Old Testament Laws: The Christian Sabbath: The Law and the Promise


Some churches teach that Christians ought to keep the seventh-day Sabbath. The basis of this conviction is usually the belief that the Ten Commandments are binding on Christians. Simply put, if the Ten Commandments are in force, then the Sabbath commandment is in force, and the Sabbath commandment is clear about the seventh day being the Sabbath.

Ironically, many Protestants have never given a second thought to whether the Ten Commandments, as a body of law, are binding on Christians. They simply assume it to be true. It is not uncommon for Protestants to display the Ten Commandments on plaques on their walls or have their children memorize them.

The idea that the Ten Commandments, written on tables of stone with the finger of God, might not be binding on Christians would be considered scandalous. Yet, when it comes to the fourth commandment, these same Christians must find a way around the commandment, a way to change the commanded seventh day to the first day.

Articles About the Sabbath

Day never changed

There have been a couple of fairly popular ways of “explaining” the supposed day change. One is to interpret the commandment as referring to one day in seven, not necessarily any particular day. Another is to say that the New Testament changed the Sabbath from the seventh day to the first day.

Yet neither of these popular explanations holds water. The commandment is quite specific about the seventh day; the idea of merely “one in seven” simply is not there (see Exodus 20:10). And the Bible never even hints at changing the Sabbath from the seventh day to the first day. Various people meet on the first day of the week, but it is never said to be a day of rest.

Surprising truth

We know that the law is “holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12), and we know that the Ten Commandments reflect the holy love of God. Yet, surprisingly for many Christians, the Bible teaches that the Ten Commandments have been superseded by something far more glorious—something that God planned from the very beginning would one day outshine completely the law he gave to Israel.

The law (the Torah), the whole law, including the Ten Commandments, was given to Israel, for a specific period of time—the time from their encounter with God on Sinai until the coming of Jesus the Messiah. Once Jesus came, a new law came in—the law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2; 1 John 3:21-24). It was a new covenant relationship, or arrangement, between God and humans, and it was not restricted to the Israelites. It was a covenant with all people.

When this “new deal” came in, the “old deal” expired. From then on, the invitation to God’s kingdom was open to everybody, not just to one people. The first deal, or covenant, was a preparation, a setting of the stage you might say, for the real deal—the new covenant in the blood of Christ.

The first covenant was designed to be for Israel (Galatians 3:23-25), and it was temporary, until just the right moment came. Then God’s plan for drawing humans into his kingdom went into high gear, and his own Son came to be one of us.

All according to plan

The Sinai covenant, standing as it does between the promise to Abraham and the coming of Christ, was never intended to last forever. It was, rather, a vital phase in God’s plan of fulfilling his promise to Abraham and to all who, like Abraham, believe his word (Galatians 3:7-9). In it, as in every covenant he has made with humans [1] is the bright reflection of God’s character and love for his people—but the climax was yet to come.

When Jesus Christ arrived, according to God’s promise and in God’s due time (Galatians 4:4-5), humans were confronted with infinitely more than the reflection. They were confronted with the actual character and heart of God in the person of his own Son (Hebrews 1:1-3) and invited to enter his kingdom by putting their faith in him! The Ten Commandments were given to Israel; Jesus Christ was given to the whole world.

The Sinai covenant was intended to shape the faith of the people of God until Messiah (Christ) would come. Then, with his arrival, the Sinai covenant faded (2 Corinthians 3:7-11), just as God had planned from the beginning, and the “new covenant” (Matthew 26:28) in the blood of Christ began. The time had come for those who would accept and believe the gospel to come under a new administration of the will of God, the administration of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:1-17). From then on, by putting their confidence in Jesus Christ, God’s people would be made righteous by God himself. God would forgive them and change their hearts (Hebrews 8:7-13).

Covenant with Israel

Many people are surprised to find that the Ten Commandments were given to Israel, and not to the rest of the world. It is just commonly assumed among many Christians that the “Big Ten” were designed for all humans and especially for Christians. But the Bible is very plain about who are the recipients of the Sinai law.

The last verse of the book of Leviticus sums it up this way: “These are the commandments the Lord gave Moses on Mount Sinai for the Israelites” (Leviticus 27:34). Verse 46 of the previous chapter gives the same basic information: “These are the decrees, the laws and the regulations that the Lord established on Mount Sinai between himself and the Israelites through Moses.”

These are definitely the commandments of God. But who are they for? They are for the Israelites, given to them by God through Moses on Mount Sinai. They are Israel’s part of the covenant God made with them.

Covenant promise

In passages such as Deuteronomy 29:22-28 and 32:45-46 we find that the primary promise associated with God’s covenant with ancient Israel was a promise of land. If Israel would keep the covenant, they would remain long in the land; if they abandoned the covenant, then they would lose the land.

Someone might ask: “But aren’t the Ten Commandments separate from the covenant? Why are you including them in the covenant?” Deuteronomy 4:13 gives the answer. As he was reminding the Israelites of the events of Sinai, Moses said, “He declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets.”

The passage in Deuteronomy 5:1-6 also makes plain that the Ten Commandments and the covenant are not separate. Far from being separate from the covenant, the Ten Commandments form the centerpiece of the covenant.

Created to fade

In 2 Corinthians 3:6-11, Paul draws an analogy between the covenant with Israel, written on tables of stone, and the covenant with believers, written on human hearts. He wrote:

He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone [in reference to the Ten Commandments], came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!

What God did with the ancient Israelites was glorious. But God was not finished. From day one, he had even greater glory in mind.

