The Seventh-Day Sabbath Was the Sign of the Mosaic Covenant!

Chapter 7


Tablets of Stone & The History of Redemption


by John G. Reisinger


          Because the tablets of stone/Ten Commandments were a distinct covenant document, a specific covenant sign accompanied them.  I am aware that very few writers or preachers ever present the sabbath as the sign of the covenant written on the tablets of the covenant.  However, it is not because the Word of God is not both clear and emphatic.  One question that is nearly always asked when the sabbath is discussed goes something like this:  "If the sabbath was not part of the 'moral law,' then why was it included on the tablets of stone as one of the Ten Commandments?"  I wish every question I am asked was as easy to answer as this one.  The sabbath was the sign of the covenant that God made with Israel and therefore it had to be part of the covenant document of which it was the sign.  The answer is just that simple.  It has nothing to do with 'moral' law.

          The following texts teach not only that the sabbath was the sign of the covenant given at Sinai, but they show the great importance of the sabbath sign as well:

                    And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak thou also unto

          the children of Israel, saying, Verily my sabbaths ye shall keep:  for it

          is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye

          may know that I am the LORD that doth sanctify you.  Ye shall keep the

          sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you; every one that defileth it shall

          surely be put to death:  for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul

          shall be cut off from among his people.  Six days may work be done;

          but in the seventh is the sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD:  whosoever

          doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.

          Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe

          the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant

          It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever:  for in six

          days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he

          rested, and was refreshed.  And he gave unto Moses, when he had

          made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of

          testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God   

          (Exod. 31:12-18, NKJV, emphases added by author).

This text establishes five facts:

          First, the Ten Commandments are synonymous with 'tables of stone' and the two 'tables of testimony.'  They are the actual covenant document that established Israel's special national status with God.  ". . . two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God."

          Second, the sabbath, or Fourth Commandment, was the sign of the covenant.  ". . . the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath . . . for a perpetual covenant.  It is a sign between me and the children of Israel forever . . ."

          Third, the sign of the covenant, or sabbath, stands for the whole covenant.  To break the sign is to despise the entire covenant.  ". . . keep the sabbath . . . for a perpetual covenant."

          Fourth, the covenant was made only with the nation of Israel.  ". . . the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath . . . It is a sign between me and the children of Israel . . ."

          Fifth, the essence of the sabbath commandment was to refrain from all physical work.  It had nothing to do with public worship.  ". . . whosoever doeth any work . . . Six days may work be done, but the seventh is the sabbath of rest . . . whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death."

          The following passage from Ezekiel is helpful at this point.  It not only demonstrates that the sabbath was the sign of the covenant written on the tables of stone, it also shows that this particular commandment was so important only because it was the covenant's sign.  Read the text carefully:

                    And I gave them my statutes, and shewed them my judgments,

          which if a man DO, he shall live in them.  Moreover also I gave them

          my sabbaths, to be a sign between me and them, that they might 

          know that I am the LORD that sanctify them.  But the house of Israel

          rebelled against me in the wilderness:  they walked not in my statutes,

          and they desposed my judgments, which is a man do, he shall even live

          in them; and my sabbaths they greatly polluted:  THEN I said, I would

          pour out my fury upon them in the wilderness, to consume them.  But I

          wrought for my name's sake, that it should not be polluted before the

          heathen, in whose sight I brought them out.  Yet also I lifted up my

          hand unto them in the wilderness, that I would not bring them in to the

          land which I had given them, flowing with milk and honey, which is the

          glory of all lands; Because they despised my judgments, and walked

          not in my statutes, but polluted my SABBATHS:  for their heart went

          after their idols.  Nevertheless mine eye spared them from destroying

          them, neither did I make an end of them in the wilderness.  But I said

          unto their children in the wilderness, Walk ye not in the statutes of your

          fathers, neither observe their judgments, nor defile yourselves with their

          idols:  I am theLORD your God; walk in my statutes, and keep my

          judgments, and do them; and hallow my SABBATHS; and they shall

          be a SIGN between me and you, that ye may now that I am the LORD

          your God (Ezek. 20:11-20, emphases added by author).

