New Covenant Commandments
Part One: What Commandments Must We Obey?
There is a growing movement in Christianity known as the Hebrew Roots movement. It is summed up on the website gotquestions.org as follows:
The premise of the Hebrew Roots movement is the belief that the Church has veered far from the true teachings and Hebrew concepts of the Bible. The movement maintains that Christianity has been indoctrinated with the culture and beliefs of Greek and Roman philosophy and that ultimately biblical Christianity, taught in churches today, has been corrupted with a pagan imitation of the New Testament gospels.
On the one hand this can be seen as encouraging news, since most of the wrong doctrines that have infiltrated the Church do indeed stem from Pagan culture and not the Hebrew roots of the Bible. However, the movement tends to take it too far, namely that they believe and teach that Christians ought to observe and follow the Torah, the Law of God as delivered through Moses. They quote Jesus’ statements about observing the Law of Moses, and then quote statements from Paul, James, and others about obeying God’s commandments, and assume they are all talking about the same commandments. The fact is, God has given different commandments to different groups of people, and while they have many points in common, there are important differences that must not be overlooked.
In addition, one commandment in particular is the subject of much disagreement among Christians. Some believe that the Old Testament Sabbath was replaced by Sunday as the proper day for worship, and treat Sunday as if it were a new Sabbath. Others believe that the Old Testament Saturday Sabbath was a universal command that should still be adhered to. Still others understand that the Sabbath was given to Israel, not to all mankind, and don’t observe any one day as more holy than another, but consider Sunday an appropriate day on which to gather, in memory of the Lord having risen on Sunday.
Also, many well-meaning Christians, in an effort to live a life that is pleasing to God, try to keep various aspects of the Old Testament Law such as feast days and dietary rules. Yet Paul insisted that Christ was the end, or complete fulfillment, of the Law, and that what Jesus brought about lifts us to a higher law: the law of Christ.
Similarly, most average churchgoers, as well as those who adhere to "Christian values" in a general sense, consider the Ten Commandments to be the foundation of moral faith and living. Even though they were given to Israel they are usually thought to be as much the law for Christians and even mankind in general today. In recent years there has been much controversy over whether or not the Ten Commandments should be displayed in courts or other government facilities. But are the Ten Commandments addressed to those of us outside of the nation of Israel? The Bible says that they (as well as the rest of the Law of Moses) were only given to Israel, not to any other nation. That was what set them apart from the other nations.
The Ten Commandments were never intended to be a standard law for all mankind. They were the summary of the covenant made with Israel. In addition, even for Israel the Sabbath was not meant to be without end. It is called a “perpetual covenant” and a “sign forever” according to Exodus 31:16-17. But both words ‘forever’ and ‘perpetual’ are the same Hebrew word, olam. This word does not hold the same meaning of “without end” as ‘forever’ does in English. It refers to the duration of a period of time, but not necessarily for all time without end.
In addition, some Christians in an effort to reconcile the seeming contradiction between the Law being “forever” and Christ being the “end of the Law” conclude that Jesus brought an end to the “ceremonial law,” that is, the sacrificial systems, but that the “moral law” is still in effect, and is never-ending. Some even go so far as to suggest that there were two Laws: one addressed only to Israel, and one addressed to all mankind. We shall see, however, that the Bible makes no such distinctions.
God certainly expects us to obey His commandments, and anyone who loves God certainly wants to keep them, and to please God. What we must carefully examine is, what commandments are addressed to Israel, and what commandments are addressed to us in the Church?
Many legalists allow that certain commands in the Law were specifically for Israel, and not meant to apply to all of mankind. But there are differences of opinion as to which laws apply to all and which were only for Israel. The Bible, however, makes it clear that the Law as given through Moses was only to Israel.
13 Thou camest down also upon mount Sinai, and spakest with them from heaven, and gavest them right judgments, and true laws, good statutes and commandments:
14 And madest known unto them thy holy sabbath, and commandedst them precepts, statutes, and laws, by the hand of Moses thy servant:
19 He sheweth his word unto Jacob, his statutes and his judgments unto Israel.
20 He hath not dealt so with any nation: and as for his judgments, they have not known them. Praise ye the Lord. [see NASB]
The Law was what set Israel apart from the other nations. God gave them circumcision, as He had with Abraham, as a token of the covenant He made with them.
