The Sabbath and Galatians 4:9-10
But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years (Galatians 4:9, 10).
Some people who do not accept the sanctity of the Sabbath take these verses as clear evidence to support their view. Their reasoning seems, at first glance, to be in line with a traditional/conventional understanding of Paul’s meaning. However, a survey of the writings of commentators and interpreters, past and present, reveals a wide variety of views. There is, in fact, no single interpretation that unifies the scholars who study these verses.
Those who want to prove that the Sabbath of the Ten Commandments is irrelevant for Christians try to pair Galatians 4:10 with Colossians 2:16: "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."
While on the surface the two passages may look like a good match, the similarity is only skin deep; they address very different situations. And, as our companion study on Colossians 2:16, 17 shows, the Christians in Colossae were faithful Sabbath keepers and Paul expressed approval of—and defended—their observance of the holy day.
In order to understand these verses correctly we need to answer three key questions:
- What is the thematic setting of this passage?
- What are the "weak and worthless elemental things" in v. 9?
- What does Paul mean by the calendrical series in v. 10?
First let’s think about the setting, the context. Paul had been instrumental in the conversion of the Galatian Christians, but his missionary calling took him far away from those he considered to be his spiritual children.
In his absence other teachers took over in Galatia—teachers who didn’t understand the gospel as Paul did. They cast doubt on his teachings and his authority as an apostle. They led the new believers to doubt the all-sufficiency of Christ as the agent of their salvation and prescribed the meticulous observance of religious laws"including circumcision"to insure their right standing before God.
Troubled by the disturbing reports from Galatia (1:6), Paul hastens to remedy the situation. He defends his authority on the basis of his divine calling (1:1, 15, 16). He defends his gospel as that which he received by revelation directly from Jesus Christ (1:12). He mixes history and metaphor as he recasts the pristine gospel in terms that his readers cannot misunderstand (3:6–4:7, 22-31).
With the tools of rhetoric and reason he shows that the gospel of Christ recognizes no distinction between Jew and Gentile, free man and slave, male and female—all are redeemed in Christ (3:28).
The apostle reassures his Gentile readers that their faith in Christ—and not their works—qualifies them as heirs to the promises God made to Abraham (3:9, 29). They have equal standing with Jewish believers as children of God (3:26). Ethnic distinctions are irrelevant. Salvation, for all people, is by grace through faith in Christ (2:16).
Paul equates the pre-Christian condition of the Gentile converts with that of the Jewish converts. Without Christ both classes were in bondage—Gentiles to the creeds and superstitions of paganism (4:8); Jews to the rigorous requirements of their law (3:23, 24). Jews and Gentiles alike expressed their piety through the scrupulous practice of religious duties.
When you read the first few verses of this epistle you get a feel for Paul’s pressing burden. He barely finishes his greeting before he launches his attack on the Galatian heresy:
- I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ (Galatians 1:6, 7).
These two verses are vital to our understanding of Paul’s message. They keep us from getting bogged down in the somewhat mystifying minutiae of chapter 4 by showing us the big picture: the Galatians—at least some of them—have abandoned the true gospel in favor of a distorted, deformed doctrine of salvation. Paul considers this a reversion to their pre-Christian, pagan/Jewish condition.
With this background in mind let’s address the two key phrases in our target verses.
- the weak and worthless elemental things
- This phrase connects to v. 3: "So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world." There Paul is talking about life before faith in Christ. He includes himself, a Jew, as being "under bondage," thus describing the common condition of both Jews and Gentiles.
- In the New Revised Standard Version1 "the elemental things of the world" are "the elemental spirits of the world" although there is no word for "spirits" in the Greek. A more literal rendering of the original is simply "the elements of the cosmos." Scholars are widely divided as to the meaning of this term. They see several possibilities, including:
- The elements or rudiments of learning; the most simple basic forms of religion,2 be they Gentile or Jewish.
- The basic components of the universe or cosmos, as identified by the Greek philosophers: earth, water, air, and fire.3
- The spirit-beings that became identified with the physical elements mentioned above.4
- Demonic forces and astral powers that dominate the lives of mortals.5
- Reminding his readers of their former condition, Paul says: "However at that time, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those which by nature are no gods." (v. 8) To some commentators this hints at the superstitious paganism from which the Galatian Christians had been converted. B. S. Mackay comments: "Most people in Paul's time thought of the universe as filled with all manner of spiritual powers, inferior to God, but able to express themselves through witchcraft, demon-possession, and superstition."6
- Paul does not describe these elemental things for us, except to say that they "by nature are no gods," and—perhaps with a tone of ridicule—to call them "weak and beggarly" (New King James Version). The elemental things, however we choose to identify them, are impotent as a means of salvation. A "gospel" that depends on such things is worthless.
- Here in verse 9 Paul accuses the Galatians of conversion in reverse,7 adding specific content to the accusation he makes in chapter 1: "you are…deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel" (Galatians 1:6). They are turning away from salvation by grace through faith; turning from freedom to slavery, from Christ to "the weak and worthless elemental things."
