An In-Depth Look at the Significant Words and Grammatical Structure of Colossians 2:16-17
By David J. Conklin
(This page was last updated on Feb. 28, 2003)


Colossians 2:16-17 (KJV):

Let no man therefore judge you in meat or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.

     What is Paul saying here?  Is he saying "don't let anyone judge you on what you eat or drink and on what days you keep holy"?  Or, is he saying "don't let anyone judge you about feasting on the ceremonial days of festivities"?  Anyone who has studied these verses at all will recognize that the first sample is the most common explanation.  However, as we will see, the latter option is by far much closer to the truth.

     These two verses have been the focus of much debate without most participants in those debates realizing the actual complexity in what appears to be deceptively simple verses.  In fact, these two verses are far more complex than most realize.1

     Most of the reason these two verses have been debated is because they are seen as the locus classicus in regards to the keeping of the seventh-day Sabbath.  It is often asserted on web sites that according to these verses the seventh-day Sabbath is "no longer in force" or "no longer binding."2  Korth goes so far as to claim that this verse is about "legalists who try to enforce the observance of Sabbaths as a means of salvation or measure of spirituality."3  However, as we will see, this is certainly not the case for the simple reason that this point of view is not the thrust of the passage.  On this point, Constantelos writes:

"In matters of food, or drink, or in respect to a feast day, or a new moon, or a Sabbath day, he [Paul] did not say "do not observe them" but he said, "let no man pass judgment on you" whether or not [or, should this be: how?] you observe them. ... he does not write in condemnation either of food or fasting, nor does he condemn holy days. He condemns the wrong motive. When fasting or the observance of holy days is made the means of achieving salvation, by-passing Christ, then they are condemnable as bondage rather than as [a] means of liberation."4

     This observation fits well with Barclay's observation that the ascetics had reduced the Christian religion to ritual.5  We will also see that Paul is not "adamantly reject[ing]" the elements that are given in vs. 16.6  For as Ash has correctly pointed out: "Paul does not condemn their observance per se, but did argue against them as prompted by the stoicheia (v. 20 [the "rudiments" in the KJV]) and as items necessary for salvation."7  We can also see that Paul is not telling the believers at Colossae, as Newman has, "to get rid of the shadows attached with eating and drinking."8

     This study will focus its attention primarily on the linguistic and grammatical features of the text.  It will be assumed that the reader is familiar with the historical elements related to the background of the book and the nature of the syncrenistic blend of Gnosticism, Judaism, and ascetism that was besetting the church at Colossae.9   If this is ignored, as it frequently is, then one's perception of Paul's intended meaning in this passage is automatically colored by one's own private interpretation and/or speculation.

     In the above verses the dispute has often centered around the Greek word "sabbatwn," translated here in the KJV, as "sabbath days."  To what does this word refer?  One could try to answer this question in any number of ways.  This study attempts to answer that question by considering its immediate and larger linguistic context.  It turns out that our decisions about the immediate context greatly affects our understanding of the word "sabbatwn."  It also became obvious during the course of this study that some authors decided, either intentionally or not, to at best, slight the linguistic features of the text.  And it seems that too often we are not fully conscious of those decisions.  In this study we will attempt to make at least some of those decisions explicit in the hopes that doing so will help to resolve the problem.

     Unless otherwise noted, all the Bible verses are in the KJV.

     We should first note that Paul is telling the Christians who were in Colossae not to let any man judge them on these matters, not that they were not to be judged "by any of these" things that follow in the verse.10

     Two notes before we start.  First, in the course of my investigation I became aware that some very basic questions need to be asked and answered.  When reading Col. 2:16-17 and interpretations of it, one should ask this question: is Paul talking about others condemning the believers of Colossae

a) for participating in the things listed in vs. 16? Or,
b) are these critics complaining about their non-participation?11 Or,
c) are the critics condemning the believers for not following their man-made rules about these things?12

