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Ten Commandments/Decalogue. The Ten Commandments, or Ten Words, are the major part of the engraved covenant given to Israel by God from Mount Sinai shortly after the Exodus (Ex 20:1-17). “The Decalogue provides the basis for the covenant with all of Israel.”[i] The prologue identifies the parties to the covenant—the Lord God who makes nations bow to His will and the formerly enslaved and now redeemed Israelites who are to serve a new Master—and it is followed by ten laws. This collection of laws attains special status since they were specifically inscribed on stone by the hand of God and called the “Ten Words” (Ex 34:28; Deut 4:13). The manner in which the Lord conveyed His message with lightning and thundering, and the unique presentation of a miraculously hewn document that capsulized the covenant between Israel and Himself, impressed the whole camp of the Lord’s cosmic authority. He is the sovereign God of heaven and earth, yet He is establishing a covenant agreement with the least of all nations for the sake of His promise to Abraham. The Ten Commandments (with the prologue) are essentially the core document of the Mosaic covenant, kept as it was in the ark of the covenant (Ex 25:16; Deut 10:2-5, 8). The idea of a “commandment” is to draw attention to the authority of the one issuing the command, and so all Israel was to obey all the commandments of the covenant, both ethical and cultic commands. Moses introduced the engraved law and covenant as “testimonies, statutes and ordinances” (Deut 4:13-14, 44-45; 5:1), so the laws of the Decalogue are no different than the rest of the laws of the covenant and one will find that ceremonial laws are also considered to be “commandments” (Lev 27:34; Deut 1:3; 11:22; 19:9). While the form of the Ten Commandments lends itself to catechetical instruction or memory (Jer 7:9; Hos 4:2; Matt 19:17-22; Rom 13:9; cf. Lev 19:1-18; Deut 27:15-26), they far from dominate either OT or NT ethical lists or summaries. “The commandments of the Decalogue are rarely cited in the OT.”[ii] “In what respect exactly the ten commandments differed from the Book of the Covenant in terms of content is nowhere explicitly stated.”[iii] “Exodus 23 belongs to the Book of the Covenant, where the statutes and ordinances for the covenantal relationship are laid out, and these regulations can be considered as an explication of the Decalogue, which precedes them.”[iv]
There are no punishments—no legal recourses—stipulated within this document; however, there is a promise associated with the command to honor one’s parents. Most of the laws are couched as prohibitions. This collection of laws is a summary of the covenant the Lord made with Israel, “listing those areas of life where human conduct was intended to be shaped and enriched by adherence to the demands of living as a community of God’s people.”[v] “The focus is on protecting the health of the community, to which end the individual plays such an important role.”[vi]
When this list of commands is viewed superficially, the Decalogue is often considered to represent the minimum moral requirements to ensure that one’s life pleases God, but this is not to imply that obedience to the Ten Commandments will result in the salvation of one’s soul. “The giving of the law [the Ten Commandments] followed the salvation of Israel, and hence such obedience signified Israel’s grateful response to the redemption accomplished by the Lord.”[vii] Another view imagines that each commandment has a positive and negative duty that, when viewed in their totality, then encompasses every area of life. For example, not only should we not kill someone, we should also make effort to preserve human life. However, Jesus demonstrated the inadequacy of this view (Matt 10:34-29; 18:18-23; 22:35-40; cf. Isa 1:13-17; Mic 6:8). These two views often overlook three other features about the Ten Commandments: 1) they are a summary of the whole law that Israel was covenanted to keep, 2) the number and arrangement of those laws have symbolic meaning,[viii] and 3) the NT adds a new perspective about the law, and the Decalogue as a whole (2 Cor 3:6-4:6; Heb 7:11-12; 9:1-10; 12:18-24). See Moral Law and Noachide Law.
Individual commandments from the Decalogue are referenced positively in the gospels (Matt 5:21, 27; 19:18-19; Mark 7:10; 10:19; Lk 18:20), by Paul (Rom 7:7-8; 13:9-10; Eph 6:1-3; 1 Tim 1:9-11), and by other NT writers (Jas 2:11), so, as with all other Scriptures, are profitable for the man of God (2 Tim 3:16-17). At the same time, Paul provides a fresh view of the Decalogue as a contrasting type of the new covenant (2 Cor 3:6-18). “Paul has a certain view of the OT from the outset, as we can see in the very first reference to the ministry of the old covenant, where he already calls it a ‘ministry of death’.”[ix] Balla points out that Paul is not addressing the content of the law at this point, only the manner in which the two covenants were promulgated. However, Paul also emphasizes a liberty in the NT in contrast to the “veil” of the OT that obscured a clear vision of Jesus Christ. Certainly this would include the Spirit’s revelation that Christ is the topic of many OT narratives and laws. Paul’s repeated use of katargeo (“done away” and “abolished”) in his letter to the Corinthians is similar to doing away with the “law of commandments contained in ordinances” that kept Jew and Gentile apart (Eph 2:15-22). As Henry summarized this liberty under the gospel dispensation, there is “freedom from the yoke of ceremonial law, and from the servitude of corruption; liberty of access to God, and freedom of speech in prayer.”[x] See Abrogation.
