It is well known in Christianity that the ten commandments are a vital part of the Old Covenant. It is also well known that Christians are under the New Covenant, not the Old Covenant. But does this mean that Christians are not obligated to obey the ten commandments? Are the ten commandments obsolete for Christians? Or are Christians to keep the ten commandments?
Or to put it another way, are the ten commandments part of the New Covenant just as they are part of the Old Covenant? Are the ten commandments part of both covenants?
Most traditional Christians would agree that we should not murder, commit adultery, or steal. They do not have a problem with commandments against those things. But they do have a problem with the Sabbath. Many think that Christians do not need to keep the Sabbath day because the command to observe the Sabbath is in the ten commandments, and they think the ten commandments are done away. They think the ten commandments are only included in the Old Covenant and not the New Covenant.
What is the Old Covenant? The Old Covenant was an agreement between God and Israel. God promised to bless Israel if Israel obeyed God and kept His law (Exodus 19:1-9, 20:1-17, 23:25-27, 24:3-8, Deuteronomy 28:1-14). Those were the terms that God offered Israel. The ten commandments were part of the covenant because the ten commandments described God's law that the people had to obey. The Old Covenant came into existence after Israel agreed to the terms and the covenant was ratified with blood (Exodus 24:3-8).
Notice that the Old Covenant included promises God made to bless Israel. Those promises included health, economic prosperity, and protection from enemies (Exodus 15:25-26, Leviticus 26:3-13). These were national promises that applied to the nation as a whole. That was God's part. Israel's part was to keep the ten commandments and obey God in everything. But also notice here, there is no promise of eternal life under the Old Covenant, only national blessings in this physical life. There is also no promise of the Holy Spirit or of writing God's law in the people's hearts.
What is the New Covenant? It is first described in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 31:31-34). This Old Testament scripture is quoted by the author of Hebrews in describing the New Covenant (Hebrews 8:7-12, 10:16-17).
Notice that there is nothing here about a different law for the New Covenant. The law is the same for both covenants. So what is the difference? The difference is in the promises. The New Covenant is based on better promises than the Old Covenant (Hebrews 8:6-8). One of those promises is given in the Old Testament. Under the New Covenant, God will write His law in our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). That is different from the Old Covenant in which God's law was written or engraved on stone (Exodus 24:12, Deuteronomy 27:1-8). That is important, because the writing of God's law on stone is often used to represent the Old Covenant, in contrast to the writing of God's law in our hearts under the New Covenant (2 Corinthians 3:7-11).
Notice also there is a promise in the New Covenant of forgiveness of sin (Jeremiah 31:34). This was never available under the Old Covenant.
Many aspects of the New Covenant are described in more detail in the New Testament.
Another promise of the New Covenant is eternal life (1 John 2:24-25, John 3:16, John 6:54, John 10:27-28, Romans 6:23). Remember, eternal life was never promised under the Old Covenant. The Old Covenant promises of national blessings for Israel pertained to this temporary physical life only - read Deuteronomy 28:1-14.
Is the law of the ten commandments, including the law of the Sabbath, retained under the New Covenant?
When Jesus Christ was on earth, someone asked Him a question about the requirements of the New Covenant. A man wanted to know what he had to do to receive eternal life. This was a New Covenant question, because the Old Covenant did not promise eternal life. This question had NOTHING to do with the Old Covenant.
If this question was about the Old Covenant, the man would have asked, "what must we do to obtain national blessings of health, prosperity, and protection from our enemies?" because those were the promises of the Old Covenant. But the man asked about eternal life, which is only available under the New Covenant. So this question is 100% about the New Covenant. And the answer Jesus gave directly answers our question, is the law of the ten commandments, including the law of the Sabbath, retained under the New Covenant.
What was Jesus Christ's answer?
Jesus said, "You know the commandments" (Mark 10:17-19, Luke 18:18-20). Then Jesus named several of the ten commandments.
Now is it only the commandments that Jesus named that are required? Is it alright under the New Covenant to have other gods before the true God (first commandment), to use images in worship (second commandment), to take God's name in vain (third commandment), and to not keep the Sabbath (fourth commandment). No. Jesus named several of the ten commandments as examples, but the whole package of ten commandments is included. Why? Because Jesus started His answer by saying "you know the commandments". This man grew up in Israel and learned the ten commandments from his youth. The commandments he knew were the ten commandments, all ten of them.
