Do Christians have to keep the Old Testament Law?
What about the Sabbath and Ten Commandments?
By Christopher Jethro
Last Updated: Dec 13, 2017
Last Updated: Dec 13, 2017
The Roots of the Confusion
Many Christians are very confused about whether or not Christians are supposed to keep the Old Testament Law, including confusion about whether we are to observe the Jewish holidays or circumcise our children. Chiefly, many are confused about whether we are supposed to observe the Sabbath since it is a part of the Ten Commandments. Moreover, they do not understand how to consistently identify which Old Testament commandments are still in effect for today. All of this confusion simply stems from a lack of understanding in regards to the two different covenants and two different laws.
The Old Covenant and Old Law
The Old Testament Law must be understood in the context of the Mosaic Covenant and Jewish people. After leading the Jewish people out of Egypt, God established a covenant with them on Mount Sinai. A covenant was a long-term binding relationship between two parties. Covenants included a list of conditions that must be kept in order for the lesser party (such as a conquered nation) to receive the blessings of the greater party (such as a king).
This Mosaic covenant was not a covenant between God and all people; it was a covenant between Yahweh God and the Jewish people. The conditions of the covenant (the commandments) were not an exhaustive list of universal moral rules for all people; it was a list of stipulations specifically for the Jewish people in order for them to receive the blessings of the Promised Land.
Theologians have traditionally divided the covenant’s stipulations into three categories: moral laws, civil laws, and ceremonial laws. Civil laws were societal laws designed for establishing Israel as a nation, and ceremonial laws included religious rituals of animal sacrifice, regulations for the Levitical priesthood, etc. Moral laws are self-explanatory, they simply address what is morally right or wrong such as “thou shalt not murder”.
It is very important to understand that moral laws are primarily for emphasis. For instance, it was a sin for Cain to murder his brother Abel, despite the fact that God had not yet said “thou shalt not murder” in the Ten Commandments. It has always been wrong to murder, steal, lie, etc. So when you see Old Testament laws forbidding such things, it is not as though God is just now deeming them as wrong, He was emphasizing what was already wrong!
This means that long before God ever created the Ten Commandments, and eternally after the Old Testament Law is dealt away with, these moral precepts are always in effect and universally binding. Romans 5:13 reads, “For until the law (the Old Testament Law) sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law.” Of course, as commentators will point out to you, sin certainly was imputed before the Mosaic Law (the global flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Cain’s punishment are easy examples of when sin was imputed before the written Mosaic Law). This verse is not saying sin was not imputed before the old Law, it is saying that sin is not imputed if there is no Law at all. That Law that was in effect since the beginning is the unwritten eternal moral Law of God. Now that we’ve established this, we’ll come back to this point later to better understand the Ten Commandments.
The Law was Our Tutor
Let’s use an analogy. Let’s say that your kids were misbehaving a lot. In order to address those issues, you began to create a list of strict rules. For instance, let’s say your children kept staying up till 2am, then you made an official rule – ‘from now on, you must be in bed by 10pm!’ Let’s say they were failing to do their homework and just played video games instead, so you made a rule that ‘from now on, you can’t play video games more than one hour a day to ensure there’s plenty of time for homework!’ Finally, let’s say they were neglecting their house chores and hanging out with friends until it is too late to do them. You make another rule that ‘from now on, they must complete their chores first thing when they come home before anything else’. You created those rules to teach them good behavior. But eventually, you bump into sticky situations. Let’s say you were coming home very late from the airport one night and the kids hadn’t seen you in a week. They weren’t allowed to stay up late to see your arrival because your rule said they can’t be up past 10pm. Some weekdays they have no homework or housework to do all, but they weren’t allowed to play games more than an hour so they have nothing to do and sit around bored. Maybe one day, they have an injured friend they want to visit at the hospital, but they weren’t able to because your rule said they have to do housework first thing when they come home, and then the visiting hours had ended by the time they finished their homework.
Now, you originally created those rules with good intentions to correct bad behavior and to teach them basic ethics. But then there were special scenarios were exceptions should have been allowed. Let’s say that one day you then decided to tell the kids, “forget the rules!” You rip the sheet of rules in half because you just want them to behave well, without worrying about the issues that come with having a very strict set of rules that don’t allow any exceptions. Just because you trashed that rules list doesn’t mean you want your kids to start neglecting their house chores, homework, and stay up late till 2am again! You just want them to understand the underlying principles of those rules and behave accordingly with wisdom.
