The Church Age

44 The New Testament Law

by Hubert F. Sturges,, December 2013

This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them; and their sins and iniquities will I remember no more. Hebrews 10:16, 17

God spoke the Ten Commandments from Sinai. He also wrote the Ten Commandments--His “fiery law”--in stone by His own finger, to emphasize its permanence.1 Moses put the stone tablets in the ark of the covenant, under the mercy seat. This was a beautiful illustration of mercy, which modifies every application of the law. God called the Ten Commandments “the covenant.”2

Within the history of the Christian church, a number of the popular Reformation churches began to replace the law of God, given at Sinai, with vague expressions such as the “law of love” and the “law of Christ.” This opened the door to permissiveness in lifestyle. The popular churches also denigrated the Old Testament, in the name of upholding the New. Grace and a new covenant without God’s laws became their new focus, with little understanding of grace or the new covenant.

Law in Ancient Israel

Back during the time that Jesus walked the dusty roads of Palestine with His disciples, Israel was a land of law. The Jews were zealous and meticulous in keeping the law. As a nation, they had suffered oppression, invasions, and captivity for their past apostasy and idolatry. Now, 490 years after the restoration, they had rebuilt the nation. Society became much more sophisticated and educated. In the days of Manasseh’s long and wicked reign, the people had misplaced the scroll of the Torah. During Josiah’s reign the Torah was found again, and the Jews again discussed the Torah regularly in their synagogues.

To educate the people and prevent a recurrence of idolatry and apostasy, the religious leaders of the nation erected safeguards. On top of the Ten Commandments, they added numerous ordinances to “protect the law.” They strongly emphasized Sabbath observance, creating thirty-nine categories of law to protect the Sabbath, with hundreds of sub-categories of ordinances. Observant Jews carefully followed all aspects of the sacrifices and sanctuary services. They also established rabbinic schools for their young people.

Still, there were problems. The high priests were unbelievers. The Pharisees followed a carefully crafted life of law, but in their zeal, true love was lacking. Temple sacrifices and services had become a means for the high priests to amass wealth. Now, the Romans occupied the country with cruelty, oppression, and sometimes brutality. The Jews had a king who carried the name of Herod. He was an Idumean who ruled only by permission of the Romans. The believing remnant was a small minority.

Jesus and the Law

When Jesus of Nazareth began His ministry, He healed diseases, cast out demons, and even raised the dead. The people followed Jesus by the thousands and acclaimed Him as the prophesied Messiah! The leaders feared that Jesus would take the throne of David. The irony in this fear is that they ostensibly hoped that the Messiah would do exactly that!

Jesus exposed the emptiness of their futile, mechanical observance of the law. This caused Jewish leaders to hate Him. The Sanhedrin arrested Him and put Him on trial, during which He remained strangely silent. Despairing of gaining a conviction, Caiaphas demanded of Jesus under oath: “Tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God” (Matt. 27:63). On Jesus’ affirmation (Matt. 27:64), the Sanhedrin convicted Him of blasphemy upon His own testimony! Pilate crucified Him for an unproven charge of sedition. At no point was Jesus charged with breaking the law!

The Romans crucified Jesus under the instigation of the Jewish leaders. On the third day after His burial, He rose from the tomb. The terrified Roman guards received money to tell Pilate that His disciples had stolen the body and otherwise keep the matter quiet, which was an impossibility. The news of Jesus’ resurrection was soon widely known.

Pentecost marked the birth of the church. Thousands quickly joined, affirming their faith in the crucified and risen Messiah. As time went by, there were problems, divisions, heresies, and persecutions. In a society where printed material was not yet available, this seemed inevitable. Yet, by the end of the third century, the gospel had spread throughout the Roman Empire and far into the east.

Jesus emphasized from the first that true religion was, not just performing sacrifices and ceremonies, but practical acts based on love to God and one’s fellow man. At the same time, Jesus kept the law in every detail. In some ways, He was liberal in His application of the law, but no one could ever charge Him with breaking it.

The Reformation: One Step Forward

During the Reformation, a number of reformers arose, seeking to correct the errors of the established church. It was a slow process. As the Reformers died, each denomination stagnated and failed to advance beyond its founder’s beliefs. When people recognized a problem or error, a new church would form and take a step forward. As the incoming tide reaches higher and higher on the beach, so did the Reformation churches came closer and closer to true biblical doctrine.

In meeting the problems in the early church, the apostle Paul emphasized Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Paul taught much about faith and grace as the work of the Holy Spirit to change lives. The Reformation churches strongly opposed legalism.

While this was good, it was in some ways misguided. One of the first errors of the established church was to change the day of worship from the seventh day to the first. Certain Bible-oriented groups did not accept this change, including the Celtic church, the church of the east, and certain other groups that arose from time to time. The established church strongly opposed and even persecuted any group who kept the seventh-day Sabbath or refused her authority.

