Observances in the New Covenant: a biblical review
The writer is a 1985 graduate of Ambassador College and a member of the United Church of God. He is the author of "The Nature of God: A Biblical Review," published previously in In Transition. This is the conclusion of a two-part series on observances in the New Covenant. Comments may be sent to THE JOURNAL at P.O. Box 1020, Big Sandy, Texas 75755, or to the writer at 248 Blue Hills Parkway, Milton, Mass. 02186.
By Gary Fakhoury
Last time we saw that none of the arguments non-Sabbatarians use to prove the Sabbath and annual festivals found their terminus in the death of Jesus were compelling.
Dispensing with observances that were established by God and kept by Jesus and the apostles requires, then, that their New Testament proof texts be conclusive for their case. I will examine these proof texts now, along with two New Testament texts that are put forward by Sabbath- and festival-keeping groups in support of their position.
(As mentioned last month, the purpose of this paper is to review the New Testament teaching on observances, so no Old Testament texts in support of Sabbath- and festival-keeping will be examined here).
Romans 14:5-6: "One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks."
Let's examine the context of this passage. From the top of this chapter we learn a couple of things: First, Paul is concerned about brethren who are "weak in the faith." Second, the subject at hand involves "doubtful things," things that no one can be dogmatic about (verse 1).
What were those doubtful things?
They are what people choose to eat (verses 2-3).
That this chapter is chiefly about food customs is evident in that food and drink are mentioned 16 times in the chapter, from beginning (verse 1) to end (verse 23). "Days" are mentioned only in passing (verses 5-6).
Non-Sabbatarians claim that Jew-gentile tensions in Rome created conflict with respect to Jewish unclean-meat regulations, and therefore the reference to "days," while unspecified, would most naturally have concerned the Sabbath and annual feast days.
In other words, non-Sabbatarians claim that verses 5 and 6 must be referring to the Sabbath and annual festivals because the food concerns arose from Jewish unclean-meat laws. In fact, the non-Sabbatarian interpretation of this passage as it pertains to days is almost entirely dependent upon their interpretation of the food issue (see James D.G. Dunn, The Word Biblical Commentary, beginning with p. 795).
So we should examine this question closely. What might Paul be referring to when he speaks of food in this chapter?
Three possibilities are most often cited to explain exactly what created the food controversy in Rome:
nJewish fears of eating unclean animals.
nJewish fears of eating meat that had not been properly drained.
nConscience problems regarding consuming food offered to idols.
We should look at each of these three possibilities against the scriptural data of the entire chapter.
Jewish fears of eating
On its face, verse 14 would seem to confirm fear of eating unclean meats as the likely candidate because it uses the word unclean (koinos).
Second, this view has something to commend it from the standpoint of the larger context of the letter, much of which concerns the relative status of Jew and gentile under the New Covenant (especially chapters 2-3). If there were conflicts between Jew and gentile in Rome, they could conceivably have been over Old Testament laws and how to keep them.
But the connection between koinos and unclean-animal regulations is not as taut as would appear at first, for even those who argue for a Jew-vs.-gentile conflict admit koinos had a broad usage and could have referred to any of the possibilities listed here (e.g., Dunn).
Moreover, that Paul dealt with the relative status of Jew and gentile elsewhere in the letter would not force a conclusion to any of these three possibilities; Jew-gentile interaction and differences in approach could have been an irritant in any of them.
But this position begins to look less than likely when we consider that in verse 2 Paul says the weak ones are eating only vegetables. If this problem concerned the unclean-meat regulations of Leviticus 11, there would have been plenty of clean meats that could have been had in a city the size of Rome.
Additionally, in verse 17 "drink" is mentioned and in verse 21 wine.
So the problems at hand did not have to do with just food and eating, but with wine and drinking. But there were no general regulations concerning wine or drinking in the Torah. On this point, then, the weak members' concerns could not have stemmed from Old Testament unclean-meat regulations or common Jewish customs.
Fears of undrained food s
The possibility that Jewish fears of eating improperly drained foods is being discussed here does not suffer one weakness of the previous view, for vegetarianism would have certainly ensured that one would not eat meats that might have been improperly drained.
But remember that the problem also involved wine and drink, which wouldn't apply in this case any more than to the first.
Problems of conscienc e
The possibility that the subject here is conscience problems in eating foods offered to idols is the only one that doesn't share the weakness of the other two. If the problem in Rome were food offered to idols, then vegetarianism would not have been an inappropriate response, for all the meat available would have been "tainted," which only vegetarianism could have fully resolved for the conscience-stricken.
Also, in Rome wine was offered to the gods just as meat was, which makes this the only possibility that really fits verses 17 and 21.
We know conscience concerns regarding foods offered to idols was by no means a remote possibility, for Paul had to deal with this same matter in another gentile city (1 Corinthians 8).
So it is far from certain that the food concern stemmed from Jewish scruples regarding the eating of unclean animals. For all we know, it may not have involved Jewish scruples about anything; it could well have been a gentile conscience issue of meat and wine offered to idols that Roman gentiles, as their Corinthian brethren, acutely felt.
This is the only interpretation that does not suffer textual counterevidence; it is the only explanation that fits the evidence of the entire passage. But, because of Paul's lack of specificity here, no dogmatic conclusion can be fairly reached.
Having said this, let's examine verses 5-6 and their reference to days. Two possibilities exist. One is that these were the biblical observances in view. We'll examine that in a moment. The other possibility is that these days were personal days of feasting or fasting.
