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Glossary 21 Continuity/Discontinuity (of the Law)
Continuity/Discontinuity. This is an important theological discussion point—indeed, a Gordian knot—that addresses the relationship between the old and new testaments. “The first question in the interpretation of Scriptures after acknowledging the Lordship of Jesus Christ is how to relate the Hebrew Scriptures to the ‘New’ Testament.”[i] “Any true biblical theology must recognize the centrality of the relationship between the testaments.”[ii] The answer to this question will ultimately affect your understanding of an array of key biblical concepts and topics, such as soteriology, the law and the gospel, Israel and the church, and eschatology.
There are several contemporary systems of thought that attempt to define the relationship between the testaments, the prevailing views being covenant theology and dispensationalism.[iii] These systems have developed over time and as a result of continuing biblical studies and dialogue a considerable variety of thought exists within each hermeneutical structure.[iv],[v] Both camps agree that certain aspects of the OT are discontinued and other aspects do continue; however, they may have different rationales behind any agreement. And, of course, the differences are preserved because the adopted systems 1) color the interpretation of key verses, 2) affect how biblical terms are conceived (i.e., “commandment,” “new,” “law,”), and 3) introduce constructs that delimit more freedom of thought (i.e., “covenant of grace,” “church as a parenthesis”). Covenant theology claims a position that favors “continuity” and dispensationalism adopts a position tending toward “discontinuity,” but these terms are rarely defined. What does continuity or discontinuity look like?
- Continuity describes something that changes little or not at all over time. There is a connection or succession in its state over time. Its state is uninterrupted, while at the same time, there may be progression and improvement, even arriving at a state of completeness or wholeness. Unbroken, consistent. The office of the President of the United States demonstrates continuity, though different individuals have held that office with differing political goals.
- Discontinuity embraces the idea that breaks or gaps occur, that a loss of cohesion takes place. Something comes to an end or arrives at its termination, often to be replaced by something new and different. There are jumps, intervals, separation, or breaches that upset the status quo. Things change in significant or radical ways, or something revolutionary appears for the first time. The Declaration of Independence marked the end of the colonial period and the beginning of the autonomous rule of the United States.
From these definitions, it is apparent that God is best described under the rubric of continuity, for He does not change or vary (Heb 13:8; Jas 1:17). Yet He introduced discontinuity into His eternal state with a six-day creation-fest. He didn’t change, but there was something strikingly other. Next, the fall of Adam marked an early and significant discontinuity in the perfection of God’s creation, yet God remained true to His holy character. The fact that we recognize the covenant with Noah and the covenant with Abraham as significant events is because of the discontinuities with what went before them. Heating water demonstrates a continuity that can be measured in degrees, but upon reaching its boiling point, a discontinuity occurs even though it is still dihydrogen oxide (water).[vi] When something significant happens in history, it often marks a discontinuity because of the radical changes that follow. The promulgation of the Law of Moses was a discontinuity for the life of the Israelites who previously were subject to Egyptian rule (Deut 4:34). The enthronement of King David was a discontinuity in the regime of Israel, replacing the period of judges. Jeremiah prophesied a new covenant, “not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers” (Jer 31-31-32), that conveys the sense of a radical change. While there is a premise of continuity as it pertains to God’s gracious character and the progression of biblical history, there is at the same time marked discontinuities evident in the outworking of His will for His people and mankind.
The ideas of continuity and discontinuity are also discussed in psychological theories dealing with the maturation of a person from birth to adulthood. The viewpoint of continuity is likened to a positive incline—a wheelchair ramp—whereas discontinuity is likened to steps. As an outsider to the theories of developmental psychology, it would appear that the maturation of the individual contains elements of both continuity and discontinuity. Many biblical scholars would admit the same seemingly bipolar relationship of the OT and NT. Interestingly, the NT describes Israel’s relationship to the law as a temporary tutelage or guardianship that would be changed at the point of maturity (Gal 3:23-25). And now that Christ has come as the mediator of a new covenant, the language of Scripture employs the metaphors of human growth, health, status, and maturation to describe the redemption of souls effected by the work of Jesus Christ. Salvation is likened to a new birth (Jn 3:3), a new creation (2 Cor 5:17), or the adoption into a new family (Gal 4:5); vision being restored to the blind (2 Cor 4:4) or a debilitating defect being healed (1 Pet 2:24); freedom being granted to the enslaved (Gal 4:7, 31), the release from the oversight of a pedagogue (Gal 3:25); the attainment of great spiritual riches (2 Cor 8:9) and indeed, coming to spiritual life (Col 2:13). None of these metaphors can be compared to an adjustment of but a few degrees or a simple change of administration. These describe sweeping, monumental changes, and markers of discontinuity with what went before. Clearly, it would be a distinct step, or discontinuity, for a Jew to adopt the phrase “the law of Christ” in favor of “the law of Moses,” or to subscribe to the conditions of the new covenant while relinquishing the demands of the Sinaitic covenant. It is doubtful anyone can be a member of both covenants simultaneously (Gal 4:8-14; Heb 2:1-4; 10:29). If Peter stumbled at this, then we can be assured that this was not a smooth transition for the Jews.[vii] Hendrickson, commenting on this passage noted, “The clear revelation of God’s love revealed in the birth, teaching, suffering, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and coronation of Christ and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was necessary to bring about a mighty change on earth… Compared to the rivulet of grace during the old dispensation there was a mighty stream now.”[viii] Whenever something “new” happens there is some discontinuity with whatever came before. “We do not have a situation in which a variety of new perspectives are added to the staple of old things that constitute Judaism, causing only minor readjustment. On the contrary, the new that comes is an eschatological turning point in the ages, of such great consequence that we must be prepared for dramatic shifts.”[ix] Calvin is even more direct in delineating the discontinuity of the law: “Paul compares this law first to a prison, and next to a schoolmaster. Such was the nature of the law, as both comparisons plainly show, that it could not have been in force beyond a certain time.”[x]
Baxter wisely begins his commentary affirming the unity of Scriptures—“one in the progressiveness of the revelation which they collectively unfold, one in the harmony of the structure which they collectively constitute, one in the spiritual unity of the message which they collectively declare.”[xi] But the unity of Scripture does not necessarily mean the operational continuity of every legal aspect of the Mosaic covenant with the new covenant. “The new covenant has some similarities to the old, but it is a new covenant.”[xii] Nor does it mean that the promises of God in the OT will be fulfilled precisely as they were understood in their given context.[xiii] Because scholars maintain different concepts about the OT/NT relationship, they vary in their approach to identify the basis for Christian morality, ethical norms, church life, and holy living. The following chart displays four models regarding the relationship of the Mosaic covenant to the new covenant in terms of God’s commands (Mosaic law). Each model takes on a different hue when answering the question: “How should we then live?” The focus of this discussion is how the [Mosaic] law/covenant is affected by the introduction of the new covenant.
|A. The Mosaic covenant continues concurrently with the new covenant, either in full force or to a modified extent. For example, the promises to national Israel are still in effect literally, which will impact the future of the church. Jews are still bound by the Mosaic covenant if they are not in the new covenant.
