Christ the Sabbath Rest of the People of God: Part Four

by Dr. Don Garlington

Our previous study sought to argue that the Gospels represent Jesus of Nazareth as the focal point and therefore fulfillment of the Mosaic sabbath. Indeed, the invitation of Matthew 11:28-30 is the culmination and zenith of the entire theology of rest which we have sought to sketch out in this series of articles. We turn now to a key passage in the Pauline epistles which depicts our Lord as the sum and substance of the old covenant sabbaths, Col 2:16-17: “Therefore let no one judge you in matters of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are shadows of things to come, but the body is of Christ.”

From the time of J. B. Lightfoot to the present, much has been written on the “Colossian heresy,” particularly in support of the thesis that the “heresy” was a combination of pagan (Hellenistic) and Jewish elements. We are pointed, e.g., to v. 8 above, where Paul warns against the evils of “philosophy,” or to v. 18, according to which the Colossians are not to abase themselves in the worship of angels. In addition, Paul seems to be reflecting the technical terminology of (proto)Gnosticism when he speaks of Christ as the “fullness” (1:19; 2:9). This has led many to believe that Paul’s battle lines were drawn mainly against Greek philosophical thought and not Judaism.

Although it is not possible here to provide a full response, the actual internal evidence of the letter requires nothing else than an interaction with Judaism as such, apart from pagan influence. The presence of “philosophy” in v. 8 can be explained quite nicely in Jewish terms. As F. F. Bruce comments, “It is not philosophy in general, but a philosophy of this kind—one which seduces believers from the simplicity of their faith in Christ—that Paul condemns. ‘Everything that had to do with theories about God and the world and the meaning of human life was called “philosophy” at that time, not only in the pagan schools but also in the Jewish schools of the Greek cities.’”[1] The occurrence of the term “fullness” likewise presents no obstacle. As is well known, this noun, along with its verbal cognates, is technical terminology in the New Testament for the salvation-historical accomplishment of God’s purposes in Christ.

As to the adoration of angels, one need think simply of the role of angels in the mediation of the law (Deut 33:2; Acts 7:38, 53; Gal 3:19; Heb 2:2). Bruce (although in disagreement) passes on the opinion of E. Percy that the “angel-cult” is simply subjection to the law.[2] This accords with Heb 1:4-2:9, where the author rebuffs precisely the idea that angels are worthy of special honour because they were the mediators of the law. Contrary to Bruce himself, nothing more is necessary “to satisfy Paul’s strong language about an angel-cult ‘figuring centrally in the plan of salvation.’“[3] Indeed, the law comes in for special mention in 2:8, 20, as is clarified by a cross-reference to Gal 4:3, 9 (“the elements of the world.”), and 2:14. It is in connection with “the elements of the world” or “regulations” (2:20) that one hears the prohibition, “touch not, taste not, handle not” (2:21), which makes perfect sense as an expression of the Torah’s own prohibition of various things and practices.[4] That Paul should speak of the “worship” (if it is that) of angels is not remarkable in light of Rom 2:22, where he accuses Israel of idolizing the Torah.[5]

Even if one wishes to label the position of the Colossian opponents “Hellenistic Judaism,” the point remains the same, inasmuch as modern scholarship has demonstrated clearly enough that hard and fast distinctions cannot be made between “Hellenistic” and “Palestinian” Judaism.[6] Similarly the first letter of John can be explained very well in terms of the Jewish denial that God has become incarnate in Jesus Christ, which is in evidence also in the Fourth Gospel. Theories of a docetic heresy are basically unnecessary.

The purpose of these observations is that Paul, as usual in his controversial letters, is engaged in eschatological debate with his Jewish contemporaries. Their position was that the law in its Mosaic form was eternal and unchangeable. Therefore such Israelite institutions as the food laws, circumcision, new moons, festivals and sabbaths were unalterable and in the divine plan were intended to regulate the lives of God’s people forever, not only in this age but also in the age to come.[7] Paul’s conviction, on the other hand, was that Christ is the goal of Israel’s law and its very reason for existence.[8] Therefore for him those distinctives of Jewish national life enumerated in Col 2:16 are no more: they are only shadows, Christ is the substance (literally “the body”[9]). At heart, the debate centered around the question, Is Israel’s Torah eternal, or is it only provisional, destined to pass away with the coming of Jesus Christ? The answers given to this question mark the essential difference between Judaism and Christianity.

