Colossians 2:14-17: Approbation or Condemnation of the Sabbath?
The Sabbath in Romans and Galatians
PAUL AND THE SABBATH
The most popular weapons used to attack the Sabbath are the following three Pauline texts: Colossians 2:14-17, Galatians 4:8-11, and Romans 10:4-5. Of these references, greater importance has been attached to Colossians 2:14-17, inasmuch as the passage explicitly speaks of Christ’s nailing something to the Cross (Col 2:14) and warns against paying heed to regulations regarding several things, including "a sabbath" (Col 2:16).
Based on these texts, the predominant historical consensus has been that Paul regarded the Sabbath as part of the Old Covenant that was nailed to the Cross.1 Paul K. Jewett exemplifies the historical interpretation when he writes: "Paul’s statement (Col 2:16) comes as near to a demonstration as anything could, that he taught his converts they had no obligation to observe the seventh-day Sabbath of the Old Testament."2
This popular view has been adopted and defended recently by former Sabbatarians. For example, commenting on Colossians 2:16-17, the Worldwide Church of God affirms: "Under the laws of Moses, the Sabbath was a law by which people were judged. But Jesus’ crucifixion has changed that. Now the Sabbath is no longer a basis for judgment."3 The implication is that Christians are no longer held accountable for transgressing the Sabbath commandment because it was a ""shadow’ of things to come."4
In Sabbath in Crisis, Dale Ratzlaff categorically affirms: "In every instance in the epistles [of Paul] where there is teaching about the Sabbath, that teaching suggests that the Sabbath either undermines the Christian’s standing in Christ, or is nonessential. . . . The Sabbath is said to be enslaving. Observance of the Sabbath, and the related old covenant convocations, made Paul ‘fear’ that he had labored in vain."5 Ratzlaff goes so far as to say that, according to Paul, "the observance of the Sabbath by Christians seriously undermines the finished work of Christ."6
Did Paul take such a strong stand against the Sabbath, warning his converts against the detrimental effects of its observance in their Christian life? Did the Apostle really find Sabbathkeeping so dangerous? In what way could the act of stopping our work on the Sabbath to allow our Savior to work in our lives more fully and freely "seriously undermine the finished work of Christ"?
Objectives of This Chapter.
COLOSSIANS 2:14-17: APPROBATION OR CONDEMNATION OF THE SABBATH?
(1) The Colossian Heresy
Paul’s reference to the observance of "Sabbaths" in Colossians 2:16 is only one aspect of the "Colossian heresy" refuted by Paul. It is necessary, therefore, 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 can they be identified with the "written document—cheirographon" which God through Christ ‘wiped out . . . removed, nailed to the cross" (Col 2:14)?
Most commentators define the Colossian heresy as syncretistic teachings which incorporated both Hellenistic and Jewish elements. Such a false teaching had both a theological and practical aspect.
To attain divine fullness, Christians were urged to do homage to cosmic principalities (Col 2:10, 15), to "the elements of the universe" (Col 2:8, 20), and to angelic powers (2:15, 18), following ritualistic ascetic practices (Col 2:11-14,16,17,21-22).
To gain protection from these cosmic powers and principalities, the Colossian "philosophers" urged Christians to offer cultic adoration to angelic powers (Col 2:15,18,19,23) and to follow ritualistic and ascetic practices (Col 2:11,14,16,17,21,22). By that process, one was assured of access to and participation in the divine "fullness—pleroma" (Col 2:9,10, cf. 1:19). Essentially, then, the theological error consisted in interposing inferior mediators in place of the Head Himself, Jesus Christ (Col 2:9-10, 18-19).
Christians presumably were led to believe that by submitting to these ascetic practices, they were not surrendering their faith in Christ but rather, they were receiving added protection and were assured of full access to the divine fullness. This may be inferred both from Paul’s distinction between living "according to the elements of the universe" and "according to Christ" (Col 2:8) and from the Apostle’s insistence on the supremacy of the incarnate Christ. "In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily" (Col 2:9); therefore Christians attain "the fullness—pleroma" of life not by worshipping the elements of the universe, but through Christ, "who is the head of all rule and authority" (2:10; cf. 1:15-20; 3:3).
This bare outline suffices to show that the Sabbath is not mentioned in the passage in the context of a direct discussion of the Old Covenant law, as Ratzlaff claims,7 but rather in the context of syncretistic beliefs and practices, which included elements from the Old Testament. Presumably the latter provided a justification for the ascetic principles advocated by the Colossian "philosophers." We are not informed what type of Sabbath observance these teachers promoted; nevertheless, on the basis of their emphasis on scrupulous adherence to "regulations," it is apparent that the day was to be observed in a most rigorous and superstitious manner.
Circumcision and Baptism.
Of the first two metaphors, Paul says:
"In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of the flesh, God has made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses" (Col 2:11-13).
