James M. Renihan
Colossians 2:16 & 17 (NKJV): So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, 17 which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.
This passage is, at first glance, the strongest that speaks against a ‘sabbath’ in the New Testament, and we must give to it the full weight it deserves. We have no right to make it less direct than it is; we must treat it carefully, and follow wherever it leads us. Any other treatment undermines our claims of respect for the inspired and inerrant word of God.
On the surface, it appears to indicate that there is no Sabbath-keeping for New Covenant believers, and this is a problem for all of us who profess to believe that there is a day to be kept holy unto the Lord. We cannot pretend that this text does not exist; we cannot blink our eyes when reading the chapter; we cannot skip over it in our exegesis. It deserves the full weight we give to every other text in Scripture, and we must follow its teaching. I desire with all my heart to be obedient to God’s Word, and faithful to everything it says.
But first glances at, or surface readings of, the text are not always the best or most respectful ways to handle a passage and its doctrine. In fact, they can be misleading and produce faulty conclusions. Every text of Scripture must be given careful exegetical treatment. For most Calvinistic Baptists, this principle is easy to illustrate. We believe that God’s intention in sending his Son was to purchase redemption for his elect. And yet there are several texts in the New Testament which seem to teach, at first glance, that Christ died for all men indiscriminately. We have had to work through these texts with care and caution before accepting the doctrine of particular redemption. We have not glossed over them, but exegeted them in their contexts, giving due weight to a variety of hermeneutical considerations. The result is that we are convinced that our understanding of the extent of Christ’s death is consonant with these Scriptures.
The same needs to be true of passages such as Colossians 2:16-17. We come to Scripture with our own deficiencies—we don’t always understand language, or culture, or theological progression, and we must always ask ourselves questions such as “Am I reading this correctly? Is it possible that I lack some information that might help me better to understand this passage?” Because of questions like these, we need to work hard with Paul’s words. We should never misrepresent the teaching of the Bible.
For the sake of brevity, the key terms in our text are Festival, New Moon and Sabbaths. Paul says that they are shadows of the things to come, for the reality has come to us in Christ. For this reason, the Colossians should not allow anyone to judge them in reference to these shadowy things. At first glance, this is a clear statement against any continuing Sabbath observance, and so I once thought. But in a comment in J. B. Lightfoot’s commentary on this chapter (page 191), something important came to my attention.
Seven times in the Bible these same three terms are used together, and in every case, they refer to the full number of the religious days of obligation for Israel. The texts are 1 Chronicles 23:31 (27-31), Nehemiah 10:33, 2 Chronicles 2:4 and 31:3, Isaiah 1:13&14, Ezekiel 45:17, and Hosea 2:11. In every case, the words refer to the fullness of time-related observances commanded to Israel. In the light of Leviticus 23, we know that there were Sabbaths other then the 7th day—the days associated with the feasts were designated as Sabbaths, regardless of which day in the week they fell. This is why the word is Sabbaths—it refers to all of the days—the 7th day and all the rest of the Sabbaths, that were to be observed by Israel.
As I read Colossians 2:16&17, and I see these words placed together, I remember that the Apostle Paul was thoroughly trained in the theology of the Old Testament. He knew it technically, not just in general terms, and having been trained by first-rate scholars, was familiar with all its intricacies and technicalities. When I see him putting together these exact terms in this place, I give him enough credit to recognize that he uses them in precisely the same way that they are used everywhere else in inspired Scripture. As they are a package in every one of those places, so every rule of exegesis supports the view that they are likewise a package here.
And so, we can say with Paul, in the strongest of terms, “every day associated with the Old Covenant is gone. We must not keep Festivals, New Moons, or Sabbaths—the 7th day, the Passover, Tabernacles etc. They are gone. The body—substance—is Christ. He has come, and we enter into the fullness of his coming.” When we look at Colossians 2:16-17 in the light of the analogy of Scripture, and see that the exact technical language is used elsewhere to describe a package of Old Testament days, our problem is resolved. The apostle is not talking about the absolute end of keeping any day; rather he speaks of the abrogation of all Jewish days. The Gentiles, and even Jewish Christians, were under absolutely no obligation to observe these Old Covenant days.
We can say in the light of the analogy of Scripture that we have a different day, a day that expresses the fullness of our redemption in Christ. We have the first day of the week, a day that memorializes the New Creation in Christ through his resurrection from the dead. Let us observe it to the glory of God.