Sabbaths Or Sabbath In Colossians 2:16–17?

Μὴ οὖν τις ὑμᾶς κρινέτω ἐν βρώσει καὶ ἐν πόσει ἢ ἐν μέρει ἑορτῆς ἢ νεομηνίας ἢ σαββάτων· 17 ἅ ἐστιν σκιὰ τῶν μελλόντων, τὸ δὲ σῶμα τοῦ Χριστοῦ (Col 2:16–17) Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (Col 2:16–17; ESV)

Recently a question came asking about the relation between the weekly sabbath and the “sabbaths” Paul mentions in Colossians 2:16–17 as quoted above. The question is this: Was Paul referring to the weekly Sabbath mentioned in Exodus 20 and in Deuteronomy 5 or to something else? If Paul was referring to the weekly Sabbath that would suggest that there is no longer a weekly Sabbath, i.e., an obligatory weekly day of worship and rest.

When we consider all the evidence the best conclusion is that Paul was not referring to the weekly Sabbath but to something else.

    1. In order to sort out this question we cannot begin with the Old Covenant (the Mosaic covenant) or national Israel. The Sabbath did not first appear in Exodus 20. It appears first in the creation narrative.

And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation (Gen 2:2–3).

The Sabbath is the climax of the creation narrative. Each of the other creation days has a parallel:


  1. The seventh day is the only day in the narrative that does not have a morning or evening. It’s the only day in the narrative that has no parallel. It’s significant that God instituted a Sabbath and made it holy even before the fall. The Sabbatical pattern is built into creation. It’s part of the way things are.
  2. The Sabbath is as built-in to the nature of things as marriage. When the Pharisees tested our Lord over the question of divorce, Jesus replied by trumping their question by appealing to the creational order: “but from the beginning it was not so….” (Matt 19:8). Where did the Lord explicitly institute marriage “in the beginning,” i.e., in the creation narrative? They are declared to be “one flesh” but the word is not used. If that constituted the institution of marriage (and it did) then sabbath is just as present. Our Lord confirms this understanding in Mark 2:27 when he refuted the Pharisees’ corruption of the Sabbath by reminding them “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). When was the Sabbath made for man? In creation. There is a creational pattern, of which the Sabbath is a part. We should not expect the creational pattern to be revoked but renewed, as in the case of our Lord’s teaching on marriage and the Sabbath. Thus it would be unlikely to find the Apostle Paul revoking a creational ordinance such as the Sabbath any more than he would revoke a creational ordinance such as marriage.
  3. The phrase “new moon and sabbath” in Colossians 2 is not a reference to the weekly creational Sabbath. Exodus 20 refers to the weekly Sabbath and grounds the Israelite Sabbath upon it: “For in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore Yahweh blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (Exod 20:11; ESV). Creational pattern was not Sabbaths or Sabbaths and new moons but the Sabbath. There is a distinction.
  4. We should be suspicious of any view that implies that, in the new covenant, there are now only 9 commandments. If the Lord really had effectively revoked the 4th commandment shouldn’t we expect a clearer revelation. Should we really expect a revocation of the 4th commandment to rest on an inference from Colossians 2?
  5. There were monthly sabbaths in the Israelite calendar. Those were purely temporary and typological. They were not part of the creational pattern but were purely Israelite. Unlike the creational pattern of setting aside 1 day in 7 for rest and worship, which was transformed by the inauguration of the new creation by Christ’s resurrection, the monthly Israelite sabbaths were never intended to be perpetual.—”and whenever burnt offerings were offered to the LORD on Sabbaths, new moons, and feast days, according to the number required of them, regularly before the LORD.” 1 Chron 23:31

    —”on the Sabbaths and the new moons and the appointed feasts of the LORD our God, as ordained forever for Israel.” 2 Chron 2:4

    —”burnt offerings for the Sabbaths, the new moons, and the appointed feasts, as it is written in the Law of the LORD.” 2 Chron 31:3

    —”for the showbread, the regular grain offering, the regular burnt offering, the Sabbaths, the new moons, the appointed feasts, the holy things, and the sin offerings to make atonement for Israel, and for all the work of the house of our God.” Neh 10:33

    —”at the feasts, the new moons, and the Sabbaths, all the appointed feasts” Ez 45:17

    —”And I will put an end to all her mirth, her feasts, her new moons, her Sabbaths, and all her appointed feasts.” Hos 2:11

    In each of these passages the same nouns are used in the LXX (the Greek translation of the OT) that are used in Colossians 2. The form of the noun Sabbath that Paul uses does not occur in the LXX. It occurs 11 times in the NT but only once in with the other key terms (feasts, new moons). That fact is decisive. It’s not the same usage as the typical NT usage which is “one the first of the Sabbath,” which is usually translated “on the first day of the week.” It’s a colloquial expression. So, it’s the same word, same form but quite different context and usage.