- The fact that scholars may never agree as to the precise meaning of "elemental things" does not prevent us from getting the point of this verse. The Galatians, confused by the suggestions of false teachers, were turning from faith to works. Vulnerable to feelings of insecurity about their salvation, they were turning from simple trust in the promises and provisions of God to dependence upon religious rites and rules. They were turning from freedom in Christ to spiritual slavery.
- days and months and seasons and years
- Paul finds clear evidence of the Galatian heresy in the altered lifestyle of the believers there. They are slavishly following a religious calendar that calls for the careful observance of "days…months…seasons…years."
- Some commentators find this calendrical series to be purely pagan in nature,8 while others suggest that it may be a blending of pagan nature worship with the Jewish cycle of holy days and feasts. Still others agree that Paul sees striking similarities between pagan and Jewish observances.
- "Paul now singles out the demands which paganism knew in common with Judaism. He could take this line because the Jewish-Christian innovators called on the Galatians to perform such works of the Jewish law as the exact observance of feast days with which observation of the heavenly bodies necessarily went hand in hand. On this point Judaism was in partial agreement with the religions of paganism…. Both assert that human achievements in response to ’divine demands’ are necessary for salvation."9
- Although this calendrical series is unknown in the Old Testament religious system of the Jews, most commentators see it as a direct reference to the Jewish law. "The mention of days, months, festal seasons, and years undoubtedly refers to calendar observances of the Law required of those who accept circumcision; e.g., Sabbaths, new moons, and annual feasts…. The Galatians believe that by doing these legal works they will complete and perfect their faith (3:3). In effect, they call into question the sufficiency of Christ-faith by acting as if legal observances are necessary to make them Abraham's seed and "sons of God."10
- Many commentators link the "days…months…seasons…years" with the "festival…new moon…Sabbath day" of Colossians 2:16, even though both the order and content of the two lists are clearly different. A misunderstanding of the Colossians text is used to misinterpret our verse in Galatians, thus compounding the error. A closer study of the "days…months…seasons…years" suggests that the list does not include the weekly Sabbath.
- The New Interpreter’s Bible points out that the Galatians were "adopting a pattern of life governed by fixed calendrical observances. The observances of the Jewish liturgical calendar were calibrated to the motions of the sun and moon (sabbath, new-moon festivals, the Day of Atonement, Passover, and other festivals)."11 However, the weekly Sabbath was not fixed by the liturgical calendar. It was not calibrated to the motions of heavenly bodies. The Sabbath was established as the pivot-point of the weekly cycle—a cycle that did not synchronize with any astronomical phenomena.
- The week was a continuous, uninterrupted cycle, causing the Sabbath to wander through the Jewish liturgical calendar without reference to annual sabbaths or new moons or seasons or years. (Because of this wandering, the weekly Sabbath could never be integrated into the various forms of lunar-based nature worship.)
- As a Jew, Paul—by custom if not by conviction—observed the Jewish feasts and high days. He knew full well that such observance had no bearing on his salvation. The Galatians’ observance was an entirely different matter. They were trying to secure salvation by their works.
- "In this enumeration Paul apparently intends to say that the Galatians had taken over the entire Jewish system of religious observances. In his view this religious observance of sacred days and seasons according to the Jewish calendar—as an obligation imposed by the law, and not simply as a matter of custom—was a form of subservience…which could neither save nor justify its adherents but only cast them into bondage."12
Paul criticizes the Galatians because they have accepted a false gospel, a gospel that calls for strict compliance with a liturgical calendar. If that calendar—with its special days, months, seasons and years—was calibrated to the movement of heavenly bodies, the weekly Sabbath does not fit into that calendrical series.
But suppose that Paul did intend to include the weekly Sabbath in his calendrical list. Does that mean that the Sabbath has no legitimate place in a Christian’s life? Certainly not. It simply means that Sabbath-keeping cannot save us—make us right with God. Nor can any amount of law-keeping. "A man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus…and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified" (Galatians 2:16).
1 The New English Bible has "the elemental spirits of the universe."
2 Phillips translates this phrase as "basic moral principles." J. B. Phillips, I (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1948), 95.
3 The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 282.
4 "Elementary spirits which the syncretistic religious tendencies of later antiquity associated with the physical elements." J. Louis Martyn, Galatians, The Anchor Bible Vol. 33A (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 395.
6 B. S. Mackay, Freedom of the Christian Galatians and Romans, Bible Guides No. 16 (New York: Abingdon Press, 1965), 38.
7 The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 287.
8 Troy Martin, "Pagan and Judeo-Christian Time-Keeping Schemes in Gal 4.10 and Col 2.16," New Testament Studies, Jan, 1996, vol 42:1, p. 112.
9 Gerhard Schneider, The Epistle to the Galatians, New Testament for Spiritual Reading, ed. John L. McKenzie, SJ (London: Burns & Oates,1969), 86.
10 Frank J. Matera, Galatians, Sacra Pagina Series Vol. 9, Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., Editor (Collegeville:The Order of St. Benedict, 1992), 157.
11 The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 288.
12 Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, F.F. Bruce, General Editor (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), 19.