Absurd? The surprising answer to this question can be found in Paul’s letter to the Colossians — when properly understood. But let us start by discussing first the common concept popularly taught in our day and age for contrast.
Did Paul really encourage the Gentiles to keep on keeping the Sabbath?
This idea is farthest from the minds of most Christian believers today! Why? It has been popularly taught that the Sabbath is among those Mosaic laws that has been abolished at the cross, and thus was done away as an observance in the New Testament, as supposedly assumed to have been taught by the apostle Paul.
Therefore, it is commonly believed that Gentiles and Christians are not required to keep it; that they are all exempted from obeying this fourth among the Ten Commandments of God, of which the other nine are all considered to be very much still valid and enforced even to this day.
With this type of popular reasoning, do you somehow sense that there seems to be something wrong, amiss, or illogical here? In which case, we find ourselves in an uncomfortable situation to honestly find a valid answer to three big surprising and disturbing issues:
- That there is indeed only one of the Ten Commandments that is NOT to be obeyed, while all the other nine continue to be very much still valid?
- That among humans to whom all the Ten Commandments apply, only the Gentiles and Christians are supposedly not covered by the fourth command?
- That the apostle Paul has a power greater than God to be able to unilaterally decide to abolish one of the longest commands (among the Ten Commandments) dealing with our worship to God?
Since this popular and common teaching seems very strange and illogical, have you recently checked and personally confirmed whether what you heard and have been taught on this matter is really biblical and true? Or did you just ignore and content yourself that what you heard from others a long time ago is true?
It is high time we really verify what the Bible says on this matter with an open mind. Since your salvation can depend on your obedience to God’s wise and loving commands, there is a need to read and fully understand this article.
A challenging question?
Do we really have a written evidence in the New Testament where the apostle Paul wrote even to the Gentiles to encourage them to keep on keeping the Sabbath regardless of strong negative criticisms and judgment from unbelievers? Where is that clear biblical proof to support this claim?
Before going to those passages, it is first proper and necessary that we understand the background on why Paul was led by God to write in defense of, and to encourage those Gentiles to keep on practicing what they have always been taught, and the reasons for continuing to do so.
Only one Scriptural guide during apostolic times
Likewise, to better personally understand the background, let us first put ourselves into the context of the apostolic times during the first century. Please know that there was then only one set of biblical writings, the one we now call as the Old Testament (or Hebrew Writings). The New Testament (or Apostolic Writings) as we know it today was still unavailable then.
Thus, it was the Old Testament (also called the Holy Scriptures), which Timothy knew as a child, of which Paul encouraged him to read (2 Timothy 3:15); and which Paul also said was inspired by God and therefore formed the basis for all inspired doctrinal teachings upon which Paul preached from (2 Timothy 3:16).
Consequently, all believers in all the regions of the earth where the apostles went to preach, knew the Sabbath was commanded by God. Of course, this included the knowledge of the seven annual Festivals of God, reckoned based on the Lunar Cycles, plus the knowledge as to which creatures were approved by God to be eaten. Believers were then all united in those basic biblical teachings, and this included the predominantly Gentile congregation in the city of Colossae.
Combating Gnostic and Ascetic Teachings
However, as earlier predicted by Paul in his last visit to Ephesus, there were certain ones who eventually preached “perverse things to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:30).
This problem also occurred among the Colossians, causing the apostle Paul to likewise warn them about these unbiblical teachings in his letter to the believers there. The nature of this Gnostic and Ascetic teachings was described by Paul in some of these verses [bold fonts for emphasis]:
Don’t let anyone lead you astray with empty philosophy and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the evil powers of this world, and not from Christ.
~Colossians 2:8, NLT
Don’t let anyone condemn you by insisting on self-denial. And don’t let anyone say you must worship angels, even though they say they have had visions about this. These people claim to be so humble, but their sinful minds have made them proud.
~Colossians 2:18, NLT
“Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using — according to the commandments and doctrines of men?