B. The Mosaic covenant comes to an end; however, aspects of it continue in force as part of the new covenant (or alongside the new covenant), such as the Ten Commandments, civil laws, all moral laws, or the promises to Israel.
C. The Mosaic Covenant, all preceding covenants, and the new covenant are all parts of the construct called the Covenant of Grace and are therefore continuous with one another and essentially the same, except for their “administration.”
D. The Mosaic covenant comes to an end when the new covenant is established; however, there are features of commonality between the covenants because they are consistent with God’s holiness and His eternal and gracious plan of redemption. The new covenant will draw upon the OT as it conforms to the law of Christ.
Besides the above concepts, there are two other factors that impact our understanding of the relationship between these two covenants: typology/fulfillment and the categorization of the laws and precepts. Various laws foreshadowing Christ, His work, and His people were fulfilled with His advent, and therefore are no longer required because they possess no spiritual value (i.e., circumcision). See Ceremonial Laws. Fulfillment, then, must be examined to determine its effect on Mosaic law(s), not only cultic, ceremonial, or external laws, but moral injunctions and the covenant as a whole. See Fulfillment.
The other important factor is how the laws of the Mosaic covenant are classified—if they are to be classified at all. Brogden does not find the terms of the tripartite division helpful because they imply the non-morality of so-called ceremonial and civil laws[xiv]: “A Jew obeyed the law of God in its entirety. He did not make sure to keep certain laws because they were on the moral list, while not worrying too much about observance of other laws because they were on the ‘ceremonial’ list.”[xv] While acknowledging that the [Mosaic] law should be recognized as a unity and infused with the righteousness of God (Rom 7:12), it is apparent that certain laws are of a different character than others; i.e., not eating shellfish (Lev 11:10) compared with not having sex with your granddaughter (Lev 18:10).[xvi] “Assigning priority to the moral aspect of the law over both its civil and ceremonial aspects can be observed in a plethora of passages found in the prophets.”[xvii]
Some would also distinguish civil laws and induce from them societal norms and values incumbent on every culture.[xviii],[xix] For example, the law of the parapet (Deut 22:8), literally understood, positively commands the building of a parapet, or fence, on the habitable roof of one’s dwelling in order to prevent accidental injury or death. Maimonides inferred from this law that homeowners are responsible to ensure the safety of their guests by removing any object that could potentially cause injury.[xx] Some Christians advocate “continuity” of this law, albeit as a principle. Others would argue that this particular law is discontinued because the whole law has been upstaged, but that the royal law of love requires the same thing, and this particular law is merely an example of the love for neighbor contained in the [Mosaic] law. As this example shows, the terms continuity and discontinuity are meaningless if both groups end up agreeing on the practical application for the church. “Christians have long debated about what parts of the OT law, if any, carry over into the NT. Many in the past have categorized the law into three parts: ceremonial, civil, and moral. Although this has no exegetical basis, it is a broadly helpful way to conceive of the law. Many scholars disagree with such a tripartite classification of the law and see it as being overly simplistic. The attempt to fit the law into these three categories is indeed a complex issue, and it needs more nuanced argumentation…”[xxi]
Lastly, the primary reason for studying this topic is practical—How should the NT shape and define the normal Christian life and what laws from the Mosaic covenant appear to apply and if so, in what way and to what extent? The New Testament validates the practical necessity to engage the narratives of the Old Testament (Rom 15:4; 1 Cor 10:11; 2 Tim 3:15-17; Heb 4:11), therefore, a “New Testament Christian” should be well-grounded in Old Testament history. Indeed, the Christocentric motif of the OT is able to effect spiritual renewal (Matt 4:4; Jn 5:39-47; cf. 2 Ki 23:2-3). In addition, Jesus repeated two Mosaic laws (Deut 6:4-5; Lev 19:18) that epitomize our spiritual duties to God and fellow man. These laws were for the nation Israel while they were in the land, and obedience to them would bring personal and national blessings, but they are authoritative even for [believing] Gentiles. James claimed that believers would also reap blessings contingent on their obedience to this “royal law” (Jas 2:8). But equally significant is that the apostles did not urge obedience to laws such as: the prohibition against mixing materials in clothing, scourging a man for having sex with someone else’s concubine, the prohibition against eating the fruit of a new tree for three years, the prohibition against shaving or making tattoos, keeping the Sabbath and reverencing the sanctuary, standing in the presence of an old man, and the like. Certainly, for the follower of Christ, the relationship to Mosaic law is profoundly different. There is a picking and choosing of OT material as it suits the mission and goals of the new covenant, and there is a right way and a wrong way to relate to the law. Paul reminded Timothy that the purpose of the commandment is to “love from a pure heart, good conscience, and sincere faith,” and that some supposed teachers of the law fail to understand it and focus their attention on unedifying topics. Furthermore, the law (as a moral mirror) still identifies sin so that the gospel may save sinners (1 Tim 1:3-16), yet Gentiles may still be saved without its use (Rom 2:12-16). “Nevertheless, the Gospel is a glorious superseding of and advancement over the Mosaic administration with its ceremonial ordinances.”[xxii]
Most outward Christian activities are affected by the answer to the earlier question, either consciously or subconsciously. Should a Christian vote, join the military service, or promote Israel? Should the church baptize infants, organize denominations, make religious art, or build elaborate structures for worship? May a Christian own a slave? Are Christians required to pay a tithe to the church? Are there roles for men and women both in church and in their community? Should children be present during the sermon? May our children marry at age 14? And, of course, are Christians required to abstain from all manner of work on the seventh day of the week? “As sure as it was His (Jesus’) to win and ascend the throne, it is His to prove His dominion in the individual soul. It is He, the Living One, who has divine power to work and maintain the life of communion and victory within us. He is the Mediator and Surety of the Covenant—He, the God-man, who has undertaken not only for all that God requires, but for all that we need too.”[xxiii]
In the context of continuity/discontinuity discussions, covenant theology (Reformed) generally favors the continuation of the Sabbath while dispensational theology (Evangelicals) does not. However, there are exceptions in both camps. The point is that neither system logically compels its supporters to adopt a particular view about the Sabbath. However, once someone identifies with a system, they are generally obliged to embrace the consensus or doctrinal position of that system. In other words, people accept the historic position of their denomination as a settled matter, assuming that its position is consistent within that theological framework and with the teaching of the Bible.