The Reformation, starting in the sixteenth century, recognized and taught righteousness by faith and the authority of the Bible and the Bible alone. It was a significant step forward, but only a first step. The Reformers recognized other errors but did not act on them all, because they knew that people could accept only a limited amount of change at a time.

Change of the Sabbath

The Reformation churches claimed that doctrines must be based entirely on the Bible. That they could not explain their keeping of the first day of the week as a quasi-sabbath was a constant embarrassment to them.3 The established church claimed that their success in changing worship to the first day of the week was a sign or a mark of their authority.4

The Reformation churches attempted to find a biblical basis for Sunday observance. These included the following claims:

1. The Ten Commandments were just for the Jews, not for non-Jews. However, God had established the seventh-day Sabbath in Eden before there were any Jews. People accept nine commandments as binding; why not the fourth? There is no Bible command to separate the Sabbath commandment from the other nine.

2. People felt that if the majority of Christians kept the first day for worship, it must be right. This overlooks the fact that the people of God are often a small minority and that keeping the law of God has never been a popularity contest!

3. While Jesus kept the Sabbath, He did not command His disciples to do so. In Jewish society and the early church, whether or not to keep the Sabbath was never at issue. However, Jesus’ example is strong evidence of what His will should be in the believer’s life.5

4. Some note that certain texts seem to downgrade days or emphasize “another day” (Col. 2:16, 17; Rom. 14:5, 6; Heb. 4).6 However, Colossians 2:16, 17 refers to the ceremonial law, the “shadow of things to come,” not to the eternal law of God (see Heb. 8:5; 10:1, which verses also refer to “shadows”). The weekly Sabbath is a memorial of creation (Gen. 2:1-3; Exod. 20:8-11; Exod. 31:17; Rev. 14:6, 7) and not a “shadow” of anything to come. The “rest” in Hebrews 4 refers to the rest of trusting God and entering Canaan, not the Sabbath “rest” after six days of work.7

5. Many insist that the Sabbath belonged to the old covenant and that the new covenant does not have to do with the Ten Commandments. However, the first stipulation of the new covenant is God’s writing His law(s)-the Ten Commandments-in the heart of the believer. The new covenant was to provide grace and power to keep His law, which includes the seventh-day Sabbath!

Furthermore, nowhere in the New Testament is there a text that commands Christians to change the day of worship. When Jesus began His ministry, He instituted the rite of baptism. On His last night before His arrest, trial, and crucifixion, He instituted the Lord’s Supper. By His example and command, He gave these rites to the church. He said nothing about changing the day of worship.

In an attempt to support the first day of the week as a sabbath, some today would eliminate the law and assert the total discontinuity of the Old and New Testaments. These often say-

1. Jesus is my Sabbath. However, Jesus never said that He is our Sabbath!8

2. Now we keep the “law of love.” The law of love is the Ten Commandments.9

3. The New Testament did away with the Ten Commandments. There is no evidence for this. Rather, Paul, Jesus, and James cited specific examples of commandments from God’s law that they expected believers to keep.10 The Bible contains a strong and repeated emphasis on keeping the law of God, the Ten Commandments (Matt. 5:16, 17; 1 Cor. 7:19; Rev. 12:17; 14:12; 22:14).

Jesus carefully kept the law of God. During His trial, the Sanhedrin did not accuse Him of breaking any of the commandments. In the three synoptic Gospels, Jesus identified the commandments to be kept as the Ten Commandments, which believers are empowered to keep through love for God and for their fellow human beings (Matt. 19:16-21; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 18:18-23). He also affirmed that love is the basis for obedience (Matt. 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-34; John 14:15). There are some in the present day who say the law is not binding. When questioned further, they will admit that nine commandments are still binding, but that the fourth commandment is not. There is no statement in the New Testament that separates the Sabbath commandment from the rest of God’s Law.

Throughout Israel’s history, the Tanakh emphasized the Sabbath commandment in various contexts. More than any other commandment, the Sabbath commandment strengthens the relationship between God and man. Evangelical Christians counter that Jesus did not command observance of the fourth commandment. Yet, by His example, He always kept the Sabbath, and He declared that the Sabbath was made for man.11 Did Jesus change the day of worship from the seventh to the first day of the week? Nowhere in the New Testament is there any such command-either by Jesus, by Paul, or by any other writer. The ten-commandment law is indispensable to the end of time.12 It is essential that love be the basis of the law, of obedience, and of all religion. God is love, and He bases His law on love.


1. “And God spake all these words, saying (Exod. 20:1). “And he said, The LORD came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir unto them; he shined forth from mount Paran, and he came with ten thousands of saints: from his right hand went a fiery law for them” (Deut. 33:2). “And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God” (Exod. 31:18).

