Thursday: The Moral Law

However much Roman law, Mosaic law, and rabbinic law impacted the lives of Jews living in first-century Israel, many people who followed the religion of Israel lived outside of Palestine and beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. Thus, many of these laws would not have played a big role in their lives.

Image © Justinen Creative from

Image © Justinen Creative from

At the same time, however, anyone professing to be a follower of the God of Israel would have adhered to the Ten Commandments.

The Ten Commandments provide Israel with the moral framework for maintaining it. The metaphor that the Bible uses to express this relationship is covenant. While the metaphor comes from the sphere of international law, it is wrong to understand the commandments merely as a summary of Israel’s obligations toward God. . . . Israel’s obedience to the commandments was not a matter of submission to the divine will as much as it was a response to love.-Leslie J. Hoppe, Ten Commandments, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 1,285.

The Ten Commandments surpassed any system of law known to Jews in the first century. Even the Pharisees, who had meticulously memorized the 613 Mosaic laws, recognized the importance of the Ten Commandments. The division of the Mishnah called Tamid (5:1) contains a rabbinic command to recite the Ten Commandments daily. It was believed that all the other laws were contained in the Ten Commandments. In fact, the Jewish philosopher Philo, who was a contemporary of Jesus, wrote an entire book on the central place the Ten Commandments held among all biblical law.

Read Matthew 19:16-19, Romans 13:8-10, and James 2:8-12. What do these verses say about the role that the Ten Commandments played in the lives of those who are followers of Christ?

Like their Jewish counterparts, the inspired writers of the New Testament recognized the purpose of the Ten Commandments for God’s people. Although some of the lessons for this quarter will discuss the way in which Christ interacted with other systems of law in His day, the primary emphasis will be on His relationship to the Ten Commandments-what is often known as the moral law.



Thursday: The Moral Law — 17 Comments

  1. "While the metaphor comes from the sphere of international law, it is wrong to understand the commandments merely as a summary of Israel’s obligations toward God. . . . Israel’s obedience to the commandments was not a matter of submission to the divine will as much as it was a response to love."
    That of course is looking at our relationship to law from the Christian perspective removed by 2000 years. To the Jew and many first century Christians the old covenant was still valid which was a legal agreement based on man's performance. At that time most Christians did all the things that Jews did including sacrificing. In fact, during the early years of Christianity they were considered a sect of Judaism (Acts 24:14; 26:5; 28:22) just like the Pharisees (Acts 15:5) and the Sadducees (Acts 5:17) were and at first only differed from the Jews over Jesus being the Messiah.

    It wasn't until Paul's letters concerning law that the Christian understanding of law began to become public knowledge. Even then it was a battle that Paul fought right up until his death.

    While there are places in the Old Testament where the Ten Commandments themselves are called "the covenant of the Lord" and therefore used metaphorically, in general, I believe calling a covenant a metaphor is not correct. Covenants were contracts, agreements just like we have today and can be found all through the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament. Technically a contract is a type of a covenant with the covenant being more general. Further, a law by itself is not a covenant (contract). Covenants were agreements that often involved law as part of the consideration that was agreed upon. All of this may seem like a discussion over semantics but the distinction is important.

  2. Tyler, I believe your statement that "To the Jew and many first century Christians the old covenant was still valid which was a legal agreement based on man's performance," is much too broad. It is true that the majority of Jews at Christ's time looked to a system of works for salvation. Yet, I'm not sure how they could look to being saved by the Sinaitic Covenant, when that covenant was broken right at the foot of Sinai. A contract, as you call the covenant, that is broken is no longer valid. So I don't think it is as simple as you state it.

    No one was ever saved by the "old covenant" since it was based on man's promises. Everyone who was ever saved or will ever be saved was and is saved by the "new covenant," which is actually older than the "old covenant," having first been pronounced in Eden through the curse on the serpent. The new covenant is based on God's promises. In Jeremiah 31:31-34, God promises to write His law in the hearts of the people through the New Covenant. And Jesus not only made this possible, but He also demonstrated the results of God's Law written in the heart.

    The article you wrote some time ago on "Why the Old Covenant?" is actually quite good on this subject, and you are clear on the difference between the old and new covenants." I recommend it to our readers.

    • Thank you, Inge, for pointing all of that out and I am sorry I didn't state the point I was making in a way that was clear.

