Old Testament Laws: The Covenants and the Sabbath: The Biblical Evidence

Are Christians obligated to keep the Sabbath rest law of Exodus 20:8-11? Some Christians believe that the Sabbath must be observed because this law appears in the Ten Commandments. Is this true?

We can answer this question by taking a broad look, not just at the Ten Commandments, but at the entire old and new covenants. As we shall see, the covenants tell a fascinating story about the history and purpose of the Sabbath rest command. More than this, by looking at the sweep of God’s dealings with the human race from the beginning until the completion of Jesus’ redemptive work and the creation of the church, the purpose of the entire Law of Moses—including the Ten Commandments—will become clear. Let’s explore what Scripture says about the covenants.

God first made a general covenant pledge in the presence of Adam and Eve, promising that evil—personified by the devil—would be destroyed (Genesis 3:15). This was the first covenant between humans and God after “the Fall.” Despite the fact that humans had sinned and had become fallen creatures, they now had a promise that a Savior would, in the future, crush and destroy the evil that held them prisoner.

Later, God also made a covenant with humanity through Noah. “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you,” God told this patriarch (Genesis 9:8). It was an everlasting covenant that promised saving grace, in a physical sense, to all people.

Still later, God made a covenant with Abraham, and this one becomes the crux of both the old and the new covenants. Most of the Abrahamic covenant concerns a promise that the descendants of Abraham would be a people of God and be given a land (Genesis 15:31-2117:3-8). There was also a promise in this covenant that through Abraham’s offspring or “seed” all the nations on earth would be blessed (Genesis 22:18).

The apostle Paul understood this “seed” to refer to Christ (Galatians 3:15-1619). Abraham was given a promise of God’s salvific intention in the world. A Savior would come who would rescue humanity. This was a promise of the “new” covenant given some 430 years before the “old” covenant was introduced! This is the point Paul argued in the book of Galatians.

There is an interesting aspect to the covenant God made with Abraham. It would have an unusual reminder or sign—that of the physical circumcision of males. We read the following in Genesis 17:9:

Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you…. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

About 430 years after the covenant was made with Abraham, the descendants born to his son Jacob or Israel were rescued by God from the land of Egypt. God brought his people into the Sinai desert and made a covenant with them. The original terms of this covenant extend from Exodus 20:1 to 23:32. Chapter 24 of Exodus details the ratification of this covenant. The people said, “Everything the Lord has said we will do” (verse 24).

What the Lord had said so far was that Israel was to keep the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20); follow certain laws regarding Hebrew slaves (Exodus 21:1-11); obey guidelines set down for personal injuries (Exodus 21:12-36); provide protection of property, including against theft (Exodus 22:1-15). The covenant also had regulations about fornication, sorcery, sexual relations with animals, idolatry, treatment of aliens, protection of widows and orphans, lending, blasphemy and other laws relating to justice and mercy (Exodus 22:16-23:13). The covenant also mandated for Israel the observance of the annual festivals in three seasons (Exodus 23:14-19).

This was what we may call a “package deal.” All the laws from Exodus 20:1 through 23:32 were a singular law system so far as the old covenant is concerned. They were all part of the same covenant.

God also described his part of the covenant. He would guide Israel into the Promised Land, take away illness from the nation, give people a full life span, and destroy their enemies (Exodus 23:20-33). This formed the old covenant between God and the people of Israel. The terms of the covenant became a book, a legal code, we might say. Moses “took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people” (Exodus 24:7). The people responded by saying: “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey” (verse 7). After which, the Lord told Moses to come up to the mountain and he would give him “tablets of stone, with the law and commands I have written for their instruction” (verse 12).

We should notice several important things about this “old” covenant. It includes not just the Ten Commandments but all the laws and regulations described in Exodus 20-23. All the laws are said to be “spoken” by the Lord, because he did, indeed, speak them. What happened was that after God began to speak directly to the people of Israel, they became so fearful of the magnificent theophany shaking Mt. Sinai that they begged Moses to speak to them in God’s place (Exodus 20:18-21). God agreed to their wishes. After that, he spoke his laws to Moses, and he passed them on to the people. But they were all equally God’s laws, and all were spoken by him.

