The Sabbath in the Ten Commandments

The Sabbath is first mentioned in Exodus 16, where the Lord used manna to teach Israel the weekly cycle. This was about a month before He gave them the Ten Commandments.  The Sabbath was a day of rest.  It was not commanded as a day for church meetings or for worship.  The Sabbath became a symbol of liberation and restoration, a help to Israel to remember that the Lord is its God and a reliable and visible indicator of their faithfulness.  For that reason the Lord made His covenant promises and threats conditional on Sabbath faithfulness.

Overview

First mention – The word “Sabbath” appears for the first time in Exodus 16, where the Lord used manna to teach the Sabbath to Israel. This was about a month before He gave them the Ten Commandments.

Symbol of Liberation – The seventh day, seventh month and seventh year all pointed to liberation:

The Lord commanded Israel to observe the seventh day as a Sabbath because He liberated them from Egypt.

The seventh month of the year pointed to the great end-time judgment day and liberation of the world from sin.

In the seventh year of the seven-year-cycle slaves were set free and debts were to be cancelled.

Day of Rest God commanded Israel to sabbath (rest) on the seventh day, and not to do any work. He also specifically ordered them to allow their children, servants, slaves and even their cattle to rest. This included foreigners. The Old Testament Sabbath was not proclaimed as a day for church meetings or as a day to worship the Lord; it was simply a day of rest. It was a day when everybody and everything in the entire community rests!

Help Israel remember – The Lord elevated the Sabbath above other commandments to serve as a signthat you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you”. The Sabbath was to help Israel to remember that the Lord is their God and that He makes them holy. The surrounding nations were idol worshipers. The Sabbath was a token of Israel’s separation from idolatry and connection with the true God.  No other institution which was committed to the Jews tended so fully to distinguish them from surrounding nations.

Test of Obedience Even when the Sabbath was first introduced, it was given as a test “whether or not they will walk in My instruction”.

Throughout Israel’s history the Lord elevated the Sabbath above other commandments as a reliable and visible indicator of their faithfulness to His covenant and statutes in general. Profaning the Sabbath was a synonym for rebellion, doing evil and rejecting His ordinances. Keeping His Sabbaths was a synonym for choosing what pleases Him; to love the name of the LORD.

Being a reliable test of obedience, the Lord elevated the Sabbath above other commandments by making His covenant promises and threats conditional on Sabbath faithfulness. Israel’s exile to Babylon is directly linked to Israel’s failure to keep the Sabbath and the Sabbath years.

Circumcision could not be a test of obedience because a man does not become uncircumcised when he departs from the LORD, but the Sabbath was a visible manifestation of faith that cannot be seen. A person or nation that does not trust the LORD will soon disregard His Sabbath.

First Sabbath Teaching

The first time that the name “Sabbath” appears in the Bible is in Exodus 16:23. This was about a month or two after Israel departed from Israel (v1), and their food was running out (v3). The LORD then gave them that super-food which they called manna. But the Lord used the manna to teach the Sabbath principle to Israel by giving them manna for the first six days of the week, with a double portion on the sixth day, but none on the seventh day. On other days the manna that was left over from the previous day “bred worms and became foul”, but not on the seventh day (v24). About a month later (Compare 19:1 to 16:1) the LORD gave them the Ten Commandments, including the commandment to “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (20:8).

Symbol of Liberation

Deliverance from Egypt The Ten Commandments In the book of Exodus was received a couple of months after God rescued Israel from Egypt. In it a reason is given for the requirement to observe the seventh day as a Sabbath, namely that the Creator rested on the seventh day. A reason was necessary because the specialness of the seventh day is not obvious. In Deuteronomy the Ten Commandments are repeated. This was 40 years later, just before Israel entered into the Promised Land. Here a different reason is given for the Sabbath requirement, namely that God delivered Israel from Egypt (Deut. 5:15). By Linking the Sabbath to deliverance from Egypt, the Sabbath was made a token of liberation.

Sabbath years In the Jewish system the seven-day cycle, with the last day being a Sabbath, was also developed into a seven-year cycle, with the last year being a Sabbath for the land. In that Sabbath year the oppressed of the Hebrew society were liberated; slaves were to be set free (Ex. 21:2-6; Deut. 15:12-18) and debts owed by fellow citizens were to be cancelled (Deut. 15:1-6; GNB).