      My point was not that the old covenant was actually still valid but that most of the Jews and many of the Christians thought so. To me that was the reason why Paul argued so much over how a person is saved - they simply didn't understand upon what basis their salvation rested.

      While we usually think of the Jerusalem council as a question over circumcision it was really over the much deeper question of whether a person had to be doing all the requirements of the old covenant in order to be accepted by God. The fact that the Holy Spirit fell on uncircumcised people who were not doing Jewish customs seemed to prove that simple point and the decision to drop many requirements for the Gentiles to me seems to say that the council recognized that truth at least to a degree. However, the Jewish Christians were still expected to be "good Jews" and keep all the requirements of Judaism. I believe that problem was probably part of the reason the book of Hebrews was written.

      I think we can see the orientation of the church, at least, in Jerusalem by the rather in your face statement by the church elders to Paul, "You see, brother, how many myriads of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law; but they have been informed about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs" (Acts 21:20-21 NKJV). Remember, that event was decades removed from the Jerusalem council and they were still adhering to all the customs of the Jews meaning that they were still doing all the sacrifices of the sanctuary according to the old covenant as a matter of necessity for salvation. Christ as the real lamb had not yet sunk into the thinking of the church. To them Jesus was the Messiah and nothing more.

    • The main point for this week lesson is the introduction of different laws and how the are different from the moral laws.

  3. I appreciate the fact that loving your neighbor as yourself is said to be fulfilling the law, and many people stop there, But what about the first four? The Sabbath is going to be our true test in the end.

    Loving Jesus is the key, for when we love Jesus, we will keep all His commandments and we will automatically love each other. I get a little annoyed when pastors preach on the commandments and fail to touch on the Sabbath day in its entirety. What I am hearing from sermons is that we are to enjoy the Sabbath because it was made for us to reflect on Jesus. The forth Commandment goes deeper than that.....You never hear a pastor tell his congregation that its not right to go out to eat on the Sabbath day. Is it because he doesn't want to step on ones toes or come across as judgmental?

    The Bible says to Keep the Sabbath "Holy"......this is part of the law. I challenge any Pastor to preach the forth commandment in a way to honor God, but enforce the real truth about Sabbath keeping. Its not about personal opinions, if you think its right or not to buy gas or go out to eat on the Sabbath day, its about Honoring our God and His Holy request on the Sabbath....this is the Law, this will be our true test and by respecting God and honoring Him, we will respect and love others. Sorry if I have stepped on anyones toes.....God Bless.

    • Brother Ealy, I am not convinced of the fruitfulness of list-making from the pulpit (or anywhere else for that matter). That is what has destroyed Sabbath-keeping in the first place.

      • What is Sabbath keeping? How are we to Honor God on His Sabbath? Destroy the Sabbath? Many questions without answers.....

        • It is Friday evening here and the next 24 hours is Sabbath. It is a special gift from God to us. I could spend that time doing a list of requisite activities and refraining from doing activities on the prohibited list. What an awful way of celebrating the best day of the week? Here is what I am going to do:

          1) I am going to spend some time writing to friends on SSNET. They are a great bunch of folk and I like reading what they have written and sharing my thoughts with them.

          2) Tomorrow morning I am getting up early and spending a couple of hours photographing birds. The migratory shore birds are ready to fly from Australia to Siberia and I want to be the last person to photograph them before they go. Sabbath sunrise on the Pacific Coast of Australia! Has to be a great experience.

          3) Then I will go to church and spend time with friends in discussion, listening, learning, singing and praying.

          4) Lunchtime will be a family affair. I cooked our Sabbath lunch today, Friday. It is a new recipe and I cheated a little and had a taste today. Even though I say so myself it is a winner and the family will enjoy it.

          5) Tomorrow afternoon is open. Our son is visiting us and he is unchurched. We owe him some time and whatever we do tomorrow afternoon will include him.

          Who needs rules about Sabbath? There are so many ways that we can worship God in a special way that our creativity will be challenged from here to eternity. We honor the God of the Sabbath by enjoying the special gift he has given us.