One argument for the continuity of the Sabbath comes from the maxim that OT laws continue into NT times unless they are specifically abrogated. For example, Bahnsen contends, “Indeed, the Bible teaches that we should assume continuity between the ethical standards of the New Testament and those of the old, rather than abbreviating the validity of God’s law according to some preconceived and artificial limit.”[xxiv] Of course, the Bible doesn’t explicitly teach us to assume this rule. It is merely a man-made rule to bolster the position of covenantal theology. If anything, one could reason that because God is a moral being who does not change, we should not expect His definition of morality to change from one covenant to another. Additionally, one could reason that if God commands anything, it would always be a moral command. Therefore, none of the laws of the OT should change with the institution of the NT. However, the Bible does teach us that the NT introduces phenomenal changes respecting laws of the OT, leading others to advise, “When we read a command given to the Jews, we do not assume that we must do it, too.”[xxv]
Bahnsen restates his position, “Our attitude must be that all Old Testament laws are presently our obligation unless further revelation from the Lawgiver shows that some change has been made.”[xxvi] Of course, were it not for the explicit NT teaching that the OT law of circumcision is now nothing, we would not be faced with the idea that any OT [formally considered moral] laws could change. In fact, it became immoral to require circumcision of Gentiles. This paradigm shift requires believers in Jesus Christ to redefine “morality,” so that even Jews could be free from laws that were previously considered moral obligations for a holy people. To explain this change, the earliest Christian apologists recognized that a parcel of OT laws were prophetical or eschatological in nature and were fulfilled/abrogated with the coming of Christ. So, our attitude must be to recognize at least two classes of Mosaic law: those that reflect God’s holy will from the beginning (i.e., moral, universal, or natural) and those that were introduced on a temporary basis to foreshadow Christ (ceremonial, cultic, or Jewish). The apostles distinguished between “royal” (Jas 2:8), “righteous” (Rom 8:4; Php 3:6), and “spiritual” laws (Gal 5:22-23), and another breed of ”fleshly” (Heb 7:16), “partitioning” (Eph 2:14-15), “weak and beggarly” (Gal 4:9), and “shadowy” (Heb 10:1) laws. For a first century Hebrew-Christian this realization must have been a jaw-dropping experience.
McKay reiterates, “The laws of the Old Testament are to be assumed to be fully in force unless there is a specific indication in the New Testament to the contrary.”[xxvii] In other words, would it not be wise and pious to err on the side of observing all OT laws that are not specifically annulled by a doctrinal argument in the NT? But those who state this rule cannot live with its application because great specificity is required to remove the force of a Mosaic law. None of the theologians who regurgitate this rule wear tassels with a blue cord even though great spirituality is associated with this law (Num 15:38-39). They don’t let the land lay fallow one in seven years even though the Lord punished Israel severely for ignoring this law (Ex 23:10-11). And they have no qualms about lighting a fire or driving for miles on their “Christian Sabbath,” let alone finding a NT teaching specifically moving the Sabbath to Sunday.
“Therefore, if perfection were through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need was there that another priest should rise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be called according to the order of Aaron? For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change of the law” (Heb 7:11-12). The people received the Mosaic law under the authority of the Levitical priesthood, and the church received a “changed” or new law under the priesthood of Jesus Christ. “This text may suggest that in the mind of the author the law as a whole is bound up with the priesthood.”[xxviii] “The priority of priesthood over law is thus clearly affirmed.”[xxix] Indeed, Christ was not eligible under the [Mosaic] law to act as a priest for Israel. God the father appointed Jesus Himself, as High Priest for the new covenant (Ps 109:4). Whether the Levitical priesthood was the condition necessary for the giving of the law, or the law itself was the source of authority for the Levitical priesthood, the relationship is inseparable, such that the imperfection of the priesthood implies the imperfection of the law,[xxx],[xxxi] which in turn necessitates a change of law. “The best that the old covenant could offer was not good enough.”[xxxii] The end point or goal of the [Mosaic] law was the perfection of the people, but being unable to achieve that, a new priesthood and law were necessary. “With the appointment of the new order, the old is abrogated.”[xxxiii]
[i] Peterson, Rodney. “Continuity and Discontinuity: The Debate Throughout Church History” in Continuity and Discontinuity, ed. John S. Feinberg; p. 17. The ‘New’ Testament is also “Hebrew Scriptures.”
[ii] Osborne, G. R. “New Testament Theology” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Ed. ed. Walter A. Elwell, p. 835.
[iii] To these very broad categories could be added the distinctives of Catholicism, Lutheranism, Messianic Theology, New Covenant Theology, Federal Vision Theology, Reconstructionism, Covenanters, Hyper- and Ultra-dispensationalism, and who knows what else.
[iv] Blaising, C. “Dispensationalism” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Ed. ed. Walter A. Elwell, p. 344.
[v] Karlberg, Mark W. Covenantal Theology in Reformed Perspective, p. 341-352.
[vi] And yes, science nerds, I know about super-heating. This illustration relates to the ordinary physical properties that people can observe and measure when boiling water.
[vii] Kruze, C. G. “Law” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology; T. Desmond Alexander, et. al., eds. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000) p. 635.
[viii] Hendrickson, William. Commentary on the New Testament, Vol 9, p. 147. (Gal 3:24)
[ix] Hagner, Donald A. “Paul as a Jewish Believer—According to His Letters” in Jewish Believers in Jesus, p. 118.
[x] Calvin’s Commentaries (repr. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), Vol 21, p. 106-107 (Gal 3:23).
[xi] Baxter, J. Sidlow. Explore the Book, p. 12.
[xii] Morrison, Michael. Sabbath, Circumcision, and Tithing (Lincoln, NE: Writers Club Press, 2002) p. 40.
[xiii]Berding, Kenneth and Jonathan Lund, eds., Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament.
[xiv] A moral law is not ceremonial or civil; a ceremonial law is not moral or civil; a civil law is not moral or ceremonial.
[xv] Brogden, Stuart L. Captive to the Word of God, (United States: Parables, 2016), p. 105.
[xvi] I was going to say “sex with your daughter” only to discover that Mosaic law does not explicitly condemn it. It may be inferred, with good reason, but at the same time, it is not specifically proscribed.
[xvii] Kaiser Jr., Walter C. “God’s Law as the Gracious Guidance for the Promotion of Holiness” in in Five Views on Law and Gospel, p. 189.
[xviii] Bahnsen, Greg L. “The Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, pp. 93-143.
[xix] Rushdooney, Rousas J. Law and Society (vol. 2 in Institutes of Biblical Law; Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1982)
[xx] Sandberg, Ruth N. Development and Discontinuity in Jewish Law, Lanham, MD: University Press of America 2001, p. 144-145.
[xxi] Beale, G. K. A New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), p. 871.
[xxii] Bahnsen, Greg L. “Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, p. 99.
[xxiii] Murray, Andrew. The Two Covenants and the Second Blessing, London: James Nesbit & Co., 1899, p. 91.
[xxiv] Bahnsen, Greg L. By This Standard, p. 2. (emphasis in the original).
[xxv] Morrison, Michael. Sabbath, Circumcision, and Tithing (Lincoln, NE: Writers Club Press, 2002), p. 9.
[xxvi] Bahnsen, Greg L. By This Standard, p. 3. (emphasis in the original).
[xxvii] McKay, David. The Bond of Love: God’s Covenantal Relationship with His Church, p. 192.
