supposed to do, and the ceremonies were laws under the old covenant. The details were important, but are no longer required.
Now imagine that a particularly enlightened person could discern by natural law that it is good for humans to rest one day out of seven (rather than one out of six, for example). Such a person has no way of knowing which if any day is better than another. The law of love does not specify a particular day of the week. The only place such a detail can come from is special revelation. There is nothing in the cycles of nature to reveal which day is the seventh. This suggests that the Sabbath command is a ceremonial law, at least in its requirement of the seventh day in particular, rather than simply resting one day out of seven.
We find additional evidence that the Sabbath is ceremonial in that God himself does not keep the Sabbath. He rested once, but a six-one cycle is not part of his eternal nature. Nor do angels keep the Sabbath; it is not an inherent part of the way good creatures show love to God or to one another. The Sabbath is not eternal, for it did not exist before creation, and I do not believe that it will be relevant in the new heavens/new earth. The Sabbath is not God’s nature, nor universal, nor timeless. It fails these tests of a moral law.
Angels always worship God only, they never make idols, they never misuse his name. They always honor the Father, never murder, steal, commit adultery, steal or covet. They cannot commit adultery because they are sexless, but they would not commit adultery even if they could. They are in literal compliance with nine of the commands, and will forever be in compliance with nine, but they do not keep the Sabbath. This also shows that the Sabbath is different from the other nine commands. It is different in quality – a ceremonial law rather than a moral law.
I am willing to admit the possibility that Jesus commanded a ceremonial law. The Lord’s Supper is a commanded ritual. Baptism is a ritual, a symbolic action. Calling the Sabbath a ceremonial law does not automatically mean that it is obsolete. But it does change the way other theological concepts are applied to it.
Perhaps I have now gone further than you are willing to go. Do you believe that God keeps the Sabbath? Do you believe that angels do? Do you believe that the Sabbath is an essential part of the way intelligent created beings honor God? Is it eternal? Does it have the characteristics of a moral law, or a ceremonial law? This ties in, of course, with the evidence from the Gospels that I cited in my previous letter, arguing that Jesus treated the Sabbath as a ceremonial law.
Which law is holy, just and good?
Let’s go back to Paul and Romans 3:31. There is a moral law that was not nullified by Christ. This law is holy, just and good. This is a law about which we can say, “I love your law.” But what is this law? It is tempting to put our words into Paul’s pen by saying precisely what “the law” is. Lutherans have their idea, Calvinists have theirs, theonomists have theirs, etc.
Is this “law” identical to the decalogue? I see no evidence in the NT that anyone equated “the law” with only the decalogue. Is “the law” larger? Does it include all of the decalogue? Or is only part of the decalogue in this non-nullified law? That brings us back to the central question, and unfortunately Romans 3:31 does not tell us what we want to know. It simply tells us that there is a law that continues to be valid. Other parts of the epistle tell us that there is also a God-given law that has expired. How do we fit this into Romans 3:31? Let’s take circumcision as an example. Do we nullify this law by faith? The answer could be developed in two ways, and I do not know which way you might prefer. Both have some validity.
First, we could say no, we do not nullify the law of circumcision by faith. Rather, we uphold it and we keep it better, in the heart instead of in the flesh. Similarly, we keep all the rituals and ceremonies better, by faith in Christ, even though we do not keep them in the letter, even though the NT does not tell us how precisely we are keeping the grain offerings and the clothing rules by having faith in Christ. We figure that faith in Christ fulfills whatever purpose those laws had. In this Christological approach, it is possible to “keep” a law without paying any attention to what it actually says. We might say that the physical requirements have been spiritualized away. This line of thought, however, does not tell us which laws can be so spiritualized, and which must still be kept in the letter.
The other approach is to say yes, the law of circumcision is nullified by faith, and we do not have to keep it. Theologically there may be continuity, but practically there is not.
Our question about the Sabbath is primarily a practical question – does God command Christians to rest on the seventh day? — and the theological understanding of “why” is a subsequent question. The “bottom line” is that some OT laws should still be kept in the letter, and others are no longer required in the letter and in the flesh.
That still leaves us without a precise definition of “the law” that is not nullified. Does it include most of the decalogue? Apparently. Paul quotes most of the decalogue in Romans. But the non-nullified law also includes Leviticus 19:18b, Deuteronomy 6:5, Micah 6:8 and various laws from other parts of the OT.
