Many Christians believe that when the Old Covenant of the Old Testament gave way to the New Covenant of the New Testament, Old Covenant law became obsolete2 and therefore literal Sabbath observance as it is actually expressed in the fourth commandment is no longer relevant.
This approach has been adopted by a broad spectrum of Christians, from those who hold that Christians are not bound to keep any particular day3 to those who slide aspects of the Old Testament Sabbath over to Sunday to make it "Christian."4
What does a balanced look at relevant biblical passages reveal about this often controversial topic?5
Waves of grace
Standing back from Scripture and viewing the big picture, one sees that the divine covenants are unified and function as phases of development in God's overall plan.6 Each is a part of a single, unified program of revelation. The enactment or primacy of one does not nullify or subordinate another. None of these covenants replaces the one before it; instead, each supplements what has come before.7
In the new covenant prophesied in Jeremiah 31, all of God's covenant purposes preservation, promise, and law climax in Jesus Christ,8 who is Priest (Heb. 7-10; like Phinehas) and King (Rev. 19:11-16; like David).
Thus we see that cumulative phases of God's unified everlasting covenant bring wave upon wave of gracious divine initiative throughout Old Testament times and on into the New Testament, where the comprehensive culmination in the ultimate revelation and only truly effective sacrifice of Jesus Christ washes over the human race in a tidal wave of grace.
Like the new covenant, the Old Testament covenants were based on grace rather than law. For example, only after God delivered Noah and his family did He formalize or ratify a covenant with them, in the process of which He stated some stipulations or laws (Gen. 8:20-9:17).
So the laws were for people who were already saved by grace, that is, by God's own effective intervention (compare Exod. 19:3-6; 20:2). Ever since the Fall, the only way to salvation has been by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8) in the seed of Eve (Gen. 3:15), that is, Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16).
Paul's distinction between under law and under grace in Romans 6:14, 15, has to do with states of persons who are under condemnation by the law or freed from condemnation through Christ.9 This distinction is not between two different dispensations.10 Both of these states could characterize people within the Old Testament or New Testament eras.
Yet, according to Paul, Christ has eclipsed the Mosaic Torah in the sense that He is a more glorious, effective, complete, and adequate revelation of God's character (2 Cor. 3). Christ did not replace God's holy, righteous, good, and spiritual law (Rom. 7:12, 14) as a means of salvation from sin because God has never offered salvation on the basis of law.11
Both within the Bible and elsewhere in ancient Near Eastern covenants and treaties, law operates within the framework of covenant.12 If we accept God as the authority behind the whole Bible (e.g., 2 Tim. 3:15-17) and recognize that His covenants are cumulative, it's clear that laws given in connection with the Old Testament covenant phases should in some way inform our conduct.
Some biblical laws, such as the Ten Commandments and many of the civil laws (such as Deuteronomy 22:8 protecting people from falling off your flat roof), can be applied today in a straightforward or fairly straightforward manner, except that church discipline replaces the civil penalties administered under the ancient Israelite judicial system. Many laws are applicable in principle even when the culturally dependent specifics do not apply (e.g. Exod. 21:33, 34).13
Some biblical laws we cannot keep if we no longer have the social institutions they regulated, such as levirate marriage (Deut. 25:5-10). The ritual laws, dependent and centered upon the function of the earthly sanctuary and the temple as the dwelling place of God, no longer apply because that institution is gone.
Since the ascension of Christ, our worship has been focused toward God's sanctuary in heaven (Heb. 8-10). However, we can greatly enrich our comprehension of God's relationship to human beings through study of the Old Testament ritual laws as they relate to the Hebrew sanctuary.14
Although circumcision was a ritual law (Gen. 17), it pre-dated the sanctuary or temple system and was not dependent on it. So loss of the temple in the first century A.D. does not remove the possibility that circumcision could be an ongoing requirement. Cessation of this requirement is based on another principle: Membership in the "new covenant" phase no longer requires membership in ethnic Israel (Acts 15).
