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 The first is that the observance of special holidays is outdated and unnecessary.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


Shannon Stewart said…
Good point. Come to think of it, this passage might fit into what I think is a typical Pauline tendency: to react REALLY STRONGLY against whatever people might try to use to earn favor with God by their own merit. For example, there are other places in the New Testament where, if you only looked at specific verses, you might conclude that Paul hates circumcision or the law in general… but he doesn’t; he only hates that people try to use them to earn favor, acting like grace wasn’t enough for them. I think this passage could fall into that category: a strong reaction against something that is not necessarily a sin, but could be if the motive is to make God owe you something.
Steven said…
It would greatly help your understanding of what Paul in his letter to the Galatians was warning them against if you begin in Gal 4 vs 8 instead of vs 9. Gal 4:8 "But then, indeed when you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods". The Galatians were gentiles who did not know or worship the true God. They worshiped false/pagan gods. The "weak and beggarly elements" spoken of here are not "doubtless the days of the Jewish festivals" as Albert Barnes claims, he merely assumes they are. The Sabbath, annual Sabbaths, or any other festivals of the Jews is nowhere mentioned in Galatians. Gal 4:9 says “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? “How could the Galatians be returning to something they never observed? The word for elements in the Greek is stoicheia which refers to the "elements of the world" vs 3 and vs. 9 "weak and beggarly elements" spoken of here are referring to the stars, sun, moon and planets that were associated with their pagan gods/goddesses. It was referring to their pagan festivals which they observed. Duet 18 God called the fortune tellers “observers of times”. These elements of the world had to do with astrology and the signs of heaven that God spoke of the gentiles being dismayed at in Jer 10:2. Why would Paul call any part of God’s law “weak and beggarly elements” or “elements of the world”. This does not make sense. Paul said in Romans “the law was holy, righteous, just and good.” As I mentioned in other posts Paul was still observing God’s Sabbath and Holy days. Why would he now call them “weak and beggarly” and “elements of the world”?
The main issue Paul was dealing with was, some of the Jews were telling the Galatians that they had to be circumcised in order to be justified. That in order to be heirs of the promise to Abraham they had to be circumcised. Paul was clearly warning them against this in Gal 5. that justification comes only through faith in Christ and not by works of any law. PRAISE GOD!! I believe the “yoke of bondage” spoken of in Gal 5:1 refers to circumcision and the sacrificial/ceremonial laws and not God’s Sabbath, Sabbaths, statutes, judgments or precepts, which God or Paul would never refer to as a “yoke of bondage”. AMEN??
I agree with you that observing God’s Sabbath Day or God’s Sabbath/Feast Days for that matter are not meritorious towards justification. I think that’s what you meant when you stated “I do not think the observing the Sabbath is meritorious in any way, shape or form.” What do you think of 1 John 3:21-22 “Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God. And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things which are pleasing in His sight”. If you are saying that God’s Sabbath is still to be observed as one of his commandments then surely this would be included here. Don’t you think it would also please Him to observe it on the day he appointed??
Glad to see your back posting. God bless your study, Steven
Cap Stewart said…

You make a very compelling argument here. What you say seems to fit well with the Scriptural text. It's something I’ll look into further. Whatever the case, my main point still stands—one with which I think you agree: this passage is not referring to the weekly Sabbath.

And yes, observing the Sabbath is not meritorious towards justification. That is what I meant.