The Apostolic Record: What Did the Apostles Teach?

Ted Noel

As the truth of the Sabbath is presented, one difficulty repeatedly presents itself. No matter how much one tries, there can be found in the NT no explicit repetition of the Fourth Commandment. Five of the ten are quoted in full, and four of the other five are implicit in numerous statements. But, of all ten, the NT after the gospels appears on first glance to be silent on teaching the Sabbath. Are we to assume that they taught nothing about it? Or, did they teach about it, but regard it as so fundamental that it required no further written explanation?

Our first task is to determine the sources from which the apostles taught. This can be determined readily from their writings. As we read the NT, we see quotes from the OT in almost every chapter. Often, a single chapter will include several quotes. When these are added up, they total far in excess of one thousand quotes. Clearly, the OT was a major source. In fact, they considered it to be a fully sufficient source for salvation.

14 You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them;
15 and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;
17 that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. 2 Tim 3:14-17

We must note carefully that the “scriptures” to which Paul refers are the OT, since they had been known to Timothy since his childhood, and the NT was just being written. In fact, throughout the NT, only three references are made which include the NT writings in “scripture”, and only one which identifies any specific books to include, namely the “letters of Paul” (2 Pet 3:14-16). The second source is the teachings of Christ while He was on the earth. The apostles (except Paul) speak as eyewitnesses to Christ’s ministry.

1 What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life–
2 and the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us– 1 John 1:1-2

Third, the Holy Spirit inspired the NT writers. The classic text, 2 Tim 3:16 (quoted above) says this explicitly. Others note the direct involvement of the Holy Spirit.

11 . “This is what the Holy Spirit says: .” Acts 21:11 (partial)

Finally, Paul received direct revelation from Jesus (Acts 9:4-5; 22:7-8; 26:14-15, 1 Cor 9:1; 15:8).

Now that we have determined the sources the apostles used, let us look at what those sources contained. Our first step is to look in the OT. From the beginning of Genesis to the end of Malachi there is a consistent testimony of the importance of the Sabbath to God. God refers to “My Sabbath(s)” fifteen times, “sabbath(s) of (to) the Lord” seven times, and “sabbath of complete rest (holy) to the Lord” twice. It is never referred to as “man’s Sabbath”. God calls it a “test” (Ex 16:4) and a “sign” (Ex 31:17, Ezek 20:12, 20) and a “covenant” (Ex 31:16, Lev 24:8, Is 56:6). Failure to keep the Sabbath was a frequent cause of God’s wrath.

26 “Her priests have done violence to My law and have profaned My holy things; they have made no distinction between the holy and the profane, and they have not taught the difference between the unclean and the clean; and they hide their eyes from My sabbaths, and I am profaned among them. Ezek 22:26 (emphasis added)

Nowhere in the OT is there the slightest hint that the Sabbath would ever change. It is even stated that the Sabbath will be observed in heaven (Is 66:23). The OT did teach that the sacrificial system would be done away with. If this were not the case, we should expect to be killing animals forever to gain forgiveness of sin.

27 “And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; Dan 9:27a

When the apostles taught from their experiences with Christ, the Holy Spirit, or direct revelation, their audiences properly put them to the test. They knew that there would be “deceitful spirits” (1 Tim 4:1), and that they should be “tested” (1 John 4:1). There was only one absolute standard known, and the people applied it.

10 And the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea; and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews.
11 Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so. Acts 17:10-11

The OT was the infallible measure by which everything the apostles taught was evaluated. Since there is no hint of a termination of the Sabbath in the OT, that is the standard which the people would have applied. We have seen in the previous chapter that the believers did observe the Sabbath. This is totally consistent with what they had been taught.

We cannot leave this issue with only the simple conclusion above, however correct it is. A vast amount of other evidence is available, and should be considered. In their teaching from the OT, the apostles cannot have overlooked the fact that the OT is a continual story of disobedience. At every turn, the Jews were given specific direction by God, and just as often, they disregarded that direction and went their own way in open rebellion. They were so faithless that in the short time Moses went up on Mount Sinai, they rejected God and made a golden calf to worship (Ex 31). It should come as no surprise that the apostles used the same theme in the NT.

