As we previously saw when we looked at Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Conference, the Bible sometimes puts questions of keeping the Sabbath and of the circumcision together. As this happened in Acts 15, so it happens in Colossians 2, likely written about fifteen years later during Paul’s first Roman imprisonment, when he was dealing with an early precursor of gnostic religion. Colossians 2 is often read as speaking against Sabbath observance, largely because of the lack of context taken to the passages as well as a lack of understanding about what the Bible means by substance and shadow, given the way we tend to view shadows as unimportant rather than as important signifiers of meaning and importance that, like the moon, reflect a greater light than themselves. Therefore, before any useful commentary can be provided about verses sixteen and seventeen, the two verses that deal with the Sabbath in particular, it will be useful to quote Colossians 2:11-23 in its entirety and then, having framed the near context, to proceed to discuss its relationship to the Sabbath and Holy Days.
Colossians 2:11-23 reads as follows: “In Him you were also circumcised by the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised in Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in our trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it. So let no one judge you in food or drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ. Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God. Therefore, if you did with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourself to regulations—“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? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.”
What is this passage really saying? First, Paul speaks about the issue of circumcision, demonstrating that the circumcision that remains valid for believers is the circumcision of the heart as demonstrated by repentance and baptism, and that the outward sign of circumcision has changed for Gentile believers, a development which required so much discussion and debate and biblically recorded visions to enact that it shows up in several books of the Bible as a major subject of difficulty. In this part of the passage Paul speaks about the handwriting of requirements against us, namely the penalty of death that comes from our sins, that has been wiped away by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, thus triumphing over the demons who would gloat at our destruction. At the end of the passage, Paul speaks out against human tradition which gives the illusion of piety but lacks the substance of it because it is man-made rather than a divine command. Yet, properly speaking, none of these elements has anything critical to say regarding the Sabbath. The Sabbath offered freedom from demonic oppression, whether the slavery of sin or the healing and forgiveness that Jesus Christ continually offered on it to bring out its meaning for his disciples and the Jews of His time. Likewise, the Sabbath is not a man-made tradition, like Sunday keeping or the many heathen festivals that are followed by so many, but is part of a divinely commanded set of observances, which include the annual holy days, new moons, Sabbath year, and jubilee as part of one package of the Sabbath that is to be remembered and kept holy.
In order to better understand what the relationship between the substance and the shadow is, it is worthwhile to at least refer to the book of Hebrews. In the book of Hebrews there are several verses/passages that deal with the material spoken of in Colossians 2. Hebrews 4, after discussing how the Sabbath points forward to prophetic issues like the rest in Christ promised in the Millennium, points that there remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God, about which more can be said. Hebrews 9 discusses the fact that the impressive accoutrements of the soon-to-be-destroyed temple were replicas, shadows, of a greater reality. Then Hebrews 10:24-25 forbids believers for forsaking the commanded assemblies, like the Sabbath. The end result is that the shadow aspect of the Sabbath is pointing to a glorious prophetic future of rule by Jesus Christ where creation will be at peace. The fact that this fulfillment comes in the future means the Sabbath is still valid here and now, and is to be honored and respected rather than substituted for man-made traditions like keeping the first day of the week in an ersatz Sabbath removed of its divine purposes of freedom from sin and liberation from oppression. That is a Sabbath we can all believe in.