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Was the Sabbath Changed in the New Testament?

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Many people, however, think that Paul, the other apostles and the early Church changed the Sabbath day. But what does the record of the New Testament really say?

“Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12 Romans 7:12Why the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.
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).

We have seen that Jesus Christ did not change God’s Sabbath day. On the contrary, throughout His ministry He showed the true purpose and intent of the Sabbath. Jesus often showed that the Sabbath, and particularly His teachings and actions on that day, prefigured the coming messianic age—the time of the Kingdom of God—as one of healing, freedom and restoration for all humanity.

Jesus was a Sabbath-keeper. At the time of His death, His closest followers clearly observed the Sabbath, waiting until it was past to prepare His body for burial (Matthew 28:1 Matthew 28:1In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulcher.
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; Mark 16:1-2 Mark 16:1-2 1 And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him. 2 And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came to the sepulcher at the rising of the sun.
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; Luke 23:56 Luke 23:56And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment.
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; Luke 24:1 Luke 24:1Now on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came to the sepulcher, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them.
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). Fifty days from Christ’s resurrection, many gathered for the Day of Pentecost, one of God’s seven annual Sabbaths or feasts observed in addition to the weekly Sabbath (Leviticus 23), and it was on that day that the New Testament Church was founded by the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4 Acts 2:1-4 1 And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. 2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. 3 And there appeared to them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat on each of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
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).

The Bible shows no evidence of any change at Christ’s death and resurrection concerning God’s Sabbaths. We see only a continuation of Christ’s followers observing them just as He had done—despite the assertions of some to the contrary.

Did Paul abolish the Sabbath?

If the Sabbath, or any part of God’s law, was abolished or changed in the early New Testament Church, we should find clear evidence of such a dramatic shift in the New Testament writings. After all, the books of the New Testament were written in the first century over a period of decades ending in the 90s, more than 60 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Many who argue that the Sabbath was abolished in the New Testament point to the apostle Paul’s writings to justify their view. But is this opinion correct? They commonly cite three passages to support that claim—Romans 14:5-6 Romans 14:5-6 5 One man esteems one day above another: another esteems every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. 6 He that regards the day, regards it to the Lord; and he that regards not the day, to the Lord he does not regard it. He that eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he that eats not, to the Lord he eats not, and gives God thanks.
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, Colossians 2:16-17 Colossians 2:16-17 16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: 17 Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.
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and Galatians 4:9-10 Galatians 4:9-10 9 But now, after that you have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn you again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto you desire again to be in bondage? 10 You observe days, and months, and times, and years.
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.

To properly understand these passages we must look at each in context, both in the immediate context of what is being discussed and in the larger social and historical context influencing the author and his audience at the time. We must also be careful not to read our preconceived notions into the text. With that in mind, let’s examine these passages and see if Paul indeed annulled or abolished Sabbath observance in his writings.

First, let’s consider Paul’s own statements about God’s law. More than 25 years after the death of Jesus Christ, he wrote in Romans 7:12 Romans 7:12Why the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.
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, “Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.” In Romans 2:13 Romans 2:13(For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.
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he stated, “For not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified.” In Romans 7:22 Romans 7:22For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:
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he said, “For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man.”

Many assume that once we have faith in Jesus Christ, we have no more need to keep the law. Paul himself addressed this concept in Romans 3:31 Romans 3:31Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yes, we establish the law.
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: “Do we then make void [Greek katargeo, meaning ‘destroy’ or ‘abolish’] the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish [Greek histemi, meaning ‘erect’ or ‘make to stand’] the law.” Faith does not abolish the law, said Paul; it establishes and upholds  it.

In Acts 24 he defended himself before the Roman governor Felix against charges of dissension and sedition brought by Jewish religious leaders. Replying to the accusations against him, he said, “I worship the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets” (Acts 24:14 Acts 24:14But this I confess to you, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets:
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).

Two years later he again defended himself against such accusations, this time before another Roman governor, Festus. “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I offended in anything at all,” he responded to the charges against him (Acts 25:8 Acts 25:8While he answered for himself, Neither against the law of the Jews, neither against the temple, nor yet against Caesar, have I offended any thing at all.
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).

Here, some 25 to 30 years after Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, Paul plainly said he believed “all things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets” (terms used for the books of the Old Testament) and had done nothing against the law!

In light of these clear statements, we should expect to find equally clear instructions regarding abolition of the Sabbath, if that had been Paul’s understanding and intent. But do we?

Are all days of worship alike?

In Romans 14:5-6 Romans 14:5-6 5 One man esteems one day above another: another esteems every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. 6 He that regards the day, regards it to the Lord; and he that regards not the day, to the Lord he does not regard it. He that eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he that eats not, to the Lord he eats not, and gives God thanks.
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, Paul wrote: “One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks.”

From this statement, it could appear to some that Paul is saying that whatever day one chooses to rest and worship is irrelevant so long as one is “fully convinced in his own mind” and “observes it to the Lord.” Does this mean that the Sabbath is no different from any other day or that we are free to choose whatever day we wish to observe?

To come to that conclusion, one must read it into the verse, because the Sabbath is nowhere mentioned here. In fact, the word Sabbath or references to Sabbath-keeping are not found anywhere in the book of Romans. The reference here is simply to “days,” not the Sabbath or any other days of rest and worship commanded by God.

Keep in mind that Paul, earlier in this same epistle, had written that “the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good,” that “the doers of the law will be justified,” and that he found “delight in the law of God” (Romans 7:12 Romans 7:12Why the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.
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; Romans 2:13 Romans 2:13(For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.
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; Romans 7:22 Romans 7:22For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:
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). If he were saying in Romans 14 that Sabbath observance is irrelevant, such an assertion would be completely inconsistent with his other clear statements in this same letter.

What are the “days” Paul was talking about?

What are the days Paul mentions here? We must look at the context to find out.

The passage in question about days in Romans 14:5-6 Romans 14:5-6 5 One man esteems one day above another: another esteems every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. 6 He that regards the day, regards it to the Lord; and he that regards not the day, to the Lord he does not regard it. He that eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he that eats not, to the Lord he eats not, and gives God thanks.
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is immediately between references to eating meat and vegetarianism in Romans 14:2-3 Romans 14:2-3 2 For one believes that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eats herbs. 3 Let not him that eats despise him that eats not; and let not him which eats not judge him that eats: for God has received him.
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;and Romans 14:6 Romans 14:6He that regards the day, regards it to the Lord; and he that regards not the day, to the Lord he does not regard it. He that eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he that eats not, to the Lord he eats not, and gives God thanks.
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. There is no biblical connection between Sabbath observance and vegetarianism, so these verses must be taken out of context to assume Paul was referring to the Sabbath.