     Or, to say it another way, as Troy Martin has, the critics of the church in Colossae may be condemning "the Colossian Christians for engaging, not engaging, or engaging incorrectly in these practices."13  Hay thinks that Romans 14 [verses 5-6] suggests yet another possibility: "[p]erhaps some Colossians are practicing restrictions on diet and holy days and others are not - and the Errorists are condemning some or all of the Colossian believers for not considering such matters essential."14  He then goes on to correctly note that "Colossians 2:16 does not make clear what kinds of judgment are in view."  Alternatively, Ratzlaff has suggested that if Paul had "taught Gentile Christians to keep the Sabbath, he would have corrected the Colossian's perversion of Sabbath-keeping."15  This explanation of course assumes that it was the believers who were practicing some perversion of the Sabbath; what if, however, it was those doing the judging who were advocating some perversion of what the believers were doing?

     This is not an idle question for if we can't even agree on what is being criticized and why it was being criticized then how can we tell if our interpretation of these verses is valid?

     Secondly, I have found too often in the course of this study that some anti-sabbatarian critics have assumed, without presenting even a scintilla of evidence to support their case, that Paul was saying that no one should judge whether a Christian should observe these things and certain others have then twisted the meaning of the text to mean that therefore the seventh-day Sabbath is null and void.

     Another thing that happens is that those who twist this Scripture to make it say what they want it to say "rarely if ever ... explain the relevance of verse 17" as noted by Scheiffler.  And yet this verse is one of the keys to understanding vs. 16!

     To help make it easy I have broken this study up into sections and you can read whichever one's you chose.  Of course, you'll miss out on the flow of the analysis if you don't read them all and in sequence.

Colossians 2:16-17 (KJV)
Let no man therefore judge you
in meat or in drink,
or in respect of
an holyday, or of the new moon,
or of the sabbath days: (here's an interesting parable about the Ten Commandments and the Sabbath)
Which are
a shadow of things
to come;
but the body is of Christ.

      Here's the bibliography of the sources I examined for this study.

     For those who might wish to skip the analysis altogether here's the real high points:

1) The words translated as "in meat and drinks" is not about unclean food or dietary laws.  This is because there are simply no laws about unclean drinks.  Also, the words translated as "in meat and drinks" should be translated as "in eating and drinking."  Therefore, as we will see, it is most likely that these words are about "feasting and fasting as the case maybe."  So, the believers in Colossae were being criticized about feasting/fasting on the days that follow; rather than fasting which the Gnostic ascetics alleged would bring them into a closer union, or communication, with God.

2) The words translated as "in respect of" mean "in portion of"; thus when we link the previous observation with this it is reinforced: the believers at Colossae were being criticized about feasting/fasting on the days that follow rather than fasting which the Gnostic ascetics alleged would bring them into a closer union, or communication, with God.  It is amazing the number of people who can't seem to read the English translations correctly!  The words "in respect of" tell you the days on which the believers were feasting and fasting.  In their rush to condemn the seventh-day Sabbath far too many people (even some high-powered scholars among them!) have simply glossed over these very simple words.  These words are one of the major keys to understanding these two verses.  In effect, these words begin a parenthetical statement that could be dropped with no effect on the meaning of the verses.

3) The Greek word translated as "holyday" (heorte) in the KJV is never used in reference to the Feast of Trumpets or the Day of Atonement.  And both, the Feast of Trumpets or the Day of Atonement, are ceremonial sabbath days.  If you wish to check the texts for yourself they are provided in Table 3.16  If you wish to see what the Greek and Hebrew words are that refer to the feast of Israel you can view the table on the use of the word "feast" in the OT.  So, Paul would not be redundant to say "sabbath days" if he was trying to list all of the feast days of the Jewish religious economy.  This is a crucial key to understanding the text.

4) In looking at the days that are mentioned in Col. 2:16 I believe that it is we as Westerners who would tend to assume that Paul is talking in terms of a calendrical progression: annual, monthly, weekly.  However, there is not a shred of evidence to support this assumption. It is true that there is a relationship between the terms; but there is, however, no evidence that it is based solely, and only, on the calendar.  This idea is being read into the text.