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 2:23, NIV
Summary of Gnostic and Ascetic teachings
These philosophical teachings from old traditions of men (not from God nor from the Bible) featured harsh treatment of the body by self-denial from good food and drink especially those enjoyed during Feasts of God and during Sabbaths, plus other restrictions such as “touch not, taste not, handle not” believing that these self-imposed hardships will please angels they worship. Since the Colossian believers did not follow these, they were condemned, criticized, and judged. (More details on Gnosticism and Asceticism can be accessed thru the list of references in Appendix 2.)
Reason for Paul’s letter to the Colossians
When Paul (who was then in prison) heard about these reports from Epaphras (Colossians 1:7), Paul, wrote a letter to the Colossian believers, warning them against these false teachers and describing their unbiblical teachings. At the same time, he encouraged them to be steadfast in what they were already doing and practicing in celebrating the Feasts of God and their keeping of the Sabbaths, plus determining when the Feasts of God occurs through their reckoning of the new moons. Obviously, Paul’s letter was carried back to them by this same Epaphras, their church leader (Colossians 4:12).
Evidence: Gentiles in Colossae kept the Sabbath
With this knowledge concerning the historical background and context of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, we can now more properly understand the exact meaning of this much-misunderstood passage:
Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.
~Colossians 2:16-17, KJV
[NOTE: The KJV has the least translation error in verse 17 because it only added the word “is” which the translators honestly rendered in italics showing they just added it.]
Tampering with Paul’s letter causes confusion
Perhaps, not fully understanding the background and reason why Paul wrote this letter, plus probably viewing it from the common erroneous perspective, some translators changed or added certain words to make it fit their perceived respective personal idea of what it should mean.
… Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.
~Colossians 2:17, KJV
These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.
~Colossians 2:17, ESV
… things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.
~Colossians 2:17, NASB
These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
~Colossians 2:17, NIV
… which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ
~Colossians 2:17, NKJ
For these rules were only shadows of the real thing, Christ himself.
~Colossians 2:17, NLT
These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.
~Colossians 2:17, RSV
All these contradictory translations simply create a babel of meaningless confusion which does not quite connect with the exact context of the previous verse it follows. This fact alone simply demonstrates that the various translators did not really understand Paul’s true intent in his letter.
What did Paul mean: “Shadow of things to come”?
The word “shadow” in Greek is “skia” numbered G4639 in Strong’s Concordance. In Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, is it also defined as; (b) “the image” or “outline” cast by an object, Colossians 2:17, of ceremonies under the Law…”
Shadow or outline of what? The antecedent of this statement goes back to the previous verse (16) which talks about the enjoyment of food and drink (of course, without being drunk) in connection with their observance of the Festivals and Sabbaths. In prophecy, this enjoyment and the abundance of food and drink foreshadows the coming Kingdom of God which will be established on this earth (Isaiah 25:6). The Sabbaths likewise pictures that time of worldwide peace and rest, plus abundance and great prosperity for all of humanity then (Isaiah 2:2-4; Isaiah 11:1-9; Micah 4:1-7; Hebrews 4:11; Revelation 20:6, etc.).
What does the “body of Christ” mean?
Since the King James Version is reputed to be a literal word-for-word translation, it has the least error in this particular verse. Just remove the added italicized word “is” and it comes closer to the real intended meaning; which should now read: “but the body of Christ.”
What does the “body of Christ” mean? It is best to let Paul himself, the writer of this letter explain what he meant. In the previous chapter, Colossians 1:18, we read the following:
And he [Christ] is the head of the body, the church …
~Colossians 1:18, KJV
Christ is the head of the church, which is his body.
~Colossians 1:18, NLT
In simple terms, Paul explains that “the body of Christ is the Church.” Therefore, it is the Church that is to judge or teach them concerning the observance of these biblical matters, and not allow the Gnostics, Ascetics, or pagans among them to judge, condemn, or teach them on these matters.
Here is one example of an outrageously wrong and totally misleading translation of this passage:
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.
