Last Sunday we looked at Colossians 2:16-23 and had a long discussion about legalism.  One of the issues Paul mentioned was the Sabbath, and whether or not Sabbath worship was a requirement for Christians.  I dealt with that particular issue when I wrote my dissertation, “The Sabbath as a Theological Framework for Leadership Formation.”  Here is a section of my paper that deals specifically with Paul’s understanding of the Sabbath.

Paul and the Sabbath

Paul is an example of the radical change that the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ brought about.  He was a Pharisee and a persecutor of the church, but his experience on the road to Damascus radically changed his understanding.  We see that revolutionary new understanding in his writings when he discusses the Sabbath.

Colossians 2:16

There is some discussion as to what Paul is actually referring to when he says, “Therefore let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths.”[1]  Although it may be possible to assume that Paul is not referring to the Sabbath in this passage, it seems unlikely.  First, there are several Old Testament parallels to this verse (Ezekiel 45:17; 1 Chronicles 23:31; 2 Chronicles 2:3; 31:3) where the term “Sabbaths” almost certainly refers to the weekly Sabbath.  Second, it seems improbable that Paul would refer to the observance of weekly festivals twice in the same verse, which is essentially what proponents of this argument are saying.  Finally, the context of Colossians speaks against it.  Paul’s concern in Colossians is that Christians may turn away from the concept of grace and believe that keeping the Jewish law is somehow necessary for salvation.  Therefore the Sabbath is pertinent to the discussion.  Paul’s argument in this passage is not that observing these days is wrong; he condemns the use of them to judge others.[2]

Paul bases his understanding on the idea that festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths are “a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.”  Here, as in Romans 5:14, Paul seems to indicate that there were some things in the Old Testament that were typical or prospective (i.e. relating in some way to what would become real in the future).[3]  Dunn states:

But, as in Hebrews, it also affirms that Christ is the substance of the shadow of Jewish food laws and feasts: he is the reality which casts its shadow backward in time; they are the provisional, inferior copies whose inadequacy is now evident in the light of the real.[4]

Paul’s argument is that the Sabbath belongs to those Old Testament provisions that pointed to the coming of Christ.  Now that the reality has come, the provisions can be done away with.

Galatians 4:9-11

Paul’s argument in the book of Galatians centers on the Galatians turning away from the gospel message and embracing the Jewish law as necessary for salvation.   Galatians 1:7 rebukes them for turning away from the gospel, and Galatians 1:22 specifically mentions their “desire to be under the law.”  If the passage is understood in this light it is not necessarily a condemnation of the observance of days, but is instead a condemnation of legalism.[5]

It should be noted that there is some disagreement regarding the meaning of  “days and months and seasons and years” in Galatians 4:10.  Jervis believes that the passage refers to pagan practices that the Galatians would have been involved in prior to conversion.[6]  Bruce, however, argues convincingly that the list is similar to those found in Colossians 2:16 and Genesis 1:14, and therefore refers to Christians adopting the Jewish law as a necessary component of their salvation.[7]  It is also possible that Paul intentionally left the list somewhat ambiguous so that it could apply to either pagan or Jewish observances.[8]

Romans 14:5-6

Although this passage does not explicitly state that the Sabbath is the topic under consideration, some authors think that it is implied.[9]  Other possible explanations are that the “days” referred to concern fasting,[10] or a superstitious understanding of some days as lucky verses unlucky.[11]  In light of what Paul says in Colossians and Galatians, his comments should probably be understood to extend to any day that the Old Testament declared obligatory, as well as to any other days observed by believers.  Paul’s concern in this passage is the concept of Christian liberty.  In Romans 14:5 he proclaims, “each should be convinced in his own mind,” and in Romans 14:10 he says, “why do you judge your brother?”[12]

Summary of Paul’s Understanding of the Sabbath

Paul’s attitude towards the Sabbath could be described as libertarian.  He condemns any legalistic observance of the day, but he also allows for the observance of the Sabbath day as a matter of individual conscience.  Paul himself observes Jewish days and festivals when expedient, but he also met with Christian disciples on the first day of the week.  He seems to favor the idea that the Sabbath prefigured the coming of Jesus Christ.

[1] For example, Margaret Y. MacDonald, Colossians and Ephesians, Sacra Pagina Series, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, vol. 17 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), 110: “Sabbath appears here in the plural form (e sabbaton), but both in the singular and the plural the term sabbaton can refer either to the seventh day of the week in the Jewish calendar marked by special religious observances, or simply to a week (e.g., Luke 18:12; Mark 16:9; Matt 28:1).  The former meaning is more likely in this case and is usually preferred by translators, but the latter cannot be ruled out completely (in which case the phrase would refer to weekly, monthly, and probably annual festivals).”

[2] Martin agrees: “Paul is not condemning the use of sacred days and seasons.  The evidence of Acts shows his own interest in observing them (Acts 20:16; 27:9).  What moves him here is the wrong motive involved when the observance of holy festivals is made a badge of separation and an attempted means of securing salvation out of fear and superstition.  It is bad religion that Paul attacks.” Ralph P. Martin, Colossians: The Church’s Lord and the Christian’s Liberty — An Expository Commentary with a Present-Day Application (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1972), 90.

[3] For a discussion of symbols and types, see Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1948), 161ff.

[4] James D. G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, ed. I Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 177.

[5] Bruce states, “Many Jewish Christians continued to observe the sacred occasions as a matter of course.  Paul himself appears to have regarded some of them at least as convenient punctuations marks in his apostolic schedule (cf. 1 Cor 16:8; Acts 20:16).  But for Gentile Christians to adopt them de novo as matters of legal obligation was quite another matter.”  Bruce, Galatians, 205.

[6] L. Ann Jervis, Galatians, New International Biblical Commentary, ed. Ward W. Gasque, vol. 9 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999), 115-116.

[7] Bruce, Galatians, 205-206.

[8] For example, Ben Witherington, Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (Edinburgh, Scotland: T & T Clark, 1998), 299.

[9] For instance, Douglas Moo, Epistle to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon Fee (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 842; and Thomas Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Moises Silva, vol. 6 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 715.

[10] Matthew Black, Romans, New Century Bible Commentary, ed. Matthew Black (Grand Rapids: MI: Eerdmans, 1973), 193.

[11] Ernst Kaseman, Commentary on Romans, trans. Geoffrey Bromily (Grand Rapids: MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 370.

[12] Achtemeier has a similar understanding: “In theses verses (5-6), Paul also extends the application of such tolerance for differing dietary convictions among Christians to include the way one may or may not act on certain days.  Apparently Paul felt the O.T. Sabbath regulations as well as the pagan holy days had been rendered non-obligatory in Christ, just as these verses have shown he felt all dietary regulations had been so rendered (see also 1 Cor 8:4-13).  Yet he is unwilling to condemn those who differ in that judgment.  Christian freedom extends to whatever may be done to honor God.”  Paul Achtemeier, Romans, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching, ed. Paul Achtemeier (Atlanta, GA: John Knox, 1985), 216

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.