Among the many verses the critics use to try to refute the Sabbath, there is non more famous then this passage. Of course, without a proper understanding of both the context and the aspects of the law, anyone can read these verses and conclude that the Sabbath has been done away with. In this study we will consider what Paul meant when he mentioned the “ordinances” and we will study what he meant when he mentioned the “sabbath.”
Some Context would help
Before reading verse 16, lets scroll a bit towards the top and read verse 14:
(14) Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross;
Already we are introduced into one aspect of the law, the “ordinances.” Now, is this the same as the law of Ten Commandments? Not according to the bible:
(1) Then verily the first covenant had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary.
Unto the first covenant was added “ordinances,” which were ceremonies needed to be performed by the Israelites and the priests. This is called “ceremonial laws.” So Paul begins his discussion of the law with respect to the ordinances of the law, not the entire law itself. Hebrews 9, verses 1 through 9 explain what those ordinances were, and he concludes them all as being “carnal ordinances” –verse 10. The law of God, however, is not carnal, but spiritual:
(14) For I know that the law is spiritual…”
He is therefore not speaking about the spiritual law of 10 Commandments, but of the carnal ordinances added to the law “because of transgressions” –Galatians 3:19. It is no wonder that Paul then specifies those ordinances in verse 21, saying, “why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, touch not, taste not, handle not...” Such requirements are once again echoed by Paul as ordinances of the ceremonial law in Hebrews 9:
(10) Which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation.
Further evidence of this is in his use of the word “handwriting.” The greek word translated “handwriting” is “cheirographon” and it literally means “something written by hand.” Now God did not write the 10 Commandments by hand, but by finger:
(18) And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.
Moses, however, wrote with his “hand” the ordinances found in the book of the law:
2 Chronicles 33:8
(8) Neither will I anymore remove the foor of Israel from out of the land which I have appointed for your fathers; so that they will take heed to do all that I have commanded them, according to the whole law, and the statutes and the ordinances by the hand of Moses.
See also Exodus 24:4, 7, Deut. 31:24, Deut. 29:21 and 30:10.
Note also that he said that this “handwriting or ordinances” was “against us.” Yet, the law of 10 Commandments could have never been against anyone, for it was “perfect” –Psalm 19:7). Yet, when we return to the “book of the law” that contained ordinances and curses, we find that Moses commanded it “not” be placed with the 10 Commandments inside the Ark of the Covenant, but rather “outside” the Ark. The reasons are simple: they are not to be counted as the same because one was perfect, the other was not. That is why the “book of the law” was “against us.” Let us place the two verses side by side:
(14) Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross.
(26) Take this book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there for a witness against thee.
Let us now sum up the results of our findings before we continue:
1) The laws he was speaking about is the “ordinances” which are carnal, not moral law of 10 Commandments which are spiritual.
2) The laws he mentioned were written by hand, but the moral law of Ten Commandments were not written by hand but by the finger of God.
3) The laws he is referring to were always “against” the people. Compared to Deut. 31:26, we see that it was the book of the law that contained curses and ordinances that was against the people. Some claim that this includes the 10 Commandments because they are found in Deuteronomy chapter 5, but this is incorrect because that was just a brief reminder of the 10 Commandments, not an exact copy. This is noticed when you read verses 7 through 21, noticing that most of the commandments are not quoted exactly as God originally gave them. The words “thou shalt not” are now rendered “neither shalt thou” for the last four commandments, and the fourth and fifth commandments were quoted quite differently, as if Moses was reiterating the law by memory since the tablets of stone were hidden inside the Ark of the Covenant.
4) We want to here add a fourth reason. David wrote the following inspired words about the Law of God:
My tongue shall speak of thy word: for all thy commandments are righteousness.
David said that the commandments of God are “righteousness.” Now compare this to Isaiah’s words:
… but my salvation shall be for ever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished.
Reading further down Isaiah’s words, verse 7 confirms that this righteousness is “the law” of God, and verse 8 again affirms that it will last “for ever.” If therefore the Law of God shall never be abolished, and the Law of God contains the Sabbath commandment, it would be ludicrous to suggest that when Paul mentioned the sabbath in Colossians 2:16 he was saying that the Law is abolished. He, as a Pharisees who intensely studied the prophets and the words of King David, knew better then to say such a thing.