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary explains that “the close contextual association with eating suggests that Paul has in mind a special day set apart for observance as a time for feasting or as a time for fasting” (Everett Harrison, 1976, Vol. 10, p. 146). It is apparent that Paul wasn’t discussing the Sabbath but, rather, other days during which feasting, fasting or abstaining from certain foods was practiced.

Paul was writing to a congregation composed of both Jewish and gentile believers in Rome (Romans 1:13 Romans 1:13Now I would not have you ignorant, brothers, that oftentimes I purposed to come to you, (but was let till now,) that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles.
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; Romans 2:17 Romans 2:17Behold, you are called a Jew, and rest in the law, and make your boast of God,
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). Eating and fasting practices that were not clearly addressed in the Scriptures had become a point of contention.

The Talmud records that many Jews of that time fasted on Mondays and Thursdays. They also had other traditional fast days (compare Zechariah 7:3-5 Zechariah 7:3-5 3 And to speak to the priests which were in the house of the LORD of hosts, and to the prophets, saying, Should I weep in the fifth month, separating myself, as I have done these so many years? 4 Then came the word of the LORD of hosts to me, saying, 5 Speak to all the people of the land, and to the priests, saying, When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh month, even those seventy years, did you at all fast to me, even to me?
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). Since some of the Jewish Christians in Rome self-righteously criticized others (Romans 2:17-24 Romans 2:17-24 17 Behold, you are called a Jew, and rest in the law, and make your boast of God, 18 And know his will, and approve the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law; 19 And are confident that you yourself are a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness, 20 An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which have the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law. 21 You therefore which teach another, teach you not yourself? you that preach a man should not steal, do you steal? 22 You that say a man should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? you that abhor idols, do you commit sacrilege? 23 You that make your boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonor you God? 24 For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you, as it is written.
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), perhaps they had become like the Pharisee who boasted, “I fast twice a week” (Luke 18:12 Luke 18:12I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.
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), and set themselves up as more righteous than others who were not fasting at these times.

Possibly members of the church at Rome were trying to enforce fasting on particular days on other Christians there, prompting Paul’s pointed question, “Who are you to judge another’s servant?” (Romans 14:4 Romans 14:4Who are you that judge another man’s servant? to his own master he stands or falls. Yes, he shall be held up: for God is able to make him stand.
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). Paul appears to be setting the record straight by emphasizing that fasting is a voluntary exercise of worship not limited to particular days. Therefore, one person’s fasting on a particular day when another is eating does not make him more righteous.

Why were some avoiding meat?

In Romans 14:2-3 Romans 14:2-3 2 For one believes that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eats herbs. 3 Let not him that eats despise him that eats not; and let not him which eats not judge him that eats: for God has received him.
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Paul discussed vegetarianism (“he who is weak eats only vegetables”) and continued this theme in Romans 14:6 Romans 14:6He that regards the day, regards it to the Lord; and he that regards not the day, to the Lord he does not regard it. He that eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he that eats not, to the Lord he eats not, and gives God thanks.
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(“he who eats … and he who does not eat”).

The context shows us that some members of the congregation there were eating meat, and others were abstaining from eating meat. The vegetarians were likely members who “feared lest they should (without knowing it) eat meat which had been offered to idols or was otherwise ceremonially unclean (which might easily happen in such a place as Rome), that they abstained from meat altogether” (W.J. Conybeare and J.S. Howson, The Life and Epistles of St. Paul, 1974, p. 530).

In 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, Paul addressed the issue of eating meat that may have been sacrificed to idols and consequently could have been viewed by some members as improper to eat. Paul’s point in that chapter was that unknown association of food with idolatrous activity did not make that food unsuitable for eating.

Paul was evidently addressing the same issue with both the Romans and the Corinthians, namely whether members should avoid meats that may have been associated with idolatrous worship. This is indicated by Paul’s reference to “unclean” meat in Romans 14:14 Romans 14:14I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteems any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.
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. Rather than using the Greek word used to describe those meats listed in the Old Testament as unclean, he used a word meaning “common” or “defiled,” which would be appropriate in describing meat that had been sacrificed to idols.

Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 8 was the same as his conclusion in Romans 14:15 Romans 14:15But if your brother be grieved with your meat, now walk you not charitably. Destroy not him with your meat, for whom Christ died.
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: Be especially careful not to offend a fellow Christian, causing him to stumble or lose faith over the issue of meats.

In no way was this related to Sabbath observance, as the Sabbath is nowhere associated in Scripture with abstaining from eating meat or any food. The Sabbath is nowhere mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Romans; it simply wasn’t the issue.

Those who look to Paul’s letter to the Romans for justification for their view that he abrogates keeping Old Testament laws face the added burden of explaining why, if his purpose is to argue that those laws are done away, Paul quotes from that same Old Testament more than 80 times in this same epistle as authority for his teaching. This simple fact alone confirms Paul’s view that “the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12 Romans 7:12Why the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.
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).

Galatians 4:9-10 Galatians 4:9-10 9 But now, after that you have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn you again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto you desire again to be in bondage? 10 You observe days, and months, and times, and years.
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: Is the Sabbath bondage?

Galatians 4:9-10 Galatians 4:9-10 9 But now, after that you have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn you again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto you desire again to be in bondage? 10 You observe days, and months, and times, and years.
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is another passage from Paul’s epistles that some see as condemning Sabbath observance. In these verses Paul wrote: “But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years.”

