Paul and the Sabbath

Jon English Lee
| October 17, 2013

*This post is the latest in a series looking at the Sabbath. Previous posts include: Jesus and the Sabbath,  The Sabbath and the Decalogue in the OT, a look at God’s Rest as Prescriptive, an examination of the Sabbath as a Creation Ordinance.

Throughout the New Testament the Sabbath principle retains its binding status. However, Romans 14:5-6, Galatians 4:9-11, and Colossians 2:16-17 are all often cited as evidence that the Sabbath is no longer binding. These texts pose perhaps the most persuasive arguments against the Sabbatarian position, therefore several brief points need to be made regarding their interpretation. While a full Pauline theology of the Law and Sabbath is well beyond the capabilities of a single blog post, I do hope to show that these passages are not as iron-clad as the anti-sabbatarians might argue.

Romans 14

Romans 14:5-6 is in the middle of an argument Paul is building against passing judgment upon weaker brothers, specifically regarding Jewish ceremonial laws. Lloyd-Jones explains regarding these ‘Sabbath days’:

“Jewish religious authorities themselves decided that when a certain great festival was coming, it would be good if the people prepared for it. So they appointed a ‘sabbath’, the day before the festival, as a means of preparation. So quite literally, from their standpoint, they did have Sabbath ‘days’; not only the seventh day of every week, but other holy days that they themselves had introduced in order that their observance of the fast or the festival might be more effective.”[1]

Paul is dealing with the ceremonial and cultic attachments to certain days; he is not abrogating the Sabbath command. Just as people today attach significance to certain days (e.g., Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Lent…), these believers were doing the same. Paul is addressing, “not the Sabbath as such, but certain fast days, certain feast days, certain festival days, that had now become a part of the life of the Jews.”[2] Paul concludes regarding these matters, “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom 14:5b). Regarding the observance of special days, there is to be charity shown in discussing diverse views. But regarding the ongoing Sabbath command, Paul is not here speaking.

Galatians 4

In Galatians 4:9-11, Paul is writing against the keeping of days as a necessity for justification. The entire letter is an argument not to return to Jewish practices, namely circumcision, as a means necessary for salvation. Even though the letter speaks of those who “observe days, months, seasons, and years” (v 10), because of the context of the passage and the letter this does not constitute an argument against keeping a Sabbath for non-salvific purposes.

Colossians 2

Colossians 2:16-17 is the more difficult passage of the three because it actually contains the word “Sabbath” (v 16). In the letter Paul is urging the Colossians not to be led astray by those who are ‘judging’ their salvation based on their observances of dietary restrictions and special days. The dietary restrictions can be understood, “in light of both the discussion of ethnic identity of Jewish Christians and the preparatory rites for visionary experiences.”[3] This combination of abrogated Mosaic ceremonial law plus a Jewish cultism was leading the Colossians astray. The reference to a “festival, new moon, or a Sabbath,” clearly indicates some Jewish background to this heresy. These terms are found together in several Old Testament passages.[4] Significantly, “when these terms are listed together in the OT, it often refers to cultic rituals linked with these festal days. If so, Paul is not opposed to the Jewish calendar per se but to the imposition of practices related to these feasts”[5] Similar to the Romans passage discussed above, Paul is not removing the command for one Sabbath day of rest per week. He is addressing the ceremonial and cultic patterns that the Colossians were using to “pass judgment” upon believers.


While a full exploration of Paul’s theology of the Law and the Sabbath is way beyond what a blog post could attempt to accomplish, I hope to have shown some introductory arguments to defend against anti-sabbatarians, many of whom like to cite these verses as the final word against any New Covenant sabbatarian notions.

In the coming posts I hope to look at the typology of the Sabbath, historical teachings on the Sabbath, and the impact of Sabbath rest upon theology, particularly on ecclesiology.

Jon English Lee

[1] David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 14:1-17 : Liberty and Conscience (Edinburgh; Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2003), 88.

[2] Ibid.

[3]David W. Pao, Colossians & Philemon: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary Series on the New Testament, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament v. 12 (2012), 185.

[4] E.g., 1 Chr 23:31; 2 Chr 2:4; 31:3; Ezek 45:17; cf. 2 Kgs 4:23; Neh 10:33; Isa 66:23; Ezek 46:1; Amos 8:5.

[5] Pao, Colossians, 185. See also: H. Ross Cole, “The Christian and Time-Keeping in Colossians 2:16 and Galatians 4:10,” AUSS 39 (2001): 273-82.