With the above evidence we can safely say that Paul specifically had the ceremonial law in mind when he wrote those words in verse 14, especially since his focus is on circumcision (verses 11-13), another ceremonial law. This is the context, and should be kept in mind when reading down these verses.
Is this the Sabbath of creation week?
Now verse 16 reads:
(16) Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:
Before examining what Paul meant when he mentioned the “sabbath” in verse 16, we want to establish first why this “can’t” be the seventh day Sabbath of the moral law of 10 Commandments that he is referring to here. There are two reasons why the mention of the “sabbath” in verse 16 is not a reference to the seventh day Sabbath of creation:
Reason 1: The context does not support it.
We saw how Paul is addressing the ceremonial law, and not the moral law of 10 Commandments. That there is a difference between these two was already seen in Hebrews 9:1 where Paul’s use of the words “had also” indicating that they were separate, and not the same.
Reason 2: The seventh day is not a shadow.
The following verse says that those ordinances mentioned in verse 16 are… “a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ” –verse 17. Now a shadow points to something, whether forward or backwards. Which way did the seventh day Sabbath point? Take a look:
(11) For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
The Sabbath points backwards, and not forward. It was set up in creation week as a memorial of creation, showing all living inhabitants of the earth that it was he who made all things and is the true God. It was not a shadow… “of things to come” as verse 17 says, but rather of things past… the creation. That the Seventh day of creation week is the same Sabbath day of the fourth commandment is made crystal clear in the article The Sabbath in Genesis, available at this website free for all seekers of truth.
Some have felt that the Sabbath was indeed instituted in creation week, but as a shadow pointing forward to redemption from sin. But this poses a problem with the worry-free state that Adam and Eve were in before they sinned. If this were true, that the Sabbath was a constant reminder to Adam and Eve that they were going to disobey their maker, violate his law and die the death, why then was he not justified in his rebellion? He could have easily pointed to God as the one who through the sign of the Sabbath put into his mind the fact that he was not going to actually live forever. Is it reasonable to believe that Adam in his joyous holy state knew, through the Sabbath institution, that he was one day going to violate God’s precept and die? God’s warning to Adam against the eating of the tree makes this theory an impossibility:
(16) And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
(17) But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
Why would God tell him that “if” he ate of this tree he would die, yet then turn around and tell him through the Sabbath institution that he was going to die regardless?
The reasons for the establishment of the Sabbath, as shown above, was specifically to commemorate creation week, and nothing else.
Other sabbaths to consider
If therefore the sabbath mentioned in Colossians 2:16 can not logically be the seventh day Sabbath of the Decalogue, which sabbath was he talking about? Let us read in Leviticus 23:
(1) And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
(2) Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, Concerning the feasts of the LORD, which ye shall proclaim to be holy convocations, even these are my feasts.
(3) Six days shall work be done: but the seventh day is the sabbath of rest, an holy convocation; ye shall do no work therein: it is the sabbath of the LORD in all your dwellings.
(4) These are the feasts of the LORD, even holy convocations, which ye shall proclaim in their seasons…. (Feast days mentioned)
God begins by telling Moses about the feast days, but gets the seventh day Sabbath out of the picture before introducing them. Beginning in verse 4 he then starts to mention the feast days… “These are the feasts of the Lord…” Six national feast days are mentioned, but only four of them are specifically mentioned as being “sabbaths.” Take a look:
Feasts in Leviticus 23
1) Erev Pesah (Passover). This is not mentioned as a sabbath.
2) Shavuot (Feast of Weeks or Firstfruits). This was a sabbath (verses 10-11).
3) Feast of Unleavened bread. This is not mentioned as a sabbath but work was to be ceased upon the first day and the seventh day of this week long festival.
4) Rosh Ha-shanah (Feast of Trumpets). This feast is specifically mentioned as a sabbath (verse 24).
5) Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). This feast is specifically mentioned as a sabbath (verse 28-32).