There is only one law

There is no legal difference between the Ten Commandments and the rest of the covenantal law. They stand together as the basis of the old covenant to Israel. The law that mandated the delivery of first-born animals to God and leaving the land idle in the seventh year was just as important as the law of Sabbath rest or the law against adultery, in terms of the covenant. They were all, equally, part of the old covenant.

As noted above, the laws of the covenant as well as God’s promises were first written in a “book” or scroll. It contained all the laws in Exodus 20-23, and this entire book was the basis of the covenant. Moses had not yet gone up to the mountain to have these regulations written on tablets of stone.

As we progress through the first five books of the Jewish Holy Scriptures, we see that more laws were progressively added to the covenant. Other laws were further expounded, amplified and clarified. For example, Exodus 25 through 30 provides regulations for the building and ceremonies of the old covenant tabernacle. The tabernacle pattern and furniture were later transferred to the temple in Jerusalem. The temple worship system became the center of Jewish religious life. We see many references to this in the New Testament. The book of Hebrews, in particular, deals with the passing away of the Levitical priesthood and Jewish temple life. Jesus becomes the heavenly High Priest in the real temple.

We also learn in Exodus that, like circumcision, the Sabbaths—plural—served as a sign of the covenant between God and Israel. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Say to the Israelites, “You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come”’” (Exodus 31:12). God told Moses that the weekly Sabbath was a sign of the old covenant: “It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever” (verse 17). God finished speaking and wrote the laws of the covenant on two tablets of stone.

We should note some interesting facts here. Both the annual Sabbaths and the weekly Sabbath served as a sign of the covenant between God and Israel. Further, the sign and the covenant created a relationship between Israel and God, not between all people of the earth and God. Also, we should note that, like circumcision, the annual and weekly Sabbath sign was to remain between Israel and God “forever.” That means, since circumcision could be ended as a physical requirement for Christians (the spiritual children of Abraham), it is possible that the physical demands of Sabbath-keeping and festival observance could also be ended.

With Moses on Mount Sinai, there follows a historical interlude in Exodus that deals with the incident of the golden calf. This causes Moses, when he returns to the camp, to break the tablets containing the words of God. Moses then must go back to the mountain so God can “write on them the words that were on the first tablets” (Exodus 34:1). On the mountain, God reiterates his intent to make a covenant with his people Israel (verse 10). He also repeats in an abbreviated form many of the regulations of the old covenant. (See Exodus 34:17-26.)

Most of the remaining chapters of Exodus are taken up with the making of the tabernacle and its parts, and the construction of its furniture and the priestly garments. This relates to the center of Israel’s religious life at the tabernacle, and later at the Jerusalem temple. Leviticus continues this theme by describing various offerings (Leviticus 1-7). The ninth chapter describes the priests beginning their ministry.

Laws relating to the functions of the Levitical priesthood and the temple worship service are important because almost all of Israel’s religious life was centered on these two realities. For example, the festivals were to be kept “in the place he [God] will choose as a dwelling for his Name” (Deuteronomy 16:51116). Eventually, the place God chose was Jerusalem. This means that if the temple was destroyed or the priesthood supplanted, it would be impossible to fulfill God’s demands regarding festival observance.

Leviticus 11 lists clean and unclean living creatures. Chapters 12-15 continue the theme of “clean and unclean” with a discussion of purification after childhood, regulations about infectious skin diseases, the ritual cleansing after these diseases, and discharges causing uncleanness. The food laws of Leviticus 11 are but one part of an entire array of regulations regarding matters of ritual purification and cleanliness that Israel was to follow. We again observe that all the laws of the Mosaic Law are part of a greater whole, and they stand together.

Leviticus 16 details the Day of Atonement ritual. Chapters 17 through 19 mention various other covenantal laws that Israel was to follow, including specific laws about unlawful sexual relations. Over 20 laws are stated as “do nots” in chapter 19, and some others are stated in a positive way. This includes admonitions to do everything from keeping the annual Sabbaths (verse 3) to not holding back overnight the wages of a hired man (verse 13).

