The Christian Sabbath: Is the Sabbath Command Moral or Ceremonial?

I can actually remember uttering the words, “Oh, this is good”, the first time I read chapter 19 of the London Baptist Confession. Many of the questions that arise concerning the scriptures have to do with, what appear to be, inconsistencies between the Old and New Testaments. Some have been troubled to the point of believing that the God of the Old Testament is altogether different than the God of the New – the one being a God of wrath, the other a God of grace. Others come to less troubling conclusions, but still struggle to appreciate the beautiful continuity that exists between the Old and New Testaments.

Chapter 19 of the Confession identifies three categories of laws found within the Old Testament – moral, civil, and ceremonial. These categories help the student of the Bible understand why some things have remained the same while others have changed as the Old Covenant gave way to the New. It should be acknowledged from the start that the Confession provides but a brief statement concerning these things. Confessions of Faith are like this – they do not seek to prove a case, or to thoroughly explain an issue – they are, as the name implies, confessions or declarations. Though complexities remain, the categories of moral, civil, and ceremonial are, in my opinion, good and helpful and true.

Ceremonial Laws

The Confession is right to say that the law of Moses contains a variety of “typical ordinances” (LBC 19.3). This means that some of the laws of Moses served to typifyrepresent, or symbolize something. And what did they symbolize? Among other things, they governed the worship of Israel, “prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits“. The ceremonial laws of Israel served to prefigure Christ. Hebrews 10 is a wonderful place to go for an example of this. The sacrificial system given to Israel was “…but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities…” (Hebrews 10:1, ESV). The passage proceeds to make the case that Christ is the true form. The ceremonial laws of Moses were like a shadow cast backwards on history, if you will, the significant and substantial thing which cast the shadow being Christ crucified.

The Confession goes on to say that the “ceremonial laws being appointed only to the time of reformation, are, by Jesus Christ the true Messiah and only law-giver, who was furnished with power from the Father for that end abrogated and taken away.” Why have they been taken away? It is because Christ has fulfilled them (Matthew 5:17)! They have served their symbolic purpose! The thing symbolized has come –  his name is Jesus the Christ.

Civil Laws

I will not linger long over the civil law. The Confession simply says, “To them [Israel] he also he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any now by virtue of that institution; their general equity only being of moral use.” Notice two things: One, the civil laws, like the ceremonial laws, have also expired. They have expired due to the simple fact that God’s people are not confined to the nation of Israel under the New Covenant (Romans 9:24-26). Gentiles have been grafted into Israel (Romans 11:17) and are, by faith, children of Abraham (Galatians 3:7); the middle wall of separation has been broken down by Christ (Ephesians 2:14); Christ’s kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36); the gospel is to go to all nations (Genesis 12:1-3; Isaiah 25:6-8; Matthew 28:18-20). Simply put, under Christ there is no nation to give the civil laws of Moses to, in a strict and direct sense. Old Covenant Israel rightly bore those laws for a time, until the Christ came through them. Now that he has come, the laws have expired (notice that not even modern Israel is governed by the civil laws of Moses, nor should they be). Two, notice that the Confession acknowledges the ongoing usefulness of the civil laws in that they too have moral implications for us today. For example, Paul argues that Pastors should be paid by appealing to a civil law forbidding the muzzling of an ox while it treads out grain (1 Corinthians 9:8-10) (I’m flattered). The civil laws, though they have been taken away, do contain application for us today.

Moral Laws

The moral law differs from those mentioned above in that it is for all people in all times. It is our belief that the moral law was written in two places. First, it was written upon the heart of Adam. Our Confession summarizes this well, saying, “God gave to Adam a law of universal obedience written in his heart…” (LBC 19.1). We may call this the human conscience. Adam possessed this law in a most pure way. We possess it still today, but we suppress it in our sinfulness (Romans 2:12-16). Secondly, this law was also given to Moses. “The same law that was first written in the heart of man continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness after the fall, and was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables, the four first containing our duty towards God, and the other six, our duty to man. (Deuteronomy 10:4 )” (LBC 19.2). It is important to notice that there is continuity between the law given to Moses and the law written on the human heart. Paul’s point in Romans 2:12-16 is that a person will be judged by the moral law of God even if he does not have accesses to the law of Moses in the form of the Ten Commandments. For even if he does not have the Ten Commandments, he does have the same moral law law written upon his heart.

The Sabbath Command: Moral or Ceremonial?

The question is this: Is the Sabbath command moral or ceremonial? I do hope that you can see the importance of this question. If it is purely ceremonial, then we would believe that it has been fulfilled by Christ and thus taken away. If it is purely moral, then we would expect that it would continue unchanged until the end of time.

I’ve already stated in a previous post that the Sabbath command “contains a moral principle applicable to all people at all times and in all places.” But notice that I have also said in another place that the “Sabbath is a picture of something.” In other words, it has some typological, symbolic, and ceremonial aspect to it.

I have not contradicted myself. My reason for writing in this way was to prepare to make this statement: The Sabbath command given to Adam at creation, and to Moses at Sinai, was neither fully moral, nor fully ceremonial, but contained elements of both.

I believe understanding this principle is the key to understanding the Christian Sabbath, or the Lord’s Day – whichever term you prefer.

