|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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.