“Therefore, from the perspective of the new covenant, the Decalogue is understood not as a summary of moral law but as a symbol of a pre-Christ relationship between God and His people and a type of the more glorious new covenant.”[xi]
“The law is called the Decalogue, and the gospel is the doctrine concerning Christ the mediator, and the free remission of sins, through faith.”[xii] “When I say that the Ten Commandments are finished, I mean as a covenant document, or as the tables of the covenant.”[xiii] “In other words there is a sense for Christians that the Ten Commandments do not apply to them.”[xiv]
The Ten Commandments are often proclaimed to be a summary of moral law as opposed to a summary of the Lord’s covenant with Israel. For example, “A summary of this moral law, including, in general principle, all the duties which grow out of our relations to God and to our fellow-men, is presented in the Ten Commandments, engraved by the finger of God on two tablets of stone on Mount Sinai.”[xv] “The Ten Commandments, written by the finger of God on tables of stone at Mount Sinai, are the Lord’s summary of moral law, his definition of loving behavior.”[xvi] As with any assertion, there may or may not be evidence to back it up. And so this view is not without its detractors, who except the Sabbath as a moral commandment. Weirsbe states, “There is no evidence in Scripture that God ever gave the original Sabbath command to the Gentiles, or that it was repeated for the church to obey. Nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the church epistles, but the Sabbath commandment is not repeated.”[xvii]Rordorff’s review of early Christian literature discovered that “whenever we come across the use of the decalogue within the Christian Church, the sabbath commandment is always missing.”[xviii] Augustine excepted the Sabbath Commandment: “Well, now, I should like to be told what there is in these ten commandments, except the observance of the Sabbath, which ought not to be kept by a Christian…” Come the second millennium and Aquinas softened this distinction to say the Fourth Commandment was only moral in that “some time” be devoted to the worship of God. This was the historic view prior to the Reformation, and it was shared in part by Luther and Calvin. Luther’s Small Catechism is most succinct in advising, on the basis of the Sabbath commandment, “We should so fear and love God as not to despise preaching and his Word, but deem it holy, and willingly hear and learn it.”[xix] In contradistinction, Luther also said “the [NT] Scripture, which teacheth that all the Mosaical ceremonies can be omitted after the Gospel is revealed, has abrogated the Sabbath.”[xx] Bauckham explains that “Luther defends the Christian Sunday as a civil or ecclesiastical institution” as opposed to a divine command.[xxi] In his Institutes, Calvin agrees that the external observance of the Sabbath is typological and so was abolished; however, he adds that for Christians it means 1) we should cease from our works and allow God to work within us, 2) there should be a stated day to hear the Law and perform religious rites, and 3) servants “should be indulged with a day or rest, and thus have some intermission from labour.[xxii] “Like Luther, Calvin stresses that the institution of the weekly Sunday is a matter of convenience and order only…”[xxiii]
The Ten Commandments are certainly a summary of the Mosaic covenant which, from the perspective of the new covenant, is comprised of both moral and ceremonial laws (Ex 20:2, 12; 34:28, 29; Deut 4:13; 5:2-4, 15; 2 Cor 3:6-11; Gal 3:16-19; 4:24-26). “Equally importantly, [in the Decalogue] there is no distinction between the cultic and the social/ethical; they are simply fused.”[xxiv] Of all the cultic observances peculiar to the Mosaic covenant, the Lord chose the weekly Sabbath to be the identifying sign to accompany the other commandments that make up the Decalogue. But there is no legitimate rationale to support the assertion that the Ten Commandments were intended to be a summary of God’s moral law for all nations. This includes the presumption that Christ’s summation of the Mosaic covenant (loving God and neighbor) is a compendium of the Decalogue. While the Ten Words are a convenient and concise list of mostly moral duties and it has served the church to inculcate moral instruction by it, the theological imprecision has led to confusion regarding the place of the Sabbath in Christian ethics. As such, the claim that the Decalogue is a summary of moral laws that by extension apply to all nations can only be true if all of the commandments are indeed moral laws. The burden of proof therefore is to demonstrate unequivocally that the Sabbath, as given to Israel, is a moral commandment, of the same ethical substance and character as the other nine. However, Shepard’s attempt to demonstrate this is quite inadequate and unconvincing.[xxv] “Certain expedients [were] contrived to bring natural law as close as possible to the Sabbath commandment, but by and large the Puritans abandoned as untenable the notion that the Sabbath law is wholly ‘natural.’”[xxvi] “Nor are the usual modern reflections on the Decalogue’s being universal in character, or ethically oriented, based on solid evidence.”[xxvii] “Hence it is of considerable importance that these commandments not be understood as eternally limited in scope or as ethical principles more important than any others that might be formulated.”[xxviii] “I repeat; the idea that the Ten Commandments constitute the ‘moral law of God’ is derived from the WCF, with absolutely no biblical proof.”[xxix] ”Cassuto observes that the sixth through eighth commandments are found in every civilized society yet are unusual here because of their absolute, unqualified form as abstract, eternal principles.”[xxx]
[i] Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, Old Testament Library, p. 398.
[ii] Pao, David W. and Schnabel Eckhard J., “Luke” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, p. 351.
[iii] Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, Old Testament Library, p. 397-98.
[iv] Pao, David W. and Schnabel Eckhard J., “Luke” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, p. 300.
[v] Clements, Ronald E. p. 288.
[vi] Fretheim, Terence E., Exodus, Interpretation Commentary, p. 221.
[vii] Schreiner, Thomas R. 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law, p. 26. Emphasis in the original.
[viii] O’Hare, Terrence D., The Sabbath Complete, p. 323-24. Explores the significance of the Sabbath as the fourth in order of the Ten Commandments as a redemptive feature.
[ix] Balla, Peter, “2 Corinthians” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, p. 754-55.
[x] Henry, Matthew, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. 6, p. 495. (2 Cor3:17)
[xi] O’Hare, Terrence D., The Sabbath Complete, p. 56.
[xii] Ursinus, Zacharias. Commentary of the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Williard; reprint of 1852 ed.; p. 2.
[xiii] Reisinger, John G. Tablets of Stone, p.98.
[xiv] Arand, Charles P. “Luther’s Radical Reading of the Sabbath Commandment” in Perspectives on the Sabbath, p. 220.
[xv] Hodge, A. A., p. 280.
[xvi] Chantry, Walter, Call the Sabbath a Delight, p. 17.
[xvii] Weirsbe, Warren W., Bible Exposition Commentary, p. 392.
[xviii] Rordorf, Willy, Sunday, p.106.
[xix] Schaff, Phillip, The Creeds of Christendom, Luther’s Small Catechism, Vol. 3, p. 74-75.
[xx] Schaff, Phillip, The Creeds of Christendom, The Augsburg Confession, Vol. 3, p. 69.
[xxi] Bauckham, R. J. “Sabbath and Sunday in the Protestant Tradition” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 314.
[xxii] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, p.339.
[xxiii] Bauckham, R. J. “Sabbath and Sunday in the Protestant Tradition” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 316.
[xxiv] Watts, Rikk E., “Mark” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, p. 167.
[xxv] Shepard, Thomas. Theses Sabbaticae. See my book review at http://wp.me/p4w327-83.
[xxvi] Bauckham, R. J. “Sabbath and Sunday in the Protestant Tradition” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 324.
[xxvii] Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, Old Testament Library, p. 398.
[xxviii] Fretheim, Terence E., Exodus, Interpretation Commentary, p. 222.
[xxix] Reisinger, John G. Tablets of Stone, p. 145.
[xxx] Blomberg, Craig L., “Matthew,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, p. 21.
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.
