Ceremonial Law. A class of laws within the Mosaic legal corpus generally associated with the religious system of worship—of the priesthood, place worship, sacrifices and offerings, and calendar rituals—that foreshadowed the work and benefits of redemption effected by Christ’s life and death (as well as His ultimate second coming)—and now rendered void to us, having been fulfilled. “Ceremonial laws were those which God gave through Moses in reference to ceremonies, or the external solemn ordinances which were to be observed in the public worship of God, with a proper attention to the circumstances which had been prescribed; binding the Jewish nation to the coming of the Messiah, and at the same time distinguishing them from all other nations; and that they might also be signs, symbols, types and shadows of spiritual things to be fulfilled in the New Testament by Christ.”[i] “The Ceremonial Law prescribes under the Old Testament the rites and ceremonies of worship… obligatory only till Christ, of whom these rites were typical… It was fulfilled rather than abrogated by the gospel.”[ii] “The Jews thought themselves complete in the ceremonial law; but we are complete in Christ.”[iii] “The ceremonial laws, civil laws, and the penal code have been abrogated, and the moral law has received further clarification in the person and teaching of Jesus Christ.”[iv] “The Gospel is a glorious superseding of and an advancement over the Mosaic administration with its ceremonial ordinances…the redemptive instructions for circumcision, priesthood, sacrifice, and temple.”[v] “In calling the Law the ‘elements of the world’ [Gal 4:3] Paul refers to the whole Law, [yet] principally to the ceremonial law which dealt with external matters, as meat, drink, dress, places, times, feasts, cleansings, sacrifices, etc.”[vi] “But the ceremonial law (including the Sabbath laws) was never given to the Gentiles.”[vii] “While the Sabbath ceremonials have passed away, the Sabbath principle itself remains valid and binding.”[viii]
The term “ceremonial” to describe cultic or ritualistic laws of the Mosaic covenant is not specifically used by NT writers. The concept is presented in the NT, but not the term. I will sometimes use the term “shadow law” as a synonym because of Paul’s specific use of the word “shadow” (skia) to describe Mosaic commandments that provided, as it were, a general outline or form of something in a darkened silhouette cast by something substantial, real, and tangible (Col 2:17). If a specific OT law was a shadow, then Christ would be the reality. “The outward performance of Jewish ceremonies became a matter of relative insignificance compared to the realization that they were designed and commanded to prepare the Jewish nation for the arrival of the Messiah.”[ix]
There is another class of ceremonial laws that our Lord established for the church to observe, and like the ceremonial laws of Israel, they are to be observed for a time and discontinued when the reason for them has been fully satisfied, i.e., when the final person enters the kingdom of God, marking the time that Christ returns to judge the world (Rom 8:18-21; 1 Cor 11:26; Rev 21:2). While Christians may boast in the fact that they are free from the observance of ceremonial laws, the fact remains that a new set of ceremonial laws has been given to the church. This should not be a surprise to Christ-followers, for if you have engaged in baptism or communion (in the context of church attendance), then you have participated in symbolic rituals that have a spiritual meaning. These two new covenant ceremonies 1) were rooted in specific historic events and soon practiced by the early church,[x] 2) picture spiritual realities already experienced in the life of the believer[xi], and 3) anticipate an escalation of fulfillment in the future.[xii] Almost all Christian sects acknowledge these two symbolic and ritualistic ceremonies for the Christian church. The church also has the external practice of gathering together on a weekly basis to perform the work of ministry and worship as “one bread” in conjunction with the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 10:17; 11:18-26; 16:2; 1 Pet 2:5). This was ordained by the Lord and promulgated by apostolic authority. This ministry then continues throughout the week under the guidance of the church leaders and the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:4; Php 2:12-17). See Typology and Abrogation.
