Is the Sabbath Optional? An Evaluation of Romans 14 and Colossians 2

Is the Sabbath Optional Romans 14 Colossians 2

Wilhelmus à Brakel
The Christian’s Reasonable Service
Vol. 3, pp. 171-176.

Objection 4: The Sabbath Is Detrimental to the Gospel.

One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it” (Rom. 14:5-6).

Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain” (Gal. 4:10-11).

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: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ” (Col. 2:16-17).

The difficulty which would present itself in these texts is this: It seems as if the distinction of days is removed so that one may not judge another about this. Furthermore, it appears that the keeping of days is detrimental to the gospel, and thus there neither is a sabbath in the New Testament nor may it be observed.

Answer: First, these texts cannot be used as an argument against the sabbath if one maintains that there is still a moral element in the fourth commandment, even though there was merely an obligation to set apart some time for public worship (irrespective of what time this may be and to what extent one may do so). This implies a distinction of time, even if it were but every twentieth day, if it were but a half day or some hours. Thus, according to that presupposition, these texts do not speak of a distinction between times or days which is enjoined in the fourth commandment—and that is the point in question. And thus in harmony with the sentiments of the opponents themselves, these texts cannot be advanced as an argument against the sabbath.

Secondly, it is a well-known truth that the apostles commanded the churches everywhere to observe the Lord’s day (refer to the above). It is common knowledge that there was neither any contention concerning that day, nor was there any intent to force or eradicate the observance of this day contrary to the wishes of the apostles. It is thus evident when the apostle, in the texts mentioned, opposes those who wished to introduce the observance of days, that he does not have the Lord’s day in view, and that no one in the first congregations had any such thoughts as far as this day was concerned. Rather, everyone understood very well that the apostle did not speak of this day, but of other Jewish ceremonial days. If, however, the apostle does not speak in these texts of the Lord’s day, one can neither make use of them to prevent the observance of the Lord’s day, for one would thus miss the point of the question completely, which is: Ought one to observe the seventh day, which is the sabbath, and is called the Lord’s day?

Evasive Argument: These texts are presented, not to prevent the observance of the Lord’s day, but to demonstrate that one is not to observe this day by virtue of some divine commandment, and that we observe it only as an institution of men.

Answer: If the apostle does not speak of the Lord’s day at all, then he also does not say whether it is to be observed either by virtue of a divine commandment or a human institution. Thus, neither proposition can be confirmed or refuted by these texts. The apostle is referring to the Jewish ceremonial days, so that one would first have to prove that the seventh day—the sabbath or the Day of the Lord—is a ceremony and shadow. Only then can one produce these texts in order to refute the observance of the sabbath. To maintain, however, that the apostle forbids the observance of ceremonial days, and that the sabbath is consequently ceremonial, is an invalid conclusion.

Thirdly, if all distinction between days had been forbidden here, the apostles could not have instituted the Lord’s day. The church would then also not be able to either institute or observe the Lord’s day, prayer days, or days of thanksgiving, as the distinction of days of which Paul speaks in this text is harmful to the gospel. Such observance would thus be contrary to the command of the apostles, and would be such will-worship as is condemned in Matt 15:9. Indeed, since the distinction of foods is here placed on the same level with the distinction of days, the former being a sign of the antichrist and a doctrine of devils—”commanding to abstain from meats” (1 Tim 4:3)—then the institution of the distinction of days (if the apostle were condemning this in a general sense) would lean greatly in that direction. It is thus very evident that the apostle does not speak in a general sense against the observance of times and days, but he speaks against the observance of Jewish and ceremonial days. One can thus not conclude that the distinction of days, and thus also the sabbath has ceased. And as long as one has not proven that the observance of the sabbath or the Lord’s day (by virtue of God’s command) is Jewish and ceremonial, one may not advance these texts as an argument against it. If, however, such were the case, only then would they be applicable, and not any earlier.

Fourthly, if we may not judge each other in the observance of this day—indeed, if those were the strongest in the faith who do not observe such a day and if such observance were injurious to the gospel—then no one is under obligation. Yes, the best thing to do would be to work on the Lord’s day and let those go to church who wish to do so. However, no one will admit to that. It is thus evident that these texts are not general, but refer to the Jewish ceremonial days. However, then they do not pertain to the question whether or not the Lord’s day should be observed by virtue of God’s command or by virtue of human institution; for this is an entirely different question. We readily subscribe to and contend for the interpretation that the apostle speaks of Jewish ceremonial days, and that they may not be instituted again. What proof does this yield, however, in opposition to the sabbath of the fourth commandment, which had already been instituted prior to the fall (Gen 2)? The proof derived from these texts is thus: The Jewish days must be abolished and consequently the sabbath must be abolished. The Jewish days are ceremonial in nature and thus the sabbath is ceremonial. Who cannot see that such a conclusion is invalid? One would first have to determine that the sabbath is Jewish and ceremonial and then conclude that it must be abolished. However, the first cannot be proven from these texts, as we have demonstrated. Let us now consider each text in particular.

Romans 14:5-6.

As far as Rom. 14:5-6 is concerned, the question is whether the observance of all days should be tolerated. The believers among the Gentiles (who constituted the church) understood correctly that one was not bound to the Jewish days, and that the distinction of foods had also ceased. The weak believers among the Jews, who had joined themselves to the congregation, understood indeed that the ceremonies were to be eliminated, for they confessed that Christ had already come; however, they deemed that the Jewish days still had to be religiously observed, and that one as yet was not permitted to eat all foods. The believers among the Gentiles could not tolerate this. Paul exhorts that for the time being one must bear with those who are weak, and that the ceremonial days were not observed in a ceremonial sense, but engaged in as religious exercises. They would thus observe them unto the Lord, which could be tolerated for some time. The Jews, in turn, had to tolerate that the Gentiles did not observe these days. Thus, this text does not apply in the least to the Lord’s day, that is, the sabbath.