Whether one accepts this exclusively Jewish identification of Paul’s opponents,[10] it is almost certainly the law which is at the fore in Colossians 2. In v. 3 is Paul’s declaration that Christ is the repository of all wisdom and knowledge, as he counters the Jewish claim (particularly of Ben Sira and Baruch) that the Torah is the embodiment of wisdom (a proposition developed from Deut 4:6. See Sirach 24, 51 and Baruch 3:9-4:1.). From Gal 4:3, 9, recurs in vv. 8, 20 the phrase “the elements of the world,” a designation of the law as the “ABC’s” of God’s old creation dealings with his people. V. 14 accordingly singles out the law as the bond with its legal demands which stood against us. It is then most naturally the law which is in view in v. 20: it is none other than the Torah’s own “regulations” which commanded, “Touch not, taste not, handle not.” It is thus the Jewish priority placed on the law that sets the stage for Paul’s assertion of the centrality and indispensability of Christ, as he is the eschatological realization of God’s saving purposes foreshadowed by the Torah.

Paul is particularly concerned that no one pass judgment on his readers (cf. Rom 14:3, 4, 10, 13, where the “weak,” mainly Jewish Christians, were condemning their “strong,” mainly Gentile, brethren). That such judgment was a commonplace Jewish response to the Gentile world at large is evident from a great deal of intertestamental (and beyond) literature.[11] In other words, in the language of Gal 2:15, anyone not content to submit to the strictures of the Torah was a “Gentile sinner” by definition. Moreover, according to Acts 15:1, 5, the “circumcision party” took its stand precisely on the ground that circumcision[12] and adherence to the Mosaic customs were necessary to salvation. It was then the Jewish/Jewish Christian condemnation of people who saw no necessity in law-observance that Paul resists: one is not the object of the wrath of God simply because one will not live as a Jew (Galatians 2:14).

Paul singles out for prominent mention “food and drink,” “festival,” “new moon,” and “sabbaths.” If we put ourselves back into the first century, it becomes evident why such issues were of prime importance for Paul’s Jewish peers. Some two hundred years before, as particularly evident from the books of Maccabees, Paul’s ancestors willingly sacrificed themselves in death rather than violate the Mosaic food laws. 2 Maccabees 6 and 7 and most of 4 Maccabees reads like a Fox’s Book of Martyrs. The Jewish faithful were not only persecuted but horribly mutilated, not because they refused to steal or commit adultery, but because they would not eat pork. By way of cross-reference, Rom 2:7 denies that man’s quest for “immortality” (= eternal life) has anything to do with Jewish distinctives. This stands in rather stark contrast to 4 Macc 17:12, which makes “the prize for victory” of the Jewish martyrs “immortality in long-lasting life.” Hence Paul reverses the mentality of 4 Maccabees as a whole, which makes abstinence from pork of the essence of fidelity to God and thus a pre-condition of immortality (see especially 5:14-38). In the same vein, according to 2 Macc 6:18ff.; 7:1, one ought to be willing to die rather than partake of swine’s flesh. The reward for those who resist is resurrection which issues in eternal life.

It is within this milieu that the sabbath featured prominently. Although in the war of liberation under the Maccabees some Jews chose to fight on the sabbath against the forces of Antiochus IV, the sabbath itself remained one of the distinctive “boundary markers” and “badges” of Jewish identity.”[13] Sabbath observance and Jewishness were synonymous. An apt illustration is 1 Macc 1:41-50, which describes the defection of a number of Jews under the regime of Antiochus. Among the author’s charges is the complaint that many of his countrymen both sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath (v. 43c). For him profanation of the sabbath and idolatry went hand in hand.[14] As the Jewish youths effectively repudiated the covenant by the removal of their circumcision (1 Macc 1:15), so did the “many” by their abandonment of the sabbath, one of the chief “badges” of Israel’s bond with Yahweh. V. 45 also mentions the desecration of the feasts along with the sabbath day. The two logically connect, because, as we saw in Leviticus 23 and 25, the festivals of Israel were all extensions of the weekly sabbath.

