The Law of Moses—The Mosaic Covenant Viewed Through Progressive Covenantalism (Part 2)

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In Part 1, my primary concern was to show that a proper understanding of the Mosaic Law entails numerous and diverse uses of the word “law.” The dogmatic categories of “Law-Gospel” often lead to a hermeneutic that distinguishes the biblical covenants solely in terms of these categories. Although there is theological truth in this distinction, it cannot account for what the covenants are and how they progressively unfold God’s redemptive plan reaching its ultimate fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant. Furthermore, despite its good intentions, it tends to view all of the Bible’s commands and threats as “Law” and all of Scripture’s promises as “Gospel,” which is difficult to warrant biblically.

Also, though progressive covenantalism shares many common beliefs with the two leading schools of thought—Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology—we believe how they conceive of the Law of Moses does not sufficiently explain its covenantal role within the biblical storyline. Stephen Wellum summarizes issues wherein we disagree with Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology.

Although these two views agree on more than they disagree, there are still substantial differences that affect numerous important theological conclusions. As stated, central to the differences between the views is how one understands the overarching story of Scripture, especially in regard to the progression of the covenants and the relationship between Israel and the church.

Though I was reared under the influence of Dispensationalism, Covenant Theology had its impact. Strange as it may seem, during my youth, Covenant Theology tended to dominate how Dispensationalists conducted themselves on Sundays. For example, our society’s practice of the “Blue Laws,” which shuttered most businesses on Sunday, tended to regulate the Sunday activities of ministers and churches that embraced Dispensationalism. Apart from necessary work, such as milking cows, many abstained from ordinary activities, lest they profane the Lord’s Day, viewed as the Christian Sabbath. The story was occasionally told of my grandfather, who resisted electrifying the buildings on his farm so he would not be liable for obligating someone to work on Sundays to maintain the power plant. This was perplexing because in our dispensational context, we regularly heard that the Mosaic Law with its Sabbath commandment was passé—something of a bygone era. Extension of the Blue Laws to family and church activities, such as no softball games on Sunday, prompted significant questions for many young Christians who did not see the transfer from the Sabbath to the Lord’s Day in the New Testament. This prompted me to study the Scriptures to assess whether Dispensationalism or Covenant Theology was correct. Although both affirm many biblical truths, my contention is that they both do not adequately account for how Scripture presents the Mosaic Law as a covenant in Scripture’s progression of the covenants.

Thus, Part 1 features a tabulation of the many and diverse ways the Scriptures use “law,” some of which this article (Part 2) unpacks. Here, the focus is on how Christ Jesus brings the Mosaic Law’s jurisdiction as a covenant to its God-appointed end, leaving intact God’s moral law. So, when the Apostle Paul affirms, “For sin will have no dominion over you since you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14), he does not mean that the gospel of Jesus Christ does not obligate obedience to Christ as Lord. This, Paul makes obvious by posing the question, “Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?” and answering it, “Of course not!” (Rom. 6:15).

So, how are we to understand that the Law of Moses holds no jurisdiction over Christians? To answer this, we need to understand the various ways the Bible uses the word “law.” As shown in Part 1, the “law” as a covenant has ended. The new covenant, inaugurated by Christ Jesus, has displaced the law-covenant, the old covenant. Nevertheless, I will demonstrate in this article that for the Apostle Paul, even though the “law” as covenant no longer holds jurisdiction over us, the “law” as Scripture is still authoritative over Christians.

The Law as Covenant is Abolished

In his letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul affirms that the Mosaic Covenant that alienated Gentiles “from the commonwealth of Israel” as “strangers to the covenants of promise” has been abolished with the coming of the promised Messiah. By his sacrificial death, foreshadowed throughout the Law of Moses, Christ Jesus has made “both [Jew and Gentile] one.” He did this when he “broke down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances to create in himself one new man from the two, making peace, and to reconcile both to God in one body through the cross, killing the hostility in himself” (Eph. 2:14—16). Paul’s argument is that Christ Jesus terminated the law-covenant’s jurisdiction by fulfilling the covenant’s prophetic-typological foreshadowing of him, thus reconciling Jews and Gentiles together to God in one new covenant body.

