Law and Sabbath, the Old and the New

Moses with the tablets of the Ten Commandments...
Moses with the tablets of the Ten Commandments, painting by Rembrandt (1659) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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Good morning, friends. This week a listener texted me this question:

Wenam nao ceremonial sabbath o law and wenam difference blong hem n how nao e finish hem?

So what is the difference between the ceremonial sabbath and the law, and how can we say that it is finished?

I appreciate the good question. What are we to make of the Law and of the Sabbath in particular?

1. The Law

1.1. The Importance of the Law

First we need to affirm the importance of the Law in biblical theology.

The Law was good.

Romans 7:12 ESV So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

1 Timothy 1:8 ESV Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully,

It reveals sin:

Romans 3:20 ESV For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

Romans 7:7 ESV ¶ What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”

The Law was a guardian:

Galatians 3:24 ESV So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.

Most importantly, the Law prophesied the coming of Christ; it pointed to Christ as its fulfillment.

Luke 24:44 ESV ¶ Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”

1.2. Four Approaches

Dispensationalism holds that nothing in the Old Testament law applies to the Christian life unless the New Testament repeats it and endorses it. For example, the New Testament says nothing about wearing clothes woven of two kinds of material (Leviticus 19:19), so we feel free to wear shirts made of polyester and cotton, though that would have been forbidden under the Old Testament.

On the other hand, the New Testament says nothing about consulting mediums or spiritists (Leviticus 19:31), yet surely this is inconsistent with the life in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17).

Secondly, Covenant Theology takes the opposite approach: everything from the Old Testament carries over into the New Testament unless it is forbidden. So the Old Testament would rule out consulting mediums. But what about clothes made of two kinds of material? Most of us have violated that Old Testament commandment!

Third, one common approach has been to distinguish between Old Testament ceremonial laws, civil laws, and moral laws. We first find this approach in Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Catholic theologian. Ceremonial laws would have to do with the temple and the system of sacrifice that is no longer in existence. Civil laws would deal with everyday life in ancient Israel. Moral law would deal with theft, lying, hatred, slander, etc.

But many laws do not seem to fall into these categories and frequently there is no attempt to group them in categories. Where, for example, do we put the Leviticus 19:27?

Leviticus 19:27 ESV You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.

Is it moral, civil, or ceremonial? And that command is sandwiched between commands to not eat flesh with the blood in it, to interpret omens or tell fortunes or to tattoo yourselves. And if the Lord God has given all of these 613 commands of the Old Testament, isn’t our obedience to them somehow a moral issue and not just a civil or ceremonial one?

A fourth approach is to privilege the “Big Ten,” the Ten Commandments. Yet, in no place in the New Testament are all of the Ten Commandments dealt with together. In fact, there is one of the Ten Commandments that is never repeated as a commandment in the New Testament.

1 We are to worship God alone. 53
2 We are not to have any idols. 12
3 We are not to take the name of the Lord in vain. 4
5 We are to honor our parents. 6
6 We must not murder. 7
7 We must not commit adultery. 12
8 We must not steal. 6
9 We must not lie or bear false witness. 4
10 We must not covet. 9

Guess which Old Testament commandment is never repeated in the New Testament: the fourth commandment to keep the Sabbath is never repeated in the New Testament. Each time the Sabbath commandment is mentioned, it is diminished, made smaller and shown not to be binding on New Covenant Christians.

Lists of sin in the New Testament:

Mark 7:21-22 ESV For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. Romans 1:29-31 ESV They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 ESV ¶ Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. Galatians 5:19-21 ESV Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 2 Timothy 3:2-5 ESV For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.

Guess what is never mentioned: not keeping the Sabbath.

2. The Sabbath

2.1. Jesus, the Pharisees, and the Sabbath

In the last several broadcasts, we have considered what the Bible says about the Sabbath, the Law, and the kingdom of God.

We noted first that Jesus and the Pharisees were always on opposite sides of the conflict over the Law. The Pharisees insisted on outward observance of the Law but ignored the intention and purpose of the Law. The Pharisees were concerned with appearances. They wanted everything to look just right on the outside, but they gave no attention to the inside. Jesus said that they were like people who washed the outside of the cup but never worried about cleaning the inside. He said that they were like the tombs of the dead: beautifully painted and kept up on the outside, but inside they were full of corruption and dead man’s bones (Matthew 23:25, 27). Those are strong words that Jesus had for these keepers of the Law.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addressed many of these questions. The Law had said, “You must not murder.” So the Pharisees figured that as long as they didn’t knife someone, they had kept the commandment. Jesus say that if you hate someone, you have already committed murder in your heart. If you are angry with someone, you are subject to judgment. If you insult someone, you are in danger. If you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell. Murder is a matter of the heart.

