Colossians 2:14-17: Approbation or Condemnation of the Sabbath?
The Sabbath in Romans and Galatians
The Sabbath is not specifically mentioned in Paulís Epistle to the Romans. However, in chapter 14, the Apostle distinguishes between two types of believers: the "strong" who believed "he may eat anything" and the "weak" who ate only "vegetables" and drank no wine (Rom 14:2, 21). The difference extended also to the observance of days, as indicated by Paulís statement:
"One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind" (Rom 14:5).
Many Christians maintain 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. For example, the Worldwide Church of God uses Romans 14:5 to argue that "Paul did not teach Gentile Christians to keep the Sabbath. He actually told them that the Sabbath was not an area in which we should be judged."29 "That is because something had happened to change the basis of our relationship with God . . . the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because of that, the Old Covenant laws came to an end. Days are no longer a matter for judging behavior."30 In a similar vein, Ratzlaff concludes that "The Ďdaysí mentioned in this chapter [Rom 14:5] that some Ďregardí and Ďobserveí over other days, are probably Sabbath days, although the evidence is not conclusive."31
No Reference to Mosaic Law.
Similarly, the "strong man" who "believes he may eat anything" (Rom 14:2) and who "esteems all days alike" is not asserting his freedom from the Mosaic law but from ascetic beliefs apparently derived from sectarian movements. The whole discussion then is not about freedom to observe the law versus freedom from its observance, but 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.
That the Mosaic law is not at stake in Romans 14 is also indicated by the term "koinosócommon" which is used in verse 14 to designate "unclean" food. This term is radically different from the word "akathartosóimpure" used in Leviticus 11 (Septuagint) to designate unlawful foods. This suggests that the dispute was not over meat which was unlawful according to the Mosaic Law, but about meat which per se was lawful to eat but because of its association with idol worship (cf. 1 Cor 8:1-13) was regarded by some as "koinosócommon," that is, to be avoided by Christians.
A second point to note is that Paul applies the basic principle "observe 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, Paul teaches that one can honor the Lord both by eating and by abstaining (Rom 14:6); but with regard to days, he does not even concede that the person who regards all the days alike does so to the Lord. Thus, Paul hardly gives his endorsement to those who esteemed all days alike.
Sabbathkeeping: For "Weak" Believers?
Support for this conclusion is also provided by Paulís advice: "Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind" (Rom 14:5). It is difficult to see how Paul could reduce the observance of holy days such as the Sabbath, Passover, and Pentecost to a matter of personal conviction without ever explaining the reason for it. This is especially surprising since he labors at great length to explain why circumcision was not binding upon the Gentiles.
If Paul taught his Gentile converts to regard Sabbathkeeping as a personal matter, Jewish Christians readily would have attacked his temerity in setting aside the Sabbath law, as they did regarding circumcision (Acts 21:21). The fact that there is no hint of any such controversy in the New Testament indicates that Paul never discouraged Sabbathkeeping or encouraged Sundaykeeping instead.33
No Hint of Conflict.
Paul refuses to deliberate on private matters such as fasting, because he recognizes that spiritual exercises can be performed in different ways by different people. The important thing for Paul is to "pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding" (Rom 14:19).
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 Sabbath-keeping is a public, religious exercise of the whole community. Any disagreement on the latter would have been not only noticeable but also inflammatory.
The fact that Paul devotes 21 verses to the discussion of food and less than two verses (Rom 14:5-6) to that of days suggests that the latter was a very limited problem for the Roman Church, presumably because it had to do with private conviction on the merit or demerit of doing certain spiritual exercises such as fasting on some specific days.
In the Roman world there was a superstitious belief that certain days were more favorable than others for undertaking some specific projects. The Fathers frequently rebuked Christians for adopting such a superstitious mentality.34 Possibly, Paul alludes to this kind of problem, which at his time was still too small to deserve much attention. Since these practices did not undermine the essence of the Gospel, Paul advises mutual tolerance and respect on this matter. In the light of these considerations, we conclude that it is hardly possible that Sabbathkeeping is included in the "days" of Romans 14:5.
