Let’s first take a look at the apostle Paul’s words in Colossians 2:14–17: “Having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. … 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.”
When some read about the sabbath days that were shadows and that passed away at the cross, they think that Paul was referring to the weekly Sabbath, the fourth of the Ten Commandments. Is this accurate? It’s important to get this right, because our interpretation of the apostle’s actual meaning can lead us into deeper truth or into deeper error.
First, there is nothing in the Ten Commandment law about food, drink, festivals, new moons, or sabbath days (plural). All these were actually separate laws that God gave for the physical and spiritual health of His Old Testament people; these were called ceremonial laws.
Second, Paul wrote plainly that he was speaking of “sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come,” and not of the weekly Sabbath, which is a memorial of something that happened in the past, at the creation. The contrast between a shadow and a memorial is quite clear. Indeed, the fourth commandment does not tell us to keep the seventh day as a type of something to come. It says: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. … For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (Exodus 20:8, 11).
Moreover, to show that he had something other than the weekly Sabbath in mind, Paul distinctly mentioned “sabbaths,” plural,” which are a shadow of things to come.” (The word “sabbath” in the Greek can be singular or plural according to Strong’s and Greek lexicons.)
Festivals and Shadows
The King James uses the word “holyday,” and some will contend that it refers to the weekly Sabbath, while the expression “sabbath days” refers to yearly sabbaths. The American Standard Version uses “feast day” instead of “holyday,” and this likely a clearer translation. The word translated “holyday” is from the Greek heorte, and in John 5:1, this same word is used to designate one of the yearly festivals of the Jews: “After this there was a feast [heorte] of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.” This is one of the holy days that Paul spoke of as having been nailed to the cross.
The “shadows” Paul mentions pointed to Jesus as a Savior from sin and were observed with that in mind. But the weekly Sabbath was made for man before sin entered into the world, before man would need atonement. The shadows pointing forward to His death as an atonement for sin certainly were not instituted until after sin. Therefore, since the weekly Sabbath was instituted before sin, just as was the marriage institution, it was not a shadow of Christ’s death as a Savior from sin; and His death did not end the Sabbath day any more than it brought marriage to an end. Both the Sabbath and marriage came to us in a perfect world.
Paul’s language shows he was referencing the shadowy ceremonies that pointed forward to and ended at the cross. Notice again, carefully, his words in Colossians 2:14: “Having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” Paul mentions that these laws were “against us” and “contrary” to us. Would it be contrary to Christians to refrain from idolatry, using God’s name in vain, dishonoring parents, murder, theft, adultery, lying, and coveting—the sins rebuked by the Ten Commandments? Thus, the apostle must have been talking of another law—a law that enjoined food offerings, drink offerings, the observance of festivals, new moons, and yearly sabbaths.
Why Are These Laws Contrary to Us?
Why would the observance of these ceremonies after the death of Christ be contrary to the Christian faith? The yearly sabbath of the Passover involved killing a lamb that represented Jesus, the Lamb of God. The apostle Paul taught directly, “Indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7). Thus, to keep offering a sacrificial lamb after His death would be to imply that Jesus had not accomplished atonement. Such an observance would be contrary to the teachings of Christianity.
Many other shadowy requirements of the ceremonial law pointed to the death of Jesus on the cross, as well. All these festivals, food and drink offerings, and sabbaths that were nailed to the cross, Paul declared to be “a shadow of things to come.” Then he adds, “But the substance is of Christ.” That is, the substance that cast these shadows was Christ’s body on the cross.
Think of it this way—late in the afternoon when a tall tree casts its shadow eastward, one can begin at the farthest end of the shadow and follow it until he or she gets to the tree that casts the shadow, and there the shadow ceases to be. Likewise, we can go back to the time when “through one man [Adam] sin entered the world, and death through sin,” and there a merciful God promised to send a Redeemer (Genesis 3:15), a Substitute, to die in man’s place. To keep man continually reminded of this fact, and to supply him with a means of expressing his faith in the coming sacrifice, God instituted these ceremonies. All of these were included in the law that was not written on tables of stone.
Follow these shadowy ceremonies all the way from Eden to the time of Moses, and then through the wilderness journey and on for hundreds of years after the settlement in Canaan, and at last to Calvary—and there they cease. So it would be “against us” and “contrary” to our faith to observe these ceremonies after Jesus’ death. Not so with the other law. It is just as necessary to refrain from idolatry, using God’s name in vain, dishonoring the Sabbath, murder, adultery, and theft after the cross as before. Indeed, it was the violation of these principles that caused the death of Christ. Could they have been set aside or changed to accommodate the carnal mind, Jesus need not have died.
Now with these truths before us, let us again read Colossians 2:14–17 and see how plainly Paul revealed that he did not mean that the weekly seventh-day Sabbath had been nailed to the cross: “Having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. … 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.”