Now let us suppose that Paul illustrated what he meant by “the law,” by quoting one of the Ten: “The law is not done away. Doesn’t the law tell us not to steal? It is not done away.” What would this argument tell us? Paul is obviously citing one example out of a larger body, but what is that body? Is it the “second table” of the decalogue, is it the entire decalogue, is it the book of the covenant (Exodus 20-23), is it the Pentateuch as a whole, or is it a different group? From the context, we cannot tell what the boundaries of the source are. Even if Paul cites the entire second table, we cannot know whether he means to stop there, or to include a larger context, such as the decalogue or the book of the covenant. It is tempting for us to specify the boundaries that he did not, but I do not see anything in the context that would allow us to justify a particular set of boundaries.
So what is “the law” Paul is discussing in Romans 3:31 and 7:12? I find no reason to equate it with the decalogue. Rather, it leaves me with the general principle that the concept of law is still valid, and that God still has behavioral standards for his people. But precisely what those standards are, I cannot tell from this verse alone. So after many words, we still are not any closer to the question of the Sabbath. Romans 3:31 does not tell us whether the Sabbath is part of the non-nullified law, or part of the law that is no longer required. We will have to look at other verses.
The Decalogue in the New Testament
The New Testament seems to put little emphasis on the decalogue as a whole. In several places it quotes a series from the second table (not always in the same order), but it never quotes anything from the first table with the second. The emphasis is on interpersonal behavior rather than worship. (Worship is of course important, but the New Testament contains few specifications for how it is to be done.) Jesus can quote from the second table and from Leviticus 19 without any acknowledgment that he is crossing any literary boundaries. The second table was probably known as a group, but everything else was “a bit here, and a bit there.” We do not know what was actually in their minds.
The only place the New Testament deals with the decalogue as a whole is in 2 Corinthians 3. The references to the stone tablets and Moses’ glowing face shows that Paul is talking about the decalogue. But he says it was a covenant that did not last (verse 11). Something about the decalogue must have changed, and an increase in strictness would not qualify as “fading away.” Something about the decalogue has faded away, is no longer a requirement, is no longer definitive for what it means to be God’s people in covenant with him.
Basic points in our understanding
Now I will stop dealing with individual verses and attempt to give a broad overview, as you asked for. It could take an entire book to deal with this, but I will attempt to sketch an outline of the major points.
1. The law is not done away. Historically, we stressed this point, and this is where we began. Probably anyone who has questions about the Sabbath begins with this point, because if the law is all obsolete, the Sabbath question is irrelevant. We begin with a desire to obey God. We want to do what he says and teach what he wants us to teach.
2. Some God-given laws are no longer in force. People have wrestled with this for a long time. Some have kept the annual Sabbaths, sometimes tried to implement land sabbaths, tried to avoid blended fabrics and hybrid corn because of Leviticus 19:19, considered women religiously unclean after childbirth, etc. People were willing to obey God, but struggled to find out how much he required. They all knew that some laws are done away, but they could not always explain why. Just because God gave a law to Israel does not mean that we today have to keep it. Just because “the law” is holy, just and good and profitable for training in righteousness does not mean that we have to keep every detail today.
Because some laws are obsolete, we must carefully distinguish between them, because it would be a sin for us to teach as required something that isn’t. Just because God told the Israelites to wear blue threads in tassels, does not mean that we can teach that believers should today. We cannot jump instantly from New Testament scriptures about obedience, which is good, into OT laws. But many people have that approach: “Christians obey God. [which is true] God gave this law. [which is also true] Therefore we should keep it. [which is false].”
The logic seems straightforward until we apply it to circumcision, and then we find that this approach is somehow, somewhere, completely wrong. If the law is still valid, it should be demonstrated to be valid by a valid approach, not a flawed approach.
In the case of the annual Sabbaths, for example, there are two problems to this approach: 1) God gave this law to Israelites, not to Gentiles. 2) He gave it for a temporary period, and it is no longer required even for Jewish Christians. We must be careful when we go to the Old Testament to see a law. We must discern who the law was given to, and consider whether it may be obsolete.
3. The New Testament does not specify all the obsolete laws. It says nothing about mixed fabrics, land sabbaths, tassels on garments, and yet we understand that these are obsolete. The New Testament does not have to itemize all the obsolete laws. The idea that a law is in force until specifically rescinded, is not valid.
But only God can declare a God-given law to be obsolete. We must have a biblical authority for considering any Old Testament law obsolete. Where in the New Testament do we find that any Old Testament law is obsolete?