Those who argue against Sabbath observance typically see Paul’s reference to “days and months and seasons and years” as pointing to the Sabbath, festivals and sabbatical and jubilee years given in the Old Testament (Leviticus 23:1-44 Leviticus 23:1-44 1 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2 Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, Concerning the feasts of the LORD, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, even these are my feasts. 3 Six days shall work be done: but the seventh day is the sabbath of rest, an holy convocation; you shall do no work therein: it is the sabbath of the LORD in all your dwellings. 4 These are the feasts of the LORD, even holy convocations, which you shall proclaim in their seasons. 5 In the fourteenth day of the first month at even is the LORD’s passover. 6 And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread to the LORD: seven days you must eat unleavened bread. 7 In the first day you shall have an holy convocation: you shall do no servile work therein. 8 But you shall offer an offering made by fire to the LORD seven days: in the seventh day is an holy convocation: you shall do no servile work therein. 9 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 10 Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, When you be come into the land which I give to you, and shall reap the harvest thereof, then you shall bring a sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest: 11 And he shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, to be accepted for you: on the morrow after the sabbath the priest shall wave it. 12 And you shall offer that day when you wave the sheaf an he lamb without blemish of the first year for a burnt offering to the LORD. 13 And the meat offering thereof shall be two tenth deals of fine flour mingled with oil, an offering made by fire to the LORD for a sweet smell: and the drink offering thereof shall be of wine, the fourth part of an hin. 14 And you shall eat neither bread, nor parched corn, nor green ears, until the selfsame day that you have brought an offering to your God: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. 15 And you shall count to you from the morrow after the sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven sabbaths shall be complete: 16 Even to the morrow after the seventh sabbath shall you number fifty days; and you shall offer a new meat offering to the LORD. 17 You shall bring out of your habitations two wave loaves of two tenth deals; they shall be of fine flour; they shall be baked with leaven; they are the first fruits to the LORD. 18 And you shall offer with the bread seven lambs without blemish of the first year, and one young bullock, and two rams: they shall be for a burnt offering to the LORD, with their meat offering, and their drink offerings, even an offering made by fire, of sweet smell to the LORD. 19 Then you shall sacrifice one kid of the goats for a sin offering, and two lambs of the first year for a sacrifice of peace offerings. 20 And the priest shall wave them with the bread of the first fruits for a wave offering before the LORD, with the two lambs: they shall be holy to the LORD for the priest. 21 And you shall proclaim on the selfsame day, that it may be an holy convocation to you: you shall do no servile work therein: it shall be a statute for ever in all your dwellings throughout your generations. 22 And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not make clean riddance of the corners of your field when you reap, neither shall you gather any gleaning of your harvest: you shall leave them to the poor, and to the stranger: I am the LORD your God. 23 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 24 Speak to the children of Israel, saying, In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall you have a sabbath, a memorial of blowing of trumpets, an holy convocation. 25 You shall do no servile work therein: but you shall offer an offering made by fire to the LORD. 26 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 27 Also on the tenth day of this seventh month there shall be a day of atonement: it shall be an holy convocation to you; and you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the LORD. 28 And you shall do no work in that same day: for it is a day of atonement, to make an atonement for you before the LORD your God. 29 For whatever soul it be that shall not be afflicted in that same day, he shall be cut off from among his people. 30 And whatever soul it be that does any work in that same day, the same soul will I destroy from among his people. 31 You shall do no manner of work: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. 32 It shall be to you a sabbath of rest, and you shall afflict your souls: in the ninth day of the month at even, from even to even, shall you celebrate your sabbath. 33 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 34 Speak to the children of Israel, saying, The fifteenth day of this seventh month shall be the feast of tabernacles for seven days to the LORD. 35 On the first day shall be an holy convocation: you shall do no servile work therein. 36 Seven days you shall offer an offering made by fire to the LORD: on the eighth day shall be an holy convocation to you; and you shall offer an offering made by fire to the LORD: it is a solemn assembly; and you shall do no servile work therein. 37 These are the feasts of the LORD, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, to offer an offering made by fire to the LORD, a burnt offering, and a meat offering, a sacrifice, and drink offerings, every thing on his day: 38 Beside the sabbaths of the LORD, and beside your gifts, and beside all your vows, and beside all your freewill offerings, which you give to the LORD. 39 Also in the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruit of the land, you shall keep a feast to the LORD seven days: on the first day shall be a sabbath, and on the eighth day shall be a sabbath. 40 And you shall take you on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. 41 And you shall keep it a feast to the LORD seven days in the year. It shall be a statute for ever in your generations: you shall celebrate it in the seventh month. 42 You shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are Israelites born shall dwell in booths: 43 That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. 44 And Moses declared to the children of Israel the feasts of the LORD.
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, Leviticus 25:1-56 Leviticus 25:1-56 1 And the LORD spoke to Moses in mount Sinai, saying, 2 Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath to the LORD. 3 Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in the fruit thereof; 4 But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest to the land, a sabbath for the LORD: you shall neither sow your field, nor prune your vineyard. 5 That which grows of its own accord of your harvest you shall not reap, neither gather the grapes of your vine undressed: for it is a year of rest to the land. 6 And the sabbath of the land shall be meat for you; for you, and for your servant, and for your maid, and for your hired servant, and for your stranger that sojournes with you. 7 And for your cattle, and for the beast that are in your land, shall all the increase thereof be meat. 8 And you shall number seven sabbaths of years to you, seven times seven years; and the space of the seven sabbaths of years shall be to you forty and nine years. 9 Then shall you cause the trumpet of the jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the day of atonement shall you make the trumpet sound throughout all your land. 10 And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee to you; and you shall return every man to his possession, and you shall return every man to his family. 11 A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be to you: you shall not sow, neither reap that which grows of itself in it, nor gather the grapes in it of your vine undressed. 12 For it is the jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat the increase thereof out of the field. 13 In the year of this jubilee you shall return every man to his possession. 14 And if you sell ought to your neighbor, or buy ought of your neighbor’s hand, you shall not oppress one another: 15 According to the number of years after the jubilee you shall buy of your neighbor, and according to the number of years of the fruits he shall sell to you: 16 According to the multitude of years you shall increase the price thereof, and according to the fewness of years you shall diminish the price of it: for according to the number of the years of the fruits does he sell to you. 17 You shall not therefore oppress one another; but you shall fear your God: for I am the LORD your God. 18 Why you shall do my statutes, and keep my judgments, and do them; and you shall dwell in the land in safety. 19 And the land shall yield her fruit, and you shall eat your fill, and dwell therein in safety. 20 And if you shall say, What shall we eat the seventh year? behold, we shall not sow, nor gather in our increase: 21 Then I will command my blessing on you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth fruit for three years. 22 And you shall sow the eighth year, and eat yet of old fruit until the ninth year; until her fruits come in you shall eat of the old store. 23 The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is mine, for you are strangers and sojourners with me. 24 And in all the land of your possession you shall grant a redemption for the land. 25 If your brother be waxen poor, and has sold away some of his possession, and if any of his kin come to redeem it, then shall he redeem that which his brother sold. 26 And if the man have none to redeem it, and himself be able to redeem it; 27 Then let him count the years of the sale thereof, and restore the remainder to the man to whom he sold it; that he may return to his possession. 28 But if he be not able to restore it to him, then that which is sold shall remain in the hand of him that has bought it until the year of jubilee: and in the jubilee it shall go out, and he shall return to his possession. 29 And if a man sell a dwelling house in a walled city, then he may redeem it within a whole year after it is sold; within a full year may he redeem it. 30 And if it be not redeemed within the space of a full year, then the house that is in the walled city shall be established for ever to him that bought it throughout his generations: it shall not go out in the jubilee. 31 But the houses of the villages which have no wall round about them shall be counted as the fields of the country: they may be redeemed, and they shall go out in the jubilee. 32 Notwithstanding the cities of the Levites, and the houses of the cities of their possession, may the Levites redeem at any time. 33 And if a man purchase of the Levites, then the house that was sold, and the city of his possession, shall go out in the year of jubilee: for the houses of the cities of the Levites are their possession among the children of Israel. 34 But the field of the suburbs of their cities may not be sold; for it is their perpetual possession. 35 And if your brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with you; then you shall relieve him: yes, though he be a stranger, or a sojourner; that he may live with you. 36 Take you no usury of him, or increase: but fear your God; that your brother may live with you. 37 You shall not give him your money on usury, nor lend him your victuals for increase. 38 I am the LORD your God, which brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God. 39 And if your brother that dwells by you be waxen poor, and be sold to you; you shall not compel him to serve as a bondservant: 40 But as an hired servant, and as a sojourner, he shall be with you, and shall serve you to the year of jubilee. 41 And then shall he depart from you, both he and his children with him, and shall return to his own family, and to the possession of his fathers shall he return. 42 For they are my servants, which I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: they shall not be sold as slaves. 43 You shall not rule over him with rigor; but shall fear your God. 44 Both your slaves, and your bondmaids, which you shall have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall you buy slaves and bondmaids. 45 Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall you buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. 46 And you shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your slaves for ever: but over your brothers the children of Israel, you shall not rule one over another with rigor. 47 And if a sojourner or stranger wax rich by you, and your brother that dwells by him wax poor, and sell himself to the stranger or sojourner by you, or to the stock of the stranger’s family: 48 After that he is sold he may be redeemed again; one of his brothers may redeem him: 49 Either his uncle, or his uncle’s son, may redeem him, or any that is near of kin to him of his family may redeem him; or if he be able, he may redeem himself. 50 And he shall reckon with him that bought him from the year that he was sold to him to the year of jubilee: and the price of his sale shall be according to the number of years, according to the time of an hired servant shall it be with him. 51 If there be yet many years behind, according to them he shall give again the price of his redemption out of the money that he was bought for. 52 And if there remain but few years to the year of jubilee, then he shall count with him, and according to his years shall he give him again the price of his redemption. 53 And as a yearly hired servant shall he be with him: and the other shall not rule with rigor over him in your sight. 54 And if he be not redeemed in these years, then he shall go out in the year of jubilee, both he, and his children with him. 55 For to me the children of Israel are servants; they are my servants whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
American King James Version×
). They see these God-given observances as the “weak and miserable principles” (NIV) to which the Galatians were “turn[ing] again” and becoming “in bondage” (Galatians 4:9 Galatians 4:9But now, after that you have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn you again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto you desire again to be in bondage?
American King James Version×
).