9 And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations.
10 This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised.
11 And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin;
and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.
13 He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.
14 And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant. [see NASB]
In verse 13 physical circumcision is called an “everlasting covenant” but New Testament Christians did not insist upon it, and Paul went so far as to say that it is of no profit (Galatians 5:1-6; I Corinthians 7:19). The word “everlasting” is the same Hebrew word, olam, referring to the duration of a period of time, but not necessarily without end. But during that period of time, it was to be a sign or token of the covenant God made with Abraham, and later, with the children of Israel (Leviticus 12:1-3).
Likewise, the Sabbath is specifically stated to be a sign of the special relationship Israel had with God.
14 Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.
15 Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord: whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.
16 Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant.
17 It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed. [see NASB]
Notice verse 13 – “…that ye may know that I am the Lord that doth sanctify you.” Sanctify means to set apart. And notice the phrases in bold. It is a sign and a command to the sons of Israel, not to all mankind. If the Sabbath were for all mankind, it would not set Israel apart. Israel’s identity as a nation was tied to the Covenant that God made with them. Circumcision and the Sabbath were specifically identified as signs of that covenant. This is what set them apart.
God made a covenant with Israel but they did not keep it. There were times when they did not keep the Sabbath, and they did not walk in His statutes. They ended up in captivity because of it, but God did not utterly forsake them. He not only delivered them from captivity, but He promised to give them a new covenant.
This promised New Covenant is thought by some to be referring only to the time when Messiah rules on the earth. But throughout the New Testament there are references to it, and descriptions of changes brought about by the New Covenant.
Jesus was the mediator of that promised New Covenant. At the Last Supper, when he instituted Communion for a remembrance of what he would accomplish, he said it was the blood of the New Testament, or New Covenant (the two words ‘testament’ and ‘covenant’ are synonymous). He stated the purpose of the New Covenant a few verses later, in Luke 22:29, when he said, "I appoint unto you a kingdom, as my Father hath appointed unto me; That ye may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel." The word for ‘appoint’ is diatithemai, which is a verb form of diatheke, the word for ‘covenant.’ He was literally saying, "I make a covenant with you to give you a kingdom, as my Father has made a covenant with me." The ultimate purpose of the New Covenant was to offer his followers a place in the Kingdom. That is why Jesus shed his blood.
Jesus ratified the New Covenant with the shedding of his blood. The blood from the animal sacrifices in the Old Covenant were a temporary covering, but had to be repeated, some daily, some monthly, some yearly. But Jesus Christ’s sacrifice was once and for all, as described in Hebrews 10:1-23. And it is identified as the New Covenant in verse 16 of that chapter, as well as in Hebrews 8:10, in fulfillment of God’s promises of a New Covenant in the Prophets.
However, many Sabbath keepers claim that the New Covenant is only for the future and only with Israel. But while the fullness of it will be realized in the future, Jesus offered the perfect sacrifice and ratified the covenant with his blood. Since then, he is seated at God’s right hand, and the holy spirit is given to those who enter into that covenant as a token or pledge of the full inheritance (see The New Covenant).
But even before his perfect sacrifice, Jesus taught a number of things that foreshadowed a change in the accepted view of the Law (not just the Pharisees’ wrong interpretations of it) and began a transition from the Old Covenant system to the New Covenant.
For one thing, he made a change in the food laws. In Mark 7 he taught that what enters a man doesn’t defile him but what comes out of him.
14 And when he had called all the people unto him, he said unto them, Hearken unto me every one of you, and understand:
15 There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.
16 If any man have ears to hear, let him hear.
17 And when he was entered into the house from the people, his disciples asked him concerning the parable.
18 And he saith unto them, Are ye so without understanding also? Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him;
19 Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats? [see NASB]
Verse 19 in most modern versions contains an addition that is in the majority of Greek manuscripts: “Thus he declared all foods clean.”
He also declared that “one greater than the Temple” was present (Matthew 12:6), referring to himself and indicating the beginning of the transition away from the physical Temple and the sacrificial system.
In his Sermon on the Mount he declared new, deeper interpretations of some of the old laws. These interpretations were based on the idea that God was more concerned with what was in the heart than with outward actions (see the article on Righteousness).
