Chapter 8: What About the Ten Commandments?

The Sabbatarians' main thesis is simple and can be quite appealing. It is this: The Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are not a temporary ceremonial law but a changeless moral law. Calvary proves that God takes His law seriously. In bearing the penalty of sin, Christ showed that even God could not change His law; otherwise Christ need not have died. The gospel, therefore, does not abolish God's law but upholds it (Romans 3:31).

This thesis contains much good, orthodox Christian theology, and we therefore should be careful lest we summarily reject it. To begin with, the Ten Commandments have traditionally been highly respected in all the great churches, both before and after the Reformation. Much of Luther's Large and Small Catechisms is devoted to an exposition of the Ten Commandments. And the Ten Commandments are included in the catechisms of most Protestant churches.

The argument that Calvary proves that God takes His law seriously is also the orthodox Christian doctrine of the atonement. It is found in the teachings of Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Spurgeon, Hodge, Buchanan, Berkouwer and Billy Graham.

In this chapter I wish to respond to the Sabbatarians' thesis on the perpetuity of the law of God. Assumptions are often made regarding the Ten Commandments which should not go unchallenged, because they may lead to false conclusions. We therefore consider the following points:

1. The Ten Commandments Are Not Eternal

That which is eternal has no beginning and no ending. The existence of an eternal law of God is as certain as the existence of an eternal will of God. But it is not the Ten Commandments. Since the Sabbath was made for man, there could be no Sabbath commandment before the creation of the human race (Mark 2:27; Genesis 2:2, 3). Neither could there be a commandment governing the relations of male and female before the beginning of human history, for sexuality does not belong to the nature of angels.

Furthermore, the very wording of the Ten Commandments implies that they were given after the fall of man and not before. Theologians have long recognized that the predominantly negative form of the Ten Commandments ("You shall not ...") presupposes the inclination to sin. (1) This indicates that they were written for fallen man. The Sabbath law speaks of servants and beasts of burden, which do not belong to man's unfallen state.

Just as the Ten Commandments were not relevant to sinless man in the beginning, so they will not be relevant in that future life where they neither marry nor are given in marriage (Matthew 22:30). What relevance would the letter of the Sabbath commandment have in the city of the redeemed, where "They count not time by years, and there is no night there"? If Isaiah 66:23 is used to prove that the letter of the Sabbath law will be kept in the age to come, this scripture can also be used to prove that the Jewish New Moon feasts will be celebrated in the age to come--for Isaiah mentions both. Will the saints "labor" in a six-day work week in heaven? Is it not much more reasonable to recognize that Isaiah's prophecy of the glory of the Messianic age is written in Palestinian language which is not fulfilled according to the Judaistic letter but according to the spirit of the new age?

God's law, like Himself, has no variableness nor shadow of turning. The moral principles behind the Ten Commandments are eternal. But it cannot be proved that the letter of the Ten Commandments is eternal.

2. The Ten Commandments Are Not All-Inclusive

There is a tendency among Sabbatarians to exaggerate the all-inclusive nature of the Ten Commandments. Ecclesiastes 12:13 is a favorite "proof"-text: "Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man." But nothing in this text indicates that Solomon was thinking only of the Ten Commandments. A pious Jew reading this scripture would more likely think of the 613 commandments of the Torah. The Christian might also legitimately include such commandments as "Be baptized" or "Go into all the world and preach the gospel."

We do not know why the Testimony, as it is called, contains just ten commandments (Exodus 34:27-29). Some scholars have suggested that they are an elementary code of morality structured to correspond to the ten fingers as a catechizing aid for a simple agrarian people. It is clear that the letter of the Ten Commandments does not cover the entire range of human responsibility, There are numerous offenses which do not violate the letter of the Ten Commandments. There is no written code which condemns a hasty temper, a premature judgment, a vain imagination or a lack of humility. No written code can cover the entire range of human duty.

Which letter of the law did Peter break when he terminated table fellowship with the Gentiles? The fact is that he committed this offense against faith while strictly following the letter of the law of Moses.

How much more do faith and love demand of us than the letter of any written code, including the Ten Commandments! When Paul made this discovery, he was constrained to declare, "We serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code" (Romans 7:6).

3. The Ten Commandments Contain Cultic as Well as Universal Features

When God gave the Ten Commandments, we cannot assume that He gave a law which was not conditioned by the cultural and historical situation of Israel. If the wording of the Ten Commandments was adapted to the needs of man and not angels, to fallen man and not sinless man, might not God also adapt the Ten Commandments to the needs of Israel? This suggests that the Ten Commandments contain cultic features as well as Universal principles.