Is there a single criterion that can be used to determine whether a law should or should not be kept today? I propose the following rule of thumb: A biblical law should be kept to the extent that its principle can be applied unless the New Testament removes the reason for its application.
Thus I basically agree with Gordon Wenham when he concluded that "the principles underlying the Old Testament are valid and authoritative for the Christian, but the particular applications found in the Old Testament may not be."15 My approach reverses that of Douglas Moo, who says "we are bound only to that which is clearly repeated within New Testament teaching."16
Four aspects of Sabbath
Categories such as moral, health, civil, and ceremonial laws, which imply the extent to which a given law remains applicable, are post-biblical analytical classifications, and a law may fit in more than one of these categories. Nothing in the biblical text explicitly places the Sabbath laws in one category or another, and we must allow for the possibility that they belong to more than one category. In fact, various laws involving Sabbath can be viewed as pertaining to all four:
1. Moral. In Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15, God commands cessation from work on the seventh-day Sabbath within the con text of His Ten Commandments. The other nine commandments are clearly moral in nature, and there is no compelling reason to single out Sabbath rest as essentially ceremonial.17 With regard to Christians who (unlike himself) believe "that the place of the Sabbath requirement in the Decalogue means that it is to be seen as a binding moral law normative for all people in the same way as the rest of the Decalogue," A. T. Lincoln pointedly remarks:
"Those who argue in this way but apply the fourth commandment to Sunday, the first day of the week, are certainly not as consistent as those groups, such as the Seventh-Day Adventists, who still observe the seventh day; they need to face this inconsistency squarely. On their own presuppositions, by what right do they tamper with an eternally valid moral law? What criterion allows them to isolate the seventh day aspect, which after all is at the heart of the commandment and its rationale (cf. Exod. 20:11), as a temporary feature belonging only to the Mosaic period, while retaining the remainder of the Decalogue as normative for all ages. ... If the Mosaic law were designed to teach the principle of one day's rest in seven instead of seventh-day rest, it might be expected that its legislation would have provided for a different day of rest for the priests (cf. Num. 28:9-10), but it does not."18
2. Health. In Exodus 23:12, the benefit of Sabbath rest must include a physical component because it is for animals as well as human beings.
3. Civil. Under the Israelite theocracy, a man who flagrantly violated the Sabbath by gathering firewood on this day was stoned to death by the community at God's command (Num. 15:32-36).
4. Ceremonial. At the ancient Israelite sanctuary, special rituals per formed on the Sabbath quite understandably honored its holiness (Lev. 24:8; Num. 28:9, 10).
We have found that Sabbath is involved with laws belonging to all four categories. The moral and health roles of Sabbath rest are timeless and remain even when civil penalties and ceremonial performances pass away.19 So it appears that ceasing from work on the seventh-day Sabbath should be kept to the extent that its principle can be applied. We will test this provisional conclusion by considering some potential objections.
Objection 1: Seventh-day Sabbath observance was commanded only for literal Israelites.
There is no explicit biblical record that the requirement for Sabbath observance was expressly formulated as a law before God commanded the Israelites to honor it (Exod. 16; 20). But who says that a divinely man dated duty does not exist until/unless God commands it in the form of a law?20 If this were true, why would God have held Cain accountable for murdering his brother (Gen. 4)?
In the early chapters of Genesis, where Sabbath is first mentioned (see below), God was concerned with set ting up the ideal order of relationships rather than commanding protection of existing relationships.
On the seventh day of the Creation week, God by His example, instituted the refreshing cessation from work for the benefit of all human beings (Gen. 2:2, 3; compare Exod. 31:17).21 Jesus confirmed this when He said that the Sabbath was made for humankind (anthropos)22 and not humankind for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27).