Is this Paul’s meaning? There is an obvious problem with viewing these verses as critical of the Sabbath. As with Romans 14, the Sabbath is not even mentioned here. The term “Sabbath,” “Sabbaths” and any related words do not appear anywhere in this epistle to the Galatians.

Again, to argue against keeping the Sabbath, some assume that the “years” referred to in Galatians 4:10 Galatians 4:10You observe days, and months, and times, and years.
American King James Version×
are the sabbatical and jubilee years described in Leviticus 25. However, the jubilee year was not being observed anywhere in Paul’s day, and the sabbatical year was not being observed in areas outside the land of Israel ( Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 14, p. 582, and Jewish Encyclopedia, “Sabbatical Year and Jubilee,” p. 666). The fact that Galatia was in Asia Minor, far outside the land of Israel, makes it illogical to conclude that Paul could have been referring here to the sabbatical and jubilee years.

The Greek words Paul used for “days and months and seasons and years” are used throughout the New Testament in describing normal, civil periods of time. They are totally different from the precise terms Paul used in Colossians 2:16 Colossians 2:16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:
American King James Version×
specifying the Sabbaths, festivals and new-moon observances given in the Bible. He used exact terminology for biblical observances in Colossians, but used very different Greek words in Galatians—a clear indication that he was discussing altogether different subjects.

To understand what Paul meant, we must be sure to carefully examine both the historic and immediate contexts of these verses.

The Galatians couldn’t turn back to what they had never observed

It is true that there was a Judaizing faction trying to introduce to the Galatians the need to be circumcised and take up the entire ritual system of the Mosaic law—which Paul strongly opposed. But this was new to the people here. For the Galatian churches were composed mostly of members from a gentile, rather than Jewish, background. Paul made it clear that they were physically uncircumcised (Galatians 5:2 Galatians 5:2Behold, I Paul say to you, that if you be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.
American King James Version×
; Galatians 6:12-13 Galatians 6:12-13 12 As many as desire to make a fair show in the flesh, they constrain you to be circumcised; only lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ. 13 For neither they themselves who are circumcised keep the law; but desire to have you circumcised, that they may glory in your flesh.
American King James Version×
), so they could not have been Jewish.

This background is important in understanding this controversial passage. In Galatians 4:9-10 Galatians 4:9-10 9 But now, after that you have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn you again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto you desire again to be in bondage? 10 You observe days, and months, and times, and years.
American King James Version×
, Paul said that the Galatians were “turn[ing] again to the weak and beggarly elements,” which included “days and months and seasons and years.” Since Paul’s readers were from a gentile background, it is difficult to see how the “days and months and seasons and years” they were turning back to could be the Sabbath and other biblical festivals, since they could not turn back to something they had not previously observed.

This is made even clearer by the immediate context. In Galatians 4:8 Galatians 4:8However, then, when you knew not God, you did service to them which by nature are no gods.
American King James Version×
, Paul said, “When you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods.” By this Paul referred “clearly to the idols of paganism, which, in typical Jewish idiom, Paul termed ‘not gods’ ” (James Boice, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 1976, Vol. 10, p. 475).

Paul wasn’t referring to biblical practices

Is it possible that these “weak and beggarly elements” they were returning to (Galatians 4:9 Galatians 4:9But now, after that you have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn you again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto you desire again to be in bondage?
American King James Version×
) could be God’s laws, Sabbaths and festivals? The word translated “elements” here is the Greek word stoicheia, the same word translated “elements” earlier in Galatians 4:3 Galatians 4:3Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world:
American King James Version×
. There Paul described his readers as having been “in bondage under the elements of the world.” For this to refer to God’s law in Galatians 4:9 Galatians 4:9But now, after that you have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn you again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto you desire again to be in bondage?
American King James Version×
, it would also have to refer to His law in Galatians 4:3 Galatians 4:3Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world:
American King James Version×
, since the same word is used.

