Lou: Here’s another question: “In Colossians 2 doesn’t Paul say that the Sabbath has been nailed to the cross? And in light of that, doesn’t Paul say that no one should judge you regarding religious festivals or even a Sabbath day?” What about that Colossians 2?
Graham: That question is important enough for a whole chapter, but I’ll try to deal with the basics in a paragraph or two. I think first we need to note just what it was that was nailed to the cross. The King James Version says it was “the handwriting of ordinances” (Col 2:14). Many take that to be the Law. But the first key word is literally “hand writing” (Greek: cheirographon), a word compound combining “hand” and “writing.” The second is “requirements” (Greek: dogmasin). The phrase “handwritten document of requirements” is a technical term for a legal obligation. The “document” contains the sentence that stood against us because of rebellion and sin. That is what was nailed to the cross.
When people read this text to suggest that the Sabbath was nailed to the cross, that reading creates a serious difficulty. You see, whatever the “handwritten document of requirements” is, the text says it was “contrary” (Greek: hupenantion) or “hostile to us” (Col 2:14, KJV). In other words, Jesus took it out of the way because it was bad for us. But nowhere in the Bible is the Sabbath pictured as against us, or bad for us. Rather, it was given to help us. Did Jesus say, “The Sabbath was made for you, but in a short while I’m going to nail it to the cross because it’s been against you?” No, the Sabbath was made for our sake (Mark 2:27, Greek: dia ton anthrôpon). So some interpreters have been nailing the wrong thing to the cross! Rather, when Jesus died He took care of the sin problem. He took care of the sentence against us, or whatever word you want to use there. And I think when Paul says “Don’t let anyone judge you with respect to the Sabbath, either” (Col 2:16), he was saying, “You’re right. Don’t you go around condemning people who disagree with you on the Sabbath.”
Sometimes we say that Paul is talking about ceremonial Sabbaths in Colossians 2. In that case he would be saying, “Don’t criticize people when they disagree on the ceremonial laws. But when they disagree with you on the seventh day, you can go condemn them all you want to.” Paul did not want us to condemn anybody for anything. That’s not our business. His message was the same in Romans 14: “One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom 14:5, RSV). . . . Why do you pass judgment on your brother?” (Rom 14:10, RSV). I include the seventh-day Sabbath in that. We are in no position ever to criticize or condemn anyone who disagrees over this matter of the Sabbath. “No,” Paul says, “Each of us shall give account of himself to God” (Rom 14:12, RSV).
So going back to Colossians, something that was against us was nailed to the cross. And once we understand how God has handled this problem of distrust in the universe, we won’t go around condemning other people. But in my own heart I’m very much persuaded that the Sabbath is for me. I wouldn’t want to waste it. I hope I can make it look good to other people so they won’t waste it either. We should present it as a gift, not as an obligation.
Lou: Graham, some of our friends of other faiths see Sabbath-keeping as legalistic. When you’re concerned about sundowns and what is appropriate to do on the Sabbath, aren’t you back into a kind of bondage, where you’re so careful about these things? Isn’t that legalism?
Graham: That word “legalism” needs to be defined, and in Chapter Twelve we’ll have more to say about it. But to me, the essence of legalism is preoccupation with one’s legal standing with God. Many of the same people who think Sabbath keepers are legalistic are themselves utterly concerned with their legal standing before God. They thank God that His Son came and paid the penalty so that they could be in good legal standing. It seems to me that if you have a legal model, you’re a legalist, whether or not you observe the Sabbath. But in the larger view, you’re saying, “God, I don’t want to miss out on a thing You have given me.” The Sabbath is a gift that points us to so many of God’s acts of blessing. We keep the Sabbath as a blessing, not as a burden.
Lou: It makes so much difference whether a person is keeping the Sabbath as a requirement or keeping it as a celebration of the glorious things that the Sabbath stands for.
Graham: Yes, it’s supposed to be all about freedom. If in the middle of church a person does not feel free, maybe he should walk out, take a breath of fresh air and decide whether he wants to come back in or not. Nobody should be sitting in church because he has to. Everybody should be in church because they feel good about it.
Lou: You might lose your audience if they did that. What if some children hear about that comment and decide not to go to church anymore?
Graham: Well, that’s a different story. It makes me think of the next chapter, “God’s Emergency Measures.” You can’t expect little children to understand these things. For example, they won’t brush their teeth because it’s good to brush their teeth. They brush their teeth because Mommy says so. They don’t want to upset Mommy. She might take “emergency measures.” Our little children might not gladly follow us to church. But while you want to preserve their freedom, when it becomes time to go to church you say, “Billy, we’re leaving, and you’re coming, too.” So there are children who sit in the pews under some duress. But you hope they’ll sit there long enough to hear the pastor tell them that God values nothing higher than their freedom, and you hope that one day they’ll choose to continue on their own.