In this post, let us learn the true meaning of Colossians 2:16-17 and how it doesn’t render the Sabbath command obsolete as most Christians believe today.
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Colossians 2:16-17 is among the most popular Bible verses used by most Christians to prove that the Sabbath is obsolete.
But is this true?
How can we know the true meaning of Colossians 2:16-17? What is Paul trying to teach us in this verse? Most importantly, what is the relation of Colossians 2:16-17 to the Sabbath command?
Let’s take a deeper look and see the little-known truth about the Fourth Commandment.
What Colossians 2:16-17 was really saying
Let me write down here the verse for our reference:
16 So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, 17 which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.Colossians 2:16-17
Because of the natural bias of many Christians against the Sabbath, they are quick to use this verse to discredit the Fourth Commandment.
However, if you read closely, these verses actually are proving the OPPOSITE!
Paul was saying that let no one judge you in keeping the Sabbath.
Did you grasp that?
The Colossians, a Gentile congregation, were actually keeping the Sabbath!
If not, why would Paul tell them that no one should judge them in keeping the Fourth Commandment?
Yet, most Christians can’t see this in the verses because they continually refuse to follow the commandments of the Most High God.
Now, here’s something you also need to take note of:
The words, “let no one judge you” is far different from the words, “Don’t keep the Sabbath.”
They are completely different things!
What is the main issue in Colossians 2:16-17?
The main issue that Paul was addressing here is the issue of pagan philosophies infiltrating the Body of Christ.
Remember, by this time, the congregations of God were now spreading from Jerusalem to pagan areas. Inevitably, there will be converts who will come from a pagan background and they were all too familiar with pagan philosophies such as Gnosticism.
In Colossians 2, we see a few of these pagan philosophies that Paul was trying to reject in his letter. He was talking about:
- Persuasive words (verse 4)
- Traditions of men (verse 8)
- Principalities and powers (verse 15)
- False humility and worship of angels (verse 18)
- Unbiblical regulations (verse 21)
- Commandments and doctrines of men (verse 22)
All these were huge problems at that time. In fact, it was not only Paul who had to address these issues, but also Peter and John.
What is Gnosticism?
As we look at the historical background of Colossians 2:16-17, we are now seeing a better understanding of what the problem really was.
Chief among the pagan philosophies during Paul’s time is Gnosticism.
Gnosticism is not actually a religious belief, but rather it is more of a philosophical attitude towards one’s existence. For gnostics, they pride themselves on the “secret knowledge” that they believe would improve their spirituality and religiosity.
The main belief of gnostics is that the body is evil and the spirit is good. As a result, Christian converts who were coming from pagan areas tended to bring with them this belief. Not only that, but those who have completely abandoned paganism had been constantly hounded by people who still believe in Gnosticism.
After all, Christians had only changed their religion, but not their residence. So, they are constantly exposed to paganism in their area.
As a result, some Christian converts rely on their gnostic knowledge and beliefs instead of completely relying upon Jesus’ sacrifice. They thought that salvation is achieved through a special revelation rather than having faith in Christ.
Other beliefs of gnostics include superstitious magic, obeisance to angels and spiritual beings, astrology, mystical experience, and other cultic practices.
The Sabbath and Gnosticism
The Colossian church was in the early stage of getting infiltrated by Gnosticism. That was the reason why Paul needed to address this before it becomes a bigger issue, which could be difficult to manage.
Here’s what you need to know:
The Colossians were not being judged for whether they are observing the Sabbath or not. They were being judged on HOW they observe the Sabbath!
Because of Gnosticism, the Colossian brethren were not properly keeping the Sabbath anymore as well as the Festivals of God.
For Gnostics, they believe the body is evil. When the brethren kept the Sabbath, they were actually rejoicing on that day, which is contrary to Gnosticism. Since the Sabbath is a day of rest and thus, giving pleasure to the body, the Gnostics were quick to judge those who keep the Sabbath for violating their pagan beliefs and philosophies.
Moreover, the Festivals of God, even today, involve eating and drinking. Of course, not drinking to the point of getting drunk. But as you can imagine, the Feasts and Sabbaths of God are a joyous time, which the Gnostics didn’t like.
As a result, the Gentile converts were being judged by their friends, relatives, and even acquaintances. They were basically being maligned and marked by pagans around them.
A shadow of things to come
Now, we come to another issue most Christians use to discredit the Sabbath command.
In Colossians 2:17, we read that the festival, new moon, and sabbaths were referred to as “a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.”
When Paul wrote this, did he mean that we should not keep the Sabbath anymore because they are only a shadow and substance of Christ?
Let’s find out.
Future, not past
In Colossians 2:17, we read that the Sabbaths “ARE a shadow of things to come.” It is not written in past tense.
This indicates that the Sabbaths are something relevant today because they still have a FUTURE fulfillment.
Paul’s choice of words clearly tells us that the Sabbaths and the Festivals “are a shadow” of future prophetic fulfillment rather than “were a shadow” of fulfilled prophecies through Yahshua the Messiah or Jesus Christ.
What is the significance of this?
We must realize that just because something is a shadow of something means they are already obsolete and irrelevant. On the contrary, the shadow of something teaches us a lot of lessons about the substance that it symbolizes.
Most people don’t realize that not only the Old Testament is full of symbolism but also the New Testament.
Take for example the doctrine of baptism. Baptism symbolizes the death of the old self and the start of the new life in Christ (Romans 6:3-4). During the Passover, the bread and wine symbolize the body and blood of Christ. There’s also the laying of hands and anointing the sick with oil.
All these are physical acts and symbolisms that we clearly need to observe. However, does this mean that the physical acts and symbols are much more important than what they represent?
Of course not.
However, they are important because physical acts and symbols enhance our understanding of their spiritual significance.
That’s the main reason that we are still commanded to keep them even if they are simply physical representations.
The real message of Paul
Now, let’s quickly summarize the things we have just discussed.
The main message of Paul in Colossians 2:16-17 is to address Gnosticism in the congregation in Colossae.
The issue was never whether we should keep the Sabbath and Festivals of God, but rather how we should keep them.
A quick and unbiased look at Colossians 2:16-17 tells us that the Colossians were in fact observing the Sabbath and Festivals already. They completely understood that their conversion involves keeping God-ordained holy days and Sabbaths.
In verse 17, the Sabbaths and Festivals are considered to be a shadow of things to come. They represent the future rest and joyous time that we will ultimately experience once the Messiah establishes God’s Kingdom here on earth.
Being a shadow DOESN’T equate to being obsolete.
Rather, by keeping the Sabbath and Festivals, we are constantly reminded of the blessed hope that one day, the Messiah would step into the affairs of men and directly intervene.
Not only that but the shadows of things to come, in this case, the Sabbath and Festivals, teach us crucial spiritual lessons about God’s plan of salvation.
So, instead of not keeping the Sabbath, it is absolutely needed because of the great weight and magnitude it bears in our Christian life.