~Colossians 2:16, NLT
[NOTE: Adding the word “not” completely changes the meaning of the verse into the opposite of what Paul really meant. Let us be careful about some of these errors of certain translators.]
An amplified rendering of Colossians 2:16-17
Colossians 2:16-17: “Let no one [gnostic, ascetic, or pagan person] therefore judge [condemn or criticize] you in [your] eating or drinking, or in respect of [any part or portion of your keeping] a holy day, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbaths: which are a [fore] shadow [image] of the coming things [prophesied events in God’s Kingdom], but [rather let] the Body of Christ [the Church, teach you concerning these matters].” (Amplified explanation based on the corrected Young’s Literal Translation, quoted below.)
Let no one, then, judge you in eating or in drinking, or in respect of a feast, or of a new moon, or of sabbaths, which are a shadow of the coming things, and the body is of the Christ…
~Colossians 2:16-17, YLT
[For technical details on these in the Greek language, see Appendix 1.]
1. The Gentiles in the city of Colossae (Colossians 1:27) like all of God’s people everywhere, were keeping the Sabbath, celebrating God’s Festivals, observing the New Moons, and of course were aware of the Food Laws, in obedience to what is written in the only Scriptures known then.
2. Certain people (Gnostics, Ascetics, etc.) were judging them for their joyous manner in celebrating these God-ordained Festivals and Sabbaths involving eating and drinking; practices that were alien and not compatible with the Ascetic beliefs in self-denial and harsh restrictive treatment of their body.
3. Paul did not discourage or stop what they were doing, but rather told them not to allow others outside the church to condemn their practices. Instead, he told them to let only the Church (which is the Body of Christ) be the one to teach or judge them on these religious matters.
4. Paul explained that these celebrations point toward (as a shadow, image, or outline) that great celebration of peace and abundance in God’s coming Kingdom. That meanwhile, they ought to focus on Christ in all aspects of their lives and maintain the fellowship and unity in the Church.
All of God’s Ten Commandments are unchanging (Matthew 5:17-20) and are all equally applicable to all mankind (both Jews and Gentiles) while heaven and earth stands. In fact, Christ magnified them (Isaiah 42:21).
The false claim that Paul taught the Gentiles and Christians not to keep the Sabbath and other pertinent laws of God is a total lie and a great deception propagated by misguided or uninformed religious leaders; even as shown in the confusing translations concerning Colossians 2:16-17.
God is the God of all mankind (both Jews and Gentiles) and the Bible as His message is intended for all mankind, and is consistent. God is not fickle-minded or changeable (Malachi 3:6) and so is His Word (Psalms 119:160). Therefore, we can safely trust in all His promises, even for that great promised salvation for mankind and future solution to world problems.
Appendix 1: Explanatory Notes on Colossians 2:16-17
The words “in meat or in drink” (meat Gk. “broma” G1033); and “drink” (Gk. “pino” G4095); used in most translations are not accurate. The actual Greek words are: “en brosei kai en posie” or “en brosis kai en posis” (G1035 means “eating” and G4213 means drinking); better translated as “in eating and in drinking” because Paul was not just talking about food and drink but more on the manner of “eating and drinking” during such celebrations, which of course, the Ascetics condemned, preferring self-denial and abstinence. Also, the verbs used are in the gerund form (ending in “-ing“). (Expositor’s Greek Testament, by W. Robertson Smith, volume 3, page 530).
Paul also says, the Festivals, new moons and Sabbaths are a shadow (when Paul wrote this, many years after Christ’s death) “of [still] things to come” [future tense]. Therefore, it is wrong to attribute or interpret these to things already fulfilled in Christ. The Greek grammar accurately renders the words in the present participle form, using the Greek word “mello,” which means, “about to do something” often implying the necessity and certainty of what is still to take place.” (Vine’s Dictionary of Biblical Words).
Appendix 2: References to Gnosticism and Asceticism
The Daily Study Bible by Barclay (volume 11, pages 97-99)
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia