Can Old Covenant Worship Laws Become New Covenant Spiritual “Shadows”?

The Christian Sabbath is life in Jesus Christ, in whom every believer finds true rest. The weekly seventh-day Sabbath is a shadow that prefigured the true Reality to whom it pointed – our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

We publish a booklet titled The Christian Sabbath: Divine Rest in Christ. It examines in detail the theological underpinning for the conclusion that the Sabbath for Christians is not a day of the week that needs to be made “holy” by physical rest from labor. It demonstrates that the Sabbath rest is only a “shadow” – or we could say metaphor – for the life that believers enter through faith in Christ. In their “Sabbath rest,” Christians enjoy the real thing – eternal life as a gift of God – to which the physical old covenant Sabbath rest could only point.

We can understand why some Sabbatarians would not be comfortable with such an understanding of the Sabbath, even when the underlying theology sounds right. If a person has been taught for years that the Sabbath rest or some other Mosaic law should be kept literally, it might be difficult to accept that this command – stated with such forcefulness in the Ten Commandments and the Law of Moses (Exodus 31:12-17) – should have only figurative meaning for Christians.

Is it scripturally valid to claim that the Mosaic physical Sabbath rest is only a metaphor of spiritual reality, thus negating the need for participation in a seventh-day rest from labor? Is there New Testament precedent for interpreting Old Testament worship commands as being only “shadows” representing a spiritual truth in Christ?

What could ease or eliminate the Sabbatarians’ concern over the teaching that the Sabbath rest has only “shadow” value for Christians? Perhaps if they could see examples of Old Testament commands being interpreted in a figurative way by the apostles who wrote and influenced the New Testament writers, they might be more receptive to the metaphorical understanding of the Sabbath rest. The purpose of this article, then, is to show that a number of commands in the Law have only “shadow” or figurative meaning – pointing to Christ – under the new covenant.

Some general considerations

We start with the assertion by the apostle Paul in Colossians 2:16-18 that the Mosaic annual festivals, New Moon celebrations and weekly Sabbath day “are a shadow of the things that were to come,” the reality of which “is found in Christ.” That Paul is referring to a three-fold series of old covenant practices is clear. They are referred to in this way throughout Israel’s history as weekly Sabbaths, New Moon festivals and “appointed feasts.” Please see the following passages as examples: 1 Chronicles 23:31; 2 Chronicles 2:4; 8:12; 31:3; and Isaiah 1:13.

The book of Hebrews refers to the law of Israel as a body of law (most specifically, temple worship and the sacrificial system) that was figurative of spiritual truths to come. “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves,” says Hebrews 10:1. The discussion that follows in Hebrews 10 makes it clear that the entire temple service with its sacrifices pointed to the One Sacrifice for sin carried out by Jesus in his death.

Hebrews quotes from Exodus 24:8: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, ‘Here I am – it is written about me in the scroll – I [Christ] have come to do your will, O God’” (Hebrews 10:5-7).

The Holy Scriptures of the Jewish nation, or the Christian Old Testament, have many things to say that foreshadow Jesus Christ and his redemptive work. These Scriptures refer to a reality that would be fulfilled in Christ. This is discussed in several places in the New Testament.

Luke records the following words of Jesus to two disciples after his resurrection:

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24:25-27)

Later, when Jesus was eating with his disciples, he said,

This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. (verse 44)

Whatever it was in the Holy Scriptures that referred to Christ and his redemptive work had to be specifically pointed out and explained by Jesus. This implies that it was not immediately evident that what was literally expressed in the Old Testament applied to Jesus in a figurative way. It would be a mistake to restrict the meaning of these Old Testament verses to the literal meaning.

The Gospel of John records a teaching about the content of the Holy Scriptures that is in the same vein as Luke’s commentary. In John, Jesus is shown as telling the Jewish religious leaders the following:

You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me…. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say? (John 5:39, 45-47)

As a principle of biblical interpretation, then, we can see that it is proper to understand literal statements of various kinds in the Old Testament as applying in a “shadow” or figurative way to Jesus and his redemptive work. The question that follows is, can we see examples of literal commands in the Law that apply to Christians only in a spiritual way? The answer is yes.

Law of circumcision

Let’s begin with the command in the Old Testament that most obviously doesn’t literally apply to Christians. This law preceded the Law of Moses by a few centuries, but was incorporated into that law (Leviticus 12:2-3).

We read in Genesis 17 of God’s command to Abraham to have every male in his household physically circumcised (verse 10). Just as the weekly Sabbath was a sign of the Sinai covenant (Exodus 31:12-13), circumcision was to be a “sign” of the covenant between Abraham and God (verse 11). More than that, circumcision was to be “an everlasting covenant” (verse 13). So important was this command from God, that he would have prevented Moses from leading the Israelites into the Promised Land – to the point of killing him – if he did not have his son circumcised (Exodus 4:24-26).