Jubilee year – After every seven Sabbath years—every 50th year—followed the Jubilee year. During this year, which was also a Sabbath year, property that was sold during the preceding 50 years was restored to the original owner (Lev. 25:8-17, 23-55; 27:16-25; Num. 36:4). The liberation motif of the seventh year confirms the seventh day as token of liberation.

Seventh month Just like Israel had a seven-day cycle and a seven-year cycle, with the seventh in each case a token of liberation, the seventh month of the year also pointed to liberation:

The most important day of the year was the Day of Atonement, on the tenth day of the seventh month (Leviticus 23:27), when atonement was made for the holy sanctuary, for the tent of meeting, for the altar, for the priests and for all the people (Lev 16:33-34). This day prefigured the great end-of-time Judgment.

The seventh month commenced with the feast of trumpets (Lev. 23:24-25, 28, 30-32), warning of the coming Day of Judgment. This feast prefigured the end-time warnings which God will give to the world prior to the end time Judgment.

The Day of Atonement was followed by the feast of booths (Lev. 23:34), when the entire nation lived in booths made of branches for seven days (v40-42) to commemorate the booths (shelters) in which Israel lived when the LORD brought them out of the land of Egypt (v43). The Feast of Booths also prefigured God’s people after they have been delivered of from the bondage of sin following the end-time judgment day. Through His judgment the LORD will deliver the earth and return everything to its proper state so that God’s love alone reigns in everything and everybody.

Thus the seventh day, seventh month and seventh year were all linked to liberation, being symbols of the end-time liberation of the world from the bondage of sin. The seventh month was the last month of the religious year, just as the Sabbath was the last day of the week and the Sabbath year the last year of the cycle of seven years.

Letter to the Hebrews The New Testament letter that was specifically addressed to the Jewish Christians (the book of Hebrews) invites them to enter into the “Sabbath rest” (4:9) by believing (4:3), by obeying (4:6, 11) and by accepting by “faith” God’s “good news” (4:1-2). Although this is in the New Testament, this reflects the Old Testament view of the Sabbath as a token of salvation and redemption.

Day of Rest

The fourth commandment required Israelites to rest and to allow all people and even animals, which are under their control, also to rest; to relieve them from their burdens.

but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you” (Ex. 20:10).

In the various versions of the Sabbath commandment the ones particularly singled out, to be allowed rest, are:

  • the manservant, the maidservant and the son of the bondmaid;
  • the cattle and
  • the foreigner and the son of the foreigner;
  • the son of the female slave

For example:

Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves. (Ex. 23:12; Cf. also Ex. 20:10; Deut. 5:14)

Preachers are fond of using the convocation texts to motivate people to go to church, assuming that the phrase “holy convocation” implies a public meeting, for instance:

The seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation” (Lev. 23:3).

But the Old Testament Sabbath was proclaimed as a day to rest; not a day for meetings. Note that the entire day is “a holy convocation”. The Hebrew word translated “convocation” simply refers to something that is called out. This can be a meeting or a day or many other things.

Preachers also often assume that the Sabbath is a day to spend with the Lord or in religious activities. That may have been the original intention of the seventh day, and it may be how Christ explained it, but that was not how the law was given to Israel through Moses. In the Law of Moses it is simply a day of rest. We find the following Sabbath commands in the Old Testament, and they only refer to work and rest:

Ex. 20:10but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you”.

Ex. 31:14Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. … whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people”.

Ex. 35:2 “For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy day, a sabbath of complete rest to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death”.

Ex. 35:3You shall not kindle a fire in any of your dwellings on the sabbath day.”

Deut. 5:14but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you, so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you”.

Lev. 16:31It is to be a sabbath of solemn rest for you, that you may humble your souls; it is a permanent statute”.

Lev. 23:3For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation. You shall not do any work; it is a sabbath to the LORD in all your dwellings.