The two “great commandments”

Buried in these “do’s and don’ts” is one of the two most important and basic laws of both old and new covenants. It is simple: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). When asked about the “greatest commandment” of the Jewish Scriptures, Jesus said:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it; “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37-40)

Here we have the astounding assertion that everything in the Law of Moses and the Prophets does not hang on the Ten Commandments, as most people erroneously assume. It hangs on two inconspicuous statements inserted in two widely separated parts of the Law of Moses! (The “greatest commandment” is found in Deuteronomy 6:5.) The popular preoccupation with the Ten Commandments is somewhat misguided. The essence of the Law of Moses is not in the Ten but in two simple statements in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

Going back to Leviticus 19, Israel is told: “Observe my Sabbaths and have reverence for my sanctuary. I am the Lord” (verse 30). The sanctuary was first found in the moveable tabernacle and later in the temple. Consider the following. If God would allow the sanctuary to be destroyed and thus to end the ministry of the Levitical priesthood, he could also allow an end to the observance of his Sabbaths. The book of Hebrews speaks to this. It says that in God’s purpose, the entire old covenant religious system was ended by Jesus’ redemptive work.

Leviticus 20-26:3 lists further regulations that Israel was to keep as part of its covenant with God. These included everything from avoiding adultery to rules for priestly function to guidelines for keeping the seven annual festivals and the year of Jubilee. This section contains some familiar commandments discussed earlier as well as some new ones. We see a progression or further amplification of covenantal regulations, as well as the adding of more stipulations. Like a progressive code of law, the terms of the covenant increase. But they still form a single body of law applied to a specific nation, Israel.

Leviticus 26 begins with God telling Israel what he will do in exchange for Israel’s obedience to all the commands that have so far been described. He begins his list of promises by saying, “If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will…” (verse 3). God also details the curses that will follow if Israel fails to obey God.

The “Book of the Law” we have so far looked at ends with the statement: “These are the decrees, the laws and the regulations that the Lord established on Mount Sinai between himself and the Israelites through Moses” (verse 46). The entire regulatory system, as it is now described, must be seen as a unit—as a single law given from Mount Sinai. All its component parts and laws stand together. If Israel sins in one point, the nation is guilty in all points. All the laws given so far are equally the laws of the Lord.

Numbers 1 begins one year after Israel left Egypt (verse 1). The material refers to events during the years of Israel’s wanderings. There are also discussions of the various laws of the covenant in the context of specific situations. Some new material is added, but most of this book is not pertinent to our purposes.

The law restated in Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy takes place near the end of Israel’s 40 years of wandering (1:3). This book gives us a restatement of the laws of the covenant. Moses says, “Hear now, O Israel, the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you” (Deuteronomy 4:1).

The restatement of the law of the covenant begins in chapter 5 with a review of the Ten Commandments. Here we learn why Israel was to keep the Sabbath holy by resting from work. Moses says to Israel: “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” (verse 15).

The Sabbath was for Israel, so that they could remember being saved from servitude in Egypt, where they had no rest. For them, the Sabbath did not look ahead to Christ so much as it looked backward to Israel’s rescue from Egypt. We can see why the physical Sabbath rest is not for Christians, whose rescue and “rest” is a spiritual one. In Christ, we rest from the slavery of sin, and not from physical labor in a condition of national slavery.

In Egypt, the people had no rest from their labors (Exodus 1:11-14). God brought them to a land “flowing with milk and honey” so they could enjoy the fruit of their labor. There, they were to remember that God was the source of their prosperity and ease. Parents were to teach their children this central aspect of God’s saving grace to Israel, that he had brought them out of bondage and slavery in Egypt (Exodus 13:14). For Israel, the Sabbath was a sign of the covenant in that it reminded them that God was the source of their liberation and happy prosperity.

We saw in Exodus 24:12 that the tablets of stone contained the “laws and commands” that were written by God for Israel’s instruction. In Deuteronomy there is further explanation. Moses recounts that the tablets were to contain “all the commandments the Lord proclaimed to you on the mountain out of the fire, on the day of the assembly” (9:10). In chapter 10, Moses refers to the material on the tablets as “the Ten Commandments” (verse 4).