He also expanded the scope of some of the Law. Leviticus 19:18 had said “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” But Jesus expanded it to, “love one another, as I have loved you.” (John 13:34; 15:12). In the Ten Commandments, it had said, "Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.” (Exodus 20:12). But Jesus, through Paul, expanded it to “Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;) That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth” (Ephesians 6:1-3). It is expanded to “on the earth” because it is no longer limited to Israel in their land. (Notice also that it doesn’t say to do it because the Law commands it, but because it is the right thing to do.)
Jesus did not merely reiterate the Old Covenant Law, but presented a new Law, the Law of Christ (Galatians 6:2), which is based on love and not rules. Often those who adhere to the Mosaic Law will say that we have no law, but this is not the case. We don’t need the Ten Commandments to guide us because we have a greater law, which includes many aspects of the Ten Commandments.
To illustrate, murder is against the law in Mexico. I’m not Mexican so I am not under their law. But I still can’t commit murder because the law of the United States also forbids it. As Christians we are not obligated to keep the Ten Commandments, but we are obligated to observer the greater law of love. And if you genuinely love God, you will not have false gods or graven images, you will not take His name in vain, nor will you do anything else that displeases Him. Likewise, if you genuinely love your neighbor, you will not kill, steal, lie, commit adultery, covet, etc.
Love fulfills the Law, and sets you free from its bondage. James calls it the Law of Liberty and the Royal Law (James 1:25; 2:8). Under the Law it was possible to do all the right outward actions and still not have a heart of faith and love. But more than outward actions, God is interested in us having the right heart, which produces the right actions as fruit.
The “higher standards” Jesus taught were not for us to learn how to be better people. Nobody could live up to those standards. He said to think evil of a neighbor is as bad a sin as murder. Most of us haven’t murdered anyone, but who can say they have never thought evil? He said to look on a woman with lust is as bad a sin as committing adultery. Most of us have not committed adultery, but who can say they have never looked on another with lust? The Law cannot change the heart of a person; it only points out their sin. That is why it was only a temporary measure. The Law of Christ illustrates what the new Kingdom standard would look like, and the new birth and the holy spirit are what enable us to have a taste of it in this life. (More on this in the Kingdom Living section.)
In addition to the words of Jesus recorded in the Gospels, Paul was given revelation by Jesus Christ expounding on what the sacrificial work of Christ accomplished. Thus the commandments of Jesus that we are to obey include those in the epistles. In the New Testament, much is written about how Christ is the end of the Law, the letter of the Law is bondage, and love fulfills the Law.
Romans 3 speaks of how under the Law every mouth is stopped and all the world is accountable to God, because all have sinned. But God’s solution is the New Covenant.
19 Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.
20 Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
21 But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets;
22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference:
23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;
24 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:
25 Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;
26 To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.
27 Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith.
28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. [see NASB]
Romans chapter 4 discusses in detail how Abraham was declared righteous because he believed God. Although we read that Abraham obeyed God’s commandments (see Objection #2), we must never lose sight of the fact that he was not justified by his works but by his faith, and his obedience was the result of that faith, because his obedience demonstrated his faith in God. He was given the seal of circumcision after he believed.
The promise to Abraham that he should be the heir of the world (not heaven) was not based on any law, but on the faith which he had. The Law came to identify sin – there is no transgression if there is no law – and that’s why Paul says that the Law brings about wrath. But does that mean we can just do as we please with no consequences? Of course not! (Romans 6:1-2) We are dead to sin once we have identified ourselves with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. As a result we are told not to let sin reign in our bodies (Romans 6:11) because that results in slavery to sin, and we have been set free.
When Paul said in Romans 7:25, “So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin,” he wasn’t saying that he kept the Law of Moses. The context of chapter 7 speaks of the problem with the Law because of our sin nature. And he goes on in chapter 8 to describe how walking by the spirit is the solution. Although the Law was good and perfect and holy, it could not change our hearts, and this is why the New Covenant of the Spirit is superior to the Old Covenant of the Letter of the Law.
3 For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh:
4 That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. [see NASB]
Christ is the “end” of the Law, according to Romans 10:4. Those who insist on keeping the Law often point out that the word for “end” doesn’t mean that it ceases to exist, but that it refers to the ultimate goal, the end toward which something is moving. However, the Greek word is telos, which can mean either “termination, the limit at which a thing ceases to be,” or “the end to which all things relate, the aim, purpose.” Context must determine which is meant.
