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UCG IA Bible Insights Thursday, May 12 2022

Was the Sabbath changed in the New Testament?

Those who argue the Sabbath was abolished in the New Testament point to the Apostle Paul's writings to justify their view, usually citing three passages to support that claim—Romans 14:5-6, Colossians 2:16-17 and Galatians 4:9-10.

In Romans 14:5-6 Paul wrote: "One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike...Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks."

Some believe Paul is saying that whatever day one chooses to rest and worship is irrelevant as long as one is "fully convinced in his own mind" and "observes it to the Lord". But the reference in this context is simply to "days”. The word Sabbath or references to Sabbath-keeping are not found in the book of Romans. The reference here is not to the Sabbath or to any other days of rest and worship commanded by God. Paul was discussing other days during which feasting, fasting or abstaining from certain foods was practiced.

The Talmud records many Jews of that time fasted on Mondays and Thursdays. They also had other traditional fast days (Zechariah 7:3-5). Possibly members of the church at Rome were trying to enforce fasting on particular days on other Christians, prompting Paul's question, "Who are you to judge another's servant?" (Romans 14:4). He appears to be emphasizing fasting is voluntary. One person fasting on a particular day when another is eating does not make him more righteous.

In Romans 14:2-3 and 6 Paul discussed vegetarianism. The context indicates some members were eating meat, while others were eating only vegetables. These members probably "feared lest they should (without knowing it) eat meat which had been offered to idols or was otherwise ceremonially unclean, so they abstained from meat altogether" (W.J. Conybeare and J.S. Howson, The Life and Epistles of St. Paul, 1974, p. 530). In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul addressed the issue of eating meat that may have been sacrificed to idols pointing out that it did not make that food unsuitable for eating. This was not related to Sabbath observance, as the Sabbath is nowhere associated in Scripture with abstaining from eating meat or any food.

Galatians 4:9-10: "But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years."

Those who argue against Sabbath observance typically see Paul's reference to "days and months and seasons and years" as pointing to the Sabbath and holy day festivals outlined in the Old Testament (Leviticus 23:1-44; 25:1-56). They see these God-given observances as the "weak and miserable principles" (NIV) to which the Galatians were "turn[ing] again" and becoming "in bondage" (Galatians 4:9).

Since Paul's readers were from a gentile background, it is difficult to see how the "days and months and seasons and years" they were turning back to could be the Sabbath and other biblical festivals, as they could not turn back to something they had not previously observed.

In Galatians 4:8 Paul said, "When you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods." By this Paul referred "clearly to the idols of paganism, which, in typical Jewish idiom, Paul termed 'not gods'" (James Boice, The Expositor's Bible Commentary, 1976, Vol. 10, p. 475). “...When Paul refers to days, months, seasons and years in Gal[atians] 4:10, he is describing a pagan time-keeping scheme" (Troy Martin, By Philosophy and Empty Deceit: Colossians as Response to a Cynic Critique, 1996, pp. 129-130).

As with Romans 14 the term "Sabbath” and related words do not appear in Galatians. Some assume the "years" referred to in Galatians 4:10 are the sabbatical and jubilee years outlined in Leviticus 25. However, the jubilee year was not observed anywhere in Paul's day, and the sabbatical year was not observed in areas outside the land of Israel (Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 14, p. 582, and Jewish Encyclopedia, "Sabbatical Year and Jubilee," p. 666).

The Greek words Paul used for "days and months and seasons and years" are used throughout the New Testament to describe normal, civil periods of time, and are totally different from the precise terms Paul used in Colossians 2:16 specifying the Sabbaths, festivals and new-moon observances outlined in the Bible.

Colossians 2:16-17: " Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of a holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ."

Paul said to "let no one judge you," which is different from saying these practices are unnecessary or obsolete. Many people assume the "handwriting of requirements . . . nailed…to the cross" referred to in Colossians 2:14 was God's law outlined in the Old Testament. The Greek word translated "handwriting" in this verse is cheirographon, which refers to a handwritten record of debt, or an iou. In contemporary apocalyptic literature, the term was used to designate a "record book of sin," meaning a written account of our sins for which a penalty or debt is owed.

Paul was not saying God's law was nailed to the cross, but the record of our sins. The New Testament in Modern English, by J.B. Phillips translates Colossians 2:13-14 as: "He has forgiven you all our sins: Christ has utterly wiped out the damning evidence of broken laws and commandments which always hung over our heads, and has completely annulled it by nailing it over His own head on the cross."

The Colossians were being influenced by gnostic teachings, with the central teaching that "...spirit is entirely good, and matter is entirely evil… [And] since the body was considered evil, it was to be treated harshly." (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, introduction to 1 John). Paul described these gnostic rules as "Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle" (Colossians 2:21) based on "the commandments and doctrines of men" (verse 22) rather than the teachings of God. The Colossians were being judged by ascetic gnostics as to how they observed God's Sabbaths and festivals, apparently with joyous festive eating and drinking. Paul cautioned the Colossians to "not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink" (Colossians 2:16, NIV).

Also Paul's statement in Colossians 2:17 that the Sabbath and biblical festivals "are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ" does not mean they were irrelevant and obsolete because Jesus Christ was the "substance" of what these days foreshadowed. Paul said they "are a shadow of things to come," because they point towards a future fulfillment.

The Greek word translated "to come" is mello. Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words defines mello as meaning "...the certainty of what is to take place" (W.E. Vine, 1985, "Come, Came," p. 109). Paul's choice of wording makes it clear that the Sabbath and festivals "are a shadow" of things still to come and not "were a shadow" of things fulfilled and made obsolete in Jesus Christ.

These three passages commonly used in attempting to prove the Apostle Paul did away with Sabbath observance actually point to the opposite conclusion. To argue the Apostle Paul advocated abolishing or annulling the Sabbath, one must not only twist Paul's words out of context to directly contradict his other statements, but also ignore or distort Luke's written eyewitness record of the New Testament Church in his gospel account.