Moral Law. Also called lex naturalis: laws revealed in nature and the conscience. Based on the absolute holiness of God, these apodictic laws have widespread acceptance among most societies, indicating an innate consciousness of a commonly held moral behavior, such as protecting the sanctity of life, the right to own property, fidelity in marriage, respect and equanimity in relationships, and the virtue of truthfulness (Ps 98:2; Rom 1:18-32), with the concomitant responsibility to punish wrong-doers. As such, moral law transcends Mosaic law. Within the Mosaic law, God explicitly reveals moral and ethical standards that most cultures would assent to; however, only the Judeo-Christian religions attribute the source of this standard to a sovereign and holy God.[i] As such, any failure to act in a moral way, such as adultery and murder, is a sin against God and a challenge to His authority (2 Sam 12:13; Mic 7:1-9; Lk 15:21; Rom 8:7). “The sublime source of this law is the uncreated, absolute, and immutable moral perfection of the divine nature.”[ii] “The moral laws, then, are the remaining commandments that deal with fundamental issues of right and wrong, often found in many of the world’s cultures and religions, which humans, perhaps by general revelation or the image of God that remains in them (though marred) even as unbelievers, almost universally acknowledge as dictating how people should or should not behave.”[iii] In the beginning, all mankind was represented in Adam who was warned not to take of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Having taken from that tree, mankind fell into sin, becoming disposed to sin. Bavinck explored the meaning of Adam’s act and concluded, “By violating the command of God and eating of the tree, they [Adam and Eve] would make themselves like God in the sense that they would position themselves outside and above the [moral] law and, like God, determine and judge for themselves what good and evil was.”[iv] The content of law is known, but what people do with it is the problem of sin. People can deny this truth and begin a downward spiral into greater ungodliness and unrighteousness, even calling their evil deeds a moral good and approving such wickedness in others (Rom 1:18-32). For example, Israel received the [Mosaic] law and occasionally ignored it, therefore plummeting to the depths of the abominations of the Gentiles (Judg 19:29-30; Jer 8:5-8; Ezek 5:6-17). On the other hand, there are Gentile societies who do not possess the law of God, yet they express the generalities of moral compunctions in their civil laws and traditions (e.g., Gen 12:18; 1 Cor 5:1). This is not to their credit because they merely expressed the good of their conscience that originated from God (Jas 1:17) while denying Him the glory for it (Eccl 7:29; Deut 8:10; Phil 3:6-7). “With respect to the moral commandments of the second table of the law there is always much agreement among the nations, inasmuch as the work of the law continues to be written in their hearts.”[v] Ursinus astutely summarized the significance of Adam’s choice: 1) pride, ambition, and admiration of self, 2) unbelief, 3) contempt and disobedience to God, 4) ingratitude for benefits received, 5) unnaturalness, and the want of love to posterity, and 6) apostasy.[vi] These are the sins for which the nations are judged; and this judgment is just even though they were not in covenant with God through the law of Moses (Gen 6:5, 11; Lev 18; Prov 10:2-4; Isa 16:6; Ezek 16:49; Dan 5:18-28; Col 3:5-7; Rev 18:1-3). The fallen disposition of man tends toward evil, but on the practical level, people are compelled to work together—indeed, humanity must maintain social order or succumb to total anarchy—but they want this world and their particular sins without the God who created them. “Sin is any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature.”[vii]
The concept of a body of law that applies equally to Jew and Gentile (Rom 2:15-29) can also be inferred from God’s condemnation of Gentile nations and their leaders, of whole populations and certain individuals, not only prior to the Mosaic law, but after its fulfillment. “The [moral] law was engraven upon the heart of man his creation, and is therefore known to all naturally, although no other revelation were given.”[viii] “God even apart from his written law, has preserved in us certain general principles of the natural law, sufficient to accuse and condemn us.”[ix] The moral law is not an antithesis to the gospel unless a person hopes to gain the favor of God by compliance to it (Acts 15:10). But alas, no one is able to obey moral laws perfectly (Rom 3:20; Gal 3:10). So an understanding of and proper relationship to the moral law must be grounded in an understanding of the gospel. Paul explains to Timothy (1 Tim 1) that the ultimate goal of “the commandment” [moral law] is love toward God and fellow man (v. 5), according to the gospel (v. 11); and that “sound doctrine” [moral law] stands in opposition to immoral behavior (v. 8-10) to identify the need of salvation of sinners (v. 15). The gospel premises that no one can be saved by obedience to moral laws because no one can obey them perfectly, yet the gospel saves people so they can obey God’s [moral] laws guided by love. And when they sin, they have the assurance of forgiveness through Christ’s death on their behalf. See Gospel and Noachide Laws.
Part of the question about classifying laws as moral or not is whether the Jews thought or determined that there were differences among the laws of the Mosaic covenant. Jesus mentioned the “weightier” matters of the law as justice, mercy, and faith as opposed to overly scrupulous attention to the payment of tithes (Matt 23:23; Num 18:21; Deut 14:22). The Pharisees gave attention to the law (Mal 2:8-10), even to the extreme, however their hearts were unmoved by more important commands of justice, mercy, and humility (Mic 6:6-8). In another instance, a scribe inquired of Jesus which is the “first of the commandments”; that is, the first in rank and value or the foremost of all commandments (Mk 12:28-34). Following Jesus’ answer (which did not refer to the Ten Words) the scribe remarked: to love God…and one’s neighbor “is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (v. 33).[x] Clearly, the Jews recognized the difference between interpersonal obligations and ritual obligations, even though the latter were Godward expressions of obedience. One could believe that ALL the laws are part and parcel of the Mosaic covenant yet still view individual laws as different in character. So, recognizing differences among the 613 mitzvot is not a challenge to the unity of the [Mosaic] law. This is why Kaplan (JS) can explain that Torah is composed of ethical and ritual laws: “Among the many rituals of Judaism, we find one prime ritual that stands above the rest. That is Shabbos—the Jewish Sabbath.”[xi] There is a difference between moral and ceremonial laws. The Jews were aware of this in part, but it was made well known through the new covenant. “The moral law of God took precedence over the civil and ceremonial laws in that it was based on the character of God. The civil and ceremonial laws functioned only as further illustrations of the moral law. That is why holiness and love could serve as veritable summaries of all that the law demanded.”[xii] The unity of the Mosaic covenant made Israel legally obligated to observe ceremonial laws. The only way to be released from the Mosaic covenant, which is called the “first covenant” in the book of Hebrews, is to enter the new covenant with God (Heb 8:7, 13; 9:15; 10:9).
With regard to the Sabbath, the controversy surrounds its classification as a moral or ceremonial command. Many in the Reformed tradition believe the Sabbath is a moral command, either wholly or in part. Bavink (CS) muses about the creation rest: “Before the fall our first parents did not yet enjoy the eternal heavenly Sabbath. Just as they were subject to the alternation of day and night, they were also bound to the rule of six days of labor and one of rest. A day of rest and days of labor were therefore also distinct before the fall.”[xiii] Bavink hopes to associate the first seven days of creation with the enduring sequence of the nychthemeron or night-day phenomenon in order to claim that humanity is “bound” or morally compelled to a sequence of work and rest. But he has not sufficiently established the least amount of moral boundedness connected to our revolving planet. And he has not sufficiently explained how God’s work of creation and His rest is equivalent to the Jewish workweek and their Sabbath rest. His mention of “the rule of six days of labor and one of rest” is true only of the Jewish Sabbath. There was no rule or command for anyone prior to this. During the creation week, God was not bound by some hypothetical rule as if this “rule” existed outside Himself and compelled Him to behave in such a manner; nor was God bound by this supposed rule after the creation week as clearly attested by Jesus (Jn 5:17). It is not a divine attribute to work six days and rest one day ad infinitum. God worked and rested only once in His eternal career and Adam was a late-comer to that supernatural event, having been fashioned on the sixth day. In the book of beginnings, God is the only one said to have worked six days and rested on the seventh day.
