The Mosaic Law: Application for the Christian
Christians hold the belief that their Holy Scriptures are able to make them wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.[i] Furthermore, the Bible says, “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”[ii] Many Christians would like to improve their knowledge of the entire Bible (“all scripture”) to be better “equipped for every good work,” but are lost when it comes to understanding the Old Testament.[iii] Specifically they wonder if the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament should relate to their lives, and if so, how.
Unfortunately there is no simple and straightforward answer to this question because Christians disagree about the role of the Mosaic Law in the life of the believer today.[iv] The New Testament itself contains statements that appear to be contradictory on the matter.[v] Scholars reach fundamentally different conclusions in their interpretations of the various biblical texts based on their numerous theological and hermeneutical approaches to interpreting the texts.[vi] Nevertheless, the aim of this paper is to help Christians gain a better understanding of how they are to relate to the Mosaic Law, especially the Sabbath Day commandment.
The Purpose of the Mosaic Law
The Mosaic Law of the Old Testament, often referred to as the “Mosaic Covenant,” was divinely given to Moses at Sinai after God rescued the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.[vii] After God promised He would make Israel His nation, the Israelites entered into a covenant with Him and the Law became their constitution and national legislation.[viii] Clearly the Mosaic Law was given to the Israelites and for the Israelites.
Old Testament scholar Albert H. Baylis explains the Mosaic Law as three “ever-widening circles:” (1) Decalogue, (2) Book of the Covenant, (3) and Tabernacle and Worship.[ix] To better conceptualize this, imagine the Decalogue circle as the smallest circle inside the medium-sized circle of the Book of the Covenant. Then those two circles are situated inside the largest circle of the Tabernacle and Worship. The Decalogue (better known as the Ten Commandments as found in Exodus 20:3-17) is often understood as the moral law.[x] The Book of the Covenant encompasses the criminal and civil laws as found in Exodus 20:22-23:19.[xi] And the rest of Exodus and the book of Leviticus give direction for where to worship (Tabernacle) and how to worship.[xii]
Bible scholars suggest different purposes for the Mosaic Law. However, just two purposes will be discussed here—reveal God’s character to Israel and make Israel distinct by requiring the people to obey the Mosaic Law.
Bible scholar Douglas J. Moo summarizes how the various aspects of the Mosaic Law reveal the character of God:
…the law points to the character of God in different ways. Some laws rather directly relate human behavior to the character of God: for example, we are not to murder because God reverences and sanctifies human life. Others do so in an indirect way: the Israelites are not to eat certain kinds of food because God is holy and the people must be taught that there are “unholy” things from which they must separate themselves. The sacrificial laws teach still another truth about God, that he cannot tolerate sin without some kind of shedding of blood to compensate for that sin.[xiii]
Through the Mosaic Law God revealed Himself and demanded His people become like His character.[xiv] For example, God declares, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.”[xv] Additionally, God promised Israel, “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.”[xvi] By obeying the Law, Israel would demonstrate her distinctiveness and be set apart from other nations.[xvii] This gift of the Mosaic Law, the choosing of Israel to be a blessing to many, was not because Israel deserved it, but simply because of God’s grace.[xviii]
In summary, the Law was meant to reveal the nature of God, and to keep Israel safe and force a distinctiveness on the people so they could be “set apart” for God’s purpose until Christ should come.[xix] Next, we will discuss how Mosaic Law should apply to the Christian today.