No matter how much was written on the tablets, the fact is that all the laws of Exodus 20-23form the regulatory code of the old covenant in its original form. Later, the new and amplified laws of the other parts of the Law of Moses become part of the legal code system of Israel. This was not a one-law or a ten-law covenant – the covenant contained hundreds of regulations.

Deuteronomy 12 through 26:15 also becomes part of this legal code of the old covenant. There are many familiar laws, amplified or put in another context. There are also some new items. Moses restated the fact that Israel had a covenant with God, based on the law system that the nation had promised to uphold:

You have declared this day that the Lord is your God and that you will walk in his ways, that you will keep his decrees, commands and laws, and that you will obey him. And the Lord has declared this day that you are his people, his treasured possession as he promised, and that you are to keep all his commands. (Deuteronomy 26:17-18)

Israel, if it follows the commands of the covenant, will be “high above all the nations” and a “people holy to the Lord” (verse 19). But Israel must keep all of God’s commandments as though they were one unit. Both Paul and James understand the Law in this sense (James 2:10-11Galatians 3:10). This becomes like a final covenant promise (Deuteronomy 29:1).

The people are commanded to set up large stones in the Promised Land. They are to write on these stones “all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 27:2-38). Before they enter the land, curses are pronounced on evildoers. In chapter 28, blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience are restated, as they were in Leviticus 26.

The last chapters of Deuteronomy highlight this final covenant ratification and its implication for the Israelites. The nation is to “carefully follow the terms of this covenant” so the people can prosper in all that they do (Deuteronomy 29:9). The covenant is a fulfillment of the promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and it applies to all the descendants of Israel (verses 12-14). Torah or the Law of Moses becomes the covenantal “Book of the Law” for the nation (verse 21).

All or nothing

This detailed summary of the old covenant legal system is meant to help us understand the conditions under which the Sabbath day and the other Mosaic legal requirements apply. The entire law code described in Exodus 20 through the end of Deuteronomy is the basis of the old covenant—not just a single law, or a few laws found therein.

All the laws are of equal importance in a covenantal context. If a person sins by breaking one law, then such a person is “guilty” of breaking the covenant itself. Since all the laws are equally part of the same covenant, we cannot use the old covenant to “prove” any particular law while admitting that some of its other laws are obsolete. Since the covenant is obsolete, a different authority is needed to prove any particular law. We cannot pick and choose without having another authority to tell us what to pick.

But if we are considering the force of the old covenant, the point has to be made that no law of that covenant is isolated as of special significance. No grouping of laws—like the Ten Commandments—is more important than any other grouping. No individual law—such as the weekly Sabbath—is more important than another. This is seen in the fact that the two “greatest laws” of Torah are not singled out or emphasized in any way. They are barely visible in the contexts in which they appear in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

The question to be solved in terms of the application of the Law of Moses is not whether a specific law might apply to Christians. The covenant, composed of God’s promises and Israel’s agreement to uphold Torah, is a unit. One cannot say that one or a few laws of the old covenant Book of the Law—such as Sabbath, Festivals, food laws, strict tithing—apply to Christians. Either the old covenant as a covenant (or the Book of the Law as a single law code) applies to Christians in entirety, or none of it applies. The package is valid, or it is not.

All arguments to try to “prove” that the rest command of the Sabbath as an individual law must be observed or certain foods avoided, for example, are faulty arguments. These claims must be tested against one fundamental question: Must Christians obey the old covenant legal system in its totality—all 613 laws contained in that system—or none of it?

However, there are eternal, “spiritual laws” that govern relationships between humans and between humans and God. These laws governed relationships before the Mosaic Law was enacted. They were included in the Law of Moses, but their validity does not rest on the old covenant. They therefore they continue to govern human conduct after the annulment of the old covenant. The commandment to love God above all else would be a prime example of such a law (Deuteronomy 6:5).

These “spiritual laws” are incorporated into the new covenant “Law of Christ,” and are expounded in the New Testament. (See below, “Sin and virtue lists” and “Mosaic Law unnecessary,” for further details.) Thus, we come back to the fundamental question: Are Christians obligated to keep the entire Mosaic legal system or not?