6) Sukkoth (Feast of Tabernacles). This is specifically mentioned as sabbaths (verses 39-42
There were feast days that were specifically addressed as “sabbaths” according to Leviticus 23, but these were not to be mingled in any way with the seventh day Sabbath of creation week. Verse 38 makes this clear when after speaking about the feast days in verse 37, in verse 38 God specifically says that those are “beside the sabbath of the Lord…” The word “beside” is from the Hebrew word “bad” which means “separation.” God therefore sets a separation between his feasts/sabbath feasts and the seventh day Sabbath of the 10 Commandments mentioned in verse 3. In light of the above evidence of both the context of Colossians 2 and the aspects of the laws, these ceremonial sabbath feasts must have therefore been the sabbaths Paul was talking about when he said verse 16.
The original word translated into the plural “sabbaths” in Colossians 2:16 is, says Strong’s Hebrew/Greek concordance, “of Hebrew origin.” This means that Paul used a word that finds its origin in the Hebrew language when mentioning the Sabbath. Some have felt that this proves his was specifically talking about the seventh day Sabbath, but note that this same Hebrew word, being the Hebrew word “shabbath,” is the same one used in Leviticus 23 for the sabbath feast days. The context of the chapter, therefore, is what will settle the debate on which sabbath he was referring to, not the original words alone.
Was Paul being redundant?
Some have felt that if Paul already mentioned the feast days in the beginning of verse 16, he would not have mentioned it again at the end, for doing so would make him some-what redundant. But we have found that it was normal for a teacher of the law to, at the end of a verse, conclude with one word that summarizes up all the feast days. Consider Hosea for example, who while prophecing the destruction of Jerusalem and Israel he first mentioned the feast days, but then says it again at the end:
I will also cause all her mirth to cease, her feast days, her new moons, and her sabbaths, and all her solemn feasts.
Surely our critics wouldn’t insist that Hosea was also being redundant. Paul, a teacher of the Law and an “hebrew of hebrews” (Phi. 3:5-6) certiantly understood and taught the law as did the teachers and prophets before him. Take a look at another similar verse:
And it shall be the prince's part to give burnt offerings, and meat offerings, and drink offerings, in the feasts, and in the new moons, and in the sabbaths, in all solemnities (festivals) of the house of Israel: he shall prepare the sin offering, and the meat offering, and the burnt offering, and the peace offerings, to make reconciliation for the house of Israel.
The word “solemnities” is translated from the same Hebrew word translated “solemn feasts” in Hosea 2:11, and it specifically means a “festival.” We find that Ezekiel did the same thing Hosea did, he at first mentioned the “feasts” and then summarizes with “festivals.” Ezekiel does this again in another verse:
And in the feasts and in the solemnities the meat offering shall be an ephah to a bullock, and an ephah to a ram, and to the lambs as he is able to give, and an hin of oil to an ephah.
In a similar way, the bible often times repeats itself simply to get specific. An example of this is found in 2 Chronicles 8:13:
2 Chronicles 8:13
Even after a certain rate every day, offering according to the commandment of Moses, on the sabbaths, and on the new moons, and on the solemn feasts, three times in the year, even in the feast of unleavened bread, and in the feast of weeks, and in the feast of tabernacles.
So we find that the idea of mentioning the feasts, but then once more at the end repeating himself in regards to those same feasts, was a normal way for teachers to explain the law. Paul was himself a teacher of the law, so it would be of no surprise that he would approach the matter in like fashion.
The reason why the prophets often found themselves summarizing with a plural word after mentioning certain feasts was because there were at least six national feasts, including those added later on, and the concluding plural word for feasts lead the reader to understand that he was speaking about all of them, and not just those mentioned. Paul in like manner used a plural form of the word “sabbaton” in Colossians 2:16 when summarizing all the feasts just mentioned.
By translating the word sabbaton as the singular “Sabbath” in Colossians 2:16, translators have left the reader to have to study the original words for better understanding. If translated “Sabbath,” then one would be lead to conclude that Paul was speaking about the weekly Sabbath. But the word sabbaton is indeed plural:
Strong’s Hebrew/Greek definition
sab'-bat-on: Of Hebrew origin [H7676]; the Sabbath (that is, Shabbath), or day of weekly repose from secular avocations (also the observance or institution itself); by extension a se'nnight, that is, the interval between two Sabbaths; likewise the plural in all the above applications: - sabbath (day), week.
