Paul and the Sabbath

What does Colossians teach was nailed to the cross? What (lshadow of things to come" does Paul write of there? Do Galatians 4:8-10 and Romans 14:5 indicate the Sabbath is no longer to be kept? The answers to these questions conclude our series on the New Testament evidence regarding the seventh-day Sabbath.

Samuele Bacchiocchi received his Ph. D. from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, writing his dissertation about how the change in the day of worship took place. His two books From Sabbath to Sunday and Divine Rest for Human Restlessness have been very popular because they have deepened the meaning of the Sabbath for their readers.
It has been customary to appeal to Paul to defend not only the abrogation view of the law in general but also of the Sabbath in particular. We considered the former in the preceding article in this series. We proceed now to examine the latter. Please note that while Paul constantly refers to the law in his writings, he mentions the Sabbath explicitly only once: In Colossians 2:16 the term occurs in the plural form (in Greek)—sabbaths. Two other Pauline passages, namely, Galatians 4:8-10 and Romans 14:5, have been cited as alluding to the Sabbath. On the basis of these texts, the predominant historical consensus has been that Paul considered the Old Testament Sabbath no longer binding, especially for Gentile Christians.1


Of the three references, greater importance has been attached to Colossians 2:14-17, since that passage explicitly speaks of Christ's nailing something to the cross (verse 14) and warns against paying heed to regulations regarding several things, including "a sabbath" (verse 16). * So we shall inquire into Paul's attitude toward the Sabbath by examining primarily verses 14-17 and secondarily Galatians 4:8-11 and Romans 14:5, 6.

The Colossian heresy

Since the observance of "sabbaths" is only one aspect of the Colossian heresy refuted by Paul, we need to ascertain first of all the overall nature of the false teachings that threatened to "disqualify" (Col. 2:18) the Colossian believers. Were these teachings Mosaic ordinances, and are they identified with the written document (cheirographon), which God through Christ wiped out... removed, nailed to the cross (verse 14) ? Most commentators define the Colossian heresy as syncretistic teachings that incorporated both Hellenistic and Jewish elements. 2 Such false teaching had both theological and practical aspects.

Theologically, the Colossian "philosophy" (verse 8) was competing with Christ for man's allegiance. Its source of authority, according to Paul, was "human tradition" (verse 8), and its object was to impart true "wisdom" (verses 3, 23) and "knowledge" (verses 2, 3; chap. 3:10) and to assure participation in the divine "fulness" (chaps. 2:9, 10; 1:19). To attain this, Christians were to do homage to cosmic principalities (chap. 2:10, 15) to "the elemental spirits of the universe" (2:8, 20), and to angelic powers (verses 15, 18), and they were to follow ritualistic ascetic practices (verses 11, 14, 16, 17, 21, 22). Essentially, then, the theological error consisted in interposing inferior mediators in place of Christ (verses 9, 10, 18, 19).

Practically, these theological speculations resulted in the insistence on strict ascetism and ritualism. These consisted in "putting off the body of flesh" (verse 11)—apparently meaning withdrawal from the world, rigorous treatment of the body (verse 23), prohibition to either taste or touch certain kinds of foods and beverages (verses 16, 21), and careful observance of sacred days and seasons— festival, new moon, Sabbath (verse 16).

Christians presumably were led to believe that by submitting to these ascetic practices they were not surrendering their faith in Christ but rather were receiving added protection and greater assurance of full access to divine fullness. This bare outline suffices to show that the Sabbath is not mentioned in the context of syncretistic beliefs and practices advocated by the Colossian "philosophers."

What was nailed to the cross?

To combat these false teachings, Paul extolled the superiority of Christ, who possesses "the whole fulness of deity" (verse 9) and provides full redemption and forgiveness of sin (verses 11-14). In emphasizing the certainty and fullness of Christ's forgiveness, Paul utilizes three metaphors: circumcision, baptism, and the written document (verses 11-14). Regarding the last, he says that God through Christ has canceled ... set aside, nailed to the cross. . . the written document (cheirographon—verse 14).