The Law had said, “You must not commit adultery,” so the Pharisees figured that it was enough to avoid climbing into bed with someone. Jesus said that if you desire someone sexually, you’ve already committed adultery. Adultery is a matter of the heart.

The Sadducees and the Pharisees continually put the accent on the external conformity to the Law:

  • No murder, but it’s okay to hate, insult, and curse someone.
  • No adultery, but it doesn’t hurt to look.
  • Tired of your wife? Give her a piece of paper so you can marry the woman you want.
  • If you made a vow, you’ll have to honor it. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter what you said.
  • Someone hurt you? Hurt them back.
  • Got an enemy? It’s okay to hate. Just love those who love you.

And where did they put all their emphasis? The put it on keeping the sabbath.

Jesus’ greatest enemies were strict sabbatarians. They were constantly on Jesus about the Sabbath.

  • When he healed the lame man at the pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath day, the Pharisees persecuted him (John 5:16; 7:21-24).
  • When he healed the man blind from birth on the Sabbath, they declared that he was a sinner and could not be from God (John 9:16, 24).
  • When Jesus healed on the Sabbath a woman who had been crippled by an evil spirit, the synagogue leader was indignant that Jesus had healed her on the Sabbath day (Luke 13:10-18).
  • When the disciples of Jesus picked grain on the Sabbath, the Pharisees criticized Jesus and his disciples (Matthew 12:1-8).
  • When Jesus healed the man with a deformed hand on the Sabbath, the Pharisees called a meeting to plot how to kill Jesus (Matthew 12:9-14).

The Sadducees and the Pharisees put all the emphasis on the Sabbath. They could judge whether a man was a sinner or a saint by the Sabbath. If someone went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, they judged that he was right with God. But…

  • If a man was carrying his mat on the Sabbath, they judged that he was a sinner.
  • If a man picked grain on the Sabbath, they judged that he was a sinner.
  • If Jesus did some good work on the Sabbath, they judged that he was sinner.

The Pharisees looked on the outside, but their hearts were full of judgment, full of condemnation, and full of sin.

2.2. The Institution of the Sabbath

For the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the main thing was the seventh day, the Sabbath. We saw that for the first 2,500 years, from Adam to Moses, there was no Sabbath. Not one person was ever mentioned keeping the Sabbath before Exodus 16. In fact, the Sabbath is not mentioned one time in the 50 chapters of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. It is not mentioned until Exodus 16. That was 2,500 years after God created the heavens and the earth. There was no Sabbath for Adam, or Noah, or Abraham, or Isaac, or Jacob, or Joseph. There was no Sabbath for the Israelites during their 400 years of slavery in Egypt. Day after day after day, the Israelites made bricks for Pharaoh, with no Sabbath.

When God brought them out of Egypt, for the first time God said to them in Exodus 16,

Exodus 16:29-30 ESV See! The LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.” 30 So the people rested on the seventh day.

It is here in Exodus 16:23 that the Sabbath is mentioned for the very first time in the Bible. It would be not be a work day; it would be a day of rest.

2.3. The Sign of the Sabbath

So there was no Sabbath before God delivered the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. Only after the Exodus from Egypt did God give the Israelites the Sabbath. Again and again, God tells the Israelites that on the Sabbath, they are to do no work. This fourth of the Ten Commandments says,

Exodus 20:8-10 ESV ¶ “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work

No work. That was the outward sign. No work. But what was the meaning of the Sabbath? What did it mean to do no work? What was the significance… the signification of the Sabbath? What was the message of the Sabbath?

God is clear about the meaning of the Sabbath. In Exodus 31:13, the LORD tells Moses,

Exodus 31:13 ESV “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you.

No work! The message is that sanctification is not our work but the Lord’s work! The message is that we cannot make ourselves holy by work. It is the Lord who makes us holy:

Exodus 31:13 ESV “…this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you.

If you think that you can make yourself holy and acceptable to God by going to church on the Sabbath, you have missed the point, the message of the Sabbath. If you think that the Sabbath is a work that you do to get right with God, you have perverted the meaning of the Sabbath. God says that doing no work was a sign that it is the LORD who sanctifies us.

This passage also clearly shows that the covenant of the Law was with the people of Israel, not with us Gentiles:

Exodus 31:13 ESV “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you.