That’s basically what the Old Testament Law was like! It was always a sin to murder, steal, lie, commit adultery, etc. And it’s still a sin to do those things after the Old Testament Law was dealt away with in light of the moral principles underlying the Old Law. We aren’t bound to a strict set of rules inasmuch as we are living with wisdom according to basic, common-sense moral principles. God would say it’s wrong to kill, but He also made exceptions for war and self-defense. He would say it’s wrong to lie, but made an exception when Rahab hid the Israelite spies in her house. He would say don’t eat the sacred bread of the Temple if you are not a priest, but made an exception for David’s men to eat it. He would say don’t do any work on the Sabbath, but made an exception for helping others or your animals if needed. Adultery should always be a sin too, but if your spouse was raped then that special scenario obviously shouldn't count as being unfaithful!
In light of these examples, this is why Galatians 3:24-25 says, "Therefore the law was our school-master to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor." The Law was there to teach us basic moral principles, but once we understand those moral principles, we only need to follow our God-given conscience, common sense morals, and the Holy Spirit to do what is right and wrong. The Law acted like a tutor to help teach us moral principles. Now that it has led us to Christ however, we are no longer under the Law (there is no official strict set of rules we must follow exactly), instead we are abiding by the moral principles that underlined the Law.
Per the earlier analogy, common household ethics should be obvious and there is no need for a list of rules if you already have well-behaved children. Likewise, Christians who are Spirit-led, who obey their God-given conscience, and who are living according to biblical moral principles, do not need an official strict set of rules (the Old Testament Law). The list of forbidden actions isn't needed for well-behaved children, but would only be created to teach good behavior to bad children. This is why 1 Timothy 1:9 explains, "the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners." The Law was created to teach sinners about righteousness; it's our tutor to bring us to Christ. But once we have Christ, and understand the moral principles of it, we don't need the list itself anymore.
What is right and and wrong should be obvious to the Christian, not something we have to study the old Law to readily recognize. As Galatians 5:19-23 says, “Now the works of the flesh are obvious, which are these, adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envying, murders, drunkenness, reveling, and such like: of which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.”
The New Covenant and New Law
When Christ came, he initiated a new and different Covenant. Now salvation is granted to anyone who repents and trusts in Jesus for forgiveness. Those who receive Christ are partakers of the New Covenant. We are not a part of the Old Covenant. The reason why we are not under the Old Testament Law is simply because we are not under the Old Covenant! The Bible explicitly states that we are part of the New Covenant, the first Covenant is obsolete, and we are not under the Old Testament Law as New Covenant believers.
- In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. – (Hebrews 8:13)
- For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. – (Ephesians 2:14-16)
- Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. – (2 Corinthians 3:5-6)
- (For they have become priests without an oath, but He with an oath by Him who said to Him: “The Lord has sworn And will not relent, ‘You are a priest forever According to the order of Melchizedek’”), by so much more Jesus has become a surety of a better covenant. – (Hebrews 7:21-22)
- For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace. What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not! – (Romans 6:14-15)
- But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. – (Galatians 5:18)
- For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. – (Romans 10:4)
- But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises. (Hebrews 8:6)
- Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another—to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God. For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death. But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter. (Romans 7:4-6)
Like the Old Covenant, the New Covenant also comes with commandments and set of promised blessings unique to it. When Jesus gave His Sermon on the Mount, he established commandments for New Covenant believers in regards to how we love, have faith, pray, etc. Jesus also commonly replaced previous commandments, often heightening a previous moral commandment. For instance Jesus said things like, “You have heard that it was said X, but I say to you Y,” where ‘Y’ represents a new commandment He issues. In the Beatitudes, Jesus also outlined heavenly blessings for different Christ-like attributes. E.g., the poor in spirit (humble) receive the glory of God's Kingdom, the meek will inherit the earth, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake will have great rewards in heaven, etc.
Jesus said, “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19). Jesus was referring to His own teaching when He said this which is why He said whoever breaks one of these commandments (the commandments contained in the Sermon on the Mount). In such ways, Jesus seemed to magnify Old Testament moral principles, but that doesn’t mean we are bound to that specific list of rules, inasmuch as He was just magnifying the moral standards/principles Christians should live by.