To say that Galatians 4:3 Galatians 4:3Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world:
American King James Version×
refers to biblical law is insupportable, because these Galatians were gentiles, not Jews, and thus had no history of keeping the biblical laws. Also, “it does not explain why or how Paul could add the phrase ‘of the world’ to the term stoicheia. All Jewish thought would emphasize the other-worldly character of the law resulting from its divine origin” (ibid., p. 472).

Far more reasonable is to understand “elements of the world” as designating either fundamental principles of false human religion or the specific pagan concept of elemental spirits controlling natural forces. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary continues: “It would seem that in Paul’s time this exceedingly early and primitive view had been expanded to the point at which the stoicheia also referred to the sun, moon, stars, and planets—all of them associated with gods or goddesses and, because they regulated the progression of the calendar, also associated with the great pagan festivals honoring the gods. In Paul’s view these gods were demons. Hence, he would be thinking of a demonic bondage in which the Galatians had indeed been held prior to the proclamation of the gospel …

“In the verses that follow, Paul goes on to speak of these three crucial subjects in quick succession: (1) ‘those who by nature are not gods,’ presumably false gods or demons; (2) ‘those weak and miserable principles,’ again stoicheia; and (3) ‘days and months and seasons and years’ (vv. 9, 10). No doubt Paul would think of these demons in ways entirely different from the former thinking of the Galatians … Thus, this whole issue takes on a cosmic and spiritual significance. The ultimate contrast to freedom in Christ is bondage to Satan and the evil spirits” (ibid.).

In any case, astrology was probably a major aspect of this. In Deuteronomy 18, God calls pagan fortune-tellers “observers of times” (Deuteronomy 18:10-14 Deuteronomy 18:10-14 10 There shall not be found among you any one that makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that uses divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch. 11 Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. 12 For all that do these things are an abomination to the LORD: and because of these abominations the LORD your God does drive them out from before you. 13 You shall be perfect with the LORD your God. 14 For these nations, which you shall possess, listened to observers of times, and to diviners: but as for you, the LORD your God has not suffered you so to do.
American King James Version×
, KJV). While God gave the heavenly bodies “for signs and seasons, and for days and years” (Genesis 1:14 Genesis 1:14And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:
American King James Version×
), the pagan nations had succumbed to attributing power and influence to these objects and the times they marked. God warned, “Do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the Gentiles are dismayed at them” (Jeremiah 10:2 Jeremiah 10:2Thus said the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.
American King James Version×
).

The Galatians’ superstitious observance of days and times

This is the context in which at least some of the Galatians had been observing “days and months and seasons and years.” So let’s now understand what Paul was really referring to in Galatians 4:10 Galatians 4:10You observe days, and months, and times, and years.
American King James Version×
.

“In the Greco-Roman chronography [time-measurement system], the smallest unit larger than a single day is a group of nine or ten days. In the majority of systems, these are the ten days respectively of the waxing moon, full moon and waning moon. “These three groups of ten days comprise a month of thirty days. Three months make one of the four seasons, and four seasons make a year. The years are then grouped into Olympiads of four years or eras of varying lengths. When Paul refers to days, months, seasons and years in Gal[atians] 4:10, he is describing a pagan time-keeping scheme” (Troy Martin, By Philosophy and Empty Deceit: Colossians as Response to a Cynic Critique, 1996, pp. 129-130).

The Judaizing faction had evidently succeeded in getting many in Galatia to believe it was necessary to embrace the Jewish ritual system to be a Christian. This resulted in two extremist positions.

Some fully accepted it. But others, unwilling to embrace what they saw as unreasonable demands of Christianity, seem to have turned to the opposite extreme, some reverting to aspects of paganism. Paul is rebuking them over this. He tells them, “I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain” (Galatians 4:11 Galatians 4:11I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed on you labor in vain.
American King James Version×
). He was trying to prevent them from again becoming entangled in their former pagan practices.

From the context, we see that it’s simply not logical to conclude that Paul was criticizing the observance of the biblical Sabbath and festivals, since they were not even mentioned. The context shows that he was talking about pagan practices, something entirely different.

Is the Sabbath obsolete?

A third passage from Paul’s writings, Colossians 2:16-17 Colossians 2:16-17 16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: 17 Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.
American King James Version×
, is also used to support the claim that observance of the Sabbath is no longer necessary. Here Paul wrote, “Therefore let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come …”

Again, let’s examine these verses’ context and historic setting to see if they support that view.

Did Paul intend to say that Sabbath-keeping is abolished? If so, we encounter some immediate problems with this interpretation. To accept this position, it is difficult to explain how Paul could leave the issue so muddled by not stating that these practices were unnecessary, when these verses indicate that the Colossians were, in fact, observing them. After all, the Colossian church was primarily gentile (Colossians 1:27 Colossians 1:27 To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory:
American King James Version×
; Colossians 2:13 Colossians 2:13 And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, has he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses;
American King James Version×
), so Paul could have used this epistle to make it plain that these practices were not binding on gentile or Jewish Christians.

However, Paul nowhere said that. Regarding the practices of festivals, new moons and Sabbaths, he said to “let no one judge you,” which is quite different from saying these practices are unnecessary or obsolete.

Paul wasn’t discussing biblical practices

A more basic question to ask is whether Old Testament practices were even what Paul was addressing here. Was Paul even discussing whether Christians should keep the laws regarding clean and unclean meats, the biblical festivals, the weekly Sabbath or any other Old Testament laws?

Many people assume that the “handwriting of requirements … nailed … to the cross” (Colossians 2:14 Colossians 2:14 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;
American King James Version×
) was God’s law and the requirements He gave in the Old Testament. But this is not what Paul meant. The Greek word translated “handwriting” in this verse is cheirographon. Occurring only here in the Bible, this word referred to a handwritten record of debt, or what we would today call an iou. In contemporary apocalyptic literature, the term was used to designate a “record book of sin,” meaning a written account of our sins (since the payment of a penalty is owed for sin, as a debt).

Paul was not saying that God’s law was nailed to the cross. What was nailed there, he said, was all record of our sins. Because God’s law required the death penalty as payment for sin (Romans 6:23 Romans 6:23For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
American King James Version×
), this record is what “was against us, which was contrary to us” (Colossians 2:14 Colossians 2:14 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;
American King James Version×
), not the law itself.

The New Testament in Modern English, by J.B. Phillips, makes this plain, translating Colossians 2:13-14 Colossians 2:13-14 13 And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, has he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; 14 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;
American King James Version×
as: “He has forgiven you all our sins: Christ has utterly wiped out the damning evidence of broken laws and commandments which always hung over our heads, and has completely annulled it by nailing it over His own head on the cross.”

As this says, it is the evidence against us, not the law itself, that was nailed to the cross, enabling us to be forgiven.