          Notice the word 'then' in verse 13 and its connection to verses 16 and 20.  Israel committed many grievous sins, but it was not until they 'profaned the sabbbath' that they went into captivity.  Again, this shows that breaking the sign of the covenant is equivalent to despising the whole covenant.  To profane the sabbath would appear to be the worst possible sin that an Israelite could commit.  Israel's Babylonian captivity was measured in terms of how many years they had refused to observe the sabbath-year law to let the land lie idle (cf. Jer. 29:10 and 2 Chron. 36:21).  We may conclude from these texs that the most serious of the Ten Commandents, as far as it involved judgment, was the fourth, and that its importance lay solely in the fact that it was the sign of the covenant.  The fact that the judgment that consisted of the captivity for seventy years was for breaking the sabbath-year law shows that all of the sabbaths were just as holy as the seventh-day sabbath.  Paul makes this clear in Colossians 2:14-17. 

          Colossians 2:16 is an important verse for several reasons.  Everyone agrees that Paul is declaring that the "holy days, the new moon, and the sabbbath" are all done away in Christ.  However, the sabbatarian insists that Paul is not referring to the 'moral' seventh-day sabbath, but is referring only to the ceremonial sabbaths (plural).  A careful reading of the passage clearly proves that Paul includes the weekly seventh-day sabbath as one of the 'shadows' that are fulfilled and done away in Christ.  Let us look at the verse and its context:

                    And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your

          flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all

          trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against

          us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his

          cross; And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of

          them openly, triumphing over them in it.  Let no man therefore judge

          you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new

          moon, or of the sabbath days:  Which are a shadow of things to come;

          but the body is of Christ (Col. 2:13-17, NKJV).

          It is crucial to note in verses 16 and 17 that Paul emphatically states that the shadows, consisting of holy days,  the new moon, and the sabbaths, are done away because the body, or the fulfillment of those things, has come in the person and work of Christ.  As mentioned above, the point in question is whether Paul includes the seventh-day sabbath or only refers to so-called ceremonial sabbaths.  Can the passage sustain an 'only ceremonial sabbaths' interpretation, or does it clearly include the seventh-day sabbath with those done away under the New Covenant?

          Verse 13 makes it clear that the apostle is talking about regeneration and salvation ("you hath he quickened"God made you alive with Christ).  Verse 14 shows that the forgiveness of sins in salvation came only because "the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us" has been "taken out of the way" by being "nailed to his cross."  The law that was nailed to the Cross is the same law that stood between God and us.18  It was the nailing of that law to the Cross, of Jesus dying under its curse, that brought eternal salvation to God's people.  Jesus did not bear the curse of a so-called ceremonial law.  That is not the law that stood against us or that was nailed to the Cross.

          The "handwriting of ordinances" in these verses can only be a description of the tables of the testimony (Exod. 31:18; 34:27-29), or the Ten Commandments.  They are called tables of testimony because, as the terms of the Old Covenant, the Ten Commandments written on the tables, they testify against sin and rebellion.  That testimony must be righteously silenced before anyone can approach God.  The so-called ceremonial law could not be called "the handwriting of ordinances that was against us."  Removal of 'the ceremonial law' is not the ground of forgiveness and acceptance with God.  This passage's context is salvation through the atonement of Christ.  It is not discussing freedom from the 'ceremonial laws.'  If this passage is reduced to refer to merely ceremonial laws, then our blessed Lord shed his blood just so his people could eat bacon with eggs and be free from all the Jewish ceremonial feasts.  That would be a distorted view of both the atonement and the great gospel liberty that it purchased.

          Paul refers to a list of sabbaths that is knowable.  He is talking about 'sabbath days' that can be identified by a clear reference point.  Paul expected his readers to know exactly what he meant by 'sabbath.'  To my knowledge, Leviticus 23 is the only place in all of Scripture that presents a complete list of 'God's sabbaths.'  We will let the Word of God itself tell us what Paul refers to by the words 'the sabbath days' in Colossians 2:16.

                    And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the 

          children of Israel, and say unto them, Concerning the feasts of the

          LORD, which ye shall proclaim to be holy convocations, even these

          are my feasts (Lev. 23:1, 2, emphases added by author).

God is about to give Moses a list of the ceremonial feasts that are to be observed by Israel.  It will include Passover, Feasts of First Fruits, Feasts of Weeks, etc.  These feasts are to be 'holy convocations.'  Notice carefully the next verse.  It establishes clearly what Colossians 2:16 means by 'sabbath days':

                    Six days shall work be done:  but the seventh day is the

          sabbath of rest, an holy convocation' yet shall do no work therein: 

          it is the sabbath of the LORD in all your dwellings (Lev. 23:3,

          emphases added by author).

