Paul and the Sabbath

Posted on October 17, 2013, by

*This post is the latest in a series looking at the Sabbath. Previous posts include: Jesus and the Sabbath,  The Sabbath and the Decalogue in the OT, a look at God’s Rest as Prescriptive, an examination of the Sabbath as a Creation Ordinance.

Throughout the New Testament the Sabbath principle retains its binding status. However, Romans 14:5-6, Galatians 4:9-11, and Colossians 2:16-17 are all often cited as evidence that the Sabbath is no longer binding. These texts pose perhaps the most persuasive arguments against the Sabbatarian position, therefore several brief points need to be made regarding their interpretation. While a full Pauline theology of the Law and Sabbath is well beyond the capabilities of a single blog post, I do hope to show that these passages are not as iron-clad as the anti-sabbatarians might argue.

Romans 14

Romans 14:5-6 is in the middle of an argument Paul is building against passing judgment upon weaker brothers, specifically regarding Jewish ceremonial laws. Lloyd-Jones explains regarding these ‘Sabbath days’:

“Jewish religious authorities themselves decided that when a certain great festival was coming, it would be good if the people prepared for it. So they appointed a ‘sabbath’, the day before the festival, as a means of preparation. So quite literally, from their standpoint, they did have Sabbath ‘days’; not only the seventh day of every week, but other holy days that they themselves had introduced in order that their observance of the fast or the festival might be more effective.”[1]

Paul is dealing with the ceremonial and cultic attachments to certain days; he is not abrogating the Sabbath command. Just as people today attach significance to certain days (e.g., Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Lent…), these believers were doing the same. Paul is addressing, “not the Sabbath as such, but certain fast days, certain feast days, certain festival days, that had now become a part of the life of the Jews.”[2] Paul concludes regarding these matters, “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom 14:5b). Regarding the observance of special days, there is to be charity shown in discussing diverse views. But regarding the ongoing Sabbath command, Paul is not here speaking.

Galatians 4

In Galatians 4:9-11, Paul is writing against the keeping of days as a necessity for justification. The entire letter is an argument not to return to Jewish practices, namely circumcision, as a means necessary for salvation. Even though the letter speaks of those who “observe days, months, seasons, and years” (v 10), because of the context of the passage and the letter this does not constitute an argument against keeping a Sabbath for non-salvific purposes.

Colossians 2

Colossians 2:16-17 is the more difficult passage of the three because it actually contains the word “Sabbath” (v 16). In the letter Paul is urging the Colossians not to be led astray by those who are ‘judging’ their salvation based on their observances of dietary restrictions and special days. The dietary restrictions can be understood, “in light of both the discussion of ethnic identity of Jewish Christians and the preparatory rites for visionary experiences.”[3] This combination of abrogated Mosaic ceremonial law plus a Jewish cultism was leading the Colossians astray. The reference to a “festival, new moon, or a Sabbath,” clearly indicates some Jewish background to this heresy. These terms are found together in several Old Testament passages.[4] Significantly, “when these terms are listed together in the OT, it often refers to cultic rituals linked with these festal days. If so, Paul is not opposed to the Jewish calendar per se but to the imposition of practices related to these feasts”[5] Similar to the Romans passage discussed above, Paul is not removing the command for one Sabbath day of rest per week. He is addressing the ceremonial and cultic patterns that the Colossians were using to “pass judgment” upon believers.

Conclusion

While a full exploration of Paul’s theology of the Law and the Sabbath is way beyond what a blog post could attempt to accomplish, I hope to have shown some introductory arguments to defend against anti-sabbatarians, many of whom like to cite these verses as the final word against any New Covenant sabbatarian notions.

In the coming posts I hope to look at the typology of the Sabbath, historical teachings on the Sabbath, and the impact of Sabbath rest upon theology, particularly on ecclesiology.

Jon English Lee


[1] David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 14:1-17 : Liberty and Conscience (Edinburgh; Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2003), 88.

[2] Ibid.

[3]David W. Pao, Colossians & Philemon: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary Series on the New Testament, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament v. 12 (2012), 185.

[4] E.g., 1 Chr 23:31; 2 Chr 2:4; 31:3; Ezek 45:17; cf. 2 Kgs 4:23; Neh 10:33; Isa 66:23; Ezek 46:1; Amos 8:5.

[5] Pao, Colossians, 185. See also: H. Ross Cole, “The Christian and Time-Keeping in Colossians 2:16 and Galatians 4:10,” AUSS 39 (2001): 273-82.