  6. Context. There are difficulties in ascertaining the exact opponents whom Paul was battling but it is likely that they are Judaizers of some sort, who were devoted to angels etc and who wanted to go back to the ceremonial law. They may well have synthesized their Judaism with some Greek ideas. At any rate, it’s pretty clear when he invoked “shadow” (σκια) he’s using the same category as Hebrews. Creation is not a shadow of the realities that are present now in the new covenant but the ceremonial laws (including the Israelite ritual calendar) were.In the context of Colossians and particularly of chapter 2 the OT background for his language also makes things clearer. The Colossians were in danger of being deluded a philosophy, a vain deceit, and a human tradition, which was attempting to lead them away from Christ. Whoever the opponents were, they were apparently raising questions or even denying Christ’s humanity. Paul was opposing some sort of false spiritual hierarchy (angels etc) and he did so by pointing to Christ’s headship over all things. The opponents (Greek-influenced Judaizers) were making a big deal about circumcision so he explained what the true significance of circumcision and baptism are: death. The legal demands of the 613 commandments have been fulfilled for us by Christ. He nailed them to the cross. Against this background (circumcision, empty hierarchical philosophies, elemental principles–probably laws of some kind) he points to Christ. The shadows, the new moons, the monthly sabbaths are done. That’s why we don’t have to worry about “don’t touch” etc. All that is fulfilled. In context, it’s highly unlikely that Paul is referring to the creational sabbath, renewed in Christ’s resurrection, in this way.

In light of the creational pattern, the OT usage, and the context of Colossians 2, it is most implausible to interpret “new moons (monthly), feasts (monthly) and sabbath as weekly. Why two monthly observances and then the weekly, creational sabbath? No, we should understand them to refer to purely Israelite typological ceremonies, which some are seeking to reimpose on the Colossians. Those things Christians rightly resist but the creational Sabbath is not in view and the Decalogue is still in tact.

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  1. Dr Clark, I half-expected to see the following rhetoric from you:
    “‘The Sabbath was made for man … ‘ – Tell me, my dear friend under the New Testament, when did you cease to be man?”.
    If it shouldn’t be taken on board, could you please explain why?

  2. Dr. Clark, in point 6 you refer to 1 Chr 23:31, among other passages. However, instead helping your point, this reference supports the position your are seeking to disprove. It is noteworthy that the Chronicler is using the same triad as Paul in Col. 2:16, only here in reverse order – Sabbaths, new moons, and feast days. These explain “whenever burnt offerings were offered to the LORD.” So when were the burnt offerings supposed to be offered to the LORD, according to the law. Numbers 28:9-29:40 helps here, as it nicely follows the outline from 1 Chr 23:31 and explains the “whenever” for the burnt offerings – first the Sabbaths (28:9f), then new moons (28:11-15), and then the feast days (28:16-40). Numbers 28:9 clearly shows that burnt offerings were to be offered on the Sabbath day. So one really cannot at all exclude the weekly Sabbath from the “Sabbaths, new moons and feast days” of 1 Chr 23:31.

    • Iwan,

      The new moons are associated with sacrifices too in Num 28:11:

      At the beginnings of your months, you shall offer a burnt offering to the LORD: two bulls from the herd, one ram, seven male lambs a year old without blemish….

      It does not follow that 1 Chron 23:31 is a reference to the weekly sabbath. I doubt that the word order is determinative but the collection, read in light of the pattern clearly evident leads us to think that it is a reference to the monthly, new moon celebrations not to the creational sabbath restipulated in light of redemption in Deut 5.

      There are 10 commandments, not 9. The fulfillment of the types and shadows does not wipe out creational patterns or the weekly remembrance of redemption.

  3. Dr. Clark, thank you for the response. Essentially, 1 Chr 23:28-32 is telling us what the Levites did, that they performed their duties faithfully. And when it comes to presenting burnt offerings, they did what they were supposed to. So the law of Moses is what they were to follow. Allow me to put it this way – if they didn’t bring burnt offerings on the (weekly) Sabbath days, then the text doesn’t that neat effect of showing us how they truly obeyed God in everything. It’s a fairly straightforward matter: The Levites “stood” (v. 30, presumably as servants of the LORD) before the Lord, at the house of the Lord, “whenever burnt offerings were offered to the LORD.” And again, the law in Num 28-29 tells us when burnt offerings were to be presented to the Lord.

    Now, why exactly do you think that the Sabbaths in 1 Chr 23:31 aren’t referring to the Sabbath days on which Num 28:9, 10 tells Israel to present burnt offerings to the Lord? Is that because you see a pattern in 1 Chr 23:31, according to which weekly things (pardon my theological jargon) can’t be grouped with monthly things and annual things? Those are grouped together just fine in Num 28 and 29.

