Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Covenants: Part XI - Colossians 2

Colossians 2:13-17

In Part X of our study we saw how Paul addressed the issue of holy days in the Church at Rome.  We saw that, for the New Covenant Christian, the observance of special days is a matter of personal choice that should not divide the Church.  One person might consider one day more special than another, while another person considers every day alike.  Whichever way a person chooses, it should not be a matter of judgment against others.  It’s a personal choice, not an obligation or requirement for Christians.

In Part XI I would like to examine how Paul addressed the controversy in the Church at Colosse.  Here the situation was different than in Rome.  In Rome, Jewish and gentile Christians were learning to live together in love and needed basic instruction on what things were within the realm of Christian freedom.  The Church in Colosse was largely gentile, but was being infiltrated by a few false teachers.  Among the heresies these false teachers were spreading was the heresy that New Covenant Christians were required to keep food laws, observe annual festival Sabbaths, monthly new moon Sabbaths, and the weekly Sabbath day.

Paul addressed this heresy in a very firm way when writing to the Colossians:

Colossians 2:13-15 (NASB)
13 When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions,
14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.
15 When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him.
Jesus Christ canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, or as the NIV translates the Greek, “having canceled the written code with its regulations”.  Jesus Christ took the written code and it’s regulations out of the way by nailing it to the cross.  
Now I have heard those of a sabbatarian persuasion protest, “Yes, but not the Sabbath day!  The Sabbath day was never taken out of the way and nailed to the cross!”  But what does the inspired inerrant scripture say about this? 
In transitioning from verse 15 to verse 16, Paul uses an important transitional Greek word, “oun”. “Oun” is usually translated into English as “therefore”, “then”, or “so then”. As a general biblical interpretive rule, when you see the word “therefore”, stop and see what it’s there for. By using this transitional word, Paul is telling us that what follows in verse 16 flows out of what was done in verses 13 -15. Or to put it another way, because Christ nailed the written code with its regulations to the cross, the things in verse 16 were taken out of the way and no one should judge on the basis of these things any longer.
Colossians 2:16-17 (NASB)
16 Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—
17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.
In verse 16 Paul uses a familiar sequence to describe all the prescribed Sabbaths.  This sequence is used in either ascending or descending order throughout scripture, but it always encompasses all the Jewish Sabbaths; annual, monthly, and weekly Sabbaths.  The gist of the argument that Paul is making is this; Christ nailed the written code to the cross, therefore the following shadows have been taken out of the way: food laws, annual festival Sabbaths, monthly new moon Sabbaths, and the weekly Sabbath day.

Now, I have heard some sabbatarians argue that Paul is not referring to the weekly Sabbath here, but only to what sabbatarians sometimes refer to as “ceremonial Sabbaths”, which they assume to be limited to annual festival Sabbaths and monthly new moon Sabbaths.  But this argument does not hold up to scrutiny for three reasons:

  1. When this familiar sequence is used in scripture it is used to encompass all the prescribed Sabbaths, not just the annual and monthly Sabbaths.  This sequence always includes the weekly Sabbath day as well.
  2. To insist that the weekly Sabbath day is excluded from Paul’s statement turns his sentence into redundant nonsense.  Such an assertion would make the Apostle Paul say something like, “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival Sabbath or a new moon Sabbath or a festival Sabbath day or a new moon Sabbath day.”  This makes no sense at all.  Why would Paul mention the annual festival Sabbaths and new moon Sabbaths, and then refer to them again by saying “or a Sabbath day”?  Paul is not being redundant; he is listing all three types of Sabbaths; annual festival, monthly new moon, and weekly day.
  3. The Greek word Paul uses here for “Sabbath day” is “sabbaton”.  “Sabbaton” is translated as “Sabbath” 61 times in the New Testament.  All sabbatarians would agree that the other 60 times all, without fail, refer to the weekly Sabbath day.  Only here in Colossians 2 would sabbatarians want to argue that “sabbaton” no longer means the weekly Sabbath day, but something else.  This is highly inconsistent.  Upon what linguistic basis should “sabbaton” mean something different here when it always means the weekly Sabbath elsewhere?  This is merely an attempt to avoid and deny the plain teaching of scripture.

There does not seem to be any good contextual, logical, or linguistic reason to understand Paul’s statement to mean anything other than that ALL the Sabbaths; annual Sabbaths, monthly Sabbaths, and weekly Sabbath day were taken out of the way and were nailed to the cross.  All the Sabbaths were only shadows of Jesus Christ and all were completely fulfilled in Him.  Jesus is the substance, not the shadow.  This is consistent with what is said in scripture about other Old Covenant rituals.

Hebrews 10:1 (NASB)
1 For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near.
Sabbath observance is in the same category as animal sacrifices.  It was only a shadow, not the very form of things, not the substance.  Because we now have the substance, Jesus, there is no need to continue to cling to shadows like Sabbath observance or animal sacrifices.  Now that the real thing has come, continuing to cling to shadows is a form of spiritual adultery.

This reminds me of an illustration from Pastor J. Mark Martin.  Imagine that your spouse has been gone for a very long time and all you have had is a picture to help you think of him or her.  You go to the airport and he or she gets off the plane.  You go running towards your spouse, but when you get there you fall on the ground and start kissing his or her shadow and trying to hug the shadow.  You start saying, “Oh I love you shadow, I love you so much shadow!” Your spouse would probably look at you like you were nuts.  He or she would probably say, “Hey, I’m right here! Love me, not my shadow!”  If you persisted in clinging to the shadow he or she would probably get pretty frustrated with you.  In fact, if you kept trying to make love to the shadow instead of your spouse, you would be engaging in a form of adultery.  In order to embrace your spouse, you would have to let go of his or her shadow first. In order to truly embrace Jesus, we must first relinquish our grip on the shadows that only pointed to him. 

In Part XII we will continue to explore what scripture has to say about Christ as our true Sabbath rest, the fulfillment of the shadow.

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