In Romans 10:4, it can actually mean both. The context is talking about how Israelites would go about trying to establish their own righteousness through the Law, and not submit themselves to the righteousness of God, which is by faith. Verse 4 says that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth.” Righteousness by the Law has been replaced by the righteousness of God by faith. But the same word is also used in I Timothy 1:5, which says that “the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned.” In this case it’s saying that the aim or purpose of Paul’s charge or commandment is love out of a pure heart, and Romans 10:4 can also be understood in that sense. Christ is the aim and purpose of the Law; he is what the Law was leading up to.
But in either case, it doesn’t mean that the Law is just “thrown out” as some legalists claim that we say. To such a claim, Paul responded, “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.” (Romans 3:31).
8 Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.
9 For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
10 Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. [see NASB]
In Romans 14:14 Paul declared that nothing was unclean of itself, echoing Jesus’ declaration that all foods were clean (Mark 7:19, NASB). But he cautioned that we must be more concerned with not offending a brother. (See Objection #17.)
13 Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way.
14 I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.
15 But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died. [see NASB]
In I Corinthians 5, Paul makes reference to the custom of purging out all the leaven in the home before Passover. The leaven represented sin.
I Corinthians 5:
7 Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us:
8 Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. [see NASB]
Verse 8 literally reads, “Let us be keeping the feast…” It is an ongoing lifestyle rather than the Old Covenant’s annual celebration.
In I Corinthians 8:4ff, Paul talks about eating things offered to idols. He says that idols are really nothing, as there is only one true God. Therefore whether we eat or not, we are neither better nor worse. But again Paul cautions us not to make our freedom a stumblingblock to weaker brethren.
I Corinthians 8:
9 But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.
10 For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols;
11 And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? [see NASB]
Likewise, in chapter 9, Paul speaks of becoming “all things to all men” that he might reach more people. Among the Jews, he became like a Jew; among those without the Law, he became like one outside of the Law (although he said he was “not without law to God, but under the law to Christ” - I Corinthians 9:21). None of his actions had to do with obeying or not obeying the Law, but how he conducted himself among other people so as not to offend, and to reach more people. This is why he said in chapter 10 that all things were lawful, but not all things were expedient.
I Corinthians 10:
23 All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.
24 Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth.
25 Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake:
26 For the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.
27 If any of them that believe not bid you to a feast, and ye be disposed to go; whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake.
28 But if any man say unto you, This is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for his sake that shewed it, and for conscience sake: for the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof:
29 Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other: for why is my liberty judged of another man’s conscience?
30 For if I by grace be a partaker, why am I evil spoken of for that for which I give thanks?
31 Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.
32 Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God:
33 Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved. [see NASB]
But on the other hand, he did not say “Go ahead and keep the Law if you want, it doesn’t matter.” In II Corinthians 3, he describes the Old Covenant as the dispensation of condemnation and of death. One might think that this contradicts his statement in Romans 7 that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.” But that chapter explains how the Law, which was good, brought about death because of our sin. Thus Paul emphasizes the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit. (See also Objection #6)
II Corinthians 3:
5 Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God;
6 Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.
7 But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away:
8 How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious?
9 For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory.
10 For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth.
11 For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious. [see NASB]
When the Galatians started getting back into the Law, Paul reproved them. “This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:2-3). He reminds them of how Abraham received the promises because of his faith, and if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise. The promises were given to Abraham and his seed by a covenant. The Law, which was 430 years after, did not change that covenant and its promises (Galatians 3:16-18). Both the Old Covenant and the New Covenant are under the overarching Abrahamic Covenant.
Paul also says, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (Galatians 3:13). “Why serve the Law then?” he asks. His answer: “It was added because of transgressions…until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made” (Galatians 3:19). If there could have been a law which could impart life, righteousness would have been based on law (Galatians 3:21). But since everyone sins, that wasn’t possible. The Law served to identify sin, showing everyone that they cannot be righteous by their works. This is why Paul calls the Law a schoolmaster to lead us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). The word for schoolmaster is paidagogos, from which we get our English word ‘pedagogue.’ In Greek and Roman culture, this was a trusted slave whose responsibility was to guard and supervise boys of wealthy families until they reached maturity. Once we have Christ, why would we put ourselves under the pedagogue again? Paul says it only leads to bondage.