What is the written document—(cheirographon) that was nailed to the cross? Traditionally it has been interpreted as the Mosaic law with all its ordinances, including the Sabbath, which God allegedly set aside and nailed to the cross. This popular interpretation is unwarranted for at least two reasons. First, because as Eduard Lohse points out, "in the whole of the epistle the word law is not used at all. Not only that, but the whole significance of the law which appears unavoidable for Paul when he presents his gospel, is completely absent." 3

Second, this interpretation detracts from the immediate argument (verse 13), which was designed to prove the fullness of God's forgiveness. The wiping out of the moral and/or ceremonial law would hardly provide Christians with the divine assurance of forgiveness. Guilt is not removed by destroying law codes. The latter would only leave mankind without moral principles.

Recent studies have shed light on the meaning of cheirographon (which in the Scriptures occurs only in verse 14). Its usage in apocalyptic literature indicates that the cheirographon is the "recordbook of sins" or a "certificate of sinindebtedness" but not the moral or ceremonial law. 4 The clause "and this he has removed out of the middle" (verse 14, literal translation) supports this view. "The middle" was the position occupied in the court of assembly by the accusing witness. In the context of Colossians, the accusing witness is the record book of sins that God in Christ has erased and removed out of the court.

By this daring metaphor Paul affirms the completeness of God's forgiveness. Through Christ, God has canceled, set aside, nailed to the cross, the written record of our sins that because of the regulations was against us. The legal basis of the record of sins was "the binding statutes, regulations" (tois dogmasin). What God destroyed on the cross, though, was not the legal ground for our entanglement in sin (the law), but the written record of our sins.

By destroying the evidence of our sins, God also "disarmed the principalities and powers" (verse 15). It is no longer possible for them to accuse those who have been forgiven. Christians, there fore, need not feel incomplete or seek the help of inferior mediators. Christ has provided complete redemption and forgiveness. We conclude, then, by reiterating that the document nailed to the cross is neither the law in general nor the Sabbath in particular, but rather the record of our sins.

Condemnation of Sabbathkeeping?

Paul turns now to some practical aspects of the religious practices of the Colossian false teachers. "Therefore, let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath. These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ" (verse 16, 17). Luther's understanding of this represents-well the way it has generally been interpreted. He wrote, "Here Paul abolished the Sabbath by name and called it a bygone shadow because the body, which is Christ himself, has come." 5

To test the validity of this traditional interpretation we will consider the following questions: (1) Is Paul warning the Colossians against the practices of eating, drinking, festival, new moon, and sabbath as such or against those false teachers who were imposing "regulations" on the manner in which to observe these practices? (2) What is the nature of these regulations? Are they derived from Mosaic prescriptions or from a syncretistic ideology?

The statement "Therefore, let no one pass judgment on you ..." has been traditionally interpreted as Paul's warning against the five mentioned practices. This interpretation is totally wrong. In this passage Paul is not warning the Colossians against the observance of these practices as such, but against "anyone" (tis) who passes judgment on how to eat, to drink, and to observe sacred times. In other words, the judge is not Paul but Colossian false teachers who impose "regulations" (verse 20) on how to observe these practices in order to achieve "rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body" (verse 23).

D. R. DeLacey, writing in the recently released symposium From Sabbath to Lord's Day, rightly comments: "The judge is likely to be a man of ascetic tendencies who objects to the Colossian eating and drinking. The most natural way of taking the rest of the passage is not that he also imposes a ritual of feast days, but rather that he objects to certain elements of such observation." 6 Presumably the "judge" wanted the community to observe these practices in a more ascetic way ("severity to the body"— verses 23, 21). To put it crudely, he wanted the Colossian believers to do less feasting and more fasting.