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Jon English Lee

Jon English Lee and his wife, Rebekah, currently live in Louisville, Kentucky, with their son, Jonny. The Lees are originally from Montgomery, Alabama, but are in Kentucky while Jon English finishes school. He has earned an undergraduate degree in Microbiology from Auburn University Montgomery and a Masters of Divinity from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Currently, he is pursuing a PhD in Systematic Theology from SBTS. Jon English loves all things water related, and is an Advanced SCUBA instructor and cave diver.

6 Responses to "Paul and the Sabbath"

  1. Dee Stover says:

    Amen.

    I grew up SBC, but in 2002 began to see more in the scriptures about Sabbath and the moedim. I believe these existed before creation since the sun, moon and stars were created for the sake of the moedim. So they certainly predate the hravenly bodies!

  2. […] Paul and the Sabbath by Jon English Lee via Founders Ministries: The Blog […]

  3. […] post is the latest in a series looking at the Sabbath. Previous posts include: Paul and the Sabbath,  Jesus and the Sabbath,  The Sabbath and the Decalogue in the OT, a look at God’s Rest as […]

  4. Kyle says:

    I’m not certain that folks understand the implications of sabbath observance being mandatory for the believer. If it did not find it’s fulfillment in Christ, and if it stands together along with the other nine commandments, then you aught to join the seventh day adventists in condemning all sabbath breakers to the pits of hell. Would you not condemn a pastor who condones adultery or theft? Why hold back with those that condone sabbath breaking? Why the inconsistency?

    • Jon English Lee Jon English Lee says:

      Thanks for your comment Kyle.

      Throughout this series on the sabbath I have been arguing that there is a pattern or rest and worship that is currently binding on New Covenant believers. This pattern, grounded in God’s rest on the 7th day of creation, was observed on the sabbath day under the old covenant. Like you, I believe that Christ has faithfully fulfilled that old covenant demand for believers. However, the creation based cycle of 6 days of work followed by 1 of rest and worship is still part of God’s design for believers.

      I plan to write more on the change from Saturday to Sunday in upcoming posts. I hope you will check back then.

      Thanks,
      Jon English

      • Kyle says:

        So, are you agreeing that the 4th commandment is no longer binding today? Can we pick any day of the week for this 1 day of rest? Since the sabbath under the Old Covenant referred to Saturday, can we legitimately call Sunday the sabbath? Since there is no explicit command in the New Testament to observe the 7th day or the 1st day of the week, should we observe both Saturday and Sunday just to be safe? Should that begin at sunset or 12:00am (don’t forget daylight savings time)? Don’t get me wrong, I really do see the benefit of setting aside Sunday as a day of rest and worship to God, the problem I see is that without an explicit command to observe a particular day in the New Covenant (and with passages that seem to abrogate it), there’s a lot of details that need to get ironed out as to what’s acceptable and what isn’t, when it starts and ends, etc, and I just can’t see how to avoid legalism when trying to enforce this. It’s also interesting to note the absence of the discussion of the sabbath in the Pauline epistles. You would think that especially Paul with his Jewish heritage would wish to communicate a sabbath observance to his gentile audience. Anyway, food for thought.

        • Jon English Lee Jon English Lee says:

          Kyle,

          Great questions, thanks for asking.

          I will agree that, properly speaking, the 4th commandment is no longer binding because (1) Christ has fulfilled it on our behalf, (2) we are no longer required to sabbath on Saturday, and (3) we are no longer under the Law as a covenant. However, I do believe that (what I call) the sabbath principle, which is patterned for us in the creation week, found in the 4th commandment, and affirmed in the teaching of Jesus, that that pattern is also seen in the New Testament pattern of worship, although they did observe a change from Saturday to Sunday (Acts 20:7, 1 Cor. 16:2). So no, I do not think any day of the week is up for grabs.

          Can we call the Sunday the sabbath? I think that we can call Sunday the christian sabbath, because Hebrews 4 speaks of God’s resting after creation as “sabbatizing” or keeping a sabbath. I believe that if we are following His pattern, then we may call it the same name. The root word is shabat, which means to cease or rest; so, if we are ceasing from what has been done the previous six days, then I think we have the freedom to call it a sabbath. However, I do not often quibble over that terminology, since the New Testament and Early church pattern is more toward “Lord’s Day.”

          I hope to address these issues in more detail in the coming posts, looking especially at the change from Saturday to Sunday, as well as NT and early church examples. I hope that next post will be able to answer some of your questions in a more satisfying way.

          Thanks!
          Jon English

          • Rob Moore says:

            Hi Jon,

            I am looking forward to your post on the Saturday to Sunday change. I grew up in the Adventist church and am always looking for ways to engage my family and friends, still caught up in that false system, on this issue.

            Thank you for writing on this topic.
            Rob

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