It is against this significant historical background that Paul demands that the Colossians not be condemned with regard to “sabbaths.” The plural of the noun is probably significant. It is true that in the Gospels and elsewhere the plural is used with the article idiomatically to designate a single sabbath day or the first day of the week. In other places it denotes the sabbath feasts.[15] Here, however, the plural is used without the article to indicate a generic category, and it would appear artificial to segregate one sabbath from another. This is confirmed by the consideration that although the weekly sabbath appears in the Decalogue, its recurrence in Leviticus 23 and 25 links it with the festival day sabbaths, as attested by 1 Macc 1:45. Indeed, it is the seventh-day sabbath which provides the paradigm for the others. This is why Paul can classify as one “days, months, seasons, and years” (Gal 4:10).

Hence the “sabbaths” seem to be envisaged as an indivisible unit; they are the shadows of which Christ is the substance.[16] In what sense this is true has been the burden of these studies thus far. The sabbath-system served to point Israel to ultimate rest, i.e., the restoration of the creation and mankind’s true purpose for existence. This rest was to be found in Shiloh (Genesis 49:10), the rest-giver, who, as another Adam, would subdue the chaos of sin and become the head of the world to come (Heb 2:5-9). For Paul then the Mosaic sabbaths had no abiding value in themselves; they were only part of Israel’s discipline eventuating in the Christian faith (Gal 3:23ff.). Consequently:

To accept the observance of these occasions as obligatory now would be an acknowledgment of the continuing authority of the powers through whom such regulations were mediated—the powers that were decisively subjugated by Christ. How absurd for those who had reaped the benefit of Christ’s victory to put themselves voluntarily back under the control of those powers which Christ had conquered![17]

To this R. C. H. Lenski adds:

To the extent to which the Judaizers clung to the past shadow as if it were still present, to that extent they abandoned the body which filled the place of the former shadow…When men prefer the shadow instead of the realities they end with nothing, for even the shadow has disappeared when the shining, heavenly realities stand in its place.[18]

A recognition of Paul’s eschatological/typological assessment of the Mosaic sabbaths is of the utmost practical importance for the church. As Bruce continues:

Had this lesson been kept in mind in the post-apostolic generations, there might have been less friction than there was in the early Church over the divergent calculations of the date of Easter…And something might be said about the charge that Christians who do not observe the seventh day as a sabbath have accepted the mark of the beast. “Let no man judge you in respect of a sabbath day” is all the answer that such a charge requires.[19]

The bottom line is the one drawn by Paul: Christ is to have the pre-eminence in all things (Col 1:18): He is the “body” of all the “shadows.”[20] In Christ “all the great realities were found—pardon, sanctification, communion with God, etc.—of which ritual, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, was only a shadow.”[21] Therefore whatever views Christians may entertain about the seventh day or the first day of the week, Christ is to be central: his righteousness, his death, his resurrection, his abiding presence with the church. Any convictions about “days, months, seasons, and years”—or anything else—which effectively detract from Christ’s pre-eminence and result in “biting and devouring one another” (Gal 5:14) cannot be derived from the teaching of Paul.[22]

[1]Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 230, (quoting A. Schlatter). Bruce (ibid., n. 27) reminds us of the well known fact that Josephus can describe the various first-century Jewish sects as “philosophies” (e.g., Jewish War 2.8.2ff.; Antiquities 18.50.1ff.).

[2]Colossians 248.

[3]ibid., quoting Percy. Percy’s opinion carries considerable weight in view of his detailed study of angel-cults in antiquity, Die Probleme der Kolosser- und Epheserbriefe (Lund: Gleerup, 1946), 467ff.

[4]Cf. the remarks of P. Benoit, as quoted by R. P. Martin, Colossians: The Church’s Lord and the Christian’s Liberty (London: Paternoster, 1972), 90, n. 1.

[5]The thesis of my article “HIEROSULEIN and the Idolatry of Israel (Romans 2:22),” New Testament Studies 36 (1990), 142-51.

[6]See particularly M. Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism (London: SCM, 1974).