To support his contention that the Sabbath is part of the Old Covenant nailed to the Cross, Ratzlaff interprets Paul's reference to the circumcision and baptism in this passage as indicating that the Old Covenant, of which circumcision was the entrance sign, has been replaced by the New Covenant, of which baptism is the entrance sign. "Circumcision not only served as the entrance sign to the old covenant, Paul shows how it also pointed forward to Christ, yet it does not continue as a sign in the new covenant. In the new covenant baptism replaces circumcision."8
The problem with Ratzlaff's interpretation is his failure to recognize that Paul is not comparing or contrasting the Old and New Covenants, but affirming the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection through the imageries of circumcision and baptism. The imageries of circumcision and baptism are not used by Paul to discuss the Old and New Covenants, but to affirm the fullness of God’s forgiveness, accomplished by Christ on the cross and extended through baptism to the Christian. Indeed, the proclamation of God's forgiveness constitutes Paul’s basic answer to those attempting perfection by submitting to worship of angels (Col 2:18) and of the "elements of the world" (Col 2:8) by means of ascetic practices.
(2) The Written Document Nailed to the Cross
To further emphasize the certainty and fullness of divine forgiveness explicitly mentioned in verses 11-13, Paul utilizes a legal metaphor in verse 14, namely that of God as a judge who "wiped out, . . . removed [and] nailed to the cross . . . the written document—cheirographon."
This interpretation has several serious problems. First, the wrong assumption is made that the Old Covenant was "against us." If that were true, God would be guilty of establishing a covenant that was against His people. Could a gracious, redeeming God do such an unjust thing? What was against the people was not the covenant, which is God's commitment to save, but their sins which were exposed by the Law. The reason there is "no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom 8:1) is not because Christ nailed to the Cross "the ability of the law to condemn," thus leaving mankind without moral principles, but because God sent
"his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh . . . in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Rom 8:3-4).
Even more serious is Ratzlaff's misinterpretation of the "written document" that was nailed to the Cross. He interprets this document to be the Old Covenant including the Sabbath, which God allegedly set aside and nailed to the Cross.10 This popular and traditional interpretation has largely been discredited by modern scholarship for at least two reasons. First, as Eduard Lohse points out in his commentary on Colossians, "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."11
Second, this interpretation detracts from the immediate argument 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.
The validity of these comments is acknowledged even by Douglas R. De Lacey, Professor of New Testament at Cambridge University and contributor to the scholarly symposium From Sabbath to the Lord’s Day, which is largely a response to my dissertation From Sabbath to Sunday. De Lacey writes: "Bacchiocchi lays great stress on the fact that the term nomos [law] is entirely absent from Colossians, and although his own interpretation at times fails to convince, he is surely right in his conclusion that this passage cannot be interpreted as stating that the Mosaic law itself was ‘wiped out’ in the death of Christ."12
Record Book of Sin.
By this daring metaphor, Paul affirms the completeness of God’s forgiveness. Through Christ, God has "canceled," "set aside," and "nailed to the cross" "the written record of our sins which because of the regulations was against us." The legal basis of the record of sins was "the binding statutes," or "regulations" (tois dogmasin), but what God destroyed on the Cross was not the legal ground (law) for our entanglement into sin, but the written record of our sins.
By destroying the evidence of our sins, God also "disarmed the principalities and powers" (Col 2:15) since it is no longer possible for them to accuse those who have been forgiven. There is no reason, therefore, for Christians to feel incomplete and to seek the help of inferior mediators since Christ has provided complete redemption and forgiveness.
We conclude, then, that the document nailed to the Cross is not the Law, in general, or the Sabbath, in particular, but rather the record of our sins. Any attempt to read into this text a reference to the Law or the Sabbath lacks contextual and linguistic support.
(3) Approbation or Condemnation of Sabbathkeeping?
Having refuted the theological speculations of the Colossian false teachers by reaffirming the supremacy of Christ and the fullness of His redemption (Col 2:8-15), Paul turns to some practical aspects of their religious practices, saying:
"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" (Col 2:16-17).
Warning Against the Sabbath?
This interpretation is wrong because in this passage Paul warns the Colossians not against the observances of these practices as such, but against "anyone" (tis) who passes judgment on how to eat, to drink, and to observe sacred times. The judge who passed judgment is not Paul but the Colossians false teachers who imposed "regulations" (Col 2:20) on how to observe these practices in order to achieve "rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body" (Col 2:23).
Douglas De Lacey, a contributor to the scholarly symposium From Sabbath to the Lord’s Day cited earlier, rightly comments: "The judge is likely to be a man of ascetic tendencies who objects to the Colossians’ 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."17 Presumably the "judge" wanted the community to observe these practices in a more ascetic way ("severity to the body"—Col 2:23, 21); to put it bluntly, he wanted the Colossian believers to do less feasting and more fasting.
Approbation of the Sabbath.
