The 4th Commandment, the one that pertains to the Sabbath, is the most contested of the Ten Commandments. In fact it’s the only commandment that is actually contested among Christians who hold to an orthodox view of Scripture. A number argue that the requirement of Sabbath is not for today. It was for the Old Testament Jews, but it’s not for New Testament Christians. Among the strongest objections to the abiding authority of the 4th Commandment is Colossians 2:16-17:
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.
Some insist, from that text, that Paul is unilaterally declaring that Sabbath observance is now a matter of personal decision. It doesn’t matter what you do on Sundays, but what does matter as that you allow no one to judge you for your personal Sunday choices.
I believe the 4th Commandment still stands. I will explain what I believe Paul means by “Sabbath” in Colossians 2:16 in a moment, but, first, let me make a few Scriptural observations about the Ten Commandments in general and the 4th Commandment specifically.
- Each of the Ten Commandments was authoritative before the Ten Commandments were given at Mt. Sinai in Exodus, including the 4th Commandment (Exodus 16:27-29).
- The Sabbath was instituted in Eden (Genesis 2:1-3), and the seven-day week remained standing beyond Eden (Genesis 7:10; Genesis 8:10-12; Genesis 29:27; Genesis 50:10).
- Scripture presents the Ten Commandments as a distinct unit and body of law, unique from the rest of Old Testament law (Exodus 31:18; Deuteronomy 5:22).
- Jesus held the Ten Commandments as binding and quoted them authoritatively (Matthew 15:3-4; Matthew 19:17-19).
- Jesus taught that the Sabbath is for all men, not just for Jews (Mark 2:27), and the refence to “Sabbath,” “man,” and “made” in that text links it to creation.
- The text of the 4th Commandment teaches that the Sabbath is for all men (Exodus 20:10). However, the food laws and worship services were only for Jews (Deuteronomy 14:21; Nehemiah 13:1-3).
- Paul quoted the Ten Commandments authoritatively (Romans 13:8-10; Ephesians 6:1-3).
- Paul taught that the Law is righteous (Romans 2:13), that the Law teaches what sin is (Romans 7:7), and that the Law is good (Romans 7:12; Galatians 2:19).
- James, in the context of quoting the 7th and 6th Commandments, said that the Law is an indivisible unit that stands or falls as a unit (James 2:10-11).
- The Ten Commandments are a standard of righteousness (1 Timothy 1:8-9).
- There is a convincing case to be made that “profane” in 1 Timothy 1:9 refers specifically to Sabbath violations.1
- A New Covenant promise is that the Law will be written on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33; Hebrews 8:10; Hebrews 10:16), and that Law, in the context of Jeremiah, is the Ten Commandments.
All those points need to be fresh on our minds as we consider the meaning of Sabbath in Colossians 2:16. If we determine that Paul is doing away with the abiding authority of the 4th Commandment, we need to explain all the preceding points which indicate that the 4th Commandment remains in effect. Either the Sabbath abides or it doesn’t.
My conviction of course is that the Sabbath abides. There remains a Sabbath for the people of God, and the New Testament church is to set aside one day in seven for rest and worship. But what is Colossians 2:16 talking about? The reference in Colossians 2:16 is not to the 4th Commandment, but rather to the ceremonial feasts and festivals of the Hebrew calendar.
If Colossians 2:16 is referring to the 4th Commandment, then Paul is forbidding the distinction of a specific day of the week for religious services. It’s a matter of choice, and we cannot let people judge us for our personal choices on this matter. What you do on Sunday is your business, so the thinking goes. That teaching, nonetheless, is contrary to the practice of Paul. Paul himself – the author of Colossians – mandated the setting aside of a time and a day for religious activity:
Now concerning the collection for the saints: a I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come (1 Corinthians 16:1-2).
Notice Paul mandates a specific day of the week for the collection. He mandates one day – the first day. Beyond that, the day is not mandated for cultural reasons specific to the City of Corinth. He mandates it for “all the churches of Galatia,” which are churches removed from Corinth by many miles — in fact the Galatian churches were on another continent from Corinth. The mandate to collect offerings on the first day transcends geography and churches. He didn’t give the option of a day, but he specified the first day. If Paul forbids the distinguishing of days or the mandating that certain religious duties be performed on specific days in Colossians 2:16-17, he does just the opposite in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2. There he mandates the religious duty of offering money to the church on the first day of the week. Paul then, in Colossians 2:16-17, cannot be forbidding the setting apart of certain days for religious services. He does just that in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2, and his command transcends cities, continents, and churches. Something other than abrogating the 4th Commandment is going on in Colossians 2:16-17.
In Colossians 2:16-17 Paul is not saying the 4th Commandment is discontinued. He’s not nullifying the 4th Commandment. His use of the word “Sabbath” has to be understood in light of everything in the context. He does not want “questions of food and drink,” or a “festival,” or a “new moon,” or a “Sabbath” being mandated. He’s speaking of Jewish ceremonies and food regulations. All of those references are to ceremonies. There were new moon ceremonies. There were ceremonial festivals. There were ceremonial laws about food and drink. It’s a reference to ceremonies. These things were temporary and served to point to the substance which is Christ. They were positive laws for the Jewish nation in the Old Testament, and they are not eternal natural laws embedded into the constitution of reality as the Ten Commandments are.
The word “Sabbath” can mean different things. Context helps determine what it means. In the context of Colossians 2:16-17 the Sabbath refers not to the creational ordinance of resting one day in seven, but to the Jewish festivals which are likened to but not equated with the creational ordinance. The Day of Atonement, for example, was a “Sabbath of solemn rest,” but it only occurred on the tenth day of the seventh month (Leviticus 23:26-32). In Hebrew it is called a šabbāt šabbāton in verse 32. Other ceremonial days can also be found in Leviticus 23, not specifically being called “sabbath” they do nonetheless carry the same sense. “The term šabbāton indicates that other sacred occasions are likened to the Sabbath and that the characteristics of the Sabbath served as an example about what was to be done during the other religious festivals.”2 The festivals and ceremonies are sabbaths similar to the 4th Commandment, but they are not the Sabbath of the 4th Commandment.
Note Paul doesn’t use the definite article in reference to Sabbath in Colossian 2:16-17, and he doesn’t specify a Sabbath to which he’s referring. The ESV’s capitalization of “s” in Sabbath is unnecessary, and it likely betrays a theological bias. Paul is not specific as to which Sabbath it is. It is sabbath in general, not the Sabbath specifically. It can therefore refer to the festivals and ceremonies, without referring to the Sabbath. Given the context, I have good reason to state he was referring to the various religious festivals and not the creational ordinance observed in the 4th Commandment.
In conclusion, Colossians 2:16-17 does not nullify the 4th Commandment for New Testament times. We can abide by Paul’s admonition to “let no one pass judgment on you…with regard…to a Sabbath”, while also exhorting each other to rest from labour and to worship on the Lord’s Day, which is the Christian Sabbath. The overall teaching of the Bible is that the 10 Commandments as unit, including the 4th Commandment, still stand. The context of Colossians 2:16 is Paul speaking of Jewish ceremonies. Those ceremonies can rightly be called “sabbaths.” Rightly understood, “sabbath” of Colossians 2:16 refers to the various ceremonies. Paul also mandates that offerings be received in multiple churches specifically on the first day of the week in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2, indicating he sees something significant about that day. With all of that, I conclude that the Sabbath is also for New Testament believers and that Colossians 2:16-17 does not indicate otherwise.