Christ Jesus Replaces the Law and Israel

Paul contends that the sacrificial death of Christ Jesus terminates the law-covenant’s jurisdiction and also frees God’s chosen people from that law-covenant’s custody. Micah prophesied that the Messiah who was born in Bethlehem, “whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days,” whose “brothers shall return to the people of Israel,” that one, Messiah, “shall be their peace” (Mic. 5:2, 3, 5). Paul cites Micah’s prophecy as fulfilled in Christ, who by his death brings near those “who once were far off,” uniting Gentiles and Jews because “he himself is our peace” (Eph. 2:13—14). From the two—Jews and Gentiles—he created “in himself one new man in place of the two, establishing peace” (2:15). Given the glaring double use of the verb “create” within the context (Eph. 2:10, 15), it is obvious that Paul speaks of the dawn of the “New Creation” as coinciding with the creation of the “one new man” (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17). Likewise, the creation of this “one new man” renders it inexcusable to ignore Paul’s contrasting admonitions—“put off the old man” (sinfulness in Adam) and “put on the new man” (graces in Christ)—used later in this same letter (Eph. 4:22, 24). Surely, Christ’s creation of the “one new man” (1) answers the formation of Adam and his fallen race and (2) announces the dawn of the new creation, confirming that Christ inaugurated his new race of people, the eschatological “household of God,” to populate the new creation, a people defined never again ethnically, but by belonging to Christ Jesus (cf. Gal. 3:28—29). Thus, only the True Israelite Jesus displaces Israel, and not the church directly. Jesus does this not by abandoning the Jews but by creating “one new man” from Jew and Gentile together.

The Law as Scripture Remains Authoritative

That the law-covenant has been abolished does not mean that divine commandments hold no authority over Christians. In his same letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul positively cites “the Mosaic Law” to enforce the moral behavior God requires. He admonishes children by appealing to the Decalogue’s Fifth Commandment: “‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land’” (Eph. 6:2). So, how can Paul, on the one hand, announce that Christ’s reconciling sacrificial death brought the Mosaic Law Covenant’s jurisdiction to its end, and yet appeal to the Fifth Commandment as required conduct for children under the authority of the new covenant? The only satisfying solution is to acknowledge the Mosaic Law as a covenant has reached its terminus, but the Mosaic Law as Scripture remains an authoritative divine revelatory source for behavior that pleases God. Hence, those who twist the words of Philip P. Bliss’s gospel song, “Once for All,” sing to their own eternal destruction: “Free from the law, O happy condition; I sin as I please and still have remission.”

The Sabbath Commandment Instructs Concerning the Law-Covenant’s Nature

So, if the Apostle Paul cites the Decalogue’s Fifth Commandment as binding on children, what about the Fourth Commandment? Is Sabbath observance binding for Christians? Though it is at the structural center of the Decalogue, the Fourth Commandment does not obligate Christians to observe the day as it did the Israelites. Consider the biblical evidence for this.

First, the Sabbath commandment is not a moral law by virtue of being among the Ten Commandments. God placed the Sabbath commandment in the center of the Ten Words because it is the sign of the Mosaic Covenant. God appointed the rainbow as the sign of his covenant with Noah (Gen. 8:17) and circumcision as the sign of the Abrahamic covenant. So, concerning the Sabbath, the Lord tells Moses to instruct the Israelites “Keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you” (Ex. 31:13). They were to “observe the Sabbath . . . as a covenant” (Ex. 31:16). Moses reiterates: “It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed” (Ex. 31:17). Because the Sabbath is the law-covenant’s sign, the Sabbath commandment occupies the central place in the Ten Words which constitute the summary of the covenant on stone tablets. Hence, the text of the Fourth Commandment is significantly longer than any of the other nine.