    Is that also how you read 2 Chr 2:3, 8:13, and 31:3 – that none of these passages are referring to the sacrifices on the weekly Sabbaths?

    • Iwan,

      What I don’t understand is how anyone can attempt to leverage and to thereby eliminate the weekly Sabbath, which is grounded in creation AND redemption, with the the temporary, typological Israelite cultic calendar, to which Paul refers. There’s no way to make the weekly Sabbath purely typological and temporary and thereby end it. Yes, the weekly Sabbath was unavoidably involved in the Israelite cultic calendar but so was infant initiation into the covenant of grace. Nevertheless, infant initiation pre-dated Moses as did the weekly Sabbath.

  4. And one more thought. Are you aware of any references in the law to regulations for burnt offerings on non-weekly Sabbaths, which aren’t the new moons or the feast days?

  5. Dr Clark, you could kick yourself! Isn’t there a weekly Sabbath that HAS been eliminated? Because it has been replaced with a different weekly Sabbath that is to be kept spiritually (not as opposed to physically – our bodies haven’t changed – but as opposed to carnally)?

    • John,

      The creational pattern of working 6 days and resting 1 has not been revoked. The typological Saturday Sabbath has been fulfilled by Christ but there is a Christian Sabbath, the Lord’s Day, to be observed by believers on the 1st day of the week in rest and worship, in which we anticipate the eschatological sabbath—in which we already participate by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. That participation, however, does not obliterate an actual, physical, weekly observance of the Christian sabbath.

      There are still 10 commandments.

  6. Exactly what I was trying to say. The Saturday Sabbath has been eliminated with the New Moons, etc., being replaced with the Lord’s Day Sabbath of the Commandments, which we know we need because the Lord Jesus said it had been created for man, not just for the Law.

  7. Dr. Clark, I must address first the point that I raised in my first reply – the weekly Sabbath is very much included in Col 2:16. Your reference to 1 Chr 23:31 was supposed to demonstrate that OT references to Sabbaths, new moons and feast days/festivals didn’t include the weekly Sabbath, but it very clearly must include the weekly Sabbath. The arguments against that inclusion are too far-fetched and just appear really foreign to what’s going on in 1 Chr 23 (or in the 2 Chr I mentioned above). Actually, in my discussions with people, I appeal to those OT references to show this triad (feast days, new moons and Sabbaths) is pretty well established in the OT and always includes the weekly Sabbath – that’s the most normal meaning of “Sabbath.”

    And as to a pattern which would make the appearance of weekly Sabbath impossible next to feast days and new moons, I see a different pattern in 1 Chr 23:30f. And again, that pattern is very close to the law in Num 28 and 29. Both in the law and in 1 Chr 23, we move from daily observances to annual, and it’s very fitting that what comes in between are weekly and then monthly observances. So, exegetically, in terms of appealing to OT references to Sabbaths, new moons and feast days, it’s just not demonstrated that Col 2:16 simply cannot include the weekly Sabbath. (It’s interesting that the OPC report from the early 1970’s, which argues that Sunday is the Christian Sabbath, it is quite readily granted that Paul is referring to the weekly Sabbaths in Col 2:16.)

    On my reading of Col 2:16f, the legal regulations for the weekly Sabbath go the way of food laws, feast days and new moons. The covenant of which they are part is obsolete, growing old and ready to vanish away (Heb 8:13); it’s the law of commandments expressed in ordinances which has been “abolished” (Eph 2:15); it once had glory but has come to have no glory at all, because it has been brought to an end (2 Cor 3:10f).

    And as to the creation pattern, Heb 4 refers to the seventh day to show that it’s ultimately about the eternal rest. It seems like that’s all the enduring significance for the Christian that the author of Heb sees in it.

    As far as Mk 2:27, “the Sabbath was made for man,” there’s no clear indication that this is speaking of Gen 2:2f. The little “egeneto” is too general, and the Sabbath observance really didn’t begin until Sinai. There’s overwhelming silence about it until Sinai. Jesus words need not refer to anything by the Sinaitic Sabbath law.

    You speak of Sunday, or the Lord’s Day, as the Christian Sabbath, but again, there’s no evidence for that. Once the arguments are presented and questioned, they fall apart, so that – invariably – when one wants to argue for Sunday-Sabbath, there are no stronger arguments that the venerable tradition of the church. Or are there? Gen 2, Ex 20, Dt 5 all clearly speaking of the sanctification of the seventh day. Is there anything as clear that now the first day is uniquely sanctified, such that one very well could be judged in regard to keeping it? Again, that’s just not in the NT at all.