1 Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.
2 Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.
3 For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.
4 Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.
5 For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith.
6 For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love. [see NASB]
The Law of Moses, then, was part of a temporary Covenant made specifically with Israel. It contained elements that pointed to what was to come. “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). The New Covenant has replaced the Old Covenant, but both are under the overall covenant of promises to Abraham. So when the New Testament speaks of obeying God’s commandments, which ones is it talking about?
Obeying the commandments of Jesus does not mean obeying the Law of Moses. The first commandment Jesus gave in his preaching was to repent and believe the Gospel of the kingdom. He said the Law and the Prophets were until John, and since then the Kingdom of God was preached (Matthew 11:13; Luke 16:16). He also said he gave us a new commandment, to love one another (John 13:34; 15:12). These and other commandments of the Lord Jesus Christ are what we as Christians are expected to follow (I Corinthians 14:37; I Thessalonians 4:2).
The few New Testament verses that refer to obeying “the law of God” are not speaking of the Law of God as delivered through Moses. The law of Christ, delivered by the ultimate Prophet of which Moses foretold (Deuteronomy 18:15-19), is also called the Law of God. God’s commandments delivered by Moses were addressed to Israel. His commandments to the world at large are found in the words of Jesus Christ. But they are all ultimately God’s laws. Some of what Jesus said during his earthly ministry was addressed to people who were still under the Law, before he completed his sacrificial work. But he made quite a few significant changes even during that time. In addition, his commandments also include what he gave us by revelation through the New Testament writers. Paul referred to his writings as “commandments of the Lord” in I Corinthians 14:37.
When he wrote in I Corinthians 7:19 that “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God,” he couldn’t be referring to the Ten Commandments or the Law of Moses. Circumcision is certainly not “nothing” in the Law of Moses. We are to keep the commandments of God which are addressed to us, which are the words that came through Jesus Christ.
The book of Hebrews describes in detail how the sacrifice of Christ fulfilled the Old Covenant and ratified the New. For one thing, it lays out the original goal of the Sabbath. Some have said that if our heart is to love God, we should do the things that please Him even if we are not required by Law to do them. This is true, but the catch is to understand what pleases Him. Most of the Ten Commandments are obvious – have no other Gods, don’t worship graven images, don’t take His name in vain. But there is nothing inherently moral or immoral in the act of taking a day off from work, except for the fact that the Israelites were commanded to do so. We saw previously that the purpose of the Sabbath was to set Israel apart, and to remind them of what God had done. The end goal was for them to enter into His rest by ceasing from their own works. But they didn’t all enter into His rest because of their unbelief. Yet there is still a rest to God’s people.
1 Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it.
2 For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.
3 For we which have believed do enter into rest, as he said, As I have sworn in my wrath, if they shall enter into my rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world.
4 For he spake in a certain place of the seventh day on this wise, And God did rest the seventh day from all his works.
5 And in this place again, If they shall enter into my rest.
6 Seeing therefore it remaineth that some must enter therein, and they to whom it was first preached entered not in because of unbelief:
7 Again, he limiteth a certain day, saying in David, To day, after so long a time; as it is said, To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
8 For if Jesus [Joshua*] had given them rest, then would he not afterward have spoken of another day.
9 There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God.
10 For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his.
Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the
same example of unbelief. [see NASB]
In verse 9, the word for “rest” is sabbatismos, literally a Sabbath rest. As verse three says, “For we which have believed do enter into rest.” It is not limited to a single day, because the Sabbath Day as a requirement was a sign of God’s covenant with Israel. But today, under the New Covenant we receive rest by turning to Christ every day.
28 Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. [see NASB]
Our ultimate rest will be when Christ returns, but in the meantime we are exhorted to “labor” [Greek spoudazo, to endeavor, or be diligent] to enter that rest. The point is to cease from relying on our own works and rest in what God has done for us, just as the Mosaic Sabbath was for the purpose of remembering what God had done for them.
Hebrews also describes in detail the superiority of Christ’s sacrifice over the Old Covenant animal sacrifices. The Law could not make a permanent change, and so the sacrifices and offerings had to be repeated. “If the first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second” (Hebrews 8:7).