Right on schedule

When the time was right, God brought in something even more glorious, so much more glorious that it causes what he did with Israel to look faded by comparison. That is because this new arrangement, which is really just the blossoming, or goal, or climax, or fulfillment of the first arrangement, takes into it all that the first arrangement was and goes exponentially further. It becomes everything the first arrangement pointed toward but was purposely designed only to hint at.

Think of a tiny, hard gray seed that one day, when the time is right, produces a beautiful flower of radiant color, velvet texture and sweet fragrance, and you begin to get something of the idea. This “new covenant” started out as what we call the “old covenant.” You could, in a way, say there is only one covenant, really, but that it grew into something that anyone looking at it when it started could never have imagined it would become. Only God knew exactly where it was headed, and he kept talking about it all through what we call the Old Testament.

A superior covenant

The book of Hebrews gives us even more insight into this new arrangement. Here we are told, “But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6).

This new covenant, or this blossoming of the old, is superior and comes with better promises. The promises that came with the first covenant were promises of land. But the superior promises that come with this superior covenant are no less than eternal life. The basis of this new arrangement is nothing less than the blood of the Son of God—something the old arrangement could not even imagine. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).

God knew from the start that the people did not have it in them to be a holy people. But they didn’t know that. And in order for people to enter the kingdom of God, they must know their weakness and learn to rely totally on the grace and mercy of God.

To come to Christ is to come to know that you need Christ. You may look good on the outside, but on the inside you, like all other people, are a sinner. The law of Moses, given at Sinai, served to openly condemn everybody as just what they really were in their hearts—rebels and sinners. But then Christ came, and the Sinai law, having served its purpose, faded, and Christ began to shine with eternal light.

The law: good, but temporary

So if the law faded, does that mean the law is bad? Definitely not, Paul says. The law is holy, righteous and good (Romans 7:12). But the law was temporary (2 Corinthians 3:11). It had a role to play, a role given it by God. It was in effect for a specific period of time for a specific people. When Christ came, it was God’s appointed time for the Sinai law to step aside. “Christ is the end of the law,” Paul wrote, “so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4).

When we say that Christ is the end of the law, we don’t mean that the Sinai law was a bad thing that Christ came to destroy. That is not the point Paul is making. Paul is making the point that God gave the Sinai law for a specific time period for a specific purpose, and that purpose has now been fulfilled. He is saying that the law was part of God’s way of setting the stage for Christ to come. Now that Christ has come, the purpose of the law has been fully served.

Designed for condemnation

But what was the purpose of the Sinai law? Paul says the law came in so that sin could be made all the more evident (Romans 5:20). In other words, God gave the law so that it could be made fully clear to everyone that his people were sinners. But that is not all. The gentiles, who did not have the law, were also shown to be sinners by their own hearts and consciences on which God writes the requirements of the law (Romans 3:14-15).

Two things were going on at the same time with the law. First, it was through the law that God made his will known to the people he chose. Second, and greater, along with the law as well as in it, God made his promise known.

God knew that Israel, despite the unique advantage of being his special people, would show themselves hostile and rebellious to his will. (The same would have been true of any nation God might have chosen to be his people.) God also knew his own promise of a grace to come, a promise that was greater than the law in that it overcame the verdict of the law.

The promise fulfilled

The law condemned, but the promise, being greater, brought about forgiveness and reconciliation through Christ, who died in the place of sinners (Romans 5:15-17). God himself, in Christ, bears the shame and death of humans resulting from their rebellion and unfaithfulness, as well as provides the obedience and faithfulness they need to be forgiven and saved.

In Christ, God makes it abundantly known that he is not the God of Israel only, but the God of all humans. The barriers of separation between Israel and gentiles are removed in Christ: both are clearly sinners and both are clearly redeemed. There is no more separation (Ephesians 2:11-18). And since there is no more separation, there is also no more need for the aspects of the law that were designed to create separation: circumcision, the Sabbaths and the purity laws.

Laws of separation

Paul frequently deals with circumcision, and especially so in his letter to the Galatians. In Galatians 5:3, he points out that when gentiles are circumcised in accord with the law, they are obligated to obey all of the law. That is because circumcision was a sign of the covenant between God and Israel.

Likewise, the Sabbath was a sign between God and Israel (Exodus 31:13). The very fact that the Sabbath was a sign designating that Israel was God’s special people shows that the Sabbath was not a command for to gentiles. Gentiles were not sinners for working on the Sabbath; the Sabbath never pertained to them. They were sinners because of malice, deceit, bitterness, murder, destruction and the like (Romans 3:9-20).

The same is true of the purity laws. They were given to demonstrate the separation between Israel and the gentiles (Leviticus 20:25-26), a separation that existed only until Jesus came.

That is why there was so much controversy in the early church over rules governing the Jews and gentiles eating together. Not only were the Jews under the strict dietary and washings rules of the law, they would not even eat with gentiles in order to avoid ritual contamination. It was over this issue of separation regarding purity laws that Paul rebuked Peter in the meal incident in Antioch (Galatians 2:11-16).

The law and the Spirit

So where does that leave us? We are not under the Sinai law (Romans 6:14). Does that mean that we ought to sin? No, of course not, Paul says (v. 15). We have now been made one with Christ. We are now under his law (1 Corinthians 9:20-21), and we serve God in a new way—the way of the Spirit (Romans 7:4-6).

In chapter 2 we look at the relationship between the law and the Spirit.


1 God’s covenants with humans in the Old Testament include that of Noah (Genesis 9:9-17), of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 15:18; 17:2-21; etc.), of Israel at Sinai (Exodus 19:5; 24:7), of Joshua and Israel (Joshua 24:25), of David (2 Samuel 7:1-17), and the prophesied covenant to come (Jeremiah 31:31).

Author: J. Michael Feazell

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