Colossians 2:16––Abrogation of the 4th Commandment?

The only infallible interpreter of the holy Scripture is the Holy Spirit. This is a central hermeneutical principle we need to consider as we read through the Word of God. Only God can give a sufficient interpretation of His own Word. When we look at any passage of the Bible, one of our very first questions ought to be, “What do other parts of the Bible say about what’s revealed in this passage?” It seems like such a simple concept in theory, but it is too often neglected in practice.

Having clarified the main presupposition of this article, it must be stated that Colossians 2:16 does not abrogate all Sabbaths. There indeed remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God (Heb. 4:9).

The Deal with Colossians 2:16

Many Christians tend to think of the 4th commandment, the command concerning the Sabbath day, as an abrogated commandment. It is a commandment that has been done away with, it is thought, by the inauguration of the New Covenant. One of the major proof texts––used often by New Covenant Theology adherents––is Colossians 2:16. It reads:

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.

The phrase in question is “or a Sabbath day.” Is Paul abrogating the Sabbath principle according to which the people of God are to set one day apart for worship and fellowship? Can such a conclusion really be reached if we are to consider all of Scripture?

The case for the Christian Sabbath is a cumulative one which takes all of Scripture into consideration as a unit, authored by the divine Mind (remember, Scripture interprets Scripture). So, it would seem that to suggest the Sabbath is abrogated altogether on the basis of one or two proof texts is insufficient. Likewise, to suggest the Sabbath remains for the New Testament people of God, we need more than just good proof-texting. In order to answer this question definitively, of whether or not the Sabbath day remains for the people of God, we must consider Scripture as a redemptive narrative––a composition having parts that mutually depend on one another. Scripture viewed in part, without its other parts, can’t sufficiently tell us what we need to know about God’s plan for the Christian life.

Some would say the Sabbath is done away with, citing Colossians 2:16 as evidence, but we can’t honestly say that the Sabbath is abrogated without exception. In Hebrews 4:9 we learn there remains a Sabbath rest. We may debate the nature of that Sabbath rest, but at minimum we must admit that not all Sabbaths––of whatever nature––are abrogated by Colossians 2:16. Moreover, if we were to look at what Scripture says elsewhere about the Sabbath day, we would find that Colossians 2:16 cannot be interpreted in the way that many choose to interpret it.

Preface Hebrews 3-4

The author of Hebrews begins a somewhat tricky (to our minds) discussion on the Sabbath day in chapters 3 & 4. The reason it may be tricky, or the obscurity it appears to present, is probably the result of our tendency to think in terms of an exclusive hermeneutical principle––historical-grammatical interpretation. While there is certainly a place for the historical-grammatical hermeneutic, especially within a biblical theological schema, the author of Hebrews seems to be utilizing what we might call a historical-redemptive hermeneutic.

This interpretive method presupposes the analogia scripturae or the analogy of Scripture. Again, the only infallible interpreter of the holy Scripture is the Holy Spirit. We may be able to derive grammatical construction, historical context, and immediate context from many (even isolated) passages within Scripture. But any effort to understand the Scriptures sufficiently must dig into the Bible as a unit to derive any deeper meaning. As Christians, we should not limit our interpretive tools only to those a textual critic of Plato or Homer may use. God’s Word is, first and foremostly, a supernatural text (coming from the divine Mind) which communicates by way of natural media.

The author of Hebrews, especially in chapters 3 & 4, uses other parts of Scripture in order to interpret and explain the coming of Christ from the Old Testament. The coming of Christ itself clarifies Old Covenant themes, but it also causes the reader to ask how the Old Testament relates to the New. Here we find the primary purpose of the author of the Hebrews.

Discussing Hebrews 3-4

In chapters 3-4, the author mentions three separate rest periods. These rests have four characteristics. Dr. Richard Barcellos writes: “These rests are all founded upon a great work of God, are identified as divine rests, are the grounds upon which man is invited into God’s rest, and include a sign or emblem of that rest via a day of rest [1].”

The first rest (Heb. 4:4) came as a result of a divine work; it was a divine rest; it served as a ground of invitation into that rest––to man from God; and this rest is represented by an actual calendar day of physical cessation from labor. God created (worked); God rested; God invited man to enter this rest (3:19; 4:6); and God marks off a day on which this rest is to be physically imitated by man from the garden onward––for his own edification (Mk. 2:27).

The second rest ought to be viewed corporately since it deals with the establishment of a physical nation (Heb. 4:8)[2]. Canaan was a kind of new Eden and Israel is God’s son placed into this new Eden (Ex. 4:22, 23). So, the people of God enter a new location, and have a rest based on God’s work of bringing them into the promised land.