Hebrews 10 refers to the sacrifices of the Law as a shadow of better things to come. Christ is the substance of which they were a shadow. Now that the substance has come, there is no more need for the shadow. We now offer “spiritual sacrifices” in place of the old animal sacrifices (Hebrews 13:15; I Peter 2:5).
James in his epistle speaks of the Royal Law and the Law of Liberty. Many have assumed that this refers to the Law of Moses. Not only has James been misunderstood, but some have even gone so far as to claim that the Epistle of James has no place in the Bible, because they think it promotes keeping the Law of Moses, in contradiction of Paul’s epistles. But they miss the point there as well. He refers to the Royal Law and the Law of Liberty, but what do those terms mean? Let us examine the context.
22 But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.
23 For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass:
24 For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.
25 But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.
26 If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain.
27 Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. [see NASB]
The predominant message in the first chapters of James is about not being hypocritical. The Pharisees were experts at nit-picking the minutest details of the Law, and neglecting to do what is loving and kind in a situation. The next chapter clarifies what is meant by the perfect law of liberty.
8 If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well:
9 But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors.
10 For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.
11 For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law.
12 So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty. [see NASB]
Here James echoes the words of Jesus, that to love your neighbor as yourself fulfills the Law. So there is a difference between only focusing on the Letter of the Law, and really living by the intended heart of it. If you show partiality rather than loving your neighbor as yourself, it’s sin. And if you focus on the Letter of the Law, that sin breaks the whole Law, because you have to keep every jot and tittle to be justified by the Law. But if you fulfil the Royal Law, loving your neighbor as yourself, you do well.
It is often claimed that James contradicts Paul. Paul said we are saved by grace and not by works. Yet James speaks of being saved by works. The supposed "contradiction" between Paul and James is eliminated when you recognize that believing must be demonstrated by works, or it is not truly believing. There is a difference, though, between doing works to try to make yourself righteous, and doing works out of loving obedience. When you are acting out of loving obedience to God, your works will demonstrate your faith. Paul even said that we are saved by faith unto good works (Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 2:11-15; 3:1-8). See Living By Faith.
John uses the word ‘commandment’ many times in his epistles. Legalists like to point this out and claim that it proves we are to follow the Law of Moses. But as we have seen, there are other commandments in the Bible besides the Ten Commandments.
I John 2:
3 And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.
4 He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.
5 But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him. [see NASB]
Keeping his word is keeping his commandments. Some point out that John defines sin as transgressing the Law in his epistles.
I John 3:
4 Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law. [see NASB]
But read the next verses:
I John 3:
5 And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin.
6 Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him. [see NASB]
The opposite of transgression of the law in this case is abiding in him, not keeping the Old Covenant Law. John makes it clear what commandments he is referring to in several places in his epistles:
I John 3:
22 And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.
23 And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment.
24 And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us.
I John 4:
20 If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?
21 And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.
II John 1:
5 And now I beseech thee, lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment unto thee, but that which we had from the beginning, that we love one another.
6 And this is love, that we walk after his commandments. This is the commandment, That, as ye have heard from the beginning, ye should walk in it. [see NASB]
The greatest commandments, as Jesus said, are to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. If you do that you will automatically fulfill the heart of the Law.
In Acts 15:10 Peter said the Old Testament Law was a yoke that neither their ancestors nor they could bear. Paul described it as being bondage, and that no flesh can be justified by the Law. Yet there are a few verses that state that certain Jews kept the Law blamelessly. This sounds like a contradiction.
5 There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth.
6 And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.
4 Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more:
5 Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee;
6 Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.
1 And Paul, earnestly beholding the council, said, Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day. [see NASB]
Even in the Law itself, God says it’s not too hard to keep the commandments. This again sounds like a contradiction.
11 For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. [see NASB]
Several newer versions render this verse as, “For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not too hard for thee, neither is it far off.” Translated this way makes it sound like keeping the commandments is not too difficult, which sounds like a contradiction to Peter and Paul’s saying the Law was a yoke of bondage that was too hard to bear. The verb translated as “to be hidden” in KJV and “to be too hard” in several other versions is the Hebrew word pala, which is defined as “to be marvelous, be wonderful, be surpassing, be extraordinary…” It can have the sense of “to be beyond one’s power, be difficult to do” or “to be difficult to understand,” or “to be wonderful, be extraordinary.” To determine which is the sense that is intended, let us look at the context. The next few verses contain some familiar words.
