In the last post it was demonstrated that the Sabbath was intended for, and given to, Israel specifically. In this post, we will examine what type of law the Sabbath is. We are entering the debate, of whether the fourth commandment of the Decalogue (concerning the Sabbath) is a moral or ceremonial law.
This is part four of a series of articles about the Sabbath.
Seven Reasons the Sabbath is a Ceremonial Law
For those who may not wish to read this entire article, I have moved the summary to the top. Throughout the Scripture, we find a consistent identification of the Sabbath with the ceremonial, and not the moral, law.
1. It is listed and identified as a a feast day in Leviticus 23, and therefore ceremonial in nature
2. It was given to the children of Israel, throughout their generations in Exodus chapter 31 (no moral law has such limits placed upon it)
3. Nehemiah lists it as an ordinances with other laws in regard to the temple and sacrifices
4. The prophets Isaiah and Hosea speak of God being weary of Israel’s Sabbaths, of a time when they will cease (moral law is never treated in that manner), and they always include the Sabbath in the context of ceremonial laws (new moons, festivals, animal sacrifices)
5. Jesus clearly speaks of the Sabbath as a ceremonial law in relation to the temple in Matthew 12, He never uses it in a moral context
6. Paul speaks of the Sabbath as a ceremonial law which was a shadow that pointed to Christ.
7. The Jews themselves recognize that the Sabbath is a ritual law, the only one in the Decalogue
Definition of Moral Law and Ceremonial Laws
Moral: Concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character.
Ceremonial: Relating to or used for formal events of a religious or public nature.
Question: is the Sabbath commandment a law that governs the “goodness or badness of human character,” or is it a commandment that relates to an event of religious nature?
Shabbat is the most important ritual observance in Judaism and is the only ritual observance instituted in the Ten Commandments. – Jewish Virtual Library, “Shabbat”
[The] Sabbath [is] the only ritual appearing in the Ten Commandments. (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Why The Sabbath)
As we have shown in the last couple posts about the Sabbath, the Jewish people do not consider the Sabbath to be a universal or moral commandment. The quote above clearly demonstrates that the Jewish people regard the Sabbath as a ritual observance, unique among the precepts of the Decalogue.
Distinguishing between Moral Laws and Ceremonial or Ritual Laws
It is important that we discern between ethical and ritual commandments, distinguishing the difference moral and ceremonial laws.
Moral laws apply to all people, at all times. They govern right and wrong human behaviour and issues of character. Murder, theft and adultery are always wrong. All religions and the human conscience attest to the reality of moral law.
Ceremonial laws are of a different order. They do not state what is inherently right and wrong from a moral perspective, but they govern ceremonial duties and religious events, times, and places.
All Time It is evident that the restrictions put in place for the Sabbath day were meant for only one day per week. Moral actions are constantly and uniformly required, whereas ritual laws are periodic and repetitive in nature. Also, it was given to the nation of Israel “throughout their generations.” (Exodus 31:13, 16), indicating not only a particular people who it was for, but also a time period in which it would be in effect. These characteristics are not found in any moral commandment.
Classifying the Sabbath law should be simple and obvious: the Sabbath is not a moral imperative, but was intended for the children of Israel, throughout their generations, as a periodic ritual event. The rest of this article will demonstrate this from the plain testimony of Scripture.
The Ten Commandments
Because the Sabbath commandment is listed in the Ten Commandments, Christian Sabbatarians identify the Sabbath as a moral (and therefore a universal) requirement. They usually divide the law into two neat classifications:
- The moral law (the Decalogue, tables of stone written with God’s finger and stored in the Ark of the Covenant)
- Ceremonial ordinances (the rest of the laws found in the Torah, written by Moses on parchment, and stored in a pocket outside the Ark).
The general consensus of Sabbatarians is that the commandments written on stone are permanent, while the commandments penned on parchment were temporary, and are now done away.