Paul, then, is challenging not the validity of the festivals as such but the authority of the false teachers to legislate on the manner of their observance. The obvious implication is that in this text Paul is expressing not a condemnation but an approbation of the mentioned practices, which include Sabbathkeeping. This is the conclusion that DeLacey himself draws, in spite of his conviction that Paul did not expect Gentile converts to observe the Sabbath. He writes: "Here again (verse 16), then, it seems that Paul could happily countenance Sabbathkeeping. However we interpret the situation, Paul's statement 'Let no one pass judgment on you' indicates that no stringent regulations are to be laid down over the use of festivals." 7 In the light of these observations we conclude that in verse 16 Paul expresses not a condemnation but an implicit approbation of practices such as Sabbathkeeping.

Nature of the regulations

What is the nature of the regulations promoted by the false teachers regarding the manner of eating, drinking, and observing festivals? Regretfully Paul gives us only some hints. He mentions that they consisted in "self-abasement and worship of angels," "rigor of devotion. .. and severity to the body" (verses 18, 23) and that they taught: "Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch" (verse 21). These catch phrases indicate that the regulations did not derive from the Levitical law, for nowhere does it contemplate such an ascetic program. Though the nomenclature of the festivals is Jewish, the motivation and manner of their observance stems from a syncretistic ideology.

Eduard Lohse perceptively notes that "in the context of Colossians, the command to keep festival, new moon, and sabbath is not based on the Torah according to which Israel received the sabbath as a sign of her election from among the nations. Rather the sacred days must be kept for the sake of 'the elements of the universe' who direct the course of the stars and also prescribe minutely the order of the calendar. . . . The 'philosophy' made use of terms which stemmed from Jewish tradition, but which had been transformed in the crucible of syncretism to be subject to the service of 'the elements of the universe.' " 8

In the ancient world there was a widespread belief that asceticism and fasting enabled a person to come closer to a deity and to receive divine revelation. 9 In the case of the Colossian philosophy, the dietary taboos and the observance of sacred times were apparently regarded as an expression of subjection to and worship of the cosmic powers (elements) of the universe. Paul's warning against the regulations of the false teachers can hardly be interpreted as a condemnation of the Mosaic laws regarding food and festivals, since what the apostle condemns is not the teachings of Moses but their perverted use by the Colossian false teachers. A precept is not nullified by the condemnation of its perversion.

Shadow of the reality

Paul continues his argument in the following verse, saying, "These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ" (verse 17). To what does the relative pronoun these (ha in Greek) refer? Does it refer to the five practices mentioned in the previous verse or to the regulations (dogmata) regarding these practices promoted by the false teachers?

In a previous study I argued for the former, suggesting that Paul places dietary practices and the observance of days "in their proper perspective with Christ, by means of the contrast 'shadow—body.'" 10 Additional reflection has caused me to change my mind and to agree with E. Lohse, namely, that the relative pronoun these refers not to the five practices mentioned but rather to the false teachers' regulations regarding those practices.11

Two considerations support this conclusion. First, in verse 16 Paul is warning not against the Mosaic law regarding food and festivals but against the regulations. So it is more plausible to take the regulations rather than the actual practices as the antecedent of these. Second, in the verses that immediately follow, Paul continues his warning against the deceptive teachings, saying, for example, "Let no one disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement" (verse 18); "Why do you submit to regulations, 'Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch'?" (verses 20, 21). Since what precedes and what follows the relative pronoun these deals with the regulations of the Colossian philosophy, we conclude that it is the latter that Paul describes as "a shadow of what is to come" (verse 17).

Presumably the proponents of the Colossian philosophy maintained that their regulations represented a copy that enabled the believer to have access to the reality ("fulness"). In such a case, Paul is turning their argument against them by saying that their regulations "are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ" (verse 17). By emphasizing that Christ is the "substance" [sema: "body"] and the "Head" (verses 17, 19), Paul indicates that any shadow cast by the regulations has no significant value. We conclude, then, that what Paul calls a bygone shadow is not the Sabbath but the deceptive teachings of the Colossian philosophy, which promoted dietary practices and the observance of sacred times as auxiliary aids to salvation.