The New Testament evidence

Let us now look at the New Testament witness to these matters. By Jesus’ day, the covenantal literature of Israel included not only the Law of Moses but also the Prophets and Writings. These were the Holy Scriptures of the Jews, or the Christian Old Testament. This body of writing is sometimes called the “Law, Prophets and Psalms” (Luke 24:44). At other times it is referred to by the term “Law and Prophets” (Matthew 5:17), or simply “the Law” (John 15:25).

The books of Exodus through Deuteronomy (along with the circumcision law in Genesis) constituted the basis of the covenantal law between God and Israel. This part of Scripture was called the Law of Moses, or referred to as the law that “Moses gave” (John 7:1922-23). All the laws and commentary in the books of Moses are part of the same cloth.

We come now to the dawning of new covenant times with the arrival and work of Jesus. The first thing we notice is that the Jews were surprised by Jesus. He was not a conquering Messiah, as most had expected him to be. (Perhaps the Maccabees of two centuries earlier had fixed the idea of a warrior Messiah in Jewish expectation.) Jesus seemed to speak of a somewhat different sort of redemptive work than was expected. Jesus said he would die for the sins of the people. He would not redeem people simply because they had the Law of Moses and appeared to obey it, nor would he save people because they were born as Israelites.

Jesus seemed to imply that the most pious of the people—the religious leaders—were not the best candidates for the kingdom of God (Matthew 23). To all appearances, the Pharisees and others loved God and would be among the vanguard of a people called to follow the Messiah to victory over the enemies of Israel. Surely, they would have the best positions in the kingdom of God by reason of their zealousness for Torah. But Jesus was said that this idea was wrong. The kingdom would be taken away from them and given to others (Matthew 21:43-46).

God sent Jesus to create a new people from all nations through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Further, he was not at that time interested in creating a powerful political unit that would, in effect, rule the world. Jesus would save eternally those who put their faith and trust in him as Savior (John 3:16). This became the new covenant in Jesus’ blood. He was bringing and offering a different covenant from the old covenant – one that had been planned all along, but now unveiled in Jesus.

However, Jesus made it clear that he was not out to abolish what the Hebrew Scriptures stood for. Jesus said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).

The Jewish Scriptures pointed to Jesus and his redeeming work, and were fulfilled in his work (Luke 24:25-2744John 5:39-47). Jesus was the object of the Law and Prophets, as even Moses had said: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him” (Deuteronomy 18:15). Jesus pointed out that a greater law—we can call it the “law of Christ”—should govern human thought and actions. He made his point by contrasting what the Law of Moses said (“You have heard that it was said…”) with what he now said (“But I tell you…”). See Matthew 5:21-48 for six examples.

During his earthly ministry, Jesus told his hearers to obey the Law of Moses. He said to a man he healed of leprosy: “Go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing” (Luke 5:14). Jesus worshipped at and upheld the sanctity of the temple (Matthew 12-13). He told his disciples and the Jewish people to obey the teachers of the
law and the Pharisees, who he said sat “in Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:1). Naturally, these individuals would have taught obedience to the Law of Moses.

Jesus told his disciples to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, upholding the notion of Israel as the special people of God. Jesus came as a Jew to Israel as the covenant people of God. “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him,” said John (John 1:11).

But since Jesus worked in an old covenant context, we cannot say that his remarks about a particular Mosaic law means that one of its isolated commandments—like the Sabbath, or festivals or food laws—must be kept by Christians. Jesus commanded sacrifices, obedience to the religious leaders who would be teaching all of the Law of Moses, and temple worship. Before his crucifixion, he upheld the notion of a national covenant people. If we say that Jesus’ remarks in the Gospels tell Christians to keep the Sabbath rest commandment, then we must accept all of the commandments of the Law of Moses as being binding, including physical circumcision. He upheld them all, before his crucifixion. Clearly, something else is in view in Jesus’ remarks about the Law, the Sabbath or some other Mosaic regulation or promise.

Jesus did not change anything in terms of old covenant worship until his redemptive work was accomplished. However, he did imply during his ministry that things would change in the future. The kingdom of God was to be taken away from those who represented the Law of Moses and “given to a people who will produce its fruit” (Matthew 21:43). The people of God would no longer worship at the temple in Jerusalem, but they would worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:21-24).