(2) The Sabbath in Galatians
In Galatians, as in Romans, there is no specific reference to the Sabbath. Paul does mention, however, that some Galatian Christians had themselves circumcised (Gal 6:12; 5:2) and had begun to "observe days, and months, and seasons, and years" (Gal 4:10).
In many respects, the polemic in Galatians 4:8-11 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 "elements." In Galatians, however, the denunciation of the "false teachers" is stronger. They are regarded as "accursed" (Gal 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 (Gal 5:4).
Pagan Days or Sabbath Day?
Ratzlaff affirms categorically this view saying: "We have a clear reference to the seventh-day Sabbath in this passage [Gal 4:10] for the following four reasons. (1) The context of the book of Galatians, including chapter 4, is dealing with those Ďwho want to be under the law.í (2) Paulís use of Ďelemental thingsí usually, if not always, refer to that which is contained in the old covenant. (3) The Galatians were observing days, months, seasons, and years, thus placing themselves back under the old covenant law. (4) These convocations are listed in order."36
Comparison of Colossians 2:16 and Galatians 4:10.
The context clearly indicates that Paul rebukes the Galatians for turning back to their pagan days by reverting to their pagan calendar. Thus, the issue is not their adoption of Jewish Holy Days but their return to observing pagan superstitious days. Paul makes this point rather clearly:
"Formerly, when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods; but now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days, and months, and seasons, and years! I am afraid that I have labored over you in vain" (Gal 4:8-10).
Two recent articles by Troy Martin, published in New Testament Studies and the Journal of Biblical Literature, make a significant contribution to the understanding of the passage under consideration. Martin points out that the time-keeping scheme found in Galatians 4:10 ("days, and months, and seasons, and years") is clearly different from that found in Colossians 2:16 ("a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths"). He shows that while the list in Colossians 2:16 is unquestionably Jewish, because the temporal categories of festival, new moon, and Sabbaths are characteristic of the Jewish religious calendar, the list in Galatians 4:10 of "days, and months, and seasons, and years" "describes a pagan calendar unacceptable to Paul and his communities."38
Martin reaches this conclusion by examining not only the time structure of pagan calendars,39 but especially the immediate context where Paul condemns the Galatiansí attempt to return to their pagan practices (Gal 4:8-9) by reverting to the use of their pagan calendar. "As the immediate context clearly states, Paul is worried that he has labored for the Galatians in vain since they have returned to their former pagan life as evidenced by their renewed preconversion reckoning of time. Because of its association with idolatry and false deities, marking time according to this pagan scheme is tantamount to rejecting Paulís Gospel and the one and only true God it proclaims (Gal 4:8-9). Galatians 4:10, therefore, stipulates that when the Galatians accepted Paulís Gospel with its aversion to idolatry (Gal 4:8), they discarded their pagan method of reckoning time. . . . A comparison of these lists demonstrates that the Gentile conversion to Paulís gospel involves rejection of idolatrous pagan temporal schemes in favor of the Jewish liturgical calendar."40
Gentilesí Adoption of Jewish Calendar.
Paulís time references clearly reflect his adoption of the Jewish religious calendar, though modified and transformed by the coming of Christ. For example, in 1 Corinthians 16:2, Paul recommends a fundraising plan for the Jerusalem church consisting of laying aside at home some money kata mian sabbaton, that is, "every first day from the Sabbath." The fact that Paul refers to the first day of the week by the Jewish designation "first day from the Sabbath," and not by the prevailing pagan name dies solisóDay of the Sun, reveals that he taught his Gentile converts to regulate their lives by the Jewish calendar.