We can agree with Bavink that mankind is subject to the transition from night to day, but there are no rules, no moral obligations associated with it. There are no ethical guidelines regarding the amount of sleep one obtains each day, otherwise night-watchmen labor in sin. The repetition of night and day is an observable natural phenomenon, and its predictability provides the basis for measuring time just as God decreed in the beginning (Gen 1:14-19). However, a week or “seven period” is not a discernible phenomenon because it may it may begin on any day of the month and it must be counted. Therefore, the week is substantively different from the day or the month (lunation) or the year. If the greater markers of time carry no moral force, then less so the artificiality of a seven-period.
Bavink mentions a “heavenly Sabbath,” but this is not a textual term—it is a term to describe the typological fulfillment of rest, which is heaven itself. The fact that Bavink associates the creation rest and weekly Sabbath with an eternal rest demonstrates his intuition that these are essentially typological events, not moral. Night and day are not eternal concepts—there was no night or day before creation and there is no night or day after the new creation; less so, measuring eternity in 7 periods. A seven-period only has meaning inside the created realm, not in the heavenly spheres. Therefore, the Sabbath is not a moral commandment. It is an earthly religious commandment that is not able to perfect the worshiper according to his conscience (Heb 9:9-10).
[i] This would include Islam.
[ii] Hodge, A. A. Evangelical Theology: Lectures on Doctrine, Banner of Truth:Edinburg (1990 reprint), p. 273.
[iii] Blomberg, Craig L. “The Sabbath as Fulfilled in Christ” in Perspectives on the Sabbath, p. 319.
[iv] Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, p. 33.
[v] Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, p. 134.
[vi] Ursinus, Zacharias. The Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 33-34.
[vii] Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith, p. 490. (Emphasis added)
[viii] Ursinus, Zacharias. The Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 104.
[ix] Ursinus, Zacharias. The Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 36.
[x] Jesus cites Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18, both of which are among the 613 mitzvot. The beauty of Jesus’ answer plays with the word “first” [πρώτη protos], because it must always be remembered that the Lord is singulary one, yet foremost. Therefore, love should be directed to Him (who is love) and to those made in His image. The angry crowd of religious onlookers fail to love Jesus on both accounts. This is why the scribe was “not far” from the kingdom of God, because he recognized truth and respected Jesus for stating it. However, to be a part of the kingdom of God, he must love Jesus as God. “If this scribe would now…come to Jesus as his Savior and Lord, he would have advanced to one of being ‘inside’ the kingdom of God.” (Hendriksen, William. NTC, Vol B: Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark, p.496). Rafael’s comments are not a little sad: “The subject matter of the Talmud, reflecting centuries of rabbinic argument in the post-Destruction period, give great weight to defining the sacrificial system. This preoccupation is particularly striking in the endless discussions of festival sacrifices, as if this was where the most bitter-sweet memories were expressed” (Chaim Rafael, The Festivals, p. 19).
[xi] Kaplan, Aryeh. Sabbath Day of Eternity, p. 6.
[xii] Kaiser Jr., Walter C. “The Law as God’s Guidance for the Promotion of Holiness” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, p. 190. I agree that some ceremonial laws do exhibit, illustrate, or promote obvious moral behavior. For example, the often cited law to place a rail on the rooftop (Deut 22:8) illustrates a concern for safety, and more widely a love for fellow man. It protects the homeowner from a potential lawsuit for a careless disregard for others, and from personal guilt should a fatal accident occur. But is it fair to expand this “moral duty” to such an extent that we are culpable for every preventable accident that happens in the home and thereby subject to the law of lex talonis? One could assert that even the most unusual laws and severe punishments in the Mosaic covenant promoted trust and devotion and obedience from the Israelite. The law requiring cutting off the hand of the wife who grabs by the genitals her husband’s assailant, punishes her for the immoral act of immodesty, even while coming to the defense of her husband (Deut 25:11-12; cf. Matt 5:30). By knowledge of this law, Jewish women learn that modest behavior and respect for men must ever be in their mind even under extreme circumstances. And the Jewish magistrate learns the underlying moral virtues of humility and obedience, for he must not pity the women as if he were to be more gracious than God. However, just because we can imagine a moral virtue associated with any law of the Mosaic covenant, it does not mean we are morally bound to obey the letter of that law. One could attribute the moral virtues of devotion and trust to the Sabbath and conclude that it is morally responsible to observe a 24 hour rest every seven days. However, the same virtues of devotion and trust are tied to the seven annual Sabbaths. Consistency demands that it is equally a moral duty to observe a 24 hour rest at those intervals as well.
[xiii] Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, p. 574.
