Is the Sabbath a Moral Law or a Ceremonial Law?
Defining types of laws
Many theologians divide Old Testament laws into three general categories: moral, ceremonial, and civil. The Bible itself does not divide the law into these categories (many of the laws overlap in their purpose), but this three-fold division is nevertheless useful when we talk about the laws.
Moral laws are generally considered timeless, eternal, and universal, based on God’s own character, and therefore in force today. This is a good working definition of the category, but a problem arises when people assume they know what is in the category. Some people claim that a certain law is moral, or a certain group of laws is moral, without attempting to see whether the laws are actually timeless, eternal, and based on God’s character. Instead, they seem to reason in a reverse direction: They take laws that they think are still in force, and from that, conclude that they are also a timeless reflection of God’s character.
This procedure, although incorrect, sometimes yields believable results. People’s assumptions about morality are often correct — but sometimes they are not. Before we claim that a law is “moral,” we should examine to see whether it is truly timeless, eternal, and universal, applicable to all.
For example, one law in the Old Testament says, Do not bear false witness. A witness in court must tell the truth. This law is a specific application of God’s desire that people tell the truth. This is based on God’s own character, his honesty — what he says can be counted on. He is utterly faithful; his word is always true. This principle is reaffirmed in the New Testament, too: people should tell the truth.
This law is universal — everyone, in every nation in every age, should be honest. Even angels should be honest. The principle is always true, and the specific application in a courtroom is also true: No one should give false testimony. This is a moral law.
God gave his people ceremonial laws, too. These laws do not contradict God’s nature, but they reflect it only in a very general sense. For example, he told the Israelites to have a weekly offering of “showbread.” This offering, like other offerings, showed that God is holy and worthy of worship, but the Bible does not assign any theological significance to the details of the offering. The quantity of flour does not tell us much about God. With some ingenuity, some people may see symbolic significance in every detail, but other people may see different significance in the same details. Since the Bible itself does not tell us what the significance is, we cannot be sure.
A cleansing ritual is another illustration of ceremonial or ritual law: the priest was to touch the person’s right earlobe, right thumb, and right big toe (Leviticus 14:1-18). Although God gave these laws and expected them to be kept as written, these details do not reveal much about God’s character. Although God may have had a particular reason for specifying exact quantities and precise details, he has not told us the reason, so it therefore cannot tell us much about God.
Some aspects of the rituals and ceremonies, from our perspective, seem to be arbitrary. For all we know, God could have required the left cheek instead of the right earlobe. He could have required 10 percent less bread than he did. Some of these details do not seem to be based on anything intrinsic — they were simply what God specified. Since we do not know the divine significance of such details, they had to be given by special revelation.
The Israelites (like other peoples around them) might have invented a bread offering on their own, but they may not have used the precise quantities God specified. Even without God’s special revelation to them, they might have had a concept of religious impurity, and from that developed a religious cleansing ritual, but they probably wouldn’t have come up with the exact formula God gave them.
Although the ceremonial laws portray concepts like sacrifice and cleansing that are found in many cultures, the details of God’s ceremonial laws are given by special revelation, not by ideas that people could figure out for themselves.
What about the Sabbath?
Some people claim that the weekly Sabbath is a moral law, and therefore required today. They often claim this simply because they assume that the Ten Commandments are all moral laws.
But let us look at the evidence: God himself does not keep the Sabbath as a six-day/one-day cycle of work and rest. He did not before creation, and he does not now. Angels do not keep the weekly Sabbath, either. In the new heavens and the new earth, when there is no nighttime, no one will have to change their behavior according to days of the week. Everyone will be in God’s eternal rest all the time.
Although the seventh-day Sabbath has a basis in what God did once, the six-one cycle does not reflect what God is eternally. Although the weekly Sabbath rest looked forward to the eternal rest we have in salvation, the six-one cycle of work and rest is not an eternal one. The seventh-day Sabbath is not a universal or eternal law.
Instead, the Sabbath has characteristics of a ceremonial law. Although people might figure out that regular rest is good for us, it is not likely that they would figure exactly one day out of seven. This detail had to be specially revealed. Of course, if God says that we have to keep this detail today, then we do. That’s the same for any law, ceremonial or otherwise. The point here is that the details of the Sabbath command are like ceremonial laws, in that they have to be specially revealed.