This becomes clear when we read the rest of this chapter. It is apparent that other issues were involved that had nothing to do with God’s laws given in the Old Testament. Among these were “principalities and powers” (Colossians 2:15 Colossians 2:15 And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it.
American King James Version×
), “false humility and worship of angels” (Colossians 2:18 Colossians 2:18 Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind,
American King James Version×
), forbidding to touch, taste and handle (Colossians 2:21 Colossians 2:21 (Touch not; taste not; handle not;
American King James Version×
) and “neglect of the body” (Colossians 2:23 Colossians 2:23 Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body: not in any honor to the satisfying of the flesh.
American King James Version×
).

Further, Paul referred to the false teachings in Colosse as rooted in “persuasive words” (Colossians 2:4 Colossians 2:4 And this I say, lest any man should beguile you with enticing words.
American King James Version×
), “philosophy and empty deceit” and “the tradition of men” (Colossians 2:8 Colossians 2:8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.
American King James Version×
). He also referred to submitting to “regulations” of this world (Colossians 2:20 Colossians 2:20 Why if you be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are you subject to ordinances,
American King James Version×
) and “the commandments and doctrines of men” (Colossians 2:22 Colossians 2:22 Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men?
American King James Version×
).

Could Paul, who in Romans 7:12 Romans 7:12Why the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.
American King James Version×
said the law is “holy and just and good,” possibly be referring to the same law here, or is he addressing something entirely different?

The Colossians were being affected by infiltration from gnosticism

Taking into account the historical context, the answer becomes clear. As the Church spread from the Holy Land into pagan areas such as Asia Minor, Italy and Greece, it had to deal with pagan philosophies such as gnosticism. The influence of this thought and practice is particularly noticeable in the New Testament writings of Paul, Peter and John.

Gnosticism “was essentially a religio-philosophical attitude, not a well-defined system” (Curtis Vaughn, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 1978, Vol. 11, p. 166). As such, it wasn’t a competing religion, but rather an approach to one’s existing beliefs. The central theme of gnosticism was that secret knowledge ( gnosis is the Greek word for “knowledge,” hence the term gnosticism )could enhance or improve one’s religion.

“Its central teaching was that spirit is entirely good, and matter is entirely evil. From this unbiblical dualism flowed … important errors” ( Zondervan NIV Study Bible, introduction to 1 John). Among these errors were beliefs that “man’s body, which is matter, is therefore evil. It is to be contrasted with God, who is wholly spirit and therefore good … Salvation is the escape from the body, achieved not by faith in Christ but by special knowledge … [And] since the body was considered evil, it was to be treated harshly. This ascetic form of gnosticism is the background of part of the letter to the Colossians” (ibid.).

In addition to these beliefs, “gnosticism, in all its forms, was characterized by belief … in mediating beings.” Furthermore, “the knowledge of which the gnostics spoke … was knowledge acquired through mystical experience, not by intellectual apprehension. It was an occult knowledge, pervaded by the superstitions of astrology and magic. Moreover it was an esoteric knowledge, open only to those who had been initiated into the mysteries of the gnostic system” ( Expositor’s, p. 167).

References to gnostic teachings in Paul’s letter to the Colossians

All of these elements are seen to have been influencing the Colossian congregation. It is clear that Paul was combating the supposedly special knowledge claimed by the gnostics by pointing out that he was making known to the Colossians the higher, saving knowledge of God the Father and Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:9 Colossians 1:9 For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that you might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding;
American King James Version×
, Colossians 1:25-29 Colossians 1:25-29 25 Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God; 26 Even the mystery which has been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: 27 To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory: 28 Whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus: 29 Whereunto I also labor, striving according to his working, which works in me mightily.
American King James Version×
; Colossians 2:2-3 Colossians 2:2-3 2 That their hearts might be comforted, being knit together in love, and to all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgment of the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ; 3 In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
American King James Version×
).

Paul wrote to them, he explained, “lest anyone should deceive you with persuasive words” (Colossians 2:4 Colossians 2:4 And this I say, lest any man should beguile you with enticing words.
American King James Version×
). He called this secret knowledge nothing more than “philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8 Colossians 2:8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.
American King James Version×
). The more important knowledge, wrote Paul, was that of God and Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3 Colossians 2:3 In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
American King James Version×
).

Proponents of the gnostic heresies included people advocating obeisance to angels and other spiritual powers. Paul warned the Colossians of those who delight in “worship of angels” (Colossians 2:18 Colossians 2:18 Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind,
American King James Version×
). In the light of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, these supposed spirit “principalities and powers” were useless as a means of access to God, he said (Colossians 2:10 Colossians 2:10 And you are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power:
American King James Version×
, Colossians 2:15 Colossians 2:15 And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it.
American King James Version×
).

Paul addresses the misguided strict ascetic approach

Based on their belief that spirit was good and flesh evil, these teachers taught strict asceticism, denying the self any physical pleasure. Through “neglect of the body” (Colossians 2:23 Colossians 2:23 Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body: not in any honor to the satisfying of the flesh.
American King James Version×
), they hoped to attain increased spirituality. Paul described their rules as “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle” (Colossians 2:21 Colossians 2:21 (Touch not; taste not; handle not;
American King James Version×
). These regulations concerned only “things which perish with the using,” he wrote, because they are based on “the commandments and doctrines of men” (Colossians 2:22 Colossians 2:22 Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men?
American King James Version×
) rather than teachings from God.

Given the mention of angels and spiritual hierarchies, this early gnostic asceticism probably integrated gentile concepts with elements of Judaism—perhaps also including circumcision (compare Colossians 2:11 Colossians 2:11 In whom also you are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ:
American King James Version×
). “It is likely, therefore, that the Colossian heresy was a mixture of an extreme form of Judaism and an early stage of gnosticism” ( Zondervan NIV Study Bible, introduction to Colossians).

From the specific teachings Paul addressed, it appears that one or more branches of Judaism were influenced by gnosticism and infiltrated the Colossian congregation, teaching an extreme form of ascetic Judaism blended with gnostic beliefs. The ascetic approach advocated by these false teachers led them to condemn those whose religious observances were not up to their ascetic spiritual standards. Thus Paul cautioned the Colossians to “not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink” (Colossians 2:16 Colossians 2:16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:
American King James Version×
, NIV).

The Colossians were being judged for how —not whether —they observed the Sabbath

Note that where the New King James Version has “in food or in drink” in Colossians 2:16 Colossians 2:16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:
American King James Version×
, the New International Version has “eat or drink,” while the New Century Version has “about eating or drinking.” This is connected to the festivals and Sabbaths mentioned next.