Therefore, the King James Version’s translation of the this word into the plural “sabbath days” is justified. Why some translations translated this plural word into the singular “sabbath” is beyond us, but the honest researcher will see that, given the context and the testimony of the rest of scripture, this is not limited to one sabbath, but a plurality of “sabbaths.”
Colossians-2-16.net gives us this explanation:
“As for the Bible translations that use the singular (sabbath) instead of the plural where the Greek shows the declension to be plural, they are the thoughts of the translators and it does not necessarily mean they are correct in using the singular even though to them it may have seemed right to change it to singular. It is also possible that many of the translators have overlooked that where Sabbath is referenced, it may be referring to both types of the Sabbath i.e. the Weekly “Sabbath of the Lord” in the Ten Commandments or the ceremonial Sabbaths as most references to Sabbath are before the cross and so the ceremonial law was not yet abolished.
The KJV in Matthew 28:1 translates to sabbath in both places where the genitive is plural (N-GPN). Did the translators get it right? Young’s Literal Translation on the other hand translated correctly to sabbaths. At a glance this may not seem to make sense, yet if we look a bit deeper we will discover that Jesus was crucified on Passover which is a ceremonial Sabbath and was just before the weekly Sabbath. Gills commentary gives clarity on the second mention of “the sabbaths” that states the following: “towards the first day of the week, or "sabbaths"; so the Jews used to call the days of the week, the first day of the sabbath, the second day of the sabbath, &c. take an instance or two.” There are only 4 out of 40 verses that the YLT Bible translates to singular that are genitive plural and of those 4 verses the “Literal Translation of the Bible” translates them to genitive plural. So it becomes very obvious that there is a problem when it comes to translating the plural here in the Bible at times. Therefore, the safest thing to always do is to analyse the context of the passage to see what is being said.” -www.colossians-2-16.net/
This is why Paul summarizes with the plural “sabbath days” because he was summing up the many sabbath feast days of the old ceremonial system.
One of those ceremonial sabbath feasts he did not mention at the beginning of verse 16 was the yearly sabbaths of the ceremonial system. Notice the verse one more time:
Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days.
Since he already mentioned the feast days (holyday), his concluding feast reference (sabbath days) will, while summarizing all the feasts together, include those yearly sabbaths he didn’t specifically mention at first. Notice:
(2) Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath unto the LORD.
(3) Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruit thereof;
(4) But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the LORD: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard.
(8) And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and the space of the seven sabbaths of years shall be unto thee forty and nine years.
Also, as mentioned above, this concluding plural "sabbaths" or "sabbaton" will also include those feasts not mentioned within the ceremonial law in Leviticus 23 yet were at the same time not part of the moral law, Jewish sabbath feasts like Feast of Purim and Feast of Dedication.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence that Paul was not in Colossians 2:16 talking about the seventh day Sabbath is in the very fact that Paul himself was a Sabbath keeper. According to scholars, the book of Colossians had to have been written some time before 64 AD, as it was in 64 AD that Paul died (see this link for details). Now, we read in Acts 16 that Paul and his companions kept the Sabbath day “by a river side where prayer was wont to be made.” In this occasion, they met on the Sabbath day outside of the synagogue, and they performed duties which are normally performed within a church gathering, prayer and a sermon (verse 14). We read that even baptisms took place on that day special day (verse 15). The presence of the word “we” in verse 13 shows that even Luke was present, as he is the author of this book.
Now research has shown the book of Acts was written no later than 62 AD. This means that at least two years prior to the writing of the book of Colossians Paul himself was observing the seventh day Sabbath. Now, would Paul on the one hand be an observer of the Sabbath day and then on the other hand teach that the Sabbath day was abolished? Why would he even keep the Sabbath if it were abolished?
Some would argue that Paul was writing to Gentile Christians, but in this same book Paul wrote:
(11) Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free, but Christ is all, and in all.