Question:  What is the very first feast, or holy convocation, on the list of ceremonial sabbaths?  Answer:  The seventh-day sabbath set forth in the Fourth Commandment!

          The seventh-day sabbath is first on the list of ceremonial sabbaths!  It is at the head of the list of the 'feasts, or holy convocations' and cannot be arbitrarily pulled out and separated from the other sabbaths on the list.  The Holy Spirit then lists the rest of the holy sabbaths.  If you read the entire list of ceremonial sabbaths in Leviticus 23, you will discover that every holy sabbath incorporated all of the specific requirements of the seventh-day sabbath simply because they were all the same in nature.  The Passover, Day of Atonement, etc. did not necessarily fall on a seventh-day sabbath, but they were treated as if they did.  If God himself puts the seventh-day sabbath at the head of the only complete list of holy ceremonial sabbaths in Scripture, how dare anyone say that it does not belong there?

          Several other factors are significant in verse 3.  First, God repeats and reinforces that fact that the essence of keeping the sabbath commandment is to spend the entire day in rest and to do no work:  "the seventh day is a sabbath of rest."  Secondly, the sabbath was to be observed "in all your dwellings."  The sabbath was in no way connected with congregational worship in the tabernacle.

          Perhaps it would be a good idea to look at a few passages that demonstrate the importance of a covenant's sign.  It will help us to understand the apparent 'out of proportion' punishment in several instances.

Was the incident in Numbers 15:32-26 that serious an offence?

          For a long time, I pondered the awful severity of God's judgment on a man for merely picking up some sticks.  It was not until I understood the concepts under discussion in this book that I realized what a horrible sin the man had committed.  Here is the passage:

              . . . and while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they

          found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day.  And they

          that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron,

          and unto all the congregation.  And they put him in ward, because it

          was not declared what should be done to him.  And the LORD said unto

          Moses, The man shall be surely put to death:  all the congregation

          shall stone him with stones without the camp.  And all the congregation

          brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he

          died; as the LORD commanded Moses (Num. 15:32-36, emphases

          added by author).

          This was not a case of God being tough on the first offender as an example to others.  Picking up sticks on the sabbath was one of the worst possible sins that a man could commit under the Old Covenant.  He was breaking the sign of the covenant and thereby disavowing the whole covenant.  The sabbath was to Israel's relationship with God exactly what a wedding ring is to a marriage relationship.  They are both visible signs of a covenant.  The ring is given during the ceremony as a sign of the obligation to keep the covenant vows just made.  For one partner to take off the ring, throw it at the other person, and walk away would be to deny the entire marriage relationship.  This is exactly what sabbath-breaking was under the Old Covenant, since it was the sign of that covenant.  Breaking the Sabbath renounced the whole covenant relationship with God.  To profane the sabbath by performing even the slightest physical work was to deny all of the vows taken at Mount Sinai.  It was an action equivalent to a man deliberately spitting in God's face and then, in defiant self-sufficiency and rebellion, breaking the most important law of the covenant by walking away and picking up some sticks or doing some other physical work.

What is the significance of Exodus 4:24-26?

          This incident is another example of the importance of a covenant sign.  This extremely instructive event shows how carefully God regards the covenants that he is pleased to make with us.  Moses must have explained a good deal of God's revelation to his wife Zipporah in order for her to do what she did.  It is surprising that Moses did not see his inconsistency before his wife saw it.  Here is the passage:         

                    And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met 

          him, and sought to kill him.  Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut

          off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a

          bloody husband art thou to me.  So he let him go:  then she said, A  

          bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision (Exod. 4:24-26,


          God's covenant with Abraham was the basis of the forthcoming deliverance of the children of Israel from Egypt.  The sign of that covenant with Abraham was circumcision.  Genesis 17:9, 10 makes it clear that circumcision stood for the whole covenant.  Verse 11 calls circumcision the sign of the covenant and verse 14 states that an uncircumcised person was to be killed because he had "broken my covenant."  Moses' failure to have his son circumcised was, in effect, a repudiation of the very covenant that God was using him to honor.  God viewed the action, or rather the inaction, of Moses as an insult worthy of death.  Again, we see that failure to honor the covenant sign, even though it is ceremonial in nature, is to despise and reject the whole covenant.  It is interesting that Genesis 17:14 specifically states that the uncircumcised person would be cut off from among the people; but in Exodus 4:24 God is about to kill Moses, not his uncircumcised son.  Moses was acting as a public person and as God's representative while deliberately disobeying God's covenant sign.  Moses was doubly guilty.