Isaiah 58 contains a different formulation of the Sabbath commandment. Instead of work it refers to “doing your own pleasure” and “your own ways” and “speaking your own word”. Instead of rest it refers to calling the sabbath a delight and honourable:

Isa 58:13 “If because of the sabbath, you turn your foot From doing your own pleasure on My holy day, And call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the LORD honorable, And honor it, desisting from your own ways, From seeking your own pleasure And speaking your own word, 14 Then you will take delight in the LORD, And I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; And I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Isaiah 58 is often used when preaching about the Sabbath, but these beautiful verses are frequently used to put a too strict definition on the Old Testament Sabbath; even forbidding joyous activities. These verses should not be interpreted contrary to the main body of the Sabbath commandments. The Sabbath was given as a day of rest to people that had to work hard from early morning to late evening, from a very young age, with no retirement schemes or medical aid. The Sabbath was intended for their benefit. To read Isaiah 58 as forbidding pleasurable activities would be inconsistent with the purpose of the Sabbath.

Preachers also often remark that the last part of Isaiah, from chapter 56 onwards, is a prophecy of the church age.  It is proposed here that the description of the Sabbath in Isaiah 58 should be read in the New Testament context, as taught by Christ.  He explained the Sabbath different from the Old Testament.  He taught that the Sabbath was “made for man”, a day to show kindness to people in need and a day to do the work of the Lord.  (See What Jesus taught may and must be done on the Sabbath.)

Sign of the Covenant

The Sabbath was elevated above other commandments to serve as a sign for Israel:

Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you . . . that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (Ex. 31:13).

Many centuries later God reminded the Jews in Babylonian captivity of what He had done for their ancestors:

I gave them My sabbaths to be a sign between Me and them, that they might know that I am the LORD who sanctifies them“ (Ezek. 20:12).

Sanctify My sabbaths; and they shall be a sign between Me and you, that you may know that I am the LORD your God“ (Ezek. 20:20).

It was not a sign to other people: Like a on Israel’s finger, the Sabbath was to help Israel to “know” that the LORD is their God. This implies that no other nation observed the Sabbath. No other institution which was committed to the Jews tended so fully to distinguish them from surrounding nations. It was to be a token of their separation from the idolatry of the surrounding nations, and their connection with the true God.

If one accepts that the seven day cycle and the specialness of the seventh day was established at creation, why did the nations in the time of Moses not keep the Sabbath? One possibility is that the original Sabbath was forgotten by the world at large, and re-issued for Israel. Another is that the seventh day never before was not a day of mandatory rest, but set apart to be a blessing to mankind in another way.

Test of Obedience

But the Sabbath was also a sign in another sense. It was a reliable and visible marker or measure of Israel’s faithfulness. Even when the Sabbath was first introduced, it was given as a test:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether or not they will walk in My instruction. (Ex. 16:4)

On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. Then the LORD said to Moses:

“How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My instructions? (Ex. 16:28)

Notice that they failed to keep the Sabbath specifically, but that the Lord concluded that they refused to keep His commandments in general.  This continued throughout Israel’s history.  Notice in the following that the Lord continued to single out Sabbath observance as an indication of faithfulness to His covenant and statutes:

How blessed is the man who … keeps from profaning the sabbath, And keeps his hand from doing any evil.” … To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths, And choose what pleases Me, And hold fast My covenant, … I will give … a name better than that of sons and daughters … Also the foreigners who … love the name of the LORD … every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath And holds fast My covenant; (Isa. 56:2-6)

… the house of Israel rebelled against Me in the wilderness. They did not walk in My statutes … and My sabbaths they greatly profaned. … they rejected My ordinances … they even profaned My Sabbaths … (Ezekiel 20:12-24)

… the children rebelled against Me; they did not walk in My statutes … they profaned My sabbaths … and their eyes were on the idols of their fathers. (Ezekiel 20:12-24)

“Then You (God) came down on Mount Sinai, And spoke with them from heaven; You gave them just ordinances and true laws, Good statutes and commandments. So You made known to them Your holy sabbath, And laid down for them commandments, statutes and law, Through Your servant Moses. (Nehemiah 9:13-14)

Being a reliable marker or measure or test of obedience, the Lord elevated the Sabbath above other commandments by making His promises conditional on Sabbath faithfulness:

If … you turn your foot From doing your own pleasure on My holy day, And call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the LORD honorable, And honor it, desisting from your own ways, From seeking your own pleasure And speaking your own word, Then you will take delight in the LORD, And I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; And I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father … (Isa 58:13-14)

Before the LORD exiled Israel to Babylon Jeremiah warned:

if you keep the sabbath day holy … then … this city will be inhabited forever. … But if you do not listen to Me to keep the sabbath day holy … then I will kindle a fire in its gates and it will devour the palaces of Jerusalem and not be quenched.” (Jer. 17:21-27)

Israel failed the Sabbath test of obedience. After the exile Nehemiah confirmed that the Lord exiled Israel to Babylon because they profaned the Sabbath (Neh. 13:17-18)

Circumcision never became a test of true obedience because circumcision could not measure faithfulness. Once circumcised, a man does not become uncircumcised when he departs from the LORD. But the Sabbath was a true test of faith and obedience. It is a visible manifestation of a Jew’s invisible faith. A Jew that does not trust the LORD will very soon disregard the Sabbath. It is also a reliable and visible marker of the nation’s faith. It is for that reason that the Sabbath became a synonym for His laws and statutes.

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Seventh Day at Creation

God engrained the specialness of the seventh day permanently into human existence.  Every seventh day was elevated above other days to be a blessing to mankind.  The seventh day is necessary to eternally sustain man’s sin-less perfection in a perfect world by strengthening the intimate relationship between man and His Creator.  There is no indication that man, before sin, was required to rest on the seventh like the Jews were commanded to do.  But it is proposed below that man, every seventh day, ceased his normal activities to refresh his connection with His Creator.

Blessed and Sanctified at Creation

The Creator sanctified and blessed the seventh day when He created life:

By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.  Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.” (Gen 1:31-2:3; cf. Ex. 20:11)

God rested on one day only, but He blessed and sanctified every recurring seventh day.

The seventh day was blessed.  This means, as Jesus’s stated, that it was “made for man” (Mark 2:27); made to be a blessing to mankind.

The seventh day was also sanctified.  Sanctified means that it was separated from other days by being elevated above them.  God obviously set the day apart for use by people, not for Himself or for angels.

Time on this planet is divided into years, months, weeks and days.  Years are derived from the rotation of the earth around the sun.  Months are derived from the rotation of the moon around the earth.  Days are derived from the rotation of the earth around its own axis.  But the origin of the seven day cycle is a mystery.  The entire world divides time into weeks, but there is no physical seven day cycle in nature from which the week could have been derived.  Critical scholars tell us that the Jews obtained the notion of a seven day cycle from the surrounding nations, but according to the Bible it originated in creation.

Necessary Part of Creation

But it is even more important to understand the relationship between the creation and the seventh day.  Our Creator did not need six days to create life on this planet; He could have done it in a blink of an eye.  He also did not need to rest after six days of creation because He is not a man that He should become tired (Is 40:28).  He “rested” to create the seventh day.  God created in six days to establish the seventh day as special.  The specialness of the seventh day is, in other words, not an afterthought or a mere token of creation, but an integral part of life on this planet; never to be separated from life on this planet.

If one accepts a literal six day creation, with the Creator resting on a literal seventh day, through which He created the seventh day as a sanctified and blessed part of life, then one should accept the specialness of the seventh day as permanently engrained in human existence; blessed and sanctified for all peoples and for all times.  Is that not what Jesus said when He referred to the Sabbath as “made for man”?  Since it was set apart and made to be a blessing before sin, it is not a ceremonial prescript that pointed forward to Christ and that was annulled by His death.

Since the seventh day was part of the creation of order and life on this earth, it is proposed here that the seventh day was made to fulfill a special purpose.  It is not merely symbolic or ceremonial, but a necessary part of life, without which life cannot thrive as intended.  And since the seventh day was made, sanctified and blessed before sin—when the world was still perfect—it was established to sustain perfect life eternally in a perfect world.

