Which Sabbath, a shadow Col. 2:14-16?

(The follwing article is adapted from the site Adventist Defense League with the permission of the author Edwin M. Cotto. You can click here to see the original article. All verses quoted below are from the New World Translation)

Among the many verses the critics (including Watchtower) use to try to refute the Sabbath, there is none more famous than this passage. Of course, without a proper understanding of both the context and the aspects of the law, anyone can read these verses and conclude that the Sabbath has been done away with. In this study we will consider what Paul meant when he mentioned the “ordinances” and we will study what he meant when he mentioned the “sabbath.”

Some Context would help

Before reading verse 16, lets scroll a bit towards the top and read verse 14:

Colossians 2:14 and blotted out the handwritten document against us, which consisted of decrees and which was in opposition to us; and He has taken it out of the way by nailing it to the torture stake.

Already we are introduced into one aspect of the law, the “decrees.” Now, is this the same as the law of Ten Commandments? Not according to the bible:

Eph 2:15 By means of his flesh he abolished the enmity, the Law of commandments consisting in decrees, that he might create the two peoples in union with himself into one new man and make peace

Note: What is abolished is the “the Law of commandments consisting in decrees”. Is this the law of Ten Commandments? No, it is not.

Rom 3:31 Do we, then, abolish law by means of our faith? Never may that happen! On the contrary, we establish law.

Note that what is abolished is the “Law of commandments consisting in decrees”. The law of Ten Commandments is not the law consisting in decrees. It is called the “kingly law” that we must “practice” (James 2:8). By the way, why are we asked to “practice” the kingly law if that law is abolished? Obviously what is abolished in not the law of Ten Commandments.

James 2:8 If, now, YOU practice carrying out the kingly law according to the scripture: “You must love your neighbor as yourself,” YOU are doing quite well.

Hebrews 9:1 For its part, then, the former [covenant] used to have ordinances of sacred service and [its] mundane holy place.

Unto the first covenant was added “ordinances,” (or decrees) which were ceremonies needed to be performed by the Israelites and the priests. This is called “ceremonial laws.” So Paul begins his discussion of the law with respect to the ordinances of the law, not the entire law itself. Hebrews 9, verses 1 through 9 explain what those ordinances were, and he concludes them all as being “requirements pertaining to the flesh” (i.e. carnal ordinances) –verse 10. The law of God, however, is not carnal, but spiritual:

Romans 7:14 “For we know that the Law is spiritual …”

He is therefore not speaking about the spiritual law of 10 Commandments, but of the carnal ordinances added to the law “to make transgressions manifest” –Galatians 3:19. It is no wonder that Paul then specifies those ordinances in Colossians 3:21, saying why “as if living in the world, further subject yourselves to the decrees: 21 “Do not handle, nor taste, nor touch...”.

Further evidence of this is in his use of the word “handwritten” or handwriting. The greek word translated “handwriting” is “cheirographon” and it literally means “something written by hand.” Now God did not write the 10 Commandments by hand, but by finger:

Exodus 31:18 Now as soon as he had finished speaking with him on Mount Si´nai he proceeded to give Moses two tablets of the Testimony, tablets of stone written on by God’s finger.

God wrote the law on “stone”, Moses, however, wrote with his hand the ordinances found in the “book of Moses” 2 Chronicles 35:12. (See also Exodus 24:4, 7; Deut. 31:24. Deut. 29:21 and 30:10).

Note also that he said that this “handwriting or ordinances” was “against us” (Colossians 2:14). Yet, the law of 10 Commandments could have never been against anyone, for it was “perfect” –Psalm 19:7. It was “book” of Moses that “against us” (Deuteronomy 31:26).

Further, when we return to the “book of Moses” that contained ordinances and curses, we find that Moses commanded it not to be placed with the 10 Commandments inside the Ark of the Covenant, but rather “at the side” – i.e. outside the Ark. The reasons are simple: they are not to be counted as the same because one was perfect, the other was not. That is why the “book of the law” was “against us.” Let us place the two verses side by side:

Colossians 2:14 and blotted out the handwritten document against us, which consisted of decrees and which was in opposition to us; and He has taken it out of the way by nailing it to the torture stake.

Deuteronomy 31:26 “Taking this book of the law, YOU must place it at the side of the ark of the covenant of Jehovah YOUR God, and it must serve as a witness there against you.