However, this divide is artificial, and an assumption that exhibits many pitfalls. Nowhere in scripture are the Ten Commandments identified as the “moral law”, or exonerated above any of the other 603 laws that exist in the Torah. The assumption that they are “the moral law” or a higher level of law than all others is an assumption which must be tested in the light of the whole testimony of Scripture, in order to verify whether it is correct or not. Demonstrating that such a classification of Old Testament law is incorrect is actually quite simple.
(Note: I am not attempting to undermine the law of God or his rule, but it is important for us to understand the law as it was intended to be understood. God’s moral laws are for all peoples at all times, regardless where they are found in the written word – on stone or on parchment – they are non-negotiable. Ritual observances are not, and therefore need to be identified and treated as such – whether written on stone or on parchment. It is as much an error to treat ritual law as moral law, as it is to consider moral law negotiable.)
Seeking answers to the following two questions will assist in our quest:
1. Are the Ten Commandments the complete moral law?
2. Are all of the Ten Commandments moral laws?
The Complete Moral Law?
The first question is fairly simple to answer, and important to establish. For, if the Ten Commandments are going to arbitrarily placed above all other laws, then we should expect them to be a comprehensive unit regulating all aspects of human behaviour. If they require additions or amendments in order to form a complete a system of moral law, they lose their preeminence by displaying their need for further biblical injunction and interpretation.
(It leads us to ask the question, “What was the purpose and intention of the Ten Commandments?” which will be considered in a future post.)
I will list a few moral laws which are not found in the Decalogue. A couple are found in the Levitical laws, the other originates before Sinai or the nation of Israel.
1. Laws Against Incest
“None of you shall approach anyone who is near of kin to him, to uncover his nakedness: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 18:6 NKJV)
The injunction against incestuous relationships (with mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, etc.) are held as being moral laws in the whole world. They are universal, and yet absent from the Ten Commandments. A forbidden relationship between brother and sister is not covered by adultery.
2. The Law Against Forbidden Relationships with Animals
Nor shall you mate with any animal, to defile yourself with it. Nor shall any woman stand before an animal to mate with it. It is perversion.
“Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; for by all these the nations are defiled, which I am casting out before you. For the land is defiled; therefore I visit the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants. You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations, either any of your own nation or any stranger who dwells among you. (Leviticus 18:23-26 NKJV)
Note the obvious universality of this law. The Gentile nations were driven out of the land, because they practiced this and were defiled by it. It was forbidden to the Jew and the non-Jew, as a moral injunction, and yet is also missing from the Ten Commandments.
3. The Laws Against Fornication and Homosexuality
The laws against homosexual relationships and fornication could also be added to the list of missing moral commandments among the ten. These are not covered by the seventh commandment; as the word used for “adultery” is specifically breaking the marriage vow.
4. The Law Against Eating Blood
Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. (Genesis 9:3-4 NKJV)
This is a commandment that was given to Noah and all of his descendants, to abstain from blood. It is not based on a ceremonial intent, but on the sacredness of life. And it was clearly meant for the Gentile (Noah and his sons were Gentiles) as well as the Israelite. It is repeated in Leviticus, with the explanation that this law applies to both Jew and non-Jew, alike:
Therefore I said to the children of Israel, ‘No one among you shall eat blood, nor shall any stranger who dwells among you eat blood. ’ (Leviticus 17:12 NKJV)
This law is also repeated in the New Testament, (Acts 15:20, 29) proving the unchanging nature of this moral law. Though a universal moral commandment, the prohibition against eating blood is absent from the Decalogue.
5. Laws Against Sorcery and Witchcraft
‘A man or a woman who is a medium, or who has familiar spirits, shall surely be put to death; they shall stone them with stones. Their blood shall be upon them.’” (Leviticus 20:27, NKJV)
The law against sorcery is a universal commandment that it is not forbidden in the Ten Commandments, but is repeated in the New Testament (see Galatians 5:20).