          And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: Mark 2: 27

        • Maurice, like most things Christian I believe there is a balance to be had. I agree with you on some things and I disagree with you on some other things. I find that sometimes it is not easy to strike a good balance as a Christian but I think we should at least try. Don makes some points but I think he might be going too far in one direction rather than staying in the middle of the road. On the other hand we can abuse Mk 2:27 like we can other texts and demote the Sabbath to what the other six days of the week are – just doing our thing whatever that is.

          To me the Sabbath should be a special day. For me that means laying aside what I would normally do during the week and instead doing what I don’t do for six days. But of course there is always some overlap and I have totally given up on trying to think only of Jesus for 24 hours which I found ridiculous and rather fanatical.

          One of the things I do is to spend a good portion of Thursday and Friday preparing for the Sabbath. For me that means taking care of things that don’t need to be done on the Sabbath. Like you, I basically prepare my main meal for the Sabbath. I also clean my shack and finish up what I started during the week.

          Don mentioned eating, I assume he meant going out to a restaurant on the Sabbath for a meal. I won’t do that unless I have no other alternative. The question then comes am I then to go hungry for 24 hours? As far as I am concerned the answer is no. I think Jesus demonstrated that point when He and his disciples were walking through a grain field on the Sabbath and in order to get something to eat they were getting kernels of grain and rubbed them between their hands to knock off the chaff. When seeing that the Pharisees charged them with working on the Sabbath. I think any reasonable Christian would see that as no more work than putting food on his plate during potluck. But then when one is using a check list and spending his/her entire time with it such things as that happen. As you said, that just ruins the Sabbath as a delight (Isa 58:13) and yet I don’t think we should do just anything we want – the day should be sanctified.

          I am against fanaticism of any kind and believe we need to be in the center and well balanced. An extreme in either direction is not good and makes for a very poor witness.

        • This will take too long to elaborate on, but I believe that if we see the Sabbath as just another arbitrary command from God; we'll spend a whole lot of time trying to make lists so as not to make Him mad at us. This is pointless.

          Furthermore we'll restrict ourselves to a narrow range of tried-and-true activities out of fear of inadvertently offending God.

          This is a travesty--since the Sabbath is about overthrowing that kind of view of God in the first place! (Heathen gods are well known for always making random demands and always needing to be placated).

        • Few subjects can bring about more hard feelings between the brethren than one telling the other what is appropriate on the Sabbath, and I am sure it grieves the heart of the Lord. The church errs in establishing rules where what is needed is the education in principles of faith - and for the Sabbath that means more than not working (which itself is a contestable point as to what is work or is not - such as certain Jews I know of in Toronto who stand by the apartment elevator waiting for some gentile to come by and press the up or down button on Sabbath), but moreover means spending the day in heart and mind with God. That can mean different things for different people, but we need to let the Holy Spirit bring the conviction on such matters. We are all at different places in our journey of discovery with Christ after all.

  4. Is god a bondman? if not why is that some people see the sabbath as some kind of enslavement. We can not do this, or we can not do that? whats is the true meaning of the sabbath?? I just hope we know god and follow his ways as we should. lets not make the same mistake as our people did in the past.

    John 17:3 Says"And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent." We should know god that's is just as important

  5. Can anyone explain to me, why do we need to quote catholic authors to make a point? Don't we have good authors of our own? On thursday there was a comment by Leslie J. Hoppe, a catholic friar. I am sorry, I don't understand why we are doing this.

    • I think that sometimes it does us good to know that other Christians can contribute ideas into our pool of understanding. I have a great deal of respect for writers like C S Lewis (Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain) C A Coulson (Science and Christian Belief) They have given me a clearer picture of my own faith. One needs to be selective of course, but I would not dismiss a good idea that comes from another thoughtful Christian.

  6. I have always wondered why we struggle with the Sabbath or any Biblical concept at all. I believe that the word of God is clear and simple unless we want to complicate it. Examples of keeping the Sabbath holy are in the Bible. In both the old and new testaments. I don't see anything that Jesus did that can lead one astray. When we try to make the Biblical truth to fit in our own way of life instead of submitting to it, then we struggle. The law of God cannot be placed on a continuum with people at both end of the continuum and some in the middle. Even though that's the image we portray to the world. I believe that the Sabbath is beautiful, simple and very pleasant to me. I can't for the Sabbath to come each week. I don't see it as a days wit dos and don'ts. I love it and I am grateful to God for this gift.


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