I will begin this discussion about the word sabbath in Colossians 2:16, 17, by quoting these two verses for you. Then I will share with you the different conclusions that have been drawn from it.
“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath. These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (RSV1).
From its earliest beginnings until the present, the standard Seventh-day Adventist interpretation regarding the word sabbath in these verses has been that it refers to the yearly ritual sabbaths of the ancient Jewish law. This understanding is based on two things: first, the word sabbath in verse 16 is found in the context of the ceremonial festivals of the Jewish religious calendar, and second, it’s a “shadow” that points forward, whereas the Sabbath commandment (Exodus 20:8–11) clearly states that the Sabbath is a memorial pointing back to God’s creation of the world thousands of years ago.
Over the centuries, however, well-known Christian commentators, including the ancient Christian historian Irenaeus, the theologian Augustine, and the Protestant Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, have consistently interpreted this passage in Colossians to mean that in the New Testament era, the requirement to keep the seventh-day Sabbath holy has been abolished. In fact, Walter R. Martin, a twentieth-century authority on various religions, categorically concluded that “in light of this Scripture alone, I contend that the argument for [seventh-day] Sabbath observance collapses.”
The view that Colossians 2:16 does away with the weekly Sabbath is generally based on the following two claims:
First, the three concepts—festival, new moon, and sabbath—consist of a yearly, monthly, weekly chronological pattern, with the seventh-day Sabbath as the last one.
So if the first term, festival, already includes all of the Jewish yearly religious occasions, it would be redundant to suggest that the last term, sabbath, also refers to these same yearly ceremonial sabbaths. Therefore, it has to refer to the weekly Sabbath.
Second, several Old Testament texts are used as the source of Paul’s three-part “festival, new moon, and sabbath” in Colossians 2:16. The clearest example is 2 Chronicles 2:4. This verse tells us about King Solomon’s proposal to build a temple to God “for the burnt-offerings morning and evening, on the sabbaths, and on the new moons, and on the appointed seasons of the Lord our God” (JPS,2 verse 3 in this version, emphasis added; for other examples, see 1 Chronicles 23:29–31; 2 Chronicles 8:12, 13; 31:3; Nehemiah 10:33).
In the rest of this article, I will examine whether Colossians 2:16 indeed refers to Jewish yearly appointed seasons or to the weekly Sabbath. Since part of the reason for the contradictory views is due to the unfortunate loose interpretation of some Bible versions and the common use of imprecise language, this study will seek to provide accurate concepts based on the Bible’s original languages.
which text was Paul referring to?
I will begin by pointing out the problem with using these Old Testament texts to support abolishing the seventh-day Sabbath. There are three significant differences between Colossians 2:16 and all of the Old Testament texts just mentioned:
1. The focus of all the above-mentioned Old Testament background texts for Colossians 2:16 is on the burnt offerings that were to be sacrificed, whereas in Colossians 2:16, the emphasis is on the days themselves with no mention of burnt offerings.
2. All these Old Testament texts have four distinctive chronological parts (morning and evening, Sabbaths, new moons, and appointed seasons), whereas Colossians 2:16 has only three parts (festival, new moon, and sabbath).
3. The sequence in these Old Testament texts is daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, whereas, on the surface, it seems that Colossians 2:16 reverses part of that order: yearly, monthly, weekly.
However, we need to examine one other Old Testament text where festivals, new moons, and sabbaths occur, and that is Hosea 2:11. That text says: “I will also cause all her mirth to cease, her feasts, her new moons, her sabbaths, and all her appointed seasons” (quoted from JPS; verse 13 in that version). The following similarities with the three parts in Colossians 2:16 should be noted:
- Neither Hosea nor Colossians mentions any daily ritual activity.
- Both focus on the actual religious occasions, not on any burnt offerings.
- Both include a similar three-part segment of feast, new moon, sabbath.
- Both are listed in the same exact sequence: first “feast/festival,” then “new moon,” then “sabbath.”
- Finally, Hosea and Colossians both deal with the elimination of these religious occasions.
Thus, this passage from the book of Hosea—from which Paul quoted in other of his writings—qualifies as the best Old Testament candidate for Paul’s statement about the sabbath in Colossians 2:16.
the Hebrew and Greek terms
Next, we need to be aware of the Hebrew and Greek words for “festival” and “sabbath.”
The terms for “festival.” The English word festival is the first of the three terms in both Hosea and Colossians. And here is a critical detail: students of biblical languages agree that the Hebrew word for “feast” or “festival” in Hosea 2:11 is chagh, and whenever it is used in the context of the Israelite religious calendar, it is always and only used to describe the joyous Jewish festivals each year, namely, Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. Each of these three occasions required a pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate. The Hebrew word chagh is never used for the Day of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, or the Sabbatical years.
In the Greek New Testament, the word heorte is used as the translation of the Hebrew chagh. Heorte occurs 27 times in the New Testament, and it is a term restricted to the joyous feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. It is never used for the Day of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, or the Sabbatical years.
The word for “sabbath.” But what about the word sabbath in Colossians 2:16? While the original Hebrew word shabbat is primarily used of the weekly Sabbath, it is also rightly used of the annual ceremonial sabbaths of the Day of Atonement, as well as the Sabbatical years (an occasion celebrated every seven years);
and in a slightly modified form, it identifies the Day of Trumpets
(Leviticus 23:23–32; 25:2–6).