Verdict: This is sufficient evidence to establish the fact that the Ten Commandments are not a complete system of moral law, and were not intended to be. Therefore, the assumption that the Ten Commandments are superior to all other laws is proven false. The prohibitions listed above would generally be considered universal moral laws, and have not passed away simply because they were written on parchment and not on stone. The distinction of “moral laws” as those written by God’s finger on tablets of stone and placed inside the ark, and “ceremonial laws” as written with ink on parchment by Moses and stored outside the Ark, does not work. It’s not a biblical or rational classification.
Think about this: a person who engages in illicit relationships with animals could (presumably) rightly claim to be a “commandment keeper” if the Decalogue is the complete transcript of morality, as certain branches of Christianity affirm. So could a man who marries his sister; clearly the Ten Commandments are not the complete moral law.
Nature of the Sabbath Law
The nature of the Sabbath law is simple to determine by observing the context of laws which it is listed or grouped with. If the Sabbath law is a moral commandment, it will be discussed in the context of the laws that forbid murder, adultery and theft. If the Sabbath is a ceremonial or ritual command, it will be discussed with laws regarding festivals, sacrifices, and temple services.
The next section of this article will briefly examine the mention of the Sabbath, in each of the major sections of biblical literature, and examine the context in which the issue of the Sabbath is discussed.
A. Nature of the Sabbath in the Pentateuch
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them:‘The feasts of the Lord, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, these are My feasts.
“Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work on it; it is the Sabbath of the Lord in all your dwellings. (Leviticus 23:1-3 NKJV)
In the Pentateuch the Sabbath is listed among ceremonial laws. This we see in Leviticus 23, where it is listed among the seven feasts of Israel – clearly ceremonial.
B. Nature of the Sabbath in the Historical Books
Also we made ordinances for ourselves, to exact from ourselves yearly one- third of a shekel for the service of the house of our God: for the showbread, for the regular grain offering, for the regular burnt offering of the Sabbaths, the New Moons, and the set feasts; for the holy things, for the sin offerings to make atonement for Israel, and all the work of the house of our God. (Nehemiah 10:32-33 NKJV)
Nehemiah lists the Sabbath with other religious ordinances, not moral commandments.
C. Nature of the Sabbath in the Prophets
Bring no more futile sacrifices; Incense is an abomination to Me.
The New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies—
I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting.
(Isaiah 1:13 NKJV)
The Lord had become weary of Israel’s Sabbaths – something that would not be said of moral obedience. Isaiah consistently wrote of the Sabbath in the context of sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem (56:6, 7) and new moons (66:23). These are ceremonial, and not moral laws. This theme is repeated in Lamentations:
He has done violence to His tabernacle,
As if it were a garden;
He has destroyed His place of assembly;
The Lord has caused
The appointed feasts and Sabbaths to be forgotten in Zion.
In His burning indignation He has spurned the king and the priest.
The Lord has spurned His altar,
He has abandoned His sanctuary;
He has given up the walls of her palaces
Into the hand of the enemy.
They have made a noise in the house of the Lord
As on the day of a set feast. (Lamentations 2:6-7 NKJV)
Through Hosea the Lord speaks of bringing Israel’s Sabbaths (and feasts) to an end. Moral laws don’t end; ceremonial laws do, once they have met their fulfillment:
I will also cause all her mirth to cease,
Her feast days,
Her New Moons,
All her appointed feasts.
(Hosea 2:11 NKJV)
D. Nature of the Sabbath in Jesus’ teaching
Probably the clearest delineation of the nature of the Sabbath law comes from the teaching of our Saviour.
When Jesus speaks of the moral law (for definition and conviction of sin), he does not mention the Sabbath. For example, to the rich young ruler, he said:
You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Do not defraud,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother. ’” (Mark 10:19 NKJV)
Jesus left the Sabbath out of this list. I think it obvious that he did so because the Sabbath is regarded by Jews as a ceremonial law. While it is true that he did not mention idolatry or blasphemy, Jesus’ discourse with the Pharisees about the Sabbath reinforces the fact that Jews (Jesus was a Jew) treated the Sabbath as a ritual law.