The seventh-day Sabbath is the "birthday of the world," which cannot be changed because it celebrates a historical event that occurred at a point of time in the past,23 long before the nation of Israel existed.24 Thus nothing that human beings do or do not do can affect the holiness of the Sabbath itself.25 Sabbath also signifies dependence upon the One who created and sanctifies people (Exod. 31:13, 17), and who keeps all human beings alive (Dan. 5:23; Job 12:10; Ps. 114:14, 15; 145:15, 16). Because God will always be our Creator and Sustainer, the basic meaning of seventh-day Sabbath rest, which encapsulates this divine human relationship,26 cannot become obsolete as long as human beings inhabit planet Earth.
"Neither antinomianism nor dispensationalism may remove the obligation of the Christian today to observe the creation ordinance of the Sabbath. The absence of any explicit command concerning Sabbath observance prior to Moses does not relegate the Sabbath principle to temporary legislation of the lawepoch . . . God blessed man through the Sabbath by delivering him from slavery to work."27
Objection 2: Literal seventh-day Sabbath observance is no longer relevant because it was a temporary type/symbol of Christian "rest."
Some see support for this approach in Hebrews 4, where Sabbath rest symbolizes a life of gospel rest, involving all days of the week, which results from believing in God.28 However, a historical/horizontal type like the Israelite sacrificial system prefigures something in the future, which constitutes its antitype.
When the antitype commences, the type becomes obsolete. 29 In Hebrews 4, God's "rest" has not sud denly become available for Christians; it was available all along and was not fully appropriated in Old Testament times only because of unbelief. 30 Because it was available at the same time the weekly Sabbath was in operation for the Israelites, the weekly Sabbath cannot merely be a historical type of the life of rest.31
Colossians 2:16, 17 reads: "There fore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ" (NRSV).
In verse 17, "shadow" (skid) has been taken to mean "temporary type." So interpreters have commonly supposed that the "sabbaths" mentioned in verse 16 functioned as temporary types.32 However, at issue here is the problem that in spite of Christ's victory and removal of condemnation against sinners through the cross (cf. verses 13-15), some early Christians were prone to judge others (cf. Rom. 14:3) for not engaging in ascetic practices, which involved matters of diet and observance of holy times, in accordance with their philosophy.
Whatever the precise meaning of sabbaton, "S/sabbath(s)" in Colossians 2:16, may be, it seems clear that Paul was not addressing straightforward observance of Mosaic Torah, but its misuse within the framework of a misguided philosophy.
At Colossae, however, the sacred days were to be kept for the sake of the "elemental spirits of the universe," those astral powers who directed the course of the stars and regulated the order of the calendar.
So Paul is not condemning the use of sacred days or seasons as such; it is the wrong motive involved he discourages, when the observance of these days is bound up with the recognition of the elemental spirits.33
Besides, the literal seventh-day Sabbath enjoined in the fourth commandment cannot be a temporary type because God instituted it before the Fall (Gen. 2:2, 3). Thus, it was not types/symbols set up to lead human beings to salvation from sin.34
Objection 3: Sabbath is like circumcision (compare Acts 15) in that the New Testament has removed the reason for its application.
To the contrary, the nonceremonial Sabbath principle of rest on the seventh day is not mentioned as abrogated or altered in Acts 15 or any where else in the New Testament.35 Moreover, by restoring internalized holiness and obedience through God's Holy Spirit (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:25-28), the New Covenant restores the Sabbath to its true significance.
Sabbath points to a living reality: People who are allowing God to sanctify them honor or keep holy the sanctified day. Because their sanctification means that they emulate the character of holy God, who is love (Lev. 19:2, 18; 1 Thess. 3:12, 13; 1 John 4:8), the fact that Sabbath is a sign of sanctification (compare Exod. 31:13, 17; Ezek. 20:12) implies that it is a celebration of holy love!
Charles L. Feinberg has argued: "Every moral principle contained in the ten commandments has been reiterated under grace by the Spirit in the form of an exhortation with the single exception ... of the commandment to keep the Sabbath."36 He missed the fact that the Sabbath is special: It was reiterated in the New Testament not merely by an apostolic exhortation, but by records of Christ's repeated example!