It is difficult for Western moderns to conceive of this, since we have so few religious observances in our culture, but in the ancient world religion generally played a larger role in people's daily lives than is customary today. Naturally, in time a host of personal observance customs not explicitly taught in the official religious traditions were developed.
We get a hint of this in Luke 18:12 when Jesus quotes the Pharisee: "I fast twice a week . . ." This was a well-known personal-observance regimen of that time, not commanded in the Torah. As late as c. A.D. 120 the Didache instructs its Christian readers:
"Don't fast on the same days with the hypocrites [Pharisees], for they fast on Monday and Thursday; but you must fast on Wednesday and Friday."
We may think this almost humorous today, but ancients took these things seriously. Special days of feasting or fasting are how days might have become tied up with food in Rome, for there is a direct connection made in this letter between food and days (verse 6).
But what of the possibility that the days Paul speaks of were the Sabbath and annual festivals?
Well, there is no direct mention of Sabbath or festivals in the text. Since there are real problems attendant to its corollary that the "food" issue related to Old Testament unclean-meat regulations, this scenario appears unlikely at best.
Moreover, equating the days in this chapter with the biblical observances runs into another problem: Paul called the folks in question "weak," and in Romans 15:1 he put himself in the category of the "strong."
But Paul himself kept the Sabbath and festivals and at times took great pains to do so (Acts 13:14, 42-44; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4, 19; and possibly Acts 18:21; 20:6, 16; 27:9; 1 Corinthians 16:8). To categorize himself as one who easily disregarded the biblical days would have constituted an entirely unconvincing-not to mention dishonest-stance.
Paul is certainly speaking to a particular problem in a particular time and place with a particular group of people in a particular cultural context.
But, in the final analysis, it is not possible from this vantage to know exactly what specific issues Paul was addressing. The text as it stands just doesn't allow us to know with any certainty, since the days in question are not specified.
Therefore, if we cannot know that Paul is referring specifically to biblical days, there is no way of knowing that he would say these things if that was, in fact, his topic.
To generalize Paul's vague comments about these days, whatever they were, in an attempt to establish his point of view on all days, including biblical days, is to pull these words out of their murky context to conclude something we cannot know Paul would ever say.
Therefore, using this passage to propagate a view of Paul's teaching about all days of observance-including the Sabbath and festivals-appears more than inappropriate; it is irresponsible.
Galatians 4:9-10 : "But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years."
The Sabbath and annual festivals are not specifically mentioned here. The "days and months and seasons and years" Paul cites could refer to either biblical or pagan observances.
For the reasons stated below, it seems to me the former is more likely, but in the end I think we'll find it actually makes little difference. Beginning in verse 8 Paul says:
"But, indeed, when you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods."
He is speaking here of the Galatians' former life without God in paganism. About Paul's specific choice of words James Montgomery Boice, in the Expositor's Bible Commentary (Vol. 10, page 475), writes:
"The reference is clearly to the idols of paganism, which, in typically Jewish idiom, Paul terms 'no gods.' "
Then, in verse 9, Paul asks:
"But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years."
Now they are returning to something elemental, something physical, in a slavish mentality. Some ask, since these were gentiles, wouldn't these be pagan observances? How could they "turn again" to something they weren't doing before?
These are good questions, but there is reason to think these may have been biblical-or at least Jewish-observances that the Galatians were beginning to view as they formerly viewed their pagan days.
Why is this even a possibility? Because it appears in the letter that the people troubling the Galatians were probably the same group or type of Jerusalemite Jews who troubled Titus and Antioch (Galatians 2:1-4, 12). Believing Pharisees or their ilk would have been the last people on earth to compel anything pagan upon anyone.
Moreover, in this same chapter Paul, after a parenthetical section in verses 12-20, returns to the subject in verse 21: "Tell me, you who desire to be under the law . . ." This is Paul's usual way of referring to the Torah (Romans 2:14, 17-27; 1 Corinthians 14:21; Galatians 5:14; Philippians 3:5; 1 Timothy 1:8)
Boice explains well how Paul might use such extreme language in relation to biblical days (p. 476):
"The law is good and from God. Nevertheless, even the law, when distorted into a way of trying to earn salvation, can be used by Satan to increase man's bondage. That Paul, the Jew, would even consider the Jewish observances in the same context as the pagan festivals shows the intensity of his estimate of the deadly character of legalism."
If this is true, we may be starting to see why Paul can write this to gentile Galatians in reference to biblical days on the one hand and keep the Days of Unleavened Bread with the gentile Philippians (Acts 20:6) and tell the Corinthians he will "wait in Ephesus until Pentecost" (1 Corinthians 16:8) and so on.
Paul was not double-dealing the gentile churches, and he was no hypocrite. We may well be seeing Paul's radical distinction between justification by grace-which this letter is principally about (Galatians 2:16; 3:11; 5:4)-and living the sanctified life. I believe we're seeing a strong concern here about motive.
It may well be that Paul felt this young church was doing the right things for the wrong reasons; that is, to establish right standing with God through an almost superstitious conception of days of observance. The context of the letter reveals the Galatians' motive as the problem, not the laws or days themselves.
Some non-Sabbatarians, of course, would say that by keeping "Jewish" days the Galatians were doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons. But they haven't stopped to consider that Christmas, Good Friday, Easter and others are all days whose observance is regulated by a calendar.