Now here’s the point: the Hebrew word shabbat in Hosea 2:11 most clearly identifies the ceremonial sabbaths of the Day of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Jewish Sabbatical years. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the Greek term sabbata in Colossians 2:16 likewise refers to the ritual sabbaths of the Day of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Sabbatical years.
In short, both the Hebrew evidence in Hosea 2 and the Greek evidence in Colossians 2 demonstrate that the three-part phrase “festivals, new moons, and sabbaths” refers to (1) the joyful annual pilgrim feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles; (2) the monthly new moons, and (3) the annual sabbaths of the Day of Trumpets and Day of Atonement, and the Sabbatical years.
the word sabbath in the New Testament
Before concluding this study, we need to examine the Greek terms for the word sabbath in the New Testament, where they occur 69 times. Of these, it’s clear that nine times the words are appropriately translated “week” (for example, Mark 16:2). Scholars have also noted, correctly, that the other 60 occurrences of the Greek words have been accurately translated with the English word “sabbath.” Since it is freely admitted by Seventh-day Adventists that the weekly Sabbath is meant in 59 of these 60 instances, is it not arbitrary and unreasonable to conclude that the sixtieth case refers to yearly ceremonial sabbaths?
In response to this call for a so-called “consistency of translation,” the following somewhat amusing point has been noted: It’s absurd to claim that just because the word “frog” means a four-legged creature 59 times, it must mean the same in the statement, “I have a frog in my throat.” In short, the meaning of any word must always be determined by its context. And both the immediate and broader contexts of Colossians 2:16 reveal the following conclusions regarding the meaning of the original Greek term sabbata in Paul’s letter to the Colossian Christians:
- This is the only time in the entire New Testament where sabbata is used in a phrase that also includes the word festival.
- Colossians 2:16 is the only time in the New Testament where the words “new moon” appear, and here it is linked to sabbata.
- Colossians 2:16 is the only appearance of sabbata in any of the “theological” portions of the New Testament. All the other occurrences of sabbata appear in the historical parts—that is, the four Gospels and Acts.
- This is the single instance, after the crucifixion of Jesus, where specific instructions are given to Christians regarding how to relate to the sabbata.
- Fifth, this is a singular setting for sabbata, with language and concepts pointing to the ceremonial system of ancient Israel (see verse 17, where the sabbath is referred to as “a shadow of what is to come”).
In brief, since the word sabbata appears in such a unique context in Colossians 2:16, there is very adequate evidence that the word is used here to identify the ritual sabbaths of the Day of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Sabbatical years, not the weekly Sabbath.
To summarize, the unique context in which sabbata appears in Colossians 2:16 indicates that the reader ought to expect a meaning distinct from the expected reference to the weekly Sabbath. This conclusion is supported by the following additional factors:
- Of the Old Testament passages that contain a triad similar to that of Colossians 2, only the reference in Hosea 2:11 can be shown to be an authentic background to the word sabbata in Colossians.
- The actual meaning of the original Hebrew and Greek terms describe the yearly festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles; the monthly new moons; and the yearly sabbaths of the Day of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and Sabbatical years.
- When all relevant factors are considered, Colossians 2:16 does not have a yearly-monthly-weekly sequence. It has a yearly-monthly-yearly sequence.
I will make one further comment regarding that last point. I noted earlier in this article that one of the objections to interpreting the word sabbath in Colossians 2:16 as a reference to ancient Hebrew ceremonial sabbaths is that, if the first term, festival, already includes all the Jewish yearly religious occasions, it would seem to follow a pattern of yearly festivals, monthly new moons, and yearly festivals—a pattern that appears redundant. However, as already pointed out, the term festivals includes only the joyous feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles; hence Paul needed to also list the other occasions of the Day of Trumpets and Day of Atonement, as well as Sabbatical years in order to include all the Israelite appointed seasons.
Also, Colossians 2:16 follows a very common Hebrew literary structure called a chiasm, in which an idea is mentioned, followed by a different idea, which is followed by an idea that is similar to the first one. And that is precisely what Colossians 2:16 does:
3 Pilgrim Festivals (annual)
New moons (monthly)
3 Ritual Sabbaths (annual related)
Since at least the late nineteenth century, it has been clearly understood that the proper interpretation of Colossians 2:16 is crucial for a correct understanding of the Bible’s seventh-day Sabbath. And it is a fact that this New Testament text has been used far more than any other as supposed evidence that Christians no longer need to observe the biblical Sabbath on the seventh day of the week.
However, the evidence I have presented here makes it clear that it is not appropriate to claim that Colossians 2:16 does away with the weekly Sabbath. On the contrary, as an enduring memorial to Creation (Genesis 2:1–3), the seventh-day Sabbath remains a valid part of the Ten Commandments, a holy day of delight (Isaiah 58:13), a twenty-four-hour “palace in time,” to which all humanity is graciously invited (Mark 2:27). In short, the seventh-day Sabbath is a sacred time to be joyfully celebrated as a divine foretaste of heaven itself!
1. Bible verses quoted from RSV are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, 1971 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
2. Bible verses marked JPS are from the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh, copyright © Jewish Publication Society, 1917.
Ron du Preez, PhD, ThD, DMin, is the author of the book Judging the Sabbath: Discovering What Can’t Be Found in Colossians 2:16. He lives in Golden Valley, Arizona, with his wife, Lynda.