Mosaic Law (Covenant). Also called the Sinaitic covenant. The law and covenant given to Moses at Mount Sinai for the Jewish people by direct revelation from God (Ex 12:41; Deut 5:2, 3; Jn 1:17; 7:19; Gal 3:17; Heb 7:11). Rarely in the plural and when used in such a way is combined with other similar nouns to refer to the collection of individual provisions; i.e., “statutes and judgments and laws” (Lev 26:36) or “precepts, statutes and laws” (Neh 9:14). Otherwise, it is singular, referring to whole system of Jewish legislation discoverable in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Similarly, it is a single covenant between God and Israel, even though He refers to a few particular laws as covenants: e.g., 1) the ordinances insuring the priesthood their portion is a “covenant of salt” (Num 18:19), 2) keeping the Sabbath is a “perpetual covenant” (Ex 31:16), and 3) the showbread an “everlasting covenant” (Lev 24:8). And of course, the Ten Commandments is a condensation or compendium of the covenant (Deut 4:13). God made a single covenant with Israel and it is called “the law.” Since Israel as a nation was in covenant with the Lord, they were duty-bound to avoid making covenant with any other nations (Ex 23:32; Deut 7:2). The covenantal relationship between God and Israel was unique and exclusive. Of this law, the Jews have discovered 613 commandments or “mitzvot” to obey.[i]
In this respect, Mosaic law is “the law” and Mosaic law is “covenant law.”[ii] The Mosaic law is perfect because God is the author of it and it reflects the perfection of His will, but this does mean aspects of this law could not be temporary or have imposed limitations. “Of divine laws there are some that are eternal and unchangeable; whilst there are others that are changeable; yet only by God himself, who has instituted them.”[iii] Besides being synonymous with the “law of Moses” used in Bible 21 times, the use of the modifier “Mosaic” reflects the attempt to clarify and improve communication about the Pauline use of the word “law,” which he uses 123 times. Paul makes his own distinctions with references to the “law of Moses” (1 Cor 9:9), the “law of God” (Rom 7:22, 25; 8:7), and the “law of Christ” (Rom 8:2; 1 Cor 9:21; Gal 6:2), but generally, he refers to “the law.” Luke uses the “law of Moses” and the “law of the Lord” interchangeably (Lk 2:22-24). Longenecker informs us that “No distinctions, however, can be made in Paul’s letter between the anarthrous and articular forms of νόμος [nomos] with respect to the Mosaic law.”[iv] Paul states that the [Mosaic] law was designed to be a custodian to bring us (Jews) to faith in Christ, but once that purpose has been realized, we (Jews) are no long under its tutelage (Gal 3:19-25). Yet, it is the [Mosaic] law that points out that all humanity is enslaved to sin (Gal 3:22; Ps 5:9; 10:7; 14:1-3; Isa 59:7-8) and that justification comes by faith (Gal 3:11, 22, 24, 25; Gen 15:6). The NT view of [Mosaic] law is both positive and negative, not out of ambiguity, but in view of the exceeding glories of the new covenant and the law of Christ (2 Cor 3:12-18). The [Mosaic] law is contrasted with the covenant of promise made with Abraham (Gal 3:18) because the [Mosaic] law [covenant] cannot undo an earlier promise [covenant] that brought justification by faith for both Jew and Gentile. Yet the [Mosaic] law also teaches justification by faith (Hab 2:4) and the salvation of the Gentiles (Isa 60:3). The terminus of the [Mosaic] law occurred while Jesus, the Son of God, suffered on the cross and experienced the judgment for sin and separation from God that the [Mosaic] law demanded. Sixteen hundred years of living under the [Mosaic] law did not keep Israel from demanding the crucifixion of their Messiah. “Go to the law,” says DeHaan, if you want to be saved by your own work and righteousness, but if you realize the impossibility of that, then you must go to the cross of Calvary. There, Christ’s death showed two things: 1) the law kills—He’s dead and 2) the law’s terminus—to reset to the covenant of grace with Abraham.[v] “And since any power to fulfill the law can reach the sinner only through Grace—of which the law knows nothing—it follows, lastly, that to be ‘under the law’ is to be shut up under an inability to keep it, and consequently to be the helpless slave of sin.”[vi] “[The author of Hebrews provides] a robust defense of the Christian dismissal of the purely ritual and cultic features of the Mosaic law.”[vii] “I think the Mosaic law as a whole was given to Israel for a limited time and purpose and is no longer immediately authoritative for the Christian.”[viii] “The Ten Commandments [which summarizes the Mosaic Covenant] came to a functional end at the cross.”[ix] “For Paul is not reasoning here as to mere ceremonies, but shows how much more powerfully the Spirit of God exercises his power in the gospel, than of old under the [Mosaic] law.”[x] See The Law.
Paul may give the appearance of contradicting himself, but the problem more often than not is one which we are erecting in our own minds—by taking what he says out of context, extrapolating what he says to a degree he did not intend, adamantly holding to an either/or mindset, or bringing to the text our denominational presuppositions. [xi] Be content with some paradoxes.
For example, Paul contrasts the Jews under the [Mosaic] law [that regulates their outward behaviors] and [Gentiles] without the [Mosaic] law [because they have their own customs and sensibilities]. But to avoid being misunderstood, Paul clarified that he was not lawless [in his actions] because his conscience was still bound by God’s or Christ’s law that transcends [Mosaic] law (1 Cor 9:21). Yet, it was the [Mosaic] law that informed him to live with integrity and to which he appealed to both Jew and Gentile for the support of his ministry (1 Cor 9:9-14). Paul appealed to the “law of Moses” (Deut 25:4; Lev 6:16-18) to explain that “God’s law” endorses the principle that those who labor in ministry for others have the right to expect subsistence in return.[xii] “It is necessary to stress at this point that the New Testament teaching about the law is first, and most basically, teaching about the Mosaic law.”[xiii] The Reformed and Adventist mindset has difficulty understanding that the concept of the abrogation of the Mosaic law as a covenant structure and system does not necessarily imply that Christians have no moral compass to guide their life.[xiv] They see as a contradiction the claim that the new covenant replaces the Mosaic covenant while at the same time resorting to the Mosaic covenant to underscore moral behaviors or ethical norms. But that is what Paul did.
Calvin tends to relate the phrase “Mosaic law” (which he does not use very often) to the ceremonies that bound Jews to certain behaviors, like circumcision, sacrifices, washings, and abstentions. For example, “He [the author of Hebrews] then intimates that all the rites of the Mosaic Law were a part of the old covenant, and that they partook of the same ancientness, and were therefore to perish.”[xv] This may have led to the misapprehension that there is a difference between the law of Moses and the law of the Lord, the former concerned with ceremonies, offerings, and the like, while the latter is reflected in the Ten Commandments. “However, the law of Moses and the law of God are one, and to state that the law of Moses was fulfilled and abolished at Calvary, and the not the law of the Lord, is a complete misunderstanding of the Bible.”[xvi]
Just as the rainbow is a sign (Heb. owth) of God’s covenant with Noah to never flood the earth again, so is Israel’s keeping of the Sabbath a sign of their covenant with the Lord (Ex 31:13-18; Ezek 20:12, 20). A sign is a visual cue or symbol of some other fact, condition, or quality. The sign is not greater than what it signifies, identifies, or designates. The covenantal bond between Israel and God was enacted after their deliverance from Egypt, and Israel assented to the historical reality of that event by their Sabbath-keeping. The meaning of the sign finds its context in an historic event. No other nation was chosen to be redeemed from such slavish circumstances, and so no other nation performed this unique, symbolical ritual; and this cemented into the Jewish mind that they were the only nation so covenanted with the Lord. “It is impossible for the Sabbath day to be at the same time ‘for all mankind’ and also to be a unique sign of the God’s old covenant with national Israel.”[xvii] Interestingly, in “The Christ of the Covenants,” Robertson (CS) does not mention the above Scriptures (Ex 31 or Ezek 20) in his discussion of the Sabbath or the Mosaic covenant.[xviii] However, Rushdooney understands the meaning of a sign. “But the sabbath is a sign of the covenant; it is not a law for a humanistic state, and has no meaning for it, nor can it be required of it. In a Christian state, it cannot be made anything resembling the sabbath of Israel. It must be a day of rest, and of peace and quiet, but the basic emphasis is on the authority of God, knowledge of Him, and rest in His government and salvation. The shifting of emphasis from the meaning of the Sabbath to quibbling about regulations for the Sabbath is certainly no honor to the Sabbath.”[xix]
[i] It appears that all of the laws are taken from Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, with the exceptions to be fruitful and multiply from Gen 1:28, and to not eat the “sinew which shrank” from Gen 32:32. Circumcision is based on both Gen 17:12 and Lev 12:3.
[ii] Clements, Ronald E. p. 289.
