ARE CHRISTIANS STILL SUPPOSED TO OBSERVE THE SABBATH AND OTHER OLD TESTAMENT LAWS?
“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 Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however is found in Christ.” (Colossians 2:16-17 NIV)
I believe that one of the most important things for Christians to know and understand is the difference between what it means to live under the Old Covenant versus the New Covenant. As we have been studying through the Old Testament and the laws (Old Covenant), the question has come up as to what specifically are the commandments and laws that we are still supposed to follow today?
Our relationship to the law and Old Testament is so important. The Bible says things like:
“He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant-not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Cor. 3:6 NIV)
“For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” (Gal. 3:10 NIV)
If we don’t understand what these verses mean in context to the Old/New Covenants we can be easily confused. Confusion about this can be so tragic because people who are most susceptible to legalism are those who are most passionate about pleasing the Lord. The enemy knows if he can get us confused about this, he can move our focus from living in grace to doing works to feel worthy and deserving of being a Christian. Then, he can set us up on a treadmill that will lead to despair and a judgmental spirit. We certainly don’t want that! So, let’s break down the basics between the two covenants.
First, there were many parts to the Old Covenant law; the sacrificial, the ceremonial, the judicial or governmental laws of the Jewish state, and feast or Sabbath laws. Each of these parts of the law had a specific purpose for that time in history: to prepare the world for the coming of Messiah. The law was all about preparing for Jesus! The law, and all its traditions and regulations, are described as a “shadow” of “things that were to come”. In other words, the law/regulations foreshadowed the coming of Christ; preparing the people for grace. The law showed us just how impossible it would be for us to please God even with a sincere commitment to keeping rules or doing good works. One of the most important things the New Testament (New Covenant) teaches is that Jesus came to fulfill the law. Let’s see just how He did that:
Jesus fulfilled the sacrificial laws by becoming our sacrifice (on the cross) and high priest (Heb. 4:14). There is no longer a need for animal sacrifices for sin or priests to mediate for us.
Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial laws. He has made us clean from the inside out by His blood (1 John 1:7); consequently, the temple for all of these ceremonies became obsolete. We, as the people of God, are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19).
The judicial and governmental laws that were part of the Jewish nation do not apply now. Through Jesus, God has called all people, regardless of our citizenship, to be the chosen people. We obey the laws of our land out of honor and respect (Romans 13:1-7); however, as long as doing so does not contradict God’s laws (Acts 5:29). We do not obey the laws of the land or government as a way to be good enough to belong to God.
The Sabbath and festivals have been fulfilled by Jesus bringing us into that perfect and full rest that was accomplished when he said, “It is finished” (John 19:30, NIV). All that needs to be done to be in a perfect and right relationship with God has been accomplished. Jesus, our Sabbath, invites us to sit down with Him in heavenly places and know the work is finished.
Second, what about the commandments? Certainly, the commandments such as “remember the Sabbath to keep it holy” contain principles that give us wisdom and guidance. I definitely believe it is wise and right to have a day of rest and replenishment. Nevertheless, we need to understand that this does not equate with an act of fulfilling a Sabbath requirement; that is, following specific legal actions we are required to do to please God under the New Covenant. In Romans 14:5 Paul says:
“One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike-each should be fully convinced in their own mind.” (NIV)
In other words, if someone in their conscience feels they should keep Saturday as a Sabbath, do no work, and focus on worship that is wonderful! That is, unless they judge other Christians who don’t do that as less obedient or committed to God.
Paul goes on to say in Romans 14:13:
“Therefore, let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead make up your mind not to put a stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.” (NIV)
First, it is a heart matter. His concern about our obedience is not what day we worship; rather, it is that we don’t judge each other or divide over such issues. Second, it is that whatever we do, we truly believe it is what God wants us to do—conscience, not commandment. In relationship to the commandments, Jesus made it clear in John 13:34 when he said,
“A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (NIV)
Jesus reduced all the commandments to one. It is interesting that He doesn’t even mention loving God because the idea is that we prove that we love God by loving others. This is a commandment of the heart that is so radical and all-encompassing that Jesus said this is THE commandment of the reborn heart, that can only be fulfilled if we’re connected with God!
Are there boundaries connected with this? Yes, of course; and, the New Testament outlines these such as forgiving, not being involved in sexual sin…nevertheless, all of them are simple and clear applications of this one big commandment. There is nowhere in the New Testament that ceremonial, dietary, or Sabbath laws are connected with how we obey the commandments of God.
Inevitably, when people take their opinions about applying commandments as rules or demands not spelled out in the New Testament, division and legalism enter the body of Christ. It becomes matters of “commandments” not matters of conscience. I remember in my early days one of the conferences I went to had a sign, “Cut your hair if you love Jesus.” They wanted to connect an external observance to be the proof of an inward changed heart. This led to a religious spirit in some believers; a “smug” attitude that they were “more righteous” than someone who did or didn’t do what they thought should be done.
The victory of grace is that we are already righteous by the finished work of Jesus Christ! Thus, as long as we pursue loving as Jesus loved us through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, we will naturally be formed and conformed into a person who lives like Christ.