In the mind of Paul there was no distinction between Gentiles and Jews while in Christ. Sure, there were some that were “of the circumcision” before they came to Christ, but now in Christ all were to be treated as one , for to God all are as one church (1 Corinthians 10:17, 12:12, 12:13, Galatians 3:28).
Another argument is that Paul might have kept the Sabbath, but then later believed it was abolished and that’s why he teaches it’s abolished in Colossians 2:16. But there are a couple of problems with this one. First, in the Colossians 2:16 Paul is speaking in the context of what took place at the time when Jesus died on the cross (see verse 14; note the words “nailing it to his cross”). It was then that to him the ordinances were “blotted out.” Why then would he be saying that the Sabbath was blotted out when Jesus died on the cross, and yet still keep the Sabbath in Acts 16 years after Christ’s death when he supposedly abolished the law? Why observe an abolished Sabbath?
This argument also ignores the evidence provided above that the bible teaches that the Sabbath would never be abolished (Isaiah 51:6, 66:23). Furthermore, for the Sabbath to have been abolished so that under the New Covenant believers don’t have to keep the Sabbath, it should have been abolished before Jesus died (which would also be before Paul’s conversion) because it is the death of the testator which forever seals the covenant:
(16) For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator.
(17) For a testament (Greek: contract, covenant) is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength while the testator liveth.
Therefore Paul could not have taught some time after Acts 16 that the Sabbath is no longer part of the covenant, and is now abolished. Instead, Jesus taught before he died that he did not come to destroy the law, but rather to fulfill (Greek: level up to) the law (Matthew 5:17).
Hence we have the obvious. Paul could not possibly be teaching that the Sabbath is abolished, as he would not only contradict the scriptures which teach that God’s righteousness (his commandments) would never be abolished (Isaiah 51:6, 66:23), but he would also contradict his own actions as one who himself kept the seventh day Sabbath (Acts 13:14, 16:13-14). Add to this that this keeping of the Sabbath by Paul was done many years after the resurrection and ascension of Christ in Acts 1:9. Paul received the gospel sometime after the ascension (in Acts 9), and yet continue to keep the Sabbath throughout his lifetime. Therefore Sabbath keeping was not abolished; not by Christ nor by his apostles.
Now let's put it all together:
1) In the immediate context we find Paul speaking specifically about the ceremonial law, not the moral law.
2) It has been shown that the ceremonial law and the moral law are not to be mingled as the same. Paul in the epistle to the Hebrews sets a separation between the two, and so does God himself in Leviticus 23:38.
3) Paul could not have been referencing the seventh day Sabbath of creation week because verse 17 says these sabbaths were a “shadow of things TO COME” but the seventh day Sabbath, according to the 4th commandment, was a shadow of things “past.”
4) The seventh day Sabbath of creation could not logically have been instituted to show Adam in his happy state that he was one day going to die.
5) Bible authors often repeated themselves when listing certain things of the ceremonial law to let the reader understand that he means the “whole” law. This does not include the seventh day Sabbath, because this was not part of the “whole law” of ceremonies and feasts.
6) There are other sabbaths to consider, such as those feast sabbaths in Leviticus 23 which were not specifically addressed as sabbaths, the yearly sabbaths, and those aditional sabbaths the Jews themselves added, like Feast of Purim and Feast of Dedication.
7) This is evidenced by the use of the plural “sabbaton” correctly translated “sabbath days” in the KJV but incorrectly translated “sabbath” in other modern day translations.
8) Paul could not be speaking about the weekly Sabbath because the bible declares that God's righteousness will never be abolished, and we learned that his righteousness is his law, which contains the weekly Sabbath.
9) Finally, Paul himself was a Sabbath Keeper. To suggest that he taught that the Sabbath was abolished would mean to make Paul out to be a hypocrite.
We pray this study was helpful in your search for truth.
For further study, see:
-Amos 8: A prophecy that pointed to Sabbath abolishment?
-Romans 10:4: Christ the end of the law?
-2 Corinthians 3:7-11: The glory of the law abolished?
-Acts 13: Did Paul keep the Sabbath?