What Sort of Law Is the Sabbath? (Part 2)

What, if anything, does the Old Testament Sabbath hold for New Testament Christians? Last week, I started a short series looking at what the Bible teaches about the Sabbath and its place in our lives today. That first article laid the groundwork for our study by examining the Sabbath in the Old Testament. We saw that the first recorded Sabbath was inaugurated by God as soon as the Israelites left Egypt. Soon after, Sabbath observance was the fourth commandment given by God at Mount Sinai and became an important marker of his people. In later generations, the prophets would urgently call Israel to faithfully observe the Lord’s day of rest and worship.

The Ten Commandments are repeated twice in the Pentateuch. In Exodus, God links the Sabbath with his rest after the six days of creation, which was itself a representation of the perfect and joyful rest which he enjoys in Heaven and into which he invites us. In Deuteronomy, the Sabbath is associated with God’s redemptive work, bringing his people out of slavery in Egypt. The Israelites were to enter into the Sabbath with the joy of freed slaves savoring a hint of Heaven.

Having surveyed the Sabbath in the Old Testament, the obvious next step is to examine what the New Testament has to say about the Sabbath’s place under the new covenant which Jesus inaugurated. But first, I want to pause to consider what we might expect the New Testament to say.

Three Types of Law

Theologians distinguish between three main categories of Old Testament law. It is important to note that this division is not explicitly made in the Bible itself, but is based upon what God said about his laws, both when they were given and then later in the New Testament.

Civil laws were given to govern the nation of Israel. These were laws like Exodus 22:1, “If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.” Like any other nation, Israel needed laws to govern her citizens, so God, as her divine king, established a criminal code and the penalties for each offense.

What we call ceremonial laws regulated worship and distinguished the Hebrews from their pagan neighbors. They included things like circumcision, religious festivals, and regulations for the priesthood and the sacrificial system.

Finally, what we call moral laws were instructions like the Ten Commandments which reflected God’s own holiness and the righteousness he wanted to see in his people.

Recognizing these different types of laws and their different purposes helps us to understand why not all Old Testament law is treated the same in the New Testament. Civil law passed away because even though the church is analogous to Israel in many ways, she is not actually the nation of Israel. Therefore, a modern Christian is no more bound by Old Testament civil law than a Frenchman is bound by the laws of England.

The role of the ceremonial law after Jesus is more complex. As chapters 7-10 of Hebrews beautifully explain, the ceremonial law was “but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (10:1). Thus, many parts of the ceremonial law, such as the sacrificial system and the priesthood, disappeared altogether in the light of the reality to which they pointed—Jesus Christ, the better priest and the better sacrifice.

Other parts of the ceremonial law remained, but in a new form. Circumcision, the mark of the Old Covenant, gave way to baptism, the mark of the New. The Passover meal, to remember and celebrate God’s salvation of his people out of Egypt, was replaced by the Lord’s Supper, to remember and celebrate God’s greater salvation of his people from sin and death.

No part of the ceremonial law could remain unchanged by the arrival of the reality to which it pointed, but remembrance and worship are still important for New Testament Christians, so Jesus could sit at the Passover table and transform the meal into something new with bread, wine, and the gentle command, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:7-20).

The moral law changed the least, at least on the outside, as a result of the incarnation. Of course, the significance of the law was radically changed, as Paul proclaims in Galatians 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” But the moral law itself still stood as a description of what God’s people should look like. Thus, Jesus himself could take up the law in the Sermon on the Mount and show how a right understanding of its commands could shape us into people whose good works would “give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:13-48).

Where Does the Sabbath Fit?

As we consider the place of the Sabbath for New Testament believers, it would be helpful to determine what kind of law it was. To start with, Sabbath regulations were certainly part of Jewish civil law. But that, by itself, doesn’t tell us much, because the civil law incorporated many elements of the ceremonial and moral law. (For example, murder is forbidden in the moral law of Exodus 20, then the death penalty is established as its punishment in the civil law of Exodus 21.) The question is whether the Sabbath should also be understood as ceremonial law or moral law… and that’s actually a bit more complicated than it might appear at first.

We must remember that God did not include handy “moral” or “ceremonial” labels on his commands. The terms are simply helpful ways to understand the meaning and purpose of different laws. So, for example, if we encounter a command which reflects God’s moral will for everyone and which doesn’t change in the New Testament era, we call it a moral law.

So which is the Sabbath? Well, in some ways it feels very much like a ceremonial law. Unlike moral laws which are recognized even by those without God’s word, as Paul highlights in Romans 1, the Sabbath had to be explicitly instituted by God and was only practiced by his people. And passages like Leviticus 18 which condemn unbelievers for breaking God’s moral law never mention the Sabbath. Furthermore, the Sabbath was concerned with remembrance and celebration of God’s work, like the Jewish religious feasts and other elements of the ceremonial law.

On the other hand, the Sabbath ordinance comes smack in the middle of the Ten Commandments, the other nine of which are plainly moral laws. Violating the Sabbath was punishable by death (Ex 31:14, 35:2), a penalty elsewhere reserved for breaking laws rooted in God’s moral commands. And while Old Testament prophets consistently emphasized matters of the heart above the ceremonial law (Hos 6:6, I Sam 15:22), they treated the Sabbath as if it was a matter of the heart, warning against Sabbath violations again and again (e.g. Neh 13:17-18, Jer 17:19-27).

Furthermore, while elements of the ceremonial law were plainly mere foreshadowings of something greater (as Hebrews 10:4 notes dismissively, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins”), the Sabbath is firmly rooted in God’s eternal rest and his redemptive work.

In short, it seems like we can make a compelling case for understanding the Sabbath as both ceremonial and moral law—which, I think, is precisely the point.

Ceremonial Moral Law

In the Bible, memory, anticipation, and worship are all moral issues, so it should not surprise us that a law could have characteristics which we usually associate with both ceremonial and moral law.

Like other ceremonial laws, the Sabbath is about remembrance and celebration and needed to be explicitly taught by God to his people. But, like other moral laws, Exodus 20 declares that the Sabbath reflects the nature of God, while verses like Isaiah 56:1-2 make it clear that Sabbath rest expresses the heart he wants to see in his people:

Thus says the Lord:
“Keep justice, and do righteousness,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my righteousness be revealed.
Blessed is the man who does this,
and the son of man who holds it fast,
who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it,
and keeps his hand from doing any evil.”

The Sabbath rest shapes God’s people to be like their Father, whose perfect rest it emulates. And the weekly, intentional setting aside of human work and effort both reflects and cultivates a heart which trusts in our God rather than ourselves (and what is faith, if not that?).

If the Sabbath truly is a “ceremonial moral law,” then we should expect to see it continue in the New Testament, like all moral laws, but we should also expect to see it somewhat altered as a result of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, like other ceremonial laws. With that tentative expectation in mind, we are ready to turn next week to consider the teachings of Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament.

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