Whatever it is Paul is saying about days, he is both categorical and dogmatic about it. If Paul is not condemning the Galatians' motives for keeping these days, Paul must be condemning any involvement with calendrical observances for any reason, because his language is general and would apply to all days of observance, including his own Sabbath- and festival-keeping!
If Paul is not speaking to motive, then all days of observance-including Christmas, Easter and all the rest-are ruled out for Christians. And he would rule out any annual observance of the New Testament Passover, which we know cannot be correct, since this was commanded by Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:23-25).
I believe Paul, writing from afar and-it is not unfair to say-being somewhat desperate (Galatians 5:12), might here be attacking even the good things to which this young gentile church was becoming attached, for its members were becoming attached to them with all the wrong motives, with a superstitious and slavish attitude and under a dangerous misunderstanding of their justification with God and upon what that was based.
Paul's objection to the Galatians' keeping of biblical observances could not have been with the fact-he himself kept them all-but the motive, which was for him all important (see Galatians 5:2 vs. Acts 16:1-3).
So, regardless of whether these are pagan or biblical days in view here, the lesson for us is the same: Calendrical observances should not be thought of as conditions for justification.
When we consider this passage in the context of this letter, we see that days of observance cannot serve this purpose any more effectively than circumcision did (Galatians 5:1-4), for no human activity of any kind can possibly produce right standing with God, which is granted freely by grace through faith (Galatians 2:16).
Colossians 2:16-17: "So let no one judge you in food or in 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."
In Colosse we see an entirely different situation being played out. The problem Paul was reacting to there was heretics who were promoting man-made (probably gnostic) spiritual supplements to Christ.
Evidence for this is all over the letter. In Colossians 1:19 and 2:9 Paul applies the term fullness in regard to Christ, because a well-known feature of gnostic belief was that through ascetic observances they could apprehend the fullness of God. In Colossians 2:8 Paul condemns their teaching as a "philosophy and vain deceit, according to the tradition of men."
What were those traditions? They included worship of angels (verse 18) and ascetic regulations (verse 21), including deliberate self-humiliation through neglect of the body (verse 23).
None of these attitudes or practices is advocated in the Old Testament, which is why Paul again calls them "the commandments and doctrines of men" (verse 22).
Indeed, unlike in his letter to the Galatians, Paul does not cite a single Old Testament passage in Colossians, showing clearly that Old Testament laws or observances were not at issue in Colosse. The text is clear that the issue in Colosse was whether Christ was sufficient for believers or whether men needed to add gnostic ascetic practice to what He has done and is doing.
Verse 16, then, begins a concluding statement, starting with "Therefore . . ." That is, since all the preceding things (verses 11-15) are true about what Christ alone has done, "let no one judge you . . ."
The verb for judge, krino, does not mean "condemn." After all, one can't keep another from condemning if that is what one wants to do. It means: "Don't allow anyone to take you to task."
"In food or in drink . . ." is an unfortunate translation. Brosis and posis are verbs referring to the act of eating and the act of drinking (compare 1 Corinthians 8:4 and 2 Corinthians 9:10 with 1 Corinthians 6:13; 8:8; 10:3; and Hebrews 9:10).
Indeed, there are no drinking regulations in the Old Testament, save for those that relate to priests and Nazarites, whom these gentiles would hardly mistake themselves for.
Therefore we see from the top that what Paul has in mind in these two verses, as in the rest of the chapter, are man-made regulations, not biblical ones, and he is encouraging the Colossians not to allow anyone to take them to task for not obeying them.
In the phrase "Or regarding . . .," the English regarding we normally read as "concerning." But the predominant New Testament word for concerning is peri, a preposition, used this way more than 50 times in the New Testament.
The word translated "regarding" in verse 16 is not a preposition, but a noun, used here as en merei, from meros, literally "part of."
Thayer sees its usage here as if to say "any particular" or "in this particular . . ." Paul, then, by his use not of peri but of en merei, indicates that he is concerned about the particulars of what is about to follow.
So a more precise wording might be "in the particulars of a festival . . ." This sense is consonant with the context, because we have already seen that the heretics were indeed taking the Colossians to task over particulars of eating and drinking. It would make sense, given their ascetic outlook (verses 20-23), that they would be taking them to task over their manner of feasting as well.
In the phrase "a festival or a new moon or sabbaths," almost certainly the annual, monthly and weekly biblical observances are intended here. If these were pagan days Paul would not say that they were "shadows of things to come."
(Note: New-moon celebrations evolved over the centuries and came to function [perhaps among other things] as a public recognition of the turning of the month to track the annual festivals' proper time of observance. They were not of the "Feasts of the Lord" of Leviticus 23, but they did have biblical precedent [Numbers 28:11; 2 Chronicles 2:4]. There is speculation that the Colossian church was still attached to the synagogue in some way at this time, and this reference to new-moon liturgy is seen by some as evidence of this possibility.)
Given that Paul was here referring to the annual, monthly and weekly biblical observances, we should not hurry past the fact that, to be taken to task over the particulars of how they were keeping these biblical observances, the Colossians must have been keeping them.
The alternative is to imagine that the Christians at Colosse were not keeping these days, but the heretics were forcing the days upon them. Two facts militate against this view.
First, as we've already noted, Paul's concern is with the heretics' human regulations, their "commandments of men" (verses 4, 8, 18, 20-23). Paul knew well where the biblical days came from, however, and knew that, whatever else they were, the observances of Exodus 16 and 20 and Leviticus 23 were not commandments of men.
