Paul on the Sabbaths (Colossians 2:16-17)

Colossians 2:16 from Codex Sinaiticus

Colossians 2:16 from Codex Sinaiticus

Colossians 2:16-17
So 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, but the
substance is of Christ.

Mainstream Sunday church-going Christians consistently interpret this verse to be against the Sabbaths. They apply this verse to all Sabbaths, both the weekly Sabbath and the annual holy days (which are all called Sabbaths in Leviticus 23, translated as “days of complete rest”). This verse clearly states both the annual Sabbaths (festivals) and weekly Sabbaths. To use this verse against the annual Sabbaths without using it against the weekly Sabbath is an inconsistent application of the verse.

To be consistent, we can interpret this verse as if Paul wrote against all the Sabbaths, or as if he wrote against none of the Sabbaths. If we believe that Paul wrote against all of the Sabbaths, then this verse also shows the weekly Sabbath should no longer be part of a Christian’s life.

In context, I do not believe that Paul wrote against any Sabbaths. I believe Paul wrote against the traditions of men on how to keep the Sabbaths. The principles from Old Testament Sabbath verses teach us that we are to not work, not cause others to work, and not buy/sell. However, the traditions of men about which Yeshua critically spoke include many other rules regarding the Sabbath.

One clue that shows us Paul was not referring to the general keeping of the Sabbath is the fact that he includes the idea of drinks in this verse. God gives no instructions regarding what we can and cannot drink. Paul is definitely referring to a tradition here about drinks, which leads me to believe he is also referring to traditions regarding the Sabbaths, festivals, and new moon days.

Another clue that shows us Paul was referring to the traditions of men is verse 14, in which he specifically states that the ordinances (1) were nailed to the cross, not the law. So we should not let anyone judge us according to these man-made ordinances or standards. These Jewish ordinances not found Scripture were the wall of separation about which Paul wrote.

Other clues that shows us Paul was referring to the traditions of men are in verses 18 and 23, in which he states these same people who want to judge us also worship angels and afflict their bodies during worship. These things are not written as instructions to us, but are only traditions. In fact, these traditions are contrary to Torah.

The language and context of Colossians 2:16-17 so clearly refer to the traditions and also hypocrisy of men (but not the actual keeping of the Sabbaths) that the 2nd century church understood this and gave commentary to this effect:

The apostles ordained, that “we should not judge any one in respect to meat or drink, or in regard to a feast day, or the new moons, or the Sabbaths.” Whence then these contentions? Whence these schisms? We keep the feast, but in the leaven of malice and wickedness, cutting in pieces the Church of God; and we preserve what belongs to its exterior, that we may cast away these better things, faith and love. We have heard from the prophetic words that these feasts and fasts are displeasing to the Lord.  (2)

In order to hold the view that the Paul wrote against the Sabbaths is to assume that Yeshua came to abolish the Torah, which he warned us not to assume (Matthew 5). So the real question here is: How much of the Torah and the Prophets are we willing to literally accept and physically do? And how much are we going to attempt to theologically spiritualize in order to avoid actually doing?

Endnotes:

  1. “…having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees [τοῖς δόγμασιν] against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). 
  2. Irenaeus. (trans. 1867). The lost fragments of Irenaeus (Chapter 38). In Philip Shaff, Ante-Nicene Fathers (Vol. 1, p. 971). Retrieved from http://www.ccel.org/node/70

About Jonathan Lankford

Jonathan has a Bachelor of Arts degree (BA) in Bible with a concentration in missions and intercultural communication. He also earned his Master's in Business Quality Management (MBQPM) and graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Master's in Education (MEd) focusing on Administration. He has been an educator since 2007, teaching English and humanities in Vietnamese universities. He currently holds the position of Associate Registrar at Tan Tao University, Vietnam.
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One Response to Paul on the Sabbaths (Colossians 2:16-17)

  1. tben says:

    HI Jon

    Sorry for my late response. Paternity keeps me more busy than I think.

    Actually you have touch on a topic that is quite close to my heart . I have discussed about Col 2 on my blog.

    In summary.
    1. I do not know how mainstream Christian interpret Col 2. I am not mainstream
    2. I do not explain Col 2 base on consistency
    3. I look at it base on how the Torah separate Sabbath as part of commandments
    4. We can detect both Torah and Talmud in Col 2, that’s because Paul targeted both group
    5. Both groups are wrong for the same reason.

    You can read about the details on my blog
    https://tben.wordpress.com/2016/10/07/the-shadow-of-the-old-testament-part-2-colossians-216-17/

    A Question for you

    If assuming you are right that this refers to the traditions regarding the Sabbaths, festivals, and new moon days. Perhaps you can explain how these man made traditions can be regarded as “”a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.”??

    About Irenaeus

    Honestly, I do not think Irenaeus understanding of Col 2 is any where too different from us. He He is a Greek from the town that Polycrap came from. He serve in France. I wonder how much he knows about the Jewish Old Testament and the Torah before he makes his comment in the letters of the church father.

    By the time of Johns death, the church is already deviated much from the truth. Irenaeus only echoed the thinking of Christians in his era and it need not be authoritative when it comes to explaining what the apostles is trying to say.

    Christians of Today are more blessed than him for we have one luxury that he did not have. We are able to now flip to the old testament and read it concurrently with the book of Paul. As the result we can see that there were items pointing to the Talmud (not found in the bible) and those items that are found in the Torah. (A Shadow of good that is to come)

    I do not think Irenaeus had that luxury, nor do I think memorizing Torah as his favorite past time. Even if he does, what he said is merely his interpretation of the words of Paul. It is up to us to decide if what he is saying is really according to the scriptures or not.

    Therefore, I treat his commentary with the same weight as our blog posts. For they are just records of our understanding of the scriptures. Just because he explains the scriptures this way doesn’t necessary reflect that he understood what Paul is saying more than we do.

    I have actually answered your question on my comment reply
    How much of the Torah and the Prophets are we willing to literally accept and physically do?
    How Far Should We Theologically Spiritualise The OT?

    You can read about them on my reply to your comment on my blog

    Like

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