From the beginning, long before the Lord etched the Ten Words on stone tablets, nine of the ten were indelibly imprinted on the consciences of all humans, whose sins were not transgressions as were Adam’s and Israel’s who both received special revelatory prohibitions from God (Rom. 5:14). Indeed, God’s seventh-day rest from his creative acts set the pattern for Israel’s observance of the Sabbath commandment God gave them (Ex. 20:11; 31:17). Yet, prior to the giving of the law-covenant on Sinai, the Sabbath commandment did not exist as it came to be when God wrote it on stone for Israel, according to Nehemiah. When the Israelites assembled, Israel’s spokesmen spoke with loud voices to the Lord God: “You came down on Mount Sinai and spoke with them from heaven and gave them right rules and true laws, good statutes and commandments, and you made known to them your holy Sabbath and commanded them commandments and statutes and a law by Moses your servant (Neh. 9:13–14; Ex. 16:4–30). 

For Israel, to profane the Lord’s Sabbaths was to repudiate God’s whole covenant. For each of the 70 seven-year cycles, amounting to 490 years, Israel desecrated the Sabbaths for the land, the Lord exiled the nation to Babylon “to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate, it kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years” (2 Chron. 36:21).

The command to keep the Sabbath was not a universally binding requirement in the same way that moral or natural law is true for all people, yet to profane it due to covenant obligation invoked death (Exod. 31:14). That the Sabbath command is not universally binding in itself, is evident from the covenant’s own provisions to allow the priests to profane it by doing their assigned work (Num. 28:9—10). Likewise, Jesus calls on the Pharisees to acknowledge that even they would profane a Sabbath day to rescue from a well a child or an ox who had fallen into it and do so without sinning (Luke 14:1—6). Again, that the Sabbath command is not a universal moral requirement should be obvious to all because, during his earthly ministry, Jesus deliberately healed the infirmed on the Sabbath to provoke the fastidious and captious Pharisees to recognize that he was bringing the Mosaic Law to the end for which the law-covenant was given (e.g., John 5:1—17).

When reading the Four Gospels, we ought to give careful attention to the orderly sequence of episodes. In Matthew’s Gospel, the chapter 12 heading disrupts the narrative flow. At the close of chapter 11 (Matt. 11:25–30), in keeping with Jesus’s mention of the divine mystery of concealing and revealing, with semi-veiled terms without explicit mention of the Fourth Commandment, he announces that the Sabbath commandment, which was to Israel a burdensome yoke (cf. Acts 15:10), reaches its God-appointed end in him, the Messiah, who gives enduring rest. Thus, he calls out to all his burdened hearers: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28–30).

Immediately following this episode (but interrupted by a chapter division!), the Pharisees confront Jesus and his disciples for violating the Sabbath’s work prohibition by engaging in their miniature threshing action as they pass through fields of grain. Jesus does not protest. He does not deny the Pharisees’ accusation. He does not fall into their trap to debate whether their accusatory quibble is accurate. Instead, Jesus accepts the charge as true, but then, to disclose something of his identity, he appeals to the Scriptures to cite the law-covenant’s provision to allow certain violations of non-moral commandments and prohibitions.

Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” (Matt. 12:3—8; Mark 2:23–28)

So, it is no accident that Jesus’s response to the faultfinding Pharisees immediately follows his invitation to find enduring rest in him—the divine son who cast his long shadow spanning centuries of Sabbaths. The Pharisees’ trifling shows their blindness and deafness. Their myopic reading of the Law of Moses, contented with merely going through the motions of Sabbath observance, blinded them to the presence of the one greater than David and greater than Israel’s priests. Blinded, deafened, and hardened as Isaiah prophesied, they accused the Lord of the Sabbath of violating the commandment he gave to Israel—the very commandment that foreshadowed his own coming. Jesus’s parables and signs remained conundrums to them, eventually inciting them to crucify the Lord of glory.

