Chapter 5: Colossians 2:16

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. -- Colossians 2:16

The Colossians were a church of Gentile Christians in Asia Minor, not far from the church of Laodicea. In fact, Paul asked that his letter to the Colossians be sent to the Laodiceans. Like most of the churches in that region, the Colossians were susceptible to the influence of Jewish Christianity.

While there was a basic similarity between the Jewish-Christian intruders in Galatia and Colosse, there were also some differences. This should not surprise us when we remember that first-century Judaism was divided into many sects and exhibited a profuse variety of thought There were Pharisees, Essenes, Hellenists, Zealots and Apocalyptists, with divisions among these groups. Many of these became Christians and, not surprisingly, brought to Christianity the coloring of their particular background. For example, it is recognized that the Jewish-Christian intruders in Galatia had been Pharisees. At the end of the last century, the English scholar, Lightfoot, identified the Colossian intruders as Jewish Christians who had been Essenes. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and further scholarly research in recent years have essentially confirmed Lightfoot's analysis of the Colossian error. Research has also suggested that the Colossian error was an amalgamation of Jewish legalism with oriental astrology or early Gnosticism. (1)

In Colossians 2 Paul refers to the interest of the Colossian believers in ascetic dietary regulations, in visions and angels, and to their devotion to the Sabbath and the Jewish calendar. We know that the following features were characteristic of Essene-Jewish Christianity:

  1. They were generally vegetarian, and some even forbade the eating of eggs. They urged their ascetic dietary practices as aids in reaching spiritual perfection. Unfortunately, they devoted more time to the relative spiritual value of food and drink than they devoted to Christ.
  2. As Apocalyptists, with their spiritual roots in the Qumran community, they were preoccupied with such things as the order of the cosmos, visions and speculative information about angels.

  3. They had an elaborate angelology, which partly reflected the influence of oriental astrology. Yet we should be careful not to exaggerate non-Jewish influences, because Jewish Apocalyptists also had a history of interest in angelology. They believed that angels participated in giving the law (a view which Paul himself shared [Galatians 3:19]). It was thought that angels guarded the decrees of the law and punished offenders. They may also have thought that angels were in charge of the movement of planetary bodies and of the recurring seasons. Reverence for angelic powers was expressed by attention to taboos about food and drink and by careful observance of the Jewish sacred calendar, especially the Sabbath.

The false teachers at Colosse directed the attention of the believers to ascetic practices, visions angels, Sabbaths and the calendar. By these means they were supposed to enjoy a "fullness" (Greek: pleroma) in their Christian faith which they had not yet attained by the gospel received from Paul (Colossians 1:19; 2:9). The apostle responds to this false teaching by an unexcelled exaltation of the person and work of Christ. It is in Him that all the fullness of the Godhead dwells (Colossians 1:19; 2:9).

It is by His work on the cross that God reconciles all things to Himself and presents all believers holy and free 'from all accusation (Colossians 1:2-23). Paul affirms that God commissioned him "to present to you the word of God in its fullness" (Colossians 1:25). The Christ who is present among the congregation in His gospel is the church's hope of glory, because it is through Him that every man is presented perfect (Colossians 1:27, 28). Those who stand on this gospel and continue in this faith (Colossians 1:23, 2:6) lack absolutely nothing, because in Christ are found all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3) and all the fullness of the Deity (Colossians 2:9).Believers "have been given fullness in Christ" (Colossians 2:10). Christ is over every power and authority (Colossians 2:10). There is no need to fear, placate or reverence angelic powers. Then Paul declares that the real circumcision has taken place by the church's baptism into Christ's death and resurrection (Colossians 2:11-12) (2) He continues with this passage, so relevant to the Sabbatarian question:

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; He took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration, or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of things that were to come; the reality however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held toget her by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do no touch!"? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. -- Colossians 2:13-23

Paul prefaces his thrust against the ascetic Jewish visionaries with a statement of Christ's victory over our three greatest enemies. First, "He forgave us all our sins (Colossians 2:13). Second, He "canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; He took it away, nailing it to the cross" (Colossians 2:14). Third, He "disarmed the powers an authorities" that threatened to enslave us (Colossians 2:15). The cross is declared to be the means of Christ's threefold triumph.

