The Old Testament Shadows of the New
Speaking of Old Testament events in the life of Israel, Paul says that “these things were types for us” (I Cor. 10:6). “These things happened to them ‘typically’ and they were written for our instruction” (I Cor. 10:11). We have no difficulty seeing that the Israelites’ “baptism” in the cloud and the Red Sea (I Cor. 10:2) was a “type” replaced by Christian baptism in water and spirit. Similarly their obligation to rest on the seventh day typified our rest in Christ (Col. 2:16, 17). The seventh-day Sabbath was a shadow of an ongoing Christian rest. The writer to the Hebrews passes over the weekly Sabbath observed by Israel and sees the seventh-day rest of God at creation as a “type” or shadow of our “rest” from sin now and our final rest in the coming Kingdom. That “sabbatism” (not Sabbath day) remains for the people of God (Heb. 4:9). The Old Testament Sabbath day has passed away as a shadow of better things now come (Col. 2:16, 17), since Christ has come. The true light of the Genesis creation is found in the face of Jesus Christ who represents the New Creation: “For God who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness’ [Gen. 1:3] is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (II Cor. 4:6).
For long-standing Sabbath-keepers a necessary “paradigm shift” will involve some serious study and meditation on the theme of the shadow and body contrast of Colossians 2:16, 17 and Hebrews 10:1, freedom from the law of Moses, the “fulfillment” of the law introduced by Jesus, and the “spiritualizing” of Old Testament shadows taught by Paul as Jesus’ agent to the churches. Colossians 2:16, 17 should be read prayerfully and with full attention to each word, and no attempt should be made to avoid what Paul says: The Sabbath and holy days and new moons are a shadow. All three are a single shadow. As such they are hardly a matter of life and death to believers.
Jesus, speaking to fellow countrymen before his death which inaugurated the New Covenant, can still refer to some of the ten commandments (the fourth is never cited) as a beginning point for faith, though it must be remembered that to his inner circle of disciples he goes beyond the letter of the law of the ten commandments (Matt. 5-7). Jesus also told some to offer sacrifices according to the law of Moses (Mark 1:44), but no one now would feel bound to follow that instruction. When Jesus told the Pharisees to tithe on separate herbs he was speaking to men still under the law (Matt. 23:23). To the Christians he spoke through his Apostles, declaring that the whole Sabbatical system (of which one part, the weekly Sabbath, appeared in the ten commandments) was a “sketch” or shadow of the present reality of Christ (Col. 2:16, 17).
It was at the cross that this New Covenant was inaugurated. At that time, all of the New Covenant words of Jesus, given as Matthew arranges them in five blocks of teaching (reminiscent of the OT law), were ratified. Just as Moses had given the words of the Old Covenant and then solemnized the covenant with blood (Ex. 24), so Jesus follows this pattern for the New Covenant.
Until the time of the cross Jesus’ followers continued to observe the Sabbath (Luke 23:56) and no doubt circumcise their children. The situation is very different when Paul writes to the Colossians to warn them against enforced Sabbath observance (Col. 2:16, 17). For Paul the ten commandments are now summarized in the higher law of love in the spirit (Rom. 13:9, 10).
Let every man be persuaded in his own heart after careful study (Rom. 14:5), but let us not refuse the plain words of Colossians 2:16, 17 describing the status of the Sabbath and holy days as a single shadow. Should we insist on the weekly Sabbath, we must, to be consistent, insist also on the holy days and the new moons. They stand or fall together as part of the whole Sabbatical system given to Israel under the Old Covenant. Attempts to retranslate Colossians 2:16, 17 are unsuccessful — for example the proposal that Paul wishes the “body of Christ,” the Church, to judge in the matter of days. This is a forced and unnatural translation. Paul’s words are: don’t let anyone, in or out of the Church, take you to task on the issue of food and drink or annual, monthly and weekly observances.
It is misleading to maintain with the Plain Truth¹ that the annual Sabbaths are binding because they were instituted “forever” (Lev. 23:41, “a perpetual statute throughout your generations”). Only a verse earlier Israel was given an equally perpetual statute about not eating bread or roasted grain or new growth before offering the wavesheaf. Does anyone consider this to be binding today? What about the “perpetual statute” that those who come in contact with a dead person are to be unclean for seven days? (Num. 19:14-21).
Throughout the book of John the feasts are described as Jewish — John 7:2 (Tabernacles), 6:4 (Passover), 5:1 (Passover). The preparation day for the Sabbath is called “the Jewish day of preparation” (19:42). John thinks of the Sabbath as Jewish with a Jewish preparation day preceding it. These terms are scarcely compatible with the conviction that the Old Testament observances are now binding on the Christian community. With Paul, John sees the days as a shadow of the much greater reality of Christ.
The matter of the observance of days should be settled by each individual as he comes to learn true Christianity. People with scruples about food and days should be treated with patience until we all come to the unity of the spirit (Rom. 14:1-6): “One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5).
Should anyone take it upon himself to interfere with this precious freedom granted to believers, he should consider that Sabbaths, holy days and new moons were Old Testament types of New Covenant realities in Christ. The danger of legalism is that it may promote a self-righteous justification on the basis of strict observance to Old Covenant law. He who receives the sign of the Old Testament Covenant — physical circumcision — is “under obligation to keep the whole law” (Gal. 5:3).
This statement of Paul clearly implies that Christians are not bound by the “whole law.” Those who insist on law, in the Old Testament sense as a code of regulations, “have been severed from Christ…You have fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4). These are Paul’s stern warnings to any who impose upon believers legal obligations which Jesus does not require of his followers. It is wise to remember that it was hostile Jews who persecuted Jesus “because he was breaking the Sabbath” (John 5:18). Jesus’ claim was that he had been working uninterruptedly with the full authority of his Father (John 5:19). This is not to argue, however, that Jesus, during his ministry on earth, disregarded customary Sabbath observance.
(1) Sept. 1991, p. 18.