After his resurrection, Jesus told the disciples that rather than limiting their evangelizing work to Israel, as he had counseled during his lifetime, they must go to all the world (Acts 1:8). Shortly thereafter, Peter learned through a vision that the feared and hated Gentiles were also being
called to be among the people of God (Acts 10:9-15). A new age of the Spirit had begun. A new covenant had come into force.

The church began on the day of Pentecost in the year that Jesus was crucified and resurrected. At first it was composed almost entirely of Jews. Even Pharisees and priests were converted to the faith (Acts 6:715:5). But many of these people were still zealous for the Law of Moses (Acts 21:20). This caused a problem for the church.

Many Jewish Christians did not see clearly that the new covenant had supplanted the old, and that this had profoundly impacted the authority of the Law of Moses and Israel’s religious system. For example, these former Jewish religious leaders still viewed physical circumcision as a sign between God and his people. They saw the Law of Moses as a binding legal document for anyone who wanted to become part of this people.

That is why in Acts 15 the believers of the party of the Pharisees claimed: “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses” (emphasis ours, verse 5). They didn’t say,  Gentiles must keep the Sabbath or the food laws or some other singular law of the Mosaic system. Rather, the Pharisees said “obey the law of Moses.” The Jews understood that the entire Law of Moses was a unit—and that the authority of this law as a complete and unified legal compact in the Gentile Christian life was the issue.

They knew that the old covenant did not apply to Gentiles. It was only for Israel. Gentiles were to follow a more generalized law called the “Noachian Laws.” But if any Gentile wanted to become part of the people of Israel—that is, to become a “full Jew”—he or she would be obligated to keep the Law of Moses. The Jewish Christians probably reasoned from this principle that in order to become a part of God’s spiritual people, Gentiles must first become God’s physical people by keeping the Law of Moses. It was easy to reason that way because most Jews apparently thought of the Christians—at least in the early years—as simply members of another Jewish sect. The only difference was that Christians had accepted Jesus as Messiah.

Thus, religious Jews who had been converted to Christianity were implying that for Gentiles to be part of God’s people, they would have to be circumcised and keep all 613 laws of the Law of Moses. The issue of contention was not a specific law such as Sabbath-keeping, but the Law of Moses in its entirety. (The argument in Acts 15 wasn’t over Sabbath or festival observance, but over the full Mosaic Law.)

The issue of the role of the Law of Moses in the lives of Gentile Christians became more troublesome as more Gentiles became converted. This led to the convening of the historic council of Acts 15 around AD 50 to consider this important matter. It became clear to the assembled elders and apostles that Gentiles had been called and converted apart from any obedience to the regulations of the Law of Moses. The assembly concluded that Gentiles did not need to keep the commandments of the Law of Moses or be circumcised. They did not need to keep the Sabbath, nor the food laws, nor tithing, nor the annual festivals. This explains why no separate law, such as Sabbath-keeping, was discussed. The entire Law of Moses, and its accompanying religious institutions, were seen to be passé, or obsolete.

This was conveyed to the Gentile churches in an apostolic letter mentioned in Acts 15. Gentiles were asked to hold to only four regulations that could be said to be Mosaic: abstention from the meat of strangled animals, from food polluted by idols, from blood and from sexual immorality (Acts 15:19-2029). Naturally, all Christians would have been commanded to avoid sexual immorality. The three other regulations had to do with foods, and may have been enjoined on Gentiles so that they would not offend the sensibilities of Jewish Christians, or unconverted Jews in the synagogues. Both Jewish Christians and, in many cases, Gentile Christians would be attending the Jewish synagogue, and it was important not to bring offense. The church wanted to keep in the good graces of the Jewish religious community and to keep peace between the church and the synagogue.

But, even here, Paul later seemed to rescind, under special circumstances, the regulation against eating meat that had been offered to idols (1 Corinthians 8:4-13). The reason the Acts 15 council imposed a ban on eating meat offered to idols in pagan ceremonies, and later sold in the meat markets, had to do with conscience only. Eating such meat would greatly offend Christian Jews who still believed that idolatry made the meat sinful. The reasoning was, why make trouble over something inconsequential in terms of the gospel message? The ban on such foods had nothing to do with any lingering authority of the Law of Moses upon Gentile Christians, as the council had decided it had no such authority.

