Bible - General Questions

Does Colossians 2:16 Negate the Sabbath Commandment?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
The answer underscores the distinction between God's transcendent moral law and His ceremonial law for the Jews.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

The answer to this question underscores the difference between God's transcendent moral law, and His ceremonial law given to the Jews.

One of the messages in our broadcast archive is titled "From Shadows to Substance" and deals with Colossians 2:11-17 -

  1. In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ,

  2. buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.

  3. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses,

  4. having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.

  5. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.

  6. So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths,

  7. which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.

Listeners asked several questions about verse 16 that we did not cover specifically in that message: Is Paul speaking of the Sabbath in the Ten Commandments? Does this mean that the Ten Commandments are only 'shadows'? Is Paul negating Exodus 20:8-11? Why and how was the Sabbath changed from the seventh day to the first day?

The False Doctrine of the Judaizers

In these verses Paul is warning Christians against the evil of legalism. Paul wrote these words to the church at Colosse because of a controversy stirred up by Judaizers within the church. These people were Jews who were professing Christian converts. They were the descendants of Jews who, after the Babylonian captivity, had been resettled in this region by the emperor Antiochus.

These Jewish professing Christians said that it was necessary for everyone in the church, Jew or Gentile, to keep the Jewish ceremonial law, as well as believe in Christ, in order to be saved. These people were the forerunners of the sect of the Ebionites, who troubled the early church in many parts of the Roman Empire by teaching justification by ritual observance, not by faith in Christ alone.

These Jews in Colosse and other cities observed the Christian Lord's Day (the first day of the week), and the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper. But they also continued to insist that male circumcision, keeping the seventh day, keeping the Old Testament dietary regulations, and keeping the Passover and other Jewish feast days were also necessary. These feast days included all of the "festivals, new moons, and sabbaths," as Paul calls them, that were part of the regulations God had instituted only for the Old Covenant Jews.

God's Dealings With Peter

This reminds us that even the Apostle Peter, early in his ministry after the Day of Pentecost, still held onto the old regulations. He would not eat foods that were considered unclean under the old law, and he would not even go into the house of a Gentile. But when God prepared Peter to go to the house of the Gentile Cornelius and preach the Gospel to him, God gave Peter the vision of the sheet let down from heaven in Act chapter 10. God used this to show Peter the New Covenant principle which he soon communicated to Cornelius: "God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean...In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him" through faith in Jesus Christ alone (Acts 10:34-43).

God's Moral Law Still Stands

Paul is likewise telling the Colossians that all of these old regulations have been done away with by the cross of Christ. Paul dealt with the same question in much greater depth in his letter to the Galatians, who were seriously led astray by the Judaizers.

Does any of this mean that Paul is saying that the commandment to "remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Exodus 20:8) has been negated? Not at all. That commandment is not part of the ceremonial law of Israel, which was temporary and was done away in Christ. It is part of the transcendent moral law of God. The hallowing of the Sabbath was established in Genesis 2:3 for all mankind, nearly 1500 years before it was reiterated in the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.

Seventh Day or First Day?

This does raise another related question that we must also address: Originally at creation the seventh day of the week was set apart and consecrated as the Sabbath. The seventh day is also stipulated as the Sabbath in Exodus 20. How is it that Christians now observe the first day of the week as the Sabbath? Did God authorize this change? Several points from Scripture bear upon the answer.

First, it must be said that it is legitimate to make a distinction between the Sabbath principle, and the particular day set apart for its observance. For example, the Jews were also commanded to count "seven sabbaths of years," that is, 49 years, and proclaim liberty and rest for the land and its people during the year that followed, the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25). The question of God's changing the one-in-seven rest day does not abrogate the perpetual obligation of the Sabbath as an institution.

Secondly, any change of the day on which it is to be observed must be made by Christ Himself or by His authority. Christ is Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28), and originally established it as a memorial of His work of creation (Genesis 2:3, cf. John 1:3 and Hebrews 1:10). But in His death and resurrection Christ accomplished a work far greater than that of creation itself - the salvation of His people, and the ultimate restoration of the created order (Colossians 1, Ephesians 1). It would certainly not be contrary to the character of Christ's greater work to make the New Covenant Sabbath a memorial of that accomplished victory.

Thirdly, it must be said that we have no specific Scripture text commanding or authorizing a change of the Sabbath from the seventh day to first day in specific words. However, we do have ample evidence that such a change was instituted:

  • After His resurrection, which took place on the first day of the week (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1), we never find our Lord meeting with His disciples on the seventh day.

  • However, Jesus specially honored the first day by appearing to His followers on five separate recorded occasions (Matthew 28:9; Luke 24:34; Luke 34:18-33; John 20:19-23; John 20:26).

  • An examination of the Jewish ceremonial calendar reveals that the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the 120 at Pentecost (Acts 2:1) - a day for which Christ commanded them to wait at Jerusalem - was on the first day of the week.

  • In all of these things there is every indication that Christ was instituting a new day to be observed by His New Covenant people as the Sabbath - a day that, by the time of John's vision on Patmos decades later, had become known as "the Lord's Day" (Revelation 1:10).

  • The observance of the first day of the week was the practice of the New Testament church from its earliest days (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2). Also, where questions concerning the observance of specific days are addressed in the epistles, reiteration of the seventh day and prohibition of the first day are both conspicuously absent. The church's perpetual practice of observing the first day of the week as the Sabbath could not have come about or continued without the sanction of Christ's own apostles acting under His authority.

Thank you, readers and listeners, for giving us the privilege of answering these questions from God's Word.

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