Let’s consider the importance and binding nature of the law of circumcision. It was given as a command for Abraham’s descendants long before the Law of Moses was codified. Its authority, therefore, existed prior to, outside of and beyond the Law. It was given to Abraham, the father of the faithful, not just to the nation of Israel. Circumcision was to be an “everlasting” practice. It was a “sign” of the covenant in the same way that the Sabbath was. It could be argued that circumcision as a literal practice had greater authority than the Sabbath rest and the other commands of the Mosaic Law.

It is no wonder that circumcision became a controversy in the apostolic church. In the church council around A.D. 49, which decided the question of whether Gentile Christians must keep Mosaic worship practices, some Jewish believers said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). (Since Jewish Christians would have already been circumcised, the question of whether they needed to undergo this practice under the new covenant did not come up.)

The church decided against this claim. This was a paradigm shift in how the church came to understand the role of the Law in the Christian life. Here was a command that came before the Law of Moses, was commanded by God to be an “everlasting covenant” and became a defining sign of God’s people. Yet, the church leadership said it did not need to be practiced by Christians! On what Scriptural considerations was the decision made?

From the apostle Paul’s writings, we can see that the church come to understand that Christian circumcision was of the heart, not a literal cutting away of the foreskin. There are a number of references to this point in his writings, but let us consider Romans 2:28-29:

A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code [that is, by the law code of the old covenant given by God to Israel].”

In Philippians, Paul wrote: “For it is we [the church] who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh” (3:3). He says in Colossians 2:11, “In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ.”

The church understood that literal circumcision – though it had been anciently and strongly commanded by God for Abraham and his descendants – was not necessary for Christians. Circumcision was to be understood figuratively, or as a “shadow,” of Christ’s spiritual work. That is to say, Christians are spiritually circumcised through the redemptive work of Christ and in the work of the Holy Spirit.

The Passover ceremony

Another important and strongly commanded worship practice of Israel under the Law of Moses was the Passover ceremony. It is first described in Exodus 12 along with the Festival of Unleavened Bread, while Israel was still preparing to leave Egypt. The Passover also technically antedates the giving of the Law of Moses, but was incorporated into the commanded annual observances for Israel (Leviticus 23:5; Numbers 28:16; Deuteronomy 16:1-8). The Passover festival was given only about two months before the Mosaic covenant was ratified on Sinai (compare Exodus 12:1-2, 6 with 19:1-2, 10, 16 and 24:1-8).

The Passover was considered one of the most important observances in Israel. So important was the Passover that provision was made in the Law for keeping the festival in the second month by Israelites who were unable to keep it at its normally scheduled time on the 14th day of the first month (Numbers 9:1-14).

The Gentile church did not keep the literal Passover practice of eating roast lamb with bitter herbs. Rather, Jesus had instituted what we call “the Lord’s Supper,” with its symbols of the bread and wine, as a premier worship practice for the church. There is no mention in the Gospels of a sacrificial lamb or bitter herbs in the “Passover” meal that Jesus ate with his disciples on the night of his arrest.

The church understood the literal old covenant Passover worship practice in a figurative way, not as a literal practice to be observed. Virtually nothing is said in the New Testament of the Mosaic Passover, except that the Gospels point out its celebration occurred during the time when Jesus was crucified and buried. This suggests that the Jewish Passover as a practice did not hold much significance for the church.

In one statement by the apostle Paul, we see that the old covenant Passover ceremony was thought of in a figurative way as a “shadow” pointing to Jesus Christ. Paul said, “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7). Christ did it, and so the believers did not need to do it in a literal way.

Temple worship

Temple worship (and before that, worship around the moveable tabernacle) was the cornerstone of the Israelites’ worship life. All the annual festivals of Israel were to be observed at the place where God “will choose as a dwelling for his Name” (Deuteronomy 16:2, 5, 11, 16), which originally was wherever the tabernacle stood, and later at the temple in Jerusalem.

Sacrifices were offered daily and on special occasions at the temple (Leviticus 23). The Levites and priests served in various capacities, carrying out the duties as prescribed in the Law of Moses. They were the central actors in the worship life of Israel under the old covenant (Hebrews 9:1-6). Without a literal priesthood, there was no worship life for Israel. But their work depended on a “holy place,” in and around which they could do their work. This was, as mentioned above, the moveable tabernacle, and since the days of Solomon, the temple in Jerusalem, the city that God chose for his name.

All these aspects of Israel’s worship life were quite literal, that is to say, they were physical practices carried out by the priesthood and the people. But with the coming of the new covenant, the temple and the “holy work” carried out were seen to be “shadows” pointing to Jesus and his redemptive work.

Jesus had explained that his people would not be doing physical acts of worship at the temple in Jerusalem. There would be no such thing as a “holy place” in the coming church age. Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well:

Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain [Gerizim] nor in Jerusalem…. A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth. (John 4:21-24)

With one statement, Jesus was eliminating the significance of the entire worship system of Israel, as described in the Law of Moses. Since almost every aspect of Israel’s worship was in one way or another centered on the temple in Jerusalem, Jesus’ statement implies that a wide range of worship practices are no longer required in a literal way.

