The Bible says we should execute Sabbath breakers. Should we?

How does the Old Testament (Mosaic) law apply today?  How should Christians understand and apply it?

This post is in response to a statement that was made by a commenter on a previous discussion on this site.  The commenter stated in that discussion, “The Bible also says that those who work on the Sabbath should be put to death.”  This command can be found in Exodus 31:13-14.  Of course, what was implied is that since Christians do not seek the death penalty for those who break the Sabbath, they also should not seek to enforce / obey other laws that they seem to get so worked up over (i.e. homosexuality, same-sex marriage, etc.).  It was also stated that Christians seem to pick and choose whatever they want from the Old Testament law as long as it supports their prejudices.

So, what should a Christian make of the Mosaic law?  Should we keep the whole thing?  Should we just ignore it and forget the Old Testament even exists?  We could shorten our Bibles to the 27 books of the New Testament and make things a whole lot simpler.  I know it would make my life easier!

Contrary to what some may believe, there are reasons that Christians hold to some of the Mosaic law while seemingly disregarding other parts of the same law.  I will outline some of the reasons below.  I hope it is helpful without being too technical.

  1. There are 613 distinct laws that make up the Mosaic Covenant.  This covenant was a suzerainty-vassal treaty that was made by God with a specific geo-political nation: Israel.  The Old Testament tells us that the covenant was not kept by the Israelites (Jeremiah 11:10; 22:9; 31:32).  As a result of the constant violations of the Israelites, the New Testament tells us that God established a new covenant with a new people: the Church, which is not a geo-political nation, but a group of individuals scattered all over the world (1 Corinthians 11:25; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 8:6–13; 9:15–18).  In fact, the reason our Bibles are divided into Old Testament and New Testament are to reflect the old covenant and the new covenant.
  2. In a legal sense, the terms of the original covenant are not binding on Christians.  The terms of the new covenant are binding.
  3. Even though the Mosaic law is not binding on Christians, it still has much to teach us about the character of God and His desires.  So, in an instructional sense, the Mosaic law is still binding, as is all of Scripture.  Christians do not approach the law the same way as those who lived under the old covenant did, but instead look at the laws and ask, “What does this teach me about the character of God?  What was God teaching Israel by this law?  How does this law apply to me and us now?”  Since God’s character does not change, the Old Testament law has much to teach us about Him.
  4. Specifically, we can say that Christians are not required to keep laws related to Israel’s government or Temple regulationsAlso, Christians are not bound to the particular punishments outlined in the Old Testament law.  However, what we learn from the Old Testament concerning God’s character and expectations in relation to morality do not change.  It is always wrong to kill another person, it is always wrong to practice incest, etc.
  5. Sabbath laws fall under “Temple regulations” and are not binding for Christians unless they are explicitly repeated in the new covenant, which they are not.  We do learn that “resting” in the Lord is advantageous to the believer’s spiritual well-being, growth, and relationship with God.  This is gleaned from understanding the intent of the Mosaic Sabbath laws.
  6. Same-sex unions, murder, incest, and others are issues of “morality” and are always contrary to God’s character and law.  These issues are also explicitly repeated in the new covenant, so we have no doubts about our attitude towards them as Christians.  However, the Old Testament penalties for these matters are not binding to Christians.

Christians do not “pick and choose” what laws to follow and which ones to ignore.  This is determined by the nature of the covenants that are described in Scripture.  Christians are bound by the new covenant, but also gain invaluable insight into the character of God by examining the old covenant laws.  As we understand what is in harmony with God’s character and what is contrary to His character, it guides our lives and tells us what is and is not morally acceptable to God.

So, yes, Christians are still under the Mosaic law in a sense, but not in the same legal manner that Israel was.

The key to reading any work of literature is understanding context.  It is impossible to have an accurate understanding of specific passages, verses, and laws in the Bible without first understanding the broader context that they are written in.  Those who attack the Bible usually fail to examine the historical-grammatical-contextual settings of the particular passages they attack.

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22 Responses to The Bible says we should execute Sabbath breakers. Should we?

  1. Jon_York says:

    Awesome Tim,
    Look what our public schools are turning out. The students turned out today are completely Biblically illiterate through no real fault of their own really. It’s just too bad the citizenry has to pay for the public education system AND private schooling for our “choice” of education.

  2. Robynne says:

    You explained this well. 🙂 I never quite knew how to explain it with any detail, and I’m glad you wrote this. Took my understanding of the concept a bit deeper.

  3. Sandy says:

    Thank you! That makes sense. I watched the anti-prop 8 video with Jack Black, and it reminded me how the world views Christians, and it was scary! Especially when Christians don’t always fully understand, or can’t explain clearly why they believe what they do. Thanks again!

  4. ophalm says:

    It’s very difficult using your terms to decide between morals and regulations, they’re such vague terms and mean different things to different people.

    for example, the morality of cleanliness? are woman with a period still unclean for X days?

  5. Tim Farley says:

    ophalm:

    Thanks again for your comments. You say it is difficult distinguishing between morals and regulations using my terms. Well, morals are things having to do with ethics. Physical cleanliness is not an issue of morality, so I would not label it a “morality of cleanliness” as you do. No one that I am aware of thinks of physical uncleanliness as an ethical/moral issue.

    The regulations regarding a woman’s period were for ceremonial cleanliness and were for the purpose of Israel’s worship or Temple regulations. Therefore the laws are not still valid in a legal sense like they were for Israel, but they do teach us about the holiness of God and his desire for our holiness as well.

  6. Excellent stuff.
    God was creating a new nation on an overnight basis. He had to present ALL the statute law to replace the pagan stuff that they brought from Egypt.

    One point often missed when looking at the ministry of Jesus, is that what we call the New Covenant Gospels were actually conducted during Old Covenant.
    The New Covenant didn’t start until the crucifixion, precisely as Jesus announced it the night before. Matt26v28
    This means that all that Jesus preached, which we tend to consider being for Christians, was actually directed at Jews, with the expectation that they could still walk in it without rejecting the Law.
    (I posted on this issue on my blog 14th Jan)

  7. ophalm says:

    thanks for your reply

    it’s interesting, the light that the laws do shine on God himself. like you say about God’s desire for holiness, and how a period seems to “go against” this holiness (because presumably being unclean is because it’s not holy) so it shows God’s attitude towards such things. or disabled people, how they can’t enter the temple? they must be unholy too..

    I might be a bit off, but do you see how I thnk it’s interesting, what “standards” god has..

  8. Tim Farley says:

    francisdrakeprivateer:

    Good point. Another thing to keep in mind is that Jesus was talking to his disciples, who were Jews, in the Matthew passage that you mention (Matt. 26:28). I do not believe that the new covenant and old covenant are at odds with one another, but that the new gives us a fuller understanding of the old.

  9. Tim Farley says:

    ophalm:

    I do see how you think it is interesting, but I do believe you are a bit off in your understanding of the Old Testament Law. The problem is I do not think you understand the context of the Law in regards to all of Scripture. You have chosen two specific things and tried to make some kind of point from them, but you fail to see how they fit into the whole. Let me see if I can shed some light on this without being overly lengthy. Please forgive me if my details are not sufficient. I will be happy to fill them in later if needed.

    Let’s start at the beginning so we can have a full understanding of the Law’s purpose. Genesis chapters 1 and 2 tells us of God’s creative work and how He made all things “good”. In fact, Genesis 1 tells us 7 times that God saw all that He had created and it was “good”. We are also told that humanity was created in the image of God and that it was given the responsibility of overseeing God’s creation on His behalf. In this “good” environment, God enjoyed intimate fellowship with His creation and is said to have walked in the garden with the man and the woman.

    Unfortunately, in Genesis chapter 3, we are given the story of the fall of mankind. Rather than rely on God’s direction for their lives, the man and woman decide to go against God’s instruction and gain their own wisdom so they could be “as God” and choose for themselves what was right and wrong. This sin had devastating consequences. The man and the woman were expelled from the garden and their intimate communion with God was broken.

    However, God was not done with mankind. He still desired a relationship with them. He chose a specific man (Abraham) whom He turned into a specific nation Israel. This nation entered into a covenant with God that was initiated by God and is what we have as the first five books of our Bibles (the Pentateuch, or Torah). The laws that you mention come from this section of Scripture. God tells the Israelites that He will be their God and be among them (have fellowship with them) if they lived according to the terms of the covenant. Part of this covenant included regulations that pertained to the activities of the Temple, where the people went to draw near to God.

    The regulations about cleanliness when it comes to worship in the Temple were designed by God as a reminder to the people of their inherent sinfulness (uncleanliness) and God’s inherent holiness (purity). The people could not just come before God. They had to cleanse themselves. While the point of the Law was to point out the people’s sin (moral uncleanliness), regulations were put in place that pertained to the people’s physical uncleanliness or physical imperfections as well to serve as a picture of God’s absolute holiness and the people’s absolute inability to be clean.

    God is not against those with physical deformities or women who have gone through a menstrual cycle. These were merely ways to externally picture the moral cleanliness (purity of heart) that God required to come into His presence.

    Romans 3:9-20 tells us that the purpose of the law was to bring knowledge of sin. It was to show us that if we wanted to enter into fellowship with God, we needed to take care of our moral problem. We have to cleanse ourselves to go before God. The New Testament also tells us that the only solution to this problem is to have our sin paid for by the death of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. We are unable to do it on our own. Jesus is the once-for-all sacrifice that all of those Old Testament sacrifices were a foreshadowing of.

    I hope this helps and I am willing to continue this conversation as long as you would like if you are truly interested in understanding these issues. Thanks again.

  10. ophalm says:

    thanks for the in depth reply

    I understand what you’re saying and you spread a lot of light on the subject, but I personally don’t see that. You’re a lot more familiar with the scripture than I am so maybe my objection is unfounded.. but God’s insistence on people being unclean still seems unreasonable to me.

  11. Tim Farley says:

    ophalm:

    I appreciate your honesty and willingness to listen. If you ever want to discuss this further, I am willing.

  12. I agree the two covenants are not at all at odds with each other.
    To the Old Covenant believer, salvation was about deliverence from Philistine, famine and plague, not heaven when you’re dead.

    Jesus who proclaimed the gospel with the words “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” again, was NOT proclaiming Heaven when you’re dead. He was still preaching deliverance from Philistine, famine and plague! That is Kingdom at Hand!

    In both cases, the Covenants were actually about God’s reign on earth.

    In the Old it was in the form of a victorious testimony nation limited to a particular location.

    In the New it was a victorious testimony people NOT limited to a particular location, but spread abroad.

    Both were dependant on the power and direction of the Holy Spirit at work to bring salvation as a daily outworking of faith, not just heaven when you’re dead, as some seem to think is the purpose.

  13. Tim Farley says:

    Could the talk of the kingdom have both near implications that deal with “deliverance from Philistine, famine, and plague” and also a fuller future aspect when all of God’s people will live under His reign and in complete fellowship with Him on a new earth? So, instead of limiting it to one, we understand it is speaking of both (present deliverance and an even greater future deliverance).

    The problem with our understanding of heaven is that we seem to think it is off on a cloud somewhere, while the Bible tells us that the future is an eternity with God on a new earth that no longer has the curse of sin (Revelation 21:1-6).

  14. Although it is true that there is a future kingdom in view, it can in no way be compared to the primary reality of philistine, famine or plague, in the present tense.

    Consequently I can find no reference to such a future in the day to day of the Old Covenant, that is not hugely overridden by the importance of the immediate.

    Bearing in mind that Jesus conducted his whole ministry in the Old Covenant, did he change his character from that which he had from before the creation?
    Did he major on a glorious future or a victorious present?

    Look at the initiation of his ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth.-
    Luk 4:18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on Me; because of this He has anointed Me to proclaim the Gospel to the poor. He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim deliverance to the captives, and new sight to the blind, to set at liberty those having been crushed,
    Luk 4:19 to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

    Luk 4:21 And He began to say to them, Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your ears.

    This was all about the Kingdom of God being at hand and REIGNING NOW. To push it to the future is to negate Christ’s ministry.

    The problem with the future victory is that the church has its head so far in the clouds that it has been virtually no earthly good at doing what Jesus commissioned it to do. Which was essentially what he was doing.

    The church’s ministry seems to be, don’t worry, it’ll all be great when you’re dead!