So in telling the man what is required for the New Covenant promise of eternal life, Jesus told the man to keep the commandments he already knew, the ten commandments.
And that includes the Sabbath.
So Sabbath observance is a requirement under the New Covenant.
The New Testament affirms the ten commandments as a body of law that still exists. Notice what James wrote, long after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: "For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, 'Do not commit adultery,' also said, 'Do not murder.' Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law" (James 2:10-11). Notice that James wrote, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16-17), that if you violate one point of the law, you violate the whole law and are guilty of transgression. Which law? James shows that he is talking about the ten commandments, calling each commandment a "point" of the law, because he uses two of the ten commandments as examples. James also explains WHY we are guilty of violating the whole law of God if we violate just one point. It is because of WHO gave the commandments ("For He who said..."). In other words, it is because God gave the commandments that we must obey all of them. Using that same logic, He who said "you shall not commit adultery" also said "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Exodus 20:8). That is exactly the logic that James is using.
Some people are confused by some of the things Paul wrote regarding the law. One of the principles of Bible study is that the Bible cannot contradict itself. All scripture is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16-17). God cannot lie (Titus 1:1-2, Hebrews 6:17-18). Therefore the Bible cannot lie or contradict itself, and all scripture is true (John 17:17, Psalm 119:160). When some scriptures seem to contradict other scriptures, you let the clear scriptures interpret unclear or difficult ones. That is an important principle. You get all the scriptures on a topic, then let clear scriptures that are easy to understand interpret those that are difficult to understand. Some of Paul's writings are difficult to understand, and Peter was inspired by the Holy Spirit to warn about that (2 Peter 3:14-16). Paul often uses the word "law" in different ways and he uses symbols of the Old Covenant in different ways. When Paul says that we are not under the law, he can be referring to the penalty of the law (death), which is removed from hanging over us when we are forgiven our sins in Jesus Christ. He can also be referring to the Old Covenant and its regulations directly. But we can use clear scriptures such as those I have quoted from James, Mark, and Luke to understand the difficult scriptures in Paul's letters to know that he is not saying that the law of the ten commandments is obsolete.
Some people think that Jesus said that the law would be done away after He fulfilled the law by keeping it, but Jesus never said that. Notice what He said. "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled" (Matthew 5:17-18). Has heaven and earth passed away? No. Has all the law and the prophets been fulfilled? No. There are many Old Testament prophecies that are yet to be fulfilled including prophecies pertaining to the millennium after Christ returns (Isaiah 2:1-4, Isaiah 11:1-9). All has not yet been fulfilled. Moreover, Christ never said the law would be removed after it was fulfilled, only that it would not be removed while there was yet something in the law and the prophets that was not yet fulfilled and while heaven and earth remain. He is not saying anything about what would happen after everything is completely fulfilled.
Many people think that the Sabbath was made just for Israel and that it was made at the time of the making of the Old Covenant. Neither is true. The Sabbath was made for mankind and it existed before the Old Covenant.
Jesus said, "The Sabbath was made for man" (Mark 2:27). Jesus did not say that the Sabbath was made for Israel or for the Jew. It was made for man in general, not just Israel.
And notice, the Sabbath was made. It was created. There was a time when God brought the Sabbath into existence. Was this when the Old Covenant was made with Israel? No. The Old Covenant was made when the ten commandments were given, Israel agreed to the covenant, and it was ratified with blood. But the Sabbath existed before that. Notice that it existed before the ten commandments were given (Exodus 16:4-6, 22-30).
Jesus said that the Sabbath was made. Since the Sabbath was created for the entire human race, it would be reasonable to expect that there would be a record in the Old Testament of that event, the making of the Sabbath. There is such a record, and it is the only record of anything that can be an account of the making of the Sabbath in the entire Old Testament.
Genesis 2:2-3 says, "And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made." Why did God rest? Not because He was tired. He rested in order to create the Sabbath. He created that first Sabbath day by His example of resting. This is the account of the making of the Sabbath for man that Jesus talked about.
The close parallel wording between the fourth commandment ("Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it" - Exodus 20:11) and the creation account ("Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it" - Genesis 2:3) shows that this seventh day was a Sabbath, just as the fourth commandment describes. Genesis 2:2-3 and Exodus 20:11 are talking about exactly the same thing - the Sabbath day.
The New Covenant includes the same law of the ten commandments as the Old Covenant, including the Sabbath, but provides better promises.