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In Colossians 2:16, 17, Paul made reference to God’s attitude in Isaiah toward the feast days, new moons, and sabbaths. Paul writes,
16 Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— 17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.
Paul’s criticism of the festivals and Sabbaths is based on the fact that these “are a mere shadow of what is to come.” By contrast, we should focus upon “the substance,” rather than the shadow. It is the same argument used in the entire book of Hebrews in regard to the changes that took place through the New Covenant application of the law.
Shadow and Substance
The imperfect priesthood of Levi was just a shadow of something greater yet to come in the priesthood of Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:11, 12). The principle of priesthood continued but under different and better forms.
The entire manner of worship, then, is changed as well, moving from shadow to the substance that had cast the shadow from the beginning. The new Melchizedek priesthood no longer needs to offer animal sacrifices (Hebrews 7:27), though they were commanded in the law. It is not that the principle of sacrifice ceased, but that a greater sacrifice was made, one that did not need to be repeated daily. The blood of an animal was a mere “copy” of something greater (Hebrews 9:24).
The daily washings (cleansings) in the physical temple in Jerusalem have been replaced by better cleansing agents authorized by the New Covenant (Hebrews 9:10). There is still cleansing, but now no longer by weak agents that cleansed the body but fell short of cleansing the heart.
Sabbaths, too, are presented to believers in a new way that pertains to the heart, rather than to outward rituals or actions. Hebrews 4:4-9 says,
4 For He has said somewhere concerning the seventh day: “And God rested on the seventh day from all His works”’ 5 and again in this passage, “They shall not enter My rest.” 6 Therefore, since it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience, 7 He again fixes a certain day, “Today,” saying through David after so long a time just as has been said before, “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” 8 For if Joshua [Yeshua] had given them rest, He would not have spoken of another day after that. 9 So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.
The writer’s point is then given in the next verse, Hebrews 4:10,
10 For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His.
Here the writer refers to Isaiah 58:13, 14, where the prophet describes God’s rest in terms of ceasing one’s own works and doing the works of God, from ceasing to speak one’s own words and speaking the words of God, from seeking one’s own pleasure (will) and seeking the pleasure (will) of God. This is how we are to keep God’s rest. It goes far beyond the usual dispute among men over which day to observe by resting or worshiping. In essence, to keep God’s Sabbath is to become an Amen of God, to do only what we see God do, to speak only what we hear God say, and to seek His will and not our own will.
Keeping the Feast Days
The manner of keeping the feast days has also changed. We no longer are required to kill lambs and put blood on our doorposts and lintels. Yet we are required to apply the blood of the true Lamb of God upon our spiritual ears and forehead, for we are the “house” that God is delivering.
We no longer need to offer to God two loaves of wheat bread baked with leaven at Pentecost. Yet we are required to offer our hearts to God as the true Pentecostal offering, which He then accepts by sending the fire of the Holy Spirit upon our altar to consume the leaven of sin, thereby sanctifying our hearts.
We are no longer required to leave our houses made of wood and stone and dwell in booths during the week of the feast of Tabernacles. Yet we are required to change our abiding place from the place of dead wood and stone to the abiding place of life with Christ, who said, “Abide in Me” (John 15:4) and “abide in My love” (John 15:10).
Old Covenant forms can never meet the requirements of God. It is only through the New Covenant that the proper changes were made that makes the feasts successful in their purpose. All of the main feasts are to be fulfilled today in our personal lives, but only the first two have been fulfilled historically. Jesus’ death on the cross fulfilled Passover; the coming of the Holy Spirit fulfilled Pentecost; but Tabernacles will be fulfilled historically when we leave our dead (mortal) bodies and dwell in the “house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1).
The New is Older than the Old
When Hebrews 9:23, 24 refers to the Old Covenant forms as “mere copies” of something that is real, it is evident that no “copy” can be made without a model to copy. Hence, the original, heavenly substance existed prior to the time of Moses when these were copied.
In fact, the New Covenant is also older than the Old Covenant, for the New Covenant was given to Noah (Genesis 9) as well as to Abraham (Genesis 12), long before the time of Moses. Paul affirms this in Galatians 3:17, telling us that the law covenant of Moses was established 430 years after the covenant with Abraham. For that reason alone, the New Covenant took precedence over the Old Covenant and retains jurisdictional authority.