The second aspect of Christ's threefold triumph now demands our closest attention. What is the meaning of Colossian 2:14: "... having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; He took it away, nailing it to the cross. The Puritans, who were great Sabbatarians, made valiant efforts to prove that this passage refers only to the ritual law; They were pressed to do this in order to maintain their defense of Sabbatarianism and their opposition to antinomianism. Traditionally, Seventh-day Adventists have also followed this interpretation. (3)

The problem with such an interpretation is that Paul does not make a sharp distinction between the moral and ceremonial law. There is, of course, a distinction between temporary external rituals and eternal ethical principles. But as we have already seen from our survey of the book of Galatians, it is characteristic of Paul to deal with the law in its entirety. Nowhere does he give us a formula to determine what parts of the Old Testament law are moral and what parts are ceremonial. More recently in the history of interpretation, some commentators have seen in Colossians 2:14 a reference to a bond of indebtedness. They point out that the expression translated "written code" comes from the Greek word cheirographon, which means a handwritten document or some kind of legal bond. Scholars have discovered instances where the word cheirographon was used in ancient times to refer to a signed bill of indebtedness (a kind of IOU). It should be pointed out, however, that most scholars who suggest this interpretation recognize that the document of indebtedness and the regulations of the law are the same. (4)

Adventist scholar, Samuele Bacchiocchi, argues that the cheirographon of Colossians 2:14 does not refer to the law at all but is simply "the instrument for the remembrance of sin" or "the record of our sins." (5)

Bacchiocchi acknowledges that if this Pauline passage does refer to the ordinances of the Mosaic law, "there exists a legitimate possibility that the Sabbath could be included among the ordinances nailed to the cross." (6) But he thinks that his interpretation of cheirographon relieves Sabbatarianism of any embarrassment.

There is, however, a grave weakness in Bacchiocchi's argument about the word cheirographon. The meaning of cheirographon as a document of indebtedness is only one meaning of the word in nonbiblical Greek. Lenski points out that cheirographon does not always refer to a debtor's bond but may refer to a labor contract, to a document giving authority to act or even to business agreements. (7) It is misleading, therefore, to say that cheirographon means an instrument for remembering or recording a debt. It simply means a written document. The kind of written document referred to in Colossians 2:14 must be determined by the context.

We are not left in doubt as to the kind of written document Paul is referring to. The cheirographon consists of "regulations" ("ordinances," "decrees," from the Greek word dogmasin). Colossians 2:14 is not describing a document we have signed, much less written, but something which has been written in divine decrees, The same word dogrnasin appears in Ephesians 2:15, where Paul is obviously discussing the Mosaic ministration of the law. That Colossians 2:14 and Ephesians 2:15 are concerned with the same document is indicated by the following comparison: (8)

Colossians 2:14: ... having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; He took it away, nailing it to the cross.

Ephesians 2:15: ... by abolishing in His flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.

When we examine the context of Colossians 2:14, we see that it is preceded by a reference to circumcision and is followed by a reference to festivals, New Moons and Sabbaths. Paul then calls these regulations "principles stoicheia] of this world" (Colossians 2:20), just as he did in Galatians 4. Furthermore, Paul is writing to oppose Jewish Christians who are imposing the law on Gentile Christians. The New International Version is therefore justified in translating the phrase cheirographon tois dogmasin as the written code, with its regulations."