Let us now sum up the results of our findings before we continue:

1) The laws he was speaking about is the “decrees” which are carnal (requirements pertaining to the flesh), not moral law of 10 Commandments which are spiritual.

2) The laws he mentioned were written by hand, but the moral law of Ten Commandments were not written by hand but by the finger of God.

3) The laws he is referring to were always “against” the people. Compared to Deut. 31:26, we see that it was the book of the law that contained curses and ordinances that was against the people.

Some claim that this includes the 10 Commandments because they are found in Deuteronomy chapter 5, but this is incorrect because that was just a brief reminder of the 10 Commandments, not an exact copy. This is noticed when you read verses 7 through 21, noticing that most of the commandments are not quoted exactly as God originally gave them. The words “You must not” are now rendered “neither must you” for the last four commandments, and the fourth and fifth commandments were quoted quite differently, as if Moses was reiterating the law by memory since the tablets of stone were hidden inside the Ark of the Covenant.

4) We want to here add a fourth reason. David wrote the following inspired words about the Law of God:

Psalm 119:172 May my tongue sing forth your saying, For all your commandments are righteousness.

David said that the commandments of God are “righteousness.” Now compare this to Isaiah’s words:

Isaiah 51:6 … But as for my salvation, it will prove to be even to time indefinite, and my own righteousness will not be shattered.

Reading further down Isaiah’s words, verse 7 confirms that this righteousness is “the law” of God, and verse 8 again affirms that it will last for “time indefinite”- for ever. If therefore the Law of God shall never be abolished, and the Law of God contains the Sabbath commandment, it would be ludicrous to suggest that when Paul mentioned the sabbath in Colossians 2:16 he was saying that the Law is abolished. He, as a Pharisees who intensely studied the prophets and the words of King David, knew better then to say such a thing.

With the above evidence we can safely say that Paul specifically had the ceremonial law in mind when he wrote those words in verse 14, especially since his focus is on circumcision (verses 11-13), another ceremonial law. This is the context, and should be kept in mind when reading down these verses.

Is this the Sabbath of creation week?

Now verse 16 reads:

Colossians 2:16 Therefore let no man judge YOU in eating and drinking or in respect of a festival or of an observance of the new moon or of a sabbath

Before examining what Paul meant when he mentioned the “a sabbath” in verse 16, we want to establish first why this “can’t” be the seventh day Sabbath of the moral law of 10 Commandments that he is referring to here. There are two reasons why the mention of the “sabbath” in verse 16 is not a reference to the seventh day Sabbath of creation:

1) The context does not support it.

We saw how Paul is addressing the ceremonial law, and not the moral law of 10 Commandments.

2) The seventh day is not a shadow.

The following verse says that those ordinances mentioned in verse 16 are… “a shadow of the things to come, but the reality belongs to the Christ” –verse 17. Now a shadow points to something, whether forward or backwards. Which way did the seventh day Sabbath point? Take a look:

Exodus 20:11 For in six days Jehovah made the heavens and the earth, the sea and everything that is in them, and he proceeded to rest on the seventh day. That is why Jehovah blessed the sabbath day and proceeded to make it sacred.

The Sabbath points backwards, and not forward. It was set up in creation week as a memorial of creation, showing all living inhabitants of the earth that it was he who made all things and is the true God. It was not a shadow… “of the things to come” as verse 17 says, but rather of things past… the creation. That the Seventh day of creation week is the same Sabbath day of the fourth commandment is made crystal clear in the article Sabbath in Genesis.

Some have felt that the Sabbath was indeed instituted in creation week, but as a shadow pointing forward to redemption from sin. But this poses a problem with the worry-free state that Adam and Eve were in before they sinned. If this were true, that the Sabbath was a constant reminder to Adam and Eve that they were going to disobey their maker, violate his law and die the death, why then was he not justified in his rebellion?

He could have easily pointed to God as the one who through the sign of the Sabbath put into his mind the fact that he was not going to actually live forever. Is it reasonable to believe that Adam in his joyous holy state knew, through the Sabbath institution, that he was one day going to violate God’s precept and die? God’s warning to Adam against the eating of the tree makes this theory an impossibility:

Genesis 2:16-17 And Jehovah God also laid this command upon the man: “From every tree of the garden you may eat to satisfaction. 17 But as for the tree of the knowledge of good and bad you must not eat from it, for in the day you eat from it you will positively die.”