The Shadow Sabbaths Foreshadow the True Sabbath, the Messiah

Jesus taught by deeds and words that the law-covenant’s Sabbath finds its typological-prophetic fulfillment in him. In his letter to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul most emphatically affirms this truth. He instructs us that the various festivals, new moon celebrations, and Sabbaths sanctioned by the Law of Moses served as “a shadow of the things that were to come, the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Col. 3:16—17; NIV). Paul uses the plural Sabbaths because the Lord gave Israel not merely one Sabbath but ten: (1) the weekly seventh-day Sabbath; (2) seven annual sabbaths; (3) one seventh-year Sabbath for the land; and (4) one forty-ninth-year Sabbath called Jubilee.

These ten Sabbaths functioned as earthly shadows yearning to reach fulfillment in the promised Messiah. Just like he presents his body as the true Temple, putting an end to the shadow Temple in Jerusalem (John 2:13–22), Jesus presents himself as the true Sabbath, who alone bequeaths enduring rest, fulfilling the Sabbath law, thus bringing all ten to their climactic ends for which they were given. At the outset of his ministry, according to Luke (4:16ff), on a Sabbath day, Jesus entered the synagogue he attended as a boy. He took the occasion to read the appointed Scripture for the day, which was Isaiah 61:1-2. There, in the presence of his hometown synagogue attendees, Jesus announces that Isaiah’s prophecy is realized in him. He ends his reading with the announcement that Jubilee, the forty-ninth-year Sabbath, comes to fulfillment in him.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Conclusion

Thankfully, Christians, whether they subscribe to Dispensationalism or to Covenant Theology, are in harmony concerning the essentials of the Christian faith. Like Apollos, on various issues concerning the Scriptures, we all need someone to take us aside and explain to us “the way of God more accurately” (cf. Acts 18:26). One of those topics concerns properly understanding God’s design for the Mosaic Law and its proper application to us today under the new covenant.

This article argues that Christ Jesus abolished the Mosaic Law as a covenant, not by fiat dismissal but by fulfilling the covenant’s typological-prophetic role of foreshadowing him. He is the sacrifice that ends all sacrifices. He is the True Sabbath Rest who ends the perpetual cycle of weekly, annual, septennial, and jubilee Sabbaths. In Christ Jesus, the Creator’s seventh-day rest, setting the pattern for Israel’s weekly Sabbaths and prefiguring the arrival of the eschatological rest, the one who cast the long shadow of Sabbaths has come. Thus, observing a particular day as Sabbath is irrelevant.

True as it is that God in Christ Jesus abolished the Mosaic Law as a now outdated covenant, we would be seriously amiss to suppose that God has revoked his moral law. Scripture uses “law” in numerous and diverse ways, but the contextual uses of the word make clear that God’s termination of the Mosaic Law leaves fully intact God’s moral law. Also, we would be mistaken to presume that because the Sabbath commandment is featured among the Ten Words, it is a binding moral law. It is not, as this article makes clear. Far more significant and crucial to our well-being than fastidiously observing a particular day of the week is our need to lay hold of the True Sabbath, the Lord Jesus Christ, the greater Joshua (Heb. 4:8-10). For in him alone, we enter into God’s rest, the salvation of the last days, and receive rest from our own dead works (cf. Heb. 4:10).

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Ardel Caneday

    Ardel Caneday continues as an adjunct faculty member at University of Northwestern after recently retiring from his role as Professor of New Testament & Greek. Ardel completed the MDiv and ThM at Grace Theological Seminary and the PhD in New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a founding teaching elder of Christ Bible Church (Roseville, MN). He co-edited with Matthew Barrett Four Views on the Historical Adam, co-authored with Thomas R. Schreiner The Race Set Before Us, and has published many articles in Christian magazines, journals, books, and online.

Ardel Caneday

Ardel Caneday

Ardel Caneday continues as an adjunct faculty member at University of Northwestern after recently retiring from his role as Professor of New Testament & Greek. Ardel completed the MDiv and ThM at Grace Theological Seminary and the PhD in New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a founding teaching elder of Christ Bible Church (Roseville, MN). He co-edited with Matthew Barrett Four Views on the Historical Adam, co-authored with Thomas R. Schreiner The Race Set Before Us, and has published many articles in Christian magazines, journals, books, and online.