Bacchiocchi sees an overwhelming objection to this straightforward interpretation of Colossians 2:14. How can God be represented as crucifying the holy Mosaic law? (Romans 7:12). How can guilt be removed by destroying law codes? (9) With such questions Bacchiocchi allows his theological presuppositions to override the plain sense of the passage. We would suggest, however, that the problem is solved, not by qualifying or softening what the apostle says, but by letting Paul state his case in his own way, irrespective of what that does to our presuppositions. We must resist the temptation to hack and hew the words of Paul in order to fit them into our own system. However contrary it may sound to our theological ethics, however much we may fear antinomianism, we cannot escape Paul's declaration that the regulations of the Mosaic law have been nailed to the cross. If this is difficult for the reader to accept, we appeal to him to be patient, for that is not the entire Pauline picture of the law question -- as we will see in the next chapter.

The third aspect of Christ's victory is His triumph over "the powers and authorities" (Colossians 2:15). These, together with sin and the law, are represented as holding us in bondage. In view of our Lord's threefold triumph, the apostle then declares:

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ ...

Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. -- Colossians 2 16, 17, 20-23

The context demands that we understand "a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day" as the regulations of the Jewish sacred calendar. The Puritans, and the Seventh-day Adventists following them, have argued that Paul is not talking about the Sabbath of the Decalogue but only about the Sabbaths of the ceremonial law. Aside from theological presuppositions which make it difficult for them to see that Paul could be talking about the Sabbath, they have "seen" two things in Colossians 2 which seem to justify their position:

  1. They argue that there were two types of Sabbaths in the Old Testament -- the weekly Sabbath of the decalogue and the ceremonial Sabbaths of the yearly festivals (Leviticus 23).
  2. They also argue that the Sabbath under consideration in Colossians 2 is "a shadow of the things that were to come" (Colossians 2:17). Since the weekly Sabbath was a memorial of creation (Exodus 20:8-11), they argue that it could not be called a "shadow" (Genesis 2:2-3). Colossians 2:16 must therefore be referring to the ceremonial rest days brought to view in Leviticus 23. (10)

These arguments are unsound for the following reasons:

  1. The sacred times of Colossians 2:16 are called "a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day." The sequence "implies annual, monthly and weekly observances." (11) Bacchiocchi agrees, even saying that this is "the unanimous consensus of commentators."(12)
  2. This same annual, monthly and weekly sequence appears five times in the Septuagint -- i.e., 2 Chronicles 2:4; 31:3; Nehemiah 10:33; Ezekiel 45:17; Hosea 2:11.

  3. Whenever the Old Testament links the New Moon celebration with the Sabbath, as in Colossians 2:16, it is referring to the weekly Sabbath (2 Kings 4:23; 1 Chronicles 23:31; 2 Chronicles 2:4; Nehemiah 10:33; Isaiah 1:13, 66:23; Ezekiel 45:17, 46:1; Hosea 2:11; Amos 8:5).

  4. When the Old Testament refers to the yearly Sabbaths, such as the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23), it calls them "a Sabbath of rest," which the Septuagint consistently translates with the compound Greek expression Sabbata sabbaton. Colossians 2:16 simply has sabbaton, the same word which Matthew 28:1 uses for the weekly Sabbath. (13)
  5. It has been argued that since Paul calls the Sabbath of Colossians 2:16 "a shadow of the things that were to come", he could not be referring to the Sabbath of the Decalogue. But Colossians 1:16 has already declared that all things were made by Christ and exist for His sake. Adam himself was "a pattern of the One to come" (Romans 5:14). Of course, the Sabbath, like all the great festivals recorded in the Old Testament, was instituted to point back to the mighty acts of God in creation or in the Exodus. But they not only pointed back; they also pointed forward to God's new creation and new act of deliverance at the end of time. It was common for the Jews to speak of the Sabbath as a foretaste of the unending Sabbath of the age to come. (14) Hebrews 4 is true to this tradition when it typologically links the seventh-day rest with the rest offered us in the gospel.

