Is the Sabbath moral or ceremonial law?

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Is the Sabbath moral law (still in effect) or ceremonial law (done away with) ?

… and related topics …

Seventh-day Adventists teach that the moral law laid down by God through Moses is still intact today, and must be kept (though they, unlike their founder Ellen White, do admit that salvation does not come through the keeping of these commandments.) They also teach that the ceremonial laws laid down by God through Moses are no longer in effect today – we need no longer observe ritual purification like the ancient Israelites did, nor need we sacrifice lambs at Passover.

However, they teach that the Sabbath, because it is part of the Ten Commandments, is part of the moral law, and not part of the ceremonial law. Are they right ? I had a debate on IRC with several Adventists defending their views, and managed to get nothing out of them except the claim that the Sabbath was moral law because it was part of the 10 Commandments. But they were totally unable to explain WHY.

Moral law

Moral law

This essay is adapted from a later e-mail to an SDA who was part of that debate.

I still don’t understand why the Sabbath has to be a “moral” law. There were plenty of moral laws given in the Old Testament that were not part of the Decalogue. Not all of the moral law was listed in the Decalogue, and the Decalogue did not consist only of Moral Law.

If you look at the difference between moral and ceremonial aspects of the law, the moral part is the part in our hearts, our love for neighbour or for God. The ceremonial part is the part outside of that, the ritual part, the externals.

Similarly, the love between man and wife is the moral part, and adultery does away with the love between them, because the love and trust have been betrayed. Thus the adultery commandment is part of the moral law.

Also, the ritual sacrifice of the Passover was a moral law. The worship and love and thanks expressed for God for bringing them out of Egypt was a moral issue. But the ceremonial aspects of that law, i.e. the precise timing, and the need for a sacrifice, could be done away under the new covenant.

Let’s take a closer look at the Passover aspect. What is the moral part ? What is the ceremonial part ? The moral part, as I said above is the love and worship of God around the theme of the Passover. The ceremonial part is the ritual and timing of the event. Similarly the moral aspect of the Sabbath is the love and worship of God around the theme of the Sabbath, the New Creation we become in Christ because of the new covenant he made with us. The ceremonial aspect of the Sabbath law, like the Passover law, is the ritual and timing of it. Just like the moral aspects of the Passover must be kept by us today, so with the Sabbath. Just like the timing aspects of the Passover are irrelevant to us today, so too with the timing aspects of the Sabbath. There is no reason that the timing regulation of one feast should be ceremonial law, and of the other feast moral law. The spiritual side is moral, the physical side is done away with – in both instances. So by seeing that there was a moral side to the Passover, and to the rest of the Holy Days commanded by the Jews, yet that could not be done away with, so we see that to each of these feasts, the Sabbath too, have a ceremonial aspect, one which the Apostles and the early Christians did do away with.

And it is the same with the Sabbath. The moral part is the love we have for God, and the worship we give to him, and the trust we place in him. Sure, God will bless you for doing that on Saturday, but that doesn’t mean that the precise timing of your love and worship makes it any more special to God. He commanded us to worship him on the Sabbath (actually he didn’t but for the sake of this essay I will not argue that) … the moral part of that commandment was to worship and love god. The ceremonial part was the timing and so on.

If you disagree, please then explain to me why the precise timing of the Sabbath was part of the Moral Law. I can accept that the worship and love of God was, because God is a moral being, but I cannot understand why the precise timing is part of any moral plan of God. That’s the first thing I need to further my understanding of this Sabbath/moral law issue.

Where in the Bible does it say that the 10 Commandments are the Moral Law, or is that something the SDA Church, i.e. mere men, says ? If you can show me that the BIBLE says that the 10 Commandments are Moral Law, then I’ll definitely have to reconsider my views.

The similar topic is circumcision. The Sabbath was a covenant between God and His people Israel, exactly like circumcision. It was a sign of that love between us and God, just like circumcision was. It was a sign that we are obedient to God, also just like circumcision. Unless you can tell me why the precise timing of the Sabbath is a moral law and not merely ceremonial, I’ll have to conclude that both the Sabbath and circumcision are both moral laws, and also both ceremonial laws. (Note to readers: the SDA Church teaches officially that the Sabbath is moral law, while circumcision is ceremonial law, without having a scrap of evidence from the Bible to teach this !)

The moral and ceremonial parts of the Sabbath I’ve already explained. The moral side of circumcision was the covenant God made with Israel, which continued over into the Church – the Spiritual Israel (as Paul said when he said that we are now circumcised in our hearts.) Circumcision’s moral aspects still apply to us Christians today – no-one has ever done them away, and they are mentioned as a positive thing in the New Testament. So, even though circumcision was a sign of God’s true people, the ceremonial aspects of it have been done away, and true circumcision is now in our hearts. Similarly, even though the Sabbath was a sign of God’s covenant with his people, the ceremonial aspects have been done away, and the true Sabbath is in our hearts. Today there is no legalistic Sabbath any more, only the Sabbath’s worship of our hearts.

Another point brought up in the IRC chat and not answered by any SDA was that the Sabbath was a sign between God and Israel, NOT between God and humanity. Ex 31:16-17 says that it’s a covenant between God and ISRAEL. So the ceremonial Sabbath applied to Israel, not humanity. Since Christainity goes out to the whole world today, the ceremonial aspects of circumcision and the Sabbath do not apply to everyone, but the moral aspects do – the internal love and worship of God and neighbour that was taught by Jesus. Finally, I’d like to deal with the issue of the earliest historical record for Sunday usage. Please note the dates for these writings – AD 70, 74, 107, 150.

The Didache… (This was the “Teaching of the Apostles”. Therefore it was they who first began Sunday worship… “But every Lord’s day… gather yourselves together and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one that is at variance with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned.” — Didache 14 A.D. 70.

The Letter of Barnabas… “We keep the eighth day -Sunday – with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead.” — Letter of Barnabas 15:6-8, 74 A.D. (though some say it was abour 150 A.D.)]

Ignatius of Antioch… “Those who were brought up in the ancient order of things [i.e. Jews] have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s day, on which also our life has sprung up again by him and by his death.” — Letter to the Magnesians 9. 107 A.D..

Justin Martyr… (100-165) “We too would observe the fleshly circumcision, and the sabbaths, and in short all the feasts, if we did not know for what reason they were enjoined on you, namely, on account of your transgressions and the hardness of your heart… How is it, Trypho, that we would not observe those rites which do not harm us, I speak of fleshly circumcision and sabbaths and feasts?… God enjoined you to keep the sabbath, and impose on you other precepts for a sign, as I have already said, on account of your unrighteousness and that of your fathers.” — Dialogue with Trypho the Jew 18, 21, 150 A.D.

Justin Martyr… “We all gather on the day of the sun, for it is the first day – after the Jewish Sabbath, but also the first day of the week – when GOD, separating matter from darkness, made the world; and on this same day, Jesus Christ our Savior, rose from the dead.” — 1 Apol 67, Pg 6: 429 and 432.

That’s sufficient to show that Sunday was kept by the early Christians. Other early historians show that there were lots who did this. Surely the Apostle John would have mentioned something about it, since he was still alive at that point ? He would have written some letters ? He certainly would not have used the term “Lord’s Day” in an ambiguous context if he knew anything about the general usage of the term, yes, even way back then, as a term for Sunday. The fact is, just as the term “Preparation Day” was a Jewish term meaning specifically the 5th day of the week (i.e. in preparation for the Sabbath), “Lord’s Day” was a first century term used to mean the 1st day of the week.

There are NO – zero, zilch, none – references to the Sabbath as “Lord’s Day” ever recorded in any text ever, until the SDA Church came along and invented a new definition for the term.

So, in summary, no Seventh-day Adventist has EVER given me a good reason for their belief that the Sabbath is part of the moral law of God. They have never explained the difference between the ritual of the Sabbath and the ritual of circumcision. They have failed to explain why the Sabbath is a sign between God and humanity, when the Bible clearly says it was a sign between God and Israel. And they have failed to show that the Sabbath to Sunday change was “invented” when Constantine decreed Sunday observance in 321 AD.

Postscript – a year after being placed on the net: Up till now, no-one has come forward with a reason why the Sabbath is a moral law, and not just a ceremonial law. Is it because Adventists have no logical reason for believing this ? However, one astute student of the Scriptures provided me with the following excellent point:

“The commandments against murder, adultery and lying, for instance are always in effect; that is, they can be considered “moral” laws. The fourth commandment (and it’s prohibitions) were not to be followed on the other six days. In effect, they cannot be considered “moral laws” since what cannot be done on Sabbath can be done on the other days of the week. In other words, a moral law MUST be fully in effect AT ALL TIMES – ALL DAYS – for it to be moral. At best, the Sabbath laws and restrictions were valid for only a 24 hour period. Certainly not continually moral in the sense of the other commandments.”

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