Second, it is clear that the heretics' commandments involved ascetic regulations (beginning with verse 21), and asceticism is the attitudinal and behavioral opposite of feasting.
You don't promote asceticism by promoting feasting. You promote asceticism by criticizing the way someone is keeping a feast or the fact that he is feasting at all.
In the phrase "which are a shadow of things to come," the word are translated correctly here from the NKJV is esti, and it is in the present tense (see Colossians 1:15, 17-18, 27). This is important because the NIV translates esti as the past-tense "were," which puts an unhelpful spin on Paul's meaning here. (The NIV translates esti in the present tense everywhere else in the letter.)
This issue is critical because non-Sabbatarians claim that all that could be relevant to us in any of the biblical observances has already seen its fulfillment in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Obviously, Paul would be reflecting that viewpoint if he were indeed putting this in the past-tense "were," but he isn't, and this is significant. By putting the "shadowing" function of the biblical days in the present ("are"), and looking forward ("to come"), it is clear that Paul believes they also point to events in God's redemptive plan that are being fulfilled today and to those that lie yet ahead, all of which are, of course, historically beyond the events of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
The word for "shadow" is skia, used both literally and figuratively in the New Testament. The two instances where it is used figuratively other than here are Hebrews 8:5 and 10:1, where it is likened to the tabernacle and sacrifices, respectively. So, if the writer of Hebrews uses "shadows" for things that are now defunct, aren't the Sabbath and festivals defunct as well?
People who claim this usually fail to note that in the two texts a different reference point is put against skia (shadow).
In Hebrews 10:1 skia is put against eikeon ("true form," relating to heavenly forms of perfection), which obviously implies an inferior-superior comparison. But here skia is contrasted to soma ("body," relating to Christ).
In relating skia to soma, Paul's terminology does not pit one against the other, but turns gnostic teaching on its head through an analogy that shows Christ (the body) as the fullness and the observances the shadow that the body casts.
Thus Christ is the preeminent object of concern, and the observances are a rough outline, Paul might say, of Jesus' great redemptive work on our behalf.
This would counter the heretics' gnostic teaching that observances must be conducted a certain way (ascetically, apparently) to gain association with the "fullness."
There is no concern at all with gnosticism in Hebrews, and the writer's use of skia there serves an entirely different purpose.
Second, let's remember that Paul himself participated in these days (Acts 13:14, 42-44; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4, 19; possibly Acts 18:21; 20:6, 16; 27:9; 1 Corinthians 16:8; Acts 24:14). So his position would have to be that it's one thing for Jews to keep them but that they should not be imposed upon gentiles.
The problem is, that isn't his argument here. If Paul were seeking to dissuade the Colossians from being persuaded to keep the biblical observances, the argument would have to be because they are merely shadows, therefore of little worth or import at all.
But that would be declaring a defect in the days themselves, and such an inherent shortcoming would apply to the keeping of them by anyone, Jew or gentile, including, of course, Paul himself.
Still, some would say that the biblical observances indeed foreshadowed what would come in Christ and were good and useful for that purpose, but now that the reality is here the shadows should be disregarded.
If this be true we cannot deduce it from this scripture, for three reasons:
nThis argument uses Paul's terminology to create an argument he does not make. He does not say the shadows are no longer valuable or necessary. He simply says the days are shadows of things to come. Theirs is, at best, an importation of the sense of other scriptures from another context from another letter from (very possibly) another writer (of Hebrews).
nAgain, Paul himself was observant of all these days and not just in the company of Jews (Acts 20:6; 1 Corinthians 16:8). At other times he openly took pains in his travels within gentile lands to travel to Jerusalem for certain high days (possibly Acts 18:21; 20:16), which in those times was no small undertaking. Certainly it was not Paul's sense that these days were no longer special.
nNon-Sabbatarians apparently have not considered that the first thing the annual days foreshadowed was the sacrifice of Christ, which we of course have now. So then, if their reasoning is correct, the first observance rendered unnecessary in any form should have been the New Testament Passover.
In the phrase "but the substance is of Christ," it is clear that Paul's purpose is not to abrogate these days, but it is equally clear that he is trying to place them in proper perspective.
The heretics, from Paul's standpoint, were preoccupying the Colossians with false teaching about the proper manner of and motive for the observances. Paul is warning them not against the Sabbath and festivals per se but against those who (1) foster preoccupation over questions of how to keep a festival or Sabbath (manner) and (2) promote observance practices as means in themselves to achieve a mystical association with the "fullness," or Christ (motive).
Paul's purpose is to emphasize that the shadow must not become the substitute for the reality, which is Christ alone. His is the Body (soma) that casts the shadow. To focus on the shadow to the exclusion of the Body, Paul is saying, is to miss the whole point of the observances!
Furthermore, Paul maintains that ascetic rigor in keeping the biblical observances in the hopes of achieving a higher form of fellowship with Christ is unnecessary. In fact, it is impossible, for the Colossians have complete association with Him already (Colossians 2:2-3, 10).
Don't be take n
In summary, then, there is every reason to believe that in this passage Paul is not saying, "Don't let anyone impose upon you the Sabbath and festivals." Rather, he is saying, "Don't let anyone take you to task about how you keep the Sabbath and festivals." Perhaps a paraphrase of Colossians 2:16-17 might read:
"Therefore let no one take you to task over your eating and drinking or the particulars of your annual festival, new moon or Sabbath observances, which, after all, are a shadow of things to come; always remember that the Body that casts the shadow is Christ."