Indeed, the Colossians were not being judged by Jews for not observing festivals, new moons and Sabbaths, as so many now assume. Rather they were being judged by ascetic gnostics for the fact that they were observing those occasions—and in particular for how they were observing them, apparently with joyous and festive eating and drinking.

The Colossians, knowing these days were God’s festivals— festive, happy occasions—celebrated these days in a way that was entirely contrary to the ascetic approach of self-denial. They also understood that the Sabbaths and annual festivals are clearly commanded in the Old Testament. (New moons, it should be noted, were used as the biblical markers of time but never declared to be sacred Sabbaths, nor are they listed among the annual sacred festivals.)

Gnosticism was also concerned with the stars and planets, part of what Paul referred to as “the elements of the world” (Colossians 2:8 Colossians 2:8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.
American King James Version×
, Green’s Literal Translation), as in Galatians 4. This would likely have influenced the gnostics’ observance of festivals, new moons and Sabbaths, since the calendar governing those days was determined by movements of the heavenly bodies.

By cautioning the Colossian members not to let others judge them for how they observed the festivals, new-moon celebrations and Sabbaths, Paul didn’t address whether they should be kept. The obvious implication of these verses is that these gentile Christians were in fact observing these days, and in no way did Paul tell them to stop.

Instead, his point was that Christians should not be criticized for observing these days in a festive manner. Paul cautioned that members should not let others judge them by those misguided ascetic standards in what they ate or drank or how they observed the Sabbaths or festivals (Colossians 2:16 Colossians 2:16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:
American King James Version×
).

The larger context of Colossians 2:16 Colossians 2:16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:
American King James Version×
is asceticism growing out of pagan philosophies, not a discussion of which laws are binding for Christians.

God’s days of worship were “a shadow of things to come”

What about Paul’s statement in Colossians 2:17 Colossians 2:17 Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.
American King James Version×
that, as translated in the New King James Version, the Sabbath and biblical festivals “are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ”? Did Paul mean that they were irrelevant and obsolete because Jesus Christ was the “substance” of what these days foreshadowed?

Actually, Paul said they “are a shadow of things to come,” indicating they have a future fulfillment. The Greek word translated “to come” is mello, meaning “to be about to do or suffer something, to be at the point of, to be impending” (Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament, 1992, p. 956).

Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words similarly defines mello as meaning “to be about (to do something), often implying the necessity and therefore the certainty of what is to take place” (W.E. Vine, 1985, “Come, Came,” p. 109).

Paul uses the same word construction in Ephesians 1:21 Ephesians 1:21Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come:
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, stating that Jesus Christ is “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come” (NIV). He contrasts the present age with one “to come,” showing there is clearly a future fulfillment.

This future fulfillment is also made plain from the phrasing in Colossians 2:17 Colossians 2:17 Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.
American King James Version×
that these things “are a shadow.” The Greek word esti, translated here as “are,” is in the present-active tense and means “to be” or “is” (Zodhiates, p. 660). For Paul to have meant that the Sabbath and festivals were fulfilled and became obsolete in Jesus Christ, it would have been necessary for him to say they “were a shadow” and to have used entirely different wording.

Paul’s choice of wording makes it clear that the Sabbath and festivals “are a shadow” of things still to come and not “were a shadow” of things fulfilled and made obsolete in Jesus Christ.

God gave physical acts to teach us spiritual lessons

Some assume that certain physical acts relating to worship—because they are representations or symbols of greater spiritual truths—have been “fulfilled in Christ” in the New Testament and are therefore obsolete and unnecessary. These people put the Sabbath and other biblical festivals in this category based on Paul’s comment that they “are a shadow of things to come.”

But this reasoning is flawed. Just because something is a shadow, a representation or a symbol doesn’t mean its importance is diminished. The Old and New Testaments alike are filled with symbols and symbolic acts commanded by God to teach us important spiritual lessons.

Baptism is a symbolic act representing a greater spiritual truth, the burial of the old self and living a new life (Romans 6:3-4 Romans 6:3-4 3 Know you not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
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), yet we are commanded to be baptized (Acts 2:38 Acts 2:38Then Peter said to them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
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). The bread and wine of the Passover service are symbols of the vital spiritual relationship we have with Jesus Christ, yet we are clearly commanded to partake of them (1 Corinthians 10:16 1 Corinthians 10:16The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?
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).

Laying on of hands (Hebrews 6:2 Hebrews 6:2Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.
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), anointing with oil (James 5:14 James 5:14Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord:
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), foot-washing (John 13:14 John 13:14If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; you also ought to wash one another’s feet.
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), partaking of unleavened bread (1 Corinthians 5:6-8 1 Corinthians 5:6-8 6 Your glorying is not good. Know you not that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Purge out therefore the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, as you are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: 8 Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
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) and other physical acts are commanded to be observed in the New Testament, not because they are greater than the things they symbolize, but to strengthen and enhance our spiritual understanding as we do them. After all, we are physical human beings who are in search of spiritual understanding. God gave us physical acts and symbols to help us better understand spiritual lessons.

These examples show that symbols and symbolic acts aren’t strictly limited to physical worship in the Old Testament, but are clearly commanded in the New Testament as important elements of our worship. They are vital reminders of important spiritual truths, as Paul recognized (1 Corinthians 11:23-26 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 23 For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered to you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: 24 And when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. 25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do you, as oft as you drink it, in remembrance of me. 26 For as often as you eat this bread, and drink this cup, you do show the Lord’s death till he come.
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). The same is true of the Sabbath. Jesus Christ, through His actions and teachings on the Sabbath, showed that the Sabbath rest is a type—a foretaste—of the great coming messianic age of peace, rest, freedom and healing.

Paul’s point in Colossians 2:16-17 Colossians 2:16-17 16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: 17 Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.
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, in saying that the festivals and Sabbaths are shadows of things to come, was that Christians must not let anyone get them overly focused on minutiae of regulation and strictness in observing these days to the point that they lose the big picture of the wonderful meaning of these days—the plan of God they picture.

As to the specific phrase in Colossians 2:17 Colossians 2:17 Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.
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that the New King James Version renders “but the substance is of Christ,” there is no word here for “is” in the original Greek text, and the word for “substance” here is soma, translated “body” in the King James Version, as the NKJV renders the same word two verses later. So the literal wording here is “… but the body of Christ.” This ties in with verse 19, which criticizes the gnostics for “not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body … grows with the increase that is from God.” The reference here is to Christ as “the head of the body, the church” (Colossians 1:18 Colossians 1:18 And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.
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).

Recall that Paul had begun his statement with, “Let no one judge you …” on how you celebrate festivals. He concludes the same thought with, “… but the body of Christ.” In other words, don’t let these others judge your manner of observing these days, but instead let the Church of God, of which Christ is the living Head, judge in this regard.

