This is a very complicated question, and an important one to be sure. To answer it, I want to offer a few arguments about the ten commandments, and then I want to explain what I believe the Scriptures teach about the relationship between the Old and New Covenants.
Regarding the ten commandments:
- If the ten commandments are God’s eternal law, then why did He wait 2500 years to give it to His people? But we see that God was judging according to a standard well before Sinai. I would suggest then, that the ten commandments and the rest of the Mosaic law are an expression of God’s holiness to a particular group of people (the Jews) in a particular time.
- When it is proposed that the ten commandments are themselves God’s unchanging law, they are almost always stripped from their context of the Mosaic Law. The ten commandments should be understood as part of the full Mosaic law. The Jews have never viewed the ten commandments apart from the rest of the laws. If the ten commandments are eternal law, then so must be the rest of the Mosaic Law.
- On the 4th commandment (the Sabbath) in particular: If this was an eternal moral law, then Adam would have sinned on the seventh day when God rested. This is because Adam had not labored for 6 days, which was part of the requirements for keeping the Sabbath. He had not labored at all. Therefore, the ten commandments cannot be eternal law.
- It is never mentioned that any of the pre-Mosaic patriarchs observed the Sabbath or were punished for disobeying it. They were however constantly shown to have sinned in other ways. Moreover, once the Mosaic Law was given, we frequently find reference to the profaning of it. It is not until the Mosaic Law that we see profaning of the Sabbath.
- The apostolic tradition of the early church records no observance or requirement of a Sabbath. In fact, they went out of their way to avoid keeping Jewish laws like Sabbaths and feast days. This is illustrated throughout Scripture and in the writings of the church fathers.
- So then, I would suggest that the ten commandments are a segment of a larger set of laws, which is itself a unique expression of God’s own character, and can be summarized as Christ Himself said, into two laws, “Love the Lord your God will all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And also, love your neighbor as yourself.”
Now I will try to cover what I believe is the relationship of the Old and New Covenants by discussing Jesus statement in Matthew 5:17-18, where He stated that He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.
On the one hand Jesus stated that He did not come to abolish the law, yet Paul stated that Christ is the end of the law. The author of Hebrews also states that the Old Covenant is obsolete. (Hebrews 8:13) Seeming to contradict that, covenant theologians say that some of the Law carries over and some of it doesn’t. It is generally very confusing in my experience. Here is how I make sense of it.
What I (and other New Covenant theologians) think Christ meant when he said He did not come to abolish the law, but fulfill it, is that He didn’t come to merely put a stop to it (which is what “abolish” means here), but rather that He came to fulfill, complete, and serve as the capstone. Christ was the final piece of the puzzle which completed the Law of Moses, which was leading to the coming of Christ. Now that Christ has fulfilled the purpose of the Law, it is now obsolete. So there is a sense in which Christ did abolish the Law after He accomplished His work. That was in fact the context of Matthew 5:17. What did Christ say right after he made the statement about abolishing the Law? He said,
For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matthew 5:18 ESV)
Christ is telling us that the Law will pass away when all is accomplished. Has all been accomplished? Yes, much has been accomplished through Christ’s fulfillment of the Law, as Paul clarifies in Romans:
For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (Romans 10:3-4 ESV)
Notice that Paul says that Christ is “the end of the law.” Why? Because when one realizes that the law brings death because of our sinfulness, he will see that there is no hope of attaining righteousness by his own endless sacrifices and keeping of the law, and at “the end” of this realization is that righteousness must then come from God, not from oneself. In this way, it becomes obvious that the law’s intent was to lead people to its logical end…the righteousness that comes from God. That is why David cries in Psalm 32,
I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,”
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah
(Psalm 32:5 ESV)
So Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes in faith. Christ did not come to abolish the law, but he came to serve as its end and fulfillment, which He has done through His death and resurrection. The temple veil has been torn in two. The law pointed to the need for Him as the final and ultimate sacrifice for the righteousness of His people. He has done it. It is finished! If Christ is the end of the law, what was its point? Paul states this plainly in Galatians 3,
This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. (Galatians 3:17-18 ESV)
Remember that salvation by faith through grace was already in effect. It had been since the fall of Adam. Paul makes this clear when he remarks on the fact that the law was given 430 years after God’s promise to Abraham, which was a promise based on faith, not the law. Then Paul says this:
Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the Offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one. (Galatians 3:19-20 ESV)
So the law came because of transgression. It was given, as John Gill has said, to promote the moral behavior of the people. Even though it would not save any of them, and for many it would be a stumbling block as they pursued their own righteousness by it, it would still serve a purpose in making them a moral people, until the Offspring (Christ) would come! There were those that understood that faith, not the law, would bring them the righteousness of God. However even those followed the Mosaic law. The others who sought righteousness by their own works of the law were held captive and imprisoned by it, as Paul goes on to explain,
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. (Galatians 3:23-26 ESV)
So the Mosaic Law, which includes the ten commandments, is fulfilled in Christ. We are not longer under it. Its use as a guardian has been fulfilled. (Galatians 3:24-25) As the author of Hebrews states, the Old Covenant is obsolete. (Hebrews 8:13) It’s end is death. (2 Corinthians 3:6) But we live in the New Covenant, under law of the Spirit, which brings life. Of course through the New Covenant there is still an expectation of dying to self, striving for holiness, and obedience to the law of Christ. And I would argue that even more is expected of the God’s people under the New Covenant because they have been given a greater and fuller understanding of what is expected of them. God’s requirements of the heart and the life His followers must live are even more clearly defined. The standards are exceedingly high, because applying our love for God and our neighbor with every motive, thought, word, and deed is significantly more difficult than following a set of clearly defined do’s and don’ts.