          We should also mention that Paul told the Corinthians that "many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep" because they misused the Lord's Table, which is the remembrance sign of the New Covenant [1 Cor. 11:30].  The principle of a covenant sign that stands for the whole covenant is not just true for Abraham and Moses; it is true of the New Covenant also.  The Lord's Table does not have the place it should have in the life of the church today, and we are suffering the consequences. 

A comparison of the Mosaic covenant with other covenants shows that the seventh-day sabbath was the sign of the Mosaic covenant. 

          When we compare the language used in the Bible to recount the establishment of several covenants, we find that the Ten Commandments were the foundational document of a distinct and separate covenant.  The texts also establish that the sabbath was the sign of the covenant given to Israel at Sinai.  Look at the following comparisons:

          1.  The Noahic covenant:  "This [the rainbow] is the sign of the

               covenant I have established . . . " (Gen. 9:17, NIV).

          2.  The Abrahamic covenant:  "This is my covenant . . . you are to

               undergo circumcision, and it will be a sign of the covenant between

               me and you" (Gen. 17:11, NIV). 

          3.  The Mosaic covenant:  ". . . you must observe my Sabbaths.  This

               will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come . . .

               The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath for the generations to

               come as a lasting covenant" (Exod. 31:13, 16, NIV). 

          God made a separate covenant with Moses just as he made a separate covenant with Abraham.  The sabbath was the ceremonial sign of the covenant that was written on the tables of stone just as circumcision was the ceremonial sign of the covenant God made with Abraham. 

A comparison of the two different reasons for keeping the sabbath day holy helps us to understand the purpose of the 'sign' of the covenant.

          The phrase "as the Lord thy God commanded thee" following the commandment to keep the seventh day holy is found in Deuteronomy 5:12, but not in Exodus 20:8.  It is obvious why it is not the other way around.  The phrase in Deuteronomy 5:12 cannot possibly refer back to Creation because Adam was never "delivered from bondage in Egypt."  It has to refer back to Exodus 20:8, since God gave this commandment to Israel at Sinai after their deliverance from Egypt.  God did not command Adam to keep the sabbath; but he did, at Mount Sinai, command Israel to keep the sabbath as the sign of the covenant that he had just made with them.

          Another reason that it is impossible to make the statement 'as the Lord thy God commanded thee' in Deuteronomy 5:12 refer back to Genesis is the specific reason this particular version of the Ten Commandments gives for keeping the sabbath.  Deuteronomy 5:15 does not even mention God resting at Creation.  It specifically gives the redemption from Egypt as the reason that Israel was to remember the sabbath.  How could God possibly have given a commandment in the Garden of Eden to remember Israel's deliverance from  Egypt?  Imagine either Adam or Abraham being commanded to 'Remember the sabbath day because I delivered you from bondage in Egypt.'  It would not have made any sense at all to them. 

What do we 'remember' at the Lord's Table?

          What is the emphasis in the words our Lord gave us when he instituted the remembrance sign and service of the New Covenant?  What should we think when we read or hear the following words?

                    In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup

          is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in

          remembrance of me."  For whenever you eat this bread and drink this

          cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes (1 Cor. 11:25-26,

          NIV, emphases added by author). 

          What should we feel in our hearts as we take the cup and remember our Lord's words, "This is the New Covenant in my blood"?  We should realize that we are celebrating the clear fulfillment of the Old Testament promise concerning the New Covenant.  We are remembering the truth symbolized in the emblems (bread and wine), which is that the promised New Covenant is now in full force.  Nowhere does the Word of God suggest we are celebrating a new administration of the same Old Covenant under which Israel lived.  We should have a different feeling than Israel had when God spoke that first covenant from the mountain.  Our hearts should feel the liberty and joy of assurance of forgiveness.  Feelings of either bondage or fear have no rightful place in our hearts as we rejoice in the memory of the death of our Lord Jesus Christ for our sins.  When we remember his promise to come again, hope and joy should fill our minds and hearts.