[xxviii] Moo, Douglas. “The law of Christ as the fulfillment of the law of Moses” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, Wayne G. Strickland, ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), p. 374.
[xxix] Ellingworth, Paul. The Epistle to the Hebrews, NIGTC, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), p. 373.
[xxx] Ebrard, John H. A. Biblical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, John Fulton, trans., 1853 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2008), p. 227.
[xxxi] Johnson, Luke Timothy, Hebrews (New Testament Library) (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006) p. 185.
[xxxii] Morrison, Michael. Sabbath, Circumcision, and Tithing (Lincoln, NE: Writers Club Press, 2002), p. 52.
[xxxiii] Macaulay, J. C. Expository Commentary on Hebrews (Chicago: Moody Press, 1978) p. 105.
Glossary 19 Abrogation
Abrogation. To formally annul or nullify a legal agreement or parts thereof. Laws, treaties, provisions, stipulations, jurisdictions, institutions, ordinances, and the like, are usually the subject of abrogation. This is fundamentally an authoritative act, for instance, when a new regime invalidates or overrules laws of a predecessor. Abrogation removes the authority and power of a law to effect or hold accountable, “For where there is no law, there is no transgression” (Rom 4:15). A variety of Greek words convey the idea to cancel or dismiss, to do away with or abolish, to revoke or repeal, to bring to nothing or make void. Examples: The Pharisees nullified [Gk. akurro “no authority”] God’s commandment by [the authority of] their own traditions (Matt 15:6). God’s promises cannot be disannulled, repealed, or made void [Gk. atheteo “to set aside”, Gk. akurro “unauthorized”, Gk. katargeo “rendered useless”] by men (Gal 3:15, 17). Faith does not invalidate [Gk. katargeo “make void” or “destroyed”] the law (Rom 3:31).[i] Christ made peace between Jew and Gentile by His death, having abolished [Gk. katargeo “rendered useless”] the law of commandments contained in ordinances (Eph 2:15). The glory of the Ten Commandments is done away with [Gk. katargeo “abolished”] by the exceeding glory of the new covenant (2 Cor 3:6-14). The law that was delivered through the Levitical priesthood is changed [Gk. metathesis] and annulled [Gk. athetisis “to set aside”] by the oath of God to establish Jesus as a priest forever with His new covenant (Heb 7:12, 18). Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant intimated that the Mosaic covenant would become old and disappear [Gk. aphanismos “vanish away”] (Heb 8:13).
Abrogation is the net effect of Christ’s fulfillment of the OT, by means of His incarnation, lifetime, death, resurrection, and ascension, on both the [Mosaic] law as a whole and specifically on the legal ceremonies and rituals of the law. Personal types (such as Joshua foreshadowing Christ) may be fulfilled, but these are not subject to abrogration, annulment, or abolishment—only legal types that constrained the Jewish nation to act out prefigurations of the person, work, and benefits of Christ’s redemption. “He says, therefore, that it is not in the power of men to make us subject to the observance of rites which Christ has by his death abolished, and exempts us from their yoke, that we may not allow ourselves to be fettered by the laws which they have imposed.”[ii] By the authority of Him who once gave those laws, they are now abrogated or done away with and rendered inoperative. Jesus intimated as much by claiming to be the Lord of the Sabbath—He may say what may or may not be done on the Sabbath, but the Pharisees have no such authority (Mk 2:28; Lk 6:5). As Calvin eloquently reasoned, something must be rendered void, either the ceremony or Christ: “Hence, the man that calls back the ceremonies into use, either buries the manifestation of Christ, or robs Christ of this excellence, and makes him in a manner void.”[iii] “The ceremonies, by which the distinction [between Jew and Gentile] was declared, have been abolished through Christ.”[iv] “The author here, as indeed everywhere throughout the epistle [Hebrews], designs to impress upon his readers the consciousness that the new covenant is not worse than the old, that Christianity is not something superfluous, something with which, at any rate, they might despise if only they have their beloved Judaism, but that the latter [the old covenant] rather has be made dispensable by Christianity.”[v] The fact that God abolished the old covenant and replaced it with the new gives us assurance that we belong to God as his children and that he accepts us in Christ.”[vi] The key to the relationship again is “fulfillment”—bringing to completion everything that was originally intended by God. The sacrifices will clearly be abolished, fulfilled once and for all in Christ’s death, while many moral principles will equally clearly remain unchanged.”[vii]
The fact that the Sabbath commandment is contained in the [Mosaic] law and/or in the Ten Commandments leads some to claim most emphatically that the Sabbath could not be abrogated by the new covenant. For example: “If Christ came to fulfill, and not to destroy, the law, then the commandment of the Sabbath is not abolished by Christ’s coming.”[viii] “Jesus’ New Covenant was not a completely new beginning. God did not send his Son to rescind all former covenants. Messiah did not entirely demolish the Old Testament and start afresh.[ix] “Jesus, therefore, does not abrogate the careful observance of the Sabbath but lays down principles by which we may properly keep the Lord’s Day holy.”[x]
Jesus said He did not come to destroy the law [Gk. kataluo, “break down” or “dissolve”] but to fulfill it [Gk. pleerosai, “fill up completely”]. Christ was not at odds with the law of God that He must bring it low. He is its author, not an illegitimate usurper; He is the Living Word, not an outside contrarian; He is its foremost interpreter and exemplar, not a foreign rebel and combatant; therefore, He must make it full, take it to completion, and achieve its intended goal. Jesus did not use any of the words that Paul used to describe the effect His death had on the law of Moses. His death did not destroy the law, but it did render aspects of it useless, since he fulfilled those parts. “It seems best to understand Jesus’ statement about coming to fulfil the law to mean his bringing into being of that which the law foreshadowed.”[xi] The following chart demonstrates the difference between destruction (what Jesus said He would not do) and fulfillment (what Jesus said He would do).
It is the viewpoint of non-Sabbatarians that Jesus fulfilled the Sabbath laws by His life, death, and resurrection, and this in turn made Sabbath-keeping of no effect. This is not antinomianism—a decision to shun legitimate laws for self-gratification or self-promotion—but anti-Judaizing, a decision to shun illegitimate laws for the glory of Christ. For all that “rest” is, as presented in the OT, is to be found in perfection in Christ, who assured all who come to Him to find in full measure for their soul. Jesus makes full and brings to completion all that the Sabbath entailed for the Jews. As it was given in Exodus and described throughout their history, the Sabbath institution is entirely ceremonial and foreshadowing in its design. This is the only way that such a law can be fulfilled typologically (and annulled), and only Christ has the authority to do so. One may fulfill the requirements of a law in a legal sense (Ex 5:3; 1Chr 22:13; Jas 2:8), meaning observing it properly, but this “fulfillment” at the human level has no power to annul. Only by bringing in true redemptive rest can the ceremonial Sabbath be divinely fulfilled and authoritatively abrogated.