If this analysis is correct, these verses reveal that in the first century the Sabbath and annual festivals were in fact kept by gentile Christians and were not considered appropriate only for Jewish Christians.
But let's say for the sake of argument that all this is incorrect, that the Colossians had not been keeping the Sabbath and festivals in any way and the heretics' aim was, in fact, to force their observance upon them.
If Paul kept these days himself, as seems indisputable, then his warning to the Colossians would have to be that they should not adopt the biblical observances for the reason the heretics proposed; namely, to participate mystically in the "fullness" of Christ, which presumably most of us understand today. So either way these verses, taken in context, do not well serve the non-Sabbatarian's polemic.
1 Corinthians 5:8: "Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth."
The phrase translated "let us keep the feast" is from the single word heortazomen, from heortazo, according to Thayer literally "celebrate a festival." On its face Paul's choice of wording forms a literal instruction to celebrate a literal feast.
There is no grammatical reason to conclude Paul could not have meant to instruct the gentile Corinthians to keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
But is it possible that this literal wording could have been intended figuratively and that when Paul says "you truly are unleavened" he meant spiritually unleavened through Christ our Passover?
Of course. So let's go with this interpretation and see where it leads. We'll find it does not make as much difference as non-Sabbatarians seem to think.
The critical point to keep in mind is that Paul certainly would have known how ineffective his sermonizing would have been had he structured it around a festival most of these gentiles didn't know about or weren't keeping. After all, most of the growth from Paul's work in Corinth took place after he abandoned the Corinthian synagogue (Acts 18:1-11).
On the contrary, this whole sermon assumes an understanding of the symbolism and purpose of the Feast of Unleavened Bread and a mindfulness of it in these gentiles' lives. Notice that Paul is not informing them of the festival; he is reminding them of its importance and more fully expounding its meaning.
This reveals prior teaching by Paul of these days, which is only natural, since he was keeping them himself at this time (Acts 20:6).
So, regardless of whether one chooses to take heortazomen literally or figuratively, this passage reveals Paul's conviction that this annual festival was just as important and spiritually relevant for his gentile followers as for himself. This is plainly seen through Paul's conjunction of the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread (verse 7).
Paul treats the two observances as equal in importance and meaning, even though he knew well that the Passover was the only annual observance explicitly mentioned by Jesus before His death (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). For Paul this fact was of no consequence; the Feast of Unleavened Bread was just as spiritually relevant to his gentile followers as the Passover.
If any of the apostles had thought Jesus' not explicitly commanding the other annual observances was significant, it would have been Paul, who strenuously objected to the imposition of any unnecessary ritual upon his gentile converts (Galatians 5:2).
Clearly, Paul did not see the Feast of Unleavened Bread in that light. The Paul non-Sabbatarians claim instructed his gentile followers to disregard biblical days is not the same Paul who wrote this passage.
Hebrews 3-4 : The argument we are concerned with has its beginning in Hebrews 3:5 and continues to Hebrews 4:13. There are clues all along the way that should inform our understanding of the verses more critical to our Sabbath question: Hebrews 4:9-10.
The keynote for the passage is struck in chapter 3 (verse 6), wherein the writer tells us we are Christ's house if "we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm to the end."
In verses 7-11 he quotes Psalm 95:7-11 about the negative example of the faithless and rebellious Exodus generation. He then exhorts his readers in verse 12 that they must not likewise depart from the living God, exhorting each other daily, lest sin overtake them. Then he says something in verse 14 that echoes his point in verse 6:
"For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end."
In verses 15-18 his exhortation gains illustration again in the example of the faithless and disobedient Exodus generation, asking finally:
"And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey?"
So we see that the writer's concern in this chapter has been that we remain faithful and obedient so we might endure to the end and participate in some future blessing of rest. Now we arrive at chapter 4:
"Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those that heard it" (verses 1-2).
Because of unbelief the promise of rest went unclaimed by the Exodus generation and is available for the faithful to claim now. There are three important things to notice here. One is that the promise of rest remains; it concerns something yet future. Something isn't a promise if it has already been realized.
Another is that, whatever this promised rest is, it cannot be the seventh-day Sabbath, for the Israelites already received that at Sinai and had access to it throughout their history.
Third, we should notice that this is a rest about which we must fear "lest any . . . come short of it." So we Christians can fall short in some way and not receive this rest. What exactly is the nature of that rest is not yet clear. But verse 3 says:
"For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said, 'So I swore in My wrath, they shall not enter My rest,' although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. For He has spoken in a certain place of the seventh day this way: 'And God rested on the seventh day from all His works,' and again in this place: 'They shall not enter my rest.' "
Thus far we've seen that the author's rest was some future event or experience. But he shifts gears for the moment, because the verb enter here is present tense. Those who have faith-"we who have believed"-in some sense enter the rest now that was established "from the foundation of the world."
In what sense are we to understand our present experience of "rest"? He endeavors to answer by moving immediately to the fact that a reflection, or type, of the rest he speaks of was established at creation week, when God sabbatized, or rested, on the seventh day.
So our present experience of rest is to be understood in and through the creation-week Sabbath. By contrast, non-Sabbatarians see Christians' present rest exclusively in light of Jesus' promise in Matthew 11:28: "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."
No doubt it is Christ living in us that produces this present experience of rest, inasmuch as Christ in us provides all our present spiritual blessings. But this is not the writer's thought or concern in this particular passage.
The writer does not identify our rest here with the indwelling or person of Christ, but with the seventh-day Sabbath. It is this that was established "from the foundation of world," and it is this that he insists illuminates our present "rest."
Verses 5-8: In this parenthetical section, the writer reminds us that God rejected the Exodus generation of Israelites, so the rest remained for someone to enter. Then he notes that Joshua did in fact bring a people into a restful promised land (Joshua 21:43-45), but then, afterward, David repeated the promise by saying "today."
So this particular rest he is speaking of could not have been realized by Joshua or his generation. The writer is clear here that the rest the creation Sabbath ultimately pointed to was not Canaan, as some non-Sabbatarians have argued on the basis of Deuteronomy 5:15. That brings us to verse 9:
"There remains therefore a rest for the people of God."
This resumes the thought flow from verse 4 and serves as something of a climax to his argument. To recap, God founded a rest at creation when He created the Sabbath. Whatever that rest was, by and large the ancient Israelites did not claim it, though they had the weekly seventh-day Sabbath and the physical Promised Land.
Thus we have a rest typified by the creation Sabbath that the Israelites did not claim and so remains "for the people of God." The word in verse 9 for "rest" is sabbatismos, but everywhere else it is katapausis. Sabbatismos, then, is equated with the katapausis.
This interchange suggests that the katapausis rest he has been discussing all along is best understood in light of the sabbatizing rest of God on the seventh day of creation. Verse 10 helps us understand more:
"For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His."
Some have seen this verse in the present, and some see it referring to something yet future. Which it is more likely to be depends on how well each point of view meets the demands of the details of the verse.
The first detail to examine is the word translated here "has entered." This word is in the aorist tense, which means it occurred at some particular point in the past and continues to the present.
Because there are both past and present elements contained in this, translators have ended up translating this word both in the past tense (NKJV, NASB) and present tense: usually "enters" (RSV, NIV, NEB). So the grammar of this word will not likely lead us to a sure conclusion, and we'll need to look at the other details of the verse.
The other important phrase to the present-future question is "ceased from his works." There are no fewer than four common explanations of this phrase.
The first is that believers have rest because they no longer attempt to be justified before God through their own works.
The second is that this "ceasing from works" is our ceasing from sin, from "dead works."
But neither of these can be correct, since we are told that in this rest we cease from our works "as God did from His," and God obviously never tried to justify Himself though works and has never sinned.
Both of these, of course, are explanations offered by non-Sabbatarians.
Some Sabbatarians, for their part, see in the phrase "cease from his works" our cessation from worldly work in present-day Sabbath-keeping. If this were the intent, however, "rest" here would be sabbatismos, but it is katapausis.
So all attempts to see this verse in the present appear misguided, and that leaves us to conclude that the writer has returned to the future, eternal aspect of the katapausis rest, which is where the argument was headed from the start.
Perhaps the rest he speaks of is akin to Revelation 14:13: " 'Write: 'Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.' 'Yes,' says the Spirit, 'that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them' " (see also Matthew 11:12; Luke 13:24; Romans 8:18-23; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Ephesians 6:1-17; 2 Timothy 2:1-5).
I believe we see here that when we enter the promised future eternal rest, typified by the Sabbath at the physical creation, the spiritual creation being wrought in us will be finished, just as the physical creation God wrought on creation week was finished (verse 3). Then we will receive our ultimate, final rest.
This conclusion is supported by verse 11: "Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall after the same example of disobedience."
This promised rest, linked to the rest in verse 10 (which in turn is linked to the rest in verse 9), is something it says here we must diligently enter into. One may diligently keep the Sabbath, but one hardly strives to enter into it.
On the other hand, to exhort Christians who are already justified to diligently enter justification apart from works, as non-Sabbatarians suggest, is even less coherent.
So we are left to conclude that this verse equates the katapausis with eternal life in God's Kingdom. This makes sense since this was where the whole argument was headed from the beginning, having picked up several statements concerning a future rest along the way (Hebrews 4:6, 14, 18).
If we needed any more confirmation that this passage is a focus on the future, the last two verses provide it, for here he exhorts us to obey God so we might be prepared for the judgment (verses 12-13).
Before we leave this, we should note that, if it is correct that this complete realization of the Sabbath rest is yet future, the rest to which the Sabbath pointed cannot be only our present spiritual rest in Christ.
Therefore the Sabbath's terminating fulfillment was not found in the first advent of Christ. There is yet a future fulfillment of rest, reflected in and illuminated by the Sabbath, that we have not yet entered.
But, the question remains, is there a directive here for Christians to keep a literal seventh-day Sabbath? Some Sabbatarians rightly point out that sabbatismos has as its root that which is used in the Septuagint for literal Sabbath-keeping (Exodus 16:30; Leviticus 23:32; 26:34; 2 Chronicles 36:21).
The term itself is later found in postNew Testament Christian writings, and it is consistently used in all these places to mean, literally, "a keeping of the Sabbath."
Like heortazomen in 1 Corinthians 5:8 for "keep the Feast," it is a literal term for the actual keeping of a day (or, in the case of 1 Corinthians 5:8, a feast).
But the context and flow of the argument here seems to be such that, although literal observance might well be implied inasmuch as it is assumed, an explicit command for literal observance does not appear to have been the writer's purpose.
In context, the use of sabbatismos appears to principally serve the writer's purpose in relating the katapausis with God's sabbatizing the seventh day of creation.