It is noteworthy that even De Lacey reaches this conclusion, in spite of his view that Paul did not expect Gentile converts to observe the Sabbath. He writes: "Here again (Col 2:16), 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."18
Troy Martin, Professor at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, comes to the same conclusion in a recent article published in New Testament Studies. He writes: "This essay provides evidence that the Pauline community at Colossae, not the opponents, practices the temporal schemes outlined by Colossians 2:16. . . . This investigation into the function of the list in Colossians 2:16 indicates that the Colossians Christians, not their critics, participate in a religious calendar that includes festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths."19
It is encouraging to see scholars finally recognizing that, contrary to the traditional and popular interpretation advocated by people like Ratzlaff, Colossians 2:16 is not the death knell of Sabbathkeeping in the New Testament but, instead, a proof of its Pauline approbation. Why does Ratzlaff totally ignore the conclusion of Prof. De Lacey (and others), though he uses the symposium as the major resource for his own book? Most likely because he does not want readers to learn about anything that contradicts his anti-Sabbath interpretation of Colossians 2:16. This methodology is hardly reflective of responsible scholarship which requires the examination of opposing views before presenting one's own conclusions.
(4) The Manner of Sabbathkeeping
What is the nature of the "regulations" promoted by the Colossians false teachers regarding food and festivals, including the weekly Sabbath? Regretfully, Paul gives us only few catch phrases such as "self-abasement and worship of angels," "rigor of devotion . . . severity to the body" (Col 2:18, 23) and their teachings—"Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch" (Col 2:21). These catch phrases indicate that the regulations did not derive from the Levitical law since nowhere does the latter contemplate such an ascetic program. Though the designation of the festivals is Jewish, the motivation and manner of their observance stems from pagan syncretistic ideologies.
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.’"20
In the ancient world there was widespread belief that ascetism and fasting enabled a person to come closer to a deity and to receive divine revelation.21 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 cannot be interpreted as a condemnation of Mosaic laws regarding food and festivals, since what the Apostle condemns is not the teachings of Moses but their perverted use by Colossian false teachers. A precept is not nullified by the condemnation of its perversion.
Shadow of the Reality.
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.’"22 Additional reflection caused me to change my mind and to agree with Eduard Lohse that the relative pronoun "these" refers not to the five mentioned practices as such, but rather to the "regulations" regarding such practices promoted by the false teachers.23
A Reference to "Regulations."
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 . . ." (Col 2:18); "Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’?" (Col 2:20-21). Since what precedes and what follows that relative pronoun "these" deals with the "regulations" of the Colossian "philosophy," it is most likely that Paul describes the latter as "a shadow of what is to come" (Col 2:17).
The proponents of the Colossian "philosophy" presumably maintained that their "regulations" represented a copy which enabled the believer to have access to the reality ("fullness"). 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" (Col 2:17). By emphasizing that Christ is the "body" and the "head" (Col 2:17, 19), Paul indicates that any "shadow" cast by the regulations has no significant value.
In the light of the above indications, we conclude 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.
(5) The Sabbath in Colossians 2:16
The "regulations" advocated by the 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" (Col 2:16). 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. This interpretation is validated by the occurrence of these terms in similar or reverse sequence five times in the Septuagint and several other times in other literature.24
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).25 Such a view, however, breaks the logical and progressive sequence and ignores the fact that in the Septuagint the annual ceremonial Sabbaths are never designated simply as "sabbath" (sabbaton), but always with the compound expression "Sabbath of Sabbaths" (sabbata sabbaton). Indications such as these compellingly show that the word "sabbaton" used in Colossians 2:16 cannot refer to any of the annual ceremonial Sabbaths.
A similar sequence, though in reverse order, is given by Paul in Galatians 4:10 where he opposes a strikingly similar teaching which included the observance of "days, and months, and seasons, and years." The fact that the Galatian list begins with "days" (hemeras, plural) suggests the possibility 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 inquiry that the "sabbaths" in Colossians do refer to or include the Sabbath day, the question to be considered is this: 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 conclude that the rigoristic emphasis on observance of dietary rules would undoubtedly be carried over to Sabbathkeeping as well. The veneration of "the elements of the universe" would also affect the observance of the Sabbath and of sacred times, since it was commonly believed that the astral powers, which direct the stars, control both the calendar and human lives.27
We know that in the pagan world Saturday was regarded as an unlucky day because of its association with the planet Saturn.28 In view of the prevailing astral superstitions associated with the days of the week, 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 such a superstitious type of Sabbathkeeping by Paul would have been not only appropriate but also desirable. In this case, Paul could be attacking not the principle of Sabbathkeeping but its perverted function and motivation which adulterated the ground of salvation. This conclusion is confirmed by two other Pauline passages (Rom 14:4-5; Gal 4:10) to be considered now.
Chapter 5, Part 4
Chapter 6, Part 2
Notes to Chapter 6, Part 1
1. For a brief historical survey of this interpretation,
see Samuele Bacchiocchi, "Paul and the Sabbath," in From Sabbath to
Sunday (Rome, 1977), Appendix, pp. 339-343.
Written by: Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University