With rare exceptions, Christian theologians and church leaders acknowledge the Sabbath to be a ceremonial law or to at least possess ceremonial features. Pipa, a Sunday Sabbatarian admits, “This is not to say that there are no ceremonial aspects to the Fourth Commandment.”[xiii] This requires the Sabbath to be abrogated at least in those parts acknowledged to be ceremonial, because they typify Christ and His salvation. Furthermore, the onus probandi is to demonstrate the spiritual intent of a ceremonial law and specifically how Jesus fulfilled it through His redemptive ministry. Suffice it to say that whatever laws we classify as “ceremonial” are no longer required of Christians, and the practice of them is to be considered a burden or yoke, especially if we think there is any spiritual value in performing them.
However, in order to preserve the seventeenth century doctrine of a moral Sabbath, CS and SS theologians must deny or downplay the typological fulfillment of the Sabbath, especially the idea that Christ makes full and satisfies the symbolic intent of “rest.” This leads to expositions that end in non sequiturs, confusing statements, or self-contradiction. Campbell (CS) acknowledges that the Sabbath is a sign of the Mosaic covenant and that the new covenant “has no need of ritual and ceremony [characteristic of the OT],” but then he concludes: “Not only is there a Sabbath for us in the New Testament: there is also a Lord’s Day for us in the Old.”[xiv] For Campbell, a “more stringent” weekly 24-hour rest from labor, sports, birthday parties, marriage celebrations, travel, and commerce, is not a ritual. He continues: “And as far as the fourth commandment is concerned, the shadow (the old, week-end Sabbath) has gone, but the Christ-substance appears before us now in a week-beginning Sabbath.”[xv] This echoes Pipa’s assertion that “the seventh-day Sabbath has been changed to a first-day Sabbath.”[xvi] Now, when Christ fulfills OT ceremonies, He gives spiritual flesh and value to what the ceremony foreshadowed so that it can never be done in the same way as before, because the outward observance is empty compared to spiritual benefits it foreshadowed in Christ. But Campbell and Pipa seem to say that the spiritual message of the seventh-day Sabbath and Jesus’ great accomplishment of all it foreshadowed is that we get to observe the same Sabbath on a different day! Somehow, the net effect of Jesus’ fulfillment of the OT Sabbath is that He postponed it one day. On Saturday, the Sabbath-rest looked forward to the day that we get to do the same Sabbath-rest on Sunday and call it the Christ-substance.[xvii]
Barnes (CS) cannot conceive of the Sabbath in ceremonial terms: “And hence it was, that while the observance of the feasts of tabernacles, and of the Passover, and of the new moons, made a part of the ceremonial law, the law respecting the sabbaths was incorporated with the ten commandments as of moral and perpetual obligation.”[xviii] The problem with Barnes’ analysis is that the Feast of Tabernacles, the Passover, and the New Moons were observed as Sabbaths! If he is comfortable with the fulfillment of these annual Sabbaths, why not the weekly Sabbaths? In what way did Jesus fulfill the seven annual 24-hour rests, but not the weekly 24-hour rests? Barnes must demonstrate biblically how the weekly Sabbaths are to be treated differently than the yearly Sabbaths, especially when Paul made no distinction in categorizing all feast days, New Moons, and Sabbaths as shadows (Col 2:16). It is not sufficient to simply state that the weekly Sabbaths are in the Decalogue and therefore exempt from fulfillment, while the annual Sabbaths are fulfilled in Christ. Apostle Paul must have realized that the Sabbath commandment is reiterated in the Ten Words, but this made no difference to him—all calendar observances listed in Leviticus 23 are fulfilled by Christ. To fulfill the Sabbath, whether it occurs weekly or annually, is to fulfill the typological intent of rest, which is living in the presence of God in a state of holiness. For Jesus to be our giver of rest, He must amplify and accentuate the figures of rest. Hence, His rest is a daily experience of redeeming grace and an eternally effective dispensation of peace and security.