    Satan has done with the church what politicians do so well. They create a diversion which seems so important that everyone takes their eye off what should really be happening.

    YES, there is a glorious future and a new earth, but what about today?

  15. Tim Farley says:

    Francis:

    I agree that Jesus is reigning now (much to some of my dispensational friends’ objections) and that the Church should be a sneak peek of what His kingdom looks like (unfortunately, it does not always fulfill this). However, while I believe that the kingdom has been initiated, I do not believe it has been fully realized. There is coming a day when all of Christ’s enemies will be subject to His reign and everyone will bow before Him as Lord. Then, we will be able to say the kingdom has arrived in its fullness. I believe the Old Covenant always had the future and eternal reign of Christ/Messiah in mind as its ultimate and final fulfillment even while it was also addressing the events contemporary to the writers and immediate audience.

    So when Jesus announced that the kingdom was near, He was announcing that the long-awaited Messiah had come and was claiming His spot on David’s throne. He is King now even though some may reject Him as their King. One day, when the kingdom has come in its fullness, all will bow before Him as King. So there is an already/not yet aspect to the kingdom. The Church’s position is to live as those who understand that Christ is King. We live according to His reign in our lives and bear witness to Him until He returns.

    The Church’s problem has been a misunderstanding that God is not only redeeming human souls, but His entire creation. Some think that the ultimate goal is to escape this world and be with Jesus, when the Bible teaches that God is actually working to restore this fallen world and that our eternal home is not “somewhere out there”, but is on a restored earth with Him as our King. We need to have the same love and desire to see His creation restored to its original goodness that He does rather than thinking that our goal is to escape from here to a better place. This world was designed by Him for us. We should love this world (except its fallenness) and see it as a gift from our Creator. This world, with Christ as King, is the better place we long for. The process has begun. He sits on the throne. We anxiously await its completion.

  16. fivepeasinapod says:

    Hi Tim,

    The discussion here has been extremely enlightening, both regarding Jesus ministry and God’s kingdom, present and future.

    You said:
    “The problem with our understanding of heaven is that we seem to think it is off on a cloud somewhere, while the Bible tells us that the future is an eternity with God on a new earth that no longer has the curse of sin (Revelation 21:1-6).”

    “Hallelujah!”

    May these truths draw us ever nearer to God and bring forth the complete work of the Holy Spirit within us.

    I am enjoying exploring your blog, thank you for sharing your thoughts with the world. 😀

  17. aaron says:

    Tim,

    I find a few things interesting. I think it would hekp to mention that Christ was raised a Jew. It is Jewish law that he knew. This is why he repected it at the time, but also had some contradictions to it. Christ was nto a Christian, he was Jew. I promise Jews know more about Jewish law than Christians.

    You said, ” 6.Same-sex unions, murder, incest, and others are issues of “morality” and are always contrary to God’s character and law.” If they are old covenant, how can you be so certain?

    You also say: Christians do not “pick and choose” what laws to follow and which ones to ignore. This is determined by the nature of the covenants that are described in Scripture. Christians are bound by the new covenant, but also gain invaluable insight into the character of God by examining the old covenant laws.

    I think if you are a Christian, then Christ gives you insight to the character of God more than anything else. Would you agree that the item Christ explicity states are those items that should be focused on the most? Or else, why would he take the time to state some items and not others?

    Also, I think you need to take into account the human and societal effect of understanding God’s word. I often hear that “this never changes. But our understanding of it does, Just as you stated, we are not suject to Israel’s government or Temple regulations, why? Because our society has changed and evolved.

    You have the mother and father sice you were born. I’ll assume they have not “changed” much, but I promise your understanding of your parents from the time you were 3 and now has changed dramatically. You understand why they might have let, or not let you do things.

  18. Tim Farley says:

    Aaron:

    “Christ was nto a Christian, he was Jew. I promise Jews know more about Jewish law than Christians.”

    True. Christ was a Jew. It is also true that Christians can learn much about Jewish law from Jews. However, Jews also fail to understand their own Scriptures in light of Christ, which is obviously vital to Christians. So in that sense, Christians have a better understanding of Jewish Scripture than Jews because we have further revelation from God that helps us understand it.