Mosaic Law & Christ’s Law
The Mosaic Law prepared people for the coming of Jesus.[xx] Jesus referred back to the Law when He disclosed, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.”[xxi]
As stated earlier, Christians disagree about the role of the Mosaic Law in the life of the believer today.[xxii] Biblical texts “appear to support opposite conclusions.”[xxiii] Several verses suggest the continuity of the Mosaic Law after Christ’s death and resurrection,[xxiv] while other verses suggest the discontinuity.[xxv] Three of the five contributors to Five Views on Law & Gospel, Willem A. VanGemeren (Reformed view), Greg L. Bahnsen (Theonomical Reformed view), and Walter C. Kaiser (Evangelical view) argue the Mosaic Law, or at least part of the Mosaic Law, continues to be directly binding on the Christian.[xxvi] They divide the Mosaic Law into three divisions: moral (i.e. the Decalogue), civil, and ceremonial laws.[xxvii] VanGermeren and Kaiser contend that only the moral law continues to directly bind the Christian.[xxviii] Bahnsen adds the civil law to the moral law as binding.[xxix]
The other two contributors to Five Views on Law & Gospel, Douglas J. Moo (Modified Lutheran view) and Wayne G. Strickland (Dispensational view), take the opposite view—the Mosaic Law is no longer directly binding on the Christian today.[xxx] Moo opines that the “Mosaic Law as a whole was given to Israel for a limited time and purpose and is no longer immediately authoritative for the Christian.”[xxxi] Interestingly, Moo admits that the “bottom lines” of his view and VanGemeren’s view are similar.[xxxii] He does agree that part of the moral law as stated in the Mosaic Law continues for the Christian, not because the Christian is bound directly to any aspect of the Mosaic Law, but because Christians now live under “Christ’s Law,” which does include God’s moral law, some of which is found in the Mosaic Law and is reaffirmed by Jesus.[xxxiii] Moo disagrees with Bahnsen’s view that the civil law continues to be binding on the Christian, arguing that application is based on subjectivism, which suggests an arbitrariness making it difficult to justify the law as continuing.[xxxiv] Bahnsen admits many Old Testament laws cannot be applied today in the same manner that they were carried out in the Old Testament.[xxxv]
After pondering five different views on how the Mosaic Law relates to the Christian, the most compelling argument lies with Moo. There are many reasons for this conviction but just four are explained below.
First, Jesus fulfilled the Law. In the Book of Matthew, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”[xxxvi] Moo asserts, “Jesus’ insistence that he had come not to ‘abolish’ (kataluo) but to ‘fulfill’ (pleroo) the law and prophets…deserves to be ranked among the most important New Testament pronouncements on the significance of the Law of Moses for the new Christian era.”[xxxvii] He explains that the word “fulfill” does not mean the exact opposite of “abolish.”[xxxviii] Instead, when Matthew uses the word “fulfill” elsewhere, it usually refers to Jesus accomplishing what was predicted and also reenacting Old Testament historical events.[xxxix] Therefore, Jesus was saying that He did not come to destroy the Mosaic Law, but that it is no longer needed because He satisfies the Mosaic Law.
Second, Jesus established the “Law of Christ.” Moo argues persuasively, “The entire Mosaic law comes to fulfillment in Christ, and this fulfillment means that this law is no longer a direct and immediate source of, or judge of, the conduct of God’s people. Christian behavior, rather, is now guided directly by ‘the law of Christ.’”[xl] This idea of the Law of Christ is found succinctly in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, where he says, “…To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.”[xli] Moo provides this insightful explanation of the Law of Christ: “This ‘law’ is not a set of rules, but a set of principles drawn from the life and teachings of Jesus, with love for others as its heart and the indwelling Spirit as its directive force.”[xlii] Moo concludes that the Law of Christ incorporates within its teachings some of the Mosaic Law.[xliii]
Third, Jesus had authority to speak about the law. Although Jesus sometimes based His teaching on the Mosaic Law and observed the details of the Mosaic Law, He demonstrated that He neither just repeated nor expanded the law,[xliv] but rather, taught “as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law,”[xlv] One example of this is found in Matthew where Jesus is teaching a crowd and repeatedly says, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago…but I tell you…”[xlvi] Moo concludes that this formula “suggests that Jesus is comparing His teaching with the teaching that His Jewish listeners have heard in the synagogue.”[xlvii] This implies that Jesus’ authority is superior to other teachers. Moreover, Jesus refers to Himself as “Lord even of the Sabbath.”[xlviii] Lastly, Jesus confesses His divine authority, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”[xlix]
Fourth, Jesus makes love essential to the law.[l] When Jesus is asked which is the greatest commandment in the Law, He replies, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all our soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”[li] Jesus demonstrated He has divine authority when He summarized all the Law and Prophets into two new simplified and yet all encompassing commandments.