The LORD sanctified and blessed the seventh day because He rested on that day (Gen 2:2-3; Ex. 20:11).  That first seventh day therefore was somehow very special.  It is proposed here that “rested” here does not mean to recover from physical exertion, because the Creator does not become tired (Is 40:28) and because God could also rest on the 8th and subsequent days.  Young’s Literal Translation uses the word “ceased” instead of “rested”.  If we use this understanding we can speculate that He ceased the busy-ness of His creation activities to spend time with man and His other creatures in the beautiful home he made for them.  It is therefore proposed here that the purpose of the seventh day was to maintain man’s sin-less perfection by strengthening the intimate relationship between man and His Creator.

Man’s Duty

The Law of Moses commands the Jews, “you shall not do any work” (Ex. 20:10).  They were not told what to do on the seventh day, except to rest.  But in the creation account there is no direct indication of what was expected from man on that day.  In particular, there is no evidence of a commandment to keep the seventh day as a day of physical rest.

The seventh day was sanctified before man first sinned; when man still lived in Eden.  After man sinned, God cursed the ground (Gen 3:17) and expelled man from Eden and prevented him from eating from the tree of life.  The ground was cursed so that it would bring fourth “thorns and thistles”, and man had to earn his food “by the sweat of your face” (Gen 3:19).  “In toil you will eat of it” (Gen 3:17).  Physical rest became a necessity, and perhaps it was for that reason that the Sabbath was later given to Israel as a rest day.  But before man first sinned, when he still lived in Eden, physical rest was not necessary.  It would be a mistake to apply the Law of Moses to the original seventh day, as it existed in perfect circumstances in Eden.

It is fair to assume that man was supposed to do the same as what the LORD did on that first seventh day.  It is proposed here that the LORD used that first seventh day to spend time with newly created man; to establish a personal relationship between man and his Creator.  For that reason it is proposed here that man in Eden, following the Creator’s example, ceased his normal activities on each seventh day to enjoy a much higher activity which was critical for his spiritual well-being; namely to refresh his connection with His Creator, Who is the Source of all Life and Truth.

When Sanctified?

Theologians sometimes argue that God did not sanctify and bless the Sabbath at creation.  They argue that Genesis was written by Moses after he received the Sabbath commandment, and that what Moses meant by Genesis 2:3 is that God sanctified and blessed the seventh day by giving it as a day of rest to Israel, thousands of years after creation.

Firstly, this contradicts the natural reading of the text.  There is no indication in Genesis 2 or anywhere else in the Bible that the seventh day was sanctified only thousands of years later:

For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy” (Ex. 20:11).

Secondly, this would contradict Christ’s statement that “the Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27).

Thirdly, God was not tired after six days because He never becomes tired.  He did not have to rest.  For that reason we conclude that He “rested” to establish and sanctify the seventh day.  But He rested on that first seventh day only.  This would mean that the seventh day was special immediately after creation.

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Law of Christ

Christ did more than to merely interpret the Law of Moses; He replaced the Law of Moses with much higher moral standards, which Paul calls the Law of Christ.  This law reflects the Father’s perfect heart.  He loves His enemies and has compassion with people.  Therefore, the Law of Christ asks the same from His followers.  The Law of Christ is the eternal law as it existed from the beginning.  The Law of Moses was a temporary watered-down version of the eternal law, suitable for the corrupt condition of the nation.

Overview:

Christ not only interpreted the Law of Moses; He replaced the Law of Moses with a higher law with much higher moral standards.  Paul refers to this as the Law of Christ.  The Law of Christ is best illustrated by Matthew 5, where Christ quotes various Old Testament laws, and then, starting with the words, “But I say to you”, for each gives His alternative law, which is at a much higher moral level.  For instance:

He replaced the law against murder with a law against anger.

The revenge-law, which specified “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”, He completely set aside, commanding His followers to “not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also”.

This higher level Law reveals the Father’s heart.  The Father is perfect.  He loves His enemies and has compassion with people.  For that reason the Law of Christ requires His followers to do the same.

When Jesus was asked about the provisions for divorce in the Law of Moses, He referred to the creation account, stating that “the two shall become one flesh”.  When the Pharisees then asked why Moses allowed divorce, Jesus responded as follows:

Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way” (v8).

This teaches two principles:

Firstly, Christ’s Law is the law as it existed “from the beginning”.

Secondly the Law of Moses was a diluted / watered-down version of the law as it existed “from the beginning” to fit the corrupt condition of the nation.