In the same epistle, Paul builds an elaborate argument based upon the festival of Passover and unleavened bread in order to exhort the Corinthians, "Let us keep the festival" (1 Cor 5:6-8). The whole argument and exhortation to keep Passover would have been meaningless to the Gentile congregation of Corinth unless Paul had taught about the Jewish religious calendar. In the light of these considerations we conclude, with Martin, that " although the temporal references in Paulís letters are sparse, 1 Corinthians provides strong evidence for the Pauline adoption of the Jewish practice that marked time by festivals and Sabbaths."41
The Christian adherence to the Jewish calendar is especially evident in the book of Acts. Repeatedly, Paul proclaims the Gospel in synagogues and in the outdoors on the Sabbath (Acts 13:14, 44; 16:13; 17:2). In Troas, Paul speaks to the believers on the first day from Sabbath (mia ton sabbaton) (Acts 20:7). "The portrayal of Paul in Acts," as Martin points out, "supplies clear evidence that Christians mark time by segments of festivals and Sabbaths."42 This conclusion is clearly supported by Colossians 2:16 where we find the standard Jewish nomenclature of annual feasts, monthly new moons, and weekly Sabbaths.
The fact that Paul taught his Gentile congregations to reject their pagan calendar, where the days were named after planetary gods and the months after deified emperors, and to reckon time according to the Jewish religious calendar, does not necessarily mean that he taught them to practice Jewish religious rituals. The Romans themselves replaced just before the origin of Christianity their "eight day weekónundinum" with the Jewish seven-day week and adopted in the first century the Jewish Sabbath as their new day for rest and feasting, without the concomitant adoption of the Jewish rituals.43 By the same token, Paul taught his Gentile converts to reckon time according to the Jewish religious calendar without expecting them to practice the rituals associated with it. A good example is Paulís discussion of the new meaning of the feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread in the light of Christís event (1 Cor 5:6-8).44
The Galatiansí observance of pagan sacred times was motivated by superstitious beliefs in astral influences. This is suggested by Paulís 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).
Paulís concern is not to expose the superstitious ideas attached to these observances but to challenge the whole system of salvation which the Galatiansí false teachers had devised. By conditioning justification and acceptance with God to such things as circumcision and the observance of pagan days and seasons, the Galatians were making salvation dependent upon human achievement. This for Paul 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" (Gal 5:4).
It is within this context that Paulís denouncement of the observance of
days and seasons must be understood. If the motivations for these
observances had not 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. The motivation for these
practices, however, adulterated the very ground of salvation. Thus the
Apostle had no choice but strongly to reject them. In Galatians as in
Colossians, then, it is not the principle of Sabbathkeeping that Paul
opposes, but rather the perverted use of cultic observations which were
designed to promote salvation as a human achievement rather than as a
divine gift of grace.
First, the three texts (Col 2:14-16; Rom 14:5, Gal 4:10) generally adduced as proof of Paulís repudiation of the Sabbath do not deal with the validity or invalidity of the Sabbath commandment for Christians but, rather, with ascetic and cultic practices which undermined (especially in Colossians and Galatians) the vital principle of justification by faith in Jesus Christ.
Second, in the crucial passage of Colossians 2:16, Paulís warning is not against the validity of observing the Sabbath and festivals as such but against the authority of false teachers to legislate on the manner of their observance. Implicitly, Paul expresses approval rather than disapproval of their observance. Any condemnation had to do with a perversion rather than a precept.
Third, Paulís 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 instead. If he had done so, he would have encountered endless disputes with Sabbath advocates, especially among Jewish Christians. The absence of any trace of such a polemic is perhaps the most telling evidence of Paulís respect for the institution of the Sabbath.
In the final analysis, Paulís attitude toward the Sabbath must be determined not on the basis of his denunciation of heretical and superstitious observances which may have influenced Sabbathkeeping, but rather on the basis of his overall attitude toward the law.
The failure to understand that Paul rejects the law as a method of salvation but upholds it as a moral standard of Christian conduct has been the root cause of much misunderstanding of Paulís attitude toward the law, in general, and toward the Sabbath, in particular. May this study contribute to clarify this misunderstanding and allow us to discover, with Paul, that "the law is good, if any one uses it lawfully" (1 Tim 1:8).
Chapter 6, Part 1
Chapter 7, Part 1
Notes to Chapter 6, Part 2
Written by: Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University