Exodus 31:17 ESV It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.'”

Let us note, in passing, that there is no place in the Bible where the Lord said, “On the Sabbath day, you are to go to the tabernacle or to the temple and worship me.” The Sabbath requirement was a requirement of rest, not worship. The Sabbath was not a call to worship. It was a call to rest. Not work. God does the work of making us holy.

This same message is given nearly a thousand years later by the prophet Ezekiel:

Ezekiel 20:12 ESV Moreover, I gave them my Sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the LORD who sanctifies them.

The message of the Sabbath is the same as we find in Ephesians 2,

Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

Our hope is in Christ alone:

MUSIC: 02 Kristyn Getty, In Christ Alone. 4:39 • 22 sec lead-in • Fade after 4:15

3. The Old and the New

Next we looked at the old and the new covenants. God made a covenant with the nation of Israel, but the Bible tells us that the covenant of the Law was a parenthesis in the plan of God. The Law was a covenant that had a beginning and an end. It began with Moses and it ended with the cross. The Law was neither the beginning nor the end of God’s plan. Four hundred thirty years before the Law, God had made a promise that would not be broken. God had promised Abraham that his many times great grandson would be the source of blessing for all the peoples everywhere. The Apostle Paul explains that promise in Galatians 3. This is how the New Living Translation renders Galatians 3:15-19,

Galatians 3:15-20 NLT ¶ Dear brothers and sisters, here’s an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or amend an irrevocable agreement, so it is in this case. 16 God gave the promises to Abraham and his child. And notice that the Scripture doesn’t say “to his children,” as if it meant many descendants. Rather, it says “to his child”– and that, of course, means Christ. 17 This is what I am trying to say: The agreement God made with Abraham could not be canceled 430 years later when God gave the law to Moses. God would be breaking his promise. 18 For if the inheritance could be received by keeping the law, then it would not be the result of accepting God’s promise. But God graciously gave it to Abraham as a promise. 19 ¶ Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised. God gave his law through angels to Moses, who was the mediator between God and the people. 20 Now a mediator is helpful if more than one party must reach an agreement. But God, who is one, did not use a mediator when he gave his promise to Abraham.

In other words, the promise to Abraham was given directly from God to Abraham and has precedence over the Law which was mediated through angels. Paul continues in verse 23,

Galatians 3:23-25 NLT Before the way of faith in Christ was available to us, we were placed under guard by the law. We were kept in protective custody, so to speak, until the way of faith was revealed. 24 Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith. 25 And now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian.

This is the same message that we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews. We saw in Hebrew 8:8-12 that Jeremiah the prophet, though he was a prophet of the old covenant of the Law… Jeremiah prophesied 600 years before the coming of Christ that God would establish a New Covenant. The New Covenant would not be like the old covenant of the Law (v. 9). It would not be a matter of external rules written on stone tablets. In the New Covenant God would write his laws on our hearts. Ezekiel tells us that God would cleanse us from everything that is unclean and He would put His Spirit in us. The temple is no longer a building in Jerusalem; in the New Covenant, our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. So the writer to the Hebrews tells us that Jeremiah, “In speaking of the new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete…” It is finished. The end.

In Ephesians 2, the Apostle Paul tells us that God has made Jews and Gentiles one new people, breaking down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility:

Ephesians 2:15 NLT He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups.

That is exactly what Jesus said in Matthew 5:17-18. He said that the Law and the Prophets would not pass away until all was fulfilled. And he said that he had come to fulfill it. So on the cross, he declared, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). He died. He was buried. And on the third day, the first day of the week, Christ was raised from the dead. After appearing to several that morning of the resurrection, Christ joined two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

Luke 24:27 NLT Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

Jesus showed them that the Law and the Prophets pointed to Christ. The purpose of the Law was to point us to Christ. Once Christ has come, the purpose of the Law was achieved.

That evening Christ appeared in the upper room to the disciples

Luke 24:44 ESV ¶ Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”

The Law was not the real deal. The Law was temporary. The Law’s purpose was to point to Christ. The resurrected Christ appeared to the disciples the night of the resurrection and told them that the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms all pointed to him. He was the fulfillment of the Scriptures.

Matthew 11:13 ESV For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John,

Luke 16:16 ESV ¶ “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached…

A listener to this radio ministry asked, “How can we say that the Law is finished?” The Law is not simply finished; it is fulfilled. Christ fulfilled it. In every detail Christ fulfilled what the Law had prophesied. The Law was only a copy and a shadow of heavenly realities; Christ is that reality. Not the Law, but Christ is the real deal.