Jesus risked controversy and danger by making a point of healing people on the Sabbath (e.g. Mark 3:1-6; John 5:2-18; 9:1-41),37 thereby giving rest from suffering and showing that the real purpose of the Sabbath was for humankind (Mark 2:27). His re creative healing reveals the heart of the New Covenant38 and agrees with the emphasis on redemption in the motive clause of the Sabbath command in the Deuteronomy version of the Decalogue (Deut. 5:15).
Jesus said that because Sabbath was made for man, "the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath" (Mark 2:28, NIV). This divine lordship over the Sabbath was part of His claim to be the Messiah.39
Because the Sabbath was made for people and not vice versa, people can not determine or use it as they please. Thus, in this statement that Christians commonly take today as liberating them from sabbatical law, Christ actually bound His followers to it more definitely.40
During His ministry, Jesus showed Christians how to live under the New Covenant.41 Why would He claim the seventh-day Sabbath as His and reform its observance if He was about to do away with it? That would make as much sense as remodeling a house just before demolishing it!
The New Covenant ratified by Christ's blood culminates God's initiative to restore an intimate relationship with human beings. It fulfills God's long-range plan of grace rather than radically repealing every thing that has gone before.
Divine law is for the benefit of parties involved in covenant relationships. The divine command to rest from work on the seventh day of the week embodies a principle that protects the divine-human relationship, as shown by its inclusion in the Ten Commandments. At the same time, Sabbath rest provides an ongoing physical, mental, and spiritual health benefit.
That modern Christians should continue to observe rest on the seventh-day Sabbath as part of their New Covenant experience is supported by three major factors:
1. The Sabbath is universal rather than limited to Israel.
2. The Sabbath is timeless rather than a temporary type/symbol.
3. The "new covenant" confirms and restores the heart of Sabbath and its true observance.
1 A much longer version of this article, titled "The Role of God's Moral Law, Including Sabbath, in the New Covenant," is available through <biblicalresearch.gc.advenrist.org>.
2 See, e.g., the views of Wayne Stnckland and Douglas Moo in Gieg Bahnsen; Walter Kaiser; Douglas Moo; Wayne Strickland; and Wrilem VanGemeren, five Views on Law and Gospel (Counterpoints; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996), 276-279, 343, 375, 376.
3 See, e.g., A T. Lincoln, "From Sabbath to Lord's Day: A Biblical and Theological Perspective," From Sabbath to Lord's Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation (D. A. Carson, ed., Grand Rapids Zondervan, 1982), 400, 403, 404; Dale Ratzlaff, Sabbath in Crisis, rev. ed. (Glendale, Anz.: Life Assurance Ministries, 1995)
4 See e.g. Gary G. Cohen, "The Doctrine of the Sabbath in the Old and New Testaments," Grace Journal 6 (1965), 13, 14; Geoffrey W. Bromiley, "Lord's Day," The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ed. G. W Bromiley; Grand Rapids, Mich. Eerdmans, 1986), 3:159; Pope John Paul U, "Apostolic Letter Dies Domini of the Holy Father John Paul II to the Bishops, Clergy and Faithful of the Catholic Church on Keeping the Lord's Day Holy," <www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_pauLii /apost_letters/documents/hf_)pu_apU>S071998_dies^omini_en.html> July 5,1998.
5 Cf. Samuele Bacchiocchi, The Sabbath Under Crossfire: A Biblical Analysis of Recent Sabbath/Sunday Developments (Biblical Perspectives, 14; Bemen Springs, Mich.: Biblical Perspectives, 1998), 104-120.
6 O Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, NJ. Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), 28; John H. Walton, Covenant God's Purpose, God's Plan (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1994), 49, 50.
7 Walton, 49.
8 Robertson, 63.
9 Cf. J. H. Gerstner, "Law in the New Testament," The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 3-88 on John 1:17.