[i] Our faith is not an act of authority that gives us power to decide for ourselves how to live before God, but an act of submission to the authority and faithfulness of God. Our assent that Christ has fulfilled the law, and that we do, by God’s grace, follow Christ, we are in fact establishing the law. The defensive statement nearly echoes Jesus who asserted that He did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it. So, the sense of “establishing” the law must carry the idea of the primacy of faith as a response to the faithful outworking of God’s will as recounted through the whole law; and that by virtue of our union with Christ, His relationship to the law is our relationship. This verse hardly gives the impression that Paul is holding up the works of the law and the work of faith on equal footing.
[ii] Calvin, Commentaries. Vol 21, Col 2:16, p. 193.
[iii] Calvin, Commentaries. Vol 21, Col 2:17, p. 193.
[iv] Calvin, Commentaries. Vol 21, Eph 2:15, p. 237.
[v] Ebrard, John H. A., Biblical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews in Continuation of the Work of Olshausen, John Fulton, trans., (1853), Eugene OR: Wipf and Stock (2008) reprint, p. 141-142.
[vi] Brown, Michael G. “Dawn of the New Creation:The New Covenant” in The Outlook, 68:3 (May/Jun 2018), p.20.
[vii] Blomberg, Craig L. “Matthew” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, eds. () p. 20.
[viii] Thomas Shepard. Theses Sabbaticae, p. 153.
[ix] Chantry, Walter. Call the Sabbath a Delight, p. 63.
[x] Pipa, Joseph A. “The Christian Sabbath” in Perspectives on the Sabbath, John Donato, ed., (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2011), p. 144.
[xi] Kruse, C. G. “Law” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, T. Desmond Alexander, et.al. eds. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000) p. 634.
Fulfillment. The idea of fulfillment traces back to the OT, where it conveys the end of a period of time during which something was expected, such as the completion of a pregnancy when a child is born (Gen 25:24) or the culmination of a contractual obligation when a wife is given (Gen 29:21). Fulfillment also marks the terminus of one’s life with the expectation of rest (2 Sam 7:12). The long anticipated ‘rest’ of death brings a far greater satisfaction than the days of toil and sweat (Lk 23:43; Phil 1:23). Finally, fulfillment is used to describe the coming to pass of God’s promises and making full His predictive word, such as the completion of the Temple by Solomon (1 Ki 8:20) or the return of the Jews to Jerusalem after the completion of their punishment (2 Chr 36:21; Ez 1:1). A promise or prophecy from God plants the seed of expectancy and hope; and those of faith will witness the realization of it in history, whether dead or alive (Lk 24:25-27; Jn 8:56; Heb 11:13-16).
The language of fulfillment is present even at the completion of the creation week. “Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished” (Gen 2:1).[i] God’s will in creating all that He created was fulfilled.[ii] As Jeremiah stated, “The Lord has done what He purposed; He has fulfilled His word Which He commanded in days of old” (Lam 2:17). Immediately after the fall of Adam, God’s promise of the Seed of a woman who will defeat the serpent initiates the hopes and expectations that the curse will be undone and peace will be restored. Because God is true to His word we can expect that He will surely accomplish what He has designed. And the final prophets to Israel assured them that the hopes of old were soon to be accomplished through the “Desire of all Nations”, the “Lowly King” and the “Sun of Righteousness” (Hag 2:7; Zech 9:10; Mal 4:1-6). At the close of the OT, the Jews were still awaiting the fulfillment of God’s promise of the Messiah and the new covenant (Jer 31:31). “The new covenant in Christ, then, is far better because it fulfills the promises made in Jeremiah…”[iii]
Even though the first century Gospels and Epistles present Jesus as the fulfillment of OT Scriptures, the messianic expectations of the Jews was anything but a consensus. That being said, “Significant numbers of Jews… embraced hopes that God would ultimately intervene to judge, redeem, and rule the world… through some kind of eschatological agent, a messiah.”[iv] General beliefs appear to center on three characteristics: 1) the ideal ruler would be related to the house of David, 2) enemies of Israel would be defeated with the resurgence of nationalistic Israel, and 3) the kingdom of God would encompass the earth in a period of peace and prosperity. Edersheim affirms “that the main postulates of the New Testament concerning the Messiah are fully supported by rabbinic statements.”[v] He compiled a list of 456 verses and 558 commentary references to those verses outlining the wealth of Jewish thought regarding the forthcoming Messiah. Referring to the expectation of a superhuman Messiah, Edersheim concluded that the teachings within the synagogue were ultimately the door for Jewish believers to accept the divine nature of Jesus Christ. “And once that point reached, the mind, looking back through the teaching of the Synagogue, would, with increasing clearness, perceive that, however ill-understood in the past, this had been all along the sum of the whole Old Testament.”[vi]
In the NT, fulfillment is immediately and profoundly attributed to the first advent of Jesus Christ (Matt 1:22; Mk 1:15; Lk 1:1). “One does not have to read far in the New Testament Scriptures to discover the language of fulfillment.”[vii] The OT Scriptures that spoke of Him through prophecy and type, gave the Jewish people reason to expect that God would do what He had purposed through the chosen seed of Adam (Gen 3:15). “The word fulfill includes more than confirmation, since, when taken together with the total context, it implies that a later event brings to realization something that was anticipated or foreshadowed in earlier Scripture.”[viii] From the Greek πληρόω (plerōo)—which commonly means to fill up to the brim (Matt 13:48), to make complete (Acts 19:21), or to execute the duties of an office (Acts 12:25)—“fulfill” is used in the Gospels to declare the fulfillment of OT prophecies by Jesus of Nazareth in His incarnation and birth (Matt 1:22; Jn 5:39; Act 18:28), His escape to and return from Egypt (Matt 2:13-18), His baptism by John (Matt 3:15), His healing ministry (Matt 8:17), His teaching ministry (Matt 13:10-17, 35), the events of his death (Matt 26:52-56; 27:9, 35; Jn 19:24, 28, 36; Acts 3:18; 3:29), resurrection (Acts 13:33; Rom 1:1-4; 1 Cor 15:3-4), and ascension (Eph 4:8-10).
Jesus claimed to fulfill “all righteousness” through the baptism of John (Matt 3:15). “His identification with them [sinful Israelites] here anticipates His complete identification with sinners when He bears their sins on the cross.”[ix] At the beginning of His ministry, He asserted the present fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophetic word (Isa 61:1-3): “Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). “Jesus’ table fellowship with the outcasts was not accidental . . . He did so precisely because he consciously sought to fulfill such Old Testament prophecies as Isaiah 61:1-2.”[x] Additionally, Jesus claimed that He is the one who will completely fulfill the expectations of the law and the prophets (Matt 5:17). “Jesus does not conceive of his life and ministry in terms of opposition to the Old Testament, but in terms of bringing to fruition that toward which it points.”[xi] Lastly, prior to His ascension, Jesus reiterated that “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (Lk 24:44). To see Jesus is to see the fulfillment of every expectation of God’s good will toward His creation in what He has done and will do.
