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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Spatha

The 9 Commandments

Updated: Apr 4

There are often questions and confusion regarding Old Testament law in a New Testament era, leading critics to accuse Christians of hypocrisy. Even well-meaning and faithful believers do not always understand the reasons why the church does not follow all the commands given in Mosaic Law. But the truth is that scripture lays out a clear rubric in these matters and though there is certainly hypocrisy in the church, proper adherence to Old Testament law is rarely the issue.

Three Categories of Law

The first thing we should understand about Old Testament law was that it was broken into three categories: moral law, civil law, and ceremonial law. The moral law dealt with issues such as idolatry, lying, stealing, murdering, and fornicating. The civil law dealt with legal matters specific to the ancient state of Israel such as land borders, and civil and criminal penalties. The ceremonial law then dealt with questions regarding proper religious procedures, priestly etiquette, and the rites and rituals which distinguished the nation of Israel from the peoples and cultures around her. All of these laws applied to the Jewish people under the Old Covenant.

However, when we transitioned into the New Covenant, not all of these laws carried over. The moral law remained, and in fact became even more strict, but the civil law and ceremonial law were largely done away with, though certainly their principles still held value and provided insight. While the distinction between these three categories of law may not be apparent to the casual reader, such a distinction is in fact necessary in order to practice Christianity at all. The most obvious and fundamental example being that Christ was the perfect sacrifice for our sins, and therefore animal sacrifices — though mandated by Old Testament ceremonial law — are no longer required.

Before we go any further, it is important to note that due to all three categories being law, they cannot simply be ignored, selectively applied by a judge, or selectively followed by a citizen. We cannot pick and choose what laws we want to obey, but neither can God pick and choose which laws He will uphold. Therefore, the laws which did not carry over into the New Covenant were not broken or ignored, but legally fulfilled. The Old Covenant was made complete and accomplished through Christ, and as such, He it made possible for a New Covenant to be made.

"Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." -Mat 5:17-19 NASB

Some have misunderstood the meaning of this passage by focusing on the phrase "until heaven and earth pass away," therefore concluding that all of the Old Testament laws must be in effect until God destroys the current heavens and earth at His coming. But the key phrase is actually later in the same sentence, being, "until all is accomplished." Most translations render accomplished as fulfilled, but the Greek word ginomai could also be translated as "to be done, ended or finished." This gives Jesus' words on the cross great theological importance.

After this, Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished, to fulfill the Scripture, said, "I am thirsty." A jar full of sour wine was standing there; so they put a sponge full of the sour wine upon a branch of hyssop and brought it up to His mouth. Therefore when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, "It is finished!" And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit. -Joh 19:28-30 NASB

To hammer home the point, the word translated as finished here means, "to end, complete, conclude, accomplish, fulfill, finish, pay, or discharge a debt." Christ fulfilled, accomplished, and finished the Old Covenant, and through the cross, created a New Covenant. Therefore, Christians do not adhere to the Old Covenant, but follow a new covenant which defines an even stricter moral law than the previous covenant, but largely relaxes or abrogates the civil and ceremonial law of the previous. The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that as believers, we are no longer under the law of the Old Covenant.

For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. -Rom 6:14 NASB

Or do you not know, brethren (for I am speaking to those who know the law), that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives? For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband. So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man. Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. -Rom 7:1-4 NASB

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. -Rom 10:4 NASB

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. -Gal 5:18 NASB

When He said, "A new covenant," He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear. -Heb 8:13 NASB

So, clearly the Old Covenant is no longer in effect as a believer. However, Jesus included the phrase "until heaven and earth pass away" in His prophetic words regarding the law of Moses because for those who do not accept Christ, and therefore do not accept the New Covenant, the Old Covenant is still binding. Specifically, Jews are still under the Old Covenant (1 Co 9:20 et al) until and unless they accept the New Covenant through Jesus. As Paul's words in Romans indicate, you will die under the law unless you die to the law through Christ. A previous covenant ratified by God is not invalidated by a new one — it remains in effect due to God's faithfulness to His word and promise.

What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. -Gal 3:17 NASB

Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law. -Rom 3:31 NIV

The Law of the New Covenant

However, it is obvious that the moral law present in the Old Covenant is also present in the New, because virtually every item of the old moral law is repeated and condemned in the text of the New Testament. Lying, stealing, murdering, fornicating, adultery, sexual immorality, homosexuality, dishonoring parents, sorcery, idolatry, greed, jealousy, pride, drunkenness etc. are all explicitly condemned by Jesus and the apostles. So, when a critic accuses a believer of hypocrisy by citing a law which can only be found in an Old Testament passage, they fundamentally misunderstand the nature of covenants and the distinction between Judaism and Christianity.

To be clear, there is no element of the New Covenant between God and man which must be found outside of the New Testament texts — they are self-contained and complete. The Old Testament provides a vast richness of historical context, theological insight, and depth to New Testament truth, but one does not need to refer to a single Old Testament passage to establish a New Testament tenet. If all you had was a New Testament translated into your language, which is the case for many around the world, you would have a completely sufficient codex for living the Christian faith.