For example, the introduction to the Ten Commandments is prefaced by a cultic feature: '"I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Exodus 20:2). We may apply these words to ourselves in a spiritual sense, since Christ's resurrection is the great exodus of the New Testament age. But when we take that liberty with the letter, of the law, are we not employing the principle of reinterpretation? And if we reinterpret one part of the law, might it not be possible (in fact, necessary) to reinterpret other parts of the law?

The commandment, "Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you" (Exodus 20:12), is also wrapped in Jewish swaddling clothes. In its natural context this is a promise of a long life in Palestine. But the Sabbatarian says that we are justified in applying the principle of this promise to ourselves. Certainly we are, but this is a reinterpretation of a Jewish feature of the law.

The Sabbath commandment also includes a cultic Jewish element, for the version which appears in Deuteronomy says:

"Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day." -- Deuteronomy 5:15

The letter of the entire Decalogue, therefore, cannot be indiscriminately applied to everyone without some adaptation or reinterpretation, In the last fifty years or so, great advances in the biblical sciences have demonstrated that we have not always made sufficient allowance for the way the Bible comes to us clothed in the language and culture of its time, More care should be taken to distinguish between cultic regulations and universal principles. A naive literalism, either in the application of Old Testament prophecies or Old Testament law, does not reflect the prophetic freedom of Jesus and His apostles.

Even in reading the New Testament, we should distinguish between what is cultic and what is universal. Paul gives the specific command, "Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss" (1 Thess. 5:26). Yet most Sabbatarians (at least Anglo-Saxon ones) prefer to exercise some creative freedom when they substitute a hearty handshake.

4. The Letter of the Ten Commandments Should Not Always Be Kept

There is more to keeping the law than keeping the letter of the law. Since "the law is spiritual"" (Romans 7:14), no one keeps the law unless he keeps it in spirit and in truth. Yet sometimes it is not possible to do this without breaking the letter of the law. Examples of this are scattered throughout the Bible. Naaman, the leper, was allowed to transgress the letter of the second commandment with Elisha's approval, as the following incident illustrates:

Namaan ... said, "Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel ...

"But may the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I bow there also -- when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this."

"Go in peace, Elisha said. -- 2 Kings 5:15, 18-19

David ate the consecrated bread, which was contrary to the letter of the law (1 Samuel 21:6). Jehoiada participated in an armed insurrection against the wicked queen on the Sabbath day (2 Chronicles 23:3-15). In the time of the Maccabees an entire company of Jews were slaughtered because they refused to defend themselves on the Sabbath. After that, fight or flight was permitted on the Sabbath if life was in danger. And will not Christian Sabbatarians transgress the letter of the Sabbath law if some urgent mission of mercy demands it?

While even the Sabbatarian feels free from the letter of the Sabbath law in the event of dire necessity, who can say that we are ever free to be disloyal to God? This proves to us that behind the letter of the written code there stands a higher law which must never be broken. That higher law is the demand of faith and love. Luther declares:

Therefore faith and love are always to be mistresses of the law and to have all laws in their power. For since all laws aim at faith and love, none of them can be valid, or be a law, if it conflicts with faith or love. (2)

The pages of history are strewn with innumerable instances of the greatest evils and injustices committed by devotees of the letter of the law.

5. The Ten Commandments Are No Longer under the Ministration of Moses

In the Old Testament situation the law is in the hands of Moses. He explains to the Jewish people what it means to keep God's commandments. The regulations with which he binds them to serve God are adapted to their situation and to God's great plan in history. Moses, therefore, is the interpreter of the law, including the Sabbath commandment. In the New Testament the ministration of Moses gives way to the superior ministration of Him who is clearly the new Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15):

"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool' will be in danger of the fire of hell ...

"You have heard that it was said, 'do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart ...

"Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' But I tell you, Do not swear at all either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is His footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King ...

"You have heard that it was said, 'eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." -- Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28, 33-35, 38-39

The timeless ethical principles found in Moses are not weakened by Jesus Christ; they are spiritualized, radicalized and strengthened. But the external features old the Mosaic regulations are relaxed or reinterpreted by Jesus and His apostles. (3)

Since the Ten Commandments, including the Sabbath law, are no longer in the hands of Moses (his regulations having been abolished [Ephesians 2:14-15; Colossians 2:14]), the burden is on Sabbatarians to prove that Jesus and His apostles continued to interpret the Sabbath commandment according to its Judaistic letter. In the New Testament every other commandment of the Decalogue is amplified and reapplied to the Christian community. We must therefore insist on knowing what the Sabbath means and how to keep it according to the new ministration of the gospel. We suggest that the answer is found in Hebrews 4:1-10.

We have made five points about the Ten Commandments: They are not eternal, they are not all-inclusive, they are not without cultic features, not every part of them is absolute, and it makes an important difference whether they are interpreted by the Old Testament or the New Testament. This leads us to reflect on the adequacy of the word moral as applied to the Ten Commandments.

