The Gospels reveal that Jesus observed the Sabbath day and showed the true purpose and intent of the Sabbath commandment.
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).
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; Mark:16:1-2; Luke:23:56; 24:1). 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).
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, Colossians:2:16-17 and Galatians:4:9-10.
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, "Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good." In Romans:2:13 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 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: "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" (verse 14).
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).
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, 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; 2:13; 7:22). 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 is immediately between references to eating meat and vegetarianism in verses 2, 3 and 6. 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; 2:17). 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). Since some of the Jewish Christians in Rome self-righteously criticized others (Romans:2:17-24), perhaps they had become like the Pharisee who boasted, "I fast twice a week" (Luke:18:12), 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?" (verse 4). 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 Paul discussed vegetarianism ("he who is weak eats only vegetables") and continued this theme in verse 6 ("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. 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: 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).
Galatians:4:9-10: Is the Sabbath bondage?
Galatians:4:9-10 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, 25). 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" (verse 9).
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 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 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; 6:12-13), so they could not have been Jewish.
This background is important in understanding this controversial passage. In Galatians:4:9-10, 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 verse 8, 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 (verse 9) 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 verse 3. 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 verse 9, it would also have to refer to His law in verse 3, since the same word is used.
To say that verse 3 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" (verses 10, 14, KJV). While God gave the heavenly bodies "for signs and seasons, and for days and years" (Genesis:1:14), 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).
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.
"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). 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, 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; 2:13), 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" (verse 14) 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), this record is what "was against us, which was contrary to us" (Colossians:2:14), not the law itself.
The New Testament in Modern English, by J.B. Phillips, makes this plain, translating verses 13 and 14 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" (verse 15), "false humility and worship of angels" (verse 18), forbidding to touch, taste and handle (verse 21) and "neglect of the body" (verse 23).
Further, Paul referred to the false teachings in Colosse as rooted in "persuasive words" (verse 4), "philosophy and empty deceit" and "the tradition of men" (verse 8). He also referred to submitting to "regulations" of this world (verse 20) and "the commandments and doctrines of men" (verse 22).
Could Paul, who in Romans:7:12 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, 25-29; 2:2-3).
Paul wrote to them, he explained, "lest anyone should deceive you with persuasive words" (verse 4). 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" (verse 8). The more important knowledge, wrote Paul, was that of God and Christ, "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (verse 3).
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" (verse 18). 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 (verses 10, 15).
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" (verse 23), they hoped to attain increased spirituality. Paul described their rules as "Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle" (verse 21). These regulations concerned only "things which perish with the using," he wrote, because they are based on "the commandments and doctrines of men" (verse 22) 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 verse 11). "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" (verse 16, 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 verse 16, 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" (verse 8, 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 (verse 16).
The larger context of Colossians:2:16 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 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, 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 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), yet we are commanded to be baptized (Acts:2:38). 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).
Laying on of hands (Hebrews:6:2), anointing with oil (James:5:14), foot-washing (John:13:14), partaking of unleavened bread (1 Corinthians:5:6-8) 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). 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, 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 verse 17 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" (1:18).
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, 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" (verse 14). After being invited to speak to the congregation, Paul addressed both Jews and gentile proselytes (verse 16), 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" (verse 42). 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" (verse 44). 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" (verses 45-48). 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). 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" (verse 4). So Paul, specifically commissioned to preach the gospel to the gentiles (Acts:9:15; 13:47), 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). 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).
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; 25:8). 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).
He concluded, "Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters" (1 Corinthians:7:19). 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). 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), not that it should be abolished. "The law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good," he affirmed (Romans:7:12).
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; 2 Timothy:3:15).
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.