The Sabbath in Colossians 2:16

The regulations advocated by Colossian philosophy had to do not only with "food and drink" but also with sacred times referred to as "a festival or a new moon or a sabbath" (verse 16). Commentators agree that these three words represent a logical and progressive sequence (annual, monthly, and weekly) as well as an exhaustive enumeration of sacred times. These terms occur in similar or reverse sequence five times in the Septuagint and several other times in other literature, validating this interpretation. 12

Some view the "sabbaths" (sabbaton) as a reference to annual ceremonial sabbaths rather than the weekly Sabbath (Lev. 23:6-8, 21, 24, 25, 27, 28,37, 38).

Such a view, however, breaks the logical and progressive sequence. And it ignores the fact that in the Septuagint the annual ceremonial sabbaths are never designated simply as "sabbaths" (sabbaton), but always with the compound expression "sabbath of sabbaths" (sabbata sabbaton).

Does the plural form "sabbaths" (sabbaton) refer exclusively to the seventh-day Sabbath? The fact that the plural is used in the Scriptures to designate not only the seventh-day Sabbath but also the week as a whole (Ps. 23:1; 47:1; 93:1 [Septuagint]; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; Acts 20:7) suggests that the term may refer to weekdays. 13 The latter view harmonizes better with the sequence of the enumera tion, which suggests yearly, monthly, and weekly festivals.

A similar sequence, though in a reverse order, is given by Paul in Galatians 4:10. There he opposes a teaching strikingly similar to the one confusing the Colossians. It included the observance of "days, and months, and seasons, and years." The fact that the Galatian list begins with "days" (hemeras; note that it is plural) suggests that the "sabbaths" in Colossians may also refer to weekdays in general rather than to the seventh-day Sabbath in particular.

Assuming for the sake of our inquiry that the "sabbaths" in Colossians do refer to or include the Sabbath day, the question to be considered is What kind of Sabbath observance would the false teachers advocate? The data provided by Colossians are too meager to answer this question conclusively, yet the nature of the heresy allows us to draw some basic conclusions. The rigoristic emphasis on the observance of dietary rules would undoubtedly be carried over to Sabbathkeeping as well. The veneration of "the elemental spirits of the universe" would also affect the observance of the Sabbath and of sacred times, since it was commonly believed that the astral powers controlled both the calendar and human lives. 14

We know that in the pagan world Saturday was regarded as an unlucky day because of its association with the planet Saturn. 15 Therefore, any Sabbath observance promoted by the Colossians' ascetic teachers—known for their worship of the elements of the world—could only have been of a rigorous, superstitious type. A warning against this type of Sabbathkeeping by Paul would have been not only appropriate but also desirable. In this case Paul would be attacking not the principle of Sabbathkeeping but its perversion.

The Sabbath in Romans

The Sabbath is not specifically mentioned in Paul's Epistle to the Romans. However, in chapter' 14 the apostle distinguishes between two types of believers: the "strong," who believes "he may eat anything," and the "weak," who eats only vegetables and drinks no wine (verses 2, 16). The difference extended also to the observance of days, though it is not clear which of the two esteemed "one day as better than another" and which esteemed "all days alike" (verse 5). Many have maintained that the weekly Sabbath comes within the scope of this distinction respecting days. They presume that the "weak" believers esteemed the Sabbath better than other days while "the strong" treated the Sabbath like the rest of the weekdays.

Can the Sabbath be legitimately read into this passage? In my view this is impossible for at least three reasons. First, the conflict between the "weak" and the "strong" over diet and days can hardly be traced back to the Mosaic law, because nowhere does the Mosaic law prescribe strict vegetarianism, total abstinence from wine, or a preference over days (presumably) for fasting. That the Mosaic law is not at stake in Romans 14 is also indicated by the term koinos ("common"), which is used in verse 14 to designate "unclean" food. This term is radically different from the word akathartos ("impure"), used in Leviticus 11 (Septuagint) to designate unlawful foods.

Apparently the dispute was over meat that was lawful to eat but because of its association with idol worship (cf. 1 Cor. 8:1-13) was regarded by some as koinos ("common"), that is, unfit for human consumption. Thus the whole discussion is not about freedom to observe the law versus freedom from its observance. Rather, it concerns "unessential" scruples of conscience dictated not by divine precepts but by human conventions and superstitions. Since these differing convictions and practices did not undermine the essence of the gospel, Paul advises mutual tolerance and respect in this matter.