I’ve already far exceeded my self imposed 1,000 word limit, so I will work to bring this a conclussion, leaving some points for another time. For now, consider these three things:

1. We are persuaded by scripture to see the Sabbath command as moral and perpetual. Consider the following reasons:

  • The Sabbath principle was given to Adam at creation. Adam was the representative (covenant head) of mankind.
  • The Sabbath command was given to Moses being grouped together with nine other moral and perpetual commands. The fourth command has to do with the proper worship of God. The first three forbid certain things; the fourth positively commands something, namely the pronounced worship of God on day out of seven (note the terms positive and perpetual in the LBC 22.7)
  •  There is ample evidence that this moral law was not only written on stone and given to Moses, but also on the heart of man. Men and women the world over worship with regularity. They either  worship the true God or false gods; and they either worship according to what God has appointed (one day out of seven), or according to their imaginations and devices (LBC 22.1). The point is that even those who do not have Moses’ law show that they have that same law written on their hearts, distorted as it may be (Romans 2:12-16).

2. We are persuaded by scripture to see the Sabbath command as containing ceremonial elements for the following reasons:

  • The particular day is not inherently moral but serves a symbolic purpose. While the moral principle calls men and women to worship the one true God one day out of seven, the particular day is not inherently moral. We might ask, “what difference does it make which day we gather for worship so long as we worship one day out of seven?” We would have to admit that the moral principle is one in seven. The particular day would not matter except that God has specified the day, and that for symbolic purposes.
  • The seventh day symbolized something particular. Before Christ the Sabbath was on the seventh day. It was a reminder of God’s act of creation (Exodus 20:11). It reminded the people of Israel of their salvation from Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:15). But given its position in the week the seventh day Sabbath also reminded them that their true salvation and rest was yet in the future. Just as we look forward to the seventh day of the week from the vantage point of the first or second day, and so on, so too the Old Covenant saints looked forward to the coming of the Christ and the rest that he would bring from their vantage point in the history of redemption.
  • The New Testament teaches that Christ fulfilled the Jewish seventh day Sabbath along with all of the festivals and feasts associated with it. Colossians 2:16 says,  “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” (Colossians 2:16, ESV) This verse is not saying that the moral, one in seven Sabbath principle, contained with the fourth commandment has been taken away, but that the Jewish, seventh day Sabbath, with all of it accompanying feast days, has been fulfilled by Christ. Christians are not obligated to keep these. The feasts and festivals were clearly ceremonial, picturing Christ, and were thus taken away. The seventh day was also ceremonial, pointing forward to the coming of the Christ.The seventh day Jewish Sabbath was also taken away, its peculiar symbolic purpose having been fulfilled by Christ.
  • The day has moved from the seventh to the first. After Christ, the one in seven principle remains – how could it not given all that has been said before concerning its moral core, its having been given at creation and placed at the heart of the Ten commandments – but the day has moved to the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; etc. ). This is the Lord’s Day (Revelation 1:10), or the Christian Sabbath. The particular day was able to move because it is not moral (fixed), but ceremonial (subject to change). The day has moved given the significance of what Christ accomplished by his death and resurrection. The people of God under the New Covenant rest and worship on the first day to remember, not only the original creation, but the new creation procured by Christ Jesus. We rest and worship on the first day to remember, not only Israel’s salvation from Egypt, but the salvation earned by Christ, which was far greater indeed. 
  • The first day symbolizes something particular. We rest and worship of the first day because the Christ has come – our salvation has come. We look back to him and the significance of what he has accomplished. The first day Christian Sabbath pictures this very thing. Just as we look back to the first day of the week from the days that follow, so too we look back to the work that Christ has accomplished for us, from our unique vantage point in the history of redemption.
  • The Lord’s Day also reminds us that, as Christians, we have entered into Christ’s rest, and work out of the rest he has secured. For Adam, things were exactly the opposite – work was to lead to rest. For Israel, things were also exactly the opposite – work would lead to rest (not for salvation, but as it pertained to entering into and remaining in the land, which was a type of the kingdom of God). Notice that in Christ, however, everything is turned on it’s head. We rest and then work. We abide in him, and through abiding him we bear fruit (John 15).

3. With that said, it must be noted that we have not entered his rest in a full and consummate sense. I hope we all agree with that! Though we enjoy tremendous benefits in Christ, and though it is true that we are seated with him now in the heavenly places, we have not entered the fulness of his rest. This is why it cannot be that the Sabbath has expired. The Sabbath was a picture of eternal rest for Adam in the beginning. He was to work, and thus enter in. The Sabbath was also picture of rest for the nation of Israel, calling the people to trust in God that they might enter his rest. And the Christian Sabbath, or Lord’s Day, still functions as a picture of eternal rest. Though we have tasted that rest in Christ, we have not entered into it fully. Though the death and resurrection of Christ was indeed significant (so significant was it that the day changed!), his first coming only inaugurated  his kingdom – we eagerly await the consummation of it (Romans 8:18-25).

This is precisely what the writer of Hebrews means when he says, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.” (Hebrews 4:9–11, ESV)


There is ample biblical evidence in support of the idea that Sabbath principle is perpetual; there is also ample evidence in support of the idea that something changed in regard to the Sabbath at the resurrection of Christ. Noticing that the Sabbath command is both moral and ceremonial is the key that allows us to  process all of the evidence found in the Old and New Testament. When all is considered we cannot agree with the anti-Sabatarians, nor can we agree with the Seventh Day Adventists –  we must finally say “Amen” to what is expressed so beautifully in chapter 22 of the London Baptist Confession (see also chapter 21 of The Westminster Confession of Faith) and agree that this is indeed the faithful and true teaching of Holy Scripture.


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