[7]W. D. Davies concluded from his study of Torah in the Messianic Age and/or the Age to Come (Philadelphia: SBL, 1952) that in the Jewish materials generally there is a “profound conviction that obedience to the Torah would be a dominating mark of the Messianic Age” and that “the Torah in its existing form would persist into the Messianic age…” (p. 84).

[8]Among many others, I have argued this at length. See “HIEROSULEIN,” esp. 148ff., and the forthcoming publications: ‘The Obedience of Faith’: A Pauline Phrase in Historical Context (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1991); “The Obedience of Faith in the Letter to the Romans. Part II,” Westminster Theological Journal 53 (1991), 47-72.

[9]Other ideas may be implied in “body” as well, such as Christ’s own body and the church as his body. See C. F. D. Moule, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Colossians and to Philemon (Cambridge Greek Testament) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957), 103. In any event, we may say that the “body” of Christ, standing in the full light of the New Testament, casts its “shadows” back into the Old Testament.

[10]The Hebraic identification of the opponents is supported by E. E. Ellis, “Paul and His Opponents: Trends in Research,” in J. Neusner, ed., Christianity, Judaism and Other Greco-Roman Cults: Studies for Morton Smith at Sixty (Leiden: Brill, 1975), 1.289ff.; J. J. Gunther St. Paul’s Opponents and Their Background: A Study of Apocalyptic and Jewish Sectarian Teachings (Leiden: Brill), 1973; C. K. Barrett, “Paul’s Opponents in 2 Corinthians,” in Essays on Paul (London: SPCK, 1982), 63.

[11]I have documented this for the “Apocrypha” in Obedience (n. 8 above).

[12]The importance of circumcision can hardly underestimated. From M. Stern’s Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1976-83), it is evident that although other ancient peoples practiced circumcision, the Jews were pre-eminently “the circumcised.” To illustrate, the author of Jubilees (15:25, 28-29) identified circumcision with the sign of the Mosaic covenant, which was actually the Sabbath (Exod 31:12). O. Betz, “Bescheidung,” in eds. G. Krause and G. Müller, Theologische Realenzyklopädie (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1977-), 5.718-19, shows how some later authors even equated “the blood of the covenant” (Exodus 24:8) with “the blood of circumcision.”

[13]J. D. G. Dunn, “The New Perspective on Paul,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 65 (1983), 95-122; id., “Works of the Law and the Curse of the Law (Galatians 3:10-14),” New Testament Studies 31 (1985), 523-42; A. J. Saldarini, Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society (Wilmington: Glazier, 1988), 136.

[14]Again, the sabbath was the “sign,” the “wedding ring,” as it were, of Israel’s marriage commitment to Yahweh (Exodus 31:12; Isaiah 58:13-14; Ezekiel 20:13; Nehemiah 13:7). On Jewish attitudes toward sabbath-keeping, see C. Rowland, “A Summary of Sabbath Observance in Judaism at the Beginning of the Christian Era,” in ed. D. A. Carson, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 43-55.

[15]See BAGD, 739.

[16]Effectively, Paul has given us the technical terminology of “typology,” as he does also in Romans 5:14; 1 Corinthians 10: 6, 11. As “shadows,” the sabbaths were “an advance representation intimating eschatological events” (L. Goppelt, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 5.251-52).

[17]Bruce, Colossians 244. Bruce is right to connect the law with the powers. In other places (e.g., Romans 3:19-20; 4:15; 5:20; 7:7-12) Paul makes the law instrument of sin, which for him is one of the dominant powers of “the present evil age” (Gal 1:4). Note esp. Romans 7:7-12: the law is likened to the Serpent, who deceived Eve. Therefore to retreat back into the era of the law would be to deny the efficacy of the death of Christ.

[18]The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus and to Philemon (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1964), 127.

[19]Bruce, Colossians, 244.

[20]Lenski, however, is right that the shadows are not to be denigrated. “The shadows called out all the faith and the hope of the Old Testament saints in the impending realities and guaranteed that faith and that hope in the strongest way…The shadow is good for its time, by means of it faith and hope embrace the coming realities (Colossians, 126, 127).

[21]Moule, Colossians, 103.

[22]See further my little study, “Bearing One Another’s Burdens,” Reformation Today 115 (May-June, 1990) 26-30.