[iii] Ursinus, Zacharias. The Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 490.
[iv] Longenecker, Richard N. (NIGTC) The Epistle to the Romans, p. 631. Meaning “law” or “the law.”
[v] DeHaan, M.R. Law or Grace, p. x.
[vi] JFB, Bible Commentary, Vol 3, p. 227. (on Rom 6:14)
[vii] Clements, Ronald E. p. 293.
[viii] Moo, Douglas. “Response to Willem A. VanGemeren” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, p. 84.
[ix] Ratzlaff, Dale. “The Covenants” Proclamation 17:3, p. 13.
[x] Calvin, Commentaires. Vol 20, p. 179 (2 Cor 3:7).
[xi] Moo, Douglas. “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, p. 319-320.
[xii] My assessment here conforms with Bahsen in Five Views on Law and Gospel, p. 105-108.
[xiii] Moo, Douglas. “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, p. 321.
[xiv] Reisinger, John G. Tablets of Stone, p. 97, 113.
[xv] Calvin, Commentaries, Vol 22, p. 195 (Heb 9:1).
[xvi] DeHaan, M. R. Law or Grace, p. 19.
[xvii] Kelly, Russell Earl. “Who Changed the Sabbath” in Proclamation! Vol. 18, No. 1. (Spring 2017) p. 10.
[xviii] Robertson, O. Palmer. The Christ of the Covenants, p. 68-74; 167-199.
[xix] Rushdoony, R. Institutes of Biblical Theology, p. 154. (emphasis mine). I would differ from Rushdooney in this: that even “resting” as a required weekly physio-spiritual exercise is not required of the NT church.
The Law. In general, “the law” or Torah,[i] refers to the comprehensive covenant between God and Israel when He “[took] for Himself a nation from the midst of another nation” (Deut 4:34) as elucidated in the Pentateuch (Ex 24:7, 12; Deut 4:33-40; 5:3). The law [Pentateuch] originated from God, was conveyed to Moses via direct revelation (Ex 3:4; 24:3; 31:18; 34:32; Deut 5:5; Jn 7:19; Gal 3:19) and existing historical documents (“toledoth” as in Gen 5:1), then transmitted to Israel both orally and in written form (Ex 34:32; Num 33:2; Deut 31:9; Rom 3:2), and bore upon the origin, mission, and conduct of Israel until the time of Christ (Gen 49:10; Deut 5:1-3; Rom 2:12; 5:12-13; Gal 3:17). That is, the law had a beginning and it had an end (Matt 11:13; Rom 5:20-21; Gal 3:19; Heb 8:13). The first reference to “torah” is the establishment of the Passover with Israel prior to their exodus (Ex 12:48-49). This “one law” from God demanded the circumcision of foreigners should they desire to join with Israel in participation of the Pascal meal. To become circumcised was to be considered as one born in the land. The second use of “torah” is associated with the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Ex 13:9) which is a sign, a memorial, and an ordinance. The third use of “torah” is with the institution of the Sabbath (Ex 16:4), a test of their obedience (Ex 16:28). The fourth use of “torah” is in association with Moses adjudicating matters between the Israelites and teaching them statutes, ordinances, and laws. The fifth use of “torah” is in its association with the writing of the “law and commandments” on tablets of stone (Ex 24:12).
Within the law [Pentateuch] is a record of the origin of the nations (Gen 10) from a single couple (Gen 3:20) so Israel would know that all people are made in the image of God (Gen 1:26) and have the same problem with sin (Ex 20:18-20; Lev 26:40-42; Num 32:13-14; cf. Isa 1:4); yet they alone were chosen to enjoy a special relationship with the creator (Deut 4:39-40; 7:6) and to be a light to the world (Ex 9:16; Deut 10:18; Josh 2:9; 4:23-24). However, their privileged status rested on the promise of God to faithful Abraham to bless him with a multitude of heirs and an exceptional expanse of land (Gen 12:1-3; 13:14-17; Deut 4:37-38). The law [the covenant between Israel and the Lord] is distinct from the promise [the covenant the Lord made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob] (Gen 26:3-4; Deut 4:31; 5:3), yet it is inseparably connected (Ex 6:2-8), if not subservient. For example, Israel’s obedience to the law [the commandments and ordinances of the covenant] was a necessary condition to enter and remain in the land promised to Abraham (Deut 5:33; Num 14:11; 32:10-13, 22-23; cf. Gen 26:5; Heb 8:8-9). And by all rights, the nation should have been utterly destroyed and abandoned by God for her sin (Lev 26:13-39). However, for the sake of His word of a promised seed to Abraham, He ensured that a remnant of faithful Israelites remained, so the nation—and bloodline—could be preserved (Lev 26:42-46; Num 14:26-38; 2 Ki 13:23 cf. Isa 11:16; 29:22; 41:8; Jer 31:35-36; 1 Cor 10:5). Furthermore, the promise to Abraham was confirmed in David (2 Sam 7:8-16; Ps 89:3-4; Isa 11:1-2; cf. Gen 49:20). Again, even in the face of Israel’s division and idolatry after King Solomon, God ensured a remnant would survive for David’s sake (2 Ki 11:32-39; 15:1-6). The content of the law grew to include histories, psalms, and prophetic literature.
So, even though Israel had a special status, they could not assume their covenant was primus inter pares, that is, first among equals, and this became especially obvious when Jeremiah prophesied of a new covenant to be made with the house of Israel (Jer 31:31-34; Heb 8:13). Furthermore, while the “feel” of the law is that it is a demanding, threatening system, the real issue was whether Israel believed the Lord as did their father Abraham (Num 14:11-12; Deut 1:32; 9:23; Ps 78:22; 106:24). As such, despite the fact that Israel received the law, they were no different than Gentiles with respect to personal righteousness (Rom 3:9).
