Were the Colossians being told not to worry about being condemned for keeping the Sabbath?


Colossians 2:16 is a famous verse that people use to justify eating unclean meats and not keeping the holy days and the Sabbath. What most do not think about is: the people of Colosse were new Gentile converts and they were concerned about those around them judging them for doing these things. This is positive proof that the new Gentile converts were taught to keep the Sabbath, holy days and the dietary laws. They had not been done away with!


"And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it. So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ. Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God. Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations -- "Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle," which all concern things which perish with the using -- according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh" (Colossians 2:13-23).

I quoted the passage referred to in its context so that the holes in this argument becomes apparent. Note that Paul argues that Christ had "wiped out the handwriting of requirements." This is not a reference to Jewish traditions because they are written regulations. There is a similar passage in Ephesians 2 which clarifies the matter.

"Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh--who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands-- that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity" (Ephesians 2:11-16).

Notice the same points are being made: the uncircumcised were in sin, excluded from the covenant; these people have been brought in and saved by the death of Jesus on the cross, and that same death removed a problem (an enmity or something against us). In Colossians what was removed were handwritten regulations; in Ephesians what was removed was the law of commandments contained in ordinances. It should be obvious to even the most casual reader that Paul is saying that the Old Testament Law was done away with by the death of Jesus on the cross.

Most Sabbatarians argue that these two passages and a host of others found in the New Testament only refer to a portion of the Old Law and not the whole. Yet, they are unable to show that the Old Law was ever divisible into parts. They will use terms such as "ceremonial law" and "civil law" but such terms are not used by God in defining His own law. When asked what constitutes a ceremonial law or a civil law, the division appears to be arbitrary based on what the individual wants to keep and what he wants to throw away. It is definitely not based on the text because you will find the pieces of ceremonial and civil laws (by their definition) intermixed and intertwined in the text.

Going back to Colossians we find this outline of argumentation:

  1. The Colossians were in sin and not a part of the Old Covenant (Genesis 17:13-14)
  2. Christ saved them and brought them in by abolishing the Law that kept them separated.
  3. He took away the power of those in power at that time by triumphing over them. (Acts 2:30-36)
  4. Therefore, no one can judge the Colossians in matters of food, drink, festivals, new moon, or Sabbaths. Why? Because those who would judge are no longer in power and the law they would use as the basis of judgment is no longer in effect.
  5. Paul further argues that food, drink, festivals, new moon, and Sabbath regulations are not important since they were only shadows of the current reality.
  6. Those who keep such regulations are involved in false humility and are worshipping angels. The Old Law came by the effort of angels (Hebrews 2:2).
  7. They are not following Christ.
  8. They are submitting to regulations (do not touch, do not taste, do not handle -- an allusion to the Old Testament regulations concerning uncleanness which includes the dietary laws) which are concerned with physical things that perish.
  9. It is a self-imposed religion, not from God, which only gives the appearance of religion but do not benefit the followers.

As you can see, in context, Paul is not arguing that laws have been preserved but that they have been done away. The judgment is not in keeping laws but condemnation by others because laws were not being kept. Paul is telling them to keep their course of not following these regulations because they are not under such laws.

Now, let us analyze the idea that the Colossians were new converts. Paul mentions that the church was started by Epaphras, a faithful minister (Colossians 1:7). It was from this same minister that Paul learned about the Colossian congregation (Colossians 1:3-4; 4:12). Paul at this time is in prison in Rome. Hence, the church in Colosse has been in existence for a while -- long enough to be established and for the minister to later make a journey to Rome where he visits with Paul.

Paul is concerned and wishes to visit them: "Now this I say lest anyone should deceive you with persuasive words. For though I am absent in the flesh, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the steadfastness of your faith in Christ" (Colossians 2:4-5). Steadfastness comes with maturity in Christianity. "Till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting" (Ephesians 4:13-14). Paul is concerned about their losing what was gained. They had matured, but he didn't want them to lose ground.

The danger was from false teachers. "Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ" (Colossians 2:8). Paul then talks about the removal of the Old Law and returns to the point that those pushing the keeping of the law were promoting man-made religions that followed worldly ideas. Instead of following regulations concerning what not to eat or touch, Paul urges them to look heavenward. "If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth" (Colossians 3:1-2).

Yes, this was a relatively new church -- one that Paul had not yet visited. However, it was a mature and stable group, indicating that it had been in existence for a while.

Were the Gentiles taught to keep portions of the Old Law? That was an early argument. "And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question" (Acts 15:1-2). After telling the church what had happened among the Gentiles, "some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, "It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses"" (Acts 15:5). Peter testified that God allowed miracles to be used among the Gentiles and that people were converted without following the law of Moses. He asked, "Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?" (Acts 15:10). Paul and Barnabas testified of the miracles God did among the Gentiles as they remained Gentiles. James went to the Old Testament and noted that it prophesied of Gentiles becoming children of God. Hence, he concluded: "I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God" (Acts 15:19). An open letter to the Gentile community was written, which in part stated: "Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, "You must be circumcised and keep the law" -- to whom we gave no such commandment" (Acts 15:24). The answer was clear. Gentile Christians were not asked to keep the law of Moses.

A letter written to Hebrew Christians stated the same thing.

"For on the one hand there is an annulling of the former commandment because of its weakness and unprofitableness, for the law made nothing perfect; on the other hand, there is the bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God" (Hebrews 7:18-19).

"But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them, He says: "Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah-- not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the LORD" (Hebrews 8:6-9).

"In that He says, "A new covenant," He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away" (Hebrews 8:13).

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