Galatians 4:10-11.

Let us consider Gal. 4:10-11. Rather than tolerating the weak believers among the Jews (Rom 14), the apostle does not want it to be tolerated that the Jews would forcefully defend the entire ceremonial service (and thus also the Jewish days), reintroduce it, and compel others to do likewise, as the Jews attempted to do (cf. Gal 3:1, etc; Gal 4:9). That which can be tolerated in someone who himself is weak but quiet, cannot be tolerated when someone becomes bold thereby and forces his errors upon others. Not one word is mentioned here as to whether the sabbath is either ceremonial or moral, or whether it ought to be abolished or remain in force. In these general answers it has now been demonstrated that these texts are not to be interpreted in a general sense, and that from a general proposition concerning all Jewish days nothing can be concluded in opposition to the sabbath.

Evasive Argument: This must be understood as a reference to all the holy days of the Jews—even of the weekly sabbath. Mention is made here of years (to which belonged the seventh year and the year of jubilee), and of times, which are the three solemn feast days Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles. It also mentions months (which are the new moons), and days, which can be nothing else but the seventh day, that is, the sabbath.

Answer: First, it must be proven that the apostle understood by these words the feast days mentioned. Secondly, even if it were admitted that it refers to years, months, and times, it nevertheless does not follow that one must understand “days” to refer to the sabbath of the fourth commandment—unless they, in addition to the times mentioned (years, months, and seventh day) had no other days. However, they had other high-days in addition to those, as is to be observed in Lev. 23 and will soon be demonstrated from Col. 2. The other feast days were of the same nature as those times, years, and months. Thus, by reason of the mention of “days” here, it does not follow that the sabbath must be counted among them. Since the seventh-day sabbath is, however, not of the same nature as the other days, but is moral, and is advantageous rather than detrimental to the gospel, it is evident that the apostle does not speak of the sabbath here. Add to this the answers given to the general questions.

Colossians 2:16-17.

Let us consider Col. 2:16-17. In order to understand this text, it must first be noted that the Jews had many sabbaths. There were the fifteenth day of the first month (Lev 23:6-7), the last day of the Passover, and in verse 21 yet another feast day is mentioned. Furthermore, there are the first day of the seventh month (Lev 23:24-25), the tenth day of the seventh month (Lev 23:27-28), and the eighth day of the Feast of Tabernacles (vs. 36). All of these were ceremonial in nature. In addition to these there was, however, one which already had been there from the beginning, and which has been commanded in the fourth commandment of the moral law. This sabbath was of an entirely different nature; it was of a moral nature.

Secondly, matters of a different nature may have the same name. Judas the traitor and Jude, the author of a powerful epistle, have identical names. Nevertheless it may not be said of both what is said of Judas. One may thus also not say of all sabbaths what is said of the sabbath, for they are distinct. There are ceremonial sabbaths—which bear the name sabbath together with the moral sabbath, due to having rest as a common focus—as well as the moral sabbath.

Thirdly, an unrestricted manner of speech may not be made applicable to all matters which bear a given name; rather, one must limit himself to the subject matter under discussion. This will be understood by every intelligent person. In order to demonstrate this to the inexperienced, however, let us take note of this text. The words “food” and “drink” are used here in the same unrestricted sense as the word “sabbaths.” It can readily be understood, however, that under the words “food” and “drink” not all food and drink must be comprehended, even though it bears the name of food and drink. Rather, it only refers to that food and drink in question, which are not vegetables, bread, etc., but the foods forbidden in the ceremonial law, which the apostle gives them the liberty to use. Once more, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (1 John 5:3). One may not conclude from this that he ought to keep the ceremonial laws in the New Testament merely because they bear the name of commandments. Rather, one must understand this to refer to the commandments which are now in force. And thus there are numerous texts in which unrestricted usage must be interpreted according to the context, and it must not be extended to all that bears that name. If you apply this rule to the word “sabbaths,” the difficulty will have been removed. In the Old Testament there were many sabbaths. Matters of a different nature do bear the same name. From an unrestricted manner of speech one may not make applications to all that bears that name. This being irrefutable, it is likewise irrefutable that one may not come to the conclusion that the seventh-day sabbath has been abolished simply because the apostle uses the word “sabbaths” in an unrestricted sense. Rather, one must apply this to those sabbaths which are of one and the same nature as food and drink, that is, which were ceremonial and typical, as is to be observed in verse 17. One may thus not conclude that the seventh-day sabbath is a shadow merely because there are food, drink, feast days, and sabbaths which are shadows.

Fourthly, it can readily be observed that it is not the apostle’s intention to prove what is typical and what is not, but rather what needs to be abolished due to being typical. Among them he mentions the sabbaths, but neither does he say “all sabbaths” or “such and such a sabbath,” for it is evident to which sabbaths he refers here. It is likewise understood which sabbath he did not refer to, since the seventh-day sabbath was observed by the congregation, and there was no question concerning this. One ought therefore first to prove that the weekly sabbath belonged to the shadows, and then this text will be applicable as far as abolishing the sabbath is concerned.

Fifthly, consider furthermore that it reads “sabbaths,” and not “sabbath,” since the seventh-day sabbath is generally referred to in God’s Word by the singular form “sabbath”; if “sabbaths” occurs, then it occurs due to the continual repetition of every seventh day. It also needs to be considered that Paul is not speaking here to Jews who were external to the church, so that Christians would be contrasted with Jews and he was thus rebuking their religion, but to those who were within the church and by whom the weekly sabbath, also called the Lord’s day, was observed.

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