We can only say that the Law is fulfilled because God himself said it. Christ said that the Law prophesied until John the Baptist. The new message was not the Law, but the kingdom of God and the power of the Holy Spirit.

The good news of the gospel is that we are not under the Law.

John 1:17 ESV For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

Romans 6:14 ESV For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

Romans 8:14 ESV For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

Galatians 5:18 ESV But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

3.1. So what about Christian freedom?

If we are no longer under the Law, does that mean that we are free to do anything that we want to do?

Christian freedom is a reality, and so is righteousness. There is a strong accent on freedom in the New Testament, and it is a freedom from the reign and rule of sin. In fact, the freedom from the rule of sin is tied to our freedom from the Law.

Romans 6:14 ESV For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

Here in this verse we see that sin will not dominate our lives not because we are under the law, but because we are not under the law. How does that work? Why should freedom from the law enable us to be free from the domination of sin?

Freedom from the law is only part of the equation, but it is an important part. The law actually provokes the sinful nature that we inherited from Adam. The law says, “You shall not…” and we respond, “Oh yes I shall!” This is how the Apostle Paul says it in Romans 7:

Romans 7:7-11 NLT ¶ Well then, am I suggesting that the law of God is sinful? Of course not! In fact, it was the law that showed me my sin. I would never have known that coveting is wrong if the law had not said, “You must not covet.” 8 But sin used this command to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me! If there were no law, sin would not have that power. 9 At one time I lived without understanding the law. But when I learned the command not to covet, for instance, the power of sin came to life, 10 and I died. So I discovered that the law’s commands, which were supposed to bring life, brought spiritual death instead. 11 Sin took advantage of those commands and deceived me; it used the commands to kill me.

That is why the Apostle Paul says in

Romans 3:20 NLT For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are.

The Law provokes sin in us. And when we think that we are successfully living by the Law, it provokes sinful pride and condemnation of others. We become like the Pharisees, full of sinful self-righteousness and scorn for others.

Galatians 3:2-5 NLT Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ. 3 How foolish can you be? After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort? 4 Have you experienced so much for nothing? Surely it was not in vain, was it? 5 I ask you again, does God give you the Holy Spirit and work miracles among you because you obey the law? Of course not! It is because you believe the message you heard about Christ.

The Law is useful to show us how sinful we are, but it is powerless to save. The Law may change some of your outward behavior, but it cannot change your heart. For a heart change, you need the New Covenant. You need the promised Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the power of the kingdom of God and the power of the New Covenant.

Romans 8:1-4 NLT ¶ So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. 2 And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. 3 The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. 4 He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit.

So we are free from the Law. We are not under the Law. If we are in Christ, we are led by the Spirit of Christ.

Galatians 5:1 NLT ¶ So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law.

Galatians 5:4 NLT For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace.

Galatians 5:9-10 NLT This false teaching is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough! 10 I am trusting the Lord to keep you from believing false teachings. God will judge that person, whoever he is, who has been confusing you.

3.2. What about the Commandments?

The Bible is very clear. We are not under the Law. We are not under the old covenant. Yet we are not to use our freedom as an excuse to sin. Notice the next verse in Galatians:

Galatians 5:13 NLT ¶ For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love.

Paul goes on to talk about the fruit of the Spirit. Fruit is something that is produced by mature fruit trees. You can recognize a tree by its fruit. If the Spirit of God lives in you, He will produce His fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, meekness, faith, self-control.

This is what the gospel produces in your life. That is something that the Law could never do.

Romans 8:3-4 NLT The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. 4 He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit.

There are commandments for the children of God, but that will have to wait for another broadcast.

Scripture Union of Vanuatu has a wonderful booklet in Bislama called “Sarede o Sande? — Sabat Dei o Dei blong Masta?” It is only 20vt at the Scripture Union near Caillard et Kaddour Real Estate offices. Please stop by their offices and pick up a copy. It will help you.

Let me encourage you to find a Bible-believing church where the Word of God is preached, taught, and lived, and where the Bible and only the Bible — not someone’s vision or some other book — but the Bible and the Bible alone is the one and only final authority for what we believe and what we do. There is no other foundation than the Word of God.

Thank you for tuning in to FM 107. This has been a ministry of Joy Bible Institute. You can visit our website at Our prayer is that the joy of the Lord would be your strength.

See also “Seventh Day Adventism“:


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