Hodge (CS) classifies the law of God into four groups: 1) the foundational obligations of love and truth consistent with God’s nature; 2) the moral obligations for human relationships and societies [these two would comprise the moral law of God]; 3) the temporary duties for Israel dealing with their social, governmental, and ecclesiastical functions [this would be ceremonial and judicial laws of the Mosaic covenant]; and finally, 4) the duties that God simply wills for us to do. Into this last category, Hodge places the “Christian Sabbath,” an obligation that whether we understand the reason or not, we are morally obligated to obey. Hodge further explains that it is the invariable need for rest that man must keep the Sabbath day holy, yet God may will that a particular day be set aside for this, “which otherwise would have been a matter of indifference.” Hodge knows that the “Christian Sabbath” does not fit neatly into the realm of moral law (otherwise he would have addressed it under that rubric); and at the same time he does not want the Sabbath to be relegated to ceremonial law because, for him, the Christian day of worship cannot stand on its own, but must be unescapably bound to the Sabbath.
The crux of the matter is whether the Sabbath is infused with redemptive meaning or not. If the external observance of the Sabbath is pregnant with the symbolism of redemption, then it may conclusively be categorized as a ceremonial law. Campbell (CS) acknowledges the strong connection between the tabernacle and the Sabbath in Exodus 35: “The symbolism of creation is evident, therefore, as much in the Sabbath principle as in the tabernacle construction and its account. The cumulative evidence of these early passages of Genesis and Exodus point to the intimate relationship between creation and redemption, with the Sabbath principle of creation binding these motifs and themes together.”[xix] Campbell laid the foundation for declaring the typological intent of the Sabbath, but rather than promote the glory of Christ in fulfilling it, he obfuscates matters with needless casuistry. The typology of the Sabbath will be explored further in this work, however, should the reader want a detailed explanation how the seven external Sabbath-keeping behaviors have biblically defensible redemptive meanings, the matter is presented in my book, “The Sabbath Complete.”
[i] Ursinus, Zacharias. The Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 491.
[ii] Easton, “Law” in Easton’s Bible Dictionary.
[iii] Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on Col 2:4-12, p. 610.
[iv] VanGemeren, Willem A., “The Law is the Perfection of Righteousness in Jesus Christ” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, p. 37.
[v] Bahnsen, Greg L., “The Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, p. 99.
[vi] Luther, Martin. A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, (1538? 31?) trans. Theodore Graebner, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervon (1949). p. 99.
[vii] Weirsbe, Warren W. Weirsbe’s Expository Outlines on the New Testament, Cook:Colorado Springs, CO (1992), p. 524. (on Gal 3:19-20).
[viii] Campbell, Iain D., On the First Day of the Week, p. 66.
[ix] O’Hare, Terrence D., The Sabbath Complete, p. 190.
[x] The baptism of Jesus by John (Mk 1:9-11; Lk 3:21-22; Acts 2:38; 8:37-39) and the inauguration of the new covenant by Jesus at the close of Passover, the evening before His crucifixion (Lk 22:14-20; Acts 2:42; 20:7; 1 Cor 11:23-26).
[xi] Sharing in the baptism of Jesus’ suffering () and receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit () through faith. Made “one bread” as a community of faith and having the assurance of forgiveness because of Jesus’ shed blood; re-enactment of the initial covenant meal and re-commitment.
[xii] The world will experience the baptism of suffering but the saints will be immersed into the heavenly community prepared for us at the beginning. The saints from every nation, tongue, and kindred will experience the full unity of kingdom of God under His perfect rule.
[xiii] Pipa, Joseph A., The Lord’s Day, p. 57.
[xiv] Campbell, Iain D., On the First Day of the Week, p. 59, 66.
[xv] Campbell, Iain D., On the First Day of the Week, p. 149.
[xvi] Pipa, Joseph A., The Lord’s Day, p. 64.
[xvii] His argument seems to be that the Feast of First Fruits was fulfilled by Jesus in His resurrection, and that by fulfilling that calendar feast, He moved the Sabbath to Sunday, which starts the week instead of finishing it.
[xviii] Barnes, Albert. Notes on the Old Testament, Isaiah, 2 Vol., (Isa 66:23)
[xix] Campbell, Iain D., On the First Day of the Week, p. 62-63.