The Sabbath and Colossians 2:16-17

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—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ (Colossians 2:16, 17).

These verses are at the center of the debate over whether or not Christians should observe the seventh-day Sabbath. Outside the Sabbath-keeping denominations there is wide, but not unanimous, agreement that verse 16 refers to the weekly holy day. The traditional Seventh-day Adventist position has been that the reference is to the annual/ceremonial Sabbaths, and that is reflected in the church’s current statement of beliefs.

These verses address a heresy (according to verse 8 it was philosophy and empty deception) that was plaguing the Colossian church, but the context offers only a few clues as to the nature of the heresy and the identity of the heretics.

There is also the question of whether the eating, drinking, and observing of special occasions is being practiced by the faithful Colossian believers or by the heretics. In other words, are the heretics judging those who are not observing certain dietary rules, festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths—or are they critical of those who are doing so.

The mention of “a festival,” “a new moon,” and “a Sabbath day” gives rise to a series of questions:

We can find answers to at least some of these questions by looking more closely at the two verses in question.

In the latter case it appears that someone is criticizing the Colossian Christians because they participate in the Lord’s Supper as an expression of their faith in Christ’s atoning death and their hope in His return.

Biased translations contribute to the confusion over the meaning of these two verses. For example, The New Living Translation goes so far as to render verse 16 this way: “So don't let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new-moon ceremonies or Sabbaths” (emphasis ours).

The Contemporary English Version puts it this way: “Don't let anyone tell you what you must eat or drink. "Don't let them say that you must celebrate the New Moon festival, the Sabbath, or any other festival”(emphasis ours). Translators of both of these versions have inserted negatives where none exist in the original. This echoes the widely held belief that Colossians 2:16 announces the abrogation of the seventh-day Sabbath, but it serves to undermine confidence in these translations.

There are certainly other interesting questions that can be raised about Colossians 2:16-17. Insofar as the Sabbath is concerned, there are solid linguistic and theoligical reasons to reject the view that these verses teach that the holy day of the Fourth Commandment has been canceled for Christians.

1 We accept Paul as the author of this epistle, taking at face value the greeting in chapter 1, verse 1.

2 This is the pagan concept that when a body dies the soul departs to enter another body—and not necessarily a human body. To eat meat would be to risk eating ones ancestors.

3 Professor of religious studies at St. Xavier University in Chicago.

4 Troy W. Martin, By Philosophy and Empty Deceit, Journal for the Study of the New Testament: Supplement Series 118 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 117.

5 For examples see 1 Chronicles 23:29-31; 2 Chronicles 2:4; 2 Chronicles 8:12-13; 2 Chronicles 31:3; Nehemiah 10:33; Ezekiel 45:13-17; Hosea 2:11.

6 "Adventism’s Achilles’s Heel? a scriptural study of the ’Sabbath’ in Colossians 2:16."

7 Professor emeritus of religious studies at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana.

8 Herold Weiss, A Day of Gladness (Columbia: University of South Carolina, 2003), 136.