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Do the biblical Sabbaths and Festivals matter today?
Question: Colossians 2:16–17 seems to say that you should not let anyone judge you for not keeping sabbaths or festivals. Doesn’t this prove that we do not need to keep the Sabbath or the biblical Holy Days that Jesus and the Apostles kept?
Answer: This is a common but mistaken belief. In that passage, Paul was actually instructing the Christians in Colosse not to let any outsiders using vain, heathen philosophies dictate to them what to eat or drink regarding these biblical Festivals, but rather to allow God to work in His Church to establish and maintain biblical teachings in these regards.
Troublemakers—philosophers known to history as the gnostics—were confusing members of the Church of God at Colosse. The Greek word gnosis simply means “knowledge,” and gnostics believed that one needed certain special knowledge to reach God. That knowledge included the specific names of various spiritual “intermediaries,” since they taught that Christ alone was not sufficient to bridge the gap between man and God (see The New Bible Commentary: Revised, 1970, p. 1140). Paul wrestled against the influence of gnostic teachings in the Church at Colosse, defending Christ as our sufficient, divine mediator (Colossians 1:15–22; 2:9–10) and condemning gnostic ideas as “worship of angels” (2:18).
So, too, had these gnostic troublemakers affected the Colossians’ practices on the biblical Sabbaths and Holy Days. God says of these days that “these are My feasts” (Leviticus 23:2) and that they are times of joy (e.g., Nehemiah 8:9–12). But instead of rejoicing, eating, and drinking—in moderation—during God’s biblical Feasts, these gnostics taught that Christians should deny themselves physical pleasures according to strict, man-made rules.
Other verses in the very same chapter (e.g., Colossians 2:8, 20–22) make it unavoidably plain that Paul is not speaking of the commands of God, but of “philosophy,” “the tradition of men,” and “the commandments and doctrines of men.” The Sabbath and Holy Days originate from the inspired word of God and His divine law, not from the traditions or teachings of human philosophers.
Many translators confuse and obscure the meaning of Colossians 2:16–17 because they have a bias against the biblical Sabbath and Holy Days. While the New King James Version says that the Sabbath and Holy Days “are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (v. 17), the King James Version is closer to the original Greek wording, translating the last part of verse 17, “but the body is of Christ.” Note that the KJV translators placed the word “is” in that verse in italics, indicating that it does not appear in the original Greek. A more literal translation reads, “but the body of Christ,” and only a few verses earlier Paul defined what “the body of Christ” is, writing that “He [Christ] is the head of the body, the church” (Colossians 1:18) and “for the sake of His body, which is the church” (v. 24, see also Ephesians 1:22–23; 4:11–16). The true Church of God is the living, organized body of Christ, and God gives it an understanding of doctrine that philosophers, relying on “human tradition” and “the elemental spirits of the world” (Colossians 2:8, English Standard Version), do not have.
So, Paul points confused members to the Church, not to vain philosophers, for an understanding of how to keep the Festivals of God. When the context is considered, the meaning is clear. In Colossians 2:16–17, Paul is telling those in Colosse not to let any gnostic, ascetic philosopher judge them in how they rejoice during God’s Sabbaths and Festivals, which point to future prophetic fulfillments, but rather to look to the Church—of which Christ is the living Head—to judge such matters.
As for how God’s Sabbath and Holy Days serve as a “shadow of things to come,” request our free booklet The Holy Days: God’s Master Plan for details, or read it online at TomorrowsWorld.org. Rather than being days of extreme, ascetic self-restriction and false humility, these Festivals are celebrated around the world by those who embrace the hope they reveal.