But, as I've hinted at previously, there were a few significant changes in the moral law in the New Covenant. One change shifted the threshold of what constituted an infraction or violation of the law, and the other broadened it from just the letter, to the spirit of the law. In other words, the Old Covenant only judged a man's actions or behavior, but the New Covenant judges the heart, intentions, and thoughts of a man.

"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 NASB 

"For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. These are the things which defile the man..." -Mat 15:19-20 NASB

But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter. -Rom 7:6 NASB

While the moral law was made much more strict and broad in the New Covenant, the civil and ceremonial law were all but made obsolete. This makes perfect sense as the civil law applied to a nation state which most Christians did not then, and do not now not reside in — a nation which ceased to exist for most of the last two millennia. Similarly, US laws apply within the United States, but do not extend to foreign citizens living in other countries due to issues of legal jurisdiction, and would no longer apply even to geographic residents if the United States of America ceased to exist as a nation state. Ceremonial law of course would not apply in the New Covenant because it was meant to deal with sin and identify the Jewish people as holy and set apart. But under the New Covenant, non-Jews are grafted in and there is no longer any distinction between them in Christ (Gal 3:28). Neither is there any need for the remittance of sin by the blood of animals (Heb 10:1-2), nor for a temple (1 Co 6:19) or priests (Heb 8:4-6). Furthermore, under the New Covenant, that which is supposed to distinguish us from non-believers is not ceremony, ritual, dress, or customs, but love (Joh 13:35).

Of course, the transition from the Old to the New Covenant wasn't without some confusion as old habits die hard. The Gospel came first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles, and as such, the Jews clung to their traditions and often pressured Gentile believers to adopt them as well. Even Peter was both shocked and reluctant to break from the dietary restrictions of ceremonial law when God gave him a vision and declared all food clean under the New Covenant (Act 10:9-15). The growing tension between Old Covenant and New Covenant practices resulted in the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), where the only items of ceremonial law which were provisionally applied to Christians in order to keep the peace between Jewish and Gentile converts, was the abstention from meat sacrificed to idols, from bloody meat, and meat from strangled animals.

The precedent set by the Council of Jerusalem then developed into a much more complete (and complex) doctrine regarding issues of conscience, which broadened the moral law far beyond the letter. I explain this New Testament principle in detail in another article, but a summary of the doctrine would be as follows: None of the ceremonial laws are required by the New Covenant, however, if you are fully convinced in your own mind that they — or other laws not specified by New Testament texts — should be observed, you must do so until your conscience has been retrained. Until that point, God holds you accountable to your own conscience's stricter definition of sin, so to violate it would be sin for you. However, you must not push your strict conscience's definitions onto others, forcing them to abide by your law as that is also sin, and others must not violate your conscience in your presence, as that would also be sin.

This teaching from the apostles didn't stop Jewish believers from trying to force ceremonial law upon new believers, however. As a result, much of the book of Galatians was written to refute the "Judaizers" in the church, with the term Judaizer itself coming from the Greek word Ioudaizō found in Galatians 2:14. But the problem was widespread in the church and rebukes against returning to Old Covenant ceremonial law can be found in multiple New Testament epistles. Just the issue of circumcision alone is addressed in no fewer books than Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. Despite that fact, many in the church still practice this ceremonial law.

The 10 Commandments

As I said before, there are no laws included in the New Covenant which are not addressed in the New Testament texts, but there is a hallmark of Mosaic Law which is frequently referenced by the church: the Ten Commandments. There's a good reason for this as the New Testament affirms most of these laws as part of the New Covenant — all but one actually. The full list, found in both Exodus chapter 20 and Deuteronomy chapter 5, is:

  1. You shall have no other gods before me

  2. You shall not make idols

  3. You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain

  4. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy

  5. Honor your father and mother

  6. You shall not murder

  7. You shall not commit adultery

  8. You shall not steal

  9. You shall not bear false witness

  10. You shall not covet

While nine of the ten have corresponding New Testament affirmations or teachings, there are precisely zero instructions of observing the Sabbath under the New Covenant. In fact, Colossians clearly states Sabbath observation is not required.

Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day —  things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. -Col 2:16-17 NASB

Here, Paul clearly indicates that the Sabbath is part of the ceremonial law and therefore an issue of conscience — along with Jewish food regulations, observing Jewish festivals, and new moons (the Jewish calendar) — and not part of the moral law which believers are required to observe. Some have argued for an inverted interpretation of this passage as actually defending the Colossians for their supposed adherence to observing the Sabbath, Jewish dietary law, Jewish festivals, and Jewish New Moons, but that requires ignoring the entire context of both the immediate text as well as the rest of the New Testament.

A few verses prior, Paul was talking about the Jewish requirement of circumcision — which is clearly identified as part of the old ceremonial law both in this instance and throughout the New Testament. A few verses after, Paul is talking about rules, regulations, and restrictions which are of no benefit to a believer. In the very next verse after Paul says "no one is to act as your judge" regarding meat, drink, festivals, new moons, or the Sabbath, he states that all these things are "a shadow of things to come," — a phrase used later in the New Testament (Hebrews 8 and 10) to talk about elements of the Old Covenant which are no longer in effect for believers.