The Galatians controversy

Nonetheless, the question of whether Gentile Christians should keep the Law of Moses continued to be a controversy within the church. The pressure to have Gentiles be circumcised and follow the Mosaic Law came from converted Jews or Judaizers. We can see this controversy in full bloom in the book of Galatians.

In this very strong letter, Paul brands this idea as a “different gospel,” which was really a perversion of the true gospel (Galatians 1:1-7). Paul makes several points about this issue. He says Christians cannot be justified by observing the Law of Moses and righteousness cannot be gained through its observance (Galatians 2:1621). Those who look to the Law of Moses as their spiritual authority, even though they may “believe” in Christ, are still in bondage (Galatians 4:21-31).

In fact, those who preach that observing the Mosaic Law is necessary are under a curse, said Paul. He referred to the Scripture that says, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law” (Galatians 3:10). This point is obvious from our panoramic view of the law material in the books from Exodus through Deuteronomy. We cannot pick and choose which specific law (such as Sabbath-keeping) we think should be obeyed. It’s an all-or-nothing situation.

Paul says: “I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law” (Galatians 5:3). We can write in any Mosaic law in the place of the word circumcised”—such as Sabbath-keeping—with the same conclusion. If a person feels obligated to keep the Sabbath, then logic says that the person should keep all the laws of Moses, because the only place that the Sabbath is commanded is in the law of Moses. If it is still valid for the Sabbath law, it is valid for the other laws, too.

What had occurred at least since the period of the Maccabees is that the Jews had emphasized several laws from the Mosaic Law as “boundary marker” practices. These distinguished Jews from Gentiles and kept the Jews separate and “pure.” Among these boundary marker beliefs were circumcision, the food laws of Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, the keeping of the Sabbath and the observance of the holy days.

Except for circumcision, we can see the interesting parallel between the Judaizing Christians of the apostolic church and people who still teach that Christians should observe the seventh-day Sabbath and annual holy days. For a thorough discussion of how the Jews had adopted “boundary marker” practices from the Law of Moses as a litmus test of being a part of the “in” group—that is, a part of the people of God—see the book Jesus, Paul, and the Law, by James D.G. Dunn.

The biblical book that most thoroughly deals with the abrogation of the Law of Moses and the old covenant religious system is Hebrews. It begins with a defense of Jesus as the high priest of God’s people (3:1). This implies that the authority of the Aaronic high priest of the Mosaic covenant, who stood as the representative between God and Israel, had been superseded by Jesus. As the mediator of the old covenant, Moses was great, but Jesus is greater. (John 5:39-46 with Hebrews 3:4-6).

The Sabbath as metaphor

In Christ, the physical Sabbath rest is seen to be a metaphor for the spiritual rest of salvation that God’s people now have (4:1-11). However, it’s not that the Sabbath rest commandment was “changed” and that we keep the Sabbath as “holy time” in terms of “a spiritual rest.” The Sabbath is a symbol for Christians, in the same way that other elements of the Mosaic institution are symbols. We can look at other old covenant practices and institutions (such as the high priest’s office, burnt offerings, dwelling in tents during the Festival of Tabernacles), and see metaphorical meanings that symbolize aspects of Jesus’ redemptive work. That’s what the Mosaic Law points to, is fulfilled in and is superseded by that work. Those old covenant laws are instructive as symbols and metaphors, but they are not valid as laws about Christian behavior.

We can see the same principle at work in physical circumcision. For new covenant Christians, it serves only as a metaphor of the fact that we are cleansed of our sins and have a new birth in Christ. “Circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code,” Paul
wrote in Romans 2:29.

In the same way, Hebrews 4 tells us that Sabbath-keeping is of the spirit. It points to the salvation rest we have in Christ. The physical Sabbath rest command is not performed by Christians in the way it was specified in the old covenant written code, the Law of Moses.