    “Same-sex unions, murder, incest, and others are issues of “morality” and are always contrary to God’s character and law.” If they are old covenant, how can you be so certain?”

    How about the fact that all of these are repeated in the new covenant? You will find them all listed as sin in the New Testament as well as the Old.

    “Also, I think you need to take into account the human and societal effect of understanding God’s word.”

    This is true as well, which is why Christians should not rely solely on their own interpretation of Scripture, but the collective voice of 2000 years of Church history, which includes people from all walks of life and every culture. It is also why the Bible is mishandled by those who do not respect it – those who try to read it like they read a modern literary work.

    “I think if you are a Christian, then Christ gives you insight to the character of God more than anything else. Would you agree that the item Christ explicity states are those items that should be focused on the most? Or else, why would he take the time to state some items and not others?”

    What are the items that you feel he focused on most?

  19. aaron says:

    Tim,

    1. I think it is a bit pretentious to think Jew know less about their laws then we do. Jewish law is Mosaic law. Chritianity was a sect of the Jewish faith for many years before they broke away.

    2. Yes, many are repeated, but how many were addressed by Christ himself? Would you agree the words from Christ’s mouth should have more weight then anyone elses? What did Christ himself say about these things?

    3. This is the real stick point to any religion. First, history is a matter of opinion. When looking back at 911, do you think people here, in Afganistan, and in the Middle East have the same view of 911? We all saw the exact same event, yet we have very different perspectives on the matter.

    Christians in America, and Europe, still can not agree on what Christianity is, yet every sect claims to be correct. I can name at least 21 versions of the english bible. Why more than 1 if it is the same word? Here in the South, there are more than 40 distinct types of Baptist churchs. why so many different versions?

    Why not all follow the Catholic Church? Did they not save and protect the bible? Why do we have so many different churches in this country, we are all Americans, and certianly Christians all believe the same thing? They don’t and they never have. their collective history is a unique are fingerprints even as they we cohorts.

    4. You mentioned Romans 8:7, a favorite of many people. What did Christ say, when pressured, were the two most important things to follow. He could have named any two, but he choose the MOST important.

    When did Christ, himself pronounce to administer the death penalty, when did Christ himself make a statement about being gay?

    The reoccuring theme from Chirst’s actions and words were love each other. Love the sinner, love the sick, help these people with food,an embrace, a kind word, a good deed. Who did Christ run around with? Whores, the sick, the sinners, the law breakers. With rare exception, how many times did he condem people versus how many times he help those they no one else would help?

  20. Tim Farley says:

    Aaron:

    “1. I think it is a bit pretentious to think Jew know less about their laws then we do. Jewish law is Mosaic law. Chritianity was a sect of the Jewish faith for many years before they broke away.

    Jews can teach us much about the Jewish understanding of the Old Testament. However, they fail to understand it in light of Christ, who sheds further light upon their (and our) understanding of God’s word. For Christians, any understanding of the Old Testament without viewing it through the New, is incomplete and flawed. That is why Judaism and Christianity are two different religions, not just different sects of the same one.

    “2. Yes, many are repeated, but how many were addressed by Christ himself? Would you agree the words from Christ’s mouth should have more weight then anyone elses? What did Christ himself say about these things?”

    I already responded to this in another area, but I will repeat my thoughts here. If you are saying that the words of Jesus recorded in the four Gospels should carry more weight than the rest of Scripture, then I absolutely disagree with you. All of Scripture is the word of God. Jesus is God. Therefore, all of Scripture is the word of Christ. The rest of the New Testament continues to teach us the implications of Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection and how he fulfills and even reinterprets the understanding of the old covenant.

    3. You point out that history is a matter of opinion. Well, not exactly. Everyone agrees that 9/11 happened, when it happened, where, how many died, who carried out the attacks, and many other important pieces of information. There is disagreement on some things, but we agree on many (if not most) of the details.

    You also point out that Christians disagree on many things. True. But we agree on far more than we disagree on. In fact, if you look at the core beliefs of Christianity (look at the early church creeds) you will find that we all hold to the vital doctrines of our faith. The things we disagree on are minor; things like how a person is baptized, how communion is administered, how church leadership should look, etc. The core beliefs of the faith are the same regardless of the denomination you choose.