To summarize, Moo’s view says that the Mosaic Law has been abrogated in Christ.[lii] As such the Mosaic Law is longer directly binding for Christians.[liii] Only that which is clearly repeated within New Testament teaching is binding.[liv] As for the Ten Commandments, Moo states that all of them except for one remain in the Law of Christ.[lv] “The exception is the Sabbath commandment, one that Heb. 3-4 suggest is fulfilled in the new age as a whole.”[lvi]
The Christian and the Sabbath
If the Sabbath Day has been fulfilled, how is the Christian to relate to the Sabbath today? The Sabbath was created for Israel and was part of the Mosaic Law to be honored and obeyed. The fourth of the Ten Commandments says:
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.[lvii]
The Sabbath Day, a seventh day of rest, was given to Israel as a sign of the Mosaic covenant[lviii] and continued until its fulfillment.[lix] The Sabbath was fulfilled in Christ because Jesus fulfilled the Law.
How did Jesus respond to the Sabbath? Moo says that although Jesus “scrupulously observed all the details of the Mosaic Law…His personal obedience of the law and his teaching of such obedience to others cannot, then, be automatically viewed as expressing his belief about what should be the case after his death and resurrection had brought the new era of salvation into existence.”[lx] Despite His obedience to the Law, Scriptures reveal that Jesus healed and carried out His ministry on the Sabbath, much to the chagrin of the Pharisees.[lxi] In the face of controversy over the Sabbath He declared, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”[lxii] British New Testament scholar Andrew T. Lincoln explains that Jesus “determines what is appropriate to the Sabbath…Jesus puts Himself in place of the law. As Lord of the Sabbath He is the law’s true interpreter in terms of mercy rather than legalism.”[lxiii] Therefore, the Sabbath is an example of how Christ’s Law supersedes the Mosaic Law.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul confirms this priority of Christ’s Law over the Sabbath: “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”[lxiv] At the very least, Paul preaches that there is no longer a binding command to keep the Sabbath.
In the early Church, Christians celebrated the “Lord’s Day” on Sunday, the first day of the week.[lxv] Lincoln suggests they chose Sunday to remember the Resurrection of Jesus, which took place on the first day of the week.[lxvi] This may have helped to distinguish the Lord’s Day from the seventh day Sabbath because “[t]he majority of Jewish Christians in Palestine and many in the diaspora may well have kept the Sabbath and also met with their fellow believers in Christ for worship at some time on the following day.”[lxvii] Lincoln states there is no evidence in the early church that they substituted the seventh day Sabbath for the first day Lord’s day.[lxviii] In fact, the Lord’s Day was not observed as literal day of rest until Sunday became a day off from work during Constantine’s rule.[lxix] The Lord’s Day was for worshipping Christ as Lord and remembering His resurrection.[lxx]
In Christian communities today, many hold out Sunday as their Sabbath day of rest, promulgated in earlier years by St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.[lxxi] This “Sabbath-transference theology” still exists among Christians,[lxxii] especially Seventh Day Adventists.[lxxiii] However, as previously stated, the Mosaic Law is no longer directly binding on the Christian. Although nine of the Ten Commandments were reaffirmed by Jesus, the Sabbath is the only one that was not. Christians may choose Sunday or any other day as a day of rest as a practical consideration, but not as a divine Sabbath commandment.[lxxiv]
Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Mosaic Law has been fulfilled and is no longer directly binding on Christians. The Mosaic Law was replaced with Christ’s Law, which includes God’s moral law, and is based on love and grace. This view of the Mosaic Law in the New Testament era aligns itself better to the Scriptures than other views. Additionally this view is more profitable in Christian apologetics in answering questions about thorny commands in the Old Testament, such as harsh civil laws, complicated ceremonial laws, and commands regarding slavery, divorce and warfare practices. The study of the Mosaic Law and the entire Old Testament is useful for teaching Christians,[lxxv] especially about God and how He chose to relate to Israel, i.e. promises, blessings, and judgment. Christians are not obligated to keep the Sabbath, but are free to choose any day or days to rest, and free to choose to worship every day. Understanding that Christians are no longer under the Mosaic Law is both logical and liberating. Christ came to set us free—we should be free indeed.
[i] 2 Tim. 3:15. All scripture quotations from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.
[ii] 2 Tim. 3:16.
[iii] Albert H, Baylis, From Creation to the Cross: Understanding the First Half of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 11.