Why would God tell him that “if” he ate of this tree he would die, yet then turn around and tell him through the Sabbath institution that he was going to die regardless?

The reasons for the establishment of the Sabbath, as shown above, was specifically to commemorate creation week, and nothing else.

Other sabbaths to consider

If therefore the sabbath mentioned in Colossians 2:16 can not logically be the seventh day Sabbath of the Decalogue, which sabbath was he talking about? Let us read in Leviticus 23:

Leviticus 23:1-4 And Jehovah went on speaking to Moses, saying: 2 “Speak to the sons of Israel, and you must say to them, ‘The seasonal festivals of Jehovah that YOU should proclaim are holy conventions. These are my seasonal festivals: 3 “‘Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convention. YOU may do no sort of work. It is a sabbath to Jehovah in all places where YOU dwell. 4 “‘These are the seasonal festivals of Jehovah, holy conventions, which YOU should proclaim at their appointed times: …. (Feast days mentioned)

God begins by telling Moses about the “seasonal festivals” or feast days, but gets the seventh day Sabbath out of the picture before introducing them. Beginning in verse 4 he then starts to mention the feast days… “These are the seasonal festivals of Jehovah …” Six national feast days are mentioned, but only four of them are specifically mentioned as being “sabbaths.” Take a look:

Feasts in Leviticus 23

1) Erev Pesah (Passover). This is not mentioned as a sabbath.
2) Shavuot (Feast of Weeks or Firstfruits). This was a sabbath (verses 10-11).
3) Feast of “Unfermented cakes’ or Unleavened bread. This is not mentioned as a sabbath but work was to be ceased upon the first day and the seventh day of this week long festival.
4) Rosh Ha-shanah (Feast of Trumpets). This feast is specifically mentioned as a sabbath (verse 24).
5) Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). This feast is specifically mentioned as a sabbath (verse 28-32).
6) Sukkoth (Feast of Tabernacles). This is specifically mentioned as sabbaths (verses 39-42

There were feast days that were specifically addressed as “sabbaths” according to Leviticus 23, but these were not to be mingled in any way with the seventh day Sabbath of creation week. Verse 38 makes this clear when after speaking about the feast days in verse 37, in verse 38 God specifically says that those are “besides the sabbaths of Jehovah …”

The word “besides” is from the Hebrew word “bad” which means “separation.” God therefore sets a separation between his feasts/sabbath feasts and the seventh day Sabbath of the 10 Commandments mentioned in verse 3. In light of the above evidence of both the context of Colossians 2 and the aspects of the laws, these ceremonial sabbath feasts must have therefore been the sabbaths Paul was talking about when he said verse 16.

The original word translated into the plural “sabbaths” in Colossians 2:16 is, says Strong’s Hebrew/Greek concordance, “of Hebrew origin.” This means that Paul used a word that finds its origin in the Hebrew language when mentioning the Sabbath. Some have felt that this proves his was specifically talking about the seventh day Sabbath, but note that this same Hebrew word, being the Hebrew word “shabbath,” is the same one used in Leviticus 23 for the sabbath feast days. The context of the chapter, therefore, is what will settle the debate on which sabbath he was referring to, not the original words alone.


Let us conclude what we have gathered:

1) In the immediate context we find Paul speaking specifically about the ceremonial law, not the moral law.
2) It has been shown that the ceremonial law and the moral law are not to be mingled as the same. Paul in the epistle to the Hebrews sets a separation between the two, and so does God himself in Leviticus 23:38.
3) Paul could not have been referencing the seventh day Sabbath of creation week because verse 17 says these sabbaths were a “shadow of things TO COME” but the seventh day Sabbath, according to the 4th commandment, was a shadow of things “past.”
4) The seventh day Sabbath of creation could not logically have been instituted to show Adam in his happy state that he was one day going to die.
5) There are other sabbaths to consider, such as those feast sabbaths in Leviticus 23 which were not specifically addressed as sabbaths, the yearly sabbaths, and those aditional sabbaths the Jews themselves added, like Feast of Purim and Feast of Dedication.
6) Finally, Paul could not be speaking about the weekly Sabbath because the bible declares that God's righteousness will never be abolished, and we learned that his righteousness is his law, which contains the weekly Sabbath.

We pray this study was helpful in your search for truth.