As we study through the NT, several themes are encountered repeatedly. Of interest to us is the theme of obedience. The apostles express this in different ways. In the New American Standard translation, we find various terms related to obedience used.

Term Times used
apostle(s) 60
(bond-)servant(s) 47
bondslave(s) 4
commandment(s) 39
faithful 35
law 132
obedience 13
obey 14
serve 21
service 17
sin 131
slave(s) 32
submit 4

All of these terms express the status of the believer as being in conformity with God’s will and God’s commands. The term “apostle” means one sent with orders”. A “servant” or “slave” is one who obeys those orders without question. In other words, the apostles were given the directions from God to convey to us. We are to take the orders which we are given and obey them absolutely. Just as a slave is given no leeway to look for loopholes or options in his master’s orders, we are given no “wiggle room” in God’s commands. We are to follow them absolutely.

The example of the apostles is a good starting place. Every apostle called himself a “bond-servant”, “one who gives himself up to another’s will” (Strong’s #1401). It is important to note that becoming a “bond-servant” is a voluntary action. Bond-service is not forced upon anyone, just as Christ never forced Himself on anyone. At the same time, once a person becomes a “bond-servant”, he no longer acts on his own, but acts to carry out his master’s will. It is a state of total obedience.

1 Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, Rom 1:1

1 James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad, greetings. James 1:1

1 Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons: Phil 1:1

1 Simon Peter, a bond-servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ: 2 Pet 1:1

1 Jude, a bond-servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James, to those who are the called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ: Jude 1

1 The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must shortly take place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond-servant John, Rev 1:1

The apostles did not consider that their status as messengers granted them any special privilege. They were obligated to carry out God’s instructions just the same as any other believer. As servants, they were bound to do their master’s will. Thy were not in any way looking for loopholes, but for the ultimate in service. In the same way, believers will be characterized by obedience (Rev 1:1). This is repeated by God.

10 For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ. Gal 1:10 (emphasis added)

3 saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads.” Rev 7:3 (emphasis added)

12 Here is the perseverance of the saints who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. Rev 14:12 (emphasis added)

In fact, this status of willing compliance is our example, as seen in Jesus Himself, who acted strictly in accordance with His Father’s will.

41 And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and began to pray,
42 saying, “Father, if Thou art willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Thine be done.” Luke 22:41-42 (emphasis added)

We could continue on with example after example. The fundamental fact we are illustrating is, that unlike the failures of Israel of old, the believers were expected to stand firm in their obedience to the commands of the gospel.

6 For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you,
7 and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire,
8 dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 2 Thess 1:6-8 (emphasis added)

Having clearly established the absolute obligation to obey, let us now explore just what the commands are that we are expected to obey. As we have noted above, the laws regarding sacrifice ended at the cross, and we are now to give the “sacrifice of praise” (Heb 13:15). One other body of law exists and must be considered: the ten commandments.

As we discussed in an earlier chapter, there is evidence that all ten commandments were known before the Exodus. But it wasn’t until Moses came down from Mount Sinai that the commandments existed in written form. We find them listed in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. In the apostolic letters we find five of the last six (the commandments relating to our relationships with men) quoted. From this fact, it must become apparent that the apostles not only knew of the ten commandments, but regarded them as being in force.

The first three commandments (relating to our relationship with God), are not quoted in the NT after the gospels, but there is a considerable amount of evidence from the epistles that they were also considered to be in force. Who, for example, would seriously entertain from the NT the idea that God would tolerate any person who held any other “god” in higher regard than the true God?

This leaves us with the fourth commandment as the only point in question. Certain apologists insist that the Sabbath was done away with at the cross. Does the testimony of the apostles support this position? Let us begin with Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians.

2 Honor your father and mother which is the first commandment with a promise,
3 that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth. Eph 6:2-3

There are two major elements to this text. The obvious feature is that it quotes the fifth commandment. But the more important fact for our discussion is the phrase “which is the first commandment with a promise”. This is a direct reference to the fact that this commandment does not stand alone, but is part of a list of commandments, and occupies a specific position within that list. Since this commandment still has the power of law, so do all of the others. If we can find the list, we can determine what laws we are bound to observe as “bond-servants”.

Our search is necessarily short. The list occurs only in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. It is the ten commandments, and includes the Sabbath. Since Paul has identified the ten commandments as binding, all of them are binding. We do not have the option of picking which parts we will observe. We must observe them all.

10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. James 2:10

We will discuss the “law” question shortly. But before dealing with it, why is it that the apostles never use the sabbath commandment in teaching, when they used all of the others? The answer is, they did use it! They just didn’t write all of it down in their letters.

15 and saying, “Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you in order that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them. Acts 14:15

The apostles quote “who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them” directly from the fourth commandment to explain why they were preaching the gospel. The fact that God is the Creator gives Him the authority to command us, and the Sabbath is His central command. It is the visible “sign” that we are submissive to His kingship over us (Ezek 20:12, 20). It is of considerable importance that the apostles quoted the fourth commandment in this statement (also Acts 4:24 and Rev 10:6). In other places the apostles use “Creator” (twice) or “created” (8 times) in their teaching. But these three times, the specific language stating the authority of God over us is taken from the fourth commandment in order to provide emphasis; both to the statement itself, and to the continuation of the authority of the Creator (and His commandment) over us.

We have already seen how failure to keep even one point of the law makes us guilty of the whole law. Some will insist that the ten commandments are not the “law” to which this statement refers. Again we rely on the testimony of the apostles.

7 What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” Rom 7:7

10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.
11 For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not commit murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. James 2:10-11

In the first passage, Paul points to the tenth commandment (“You shall not covet”) as being part of the “Law”. In the second, James equates the seventh and sixth commandments (“Do not commit adultery” and “Do not commit murder”) with the “law”. We find similar statements in Rom 2:21-23; 13:9-10, and 1 Tim 1:8-10. Only one conclusion is possible. In the eyes of the apostles, the inspired messengers of Almighty God, the ten commandments were fully in force. There had been no change in them at the cross. The change at the cross was the termination of the Mosaic sacrificial system with the “better sacrifice” (Heb 9:23) of Jesus.

Why do we not see any didactic teaching on the Sabbath by the apostles? We know that the early church kept the Sabbath. This was discussed at length in the previous chapter. We know that various issues, such as circumcision, were debated in the church (see Acts 15). Large portions of the epistles are devoted to explanatory teaching on various points where the churches needed help. The relative absence of similar teaching on the Sabbath can only have one cause: it wasn’t needed!

If we re-examine the various quotes of commandments, an interesting pattern becomes clear. The quotations were not there to establish what the law says. They are there to illustrate other points. In James 2:10:11 (quoted above), the quotation serves to identify the law and to illustrate that violation of one precept of the law is a violation of all of it. The quotation is not used to declare the existence of the law. That was already established. The quotation merely fills out a related point.

There can in fact be only one reason why the Sabbath commandment is not discussed at length in the NT. Unlike salvation by faith, which was horribly misunderstood, or the necessity of works after salvation, which was equally confused, the ten commandments were clearly understood. The apostles taught from the source books which contained simple, straightforward statements of the commandments. These did not involve complex ideas. All are essentially of the form “Thou shalt not” and “Remember”. The existence and authority of these simple commands was never at issue.

As we examine the evidence in the NT, only one possible conclusion regarding the teaching of the apostles on the Sabbath can be reached. The apostles, by their example in observing the Sabbath; by their use of the OT, in which the Sabbath was declared to be the defining sign of obedience to God; by their use of the ten commandments in illustrating various doctrines; by their equation of the ten commandments with the law; by their use of the authority clause of the fourth commandment to show the power which made them messengers of the truth; the apostles daily taught that the Sabbath was fully in force then and for all time.

