In our previous discussion, we noted that the fourth commandment has been controversial for Christians over the years. These controversies have not been manufactured out of whole cloth; an exegetical basis exists for the questions which arise around observance of the fourth commandment.
There are two basic assumptions we must decide between first. One very common assumption about Old Testament law is that God’s law is not binding on us today unless the New Testament expressly says that it is. The other assumption, and the one which I am making here, is that God’s law is binding unless the New Testament shows the change of application. The question then becomes — “Has the New Testament set aside, or shown the fulfillment of, the physical observance of the fourth commandment?“ Our answer, with the reasons given in the previous installment, was no. But many conscientious Christians point to some key passages in the New Testament . . .
So here are the texts. “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“ (Col. 2:16).
“One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind“ (Rom. 14:5).
“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“ (Gal. 4:9-10).
In observing the fourth commandment, are we sitting loose to the clear teaching of St. Paul here? Let’s consider Colossians first. The apostle says that we are to let no one judge us “in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths.“
1. He says they are a shadow: In Hebrews, the shadows were sacrifices (Heb. 10:1);
2. He refers to food and drink. In the Old Testament, these two words brought together refer to sacrifices (Eze. 45:17);
3. He refers to “festival,“ “new moon,“ “sabbaths.“ In the Old Testament, these refer to official sacrifices (1 Chron. 23:31; 2 Chron. 2:4; 8:13; 31:3; Neh. 10:33; Hos. 2:11);
4. The foundation of all this is Numbers 28. God commands the people of Israel to offer sacrifices on the weekly Sabbath (vv. 9-10), on each new moon (vv. 11-15), and on each of the annual festivals (vv. 16-31);
5. This fits with the context of Colossians. Gentile Christians are not to allow themselves to be judged by a Judaic asceticism. It has no reference to the fourth commandment considered apart from the sacrifices.
What about Romans? St.Paul says here that in disagreements about observance of a “day,“ each believer is to be fully convinced in his own mind.
1. He does not mention the Sabbath by name. There were many days observed in the Old Testament law. The context of these disputes at Rome appears to have concerned things closely connected to Jewish scruples and observances. Remember that the relationship between Jew and Gentile is one of the central themes of the New Testament. Indeed, it is one of the central themes of Romans, and I believe we see it here.
2. If, from the apostle’s standpoint every day is alike, then what do we do with the scriptural evidence concerning some distinction of days? John refers to the “Lord’s day“ (Rev. 1:10), and the disciples met together on the first day (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1-2). Was John a weaker brother? Or was Paul talking about something else here?
3. The appeal to Romans proves too much for the one who objects to the sabbath. If it applies to the fourth commandment and not merely to the ceremonial feasts and sacrifices contained within the law (Eph. 2:15; Col. 2:14), then this gives the church warrant to establish the first day of the week as our day of observance, and to be fully convinced about it.
And then there is Galatians. In this place, St. Paul says that he is worried about the Galatians because they were turning back to Judaism. This is the context of the entire book — the controversy is over circumcision and submission to the entire Old Testament law in its unfulfilled sense.
1. Paul does not mention the Sabbath here either. Remember the Sabbath did not begin with the law of Moses.
2. The immediate context of his warning against calendar observance is his discussion of the maturing of God’s church from the time of the Old Testament. He is talking about Old Testament calendar observance.
Our keeping of the Lord’s Day must therefore not resemble the bondage resulting from a distortion of Old Testament law. We have been set free in Christ, and part of that freedom includes the freedom to rest before Him.