The Sabbath law says that behavior that is perfectly acceptable one day is forbidden the next, merely because it is a different day of the week. But God’s morality does not change with the days of the week. If it is moral one day, it is moral on all others. God has the right to require different things on different days, but this would be a ceremonial law, not a law about what is moral all the time.
Paul tells us that the gentiles, even without the written law, had a law written on their hearts (Romans 2:14-15). They could know by nature that honesty was proper. But in contrast, they could not know from nature that they should anoint the right thumb instead of the elbow. They could not know by nature that they were to avoid work every seventh day.
God did not require the Gentiles to obey laws they did not have. They were required to obey the law written on their hearts, but they were not required to obey the ritual laws, for such laws have to be specially revealed, and God revealed them only to Israel, and they applied only to Israel.
God did not expect Gentiles to celebrate the Israelites’ exodus, or to have harvest festivals on the exact dates that Israel did. He did not require them to have Levitical priests, nor to make the animal sacrifices he told Israel to offer. Nor did he command them to keep the Sabbath. They could if they wanted to (Isaiah 56:4), but he did not require it.
Jesus categorizes the Sabbath
When Jesus talked about the Sabbath, he clearly grouped it with the ceremonial laws, not with the moral law. When it came to matters of morality, Jesus had a very strict standard, stricter than the Pharisees. When it came to ceremonial laws, however, he was more lenient than the Pharisees.
With the Sabbath, Jesus was more lenient. On several occasions, he noted that the Pharisees were too strict about the Sabbath. He is never recorded as giving any restrictions about the Sabbath. He never told anyone to avoid anything on that day. This in itself suggests that Jesus saw the Sabbath as a ceremonial law.
But even more clearly, Jesus compared the Sabbath to ceremonial laws. When his disciples were criticized for picking grain on the Sabbath, Jesus used the example of David eating the tabernacle showbread (Matthew 12:1-4). He said, if David could eat the showbread, my disciples can pick enough grain to eat.
The argument doesn’t work if the Sabbath is more important than showbread — the Pharisees could have said, It’s permissible to take liberties with the showbread, but the Sabbath is more important, so we have to be more careful about it. No, in order for the logic of the argument to work, the showbread has to be just as important as the Sabbath. Only then could the comparison carry any weight. Jesus used a ritual law as a point of comparison for the Sabbath.
Jesus also compared the Sabbath to sacrificial laws (Matthew 12:5). The priests were allowed to work on the Sabbath because the requirement to sacrifice animals was more important than the requirement to rest on the Sabbath. The ritual law was more important than the Sabbath law. This again shows that there is nothing intrinsically wrong about working on the Sabbath. It was permitted for priests. It is not a universal law required for all peoples at all times. Rather, the Sabbath was a ritual law, specifying when certain kinds of work could or could not be done.
Jesus also compared the Sabbath to circumcision (John 7:22). Again, ritual work was allowed (even required) on the Sabbath, because the ritual law was more important than the requirement to rest on the seventh day. Again, Jesus is putting the Sabbath into the company of ritual laws.
Jesus never grouped the Sabbath with moral laws, or any of the other Ten Commandments. He always compared it to ceremonial laws. Jesus treated the Sabbath as a “lesser” law. The requirement to work on certain days and avoid work on other days was a ritual law. It was an important part of the covenant God gave Israel, but it was not given to other nations.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Michael Morrison in 1995 and updated in 2014. Copyright by the author. All rights reserved. If you'd like to learn more about the Bible, check out Grace Communion Seminary. It's accredited, affordable, and all online. www.gcs.edu.
No doubt some of the first Christians were surprised that any of God’s laws could become obsolete when Jesus died. This had to be explained, as we see in the book of Hebrews. But once they realized that some of God’s laws were indeed superseded, that they had been given for a temporary reason, that their purpose had now been fulfilled by Jesus Christ, then they could also understand that God no longer required ritual, ceremonial laws.
Since Jesus ranked the showbread as more important than the Sabbath, and the temple sacrifices as more important than the Sabbath, and circumcision as more important than the Sabbath, it should be no surprise that the Sabbath command expired at the same time as those other commands.
Jews in the first century understood that God did not require Gentiles to keep the Sabbath. When the barriers between Jews and Gentiles were eliminated through Jesus’ death (Ephesians 2:13-16), the Sabbath was one of the barrier ordinances eliminated. It was a ritual law, not a timeless and eternal moral law.