Second, Paul applies the basic principle, "observes it in honor of the Lord" (Rom. 14:6), only to the case of the person "who observes the day." He never says the opposite, namely, the man who "esteems all days alike" esteems them "in honor of the Lord." In other words, with regard to diet, he teaches that one can honor the Lord both by eating and by abstaining (verse 6). But with regard to days he does not even concede that the person who regards all days alike does so to the Lord. Thus Paul hardly gives his endorsement to those who esteemed all days alike.

Third, if, as it is generally presumed, it was the "weak" believer who observed the Sabbath, Paul would have to classify himself with the "weak," since he observed the Sabbath and other Jewish feasts (Acts 18:4, 19; 17:1, 10, 17; 20:16). Paul, however, views himself as "strong" ("we who are strong"—Rom. 15:1). So he could hardly have been thinking of Sabbathkeeping when he spoke of the preference over days.

The debate over days mentioned in Romans presumably had to do with fast days rather than feast days, since the context deals with abstinence from meat and wine (chap. 14:2, 6, 21). Support for this view is provided by the Didache (chapter 8), which enjoins Christians to fast on Wednesday and Friday rather than, like the Jews, on Monday and Thursday. On these matters Paul refuses to deliberate because he recognizes that spiritual exercises can be performed in different ways by different people.

Thus Paul's advice: "Let everyone be fully convinced in his own mind" (Rom. 14:5). It is difficult to see how Paul could, without ever giving an explanation, reduce the observance of holy days such as the Sabbath, Passover, and Pentecost to a matter of personal conviction. Especially since he labors at such great length to explain why circumcision was not binding upon the Gentiles. If Paul had taught his Gentile converts to regard Sabbathkeeping as a personal matter, Jewish Christians would readily have protested his audacity in setting aside the Sabbath law, as they did in the case of circumcision (Acts 21:21). The fact that the New Testament nowhere hints of any such controversy indicates that Paul never discouraged Sabbathkeeping or encouraged Sundaykeeping in its stead. 16

This passage itself gives additional support to this argument. Paul devotes 21 verses to the discussion of food and less than two verses (Rom. 14:5, 6) to that of days. This suggests that the latter was a very limited problem for the Roman church. If the conflict in the Roman church had been over the observance of holy days, the problem would have been even more manifest than the one over diet. After all, eating habits are a private matter, but Sabbathkeeping is a public religious exercise of the whole community.

In the Roman world there was a superstitious belief that certain days were more favorable than others to undertake some specific projects. 17 The Fathers frequently rebuked Christians for adopting such a superstitious mentality. It is possible that Paul alludes to this kind of problem, which, however, at his time was still too small to deserve much attention. For Paul the important thing is to "pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding" (verse 19). In the light of the above, we conclude that it is hardly probable that the Sabbath is included in the "days" of verse 5.

The Sabbath in Galatians

In Galatians, as in Romans, the Sabbath is not explicitly mentioned. Paul does mention, however, that some Galatian Christians had themselves circumcised (Gal. 6:12; 5:2, 3) and began to "observe days, and months, and seasons, and years" (chap. 4:10). In many respects the polemic in verses 8-11 is strikingly similar to that of Colossians 2:8-23. In both places the superstitious observance of sacred times is described as slavery to the "elemental spirits of the universe." In Galatians, however, the denunciation of the "false teachers" is stronger. They are regarded as "accursed" (chap. 1:8, 9) because they were teaching a different gospel. Their teaching that the observance of days and seasons was necessary to justification and salvation perverted the very heart of the gospel (chap. 5:4).