2. Fulfilling the law does not mean destroying it; the ten commandment law is permanent (Matt. 5:17-19).

The terms “covenant,” “testimony,” and “tables” refer to the Ten Commandments (Exod. 31:18; 32:15; 34:28; Deut. 4:13; 9:9, 11, 15). The tables of stone were kept inside the ark (Exod. 25:16, 21; 40:20; Num. 17:10; Deut. 10:2, 5; 1 Kings 8:9; 2 Chron. 5:10; Heb. 9:4).

3. The Lutheran Augsburg Confession argues: “For those who judge that by the authority of the Church the observance of the Lord’s Day instead of the Sabbath-day was ordained as a thing necessary, do greatly err. Scripture has abrogated the Sabbath-day; for it teaches that, since the Gospel has been revealed, all the ceremonies of Moses can be omitted. And yet, because it was necessary to appoint a certain day, that the people might know when they ought to come together, it appears 248 More Than a Promise that the Church designated the Lord’s Day for this purpose; and this day seems to have been chosen all the more for this additional reason, that men might have an example of Christian liberty, and might know that the keeping neither of the Sabbath nor of any other day is necessary” (“Of Ecclesiastical Power,” The Augsburg Confession, art. 28, available at http://, accessed 3/29/13emphasis supplied).

4. “They [the Catholics] allege the change of the Sabbath into the Lord’s day, contrary, as it seemeth, to the Decalogue; and they have no example more in their mouths than the change of the Sabbath. They will needs have the Church’s power to be very great, because it hath dispensed with a precept of the Decalogue” (“Of Ecclesiastical Power,” The Augsburg Confession, art. 28).

5. That Paul continued observing the Sabbath and seeking out those who gathered “where prayer was wont to be made” (Acts 16:13) indicates that Sabbath observance was not an issue for him. Paul insists, “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God” (1 Cor. 7:19).

6. The Augsburg Confession uses Acts 15:10; 2 Cor. 13:10; Col. 2:16 -23; and Titus 1:14 to argue against Catholic traditions that would make “matters of sin in foods, in days, and like things, and burden the Church with bondage of the law, as if there ought to be among Christians” (“Of Ecclesiastical Power,” The Augsburg Confession, art. 28).

7. The “another day” of Hebrews 4:8, which is described as “to day” (Heb. 3:7, 13, 15; 4:7), is in contrast to “the provocation” and “the day of temptation” (Heb. 3:8, 15; cf. Ps. 95:8).

8. Rest and peace come in Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:7; Gal. 1:3; Phil. 4:7; Col. 3:15). Hebrews has many betters that are contrasted with the shadows of the old covenant: “better than the angels” (1:4), “better things” (6:9), “better hope” (7:19), “better testament” (7:22), “better covenant” (8:6), “better sacrifices” (9:23), “better substance” (10:34), “better [country]” (11:16), “better resurrection” (11:35), and “better thing(s)” (11:40; 12:24), but nowhere does it have a “better Sabbath,” and nowhere does the New Testament call Jesus “our Sabbath.” Paul does say “Christ our passover,” but never does he say Christ our Sabbath.

9. Love upholds God’s commandments (John 14:15, 21-23; 15:10; 1 John 2:3-10; 5:2, 3).

10. Jesus commanded His followers to keep His commandments (Matt. 5:16, 17; 19:17; 22:36-40; Luke 10:26-28; John 14:15, 21-23; 15:10-14; 1 Cor. 7:19; 1 John 2:3-10; 3:23, 24; 5:3). Another name for the Decalogue is the “law of liberty” (James 1:25; 2:12); it is holy (Rom. 7:12); it is the “law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). Not merely hearers but “doers of the law shall be justified” (Rom. 2:13). By the law is the “knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20); sin is imputed when there is a law (Rom. 5:13). Salvation is not by the works of the law (Gal. 2:16; 3:10-13). Paul contrasts circumcision with “keeping the commandments of God” (1 Cor. 7:19).

11. See Mark 2:27. This is the same “man” (Greek anthropos) that he used in talking about a “man” leaving father and mother and cleaving to His wife (Mark 10:2-9). In both instances He was answering a question about the commandments. If Christians understand the sweeping nature of the statement about marriage, why is it so hard to understand the sweeping nature about the Sabbath?

12. The Ten Commandments are essential to the end of time (Ps. 112:1; 119:1-6; Isa. 56:2; Matt. 5:17-19; 15:3-6; 19:17; 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-31; John 14:15; Rom. 3:31; 7:12; 13:9; 1 John 2:3, 4; 3:23, 24; 5:2, 3; Rev. 12:17; 14:12; 22:14).