Christians properly regard the Bible as the only infallible source of doctrine. If they are willing to act on that statement, they will become truly “bond-servants” of God, carrying out his commands without question, just as the apostles did. If, on the other hand, they look for loopholes in God’s law, they are acting under the influence of Satan, who said “You surely shall not die!” (Gen 3:4). We should rejoice as David did.

1 How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, Nor stand in the path of sinners, Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD, And in His law he meditates day and night. Psa 1:1-2

7 The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul; The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. Psa 19:7

8 I delight to do Thy will, O my God; Thy Law is within my heart. Psa 40:8

18 Open my eyes, that I may behold Wonderful things from Thy law. Psa 119:18

72 The law of Thy mouth is better to me Than thousands of gold and silver pieces. Psa 119:72

97 O how I love Thy law! It is my meditation all the day. Psa 119:97

165 Those who love Thy law have great peace, And nothing causes them to stumble. Psa 119:165

Only a true devotion to the law of God can give us the proper alignment of our will to the will of God. This alliance with the Almighty will sanctify us, restoring our souls. The Christian is obedient. Sin is rebellion against God’s law. Every Christian should be expending every effort to assure his own full compliance with God’s will, including His written commands. All will then see the “sign” of our obedience, the Sabbath. If the Bible is our authoritative guide, then we must keep the seventh-day “Sabbath holy to the Lord”.

Sabbath References in the NT after the Gospels

3 “You shall have no other gods before Me. Ex 20:3
Quoted: not quoted
Referenced: 1 Cor 8:4,6; 10:9, James 4:12, Rev 19:10, 21:8; 22:9

4 “You shall not make for yourself an idol Ex 20:4a
Quoted: not quoted
Referenced: Rom 1:23-24; 2:22, 1 Cor 8:10-11; 10:7,14, Gal 5:20, Eph 5:5, Col 3:5, 1 John 5:21, Rev 9:20; 13:14-15; 14:9-11; 16:2; 21:8

7 “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain Ex 20:7a
Quoted: not quoted
Referenced: Rom 2:24

8 “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Ex 20:8
Quoted: Acts 4:24; 14:15, Rev 10:6 (all partial quotes)
Referenced: not directly referenced

12 “Honor your father and your mother Ex 20:12a
Quoted: Eph 6:2-3
Referenced: Col 3:20, 2 Tim 3:2

13 “You shall not murder. Ex 20:13
Quoted: Rom 13:9, James 2:11
Referenced: 1 Cor 3:16-17, 1 Tim 1:9, Rev 21:8

14 “You shall not commit adultery. Ex 20:14
Quoted: Rom 13:9, James 2:11
Referenced: Rom 2:22; 7:2-3, 1 Cor 10:8, Gal 5:19, Eph 5:3,5, Col 3:5, 1 Thess 4:3, 1 Tim 1:10; 3:2,12; 5:6, Titus 1:6, Heb 13:4, 1 Pet 2:11, James 4:4, Rev 21:8

15 “You shall not steal. Ex 20:15
Quoted: Rom 13:9
Referenced: Rom 2:21, 1 Cor 6:10, Eph 4:28, 1 Thess 4:6

16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. Ex 20:16
Quoted: not quoted
Referenced: Acts 6:13, Rom 3:13, Eph 4:25,31, Col 3:8-9, 1 Tim 1:10, Titus 3:2, Rev 21:8

17 “You shall not covet Ex 20:17a
Quoted: Rom 7:7; 13:9
Referenced: 1 Cor 6:10, Gal 5:20, Eph 5:3,5, Col 3:5

Ten commandments equated to law.
Rom 2:21-23; 7:7; 13:9-10, 1 Tim 1:8-10, James 2:10-11

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