[iv] Greg L. Bahnsen, Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Douglas J. Moo, Wayne G. Strickland, Willem A. VanGemeren, Five Views On Law and Gospel, ed. Stanley N. Gundry, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 319.
[vi] Ibid., 320.
[vii] Baylis, From Creation to the Cross, 121. Moses is credited with writing the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis through Deuteronomy), also known as the Torah, “instruction in knowing God.” Ibid., 25, 154.
[viii] Ibid., 122; Exod. 24:3-4, 7.
[ix] Baylis, From Creation to the Cross, 126.
[xi] Ibid., 127.
[xiii] Bahnsen, Kaiser, Moo, Strickland, and VanGemeren, Five Views on Law and Gospel, 336.
[xiv] Ibid., 335.
[xv] Lev. 11:45.
[xvi] Exod. 19:5.
[xvii] Baylis, From Creation to the Cross, 134.
[xviii] Ibid., 121-122.
[xix] Bahnsen, Kaiser, Moo, Strickland, and VanGemeren, Five Views on Law and Gospel, 338.
[xx] Ibid., 27.
[xxi] John 5:46.
[xxii] Bahnsen, Kaiser, Moo, Strickland, and VanGemeren, Five Views on Law and Gospel, 319.
[xxiv] Ibid. Moo gives the following examples of the law’s continuing validity: “We uphold the law” (Rom. 3:31); “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12); “the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:25). Ibid.
[xxv] Ibid. Moo gives the following examples of the law’s complete cessation for the believer: “Christ is the end of the law” (Rom. 10:4a); “you are not under law” (Rom. 6:14; cf. v. 15); “when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change in the law” (Heb. 7:12). Ibid.
[xxvi] Ibid., 57-58, 141-143, 198.
[xxvii] Ibid., 29-32, 53, 189-190.
[xxviii] Ibid., 58, 198.
[xxix] Ibid., 141-143.
[xxx] Ibid., 278-279, 375-376.
[xxxi] Ibid., 376.
[xxxii] Ibid., 89.
[xxxiii] Ibid., 87-88, 376. “Christ’s Law” is discussed later in this paper.
[xxxiv] Ibid., 165-166.
[xxxv] Ibid., 166.
[xxxvi] Matt. 5:17; emphasis added.
[xxxvii] Bahnsen, Kaiser, Moo, Strickland, and VanGemeren, Five Views On Law and Gospel, 350.
[xxxviii] Ibid., 351.
[xl] Ibid., 343; emphasis original.
[xli] 1 Cor. 9:20-21.
[xlii] Bahnsen, Kaiser, Moo, Strickland, and VanGemeren, Five Views On Law and Gospel, 357.
[xliii] Ibid., 370.
[xliv] Ibid., 356.
[xlvi] Ibid., 347. Moo gives the following examples of Jesus using this formula: Matt. 5:21-22, 33-34; vv. 27-28, vv. 31-32, vv. 38-39 and vv. 43-44 abbreviate the same formula. Ibid.
[xlviii] Mark 2:27.
[xlix] Matt. 28:18.
[l] Bahnsen, Kaiser, Moo, Strickland, and VanGemeren, Five Views On Law and Gospel, 353.
[li] Matt. 22:36-40.
[lii] Bahnsen, Kaiser, Moo, Strickland, and VanGemeren, Five Views On Law and Gospel, 375.
[liv] Ibid., 376.
[lvii] Exod. 20:8.
[lviii] D.A. Carson, ed. From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation (1982; repr., Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1999), 352.
[lix] Ibid., 353.
[lx] Bahnsen, Kaiser, Moo, Strickland, and VanGemeren, Five Views On Law and Gospel, 356.
[lxi] Matt. 12:1-14.
[lxii] Mark 2:27.
[lxiii] Carson, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, 364.
[lxiv] Col. 2:16-17.
[lxv] Carson, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, 382-384.
[lxvi] Ibid., 384.
[lxviii] Ibid., 385-386.
[lxix] Ibid., 386.
[lxx] Ibid., 385.
[lxxi] Ibid., 390.
[lxxiii] Ibid., 355.
[lxxiv] Ibid., 404.
[lxxv] See Rom. 15:4; 2 Tim 3:16-17.