By the outset of His ministry, the expectations of Scripture were already fulfilled, were being fulfilled, and would continue to be fulfilled in His person, His life, His teachings, and His return in glory. He completely fills up to full measure and brings to complete realization all that was written before in the histories, poetry, prophecies, and laws of Israel. “[Jesus] borrows freely from various OT passages to prove that expectations found throughout the OT are fulfilled in his work.”[xii]
Matthew systematically presents Jesus as fulfilling the expectations of Scripture with direct and indirect prophetic utterances, historical references, correspondences and symbolism. Consequently, fulfillment must be the principal consideration in our analysis of the NT use of OT Scriptures, and it is best understood taking place in two phases. 1) Since the NT describes fulfillment taking place throughout Christ’s first advent, we must acknowledge the progressive unfolding of it in the context of Judaism under the law. “Jesus simply used an illustration [of sacrifices at the temple] that spoke to his contemporaries since he ministered in the period in which the Mosaic law was still in force.”[xiii] Jesus did not come to surgically alter the body of legal duties contained in the Mosaic covenant for the sake of bringing in Gentiles. His mission was more profound and far-reaching than that, in that He presented himself to Israel as the ultimate interpreter and actual substance of the Holy Scriptures. 2) Following His ascension, there is a transitional understanding of fulfillment in the context of the church which anticipates His second advent. “Jesus’ authoritative teaching anticipates the change, which does not actually come until the Resurrection.”[xiv] Thus, the consequences of fulfillment for the church are mapped out primarily by Paul who begins his epistles with truths about the person of Jesus Christ and ends them with a practical ethos for the church. Hence, the idea that specific laws are abrogated is a practical consequence of understanding the fulfillment of the law and the prophets by Jesus of Nazareth. “We clearly have an instance [in Mark’s gospel about unclean foods], then, in which the newness introduced by Jesus leads to the abolition of laws found in the Old Testament.”[xv] See Abrogation.
Furthermore, fulfillment of our redemption is described as an “all ready-not yet” state. From the Reformed perspective, the first advent of Christ marks the “inauguration” of fulfillment. “The times in which we now live are the times of fulfilment, the times which mark out the beginning of the end of history, the times in which Christ has begun to establish and ultimately will fully usher in the glorious future of promise.”[xvi] As we live in the times awaiting the final consummation, the implications of the fulfillment of Mosaic laws continues to be the subject of discussion in eschatology and ethics. One such line of thinking with respect to the Sabbath is the claim that the Sabbath principle of resting one day in seven is still obligatory until the final state of rest is attained. These Sabbatarians acknowledge that the Sabbath is a fulfilled type, but it is only fulfilled in an inaugurated state. “While the present order of creation continues, and until the eschatological tension is finally resolved, the creation ordinance of the sabbath rest remains in effect.”[xvii]This tenet is pure nonsense, because several Mosaic laws typified the complete state of redemptive rest that will not be bodily realized until the consummation of all things; and these laws are no longer considered obligatory for the church. The Year of Jubilee—an intensification of the Sabbatic Year and the Sabbath itself—is a prime example of a fulfilled typical law in an already-not yet state. Fairbairn, the father of typology, acknowledges this eschatological tension with the Year of Jubilee. “A presage and earnest of its complete fulfillment was given in the work of Christ, when at the very outset He declared that He was anointed to preach good tidings to the poor…”[xviii] While all the conditions continue to exist that made the Jubilee a thing Israel should hope for, Fairbairn proposes no continuing obligation to this law. Regarding the Sabbatic Year, he states that the “graces of a pious, charitable, and beneficent life—these things conveyed to the Israelites, and they convey still to the Church of God,” yet he affirms that the outward ordinance has ceased.”[xix] Somehow, Christ’s fulfillment of these laws, by providing redemptive rest through His blood on the cross, invalidated the greatest legal visions of eschatological rest, peace, and charity, but it did nothing to the weekly Sabbath. The inconsistency is befuddling.
The risen Lord Jesus said He came to fulfill all things (Lk 24:44). “For the substance of those things which the ceremonies anciently prefigured is now presented before our eyes in Christ, inasmuch as he contains in himself everything that they marked out as future.”[xx]
[i] TDNT, πληρόω; “To complete… it means to finish” p.297
[ii] TDNT, πληρόω; “God fulfills His Word by fully actualising it” p.295
[iii] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology, p. 521.
[iv] Pomykala, Kenneth E. “Messianism” in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism, p. 939. [v] Edersheim, Alfred, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, p. 116.
[vi] Edersheim, Alfred, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, p. 126.
[vii] Venema, Cornelius P. The Promise of the Future. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2000, p. 25.
[viii] Poythress, Vern S. The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, p. 365.
[ix] Poythress, Vern S. The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, p. 253.
[x] Stein, Robert H. Jesus the Messiah, p. 127.
[xi] Carson, D. A. The Sermon on the Mount: An Evangelical Exposition of Matthew 5-7 (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1978), p. 37.
[xii] Goppelt, Leonhard. Typos, p. 69.
[xiii] Schreiner, Thomas R. 40 Questions about Chistians and Biblical Law, p. 162.
[xiv] Carson, D. A. “Jesus and the Sabbath in the Four Gospels” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, D. A. Carson, ed., p. 79.
[xv] Schreiner, Thomas R. 40 Questions about Chistians and Biblical Law, p. 162.
[xvi] Venema, Cornelius P. The Promise of the Future. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2000, p. 27.
[xvii] Chamblin, Knox. “The Law of Moses and the Law of Christ” in Continuity and Discontinuity, p. 196. This is repeated by G. K. Beale in A New Testament Biblical Theology, p. 798.
[xviii] Fairbairn, Patrick. Typology of Scripture, p. 404.
[xix] Fairbairn, Patrick. Typology of Scripture, p. 403.
[xx] Calvin, Commentaries, Vol 21, Col 2:16, p. 192.
Part 1: General Overview
A Covenantalist and a Dispensationalist aim and fire their shotguns at their targets. How do you tell which target belonged to whom?
This is the battle between Reformed Covenant theology and Evangelical Dispensationalism and how these systems understand the relationship between the OT and NT, but especially between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant. All of the contributors are beneficiaries of the work of Christ and participants in the new covenant, but something has created a rift in their understanding of the place of the NT church in God’s eternal plan. Essayist Petersen states “The Bible, the book that unites the church, frequently divides it” (p. 34). But I think we ourselves divide over it.
Continuity and Discontinuity is now 30 years old. And in that time, having associated with churches that espouse these varied positions, I don’t think much has changed since then. My interest in this book was specific to the law, and how the foundational premise of continuity and discontinuity would affect their respective views of the Sabbath. I plan to discuss the two chapters dealing with the law and in a separate article. A third article will address the comments made by Chamblin and Moo specific to their sabbatology.