Hebrews explains that the entire system of the old covenant law as carried out by the high priest and the Levitical priesthood has come to an end. Another High Priest, Jesus, has come in the order of Melchizedek (7:1-11). This necessitates a change in the law (verse 12). “The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God” (verses 18-19). This better hope is the new covenant, which provides the indwelling Holy Spirit, and with it comes salvation. Those who are saved under the new covenant are not obligated to obey the Law of Moses, but to obey the “law of Christ.”

However, some people object to the idea that the Mosaic Law (which includes the Ten Commandments) is “done away.” They retort, “Well, then, does that mean we can kill, steal or commit adultery?” Of course not. No Christian would teach or believe such an absurdity.

Let’s pose the question another way to show it has no validity: “If the Law of Moses is done away, does this mean we don’t have to love God and our neighbor?” Obviously, Christians continue to love God and neighbor—and they do not break any of the spiritual principles found throughout the Mosaic Law—because that is the Christian thing to do—and it is what the New Testament clearly tells us to do. But this obedience is based on the law of Christ, not the Law of Moses. People were supposed to love God and neighbor from the very beginning of creation. The old covenant included those two laws, but it did not begin them, and the law of love therefore did not end when the old covenant ended.

Sin and virtue lists

The idea that any Christian church would teach that we can sin because the Law of Moses has been “done away” is preposterous. What has happened for Christians is that the Law of Moses has been replaced by the law of Christ. (That is one aspect of the Christian becoming a “slave” to Christ.)

For anyone willing to look at the facts, and to think in terms of the New Testament witness as a whole, it spells out clearly how Christians are to live. A quick look at one or more of the so-called “sin lists” or “virtue lists” in the New Testament should dispel the notion that Christians can sin because the old covenant Law of Moses has been “done away.”

(See the following lists as examples—Matthew 5:3-11Galatians 5:22-23Ephesians 4:326:14-20Philippians 4:81 Timothy 3:2-13Titus 1:6-9Mark 7:21-22Romans 1:29-3213:8-14Galatians 5:19-211 Corinthians 5:9-116:9-10Ephesians 4:25-315:3-5Colossians 3:5-92 Timothy 3:1-5.)

Let us briefly refer to one of them. Galatians 5:13-25 shows the new covenant “law of Christ,” though it doesn’t label it with that particular terminology. Paul begins by saying that Christians should keep the second great law of God: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (5:14). He points out that if we live by the indwelling Holy Spirit, we will “not gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (5:16). Paul points out the kinds of sins Christians under the “law of Christ” will avoid. This includes everything from sexual immorality to idolatry to drunkenness to selfish ambition.

Paul next points out some fruits of the Holy Spirit. These include love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Christians will have crucified the sinful nature itself, not only sinful acts, through the indwelling Holy Spirit.

Mosaic Law unnecessary

Christians do not need the Law of Moses, including the Ten Commandments, as a direction for their lives. They know what they must do to obey God from the New Testament witness. Christians also do not need the Mosaic Law as a “tutor,” because they have the indwelling Holy Spirit as their Paraclete or Counselor—whom Jesus sent. He is with them forever (John 14:15-21 with Galatians 3:23-25).

In Romans 7:1 Paul points out that the Law of Moses has authority over a person “only as long as he lives.” (Of course, it had authority only over the Jewish person; Paul is writing to Jews at this point.) He uses the example of a married woman who was bound to her husband while the
husband was alive. When he died, she was free. Even though she remarried, she was not called an adulteress.

Paul uses this analogy to point out that Christians have died to the Law of Moses (which includes the package called the Ten Commandments) “through the body of Christ” (Romans 7:4). They now belong to another—to the risen Christ. “We have been released from the law,” says Paul, “so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code” (verse 6). If Paul could say this to Jews, how much more would it apply to Gentiles, who were never under the written code of the Law of Moses to begin with!

Many more things could be said about these matters from New Testament Scripture. The above discussion, however, should make it evident that Christians are not required to keep the Law of Moses (including the Ten Commandments). Sabbatarians cannot “pick and choose” a few boundary marker observances such as Sabbath-keeping and insist Christians must keep them. But Christians are not in some lawless limbo as a result of not being obligated to the Law of Moses. They have the New Testament “law of Christ” and the Holy Spirit to guide them.

Author: Paul Kroll


Help us provide more content like this by giving today