The same is true with all of the forms set forth under the Old Covenant, which must always be subservient to the changes made by the New Covenant. It is only when men misunderstand this legal jurisdiction that they become enslaved to the outward forms and rituals under Moses and thereby unwittingly reject the New Covenant of Jesus Christ.
Paul mentioned these changes in Colossians 2:16, 17 (quoted earlier), but he did not take the time to explain what he meant. He had already taught the Colossians these things face to face, and hence, he saw fit only to remind them of this principle. Apparently, some men (probably Jewish Christians) were judging the New Covenant believers for not “keeping” the feasts, new moon, and Sabbaths in the old manner.
Paul’s reference pointed out the conflicting viewpoint but he did not engage in that dispute except to add a few disputed issues a few verses later. Colossians 2:20-23 says,
20 If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21 “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” 22 (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? 23 These matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.
To “handle” or “touch” certain things rendered men unclean under Old Covenant rules, and those who continued to follow those rules were under “self-made religion,” giving “the appearance of wisdom” and the appearance of humility and self-sacrifice. However, Paul says, these “are of no value against fleshly indulgence.”
The Emphatic Diaglott renders this last phrase, “are only for a gratification of the flesh.” In other words, doing religious things only gratifies the flesh’s natural desire for Old Covenant ritual. Paul goes on to express confidence in the Colossian believers that they already know the answer to this problem. Colossians 3:1, 2 says,
1 Therefore, if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.
If we too follow Paul’s admonition, we will not stray from New Covenant truth, nor will we fear to let go of earthly things that have been mere copies of true substance.
The Epistle of Barnabas and Others
The date of this Epistle is usually set at 115-140 A.D., although some believe it was actually written by Barnabas in the mid 60’s A.D. Regardless, it is a very early writing and its author was undoubtedly a Jewish Christian familiar with both the New Covenant and also gematria.
The author expounds on Isaiah 1:13, 14 saying in Barnabas 13:9, 10,
9 Lastly, he saith unto them, “Your new moons and your sabbaths I cannot bear them.” Consider what he means by it; the sabbaths, says he, which ye now keep are not acceptable unto me, but those which I have made; when resting from all things I shall begin the eighth day, that is, the beginning of the other world [age?]. 10 For which cause we observe the eighth day with gladness, in which Jesus rose from the dead; and having manifested himself to his disciples, ascended into heaven.
While this epistle is not part of Scripture itself, it certainly reflects the common practice in the church by the early second century. Barnabas does not seek to convince others of his position, showing clearly that he was not being innovative, nor was he departing from common church custom. It was mentioned also in the Didache, “Teaching,” in 65 A.D., “On the Lord’s Day come together and break bread.”
The church had been meeting on the “eighth day” for nearly a century already, ever since Jesus had met with His disciples on at least the first two Sundays from His resurrection.
Those who say, then, that the Emperor Constantine in 313 A.D. forced the church to quit meeting on Saturday and to begin meeting on Sunday are ignorant of plain history. Barnabas was written two centuries before the Edict of Constantine. The emperor only legalized the day on which the church had been meeting for nearly three centuries. He did not change church custom but accommodated them by turning their day of worship into a holiday.
Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of John and a contemporary of Barnabas in the early second century, wrote in his Letter to the Magnesians, “no longer sabbatizing, but living according to the Lord’s Day,” by which he meant Sunday. He does not explain the difference, but there is obviously a difference between Jewish and Christian practice, and it is hardly possible that Ignatius would teach something different from his mentor, the Apostle John.
This practice is again mentioned by Justin Martyr (160 A.D.) in First Apology, chapter 47. The same was repeated often by Tertullian in 202 A.D. The Council of Elvira in 300 A.D. decided: “If anyone in the city neglects to come to church for three Sundays, let him be excommunicated for a short time so that he may be corrected.” At no time was there any hint that keeping Sunday was an anomaly or that men had to be forced to change their day of worship.
We must conclude, then, that Isaiah’s reference to the feast days and sabbaths indicated that a change needed to take place. That change was instituted by the New Covenant, which brought the original Sabbath principle back into prominence so that the people could observe God’s rest in a way that they had failed to do under the Old Covenant mandate.