The Sabbath in Colossians
Discovering the New Covenant: Why I Am No Longer a
by Greg Taylor
It was important that Paula [the author's wife] and I each take separate journeys with our study. We each had unique issues that were of concern to us. Therefore, we tried to do our own study and not influence one another concerning the outcome. I will take you with me and share with you the presuppositions I used as a basis for my study.
First, I believe that all of the Bible is God's Word and is inspired by Him. I assume full inspiration of the Scriptures. The second foundational presupposition dealt with application of that inspiration. I do not believe that every portion of Scripture has equal authority on a given subject. Certain portions of the Scriptures have greater authority than others. For example, a passage that was specifically writen to address a particular theme will have greater value in a discussion than one that mentions it incidentally. Greater authority must be given to Scriptures that were originally intended to teach on a specific topic.
Finally, as it relates to Christian behavior and instruction, the New Testament interprets the Old, not the other way around. They are both inspired, but there needs to be greater emphasis on the New Testament by the very nature of what is meant by the word Testament.
The word Testament or Covenant means the same thing as a will, or some other legal contract. My wife and I have made out several wills during our marriage. We had a will before we had kids. We had a will made after the birth of our first child. We made another after the second child, and recently we updated our will again. Now if we were to die in some tragedy, which will would be binding for our executor to follow? The most recent, or newest one, of course. The previous legal contract becomes null and void once the new one takes effect. That is why only the last will and testament is read and followed. There may be some carry over from one will to another, but such carry over will always be stipulated in the new will. What does not carry over will not be specified in the new contract. The same thing would be true of financial contracts. We just finished refinancing our house. Our new agreement is for a lesser interest rate and with another financing company. The purpose is the same. It allows us to make payments we can afford for a period of time in order to eventually own the house. Much of the language in the new contract is the same. Many of the details are similar. But much is changed as well. Primarily, the difference is in the interest rate, the fixed rate versus a floating rate. But there are other details that differ as well. We do not send the check to the same company any more. Our obligations to the old contract have been satisfied by the new contract. We keep our old contract around for tax purposes, but it is no longer binding. That loan has been paid off by the new lending institution. Therefore, we are free from the old contract and bound to the new.
The same thing is true of the Old and New Covenants. There are wonderful truths about God found in the Old Covenant. However, it is imperative that we remember that the New Covenant or Testament is the one that is binding. There is much history and background information that helps us understand God better. But to go first to the Old Testament for application of God's will for our lives would be to get things out of order. The New Testament was written to give us a more full revelation of God's workings in human history. It gives us the fullest revelation of all, Jesus Christ. Since we must apply the message of Jesus to our personal lives as post-Cross Christians, the Epistles were written specifically for that purpose. Jesus came to fulfill much of the system of Judaism, for example. He came to fulfill some of the aspects of the Old Covenant or Testament. How do we know which ones? The Gospels do not spell out which ones. The Epistles do that. So it is of crucial importance that we remember the application principles when studying the Scriptures.
I went first to the New Testament (covenant or will) and specifically to the Epistles to see what is taught there about the application of the Sabbath to Christians today. Then I went to Jesus' life to see if He made room for such an interpretation in His life and ministry. I asked myself if Jesus' life and ministry prepared the way for what I had learned in the Epistles. Finally, I went back to the Old Testament to see if what is written there agrees with the Epistles and Jesus on the subject. In this way, I made every effort to focus on the application sections of the Scriptures first.
The first text I studied is found in Colossians two. (I am using the New King James version of the Bible unless otherwise indicated, and all of the emphases are my own.) In the book of Colossians, Paul is addressing a syncretistic heresy that is a mixture of angel worship and ascetic practices. But mixed into it all is the Judaizing element (Jewish legalistic Christians who were requiring Jewish law of the Gentile believers) that is trying to influence these new Christians. In the Colossians two passage, the focus is on the Jewish part of the heresy. Starting with verse 11, Paul focuses on the fact that circumcision is no logner required. Then he points out that the record of our sins is nailed to the Cross as soon as we accept Jesus. Finally, Paul discusses the last two Jewish distinctives. Notice the following verses:
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. Col. 2:16-17
It is crystal clear in these verses that Paul is specifically addressing the New Covenant interpretation of the Old Covenant Jewish laws. No other religion emphasized circumcision, food laws, and sabbaths. There can be no confusion as to what Paul is addressing here. Paul is telling the Colossians not to let these people, who were trying to push the Jewish religious views and customs on the Gentile believers, lay a guilt trip on them about the food laws, the festivals, new moons, or the sabbaths, because these were part of the system that prefigured, or pointed forward to Christ. They were a "shadow of things to come."
