Although the Sabbath has a central position in Scripture, revealing the reasons why God should be honored, there are some who argue that the Sabbath no longer has meaning for the believer. They quote the passage from Colossians which reads, “[Christ] having forgiven you all trespasses; blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross. . . . Let no man therefore judge you in . . . respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days; which are a shadow of things to come.” Basing their contention on these verses, they claim that the seventh-day Sabbath no longer has significance because it was “cancelled,” “removed,” and “nailed to the cross” (Col. 2:13, 14, 16, 17).
Does the text really say that? Does the expression “Sabbaths” in Colossians 2:16 refer to the seventh-day Sabbath of the fourth commandment?
The key to understanding the apostle’s statements is found in verses 14 and 17.
I. “BLOTTING OUT THE HANDWRITING OF ORDINANCES” (COL. 2:14)
Paul uses three important words in this text.
A. The first is the Greek participle exaleifo (“erase,” “cancel,” “nullify,” “clean”). In the secular Greek, this verb was used to indicate that something written had been erased or cancelled.
B. The second word is jeirografon, which means “handwritten document,” “certificate of debt,” or “bill of debt,” similar to a promissory note signed by the debtor.
What was cancelled? Some believe this text is saying that the moral law, including the fourth-commandment Sabbath, was cancelled. However, there is no linguistic or theological basis in the context of Colossians to equate this jeirografon with the moral law. The text does not refer to the Ten Commandments. The jeirografon is a “promissory note,” a bill of debt.
C. With the third word, Paul identifies what was cancelled in the jeirografon: the dogmasin (“decrees,” “ordinances,” “statutes,” “prescriptions,” “requirements”), which were “entirely removed” and “nailed to the cross.”
The phrase “handwriting of ordinances” could be better translated as “the document with its requirements” (or, “thedocument with its statutes,” “with its prescriptions”).
Note that all ordinances mentioned in Colossians 2:16 pertain to the sacrificial system of the Hebrew sanctuary: “food,” “drink,” “day of feast,” “new moon,” “Sabbaths” (Heb. 9:2-8; see, particularly, the summary in Lev. 23:37; compare to 2 Chr. 2:4; 31:3; Neh. 10:33; Ezek. 45:17; Hosea 2:11).
The context of these passages is related to the sanctuary services in regard to the offering of food, drink, and festive ordinances established until the time of reform. Since Jesus Christ obtained eternal redemption for the believer in His complete and sufficient expiatory sacrifice on the cross, He cancelled the sacrifices prescribed for these ordinances of the ceremonial law (Heb. 9:6-12). Jesus Christ is the most perfect sacrifice for the believer.
So is it defensible to state that the term “Sabbaths” in Colossians 2:16 refers to the seventh-day Sabbath of the fourth commandment, the Lord’s Day? Absolutely not, for two reasons:
First, the word “Sabbaths” is plural, and it refers to the festive Sabbaths of the ceremonial-law ordinances (Lev. 23:7-8 [Passover]; 21 [Pentecost]; 24 [Trumpets]; 27, 32 [Day of Atonement]; 35-36 [Tabernacles]. This would exclude the Sabbath of the fourth commandment (23:3, 38).
Second, all ceremonies mentioned by Paul in Colossians 2:16 belonged exclusively to the ordinances to which he refers in verse 14. These ordinances, including the ceremonial Sabbaths, were the ones that were “cancelled,” “taken out of the way,” and “nailed to the cross,” an interpretation which is strengthened by the statement in verse 17.
II. “WHICH ARE A SHADOW” (COL. 2:17)
The phrase “which are a shadow” (verse 17) is the key to understanding the statement in verse 16. The Greek word skiá (“shadow,” “prefiguration”) is used only three times in the New Testament (Col. 2:17; Heb. 8:5; 10:1). In Hebrews 8:5 and 10:1, Paul uses the word skiá to explain that the earthly sanctuary and its ordinances are a “figure,” “shadow,” “type,” “representation,” a kind of prophetic announcement of the “heavenly things” (Heb. 8:5) and “good things to come” (10:1).
According to the typological interpretation of Hebrews, the rituals of the earthly sanctuary announced Christ’s death and His priestly ministry of atonement (Heb. 9:11-14; 8:1-2). Paul tries to divert the attention of the Hebrew readers from the temple and their rituals as ends in themselves and to refocus their attention on the greatest “Reality” of all “shadows,” “types,” or “prefigurations” of the Old Testament: Jesus Himself, His death, and His priestly ministry before God the Father.
The same occurs in the context of Colossians 2:17. The festivals, new moon, or ceremonial Sabbaths are a shadow “of things to come.” Therefore, when it says “Let no one judge you . . . regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths” (Col. 2:16), it does not apply to Sabbath, the day of rest of the fourth commandment of God’s Law, whose function was never prefigurative. Only the ceremonial Sabbaths were “cancelled,” “taken out of the way,” and “nailed to the cross”!
Does the word “Sabbaths” in Colossians 2:16 refer to the seventh-day Sabbath of the fourth commandment? Absolutely not! The context of Colossians 2:14 makes clear that Paul refers to the ceremonial ordinances of the earthly sanctuary in their temporal function, including the ceremonial Sabbaths. These ordinances were the “shadow,” “type,” and “representation,” a prophetic announcement of the “heavenly things” (Heb. 8:5) and “good things to come” (10:1)—the work of love Christ was to accomplish at the cross through His death and resurrection.
Roberto Pereyra is the director of postgraduate studies for the Theological Seminary at Sao Paulo Adventist University in Brazil.