If Jesus’ true worshipers would not be worshiping at Jerusalem, they could not be taking their cues for worship from the Law of Moses, since it was dependent on the existence and use of the temple. For example, the annual festivals, as mentioned earlier, were to be observed at the place where God chose to place his name. If no such place existed, there would be no lawful way to observe the festivals.

Jesus was also “spiritualizing” true worship. His words imply that worship did not consist of doing physical things – offering sacrifices, resting from labor, doing homage to the temple as a physical building where God’s “presence” rested, observing days in Jerusalem, and so forth. Worshipers would be worshiping God “in spirit and truth.” When understood in the context of all that transpired in Jesus’ life and in his teachings, that statement alone points to a “shadow” understanding of old covenant worship practices.

This is why the church leaders, instructed by Jesus, led by the Spirit, saw that it was right to understand all the elements of old covenant physical worship only in terms of how it pointed to Jesus, his redemptive work and the church.

Temple, high priest and Day of Atonement

Let’s continue with a few other, interrelated examples of Mosaic institutions and practices that had only symbolic value for the church.

The physical temple in Jerusalem, in symbol, comes to stand for the new people of God in Christ. “Don’t you know that yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” asks the apostle Paul. “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). In the physical temple in Jerusalem, God’s presence was in the inner sanctum, the Most Holy Place. In the new covenant, this is understood to be a “shadow,” figurative of a more real dwelling of God within his people, the church.

Another example is the high priest of ancient Israel. In the old covenant, the high priest was the most important religious figure of the nation – a human being who carried out vital religious acts of Israel’s religious life (Hebrews 9:7). But for the church he was only a symbolic and figurative representation of Jesus Christ. Jesus is our high priest (Hebrews 2:17; 3:1), who has “entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood” (Hebrews 9:12).

The Day of Atonement was the most holy annual Sabbath of the Hebrew calendar. On that day, the high priest went into the temple to perform a special sin-cleansing ritual (Leviticus 17). It was an “annual reminder of sins,” but it was of no value in itself because the blood of animals cannot take away sins (Hebrews 10:3). It was only a shadow that pointed to Jesus, our high priest and atoning Savior who “offered for all time one sacrifice for sins” (verse 12).

Here, then, we see that the observance of the holiest Sabbath day of all for Israel became only symbolic of the real, spiritual work of Jesus in cleansing and saving us. In particular, the offering the high priest made on behalf of the people and his entry into the Most Holy Place, allowed only once a year on Atonement, was symbolic of the fact that Jesus Christ is our High Priest and Mediator between God and his people, who are made clean by Jesus’ atoning work. Through Jesus’ atoning work we are cleansed of sin and able to come into the presence of God.

Jesus is our atoning High Priest. The sacrifices offered under the Mosaic covenant were but “shadows” pointing to his real cleansing work. The book of Hebrews is a sustained discussion of how the worship practices of Israel, in particular the work of the Levitical priesthood, point to the reality of Jesus. Once the Reality has arrived and completed his work, there is no longer a need for participating in the old covenant works and practices. They have no value in themselves, but were meant only to be reminders to Israel of the One who was to come.

Conclusion

We could cite other examples of how various worship regulations of the old covenant are to be understood only in a shadow or metaphorical way, representations of true, spiritual realities under the new covenant. A survey would include such Mosaic practices as the eating of unleavened bread and bitter herbs and the laws of clean and unclean. These practices kept Israel mindful of their sinfulness and need for a Messiah Savior.

This way of interpreting Old Testament worship practices applies to every aspect of Israel’s religious life, even to the food and purification laws. Hebrews tells us: “They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings – external regulations applying until the time of the new order” (Hebrews 9:10, italics ours). Thus, Hebrews can say, as mentioned earlier: “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves” (10:1).

The conclusion regarding the weekly Sabbath is clear from the discussion above. This practice, like all the other literal worship practices of Israel, ceased to be commanded when Jesus finished his redemptive work, sent the Holy Spirit and the church age began. The church becomes the Israel of God (Galatians 6:2), a “new creation” in which neither Sabbath-keeping nor non-Sabbath-keeping “means anything,” to paraphrase Paul. Through Christ and in the Holy Spirit a real faith – a dynamic relationship between God and his people – is now possible. Worship is in “spirit and in truth,” as Jesus said. Worship is of the heart and mind through the mediation of Christ, and is elevated to a spiritual level.

The apostle Paul, speaking of himself as a Jew and to Jewish believers, could say the following about the Law of Moses and its worship system – including the weekly and annual Sabbath rests:

Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. (Galatians 3:23-25)

We are free to worship God in spirit and in truth.

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