          Would we have a different response if we were Seventh-day Adventists and remembered our reason for worshipping on Sabbath (Saturday) instead of the Lord's Day?  We would think of God our creator and lawgiver and the law covenant written on the tablets of the covenant.  Our meeting on Saturday (Sabbath) would honor the sign of the covenant under which we were worshipping.  We would remind ourselves of the just covenant claims that God makes upon us.  The tablets of stone would still be the written code against us because of our sin.  As our minds went back to the Old Covenant (Ten Commandments), we would smell the smoke from Sinai and hear its terrible thunder and roar.  This would all be reasonable, however, because this the exact experience that Sinai was supposed to produce in the consciences of those who were under it as a covenant!  This was the stated purpose for which God gave that law in the first place.  The purpose of the sabbath sign was to be a reminder of those covenant terms and our duty to obey them.  Nowhere does Scripture record any change in the purpose and function of either the covenant or its sign.

          The God-designed function of the tables of covenant, or Ten Commandments, was conviction and fear, not joy and hope.  The same rules that furnish our minds with help in pleasing our heavenly Father functioned in the conscience of an Israelite as the condemning covenant of life and death (2 Cor. 3:6-18) of their covenant God.  However, we must remember that this was God's declared intention in giving the tablets of stone in the first place.  Perhaps a chart comparing the remembrance signs and services of the old and new covenants will help make clear what we are saying:

Old Covenant New Covenant
Points to Creation

Points to Calvary

(God's new creation)

Emphasizes Lawgiver

and Judge


"This (keep sabbath) do...

in remembrance" of your duty.

Emphasizes Christ as



"THIS (remember my death)

do... in remembrance of ME."

          Christ makes a deliberate contrast when he institutes the remembrance service of the New Covenant.  He clearly shows the difference between remembering and celebrating the Old Covenant as compared to celebrating the New Covenant.  When Jesus said 'THIS do in remembrance of ME,' he was contrasting the New Covenant, and its remembrance sign, with the Old Covenant and its remembrance sign.  He was saying, "Instead of keeping the sabbath in remembrance of the old creation and Israel's redemption, THIS do in remembrance of me and the deliverance I have accomplished at Calvary."  In other words, remember and think about what the new creation is and how Christ brought it about.

          The Old Covenant justly bound men to obey God, upon pain of death, as their creator and lawgiver and celebrated the work of the old creation.  The New Covenant binds us to God as our redeemer through our Lord Jesus Christ and celebrates the work of the new creation.19  One reminds of sin and the other reminds of forgiveness.  Read 1 Corinthians 11:25-27, emphasize the word 'this,' and think of the contrast that Christ makes between the Old Covenant that he replaced and the New Covenant that he established. 

          The sabbath forced Israel to think about two things every week.  First, the sabbath-rest reminded them of an Eden they had lost becaue of sin and rebellion.  Their life of sweat and tears was a constant reminder of the life of ease and joy they had lost because of their fall in Adam.  Secondly, the sabbath was a constant reminder of the promise that one was coming who would establish a greater sabbath-rest that could not be destroyed by anything.  The sabbath was a constant reminder of both the burden of sin and the hope of salvation.


          In this chapter, we have emphasized the importance of covenant signs.  The primary importance of the sabbath commandment lies in the fact that it was the sign of the Mosaic covenant God made with Israel at Sinai.  The importance of a covenant sign is that it stands for the entire covenant.  As I mentioned earlier, the sabbath, as the sign of the Old Covenant, was to Israel what my wedding ring is to my marriage.  If I took off my wedding ring, threw it at my wife, and walked out the door, I would by that one act disavow every oath and promise I made to her.  I would repudiate our whole covenant relationship.  That is exactly what the man did who picked up the sticks on the sabbath.  The only way to violate the Fourth Commandment was to do physical work on the sabbath (Exodus 31:12-18); by doing so, the violator threw the wedding ring in God's face. 

          Moses did the same thing by his refusal to have his son wear the sign of circumcision.  Circumcision stood for the whole Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 17:9-14).  The only way to violate the Abrahamic covenant was to be uncircumcised.  This is why God was so angry with Moses in Exodus 4:24-26.  His refusal to wear the wedding ring jeopardized the entire covenant relationship.  To violate the sign is to repudiate the whole covenant. 



18.  Paul's deliberate change of pronouns from you to us is as important here as it is in Galatians 3 and 4.


19.  The motif of "finishing the work my Father gave" followed by a "resting upon its completion" is a neglected theme.  I have developed it in The Believer's Sabbath.



This chapter from Tablets of Stone & The History of Redemption by John G. Reisinger is shared here by permission of the author and New Covenant Media.