In Colossians 2:16-17 Colossians 2:16-17 16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: 17 Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.
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, Paul isn’t discussing the permanence or transience of the Sabbath. As a matter of fact, Paul nowhere quotes the Old Testament in Colossians. He uses the Greek word for “law,” nomos, dozens of times in his other epistles, but not once in Colossians. Why? The continuing necessity of the Old Testament and God’s law simply was not the issue.

Far from negating Sabbath observance, Paul’s instructions to the Colossians, written about A.D. 62, actually affirm that gentile Christians were indeed observing the Sabbath more than 30 years after Christ’s death and that the Sabbath is an important reminder of vital spiritual truths for us today.

What does the historical record in the book of Acts show?

Out of all of Paul’s writings, the three passages discussed earlier in this chapter are the ones commonly used in attempting to prove he did away with Sabbath observance. However, as we have seen, two of those passages do not even mention the Sabbath, and the third confirms that gentile believers were actually keeping the Sabbath, since Paul told them not to let themselves be judged by outsiders for how they kept it.

But in addition to Paul’s words, his actions showed that he never intended to abolish or change the Sabbath and that he observed it himself. The book of Acts, written by Paul’s companion Luke, makes this clear.

Acts 13 records that, 10 to 15 years after Paul was miraculously converted, he and his companions traveled to Antioch in Asia Minor, where they “went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day” (Acts 13:14 Acts 13:14But when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and sat down.
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). After being invited to speak to the congregation, Paul addressed both Jews and gentile proselytes (Acts 13:16 Acts 13:16Then Paul stood up, and beckoning with his hand said, Men of Israel, and you that fear God, give audience.
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), describing how the coming of Jesus Christ had been foretold throughout the Old Testament scriptures.

His message was received so enthusiastically that “when the Jews went out of the synagogue, the Gentiles begged that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath” (Acts 13:42 Acts 13:42And when the Jews were gone out of the synagogue, the Gentiles sought that these words might be preached to them the next sabbath.
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). Notice that the gentiles in attendance wanted Paul to teach them more about Christ on the next Sabbath. Why? Because these gentiles were clearly already keeping the Sabbath with the Jews in the synagogue!

What was Paul’s response to the gentiles’ request? “On the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God” (Acts 13:44 Acts 13:44And the next sabbath day came almost the whole city together to hear the word of God.
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). Had Paul not believed in the Sabbath, he could easily have told them to come the next day or any other day and he would teach them. Instead, he waited until the following Sabbath, when “almost the whole city,” Jew and gentile alike, came out to hear his message!

The gentiles of the city, hearing that Paul had been commissioned to preach the gospel to the gentiles, “were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:45-48 Acts 13:45-48 45 But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spoke against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming. 46 Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing you put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, see, we turn to the Gentiles. 47 For so has the Lord commanded us, saying, I have set you to be a light of the Gentiles, that you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth. 48 And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.
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). The Sabbath, commanded by God, was still the day for rest, assembly and instruction in God’s way of life.

About five years later, in what is today northern Greece, Paul “came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ’ ” (Acts 17:1-3 Acts 17:1-3 1 Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews: 2 And Paul, as his manner was, went in to them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures, 3 Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach to you, is Christ.
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). Here, some 20 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul’s custom was still to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath to discuss the Scriptures and teach about Jesus Christ!

He continued to teach both Jews and gentiles: “And some of them were persuaded; and a great multitude of the devout Greeks [gentiles], and not a few of the leading women, joined Paul and Silas” (Acts 17:4 Acts 17:4And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few.
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). So Paul, specifically commissioned to preach the gospel to the gentiles (Acts 9:15 Acts 9:15But the Lord said to him, Go your way: for he is a chosen vessel to me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel:
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; Acts 13:47 Acts 13:47For so has the Lord commanded us, saying, I have set you to be a light of the Gentiles, that you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth.
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), taught the gentiles in the synagogues on the Sabbath!

Several years later he went to the Greek city of Corinth, where “he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:4 Acts 18:4And he reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks.
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). Later still he went to Ephesus in Asia Minor, where “he went into the synagogue and spoke boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8 Acts 19:8And he went into the synagogue, and spoke boldly for the space of three months, disputing and persuading the things concerning the kingdom of God.
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).

The book of Acts was completed around A.D. 63, shortly before Paul’s execution in Rome, covering the history of more than 30 years of the New Testament Church. It shows that, over a period of many years, Paul repeatedly taught Jews and gentiles on the Sabbath. Even though he was the apostle to the gentiles, he never hinted to them in either his writings or his actions that the Sabbath was obsolete or unnecessary.

To argue that the apostle Paul advocated abolishing or annulling the Sabbath, one must not only twist Paul’s words out of context to directly contradict his other statements, but one must also ignore or distort Luke’s written eyewitness record of the Church from that time. The book of Acts contains no evidence that the Sabbath was abolished or changed during that time.

In legal proceedings against him, Paul assured all who heard him that he believed in and had done nothing against the law (Acts 24:14 Acts 24:14But this I confess to you, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets:
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; Acts 25:8 Acts 25:8While he answered for himself, Neither against the law of the Jews, neither against the temple, nor yet against Caesar, have I offended any thing at all.
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). As earlier noted, he said that the law of God is not annulled or abolished by faith, but, “on the contrary, we establish the law” (Romans 3:31 Romans 3:31Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yes, we establish the law.
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).

He concluded, “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters” (1 Corinthians 7:19 1 Corinthians 7:19Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God.
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). That is his unequivocal statement: Obeying God’s commandments matters. They are vitally important to our relationship with God.

Paul, in observing the Sabbath, was only doing what he told others to do: “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1 1 Corinthians 11:1Be you followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.
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). He observed the Sabbath just as his Master had done.

Paul delighted in the law of God

As we’ve seen, Paul himself wrote, “I delight in the law of God” (Romans 7:22 Romans 7:22For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:
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), not that it should be abolished. “The law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good,” he affirmed (Romans 7:12 Romans 7:12Why the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.
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).

He did not see the New Testament as replacing the Old. After all, there were no New Testament scriptures as such during his lifetime—they were not fully assembled until several decades after his death. Paul quoted from what we call the Old Testament dozens of times in his writings, accepting and using it as an authority and guide for living (Romans 15:4 Romans 15:4For whatever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
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; 2 Timothy 3:15 2 Timothy 3:15And that from a child you have known the holy scriptures, which are able to make you wise to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
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).

The New Testament Church simply continued with Old Testament practices, including the Sabbath, but with greater insight and understanding of their spiritual significance in the lives of God’s true followers.

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