In Matthew 12 he parallels breaking the Sabbath with the profaning of the temple ceremonial sanctimony. He does not compare Sabbath breaking to the violation of moral laws.
And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!”
But He said to them, “ Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? (Matthew 12:2-5 NKJV)
- The disciples were doing what was not lawful on the Sabbath
- David did that which was not lawful by eating the temple show bread, for priests only
- The priests serve in the temple, thereby profaning the Sabbath
Jesus did not claim that his disciples were innocent of breaking the Sabbath. The law forbade the Jews to collect food on the Sabbath (read Exodus 16:26-30). The Pharisees accused the disciples of doing what was unlawful, and Jesus responded by using the example of David and the priests doing what was unlawful in regards to the temple and the Sabbath.
“Unlawful” What did Jesus and the Pharisees mean by the word “unlawful”? The obvious answer to this question is “ceremonially unlawful”. It was not morally illicit for the disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath, or for David to eat the temple bread, or for the priests to work in the temple on the Sabbath. These deeds were infractions of ritual law only.
Undeniably, for Jesus, breaking the Sabbath was equal to violating temple law. These were both part of the system of laws that pointed toward our Saviour, and was fulfilled in him. Thus his statements in the following verses (:6, 8), that He is both “greater than the temple” and “the Lord of the Sabbath” – He is the true temple, and the true Sabbath.
Jesus, the true Sabbath is the context for Matthew 12 Discourse The stage for the Sabbath discourse of Matthew 12 is set at the end of the 11th chapter (our chapter divisions tend to hide this):
Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 NKJV)
The Pharisees refused to find their Sabbath rest in Christ, but looked to a day of the week as the fulfillment of their spiritual rest. They could only understand their acceptance with God through the temple, and so rejected the One who was “greater that the temple”. Seeking their rest through keeping the Sabbath of the law, they rejected the “Lord of the Sabbath”.
Indeed, it was because of his lack of respect for the Sabbath that they “plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him.” (12:14).
E. The Teaching of Sabbath by the Apostles
The teaching throughout the Bible is that the Sabbath belongs to the ceremonial commandments, and not to the moral law. This could not be plainer than when Paul identified the Sabbath as a shadow pointing to Christ, and no longer compulsory for Christians along with circumcision, the festivals, new moons, and food laws:
In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, … let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ. Colossians 2:11, 16-17
“In Him” is the key phrase, repeated in the first two chapters of Colossians:
- In Christ we have true circumcision
- In Christ we have our Passover
- In Christ we have our Day of Atonement
- In Christ we have our real Sabbath rest
- You are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power (Colossians 2: 10 NKJV)
A Challenge to my Sabbatarian Friends:
- Find a dictionary that will allow a ritual event (such as the Sabbath) to be considered a moral law (this would erase any distinction between the two)
- Show one place in Scripture where a Gentile or Christian is commanded to keep the Sabbath
- Find one place in Scripture where a Gentile (or Gentile nation) or a Christian (or the church) is warned against or punished for the “sin” of Sabbath breaking
- Find one example of a Christian meeting recorded as taking place on the Sabbath
- Find one place in Scripture where the Sabbath is demonstrated to be a universal moral commandment, or is treated as such
Then, find one place that speaks of each of these (New Testament):
- The keeping of days is an issue of conscience, not of condemnation
- Where Paul was afraid that a church had fallen from grace because of their emphasis on the keeping of days
- That the Sabbath and festivals point to, and are fulfilled in, our Saviour, and thus are not the jurisdiction for anyone to judge on these matters
- Where a Christian meeting, with the Lord’s Supper and preaching, took place on the first day of the week
(This post explains that I’m not against the Sabbath, but disagree with the way that it is used by religion. If it’s going to be observed at some level, it should be rejoiced in as a gracious gift, and not made into an issue for the condemnation of others).