The question then is, did Christ also replace the Old Testament Sabbath with a much higher Sabbath Law?

Introduction

This page discusses a principle that is seldom sufficiently appreciated, namely that Christ, through His teachings, did more than to interpret the Old Testament Law; He rather replaced the Law of Moses with a higher law with much higher moral standards.

Christ replaced the law of Moses with a higher system of ethics.

The Sermon on the Mount provides perhaps the best examples of this.  Here Christ quoted various Old Testament laws, and then, starting by saying, “But I say to you” (Matthew 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39 and 44), gave a much elevated version of that law.

For instance, the law against adultery He replaced with a law against looking at a woman with lust:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Mat 5:27-28)

This is not an interpretation of the seventh commandment, but on a much higher moral level.

The law against murder He replaced with a law against anger:

You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘you shall not commit murder … But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty …” (Matthew 5:20-21).

Still talking about people that make one angry or scared, He said: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  Here Christ lifts the standard exponentially by defining even anger is a sin.  Instead of anger He requires us to love even our enemies.

Christ not only replaced the Ten Commandments; he also replaced other Old Testament laws, for instance, God gave to Moses the rule “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (Lev. 24:20), but now Christ teaches that we should not take revenge:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)

This was also how Christ lived and died.  Dying on the cross, in incredible pain and suffering, He still had time to think about His enemies:

Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)

The law of Christ replaced the law of Moses. 

Moses said that “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him” (Deut. 18:15; cf. Acts 3:22), for “I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him” (Deut. 18:18).  At the transfiguration of Jesus, Moses also appeared with Jesus (Mt. 17:3), but God said of Jesus “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him” (v5).  These statements confirm that Jesus is the law-giver of the new dispensation.

Just before His ascension, Jesus said to His disciples:

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Paul wrote “the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment” (1 Cor. 14:37) and that he (Paul) is not “without the law of God” because he is “under the law of Christ” (1Cor.  9:21).  He urged Christ’s followers to “fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).  The “Law of Christ” refers Christ’s teachings, which is the higher level law which replaced the Law of Moses.

The Law of Christ reveals the Father’s heart.

Christ said:

He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9)

“I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me. (John 8:28)

I did not speak on My own initiative, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak” (John 12:49).

It is therefore proposed that the “Law of Christ” is the pure law as it exists in the Father’s heart.  This is supported by Christ’s conclusion of His teachings in Matthew 5,

Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

This means there is no anger or revenge in the Father.  He would never expect more from us that from Himself.  He requires us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44; Luke 6:27, 35) because He loves His enemies.  He told us to “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39) and “I desire compassion” (Matthew 9:13) because that is what the Father is like.  The Bible does sometimes present God as angry or seeking revenge, but it is proposed here that that is simply to explain the infinite One in a way which humans can understand.

God never punishes us because of bad things we have done in the past.  He does punish, but it is always with an eye on the future; to achieve better things for the future, for God is love (1 John 4:8, 16).

The Bible speaks about God’s wrath, and His wrath is a reality, but that does not mean that He becomes angry.  Without God we can do nothing.  He is the invisible Force that constantly protects and upholds us both physically and spiritually.  We are not even aware of all the dangers from which He constantly protects us. His wrath, therefore, is simply to give up those people for whom He can do nothing more.  In Romans 1, where Paul discusses “men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (v18), he three times wrote that “God gave them over” to their own passions and lusts (v24, 26, 28).  Also with respect to His people Israel, who were “bent on turning from Me”, God said:

How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I surrender you, O Israel? … My heart is turned over within Me, All My compassions are kindled” (Hosea 11:7-8)

Since the Father’s standards are infinitely high, our response should simply be like that of the tax collector:

“standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner’” (Luke 18:13)

God gave Israel the law in a form which they could understand.

But, one may protest, if Christ revealed God’s true law, why was the Law of Moses given at a lower level?  Why did God give Israel a watered-down law?