We noted earlier that the Israelites received the seventh-day Sabbath, but they did not enter the rest the writer speaks of in this passage. Moreover, if the writer is addressing Jewish Christians who were likely keeping Old Testament observances, as the consensus among scholars seems to be, would he expend this much effort to merely command them to do what they were already doing? Obviously, no.
So it seems most likely that the katapausis that dominated this passage is not the literal keeping of the seventh-day Sabbath. However, by linking the katapausis with the creation Sabbath, the writer relates both our present and future rest-granted us in and through the New Covenant-with the Sabbath. In doing so the writer is emphatic that the Sabbath is a New Covenant institution, not principally an Old Covenant one.
If the Sabbath were still to be kept by Christians, we would expect the New Testament to use it to expound its implications for and place in God's redemptive plan, and we see this writer doing exactly that.
But some say that, since this passage is not discussing the Sabbath's literal observance but the fulfillment of its blessings, no inference can be made from it about its literal observance.
This would certainly be true if the audience were not keeping the Sabbath, since an explicit instruction to do so would be warranted in such a case, and the absence of such an instruction would be significant.
But, if the author understood his audience to be Hebrew Christians who kept the Old Testament observances (as non-Sabbatarians indeed understand and argue is the case here), that he does not launch a polemic defense of literal Sabbath-keeping but expounds the Sabbath's meaning and exhorts his readers to participate in its blessing suggests that its literal observance was assumed and, of course, approved of.
It is important to note that not all Old Testament institutions receive such benign treatment in this letter. In fact, none but the Sabbath does. The writer spends four chapters explaining the obsolescence of the Levitical observances in chapters 7-10, which he insists are now "annulled" (Hebrews 7:18) and "abolished" (Hebrews 10:9). But the Sabbath's purpose and significance, he says, "remains" (Hebrews 4:9).
The Sabbath is not only not abrogated (and the writer is hardly afraid to abrogate), it is here held in the highest regard for what it still signifies for God's people. This is illustrated in two ways.
In chapter 4 he expounds the Sabbath's centrality to the past, present and future work of God. The Sabbath recognizes God's work of physical creation (verses 3-4, 9), but also informs our understanding of His present spiritual re-creation in us (verses 3-4, 9) and, most important, typifies our future eternal reward of rest (verses 9-11).
By this both the "already" and "not yet" aspects of the Kingdom are seen to be reflected through the Sabbath. To the writer of Hebrews, then, the Sabbath spans all redemptive history, including that which is yet future, and its application has by no means terminated in the death and resurrection of Christ, as have, for instance, the Levitical ordinances.
Second, in Hebrews 10:25 the writer exhorts his audience to "not forsake the assembling of yourselves together." These Hebrews, there is every reason to believe, would have understood this in the context of their Sabbath gatherings. If anyone were clear as to which Old Testament observances Christ had superseded, the one who wrote Hebrews 7-10 was.
Were it appropriate to do so, he would not likely have missed this opportunity to set his audience straight also on the Sabbath, which was an observance normally kept much more often than any Levitical ritual.
But the writer obviously does not see Christ superseding or replacing the Sabbath, as non-Sabbatarians claim is the case. To the writer of Hebrews the Sabbath-unlike the Levitical observances-is, not was. And it "remains" for partakers of the New Covenant.
Some would say that this means little, since the letter was written to Hebrews, not gentiles, and only if the letter were addressed to gentiles would this be significant to non-Jewish Christians.
To them I ask: Is this letter part of your canon, or is it not? Should we then disregard chapters 7-10 as well, for is not the matter at hand in those chapters a "Jewish" one as well? Who is qualified to say we must heed the writer when he abrogates certain biblical observances, but ignore him when he supports others?
Conclusion to argument s
and proof texts
We mentioned earlier that, since none of the arguments set forth by non-Sabbatarians is persuasive, their proof texts would need to be conclusive for their case that the Sabbath and annual festivals are obsolete under the New Covenant. We have seen that these scriptures do not lead us to such a conclusion.
In sum, the picture we have is of a first-century church that was, in the main and as far as we can tell, a Sabbath-keeping, festival-keeping community of believers, and there was every apostolic example and teaching for, and no apostolic instruction against, keeping the festivals.
That said, on what basis can a case be made that Christians ought to keep the biblical observances? I believe the case is summed up in this:
nJesus warned that following worship traditions devised by men leads to vain worship (Matthew 15:8-9) and explained that His Father seeks men to worship but to worship only according to truth (John 4:23-24), which to Him was God's Word (John 17:17).
nScripture teaches that the Sabbath was created at the foundation of the world by God through the Word for the benefit of man (Genesis 2:2; Exodus 20:11; Mark 2:27-28; John 1:3) and for teaching us fundamental truths regarding His past, present and future redemptive work (Hebrews 4:3-4, 9).
nThe Sabbath was habitually kept by Jesus and the apostles (Luke 4:16; Mark 1:21, 29; 3:1; Luke 4:44; 13:10; Acts 13:14, 42-44; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4, 19, 24, 36), and there is no other regular weekly collective worship tradition in the Bible. Key Old Testament ordinances are rendered obsolete in the New Testament, but the Sabbath is never among them.
nAs for the annual festivals, it is clear that they were ordained by God and kept and taught by Jesus, the apostles and, as far as we can tell, gentile churches (Leviticus 23:2; Matthew 26:17 and verses following; John 7:10, 37; Acts 18:21; 20:6, 16; 27:9; 1 Corinthians 5:8; 16:8; Colossians 2:16).