During my entire life in the Adventist Church I was taught that the Sabbath is an eternal institution, and it will be forever. It is morally binding on all people for all time. I had also learned in my studies in the SDA institutions that the sabbaths mentioned here (Col. 2:16-17) could not be the weekly seventh-day Sabbath, but rather these sabbaths referred to the ceremonial sabbaths, such as the Passover, Pentecost or Tabernacles. This passage was focused on these ceremonial sabbaths of the Jewish feasts, and not the weekly Sabbath. Later, however, I was most amazed to discover that this is definitely not the case. Throughout the Old Testament, this same construction is used. Paul was simply reiterating a formula that was used repeatedly to refer to the entire old system, including the seventh-day Sabbath. This same construction is found in ascending or descending order repeatedly throughout the Old Testament. There can be no mistake what he meant. The "sabbaths" in this common Old Testament construction always refer to the weekly Sabbath. To try to make this Colossians passage refer to ceremonial festival sabbaths ignores this construction.
First of all, Leviticus 23 lists all of the religious feasts. At the top of the list is the seventh-day Sabbath followed by the other feasts. The seventh-day Sabbath is listed right alongside all of the other sabbaths. In passages throughout the Old Testament, the same order is found in either ascending or descending order, clearly including the weekly Sabbath with the special feasts. Notice the following verses:
. . . to stand every morning to thank and praise the LORD, and likewise
at evening; and at every presentation of a burnt offering to the LORD
on the Sabbaths and on the New Moons and on the set feasts, by
number according to the ordinance govering them, regularly before the
LORD. 1 Chron. 23:30-31
Behold, I am building a temple for the name of the LORD my God, to
dedicate it to Him, to burn before Him sweet incense, for the continual
showbread, for the burnt offerings morning and evening, on the
Sabbaths, on the New Moons, and on the set feasts of the LORD our
God. 2 Chron. 2:4
Also we made ordinances for ourselves, to exact from ourselves yearly
one-third of a shekel for the service of the house of our God: for the
showbread, for the regular grain offering, for the regular burnt offering
of the Sabbaths, the New Moons, and the set feasts. Neh. 10:32-33
I will also cause all her mirth to cease, her feast days, her New Moons,
her Sabbaths—all her appointed feasts. And I will destroy her vines
and her fig trees, of which she has said, 'These are my wages that my
lovers have given me' so I will make them a forest, and the beast of the
field shall eat them. Hosea 2:11-12
Then it shall be the prince's part to give burnt offerings, grain offerings,
and drink offerings, at the feasts, the New Moons, the Sabbaths, and
at all the appointed seasons of the house of Israel. He shall prepare
the sin offering, the grain offering, the burnt offering, and the peace
offerings to make atonement for the house of Israel. Ezek. 45:17
Notice the construction. The order of Sabbath, the new moons, and the festivals is clear and distinct. There can be no mistaking that this refers to the weekly, the monthly, and the seasonal festivals. Throughout the Old Testament, the same construction is used. The weekly, the monthly, the seasonal, and sometimes the yearly or sabbatical years are included. Sometimes the order is reversed, but the same principle applies.
The "sabbaths" referred to in Colossians 2:16-17 are therefore referring to the seventh-day Sabbaths. It would be redundant and totally out of literary character for this to refer to the appointed feasts. To make it do so would make the passage read "Let no one judge you regarding festivals, new moons, or festivals." That would not make sense. Even Samuele Bacchiocchi (noted sabbatarian author) admits that this is the case. He agrees that the weekly Sabbath is what is being referred to here.1 He does go on to say that it is not the proper keeping of the Sabbath that is being discussed, but the perversion of the keeping of the day that is the focus.
The biblical problem with Bacchiocchi's theory is that the text continues by describing these sabbaths and festivals as "shadows of things to come," the "reality is Christ." These religious holidays, including the Sabbath, were symbols pointing forward to Jesus. They were typological prefigurations of Jesus.2 How could the perversion of a symbol be a shadow or prefiguration of Christ? How could a perversion prefigure? That doesn't make any sense. The most reasonable rendering of the text is that the weekly Sabbath is included in the ceremonial/sacrificial system that was fulfilled in Christ! No other explanation makes sense. No other interpretation does justice to the New Testament context or the Old Testament construction.
When I first read this the way Paul clearly intended it, I could not believe what I was reading! Paul was making a radical transitional statement here! The Sabbath fulfilled in Christ! Could it be true? Could it be that the rest of the Sabbath was a symbol of a greater rest in the person of Jesus Christ? More questions came to mind. What about the Ten Commandments? Aren't they eternal? What about the Sabbath being from Creation? I had so many questions. I had to search them out. The hunger to understand and learn was overpowering the fear that had been placed in me since childhood.
1. Samuele Bacchiocchi, Sabbath Under Crossfire (Biblical Perspectives, 1998) p. 245-248.
2. Ibid. 246-248.
This chapter from Discovering the New Covenant is shared here by permission of the author and publisher. Copyright 2004.