Earlier I explained how many of the Old Testament laws were based on what scholars refer to as “moral laws”, categorically speaking. Because God’s moral laws are eternal, they continue to apply to New Testament believers (and all people universally for that matter) despite the fact that we are not under the Old Testament Law. So murder, stealing, lying, sexual sins, etc., continue to be forbidden sins despite the fact the Jesus dealt away with the old Law. These ‘moral laws’ is what the Bible is referring to when it says New Covenant believers will have the Law of God written on their hearts and minds.
- But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. (Jeremiah 31:33)
The Law that God has written on our hearts is simply the one that convicts us when we do bad things. It is a not a Law that convicts us for breaking Old Testament commandments like eating pork, wearing a garment of mixed threads, not keeping the Sabbath, etc. It is amazing actually that we no longer have need of studying Old Covenant commandments to understand what is wrong because the moral Law of God is written on our very hearts!
Did Jesus teach the Law will never pass away?
So far Scripture has been clear regarding the transition to the New Covenant. However, some people get confused over what Jesus meant when He said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the Law till all is fulfilled” (Matthew 5:17-18). Was Jesus implying that the Old Testament Law would abide forever when He said this? No, Jesus is simply making a point that His goal was not to destroy the Law but to fulfill it.
If Jesus came to destroy the Law, that would mean He doesn’t want any moral order to exist at all and destroying God’s Law would allow sinners to do as they please without consequence. On the contrary, Jesus came to fulfill the Law. Jesus never broke a single Old Testament commandment thereby fulfilling the Old Covenant’s stipulations. He lived a sinless life and took the consequences of our sins upon Himself, thereby further fulfilling the Law’s requirement to punish sin. The Old Testament Law was then satisfied, and Jesus initiated a new and better Covenant to replace it.
In verse 18, when Jesus said, “till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the Law till all is fulfilled," Jesus simply meant that the Old Testament Law would stay fully in effect (not pass away) UNTIL all is fulfilled. He emphasized this by adding it would not pass away unless the universe itself (heaven and earth) passed away. In other words, the only way for it to pass away is for it be fulfilled. Its fulfillment of course could only be done by God's supernatural intervention; that is, through the life and death of Jesus Christ. The Law had to be fulfilled. We could paraphrase Jesus' teaching like this: “I did not come to destroy moral order, but rather I came to satisfy the holy requirements of God’s Law. Unless the universe passed away, the Law will not pass away until it becomes fulfilled by Me.” So the real question is, did Jesus fulfill the Old Testament Law? Yes; He did fulfill it, and in doing so it passed away indeed.
What about the Ten Commandments?
Now that we have established a clear understanding of the old and new Covenants, we can rewind to focus on the Ten Commandments. Many Christians believe that the Ten Commandments are universal (apply to all people always) and are fully-binding on New Covenant believers. This belief creates confusion in regards to the Sabbath since observing the Sabbath is a part of the Ten Commandments. Such Christians would argue that since the other nine commandments seem to still be in affect (don’t murder, steal, etc.) then observing the Sabbath must be a requirement too. This is a very serious claim, because since breaking the other commandments such as false god worship or adultery will send a person to Hell, this teaching would imply that not keeping the Sabbath would also send someone to Hell.
As we established earlier, many of the Old Testament laws were based off of God’s pre-existing moral laws. It was already a sin to murder before God said “do not murder” in the seventh commandment. The Ten Commandments were not creating new moral principles for the first time ever, as if it were okay to cheat on your wife or steal beforehand. Many of the Ten Commandments, like other Old Covenant laws, were simply there for emphasis – God was emphasizing something they know is wrong because they are struggling with that particular sin.
You see, many people mistakenly believe that the Ten Commandments are a list of the top ten most important moral rules of all time. This cannot be so because there are worse sins not listed in the Ten Commandments such as witchcraft, human sacrifice, homosexuality, child abuse, etc. The Ten Commandments is not a list of the top ten most immoral things to never do. The Ten Commandments were mostly moral emphasis commandments that focused on the top ten things Israel was going to struggle with. Indeed, the top two major things Israel struggled with was creating and worshiping idols which is exactly why the first two commandments focus on this issue. The Ten Commandments were undeniably a part of the Old Covenant Law. It is unthinkable to conclude that Jews thought the Ten Commandments were somehow separate from the hundreds of other laws that immediately followed them, which were also from the mouth of God.
