The Sabbath and Colossians 2:16-17
Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ (Colossians 2:16, 17).
These verses are at the center of the debate over whether or not Christians should observe the seventh-day Sabbath. Outside the Sabbath-keeping denominations there is wide, but not unanimous, agreement that verse 16 refers to the weekly holy day. The traditional Seventh-day Adventist position has been that the reference is to the annual/ceremonial Sabbaths, and that is reflected in the church’s current statement of beliefs.
These verses address a heresy (according to verse 8 it was philosophy and empty deception) that was plaguing the Colossian church, but the context offers only a few clues as to the nature of the heresy and the identity of the heretics.
There is also the question of whether the eating, drinking, and observing of special occasions is being practiced by the faithful Colossian believers or by the heretics. In other words, are the heretics judging those who are not observing certain dietary rules, festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths—or are they critical of those who are doing so.
The mention of “a festival,” “a new moon,” and “a Sabbath day” gives rise to a series of questions:
- Is this cycle of special times/events part of some strange Jewish-Christian-pagan blend, or does it come straight out of the Old Testament?
- If it comes from the Old Testament, do the three items in the list follow a progression from long time periods to shorter ones?
- If the final item in the list is the weekly seventh-day Sabbath, does this verse teach that Christians don’t need to keep the Sabbath?
We can find answers to at least some of these questions by looking more closely at the two verses in question.
- Let no one act as your judge
- This straightforward counsel is the primary message of verses 16 and 17. Paul1 himself is not passing judgment on the Colossian believers, and he is telling them not to let anyone else do that either.
- In regard to food or drink
- A more literal translation is possible: in regard to eating and drinking. This is either an issue of diet or religious practice. We have to look beyond verse 16 for additional information.
- Verse 21 may offer a clue: “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” To some commentators this suggests that the heretics are either trying to impose a strict ascetic lifestyle—not characteristic of Judaism—or they are pushing pagan dietary prohibitions that may have their source in the concept of transmigration of the soul.2
- Troy W. Martin3 draws a different conclusion with help from verse 17, where “…the eating and drinking...are described as a shadow of the things to come….” He points out that the grammatical structure of this passage “limits the eating and drinking to the Christian celebration of the Lord’s Supper since this meal in contrast to ordinary meals was considered a shadow of things to come.”4 (See 1 Corinthians 11:23-29.)
In the latter case it appears that someone is criticizing the Colossian Christians because they participate in the Lord’s Supper as an expression of their faith in Christ’s atoning death and their hope in His return.
- a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day
- We find these three terms used together several times in the Old Testament,5 but the verse with the closest similarity to Colossians 2:16 is Hosea 2:11:
- “I will also put an end to all her gaiety, her feasts, her new moons, her sabbaths, and all her festal assemblies.”
- Many scholars have seen a close connection between these verses. Some take this as proof that the weekly Sabbath has been done away with.
- Theologian Ron du Preez points out that the linguistic evidence does not support that view. In Hosea 2:11 the Hebrew word for “feasts” has a relatively narrow meaning. It applies only to the three festivals that required a pilgrimage to Jerusalem: the Feast of Unleavened Bread (linked to Passover), the Feast of Harvest (Pentecost), and the Feast of Ingathering (Tabernacles). Based on both Hebrew and Greek usage, the “sabbaths” of Hosea 2:11 can be identified with the Day of Atonement and the Day of Trumpets.6
- Seen in this light, Hosea 2:11 presents a literary structure known as an inverted parallelism, progressing from annual “pilgrimage” festivals to monthly new moons and back to annual sabbaths. Paul may be using that same structure in Colossians 2:16 (as well as in Colossians 2:21). If this is the case, “Sabbath” in Colossian 2:16 has nothing to do with the weekly holy day.
- If, on the other hand, we take “Sabbath” as referring to the weekly, rather than the annual, Sabbaths, does it automatically follow that the seventh-day Sabbath is no longer valid for Christians? Certainly not. In fact, if faithful church members are the ones who are observing these days, this verse is an expression of Paul’s approval of their practice.
- things which are a mere shadow of what is to come
- Herold Weiss7 writes that the shadow “is the present blurred manifestation of a hoped-for future reality. In its shadow the expected future is seen as coming.”8 The eating and drinking (of the Lord’s Supper) foreshadow the heavenly banquet where Jesus will drink of the fruit of the vine with the redeemed in His Father’s kingdom (see Matthew 26:29). The festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths are a shadow of the eternal future when “from new moon to new moon and from sabbath to sabbath, all mankind will come to bow down before Me,” says the Lord.” (Isaiah 66:23).
- “Mere” is not in the original. Its use may reflect the translators’ assumption that “shadow” is meant to denigrate the eating, drinking and observance of holy days. The Revised Standard Version and The New Living Translation, among others, use “only” to express a similar idea.
Biased translations contribute to the confusion over the meaning of these two verses. For example, The New Living Translation goes so far as to render verse 16 this way: “So don't let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new-moon ceremonies or Sabbaths” (emphasis ours).
The Contemporary English Version puts it this way: “Don't let anyone tell you what you must eat or drink. "Don't let them say that you must celebrate the New Moon festival, the Sabbath, or any other festival”(emphasis ours). Translators of both of these versions have inserted negatives where none exist in the original. This echoes the widely held belief that Colossians 2:16 announces the abrogation of the seventh-day Sabbath, but it serves to undermine confidence in these translations.
There are certainly other interesting questions that can be raised about Colossians 2:16-17. Insofar as the Sabbath is concerned, there are solid linguistic and theoligical reasons to reject the view that these verses teach that the holy day of the Fourth Commandment has been canceled for Christians.
1 We accept Paul as the author of this epistle, taking at face value the greeting in chapter 1, verse 1.
2 This is the pagan concept that when a body dies the soul departs to enter another body—and not necessarily a human body. To eat meat would be to risk eating ones ancestors.
3 Professor of religious studies at St. Xavier University in Chicago.
4 Troy W. Martin, By Philosophy and Empty Deceit, Journal for the Study of the New Testament: Supplement Series 118 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 117.
5 For examples see 1 Chronicles 23:29-31; 2 Chronicles 2:4; 2 Chronicles 8:12-13; 2 Chronicles 31:3; Nehemiah 10:33; Ezekiel 45:13-17; Hosea 2:11.
6 "Adventism’s Achilles’s Heel? a scriptural study of the ’Sabbath’ in Colossians 2:16."
7 Professor emeritus of religious studies at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana.
8 Herold Weiss, A Day of Gladness (Columbia: University of South Carolina, 2003), 136.