13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it?
14 But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.
15 See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil;
16 In that I command thee this day to love the LORD thy God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments, that thou mayest live and multiply: and the LORD thy God shall bless thee in the land whither thou goest to possess it. [see NASB]
Paul quotes this passage in Romans, linking it with the righteousness which is of faith.
5 For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doeth those things shall live by them.
6 But the righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise, Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:)
7 Or, Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.)
8 But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy
mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach;
10 For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. [see NASB]
Verse 16 of Deuteronomy 30 describes the foundation of the Law: “to love the LORD thy God.” This was the true heart behind all the Law, as Jesus taught. Those who loved God and loved the Law in Old Testament times knew that Moses said God would raise up a prophet like him who would speak all the words God would command him (Deuteronomy 18:15-19). They knew that God promised to return them to their land in the end and they would be ruled by His Anointed (see The Lord’s Anointed). Those that really loved God knew that He would send his Messiah. This is the faith that they were to have, which they expressed by obeying God’s commandments. This is to be distinguished from doing the works of the Law in order to be right with God.
Moses said in Deuteronomy 6:25, "And it shall be our righteousness, if we observe to do all these commandments before the LORD our God, as he hath commanded us." I used to use this verse to prove that righteousness was by the Law in the Old Testament, in contrast to the grace in the New Testament. However, when read in context, it can be seen that the commandments to Israel were what they were expected to do, not in order to be righteous, but as a demonstration of their love for and commitment to God. Verse 29 of chapter 5 says, "O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children for ever!" God commanded them to observe His commandments and not turn aside to the right or the left (5:32). "Ye shall walk in all the ways which the LORD your God hath commanded you, that ye may live, and that it may be well with you, and that ye may prolong your days in the land which ye shall possess" (5:33).
These commandments and statutes were the expected response to what God had done for them. They were given to the children of Israel in order to keep them separate from the rest of the world, and thus demonstrate their unique relationship with God. The whole reason for this, and the reason for their unique relationship with Him, was to honor the promises he had made to Abraham and the other fathers.
You see, it was never God's intention to outline a code of conduct by which people could be declared righteous. Rather, the works were to be an indication of their love and trust toward God. Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness (Genesis 15:6), and he obeyed God because of that. Likewise, if the children of Israel loved, believed, and trusted God, they would obey what He commanded them, and because of that it would be their righteousness.
But many of the Israelites, especially the Scribes and Pharisees, ended up using the works of the Law as a way of trying to establish their own righteousness. Instead of observing God's ways out of love for Him and for their neighbor, they prided themselves in keeping minute details of the letter of the Law, but missed the whole heart behind it. But God knew that they would do that. He also knew that many others would not keep the Law and turn to sin and idolatry. This is why it also included the function of demonstrating their need for a redeemer, as well as foreshadowing the ultimate sacrifice.
On the other hand, those Israelites who loved God and loved His Law looked forward to the coming Messiah, of whom the sacrificial system was a type, and in obedience performed the sacrifices that the Law demanded. That is how Israelites were made righteous. Not by the works of the Law in and of itself, but because of the faith and love which were the reason they kept the Law.
2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. [see NASB]
This is how certain individuals could be described as blameless or righteous according to the Law without contradicting Paul. While Zachariah and Elisabeth, as well as Paul himself, are described as keeping the Law blamelessly, it doesn’t mean that they never sinned. Jesus is the only man who never sinned (Hebrews 4:15; I Peter 2:22). But when they did sin they performed the sacrifices prescribed by the Law, and they did so not in order to be righteous, but because it was the expected response to what God had done. Thus while they were not sinless, they were blameless.
Today we similarly do works as the expected response to what God did for us in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-10). But we must be clear about what works we are expected to do, based on what commandments are addressed to us. We have been given commandments by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, including what he spoke by way of the Apostles. Let us rise up to his commandments, one of which is, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1).
(Go to Part Two for an examination of the common objections to the Old Covenant and the Sabbath having been replaced.)
This page last updated April 24, 2018