Whether or not the Sabbath is alluded to in Galatians depends upon the interpretation of "days" (hemerai--chap.4:10). Some critics argue on the basis of the parallel passage of Colossians 2:16, where "sabbaths" are explicitly mentioned, that "the 'days' certainly indicate even the Sabbaths." l8 We do not deny this possibility, but we have shown earlier that the plural "sabbaths" used in Colossians was the common designation not only for the Sabbath day but also for the whole week. Thus the plural "days" of Galatians could well indicate that the Colossians' "sabbaths" are "weekdays" and not vice versa. If Paul in Galatians 4:10 meant the Jewish festivals, why did he not give them their customary names, as he does in Colossians 2:16?

Assuming for the sake of discussion that the Sabbath is part of the "days" observed by the Galatians, the questions to be asked are: What motivated the observance of the Sabbath and of the festivals? Is Paul opposing the observance of the Sabbath and of festivals, or is he denouncing the perverted use made of these religious practices?

It is generally agreed that the Galatians' observance of sacred times was motivated by superstitious beliefs in astral influences. This is suggested by Paul's charge that their adoption of these practices was tantamount to a return to their former pagan subjection to elemental spirits and demons (Gal. 4:8, 9). Apparently, on account of their pagan background, the Galatians "could discern in the particular attention paid by Jews to certain days and seasons nothing more than religious veneration paid to stars and natural forces." 19

Paul's concern is not to expose the superstitious ideas attached to these observances, but rather to challenge the whole system of salvation that the Galatians' false teachers had devised. By conditioning justification and acceptance with God on such things as circumcision and the observance of days and seasons, the Galatians were making salvation dependent upon human achievement. For Paul, this was a betrayal of the gospel: "You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law, you have fallen away from grace" (chap. 5:4).

Paul's denouncement of the observance of days and seasons must be understood within this context. If the motivations for these observances would not have undermined the vital principle of justification by faith in Jesus Christ, Paul would only have recommended tolerance and respect (as he does in Romans 14), even if some ideas were foreign to Old Testament teaching. Since, however, the motivations for these practices adulterated the very ground of salvation, the apostle does not hesitate to reject them. In Galatians, as in Colossians, then, it is not the principle of Sabbathkeeping that Paul opposes. Rather he condemns the use of cultic observances as a way to salvation, a way dependent on human achievements rather than divine grace.

Several conclusions emerge from this study of Paul's attitude toward the law in general and the Sabbath in particular.

First, the three texts generally adduced as proof of Paul's repudiation of the Sabbath (Col. 2:14-17; Rom 14:5; Gal. 4:10) deal not with the validity or invalidity of the Sabbath commandment for Christians, but rather with ascetic and cultic practices which undermined the vital principle of justification by faith in Jesus Christ.

Second, in the crucial passage, Colossians 2:16, Paul's warning is not against the validity of observing festivals as such but against the authority of false teachers to legislate on the manner of their observance. Paul implicitly expresses approval rather than disapproval of their observance. Any condemnation had to do with a perversion rather than with a precept.

Third, Paul's tolerance with respect to diet and days (Rom. 14:3-6) indicates that he would not have promoted the abandonment of the Sabbath and the adoption of Sunday observance. If he had done so, he would have encountered endless disputes with Sabbath advocates. The absence of any trace of such a polemic is perhaps the most telling evidence of Paul's respect for the institution of the Sabbath.

In the final analysis, Paul's attitude toward the Sabbath must be determined not on the basis of his denunciation of heretical superstitious observances that may have influenced Sabbathkeeping, but rather on the basis of his overall attitude toward the law. Many have failed to understand that Paul rejects the law as a method of salvation but upholds it as a moral standard of Christian conduct. This failure, in turn, has been the root of much misunderstanding of Paul's attitude toward the law in general and toward the Sabbath in particular. It is our fervent hope that this study will help to remove this misunderstanding and to reemphasize Paul's position, that "the law is good, if any one uses it lawfully" (1 Tim. 1:8).

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Samuele Bacchiocchi received his Ph. D. from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, writing his dissertation about how the change in the day of worship took place. His two books From Sabbath to Sunday and Divine Rest for Human Restlessness have been very popular because they have deepened the meaning of the Sabbath for their readers.

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