10 Against, e.g., Cohen, 13, 14.
11 Brad H. Young, Paul the Jewish Theologian: A Pharisee Among Christians, Jews, and Gentiles (Peabody, Mass.: Hendnckson, 1997), 91.
12 Robertson, 170,171; Dale Patrick, Old Testament Law (Atlanta, Ga.-John Knox, 1985), 26.
13 Cf. Geistner, 88.
14 See Roy Gane, Altar Call (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Diadem, 1999).
15 Gordon Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (New International) Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1979), 35.
16 Moo, 376.
17 Cf. Wilimore Eva, "Why the Seventh Day?" Ministry Quiy 1999), 6, 7.
18 A. T. Lincoln, "From Sabbath to Lord's Day," 355.
19 Cf. Frank B. Holbrook, "Did the Apostle Paul Abolish the Sabbath?: Coiossians 2:14-17 Revisited," Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 13 (2002), 65-68, 71, 72.
20 Cf. Eva, "Why the Seventh Day?" 5, 6. Against Charles L. Femberg, "The Sabbath and the Lord's Day," Bibliofheca Sacra 95 (1938), 180,181.
21 Cf. Umbetto Cassuto, A Commentary cm the Book of Exodus (translated by I. Abrahams; Jerusalem: Magnes, 1967), 245, 404; Nahum Sama, Exodus OPS Torah Commentary; Philadelphia, Pa.: Jewish
Publication Society, 1991), 202.
22 Here anthropos, "man" = generic "humankind" (Jon Pauhen, Andrews University, personal communication).
23 Herold Weiss, "Sabbatismos in the Epistle to the Hebrews," Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 58 (1996), 688.
24 Cf. Eva, "Why the Seventh Day?" 4, 5.
25 John Skinner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis (2d ed.; International Critical Commentary; Edinburgh. T & T. Clark, 1930), 35.
26 Cf. Cassuto, 244.
27 Robertson, 68, 69.
28 See, e.g., A T. Lincoln, "Sabbath, Rest, and Eschatology in the New Testament," From Sabbath to Lord's Day, 209-217.
29 On the nature and function of biblical typology, see Richard M. Davidson, Typology in Scripture: A Study of Hermeneutical tu/po Structures (Andrews University Seminary Doctoral Dissertation Series 2; Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1981).
30 Cf. Weiss, "Sabbatismos," 683
31 For detailed discussion, see Roy Gane, "Sabbath and the New Covenant," Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 10 (1999),
318-321; cf. F. F Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1964), 73-75.
32 See, e.g., F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to me Ephesians (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1984), 114-117.
33 Peter O'Bnen, Colossians and Philemon (Word Biblical Commentary 44, Waco, Tex Word Books, 1982), 139.
34 Cf. Wilimore Eva, "Why the Seventh Day?" 5; Holbrook, 64, 65.
35 On the Sabbath in the New Testament, see several parts of The Sabbath in Scripture and History (ed. K. Strand; Washington, D.C. Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1982); Walter Specht. "The Sabbath in the New Testament," 92-113; Raoul Dederen, "On Esteeming One Day," 333-337; Kenneth Wood, "The 'Sabbath Days' of Colossians 2:16, 17," 338-342; RoyGraham, "A Note on Hebrews 4:4-9," 343-345.
36 Feinberg, 187; see also 184-186, 188.
37 Jacques Doufchan, "Loving the Sabbath as a Christian: A Seventh-Day Adventist Perspective," Tire Sabbath m Jewish and Christian Traditions (ed. T. Eskenazi, D. Harrington and W. Shea; New York: Crossroad, 1991), 152.
38 Cf. Wilimore Eva, "Why the Seventh Day? Part 2," Ministry (September 1999), 7, 8.
39 Cf. Lincoln, "From Sabbath to Lord's Day," 363.
40 Gerstner, 86.
41 See Specht, 105.