It is proposed that the law was scaled down to fit the corrupt condition of the nation.  Jesus explained this principle in Matthew 19.  When He was asked about the provisions for divorce in the Law of Moses, He said:

Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” (v4-6)

Jesus therefore responded to their question by referring to the creation account, not the Law of Moses.  This implies that the Law of Christ is the law as it existed “from the beginning”.  For both marriage (Mat. 19:8) and the seventh day (Mark 2:27) Christ reached over the Law of Moses to derive His elevated principles or laws from the way that things were created to be.

The Pharisees then, still adamant to apply the Law of Moses, asked, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (v7)  Jesus then explained:

Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way” (v8).

Here we have confirmation that the original law was adapted to Israel’s limited abilities.  God elected Abraham and his seed to be the conduit of His grace to the peoples of the earth.  To Abraham He promised, “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:3).  But, by the time of Moses, Israel has become a corrupt and enslaved little nation; far removed from the sinless and regal human beings that God created.  Due to the deterioration that comes from thousands of years living in a world filled with sin, Israel would not have been able to keep or even to understand the Laws of God as it existed “from the beginning”.  Therefore, to rescue that weak little nation from their addictive and soul-destroying idolatrous practices.  He gave the Law to Moses in the form that was best for Israel due to their “hardness of heart”.  He gave laws to Israel according to their capacity.  Israel needed simple, clear and practical instructions, linked with severe penalties.

This principle is applicable to all of God’s interactions with His creatures.  God meets people where they are.  He speaks to His hearers words that they are able to understand.  He never expects more from people than what they are able to do or able to bear.

Differences between the Law of Moses and the Law of Christ

The point is that Christ went beyond interpreting the Law of Moses; He replaced the Law of Moses and the Ten Commandments with a much higher system of ethics, here referred to as the “Law of Christ”.  Consider some differences between the Law of Moses and the Law of Christ:

The Ten Commandments is God’s Law at Satan’s end of the spectrum; it expresses God’s principles in terms of the practical realities of a world controlled by the evil one.  Take, for instance, the commandment not to kill.  It is based on God’s law—to love the people around you as much as you love yourself—but with Satan’s and man’s fallen nature in mind.   The Ten Commandments therefore are but a dim reflection of His original and eternal law.  The Law of Christ describes what the Father wants us to strive for, namely to be like Him, which is unconditional love.

The Law of Moses is an adaptation of God’s eternal law to fit the condition of a specific nation, place and time; to fit the hardness of man’s heart (Mat 19:8).  The Law of Christ is the law as it existed from the beginning.

The Law of Moses is given at a level where sinful man would be able to keep it.  The Laws of Christ, being at such a high level, is impossible for man, in his current condition, to comply with.

The Law of Moses may be read as teaching that one can earn rewards from God.  The Law of Christ emphasizes grace (mercy).

The Law of Moses focuses mostly on external behavior, while Christ’s laws put the emphasis mostly on the drivers of external behavior, namely internal feelings, such as love, hate and compassion.

Most of the Ten Commandments are stated negatively (what you should not do), while most of Christ’s explanations of the laws are stated positively (what you should do: Matt. 5 – let you light shine – be reconciled – make friends quickly with your opponent – turn the other cheek, to mention a few).

The Old Testament prescribes the death penalty for Sabbath breaking (Ex. 31:14), murder (Ex. 21:12), striking or cursing one’s father or mother (Ex. 21:15; Ex. 21:17), adultery (Lev. 20:10), blaspheming the name of the LORD (Lev. 24:16) and various other transgressions.  But Christ said to the woman caught in adultery, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more” (John 8:11).

Relevance

You may ask why the “Law of Christ” is discussed here as part of a discussion of Christ and the Sabbath.  The reason is that when we read what Jesus said about the Sabbath, we have to listen carefully.  If it can be shown that Christ, through His Sabbath teachings, explained the Sabbath principle as at a much higher moral level than the Law of Moses, then it would be possible to conclude that He replaced the Old Testament Sabbath with a much higher Sabbath Law.

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First two Sabbath healing miracles

Jesus heals the sick on the Sabbath.  The first people were a demon possessed man and Simon’s mother-in-law.  Then the people brought all their sick to Him, but they waited until the end of the Sabbath.  Everybody knew that the traditions do not allow healing on the Sabbath.  Jesus, by acting contrary to the traditions, thereby powerfully condemned the traditions, as well as the Jewish system of authority, which was based on the traditions.

