The Sabbath and Galatians 4:9-10

But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years (Galatians 4:9, 10).

Some people who do not accept the sanctity of the Sabbath take these verses as clear evidence to support their view. Their reasoning seems, at first glance, to be in line with a traditional/conventional understanding of Paul’s meaning. However, a survey of the writings of commentators and interpreters, past and present, reveals a wide variety of views. There is, in fact, no single interpretation that unifies the scholars who study these verses.

Those who want to prove that the Sabbath of the Ten Commandments is irrelevant for Christians try to pair Galatians 4:10 with Colossians 2:16: "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."

While on the surface the two passages may look like a good match, the similarity is only skin deep; they address very different situations. And, as our companion study on Colossians 2:16, 17 shows, the Christians in Colossae were faithful Sabbath keepers and Paul expressed approval of—and defended—their observance of the holy day.

In order to understand these verses correctly we need to answer three key questions:

First let’s think about the setting, the context. Paul had been instrumental in the conversion of the Galatian Christians, but his missionary calling took him far away from those he considered to be his spiritual children.

In his absence other teachers took over in Galatia—teachers who didn’t understand the gospel as Paul did. They cast doubt on his teachings and his authority as an apostle. They led the new believers to doubt the all-sufficiency of Christ as the agent of their salvation and prescribed the meticulous observance of religious laws"including circumcision"to insure their right standing before God.

Troubled by the disturbing reports from Galatia (1:6), Paul hastens to remedy the situation. He defends his authority on the basis of his divine calling (1:1, 15, 16). He defends his gospel as that which he received by revelation directly from Jesus Christ (1:12). He mixes history and metaphor as he recasts the pristine gospel in terms that his readers cannot misunderstand (3:6–4:7, 22-31).

With the tools of rhetoric and reason he shows that the gospel of Christ recognizes no distinction between Jew and Gentile, free man and slave, male and female—all are redeemed in Christ (3:28).

The apostle reassures his Gentile readers that their faith in Christ—and not their works—qualifies them as heirs to the promises God made to Abraham (3:9, 29). They have equal standing with Jewish believers as children of God (3:26). Ethnic distinctions are irrelevant. Salvation, for all people, is by grace through faith in Christ (2:16).

Paul equates the pre-Christian condition of the Gentile converts with that of the Jewish converts. Without Christ both classes were in bondage—Gentiles to the creeds and superstitions of paganism (4:8); Jews to the rigorous requirements of their law (3:23, 24). Jews and Gentiles alike expressed their piety through the scrupulous practice of religious duties.

When you read the first few verses of this epistle you get a feel for Paul’s pressing burden. He barely finishes his greeting before he launches his attack on the Galatian heresy:

These two verses are vital to our understanding of Paul’s message. They keep us from getting bogged down in the somewhat mystifying minutiae of chapter 4 by showing us the big picture: the Galatians—at least some of them—have abandoned the true gospel in favor of a distorted, deformed doctrine of salvation. Paul considers this a reversion to their pre-Christian, pagan/Jewish condition.

With this background in mind let’s address the two key phrases in our target verses.

Paul criticizes the Galatians because they have accepted a false gospel, a gospel that calls for strict compliance with a liturgical calendar. If that calendar—with its special days, months, seasons and years—was calibrated to the movement of heavenly bodies, the weekly Sabbath does not fit into that calendrical series.

But suppose that Paul did intend to include the weekly Sabbath in his calendrical list. Does that mean that the Sabbath has no legitimate place in a Christian’s life? Certainly not. It simply means that Sabbath-keeping cannot save us—make us right with God. Nor can any amount of law-keeping. "A man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus…and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified" (Galatians 2:16).

1 The New English Bible has "the elemental spirits of the universe."

2 Phillips translates this phrase as "basic moral principles." J. B. Phillips, I (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1948), 95.

3 The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 282.

4 "Elementary spirits which the syncretistic religious tendencies of later antiquity associated with the physical elements." J. Louis Martyn, Galatians, The Anchor Bible Vol. 33A (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 395.

5 Ibid.

6 B. S. Mackay, Freedom of the Christian Galatians and Romans, Bible Guides No. 16 (New York: Abingdon Press, 1965), 38.

7 The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 287.

8 Troy Martin, "Pagan and Judeo-Christian Time-Keeping Schemes in Gal 4.10 and Col 2.16," New Testament Studies, Jan, 1996, vol 42:1, p. 112.

9 Gerhard Schneider, The Epistle to the Galatians, New Testament for Spiritual Reading, ed. John L. McKenzie, SJ (London: Burns & Oates,1969), 86.

10 Frank J. Matera, Galatians, Sacra Pagina Series Vol. 9, Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., Editor (Collegeville:The Order of St. Benedict, 1992), 157.

11 The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 288.

12 Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, F.F. Bruce, General Editor (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), 19.