The Bible itself does not use the word moral to distinguish the Ten Commandments from the rest of the law. In fact it nowhere gives us a formula to distinguish which parts of the whole law are moral and which parts are ceremonial. At one time a Sabbatarian sect presented studies to show that the moral law was placed in the ark, while the book of the ceremonial law was placed in the side of the ark. This argument failed because any thoughtful person could see that the book of the law contained "moral" precepts as enduring as the Ten Commandments.

It is not always easy to distinguish between the moral and ceremonial laws of Moses. The labels "moral" and "ceremonial" are not a magic formula to resolve all difficulties. In fact, the terms themselves are not altogether adequate.

Let us consider the word moral. This nonbiblical term may have a variety of meanings. In theology "moral law" generally describes "the relation that exists between God and men, and between man and man, and that will continue as long as the perfections of God and the faculties of men exist, without change, amendment or repeal." (4) A law which can be ignored or modified in the event of dire necessity would not qualify as "moral" according to the preceding definition. Neither would any commandment which had either a beginning or an ending, Stating that the Ten Commandments are altogether moral is therefore dubious.

On the other hand, saying that the Ten Commandments are altogether non-ceremonial is also dubious. What do we mean by the term ceremonial? Most of us would agree that a wedding service is a ceremony. Baptism is also a Christian ceremony. The Lutherans may say that baptism is more than a memorial ceremony of Christ's death, and they are right, of course; but it is at least that.

The Bible says that the Sabbath is a memorial of creation (Exodus 20:8-11). Some also want to say that it is a memorial of the new creation of Jesus Christ. Would not a command to have a day of remembrance be a command to have a ceremony of remembrance?

The ceremonial nature of the Sabbath law has been confirmed by Mendenhall's 1954 discovery that the Ten Commandments conform to the structure of treaties between Hittite kings and their vassals. Annexed to the stipulations of a Hittite treaty was a provision for a periodic ceremony to rehearse the treaty between the lord and the vassal. Meredith Kline beautifully demonstrates that the Sabbath law in the middle of the Ten Commandments is the counterpart of a Hittite treaty memorial celebration with respect to its provision for the rehearsal of God's covenant. The Sabbath law, therefore, was a law requiring a ceremony of covenantal rehearsal. (5)

Furthermore, the Sabbath is called "a sign" in the Old Testament (Exodus 31:17; Ezekiel 20:12) and "a shadow" in the New Testament (Colossians 2:17). Circumcision is also called a sign (Genesis 17:11; Romans 4:11), and no one objects to calling it the ceremony of circumcision. The temple services were called a shadow, and everyone acknowledges that they were ceremonies. If the Sabbath is merely a sign to represent some reality, why object so strenuously to calling it a ceremony?

A group of Seventh-day Adventist scholars recently wrote a series of essays on the Sabbath under the title, "Festival of the Sabbath" (6) Is not a festival closely related to a ceremony?

Of course, proving that the Sabbath is a kind of ceremony does not in itself mean that the Old Testament law is abrogated. But it does establish that it is just as unsatisfactory to say that the Ten Commandments are altogether non-ceremonial as it is to say that they are absolutely moral.

Some people have thought that all problems would be settled if we would simply review the Old Testament laws to decide which are moral and which are ceremonial. They conclude that we could then retain those that are moral and discard those that are ceremonial. But Christian communities can saddle their consciences with all kinds of burdens when they bring their uninspired wisdom to bear on the laws in the Bible. The more excellent way is to uphold the New Testament's interpretation and application of the law of God.


(1) Paul said, "We also know that law is made not for good men but for law breakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligous: for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers for adulterers and perverts for slave traders and liars and perjurers -- and for whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me." (1 Timothy 1:9-11)

(2) Martin Luther. "Prefaces to the Old Testament", Luther's Works, 35:240-41.

(3) For example, on the subject of Old Testament food laws "Jesus declared all foods clean" (Mark 7:19). Paul said: "I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself ... All food is clean" (Romans 14:14, 20). But the plain words of the New Testament do not convince some because they have allowed Moses to veto the words of both Jesus and Paul. This illustrates what happens when we come to the New Testament from the Old rather than to the Old Testament from the New. In any case, dietary preference should be based on general revelation (i.e. scientific information) instead of special revelation.

(4) John Leland. "The Sabbath Examined" and "Sabbatical Laws", Baptist Reformation Review 9, no. 4 (Fourth Quarter, 1980): 33.

(5) See Robert D. Brinsmead. Covenant (Fallbrook Calif.: Verdict Publications 1979) pp. 29-35.

(6) See Spectrum 9, no. 1 (1977).

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