    Also, you seem to imply that all of the different Bible translations stand opposed to one another. That is simply not true. They stand in harmony with one another. They each have different translation philosophies (one written for a lower reading level, one that tries to translate the original Hebrew and Greek texts as literally as possible, one that tries to translate meaning rather than words, etc). The differences among the Bible translations is in style and approach, not the meaning of the text. In fact, you will find that the differing Bibleversions speak in great unity. Where there are differences, they are minor and do not challenge any core doctrines of Christianity. Most translations provide footnotes that tell when there is a passage that is unclear or can be translated multiple ways.

    “The reoccuring theme from Chirst’s actions and words were love each other. Love the sinner, love the sick, help these people with food,an embrace, a kind word, a good deed. Who did Christ run around with? Whores, the sick, the sinners, the law breakers. With rare exception, how many times did he condem people versus how many times he help those they no one else would help?”

    Again, you are right, but you fail to understand. Christ did “hang out” with sinners. But he called them to repentance. He did not tell them it was ok to stay in their sin. Even the woman caught in adultery of John chapter 8 (which you brought up elsewhere) was told to “go and sin no more” by Jesus. He did not tell her to ” go and continue sinning.” That is a big difference.

  21. aaron says:

    Tim,

    I think you are very wrong on many points, or at best, very slanted due to your personal feelings.

    1. In a sense, they are a sect of the same religion since you insist on refering to the old testament since the OT is stuffed with Mosaic, or Jewish law. When we read the Torah, we see that there are many of the exact same stories, laws, rules, etc, as the OT. And, if you believe that there is only one God, as the Torah also states, then this must be the same God.

    2. As you may recall, Christ himself said that certain laws/rules were more important than others. How can you contradict Christ’s words.

    And again, “let he without sin cast the first stone”. This was a HUGE president versus mosaic/OT law. OT said, (and I am paraphrasing, “sin & die”. Christ said, “why do you kill this sinner” and he set her free, despite breaking God’s law. “And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more”

    3. Those minor differences are big to those in the church, You Feel your view of the bible is more correct than the Catholics. Why did you CHOOSE the baptist church? Why is the King James and the NIV leave out so many passages versus the Catholic version?

    I these faiths were all the same there would ne zero need for them, there would be one church, the one that Constantine gave to the world when his conclave decided what scrolls belonged in the bible.

    If Christians were som concerned with Christ they would try more to follow his actions on what he did and whom he helped and less on attacking others.

  22. Tim Farley says:

    Aaron:

    1. Yes, Christians believe in the OT Scripture and the God of the OT. We also believe that those Jews who rejected Christ (and continue to do so) have failed to understand God’s further revelation of himself. In a sense, they have denied the true God and created one of their own. So, while they use some of the same Scriptures, we have a different understanding of who God is and what he is doing.

    2. Christ did not say some laws were more important than others. He said that loving God with all of one’s heart and loving your neighbor as yourself were a summation of all of the laws. They are more important because they are the core of the law, not becuase they nullify the rest of Scripture. The rest of the New Testament does not contradict Christ’s words, but further explains how his words impact how we live. Paul’s words in Romans, Galatians, etc tell us what loving God and nieghbor looks like.

    3. I suggest you read a book on how we got our Bibles. It was not through Constantine. The church was long-established before he came on the scene. I sugggest the article “The New Testament Canon” in An Introduction to the New Testament by D. A. Carson and Douglas Moo.

    If you would like, I could email you another article or two that would perhaps be helpful if you do not have access to the book above.

    We have multiple churches because we have an inspired text, not an inspired interpretation of the text. The differences between churches tend to be on secondary issues, not the core of the Christian faith that has remained consistent since the foundation of the Church.

    How loving would it be if I knew someone was living contrary to God’s will and did not tell them? What if I knew their actions, if not addressed, would lead to their ultimate demise? Christians confront sin out of love (or at least that should be the motivation). To ignore it would be the most unloving thing we could do because it would signify that we did not care enough about the person to try to help them. Christians stand opposed to sin based upon the conviction that what we do is best for others. That is an act of love. You may not agree about what we think is best, but you are wrong in judging our motivation as unloving.

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