The first chapter of this in-depth festschrift reviews the historical development of the challenges of relating the testaments to each other. Covenant Theology arose in the sixteenth century (there are precursors with everything) with a sense that the church was true Israel. I agreed with Petersen’s observation that “the implication from this was that the moral laws and precepts of the OT were given added weight as guides to the Christian life” (p. 27). Dispensationalism arose in the nineteenth century with the sense that Israel as a nation still had a role in end-times events. Historically speaking, it appears that the Christian’s hope for the Parousia, couched in terms of their present historical circumstances, can have a profound effect on their hermeneutic. Could it be possible that both of these views have misdirected NT theology?
The following topics are discussed, two essays from opposing viewpoints. I will comment only on the topics “Theological Systems” and “People of God.”
- Theological Systems (Ch 2,3)
- Hermeneutics (Ch 4,5)
- Salvation (Ch 6,7)
- The Law (Ch 8,9)
- People of God (Ch 10,11)
- Kingdom Promises (Ch 12,13)
Chapters 2 and 3 offer a general outline of the competing systems. Readers will not be presented with a conclusive position statement from either system of thought; they will simply have to be already familiar with the respective systems.
Reformed. Van Gemeren says Reformed theology is a continuity system, but little is presented what necessitates a position of “continuity.” He mentions a list of similarities and differences between the covenants compiled by Ursinus, but the list seemed to favor dissimilarities! The first half of his essay focused on the in-fighting among Reformed theologians and concluded with the introspective question whether it is possible to be biblical and confessionally Reformed. Silly question. Of course, those who embrace Reformed theology think they are biblical. The second half of his essay says little about what makes Reformed theology a continuity system. God is father, Christ is a unifying thread, the Spirit is working, and there will be end times. “The genius of Reformed Theology lies in the willingness to live with tensions inherent in the system” (p. 62).
Dispensational. Feinberg then argues that Dispensationalism does not rely on the term “dispensation,” does not mean that God is testing humanity, does not specify the number of dispensations one must accept, has no impact on whether one is Calvinist or Arminian, and does not demand a particular view of the law. Israel is important. Feinberg begins to isolate a difference between the systems when he states that typological approaches and the promise-fulfillment concept form the basis for continuity-oriented interpretations (p. 66). But later he says, “Dispensational and nondispensational thinkers agree that the NT fulfills the OT and is a more complete revelation of God” (p. 75). Later, he explains that nondispensational systems view types as shadows that somehow lose their meaning in their own context when superseded by the anti-type. On the other hand, dispensationalists view types as not necessarily shadows and they must “be given their due meanings in their own contexts while maintaining a typological relation to one another” (p. 78). Without a valid illustration of this phenomenon, it is difficult to understand what he means. All dispensationalists, he avers, “think some sort of distinction between Israel and the church is important” (p. 68, 81). Then he says that “many covenant theologians distinguish Israel from the church” (p. 71). As he admitted, there is confusion in the camps (p. 74).
Chapters 10 and 11 explain why Israel is or is not a continuing entity in God’s redemptive plans.
Reformed. Woudstra, arguing for continuity between Israel and the church, begins with a Scottish confessional statement about the existence of the “kirk” or church from the time of Adam. For Woudstra the question, it seems, is tied to salvation. He sees Israel in Genesis before it became a nation, and so he sees the church in Exodus before Christ even said He will build His church. At the same time, Woudstra calls Israel a prototype of the church, which to me means that it cannot be both the church and a prototype of the church at the same time. Israel is or it is not the church (and vice versa). And he calls the church the new Israel. Not the new “Israel” but the new Israel. However, you will not find the Reformed boasting that they are Jews. While God may call the things that are not as though they are (Rom 4:17), I have a problem with the prochronism of Covenant Theology that places the NT church in OT times. Certainly, OT saints were saved, but not because they understood that Jesus died for their sins. And if Israel, which is the kirk or a prototype of the church, enjoyed all the benefits that the NT church now enjoys, then what makes the new covenant “new”?
Dispensational. Suacy, arguing for discontinuity between Israel and the church, notes the dramatic changes brought by the new covenant, but then says, “But newness with the inauguration of the church does not in itself establish a discontinuity of the church in relation to Israel” (p. 250). Saucy seems to see the question as to whether Israel as a nation has a separate spiritual path after the establishment of the New Testament church. Of course, he admits from the outset this question arises due to historic circumstances. Paul mentions Israel and means the nation Israel, he propounds. However, Paul wrote when Israel was still a nation. And until 1948, there was no national Israel. Its contemporary existence as an independent state is certainly a monumental event, but it is not a restoration of the Mosaic covenant, nor was the event the fulfillment of clear prophecy.
Analysis. I got the impression that the contributors were often arguing from the standpoint of their chosen theological system rather than from exegetical analysis of key texts and a comprehensive understanding of both sides of the topic in question. Sometimes, the more one qualifies their position the less clear their position becomes. On top of that, the terms “continuity” and “discontinuity” were never really defined, which makes them near meaningless. I find it amusing that the discontinuity between Israel and the church means that Israel continues to be Israel; and that continuity means that the Jewish nation ends (the old church, as it were) and is subsumed or superseded by the church, which is the new Israel. But what system do I belong to if I believe that the church started with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and that God’s covenant with Israel is old and passed away? I am glad that ethnic Jews remain to this day. Does God want them to assent to the vicarious suffering and death of Jesus and so enter the new covenant or does He want them to remain in unbelief until such time that He reinstates or reactivates the inferior covenant to resume bloody sacrifices and give them earthly blessings?
Editor and contributor John S. Feinberg provided a fine summary of this festschrift in the final epilogue. However, it is a foregone conclusion that “the authors of this volume agree that the relation of the Testaments is one of continuity and discontinuity.” Each essayist admitted that from the outset. No one supports complete discontinuity or complete continuity, whatever that might entail. Each contributor was quite nuanced in his presentation, so at times it is was difficult to figure out whether they were in agreement or disagreement with each other. Nonetheless, there remains notable differences regarding the relationship of Israel and the church, and the corollary topics of the law and kingdom promises.
The new covenant expects and demands that Christians are unified in their understanding of it and what sort of life one should lead. The contributors do not hammer out the behaviors that necessarily follow from their viewpoint (thankfully), but they do focus on the background assumptions and conclusions which in turn would play out in practical application. It does not, in my mind, adequately explain why Covenantalism or Dispensationalism necessarily lead to either continuity or discontinuity, when all the authors acknowledge that within each camp there is such variety of positions that no one position exemplifies or captures the essence of them. Hence, the shotgun illustration above. If someone could be all over the board, so to speak, how do the words “continuity” or “discontinuity” explain one’s position?
As a student of the Bible, I began to wonder if I was ignoring Paul’s advice “that the ultimate aim is to love which springs from a pure heart, a good conscience and a genuine faith. Some seem to have forgotten this and to have lost themselves in endless words” (1 Tim 1:5-6, Phillips). But maybe this fits under iron sharpens iron (Prov 27:17). It was dialogical, after all; and what better way to iron out the wrinkles in our theology? This book stimulated much thinking and study on my part, which led me to produce a three-part review. At the same time, this book was not as definitive as I would have liked.