In regards to observing the Sabbath, which is the fifth commandment, this is not a moral commandment – it is a ceremonial commandment. It would have been a sin for Old Covenant Jews to not keep the Sabbath simply because that would be disobedience to God’s command. Unlike the other nine commandments however, Sabbath-breaking was not a sin before this time. Breaking the Sabbath was never a universal moral commandment for all people – it was only for the Jews. God has never sent non-Jews of the Old Testament or modern-day people to Hell for not keeping the Sabbath.
Those who teach that Christians must observe the Sabbath do not understand the transition to the New Covenant and are creating confusion in the Body of Christ. The Ten Commandments were undeniably a part of the Old Testament Law, not separate from it, which was already fulfilled by Christ. We are not under the Law; we partakers of a completely different Covenant! Saying that the fifth commandment is still required to keep (since the others seem to be in effect) is like saying, “Hey it’s still wrong to kidnap people for slavery according to Deuteronomy 24:7, therefore it is also still wrong to wear a garment of mixed threads according to Deuteronomy 22:11!” The truth is that all of those laws are dealt away with, but kidnapping people (in this example) remains wrong because this is an eternal moral principle pre-existing the written Law. We simply need to understand that the old Law was dealt away with and we simply aren’t under it as New Covenant believers. The New Testament makes absolutely no commandment to keep the Sabbath. It is definitely not a requirement of the New Covenant to keep the Sabbath and it is not a sin to not observe it.
Having explained this, obviously God listed the keeping of the Sabbath because it was important to Him. Although I have emphasized that keeping the Sabbath is not a requirement, and would never affect one's salvation should they choose to not observe it, this does not mean that keeping the Sabbath isn't good or valuable. Christians should recognize the Sabbath as a something created and blessed by God during the creation week (before the Mosaic Law). The Sabbath is definitely special and there is much value in observing it, and I would encourage Christians to do so. However, we must be explicitly clear that keeping the Sabbath is not a requirement for salvation.
As New Covenant believers, the moral Law of God is written on our hearts and minds. We simply are not under the Old Testament Law, which certainly included the Ten Commandments, although we are still bound by the eternal moral principles that some of those Old Testament laws were based on. If we are simply obedient to our moral convictions and the Holy Spirit, we will quickly discern what is right and wrong. Secondly, the New Testament Scriptures are very clear about what sins will send a person to Hell. This means there is no room for confusion in regards to what is considered immoral (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). In fact, the Bible goes a step further and says the works of the flesh (sinful practices) are obvious (Galatians 5:19) – meaning they can be readily recognized by our consciences. Sometimes there will still be some special “gray areas” where we are uncertain, but that is why we have the Holy Spirit to guide us and give us wisdom in those special situations.
- Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)
- Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I tell you about these things in advance—as I told you before—that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)
We should stay focused on the commandments that Jesus issued on the Sermon on the Mount instead of practicing legalism by attempting to observe all the Old Testament laws which are not for us.
We don’t have to keep the Sabbath, observe Jewish holidays, practice circumcision, avoid eating pork, or wear clothes from a single material, etc., because these are not moral laws applicable to the New Covenant, they were civil and ceremonial laws that applied to the first Covenant only. We just need the childlike understanding to never practice those sinful works of the flesh which are obvious, but instead strive to reflect Christ-like character and love. We must not make the mistake of trying to pick out all of the moral commandments from the old Law to keep, and dismiss the rest, as this is completely impracticable since the Bible does not make a clear distinction between these three categories so there would be no consistent way to do so.
The Ten Commandments and Old Testament Law are still be good for study, but nonetheless we are not under those commandments anymore because are in a New Covenant so there is no reason for us to subject ourselves to legalistic bondage. Instead, we should be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s convictions and focus on studying New Testament passages for moral principles. Keeping the Sabbath and Old Testament holidays (e.g., Passover, Pentecost, etc.) still has much special value for Christians because we understand what they represent in Messiah, but keeping them is not a requirement that would affect our personal salvation.