The law is also the covenant between Israel and the Lord. Before the law was summarized by God on tables of stone (Deut 4:13), Moses had already written down a fair amount of legislation, called the “book of the covenant” (Ex 24:7), which understandably would have included his account of God’s recitation of the Ten Words (Ex 20:1; 21:1). With the covenant established by the oath of the people to the words Moses read to them and confirmed by blood (Ex 24:6-8), God informed Moses of his plan to provide a written summary Himself on stony tablets (Ex 24:12). While the law is a covenant, Paul does not refer to it as a covenant (though inferred in Gal 4:21-31); however, it is described as such in Hebrews (Heb 8:7, 9; 9:1, 15, 18). This “Book of the Law” is synonymously called the law of the Lord (2 Ch 31:3; Neh 9:3; Ps 19:7) and the law of Moses (Josh 8:30-35; Dan 9:11-13; Mal 4:4; Lk 2:22-24), and to depart from its instruction and theology is a sinful transgression of the law (2 Ki 10:31; Rom 4:15; 5:13). It is shortsighted to think of the law as merely dictates and legislation, because it also includes poetry, narratives, and prophecy. Yet to add color to the body of legislation, individual instructions are termed laws, statutes, rules, commandments, ordinances, testimonies, judgments, precepts, words, promises, and decrees, each with its own nuance and semantic range. For the Jews, Torah came to mean not only the biblical texts but the oral traditions as well. “The Torah understood as Pentateuch eventually assumed an exclusive, canonical, and privilege status with rabbinic Judaism, but the interpretive traditions (Oral Torah) continued to be considered part of what is understood to be Torah.”[ii] “The Pentateuch’s emphasis upon torah as the law of the covenant between Israel and the Lord God ensure that it controls the understanding of all the remaining books of the OT.”[iii] While the Oral Torah is not cited in the NT as sola scriptura, the interpretive methodologies are evident in the Gospels and letters of Paul.[iv]
The temporary nature of the law (Gen 49:10; Ps 110:4; Jer 31:31; Dan 9:27) does not mean that no moral standards preceded or follow it (Rom 5:12-14; 1 Jn 2:7-8; Rev 15:3-4); nor does it mean that the OT Scriptures are of no value for those covenanted with God through the blood of Jesus Christ; i.e., under the New Covenant (Matt 22:37-40; Rom 7:7; 1 Cor 9:9; 2 Tim 3:16-17; 2 Pet 3:2). In the NT, “the law” is generally and favorably understood as the law given to Moses from God (Rom 10:5; Heb 9:19); however, by its own merits was unable to bring complete and absolute justification to any soul (Act 13:39; Rom 3:19-20, 28; Gal 2:16, 21; 3:10-11, 13, 21; Heb 7:19; 9:9, 13; 10:1-4). Paul’s use of the word “law” (Gk. nomos) displays a wider range of meaning but with regard to the law of Moses, he conveys a tension between respect for the authority of the law [Scriptures] (Rom 3:31; 7:7, 22-25; 13:8-9; 1 Cor 10:6, 11; 2 Tim 2:14-15; 3:14-17) and its limitations in view of Christ’s advent (Rom 6:14; 7:1-6; 8:2-3; 2 Cor 3:6-9; Eph 2:15). More importantly, the law (as well as the other prophetic, historic, and poetic Scriptures) conveys previews and prefigurements of the forthcoming Messiah (e.g., Gen 3:15; 5:29; 14:18-20; 37:1-3; 49:10; Num 21:4-9; Deut 18:15-19; cf. Matt 5:17-18; Lk 24:44-47; Act 28:23; Rom 3:21; Heb 1:1-2;). As a result of this new understanding, Christians generally categorize the commandments of the law as either moral or ceremonial,[v] but maintain differences of opinion about the implications of this, such as whether “the law” remains binding on Christians (Jn 1:17; Acts 15:5-11; Gal 2:19; 4:1-7; Eph 2:14; 7:12). “It is possible to say that in some respects the Christian is free from the law of God… There is another sense, however, in which the Christian is not free from the law.”[vi] “Nevertheless, the law cannot do anything more than remind us of our duty. Only the gospel promises can move us to grateful obedience.”[vii] “The true believer in Christ in this dispensation is not under the law as a paidogogos or taskmaster, but is a son of God under grace.”[viii] “We have already stressed that every commandment in the Old Testament does still apply in some way to Christians.”[ix] “Christians are freed from the law as the covenant to which they are obligated.”[x] “The beginning and ending of the law covenant has nothing to do with the source or endurance of the ethical standards that reveal God’s unchanging character.”[xi] See Mosaic Law. See Continuity/Discontinuity.
Biblical scholars recognize that Paul’s discussion of the law can appear contradictory at times or simply difficult to understand. It is reasonable then to expect that as we try to formulate our own understanding of the topic, we may not be as lucid and perspicacious as we would hope. This theological tension regarding the law (Torah) is the backdrop for the connotation theologians assign to it—whether it is an instrument of grace or opposed to grace, whether it advances the gospel or negates the gospel, whether we are to obey it or not, and whether it is partially or entirely rendered inoperative for the church. The two views do not need to be odds with one another. Christians should endeavor to be specific in their use of the term “law” by clarifying what they mean and/or what they don’t mean. For example, here is a recent statement: “The law reveals to us that sin is not merely an external matter but an inner reality, helping us see that we are far more depraved than we would like to imagine.”[xii] The author makes it plain earlier that he is referring to the “moral law,” so it would be a mistake to interpret his use of the word “law” as referring to the Pentateuch or the law-covenant with Israel; the Ten Commandments or the OT in general. Therefore, it is imperative to understand the range of definitions for a particular word and to choose (or use) the best one depending on the context. Also, the alternate terms mentioned above may have some overlap of meaning, but they are not synonyms. And even synonyms can have subtle differences of meaning. “Often the exact point and pith of a passage will be missed by failing to make the proper discrimination between synonymous expressions.”[xiii] Our mental picture of “the law” is usually Moses holding the Ten Commandments, but this is inadequate when the full range of the term is understood. “The law” is best envisioned as a covenant agreement between God and the Israelites (with their children and Gentile converts). See the following illustrations.
With regard to Israel, disobedience to the law (meaning the laws of the covenant) brought her under condemnation and judgment regardless whether the specific law was moral (Ex 23:1-9; Hos 4:1-2) or ceremonial (Lev 26:43; 2 Chr 36:21; Jer 25:12). Thus, failing to observe even one commandment of the law made one a law-breaker (Rom 2:25; Gal 3:10; Jas 2:10). Commenting on Galatians 3:10 and Paul’s quote of Deut 27:26, Silva notes the link between “works” (ergo) and “to do” (poieō), and suggests that Paul is saying that “works of law and faith are opposing principles with regard to the reception of the Abrahamic promise.”[xiv] From the Jewish perspective of the law, “God ‘does’ the Sabbath, and man ‘does’ the sanctuary…Man is not saved by what he believes, but by what he does.”[xv] In this sense, Paul contrasts law and grace (Rom 6:14), the former as a covenant that granted life only on condition of perfect obedience—the implication of which is that the law condemned those who were participants in it—and grace as the benefit of having believed the gospel of Christ—who’s righteousness becomes our own by imputation. “Owen clearly saw that there was grace in ‘the law’ when ‘law’ is understood as the Old Testament Scriptures but there was no grace in ‘the law’ when it is viewed as the terms of the Old Covenant.”[xvi] The author of Hebrews describes the scenario of Israel facing the promised land as a presentation of the gospel because it required faith to enter into it (Heb 4:22). Paul sees Christ as graciously leading and feeding Israel in the wilderness, but rejected for idols (I Cor 10:1-7). And Jesus explained that He was the hope of sinners by His own death just as Israelites found healing when they confessed their sin and gazed upon the bronze serpent in faith (Jn 3:14-15; Num 21:7-9). But all of these examples of personal and eternal redemption are typological interpretations of the OT, previously obscured by the Lord God (Lk 10:21-24; 2 Cor 4:3-6; Eph 3:8-9; Col 1:26).
