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Sabbath Observance

Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days (Col. 2:16).

A reader asks, "How does Colossians 2:16 fit with Christian teaching on the Lord’s Day?" Some in the church world today have become very legalistic regarding the Sabbath and, by precept upon precept, have driven many aspects of Sabbath observance out of the whole area of Christian liberty—contrary to what Paul writes in Colossians 2:16. Others, misunderstanding Christian freedom, have all but destroyed the Sabbath. They hold that the Sabbath is no different from any day of the week, and, while it is preferable to attend church on the Lord’s Day, one could just as well change worship services from the Lord’s Day to other weekdays, and involve one’s self in any weekday activities on the Lord’s Day. Every day of the week, so it is said, is Sabbath.

Let me mention first that Paul is warning against a misuse of the Sabbath in Colossians 2:16. The whole passage proves this. Paul explains to us that the powerful work of Christ on the cross blotted "out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us" (14). Christ, in other words, fulfilled the law for us.

Paul goes on to apply this to the life of the church. Some claim, and perhaps correctly, that Paul was waging war against an early form of Gnosticism present in Colossae (and perhaps in other nearby churches). Gnosticism took on various forms: it was more a movement than a doctrinally united church or organization. One form was a Jewish Gnosticism which was closely related to the errors present in Jerusalem and the Galatian churches. Many in the church, converted from the Jewish religion, wanted to cling to the old laws which marked Israel as a separate nation. They taught that salvation was based on faith in Christ andthe works of the law—a heresy almost identical with the error of those today who teach justification by faith and works. (Paul refutes this dreadful heresy especially in his epistles to the Galatians and the Romans.)

That Paul is opposing such thinking is clear from verses 17 and 18, while the positive statement of the truth is found in verse 19. In verse 17 Paul makes clear that those laws about meat, drink, holydays, feasts of the new moon, and Sabbath days "are a shadow of things to come," and so they were fulfilled by Christ. One need only read Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy to see how many laws there were concerning these things.

It is well to note that the plural is used here, indicating that the reference is to the entire Sabbath cycles: the seventh day of the week, the seventh year, the fiftieth year which was the year of jubilee. Christ has fulfilled them and they are no longer binding on Christians who must stand in the liberty of their redemption.

Nevertheless, the Sabbath day is binding on the Christian, for it is a part of the decalogue, and, in fact, belongs to the first table of the law in which we are instructed how, specifically, we are to love the Lord our God. Those who want to pull the fourth commandment out of the law of God cannot and may not do this; if they insist, they will do the same to the other commandments.

Yet, so it is argued, the fourth commandment requires refraining from work on the seventh day of the week. That is no longer in force. The fulfillment of the fourth commandment means that every day of the week is Sabbath. Yet, those who teach that every day is Sabbath, actually practice that no day is Sabbath.

It is well to point out that the law itself gives us hints of its deeper character and its fulfillment in Christ. The very introduction to the law reminds us that we are delivered from the slavery of sin: "I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" (Ex. 20:2). The tenth commandment, which forbids covetousness, is correctly interpreted by our Heidelberg Catechism as referring to the inward perfection of the whole law: "That even the smallest inclination or thought contrary to any of God’s commandment never rise in our hearts; but that at all times we hate all sin with our whole heart, and delight in all righteousness" (A 113).

The fulfillment of the law does not mean that the Sabbath is no more to be kept, but it does mean that the day is fulfilled by Christ’s perfect work. It is fulfilled in this way. The fourth commandment laid down a fundamental principle of the law: Israel had to work six days to enjoy the rest of the Sabbath. The work of the six days had to be perfect work which was free from sin and was to God’s glory—as it was in paradise. If Israel obeyed, they would enjoy the rest of the Sabbath. If Israel failed, they would never have that rest.

It was the same principle of the whole law: Blessing in the keeping of the law, but cursing in the transgression of the law. And, because the human race fell in Adam, Israel was unable to keep the law and so the law could only curse them.

That Christ fulfilled the law means that He bore the curse which was due to us; and He also earned for us the gracious power to keep the law perfectly—a perfection which will not be ours until heaven and is true of us now only in principle. That fulfillment was through Christ’s cross and resurrection on the first day of the week. And so the church of the new dispensation keeps the Sabbath on the first day of the week in joyful commemoration of Christ’s perfect work.

Now we do not have to work six days without sin to earn rest; we are graciously given that rest on the first day of the week so that we may (and can and will) work for six days in Christ’s kingdom and to God’sglory, for we work by the power of the new dispensation Sabbath. Because we now have the freedom of Christ and are able to keep the law, the "Sabbath" becomes for us a day in which we lay aside our earthlylabours and devote the day to our spiritual lives, especially as God has given us the corporate worship of the church in which the gospel is preached and the sacraments are administered. We ought to be everlastingly thankful for this great blessing!

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Additional Info

  • Volume: 10
  • Issue: 9
Hanko, Herman

Prof. Herman Hanko (Wife: Wilma)

Ordained: October 1955

Pastorates: Hope, Walker, MI - 1955; Doon, IA - 1963; Professor to the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1965

Emeritus: 2001

Website: www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakeronly=true&currsection=sermonsspeaker&keyword=Prof._Herman_Hanko

Contact Details

  • Address
    725 Baldwin Dr. B-25
  • City
    Jenison
  • State or Province
    MI
  • Zip Code
    49428
  • Country
    United States
  • Telephone
    616-667-6033

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