Of course, the broader context of the New Testament is that we have plenty of textual evidence that Jewish believers were indignant and judged Gentile believers for not adhering to Jewish ceremonial law, but we don't have much (if any) textual evidence in the New Testament of Gentile believers being indignant and judging Jewish believers for adhering to their traditional ceremonial law. So, it should be clear from the context in Colossians, and in light of the Council of Jerusalem and the broader New Testament texts, that Paul is addressing Gentile believers who have been judged by "Judaizers" in this passage, not Jewish believers who have been judged by their Gentile brothers.

It is often assumed that all of the Ten Commandments are part of the moral law rather than both moral and ceremonial, but Moses actually distinguishes the fourth commandment as part of the latter — a sign of the covenant between Israel and God — and therefore it is actually part of the Old Covenant and not applicable in the new.

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, "But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, 'You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you... So the sons of Israel shall observe the sabbath, to celebrate the sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant.' It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever..." -Exo 31:12-13, 16-17 NASB

This would explain why Jesus, as the fulfillment of the Old Covenant and introduction to the New, did not worship another God or idol, never took the name of the Lord in vain, honored his father and mother, never murdered, never committed adultery, never stole, never bore false witness, and never coveted, but He did break the law regarding the Sabbath on several occasions, much to the chagrin of the Jewish religious leaders. He also broke other ceremonial laws during His ministry, such as hand washing, which confused and frustrated not only the Pharisees and Sadducees, but even His own disciples.

Additional Arguments

It is important to note that the Sabbath was about rest, not worship. So, even if you sincerely believe that in the New Covenant, believers must observe the Sabbath, that has nothing to do with what day you go to church. It's also difficult, if not impossible, to know if we've accurately kept track of days and weeks since Israel's time in the desert when the Sabbath was instituted and demarcated by the lack of falling manna. Calendars have changed several times since then and while there are astronomical ways to confirm the beginning of days, months, and years, there is no such way to confirm or corroborate the beginning of weeks.

Due to that reality, there were even carve-outs in Jewish law (tradition, not canon) in case individuals lost track of time due to travel or isolation from civilization. If they weren't sure what day of the week it was, they were to simply count seven days from the day they realized they lost track of time and observe their Sabbath on that day and every seventh day from it. So, from a variety of perspectives, being legalistic about observing the Sabbath on a specific day, or any day, is rather problematic as a New Testament believer.

The church began worshipping on Sunday not to observe a new or different Sabbath, but to celebrate the day of the risen Lord, which is the foundation of the faith and the New Covenant. All the occurrences of the word sabbath in Acts, which is the record of the early church, are in the context of Jews, not Christians. In several of them, Paul was evangelizing to Jews in synagogues, but not preaching to or teaching believers during their weekly fellowship. In Acts 18:4 it does mention "Jews and Greeks" but again, the context was of them being in a synagogue on the Sabbath, meaning those Greeks were converts to Judaism, not converts to Christianity — otherwise Paul wouldn't be trying to "persuade" them that Jesus was the Christ as the next verse clearly says.

Acts 13:42 is similar. There, the word "gentile" is used in some translations, but the Greek word used is ethnos — so they were not Jewish ethnically, but they were religious converts (proselytes) to Judaism as the very next verse plainly states. These passages are describing religious Jews observing Sabbath at a synagogue whom Paul is trying to convert to Christianity. If he were trying to convert Muslims (hypothetically, as they didn't exist yet), he'd preach the Gospel at a mosque on a Friday. That wouldn't mean Paul was advocating for Christians to observe the Muslim Sabbath of Jumu'ah, he simply went to preach the gospel at religious centers on the day when people of that religion gathered. He did the same thing at Mars Hill and even used some Greek philosophy to win them over. That doesn't mean that we as Christians should accept Plato's writings as authoritative. It means to witness effectively, Paul had to become a Jew to the Jews, and a Greek to the Greeks despite not adhering to either's religious law.

To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. -1 Co 9:20-21 NASB

The only Sabbath which is affirmatively taught in the New Testament is found in the book of Hebrews and it is not describing a weekly day of observance, but of salvation itself, when man rests from the works of the law and is at peace with God through Christ. This is the true Sabbath which the ceremonial Sabbath was merely a foreshadow of, and pointed toward.

Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said, "So I declared on oath in my anger, 'They shall never enter my rest.'" And yet his works have been finished since the creation of the world... Therefore since it still remains for some to enter that rest, and since those who formerly had the good news proclaimed to them did not go in because of their disobedience...So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience. -Heb 4:3, 6, 9-11 NASB

For those in Christ, observing the Sabbath or keeping any of the ceremonial law is as necessary or beneficial as offering burnt sacrifices. It regresses to walking in the shadow rather than the actual. Jesus was and is the fulfillment of that shadow, so let us walk directly in His light, dead to the Law which is powerless to bring about life and freedom.

It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace... For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, "YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF." -Gal 5:1-4, 13-14 NASB


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