4. The New Testament does away with Old Testament laws in large categories. When the New Testament declares Old Testament laws obsolete, it does so in large categories. The Acts 15 council dealt with a category called “The Law of Moses.” Judging by the way that phrase is used in the New Testament, it appears to cover everything attributed to Moses, Genesis to Deuteronomy. This is covered in an article at The Old Covenant and the Law of Moses, in commentary form at A Christian Council About Old Testament Laws, and in detail at Decree of the Council of Jerusalem.
In Galatians 3, Paul says that Christians are no longer under the law. The law he mentions there is the law added 430 years after Abraham, that is, through Moses. This passage is discussed in The New Covenant and the Sabbath and in commentary form at Redeemed from the Curse of the Law.
In Hebrews, it is the Sinai covenant that is obsolete. Although the letter to the Hebrews concerns itself with ceremonial examples of the law, it still uses the more comprehensive word “covenant” and says that the covenant is obsolete (Hebrews 8:13). In the Bible that covenant is equated with the decalogue (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13). It would also include Exodus 21-23, since Exodus 24 is the ratification of the covenant, and it includes ceremonies given after that, too, since Hebrews tells us that the covenant included instructions about the tabernacle.
In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul deals with the decalogue, calling it a ministry of death, a ministry that was fading away. We dealt with this in a commentary in Paul and the New Covenant.
Ephesians 2 also refers to laws that were abolished. The passage does not give these laws a name, but they were the ones that divided Jews from Gentiles. Some have claimed that these were human-created rules. But Jesus did not have to die to eliminate human traditions – rather, his death is what marked the end of various God-given laws. Ephesians 2 is saying the same as the other above-mentioned passages: the laws given to Jews but not Gentiles are now obsolete. These are the laws given through Moses, 430 years after Abraham, forming the old covenant. There’s a commentary on Ephesians 2 at Grace and Peace.
In all these New Testament passages, a large category of biblical law is declared obsolete. That body of law happens to include laws that are still valid, but their validity does not depend on their being included in the old covenant. They came before that covenant, or they came after it, through Jesus.
Since that covenant has been declared obsolete, every law within it is suspect. The question must be asked: Was this given only to Israel, only for a time, or is this a timeless principle that transcends this particular covenant? We cannot just dive into the old covenant, grab a verse, and proclaim it as valid before we even look at it. It has to be questioned. For practical purposes, it is best not to use the old covenant as a legal source at all, because whatever is valid in it can be demonstrated to be valid with verses from outside of the old covenant, and it would be more straightforward to go to those verses in the first place, instead of taking the circuitous route through the old covenant.
Nevertheless, the civil and ceremonial laws of the old covenant are still informative. The ceremonial laws may be used typologically; the civil laws illustrate principles of ethics – not in exact imitation, but in careful exploration. Christopher Wright has developed that well. The laws are informative, not normative. For more detail, see https://archive.gci.org/articles/the-role-of-the-decalogue-in-christian-ethics/
5. The change of covenants is important. This was the paradigm shift that was central to doctrinal change in one Sabbatarian group. Herbert Armstrong had taught that the old covenant was ended (which is true), but that the new covenant was not yet made (which is false). This erroneous idea allowed the WCG to insulate itself from the idea that a major change had occurred in the way God was working with his people.
But the Bible shows that the new covenant has been made (see https://archive.gci.org/articles/has-the-new-covenant-been-made/), so we need to explore what the change of covenants might mean. It explains, for one thing, why Christians don’t have to wear tassels and keep other laws that the New Testament does not specifically rescind. The New Testament rescinds it by large category, not by itemizing individual laws.
But how far does this go? If tassels are done away, why not the Feast of Unleavened Bread? There is no rationale for requiring one but not the other. The prooftext chains are broken. The example of circumcision shows that most prooftexts are not valid, but people keep using them anyway.
Among some Calvinists, “covenant theology” stresses unity between the covenants. This is used to support the continuity of the moral law, but the logical extension of this approach is theonomy. Why could theonomists (such as Bahnsen and Rushdoony) stress Matthew 5:17 and end up so different? One critique of theonomy calls the entire structure of covenant theology into question. See H. Wayne House and Thomas Ice, Dominion Theology: Blessing or Curse?
Zondervan publishes a symposium of views on the law with the title Five Views of Law and Gospel. In this book, theonomy is presented and critiqued; and also reformed theology, dispensational theology and Lutheran theology. In this book, Douglas Moo seems to present the best exegetical evidence. The Calvinist view is inadequate, particularly when they try to argue that the new covenant is so much like the old that it is better to speak of only one covenant. They did not deal with the verses of discontinuity. The same weakness is seen in Sabbatarian arguments. The pillars under the platform are faulty.
