One passage that has always been important to Adventists is Colossians 2:16, 17: “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”
Some see this passage as a challenge to the perpetuity of the seventh-day Sabbath, grouping it with Jewish feasts and new moons—and terming them all as “shadows.”
Is the weekly Sabbath in play here? And if so, has it been relegated to “shadow” status?
The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary says: “The type of sabbath under consideration is shown by the phrase ‘which are a shadow of things to come’ (Col. 2:17, KJV). The weekly Sabbath is a memorial of an event at the beginning of earth’s history. . . . Hence, the ‘sabbath days’ Paul declares to be shadows pointing to Christ cannot refer to the weekly Sabbath designated by the fourth commandment, but must indicate the ceremonial rest days that reach their realization in Christ and His kingdom” (vol. 7, pp. 205, 206). The difficulty with this explanation is that it’s circular; it rules out the Sabbath based on our own understanding of the Sabbath. That isn’t good enough. If the New Testament declares the Sabbath to be a shadow, we must be open to that.
Adventist theologian Ron du Preez, in his book Judging the Sabbath, makes a much stronger case that “sabbath days” in this passage are, in fact, ceremonial days. Citing the chiastic structure used by Hebrew writers, Du Preez points to Hosea 2:11, which he says partitions the annual Jewish festivals into two categories: “feast days” and “sabbaths” (KJV).
If, for the sake of argument, the weekly Sabbath was in view here, does that mean it’s been fulfilled along with the feasts and new moons? Not necessarily. Whenever we find the sequence of feasts, new moons, and sabbaths in the Old Testament, it’s almost always within one particular context: sacrifices. Ezekiel 45:17, for example, says: “It will be the duty of the prince to provide the burnt offerings, grain offerings and drink offerings at the festivals, the New Moons and the Sabbaths—at all the appointed feasts of the house of Israel.” This passage, and others like it, use the same key terms as Colossians 2: meat, drink, feasts, new moons, sabbaths. The context is sacrifices.
So what could Paul mean by “shadow” in Colossians 2:17? Most scholars argue that the shadows are the feasts, new moons, and sabbaths. But a new moon can’t be a “shadow,” because a new moon had no religious significance in itself. A new moon’s only significance was its association with sacrifices. Instead, the shadow must have something to do with what all these particular days had in common: the sacrifices offered on them.
Is there support for the idea that “shadow” refers to sacrifices? Yes. The two other New Testament references to shadows are found in Hebrews. “There are already men who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven” (Heb. 8:4, 5). And, “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. . . . Therefore, when Christ came into the world he said, ‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me’” (Heb. 10:1-5).
At a time when sacrifices were still being offered in Jerusalem (even by early Christians), Paul taught that the age of sacrifices was over. They were shadows of something better to come: the body of Christ, for which the weekly Sabbath remains an enduring symbol of our salvation—rest in Him.
This article originally appeared on Adventist Review magazine, August, 2010.