Old Covenant Identity Markers

By Jerry Wierwille

God commanded that his covenant people be identified by certain unique rituals, activities, behaviors, and characteristics. These are often referred to as “boundary markers.” They identify or ‘mark’ someone as being in the covenant. In order to be considered a covenant member, a person must exhibit the covenant boundary markers, otherwise they cannot be part of the covenant.

Notwithstanding the 613 commandments that Israel was to obey, three main boundary markers that we encounter in the old covenant are: circumcision, food laws, and the Sabbath. These three are of significant importance because of the controversies they caused in the early church.


Abrahamic Covenant

First instituted by God to Abraham and his household

  • Gen 17:9-14; 21:4

Old Covenant

Circumcision in the flesh (i.e., visible circumcision)

Circumcision was required for covenant membership

  • Exod 4:24-26; 12:44-48; Lev 12:3; Jos 5:1-9

Circumcision in the flesh did not of itself bring about the reality of what it signified—a truly devoted
covenant member.

Circumcision of the flesh served as an external sign of what was to be an internal reality. In this way, it functioned as a type of the coming circumcision of the heart that God promised would come in the future (i.e., Christ and the new covenant)

  • Deut 10:16; 30:6
  • Jer 4:4; 9:24-25
  • Ezek 44:6-9
  • Lev 26:40-42

New Covenant

Circumcision in the heart (i.e., invisible circumcision)

  • Rom 2:25-29
  • Phil 3:3
  • Col 2:11-12

Christians are free from the command to be circumcised in the flesh.

But what about Abraham and circumcision?

  • Rom 4:9-12

The new covenant believer is freed from the mandate to be circumcised in the flesh. He is circumcised in the heart by God through the spirit.

Food Laws

Certain meats were forbidden for old covenant believers (Lev 7:23-27; 11:1-47; Deut 14:3-21)

  • The fat of ox, sheep, or goat or the blood of animals (Lev 7:23-27)
  • Animals that do not have a divided hoof that is split and chew the cud (Lev 11:1-8)
    • Camel, rabbit, rock hyrax, pig, etc.
  • Creatures without fins and scales in the water (Lev 11:9-12)
  • Certain birds: eagle, buzzard, vulture, falcon, raven, ostrich, owl, etc (Lev 11:13-19)
  • Winged insects that walk on four legs (Lev 11:20-23)
  • Dead animals (Lev 11:24-28)
  • Swarming animals: mole, mouse, lizards, etc (Lev 11:29-38)
  • Anything that swarms and crawls on its belly, walks on all fours, or has many feet (Lev 11:41-43

Permittable animals (Deut 14:3-5)

  • Ox, sheep, goat, ibex, gazelle, deer, wild goat, antelope, wild oryx, and mountain sheep

New covenant believers are no longer under the dietary restrictions of the old covenant.

  • Rom 14:1-23
  • 1 Tim 4:3-4
  • 1 Cor 8:7-13
  • Col 2:16-23


Old Covenant

Originated under the old covenant

  • Exod 20:8-11; 31:12-17
  • Lev 23:3
  • Deut 5:12-15

Certain activities were prohibited on the Sabbath

  • Gathering manna and cooking (Exod 16:22-30)
  • Plowing and harvesting (Exod 34:21)
  • Gathering wood (Num 15:32)
  • Buying and selling merchandise (Neh 10:31; 13:16-22; Jer 17:21-27)

What was the penalty for breaking the Sabbath?

  • Before the old covenant was ratified, penalty for non-observance was strict rebuke and warning
    (Exod 16:27-30)
  • After the old covenant was ratified, the penalty for non-observance of the Sabbath was death (Exod 31:14; 35:2; cf. Num 15:32-36)

What did the Sabbath signify?

  • The Sabbath is tied to Israel’s deliverance and exodus from Egypt
    • Deut 5:12-15
  • The Sabbath is modeled after the pattern of creation
    • Exod 20:8-11; 31:17

The Sabbath in the Gospels

The commandments and regulations of the old covenant were still in force and binding during the time of
Jesus’ ministry.

  • Matt 12:1-14

The Sabbath in the NT Letters

  • Gal 4:10
  • Rom 14:5-6
  • Col 2:16-17

The sign of the covenant is valid so long as the covenant is valid. With the coming of the new covenant, the old covenant regulations are no longer in effect.

What about the “Sabbath Rest”?

Heb 4:1-11

  • 9—"there still remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God”
  • The promised Sabbath rest points back to creation (vv. 3-4)
    • The rest that God wanted creation to experience was lost in the fall of humankind but regained in Christ and will ultimately fulfilled in the new creation of the heavens and earth.

The eschatological Sabbath rest is not the weekly Sabbath commanded under the old covenant. There is no mention of a weekly Sabbath for believers to follow. The weekly Sabbath was an institution modeled after the pattern of creation but which was a type that pointed toward a future fulfillment of the creation rest.

Since the reality of the promised rest is found in Christ and the new creation, it could be said that the promised rest has come (in an inaugural way only, not in its complete fulfillment), in Christ and the new creation that has begun. And thus the type (i.e., weekly Sabbath) has passed away and is no longer necessary.

The eschatological fulfillment of the Sabbath rest is here in part as an initial aspect of the kingdom that Jesus brought through his life, death, and resurrection.

  • Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
    (Matt 11:28-29)

2 Responses

  1. Nice Job! Great scripture review. We find some sabbatarians in Africa

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