Old Testament Laws: Can God’s Sabbath Law Be "Done Away"?

Many people assume that because the weekly Sabbath is in the Ten Commandments, it must therefore be a law for all times and for all people to keep. They conclude that Christians are obligated to keep the Sabbath as “holy time.”

We cannot make a blanket statement that the law of God or the Ten Commandments are “done away.” Two of the Commandments tell us not to commit idolatry or to murder. These laws are not done away. The Law of Moses tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18) and to love God with all our soul, mind and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5). Jesus reaffirmed these as the two greatest commands in existence (Matthew 22:34-40). These great laws of God are not done away. As Christians we are “under” them in the sense that we should do what they command, loving God above all else and our neighbor as ourselves.

The question about God’s law ought to be put in these terms: Which “laws of God” are Christians to have written on their heart, and which are they obliged to keep? Does that obligation include keeping the Sabbath day holy? Let’s begin by looking at one of several New Testament scriptures that talk about keeping the commandments of God. What are the “commandments of God” that Christians are to obey?

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There is an important principle to consider here: We must be careful to understand the words “law” and “commandment” when we find them before the giving of the old covenant in the Old Testament, and especially after the new covenant was instituted in the New Testament. We need to be careful how we understand and apply the words “law” or “commandments” when we see them in various places in the Bible. If we casually refer to these words when they are used in Scripture—and say they mean that Christians must keep the old covenant law—we can lead ourselves astray.

The words “law” or “commandments” don’t always refer to the Ten Commandments, or the Mosaic law as a system. When we claim this, we are “reading back” our already-held belief that Christians must keep every one of the Ten Commandments in their entirety, as well as the Mosaic law. But we should allow the Scriptures to speak for themselves. For example, Christians must keep the “law of Christ,” which the Holy Spirit puts into our hearts (Galatians 6:2; Romans 8:2). But it is not the entire set of ceremonial, sacrificial and civil regulations found in the Mosaic law from Exodus through Deuteronomy. Otherwise, Christians would have to obey every single law in those books, including the purification rites, sacrificial laws, priestly laws, and physical circumcision. But these laws are not to be kept by Christians. The book of Hebrews and the New Testament makes this clear.

So we need to be careful when we read about “commandments” in the Bible—particularly in the New Testament. We should not confuse them with the Ten Commandments as a group, or the package of legal requirements (the Law of Moses) the old covenant was based on. The issue is not whether we are to keep the Ten Commandments or the old covenant Mosaic laws as a group. The question is, which commandments are Christians to obey?

The answer is, we are to teach the commandments of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:20). What did Jesus say in John 14:15? He said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” Matthew concludes his Gospel with the same thought about obeying Jesus’ commandments: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

But what did Jesus command? He told Jews still living under the old covenant to keep the purification rites of the old covenant, for example (Luke 5:14). We know from Hebrews that Christians don’t need to keep these ceremonial regulations. To which commandments, then, was Jesus referring? He summarized them in John 15:12: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” What Jesus talked about—what he commanded to his disciples—was that they should love each other selflessly. This is a tall order. His commands had to do with loving neighbor and God, not keeping ceremonial regulations such as not working or avoiding personal pleasures on the Sabbath. This shouldn’t surprise us, for he said that the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second greatest is to love our fellow human beings.
(Two of the most important commandments are to believe in Jesus Christ and to love one another, as 1 John 3:24 tells us.)

The orientation of the new covenant is to Christ and the cross, not to Moses and the tables of stone. The great sermon of the new covenant is not the one given at Mt. Sinai, but by Jesus Christ, in his Sermon on the Mount. There he began to explain the principles of the new covenant. Similarly, let’s ask what we mean by “God’s law.” What commandments of God are Christians obliged to obey? When we think of the aspects of God’s law that are eternal, we see the kinds of principles that govern our conduct in relationship primarily to other people. That is, we shouldn’t steal, be drunkards, bear false witness or slander, be sexually immoral, be greedy or arrogant, and so on. The New Testament contains ample teaching in these areas.

The eternal aspect of God’s law also tells us to love God with all our soul and mind and strength. This tells us we shouldn’t be idolaters and have any thing or any god in place of the true one. In that sense, this law also reflects principles of an eternal, moral law. The New Testament is filled with admonitions not to break these “spiritual-moral laws,” if that’s what we want to call them. The book of James discusses many of these moral failures as examples of the breaking of the “royal law” of loving your neighbor as yourself (2:8). Some Scriptures contain what are called “sin lists.” These mention a number of wrong human actions that God’s spiritual-moral law would prevent, if followed. (For three examples, see Mark 7:20-23, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and Galatians 5:16-24.)

To break the spiritual-moral law of God described above is to be a wicked and sinful person. To follow this law of God is to exhibit the “fruit” of the Holy Spirit, and thus to be in concert with the will of God. Those are the commandments of God that Revelation 12:17 tells us to follow.

Probably most—or even all—the spiritual-moral laws one might think of can be found somewhere in both the New and the Old Testament. The Law of Moses is heavily sprinkled with these laws. Nine of the Ten Commandments, the centerpiece of the Mosaic law, are moral-type laws of one sort or another. The first three commandments can be thought of as spiritual-moral in that they tell us not to worship anything that is not the true God. Breaking these laws is idolatry, a sin that is mentioned in the New Testament, too. However, we are only partially correct in saying that the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic laws are spiritual-moral in nature. The problem is that all of its laws do not all fit into this category. The law of Moses also includes ceremonial as well as spiritual-moral laws.

The Sabbath day, even though it is in the Ten Commandments, must be counted as a ceremonial law. We can look at the situation in this way. A spiritual-moral law would have no exceptions. It’s not enough for us to refrain from stealing, greed or sexual immorality on one day and commit it on six others. We can’t refrain from worshipping idols on one day but do so on the other six. These practices are intrinsically wrong, and are contrary to eternal, moral laws.

But the Sabbath, in its major old covenant regulation, forbids work on one specific day each week. However, work is not an evil, but something that is a necessary part of life. Work is permitted on the other six days of the week. In contrast, lying is always wrong, because it is intrinsically a violation of a spiritual-moral law. Making a graven image for purposes of worship or being disobedient to parents is always a sin.

Yet, working is not wrong, and was only ceremonially banned on the Sabbath and the annual festivals in a certain situation, that is, when the old covenant was in force. Working, per se, is not sin. Its opposite, laziness, is condemned as morally unsound (1 Timothy 5:8; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12).

The principle when speaking of “God’s law” or “commandments” is the following. No requirements from the old covenant—including the Ten Commandments—are binding on Christians except the spiritual-moral principles, which are repeated in the Scriptures of the new covenant—the New Testament. However, keeping the Sabbath by not working is not based on any eternal, spiritual-moral principle. Nor is it mentioned in the New Testament as a Christian requirement. We must conclude that, at its heart, Sabbath regulations were ceremonial practices and not necessary for Christians to “keep holy.”

Author: Paul Kroll


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