6. Jesus’ example is ambivalent, since he kept some laws that are now obsolete. As you note, it is too simplistic to “just follow Jesus’ example.” Nevertheless, this argument is often used by Sabbatarians. People who keep the annual festivals are a bit more consistent with it.
You are advocating a more sophisticated approach to evaluating what Jesus means regarding the Sabbath. Did he not invest the day with a significance that transcended the old covenant? Yes, he did, just as he did for Passover, Tabernacles, and other ceremonial laws. What does it mean in practical terms? His activity on the Sabbath is informative, but is it also normative? Does being a disciple of Jesus mean following him in this particular specificity?
When we are dealing with a command that divides families, causes people to lose their jobs, alienates Christians from one another, etc., we need a Thus saith the Lord, not some vague impressions that people can interpret in different ways. All the pillars used to hold up the Sabbath doctrine – all the prooftexts – are flawed, and we cannot find any authority from Christ to require the Sabbath. We cannot in good conscience teach the seventh-day Sabbath.
7. The early church example is ambivalent, since the early church met on many different days. We have records of Sabbath meetings, Sunday meetings, every-day-of-the-week meetings, etc., without any internal criteria to show that one is normative and the others are exceptional. And in early church history, we do not see Sabbath-keeping in the second or third century – see https://archive.gci.org/articles/sabbath-and-sunday-in-early-christianity/. (A compilation from the Seventh-day Adventist Seminary was particularly helpful in this research).
8. The New Testament shows a lack of concern about the Sabbath. Sabbatarian churches today face many questions about how to keep the Sabbath. What is permitted, what is not? Why weren’t the first-century Christians similarly filled with questions? What about slaves – were they supposed to keep the Sabbath or be beaten or killed? What exceptions were allowed? Early Christians dealt with the subject of circumcision often enough – why not the Sabbath? Why was circumcision, a ceremonial law, considered more worthy of attention?
There are also some “difficult scriptures” – Colossians 2:16, Romans 14:5, Galatians 4:10. Why did Paul bring up the subject of days and treat it so casually? This is totally unlike a Sabbatarian approach. They could never say the things that Paul did (nor would they ever be accused of doing away with the law, as Paul was). The New Testament is not afraid of repeating the Old Testament, so why did Paul never clarify that the Sabbath was still a valid command?
Why could Paul say that some people considered some days special, and others not, and just leave it by saying people should make up their own minds on this subject? Surely he realized that some people would apply these words to the Sabbath! Is it that unimportant? He would never say that about any other part of the decalogue, would he? For Colossians 2, see Victory on the Cross.
For Galatians 4, see Inheritors, Not Slaves.
9. The Jewish view is that the Sabbath is Jewish. One thing that helps explain the New Testament silence is that Jews did not believe that Gentiles needed to keep the Sabbath in order to be righteous, unless they were full proselytes. Jews did not believe that the Sabbath had been given to Adam, Noah or Abraham – they believed it was given to Israel only. See the primary sources at https://archive.gci.org/articles/sabbath-and-sunday-in-early-christianity/, endnote 8.
This meshes well with Genesis and Exodus. It explains why there would be controversy in the early church about circumcision, but not about the Sabbath – the Sabbath was considered subsequent to circumcision. If the Jews taught that Gentiles did not need to keep the Sabbath but Paul taught that they should, it would be controversial and the silence of the New Testament would be harder to explain. But if Paul was teaching something that had always been taught in Judaism, then that explains the silence.
10. Adding it up. The prooftext chains are all weak. The old covenant is not a good place to get commands for Christians, but the only biblical command for the Sabbath is in the old covenant. We can add to that 1) the evidence that the Sabbath is ceremonial, 2) that something within the decalogue itself has faded, 3) that the new covenant has done away with hundreds of Old Testament laws, and 4) that Paul was not concerned about whether his people kept the Sabbath.
The conclusion is that the Sabbath was one of the ceremonial laws that came to an end with the death of Jesus Christ. It has a typological value, looking back to creation and looking forward to our rest in Christ. Its typology goes back to creation, but as a command, it goes back only to Moses. It is one of the laws of Moses given 430 years after Abraham, it is the sign of the now-obsolete old covenant, one of the laws that had been a barrier between Jews and gentiles. For a more detailed examination of the Sabbath in Scripture, see .
This is a big volume of material, even without going to the website articles I mentioned. Perhaps it seems argumentative, opinionated, biased, etc., and I apologize if I have come across that way. Perhaps there are many points above that we are in agreement on, and perhaps there are others that we could come to an agreement on through further discussion.
Editor’s note: There was no reply, so this ends the correspondence.
Author: Michael Morrison