    • Iwan, I’m afraid I don’t find the silence about the Sabbath before Sinai in Exodus 16:23-30 QUITE as overwhelming as you do.
      However, I must commend your generosity to your slaves inherent in your dismissal of any kind of weekly Sabbath. You can now make them work seven days a week instead of the six days to which they were limited under the Law. You are SUCH a wonderful master!

    • Iwan,

      So, there are now only 9 commandments? Is that what you’re concluding? Eschatology has swallowed up creation? I think we have a theological issue masquerading as an exegetical issue.

  8. Scott, I’m surprised to hear you keep repeating the “so there are only 9 commandments” line. The reason why Iwan, following the clear consensus of the early church, is on good grounds to reject the notion that Sunday is the Christian Sabbath is that, again as the early church recognized, Christians are not under the law (i.e., the Ten Commandments, the tablets of stone identified in 2 Corinthians 3). To be sure, Christians follow the moral law, and that means simply that we observe whatever in the Decalogue is part of the moral law. As Calvin pointed out, we observe the substance of the fourth commandment by resting in Christ, not by exalting one day over another. Iwan is on solid ground here, with respect to Scripture, the testimony of the early church, and the clear argumentation of Calvin, the 2nd Helvetic, and the Heidelberg.

    Even when I was a sabbatarian, I always felt uneasy about the intellectual cartwheels necessary to defend the claim that Paul was not speaking of ordinary weekly sabbaths in Colossians 2 (especially when interpreted in light of his clear comments in Romans).

    It’s worth noting that just as the Ten Commandments were elevated to a prominent place in Christian ethics at a time when the church wanted to get serious about Christianizing the broader society, which had been converted en masse, so the Puritans (and their Dutch followers) sought to revive the Old Testament sabbath when they wanted to transform the masses of society, still steeped in medieval superstition. Not only scripture and church tradition, but a clear application of the two kingdoms should have warned them against assuming this was possible. It makes sense, though, that if you want to set up an earthly kingdom, the only example you have to follow is Israel.

  9. John Rokos, I don’t suppose that we’ve met. Thank you for the pointer to Ex 16:22-26. Of course, you’re quite right. Notice, though, that although the events described occur before the giving of the law at Sinai, we are dealing with Israel as God’s covenant people at this point. Surely you’ll grant that they are God’s covenant people, even though the actual covenant hasn’t been cut yet? So we are in the unique context of Israel here.

    It’s interesting that c. 450 years ago, in the 1559 Institutes, Calvin drew out precisely the implications from the 4th commandment that you are concerned about, and yet without at all going the Sunday-Sabbatarian route. Certainly, Gen 2, Ex 20 and Dt 5 all show the need for physical rest, esp. in terms of what employers owe their employees. It’s interesting to me that Calvin could exegete Scripture in this way back then, but for the Sunday-Sabbatarian, that’s just not good enough.

    Dr. Clark, can I take your questions in response to my questions as conceding that evidence for Sunday-Sabbath is very thin at best? If you are really going to ask whether for me, eschatology has swallowed up creation, or suggest that here’s a theological issue masquerading as an exegetical one, shouldn’t you at least make some effort to show the solid case for Sunday-Sabbath? I have yet to see one that isn’t based on 1001 assumptions and inferences, and yet – here’s the rub – we behave and teach the people in our churches as though we had all the clarity and evidence of thus saith the Lord. Christian Sabbath is strong language. Are you sure there is justification for using it and for judging (I don’t mean the “judge not lest ye be judged” way) those who question it?

    And how do you know that there could be no significant revision of the application of any of the 10 commandments in the new covenant?

    • Matt and Iwan,

      The holy law of God is not up for debate on the HB, that includes the CHRISTIAN sabbath or the Lord’s Day. The Reformed churches confess 10 commandments, including the 4th commandment.


      I’m intimately familiar with the history of the Christian Lord’s Day. It is not helpful to impugn the adjective “Sabbatarian.” It has multiple senses. I explained that in RRC. I’ve explained Calvin’s view and defended the historic Christian and Reformed doctrine of the Christian sabbath/Lord’s Day at length, in detail, in print. I’m not going to rehearse all that here.

      Iwan, I’m conceding nothing and I think you know that. I think that there are macro theological issues/problems in your formulation that require a postponement of the exegetical discussion.

      Brothers, this discussion, in this space, has come to an end.

  10. I must add what isn’t often said about the Fourth Commandment, which is that it also includes the command to “labour and do all thy work” during the other six days. We know that the Church was to meet on the first day of the week. Not changing the Sabbath to that day would mean that the believer would no longer have the six days in which to obey that aspect of the Commandment. Unless, of course, you choose to define meeting with believers as labour rather than rest!

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