Neither of the two rests discussed were instituted without an actual day on which the people of God ceased from their secular affairs. When rest is mentioned, there is always an accompanying day on which God’s people are granted a physical rest. It’s never totally spiritualized or made into an eschatological state. There is always a here and now reality to the rest God’s people are invited into. We should ask those who think the 4th commandment is abrogated what precedent they have for interpreting Hebrews 3-4 in such a way.

The third rest is the rest mentioned in 4:9, and this gets us to some interesting exegesis. This rest, too, is based on divine work, it is a divine rest, is made available to man, and is marked off by an actual day. Verses 9 & 10 must be taken together because v. 10 is the reasoning, or foundation, for v. 9. However, they also must remain distinct because v. 10 is not a tautology of v. 9. In other words, v. 10 is not just repeating what v. 9 says, albeit in a different way.

Since this person in v. 10 has entered his rest, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. The question, however, has to do with who exactly has entered God’s rest in v. 10? Well, it is a singular person distinct from the plural people mentioned in v. 9. I submit that the person resting in v. 10 is Jesus Christ. There is no other one person who could enter God’s rest in virtue of His own volition. This fits nicely with Christ’s sitting down in Hebrews 1:3.

This sets an interesting scene. The old Adam failed to enter into the rest of God and instead, rebelled. The new Adam, however, entered this rest. As a result, the people of God have a Sabbath rest.

“But, isn’t this Sabbath rest simply referring to the eternal rest we have in Christ Jesus?” you may ask. While it does point toward a deeper rest, the rest mentioned in v. 9 is not referring to a state we are in, but an activity of “the people of God.” The Sabbath, historically, has never been considered a state in which one is positioned, but an activity. The Sabbath is a literal, physical rest period. To suggest otherwise would be to import a presupposed notion of metaphor from without the text of Scripture.

To give a summary of the dynamics of Hebrews 3-4: God works, God rests; man works, man rests––like God rested at creation. Moreover, the “Sabbath” in v. 9 must be an actual day on which man rests from his worldly duties. That is simply the only understanding of the Sabbath we have in Scripture, principally.

Colossians 2:16 ought to be understood not in terms of an orthodox understanding of the Sabbath or Lord’s Day, but in terms of the cultural-historical context of Paul’s day. There are multiple types of Sabbaths found throughout the Old Testament. There are Sabbaths of feast days, Sabbaths of weeks, and even a Sabbatical year where the Israelites were to allow the land to rest (Lev. 25:4).

These Sabbaths are organically derived from civil law and are never prescribed in the Decalogue (Ten Commandments). Thus, we would conclude they’re done away with at the inauguration of the New Covenant. There were even Sabbaths created by the people as a sort of legalistic standard imposed upon the Jewish people by their religious elites. In light of Hebrews 3-4, there is no reason to believe Paul has the 4th commandment in his crosshairs in Colossians 2:16. Rather, Paul is referencing the ceremonial-only Sabbaths and the man-centered “holidays” unrightfully imposed upon the people by Judaizers.

As God did from His…

Finally, the writers of Hebrews suggests that the intent of God’s rest at creation was to serve as an example for His people. In Hebrews 4:10b, Jesus rests from His work as God did (at creation). God rested on the 7th day and Christ entered His rest on the 1st day of the week (resurrection). This all assumes Adam was intended to enter into God’s rest on the 7th day prior to the Fall in Genesis 3. However, it is apparent that Adam failed to enter into that rest with God. Christ, on the other hand, succeeded in entering His rest, the rest of the new creation––the 1st day.

Our federal Head, Christ Jesus, entered His rest on the 1st day. Interestingly, the disciples followed this example and Jesus appeared not once but twice on the 1st day of the week, as is recorded in Scripture (Mk. 16:2; Jn. 20:19-26; 1 Cor. 16:2). We even have examples of the Christian “Sabbath” being observed in the text itself. This is exactly what we would expect if divine rest periods always imply a day of rest for God’s people.

What does this all mean?

This means, most importantly, that there is no explicit abrogation of the Sabbath principle in the New Testament. Quite the contrary, it is most positively reaffirmed in the epistle to the Hebrews. New Covenant Theology rightly sees 9 commandments restated in the New Testament, but they fail to see the 4th commandment as being reaffirmed. Yet, granted the exegetical data I very briefly covered from Hebrews 3-4, Scripture seems to say otherwise.


Footnotes:

[1] Richard Barcellos, Getting the Garden Right, p. 237.
[2] John Owen, Works, 18:414-415.

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