The Sabbath: Objection #2

Sabbath Study, Part 5

The second major New Testament passage used to dispute the continuance of the Sabbath is found in the book of Galatians.

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. I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain. (Galatians 4:9-11)

You observe days...and years.

There seem to be two possible interpretations of this passage. The first is that the observance of special holidays is outdated and unnecessary. If that is Paul’s meaning here, let us examine why the weekly Sabbath is not included.

“The days here referred to [in Gal. 4:10] are doubtless the days of the Jewish festivals. They had numerous days of such observances; and in addition to those specified in the Old Testament, the Jews had added many others, as days commemorative of the destruction and rebuilding of the temple, and of other important events in their history. It is not a fair interpretation of this to suppose that the apostle refers to the Sabbath, properly so called, for this was a part of the Decalogue [the Ten Commandments]. . . . It is a fair interpretation to apply it to all those days which are not commanded to be kept holy in the Scriptures; and hence the passage is as applicable to the observance of saints’ days, and days in honour of particular events in sacred history, as to the days observed by the Galatians” (Albert Barnes).

There is another possible interpretation of this passage, one that I think is more plausible. Paul’s main problem wasn’t with the special days the Christians were observing per se, but the underlying heart motivations involved. That is, the Galatians were acting as if their salvation hinged on their adherence to the law. If this is the case—if the problem wasn’t what they were doing but why they were doing it—then it matters little whether or not “days…and years” includes the weekly Sabbath.

“To regard the observance of certain days as in itself meritorious as a work, is alien to the free spirit of Christianity. This is not incompatible with observing the Sabbath or the Christian Lord’s day as obligatory, though not as a work (which was the Jewish and Gentile error in the observance of days), but as a holy means appointed by the Lord for attaining the great end, holiness. The whole life alike belongs to the Lord in the Gospel view, just as the whole world, and not the Jews only, belong to Him. But as in Paradise, so now one portion of time is needed wherein to draw off the soul more entirely from secular business to God” (JFB).

“Paul does not object to these observances for he kept them himself as a Jew. He objected to Gentiles taking to them as a means of salvation” (A.T. Robertson).

I am afraid for you.
What could make Paul afraid? Very little ever seemed to rattle his cage. This was a man who wasn’t afraid of shipwrecks, persecution, prison—even death.

The problem couldn’t merely be that the Galatians were practicing outdated Jewish customs. Paul himself had done that very thing: “to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, though not being myself under the law that I might win those who are under the law” (1 Cor. 9:20). Paul did this to advance the gospel: “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake” (v. 22, 23; see also 10:33).

If all the Galatians were doing was the same thing Paul had done in the past, he would have no need to be worried. Instead, he expressed himself using incredibly strong terms: “You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4). To attempt justification before God through one’s own efforts—whether those efforts are unnecessary, optional, or required—is to become estranged from Christ, to act as if grace is not needed. But to act as if grace is not needed is to act as if Jesus died for nothing (see 2:21). That’s how the Galatians were acting (whether they fully realized it or not)—and that is what troubled Paul.

So, we see that the problem was not observing “days and months and seasons and years” (even though some or all were no longer necessary); it was observing them legalistically, as if their salvation depended upon it. I would agree with Paul: as I have stated previously, I do not think observing the Sabbath is meritorious in any way, shape, or form. To do so would be to act contrary to the very gospel that saves us.

That being said, the question becomes, “Well, are we really sure that the fourth commandment is a moral law and not a ceremonial law?” We will begin to answer that question in more depth in the next post.

Commentaries Cited from
Hall, Kay. Online Bible. Beersheba Springs: Ken Hamel, 2000. CD-ROM.

Commentaries Used
The Family Bible Notes, by Justin EdwardsNotes on the New Testament, by Albert BarnesJamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary
Word Pictures in the New Testament, by A.T. Robertson