We cannot, therefore, avoid the conclusion that Colossians 2:16 is referring to the weekly Sabbath. Bacchiocchi agrees with this but then uses a new approach in defending Sabbatarianism. He argues that Paul does not condemn the keeping of the Sabbath as such, but only its perversion by Jewish restrictions and oriental astrology. Here Bacchiocchi is partially correct. As we will see in the next chapter, Paul did not condemn the Roman Christians who kept a Sabbath to the Lord (Romans 14:5-6). The apostle, however, does not approve making the Sabbath celebration a law which is binding on the conscience. Paul does not merely tell the Colossians that the perverted regulations of the false teachers were nailed to the cross. He cuts all the ground from under their feet by saying that even the divine decrees respecting the Sabbath have been canceled. It is as if Paul were saying in Colossians 2:14, 16: "If God has canceled the regulations of His written code, you do not have to submit to the regulations supposedly imposed by angels or their agents."

Furthermore, it is the Old Testament Sabbath rather than the perverted Sabbath of Jewish ascetics which is "a shadow of the things that were to come." Paul is not merely saying that the Jewish perversions of the Sabbath are not binding on the conscience. He says that the Sabbath which was a true shadow of Christ is no longer binding on the conscience.

There is a hint that the Colossian intruders were teaching that angelic powers governed the course of the planets and other heavenly bodies. Observing the Jewish calendar was therefore a token of submission to their authority. But even if one does not believe that angels govern the movement of heavenly bodies, does not one's subjection to a calendar in religious matters mean an infantile subjection to "the elements of the world" (Galatians 4:1-5, KJV). Does this kind of subjection do justice to the freedom of those who by the gospel have come of age and who, by virtue of their union with Christ, have dominion over the created order? (Genesis 1:28, 29). Is not Paul telling us in Galatians 4 and Colossians 2 that the consciences of those who have graduated from the infants' class are not ruled by the movement of planetary bodies or regulated by the calendar?


We must conclude that the great teachers of the Christian church, from Ignatius to Jerome and from Augustine to Luther and Calvin, had valid reasons for saying that the Old Testament Sabbath laws are not binding on the Christian's conscience. They simply accepted Colossians 2:16 as the final word on this matter.


(1) See C.F.D. Moule. The Birth of the New Testament, p. 154.

(2) This is another indication that Paul's opponents were Jewish.

(3). See Ellen G. White. Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Assn., 1958) p. 365.

(4) See Archibald Thomas Robertson. Word Pictures in the NewTestament, 4:494; E.K. Simpson and F. F. Bruce. Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians, pp. 237-238.

(5) Samuele Bacchiocchi. From Sabbath to Sunday, pp. 350-351.

(6) Ibid. p. 348.

(7) See R.C.H. Lenski. The Interpretation of St Paul's Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus and to Philemon, p. 114.

(8) The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary presents a more sober explanation of Colossians 2:14 than Bacchiocchi does. It acknowledges that Colossians 2:14 and Ephesians 2:15 are both discussing the Mosaic law. See Francis D. Nichol, ed. The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, 7:204.

(9) See Bacchiocchi, From Sabbath to Sunday, p. 348.

(10) See Nichol. The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, 7:204: White. Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 48, 365. It is interesting that on this point Bacchiocchi dissents from the position of The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary and Ellen G. White. He acknowledges that Colossians 2:16 is a reference to the weekly Sabbath, and he presents arguments which devastate the traditional Sabbatarian explanation of this passage.

(11) John J. Gunther. St. Paul s Opponents and Their Background, p. 89.

(12) Bacchiocchi. From Sabbath to Sunday, p. 358.

(13) Sabbaton is only one of a number of Greek words which are plural in form but sometimes singular in meaning. No informed scholar can seriously consider the argument that the sabbaton of Colossians 2:16 is plural and therefore must refer to the ceremonial Sabbaths of Leviticus 16. Bacchiocchi adamantly declares "Colossians 2:16 cannot refer to any of the annual ceremonial sabbaths" (ibid., p. 360). An Adventist scholar must be bold to contradict Ellen G White so obviously!

(14) See Gerhard Friedrich. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 7:8.

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