Summary

After Jesus was baptized, and after He overcame the temptations of the devil for forty days in the wilderness, He began His ministry.  He taught in various synagogues.  “They were amazed at His teaching, for His message was with authority”.

One Sabbath soon afterwards, while Jesus was teaching in a synagogue in Capernaum, a demon possessed man cried out with a loud voice and identified Jesus as “the Holy One of God“!  Jesus then drove the demon out.  This happened in the synagogue in full view of everybody.

Later that same day Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law, who was suffering from a high fever, but that was privately in Simon’s home.

Then the people brought all their sick to Him, but they waited until the end of the Sabbath, when the sun was setting.  This means that everybody knew that their traditions did not permit healing on the Sabbath.  Although nothing is reported in this chapter as said for or against Sabbath healing, we can assume that the synagogue officials were alarmed by His Sabbath healing miracles.  Jesus, who also knew the traditions very well, effectively condemned the traditions by healing on the Sabbath in public view of all.  Furthermore, since “the report about Him was spreading into every locality in the surrounding district”, these miracles laid the foundation for the later confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees about His Sabbath healing miracles.

Discussion

Luke chapter four describes events very early in Christ’s ministry.  After Jesus was baptized (Luke 3:21) and began His ministry at the age of 30 (Luke 3:23), He “was led around by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil” (Luke 4:1-13).  There-after He “returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14) and “began teaching in their synagogues” (4:15).  When “He came to Nazareth” (Luke 4:16) He announced Himself as the One predicted by Isaiah on whom “the spirit of the LORD” will be; to be “anointed” by God “to preach the gospel to the poor. … to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the LORD.” (Luke 4:17-20)

This announcement is followed by two Sabbath healings.  The first was the healing of a demon-possessed man in the synagogue in Capernaum (Luke 4:31-37).  It happened while He was teaching.  “They were amazed at His teaching, for His message was with authority”.  But then “a man possessed by the spirit of an unclean demon … cried out with a loud voice:

Let us alone! What business do we have with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are–the Holy One of God!

But Jesus rebuked the demon, commanding it to be quiet and come out of the man.  The demon then threw the man down in the midst of the people, but came out of the man without doing him any harm. Amazement came upon all and the report about Jesus spread throughout the surrounding district.

Later that same day Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law, who was suffering from a high fever (Luke 4:38-39).

Then “all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to Him”, and He healed them (Luke 4:40).  The whole city had gathered at the door (Mark 1:33).  But it is interesting to note that the people waited until the end of the Sabbath, when the sun was setting (Luke 4:40; cf. Mark 1:32-33), before they brought their sick.  The Old Testament says nothing specifically about healing on the Sabbath, but this incident makes it clear that healing was not permitted on the Sabbath.  This means that it was the traditions—the Jewish application of the Law—which disallowed healing on the Sabbath.

These were no ordinary healings.  These were supernatural healings.  It was God at work, but even supernatural healing was not allowed.  By implication the Jews subjected God to the Sabbath Law.

But if they disallowed supernatural healing on the Sabbath, one wonders what their attitude was towards the sick on the Sabbath.  The Pharisees were the strictest sect of the Jewish religion (Acts 26:5), and on the Sabbath they disallowed anything that even remotely looked like work.  Does that mean that they left the sick to suffer by themselves; not doing anything to help them?

Nothing is reported in this chapter about Jesus or any of the religious authorities saying anything about the Sabbath healings, but since the people waited until the end of the Sabbath to bring their sick, we can assume that all knew that Sabbath healing was not allowed.  This means that the synagogue officials would have been alarmed by His Sabbath healing miracles.  Jesus also knew their rules very well, and by healing the man on the Sabbath, in public view of all, He effectively condemned the traditions.

Furthermore, since “the report about Him was spreading into every locality in the surrounding district”, these miracles laid the foundation for the later confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees about His Sabbath healing miracles.  The next time that Jesus “entered the synagogue and was teaching; and there was a man there whose right hand was withered”, the scribes and the Pharisees were watching Him closely to see if He healed on the Sabbath, so that they might find reason to accuse Him. (Luke 6:6-7)

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