It is significant that there is no attitudinal difference to detect in Paul between the Sabbath and annual festivals. He makes no qualitative distinctions between them (to the Colossians he says they all foreshadow things to come). This would not be lightly regarded by those seeking a biblical Christianity.
Some who are aware that I believe the Ten Commandments reflect God's will for all men have asked why I don't include them as one of my reasons here. Because the sad fact is that, when you bring the law into a discussion of what observances we ought to keep, it ends up diverting the discussion into a discussion about the law of Moses and away from observances.
Second, I keep the annual festivals just as I do the Sabbath, and they are not contained in the Ten Commandments. Those who are keeping the annual festivals because they are commanded in Leviticus ought to understand that non-Sabbatarians are happy to challenge you on those grounds. In fact, if you don't bring it up they'll do it for you! When I was still in the Worldwide Church of God, I sent this material to church headquarters, and, as here, I didn't argue for the biblical observances on the basis of their being commanded in the law. Nowhere in the paper did I even mention the law of Moses. As here, I based the entire argument on the New Testament concern of how we might worship in spirit and in truth.
WCG headquarters' lengthy reply never once mentioned worshiping in Spirit and in truth and discussed only the law of Moses! The writers in Pasadena were especially keen to show the difficulties involved with proving that the annual festivals are commanded of Christians today because they are commanded in the law:
"Why do we not have to obey Numbers 15:38-39, which requires tassels on garments? It's a clear command . . . and had a good purpose. This wasn't a ceremonial law or sacrificial law for priests only. Rather, it was a statute for all Israelites . . . The law about tassels was given to ancient Israel through Moses, just as the festivals were. Is there any biblical reason we should designate one as eternal and the other as temporary?"
And on it went, page after page. Obviously, it's pretty difficult to avoid appearing arbitrary when one claims that certain commands in the law of Moses are "commanded" but other commands are not.
Herbert Armstrong never presented to the WCG a method to determine which of the 613 laws of the Torah are commands for Christians and which aren't. His successors have traded mightily on this and diverted members' attention from Jesus' unmistakable concern for collective worship traditions: worshiping in Spirit and in truth.
Let's see if we can now answer our original questions: Have the observances God commanded Israel to keep carried over into the age of the New Covenant? Are they requirements for salvation? Can we say God desires us to keep them, or does He have no particular preference one way of the other?
Given all that was cited above, it seems inarguable that the Sabbath and annual festivals were observed faithfully by the apostles in their understanding of the New Covenant, and there is no New Testament evidence to think otherwise. Therefore we can confidently say they were carried over into the New Covenant age by the apostles.
But should we think of them as requirements for salvation? First of all, the facts surrounding Galatians 4:10 should give pause to the man who would present any calendrical observance as a means of achieving right standing with God.
At the same time, it is hard to see how a willful disregard for anything God created for us would not say something about one's spiritual state.
For Spirit-led Christians, a "requirement" is anything God would have us do, whether He explicitly states it as a requirement for salvation or not. There are countless instructions in the New Testament that aren't specifically stated as requirements for salvation (for example, Ephesians 4:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:16; Hebrews 13:2; et al.). Should we assume, then, that they are unimportant to God?
Once "must" is explored, shouldn't we be willing to examine the possibilities for "ought to"?
In regard to the biblical observances, what would indicate what we "ought to" do? Chiefly Matthew 15:8-9; John 4:23-24; 17:17; which we examined earlier.
The principal points there: God wills Christians to worship (John 4:23). Yet it is a danger of man-made traditions-even morally neutral ones established with the best of intentions-that they lead to vain worship (Matthew 15:8-9).
So Christians must worship in truth (John 4:23-24), and, for Jesus, God's Word is the single source of spiritual truth (John 17:17).
Since the Sabbath and annual festivals are the principal biblically ordained days, it is impossible to come to any other conclusion except that, where there is regular convocation of God's people (and there must be regular convocation; Hebrews 10:25), God would have His people worship Him through those observances and not through the traditions of men.
Still, some argue that, since the Sabbath and annual festivals are not specifically commanded by Jesus or the apostles, it is legalistic to teach that they are anything more than optional.
It is true that we are not commanded to keep all these days in the New Testament.
But we are commanded to worship in spirit and truth, and we are commanded to reject the worship traditions of men.
And the New Testament example of Jesus, His apostles and their churches is how we know how to fulfill those commands.
At its most simple, biblical Christians, by definition, keep biblical days. If anyone knows of a better way to execute Christ's will in this matter than keeping the observances He and his apostles did, I, for one, would love to hear about it.
Moreover, it should be said that Scripture teaches that Spirit-led people are by definition those who are drawn to God's light, to God's truth (John 3:18-21; 8:32; 12:36; 16:13; 18:37; 1 Corinthians 13:6; Ephesians 5:9; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 John 1:5-7; 4:6).
To proclaim little value in God-ordained observances and considerable value in human-devised ones like Christmas and Easter is, at a minimum, an exchanging of a greater light for a lesser light. Why would any of God's children want to do that?
The uncomfortable fact is that those who insist God cares so little about our collective worship that we should consider traditions borrowed from paganism are not really trying to avoid legalism as much as they are revealing their lack of concern for Jesus' instruction on this matter.
Christians do not call Jesus "Lord" in everything but their observances. They live to do His will wherever possible and certainly in their religious practices.
Within the living spiritual reality made possible by the New Covenant, God should not have to hold salvation over our heads for us to do His will. It should simply be enough to understand what He would have us do.
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