Noachide (Noachian) Law. A body of laws presumed by ancient Jews to have been given by God to mankind prior to the giving of the Torah to Israel. All mankind (Gentiles specifically) would be accountable to this seven-point code composed of prohibitions against 1) idolatry, 2) fornication, 3) murder, 4) blasphemy, 5) corrupt government, 6) stealing, and 7) cruelty to animals. The rationale for determining such a moral standard begins with the knowledge that the law of commandments (Torah) was given to Israel, all 613 of them. This means that the Torah was not given to Adam, Noah, or even Abraham. Not until God befriended Abraham and gave him the sign of circumcision does the concept of national Israel even find reality. Since the people of Israel were chosen by God to receive the law, all other peoples and nations were not (Rom 9:4; Eph 2:12). Paul expresses that national pride in the statement, “We who are Jews by nature and not sinners of the Gentiles” (Gal 2:15). Paul also states boldly that the Gentiles did not have the [Mosaic] law (Rom 2:12-14; 1 Cor 9:20). Ancient Jewish rabbis considered this matter in Midrash Bereshit Rabba—and Neusner summarizes: “What Adam could not accomplish, Moses did…what man could not do, Israel, represented by Moses, can do.”[i]
The respect and love for the Torah as a guide to life elicited questions about the righteousness of Noah (Gen 7:1), who represents all mankind. How could Noah live righteously and then successfully weather the trial of his faith without the Torah to guide him? The ancient commentators deduced that mankind in Noah’s generation was not without some law delineating God’s expectations of mankind, otherwise, God could not be just in rendering judgment. The murder of Abel, the violence in Noah’s day, and the hubris at Babel provide the backdrop for determining what sins for which mankind was held accountable. Yet, even though the Gentiles did not have this unique revelation of God and a favored status by virtue of the forthcoming Messiah, the Gentiles still had a conscience that in many ways reflected the morality of the law (Rom 2:14). A Gentile is not judged by the law [of Moses], but by his own conscience that is open and laid bare before the judgment of Jesus Christ (Rom 2:15-16). And Gentiles, like Noah, first find grace in the Lord’s eyes and through faith are declared righteous (Gen 6:8; 15:6; Heb 11:7, 8; Rom 4).
A list of laws is presented in Acts 15 during the council at Jerusalem which addressed the reception of Gentiles into the growing gospel community. The specific laws mentioned on that occasion were: 1) avoiding things polluted by idolatry, 2) eluding fornication, 3) abstaining from improperly killing animals for food, and 4) shunning blood (drinking it, shedding it?). The sign of circumcision, necessary of male converts to Judaism, was not required of male converts to Christianity. This passage does not lend credence to the theory that God gave Adam and Noah these specific laws. This topic only addresses the Jewish answer to the question about the possible salvation of non-Jews.
The judgment of Noah’s world finds significance in new testament literature, as Jesus draws a parallel between that worldly judgment and the forthcoming judgment at the world’s end (Matt 24:37-38; 1 Pet 3:20). The world’s population was and continues to be held accountable to a uniform and unchanging standard of righteousness. But noticeably absent in any narrative in which Gentiles are “weighed and found wanting” (Dan 5:27) are any failures to observe Noachide laws, let alone any ritual laws such as circumcision, sacrifices, and Sabbath-keeping. Cain did not fear God and was a murderer (Gen 4:8; Heb 11:4); Lot failed in drunkenness and incest (Gen 19:33); Belshazzar was convicted of pride and idolatry (Dan 5:22-23); Nebuchadnezzar was prideful and unmerciful in his office (Dan 4:27); the King of Tyre was given much, but full of pride, self-love, and greed (Ezek 28:2, 4, 17, 18); and the people of Sodom were full of pride, gluttonous, lazy, and indifferent to the poor and needy (Ezek 16:48-50). In none of these cases, were any of these Gentile sinners accused of violating the law of Moses or the covenant with Israel. Indeed, no Gentile was ever condemned for failing to observe the Sabbath. However, the Lord judged Israel for their failure to observe the Sabbath of the Land (2 Chr 26:21) and he even despised the manner in which the Jews regarded the Sabbath (Ezek 22:8). But no other nation was so judged. In fact, the Lord found fit to deport Israel for seventy years to a country that did not observe the Sabbath or the Sabbath of the Land.
Paul asserted that the Gentiles do by nature the things in the law—their conscience bearing witness of their internal knowledge of good and evil. They may get a twinge of caution or a spasm of reconsideration as they plan to threaten and rob someone who is weaker than them. In a moment of uncontrolled passion, they may sleep with a whore or their neighbor’s wife, and yet secretly carry regret for the remainder of their life. Even a pagan child knows it’s wrong to intentionally hurt someone. But what Gentile parents on the eighth day of their newborn son’s life struggle with an inner-knowledge that they should remove their son’s foreskin (Lev 12:3)? What pagan after touching a deceased body is driven by his conscience to purify himself by water on the third and seventh day (Num 19:11)? What nation, state, or city of Gentiles on the fifteenth day of the seventh month gather fruit, palm leaves, and willow branches, and then rejoice for seven days while they live in little huts (Lev 23:34-43)? And what non-Jew in history past, felt compelled to refrain from all manner of labor every seventh day, not even building a fire or traveling (Ex 16:23-29; 31:14-16; 35:2-3)? If Paul is correct that the conscience of Gentiles—those unfamiliar with Mosaic law—is pricked when they fail to obey moral laws, and if Sabbatarians are correct that the Sabbath—resting from all manner of work on the seventh day—is a moral law, then ancient history, sociology, and anthropology books should be replete with accounts of institutional sabbatisms among most cultures, ancient and modern. But Webster’s research could find no rational explanation for the origin of the Sabbath among the Jews and declared it a “momentous innovation… which must be attributed to the Hebrew people alone.”[ii] As Webster considered the history of Christianity, he observed that the early church fathers “made no reference to Sunday as a day of abstinence from labour.”[iii] He noted that the view that Sunday should be observed like a Sabbath occurred occasionally during the Middle Ages, but did not come to fruition until the “excesses of English and Scottish Puritanism” [in the 16th century].[iv] Apart from Judaism, the Sabbath wields no moral force. And Christians who wield the Sabbath are Judaizing the Lord’s Day.
[i] Neusner, Jacob. Confronting Creation, p. 108. The argument is spurious for sure, but the ancients observed that Adam had a mere six commandments to follow, but failed. Therefore, he was not up to task of receiving the Torah. However, Israel obtained righteousness, God finding it in Abraham, David, and Israel. It is through the merits of Israel that Noah found grace. “Noah on his own–that is, humanity–enjoyed salvation only because of Israel’s merit” (p. 124).
[ii] Webster, Hutton. Rest Days, p. 254.
[iii] Ibid., p. 270.
[iv] Ibid., p. 270-271.