My last article on the Sabbath laid out the reasons for believing that the Old Testament Sabbath was transformed by Christ into the Lord’s Day of the New Testament—still a day for worship and rest, filled with the content of the Sabbath but now occupying the first day of the week. In this penultimate article in my series on the Sabbath, I will consider a few verses which might seem to disagree with that conclusion.
Colossians 2:16-17: A Passing Shadow?
Perhaps the most obvious passage which seems to teach that Old Testament Sabbath commands have no relevance for the Christian is Colossians 2:16-17, which says, “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 a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” It certainly sounds like Paul is declaring that the Sabbath is entirely an Old Testament thing, a shadow which has passed away in the light of Christ. But first glances may be deceiving.
Paul is plainly speaking of Old Testament ceremonial laws here, since he says they foreshadowed Christ. The reference to “food and drink” may sound like dietary laws, but in fact there were no dietary laws about drinking other than regulations for priests and Nazarites. Rather, in the Old Testament, “food and drink” consistently referred to the sacrificial meat and drink offerings to God (cf Ex 29:41, Lev 23). Thus, Paul appears to be using a widely known phrase to refer to temple sacrifices, dismissing them as “shadows.”
This context is helpful as we turn to consider the phrase “a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” This combination of words also turns up quite often in the Old Testament, and in every case, it refers to the official sacrifices offered by the priests on behalf of the nation of Israel. Numbers 28-29 prescribes these sacrifices in some detail, in sections devoted first to the Sabbaths, then to monthly sacrifices (“new moons”), then to various festivals. Subsequently, that triad of “Sabbath, new moon, and festivals” appears to have become a shorthand reference for the entire system of public sacrifice, as seen in verses like I Chronicles 23:31 and Ezekiel 45:17.
Thus, in context, Paul appears to be referencing the entire apparatus of temple worship, centered around the sacrificial system, and—speaking collectively of the system as a whole—dismissing it as a foreshadowing of Christ and his work. It is the same point which is developed at greater length in Hebrews 10. What it does not seem to be is a reference to the particulars of the Sabbath commands, and especially not to those commands in the form of the New Testament Lord’s Day.
Galatians 4:9-10: Don’t Observe Days?
In Galatians 4, Paul continues an argument begun in the preceding chapter, in which he warned the “foolish” Galatians who had been duped into believing that having “begun by the Spirit” they must now “be perfected by the flesh,” that is, made righteous through careful obedience to all the Old Testament law.
The arguments of the Judaizers to whom Paul is responding ultimately created two different problems. First, there was the idea that obedience to the law could justify sinful man in God’s sight. Paul begins his response with a vehement insistence that salvation is by faith alone; that no law cannot save us. But there was a second problem as well: In their zeal to justify themselves through obedience to God’s law, the Judaizers were clinging to Old Testament ceremonial law, turning shadows into idols and rejecting the transforming significance of Christ’s atoning death.
When Paul turns his attention to this second error, he reminds the Galatians that they are no longer slaves, but sons and heirs of God. Something radically new and different has come, and only a fool would try to restore the Old Testament status quo. It is at this point that he declares, “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 worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years!” (Gal 4:9-10).
Once again, we have to realize that Paul is speaking collectively here. The ceremonial law was full of regulations for the religious calendar, ranging from the Sabbath and feast days to the twice-a-century year of jubilee. Most of the ceremonial law, in fact, was somehow connected with the calendar. So Paul is here sweeping up all the ceremonial regulations in a single phrase and again warning Christian believers against idolizing shadows once the substance has come in Christ.
This does not necessarily preclude, however, the idea that one particular day should still be observed by Christians. (After all, Paul’s warning against questions of “food and drink” did not supersede Christ’s institution of the Lord’s Supper. General principles may have particular exceptions!) And since we see the Bible and the New Testament church—including Paul himself—setting apart the first day of the week, we have good reason for doing the same.
Romans 14:5: Be Fully Convinced
Romans 14:5 is the perfect verse to end our study of the Bible’s teaching regarding the Sabbath. In it, Paul declares, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.”
By itself, this verse would seem to imply that observance or nonobservance of a special day of rest and worship are equally valid options. But, of course, the verse was not written by itself. And once we consider the context, it is not quite the equalizing statement that it might appear.
Chapter 13 of Romans ends with a ringing declaration of the primary important of love, for, Paul writes, “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Then, in Romans 14, the apostle warns against allowing our theological convictions to harm our brothers and sisters in the faith. Paul cautions us, “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.” He then offers an example: a “weak person” whose superstition about idols or adherence to Jewish dietary laws leads him to eat only vegetables. The power of the illustration comes from the fact that Paul, here and elsewhere, is quite clear that such abstinence indicates a lack of faith. Yet, he insists,
Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
What a beautiful call for the sort of brotherly love and humility which can only flow from faith! There are few stronger temptations than the urge to correct someone you know is wrong, but Paul insists that it is better to allow a brother to be wrong on nonessential matters than to risk wronging him while trying to set him right.
Now, we need to be clear that Paul was not so tolerant of all mistaken theology. In I Corinthians 5, for example, the apostle is outraged both with a sexually immoral professing believer and with the church which failed to correct him. But Romans 14 calls for discernment. There is a difference between the person who fails to grasp the fullness of Bible teaching and the one who actively rebels against it.
Having established that idea, Paul’s second example is the one which concerns us here, as he notes that some esteem all days equally while others hold one day over the others. And, he writes, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.”
What is the apostle saying here? We have seen that Paul personally seems to have observed the first day of the week as the Lord’s Day—just as he taught that there was no religious reason to abstain from eating meat. And we have seen that a careful reading of the Bible suggests that the Lord’s Day should be understood as a continuation of the Old Testament Sabbath—just as a careful reading of the Bible suggests that eating only vegetables is unnecessary. What Romans 14 teaches is that, even if we are quite convinced that the Fourth Commandment still applies to New Testament believers, disagreement on this point is different from rebellion against a more explicit teaching of Scripture. We may believe our brother has a weaker understanding of the issue, but we must remember: “It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”
The important thing, Paul says, is to be convinced in your own mind—a word which implies careful thought, reading, and prayer. And if we end up convinced of the priority of the Lord’s Day, then, Paul says, “The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord.” My final article in this series will consider what that might look like in practice.