During Christ’s public ministry, He revealed the true character and intention of the law [Mosaic covenant][xvii] and just prior to His crucifixion, He instituted in its place a new covenant (Matt 26:26-28). None of the OT covenants after Adam’s fall were called “new covenants.” A new covenant would supplant a preceding covenant, unless the “new” were a mere addendum or amendment.[xviii] The author of Hebrews rationally concluded, “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete” (Heb 8:13). Consider this: the temporary nature of the law [i.e., the “first” or “old” covenant in Heb 8:7, 13] and the specificity of the law [i.e., “with them” in Ex 6:4; 19:3-6; Eze 37:26-28; Heb 8:8] disallow any thought that the law (meaning the entire covenant God made with Israel) is of universal and continuing obligation. And if the whole law-covenant was made with Israel, then Israel was obligated to obey it in all its parts (Gal 5:3). This is how the Jews understood it; that is, the [Mosaic] law is/was for the Jews. Of course, the law allowed for the conversion of Gentiles—males were to be circumcised (Ex 12:48-49)—so the law was not limited to the physical descendants of Jacob. But even then, the basis for this inclusion of the Gentiles was in the promise to Abraham prior to the giving of the law [the law-covenant with Israel] (Gal 3:6-9). This is why the early church (Christ-believing Jews) had a difficult time with Gentiles converting to Christianity (Act 21:20-25; Gal 2:12). It would seem that if the new covenant were merely another covenant in the progression of previous ones, then Gentiles should be circumcised and “keep the law” (v. 24). But this was not required of them because the law [Mosaic covenant] was replaced with a new covenant that included both Jew and Gentile as equals, based on faith in Christ (Rom 1:16; 4:11-12; Gal 3:28; Eph 1:10-14; Col 3:11). Circumcision was the outward sign of belief in God’s promise to bless many people through the Seed of Abraham, but it was only required until that Seed should come. Now that Jesus Christ has come, ritual laws are now viewed as useless (Gal 4:9-11; 5:6), and this would include the Sabbath.
From the perspective of the New Covenant, a specific narrative (Gen 18:12; cf. 1 Pet 3:6; Num 16; cf. Jude 11), maxim (Prov 3:34; cf. Jas 4:6), or commandment (Lev 19:11-18; cf. Gal 5:14) within the law may have contemporary ethical application, but this does not make the whole law [the covenant with Israel] a universal legal system. Though there are multiple covenants mentioned in the OT, the emphasis from the perspective of the NT is the distinction between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant. They are not equal, yet care must be taken in clarifying the relationship between them. See chart under Continuity/Discontinuity. See Covenant.
While the Lord God may replace one covenant with another, yet He remains as holy as He was from the beginning. Since humankind is made in His glorious image, each person’s life is measured by and held accountable to God’s immutable standard of holiness, which is revealed in the law [of Moses, both moral and ritual laws; of the Pentateuch; of the OT in general, by expression of His will in commands and actions] and now in the person of Jesus Christ (Ps 98:9; Acts 17:32; 2 Tim 4:1). So there is a consistent standard of holiness that we should expect to exist in both covenants, which we classify as “moral law.” Paul mentions “the righteous requirements of the law” (Rom 2:26; cf. Isa 51:6); it is to this law that Paul commands both Jew and Gentile to live by (Rom 2:12-15; 13:8-10; 1 Cor 7:19; 9:9; Gal 5:13-14), while enlarged upon by the example of Christ or in relation to Christ (1 Cor 6:15-20; Eph 5:25; 6:1-4; Phil 1:27; 2:5; 1 Pet 2:18-21). Kelly illustrates this with the Constitution of the United States. “The United States was no longer subject in any respect to the laws of Britain. They had a completely new law that applied only to them, even though this new law contained elements common to Britain’s law.”[xix] See Moral Law.
[i] Properly translated, torah means “instruction” or “guidance.” Clements, Ronald E. “Law, Command, Commandment, Ordinance, Statute” in The Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible, p. 285.
[ii] Najman, Hindy. “Torah and Tradition” in The Eerdman’s Dictionary of Early Judaism, p. 1317.
[iii] Clements, Ronald E. p. 289.
[iv] Daube, David. The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism.
[v] Some also add “civil” laws, referring to commandments respecting the government of Israel.
[vi] Berkhof, L. Systematic Theology, p. 613-614.
[vii] Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith, p. 680.
[viii] DeHaan, M. R. Law or Grace, p. 97.
[ix] Blomberg, Craig. “The Sabbath As Fulfilled in Christ” in Five Views on the Sabbath, p. 348.
[x] Blomberg, Craig. “The Sabbath As Fulfilled in Christ” in Five Views on the Sabbath, p. 329.
[xi] Reisinger, John G. Tablets of Stone, p. 105.
[xiii] Terry, Milton S., Biblical Hermeneutics, Zondervan (1969), p. 191.
[xiv] Silva, Moisés. “Galatians” in Commentary on the NT Use of the OT, p. 804.
[xv] Bakon, Shimon. “Creation, Tabernacle and Sabbath” in The Jewish Bible Quartlerly (Vol. 25:2), p. 84.
[xvi] Reisinger, John G. Tablets of Stone, p. 45.
[xvii] Briefly, Jesus’s references to the law involve what we call moral [marital faithfulness (Matt 19:4-6), honesty (Matt 5:33-37)], ceremonial [cleanliness (Matt 8:1-4); proper attitude in rendering worship (Matt 5:23), holy day observance (Matt 26:17-20)], and civil laws [Temple tax (Matt 17:24-27)]. He clarified the meaning of laws with respect to traditions that interfered with true obedience (Matt 15:1-20; 19:1-10). He also discussed historical events (Matt 12:3-4) and theological principles (Matt 22:22-33, 34-40). He heightened the moral excellence of the law against our tendency to explain away or make excuses for our substandard approach to obedience (Matt 5:43-48). He identified Himself as the fulfillment of the law (Matt 11:28-30; 12:6), both in His perfect obedience to it even to His death (keeping the Passover and holding no malice in His heart) and in the realization of the prophetic and typological referents to Himself [Jonah (Matt 12:40); Solomon (Matt 12:42); David (Matt 22:41-46). And He predicted the fall of the Temple (Matt 24:1-2) and the end of the law-covenant (Matt 26:26-29).
[xviii] The new covenant is not merely a restatement of the old covenant with the ceremonial laws removed.
[xix] Kelly, Russell Earl. “Who Changed the Sabbath” in Proclamation! Vol. 18, No. 1. (Spring 2017) p. 10. Also Reisinger, Tablets of Stone, p. 123-124.