5) Some sources incorrectly claim that the following OT texts exhibit the same, or exact, or identical, progression of terms: 1 Chron. 23:31; 2 Chron. 2:4, 8:13, 31:3; Neh. 10:33; Ezek. 45:17 and Hos. 2:11.  In fact, it is only the last two have the same sequence of terms.  The verses are given in Table 1 along with notes about the relevant Hebrew words -- see if you can spot the pattern!  In Table 2 are three more verses with differing sequences of terminology of worship days.

6) Another key to understanding what Paul meant by "sabbatwn" is given when Paul appears to refer to it as a "shadow" in vs. 17.  When compared with the facts that a) the seventh-day Sabbath was instituted before sin and thus before any shadow was necessary and b) in both accounts of the Law it is explicitly given as a memorial and not a shadow or type of something to come.17  Thus, it would be mis-leading, at best, to refer to the seventh-day Sabbath as a "shadow-sabbath."18   The reasons just given alone, at a minimum, strongly imply that Paul is not talking about the seventh-day Sabbath in vs 16 but rather the ceremonial sabbaths.  It has been interesting to note that virtually all of the critics of this study to date never seemed to have had read anything beyond this point!  They seem to develop a real severe case of tunnel vision that prevents them from seeing any further.

7) A number of sources attempt to escape the implications of the present tense in vs 17a by changing it to a past tense!

If you are like me you are not going to be satisfied with somebody's say-so about anything and you'll want to dig deep to find out the answer for yourself.  However, if you are also like me, time is at a premium and so you can't check into everything.  So, what are we to do?  Luckily, there are a number of short-cuts that can save time.  Unfortunately, you don't really learn what those short-cuts are on each text, or book, until you have studied it quite thoroughly!  Anyway, here's a list of short-cuts on this passage:

  1. Look and see what kinds of sources and how many sources are used in the study you may be reading -- this helps to eliminate the threat that someone's "private interpretation" will be foisted on you as being the truth.
  2. If the source ignores the fact that the Greek text says "eating and drinking" then they are probably wrong elsewhere as well.
  3. If the source attempts to, or flat-out declares, that this passage is talking about eating unclean foods it is more than likely to be wrong elsewhere on this text.
  4. If the source skips over the meaning of the words "in respect of" it is probably wrong elsewhere as well.
  5. If the source ignores the meaning of the word "heorte" ("holyday" in the KJV) then it is more than likely going to be wrong elsewhere as well.
  6. If the source changes the present tense and future aspect of 17a then it is probably wrong elsewhere on this text.
  7. If the source attempts to change the text in any shape, manner, or form that in and of itself is a good hint that their explanation is wrong.19

     Of course, if they err on more than just one or two of the above that should really raise a red-flag in your mind!


1.  This can be readily seen when one compares various translations.  As an example, see Let No Man Judge You in which 20 versions are compared and contrasted with one another.  Back to text

2.  Fortner, Don "A Few More Thoughts About Sabbath Keeping: Colossians 2:16-17," @, page 2.  This is the result of a superficial reading of the text.  This could be from looking at vs. 16 as identifying the "handwriting of ordinances" of vs 14 (cf. Hafley, Larry Ray "Queries and Explications: What is the Sabbath of Colossians 2:14-16?," @, "Verse 16 identifies the handwriting of ordinances: ...").  But, as Peter Salemi observes "this scripture shows that the gentile Christians were KEEPING THE HOLYDAYS, THE SABBATH, AND THE NEW MOONS! So what Christians believe is the scripture that proves that the law is done away [with] actually shows the EXACT OPPOSITE!" -- "Is the Sabbath obsolete?: Colossians 2:16, 17."  Huie, Bryan T. "What was the Colossian Heresy?," page 10 - "For the Gnostics to be judging the Colossians regarding the manner of observance of the Sabbath, new moons, and Holy Days, they obviously had to be keeping them!"  Ashley has also noted that the believers at Colossae "were clearly observing" the practices mentioned in vs 16 and that Paul's use of "do let anyone judge you" is "quite different from saying these practices are unnecessary." -- "Essay: Does Colossians 2:16 show the Sabbath is no longer necessary?"   Contra Arnold III, William "A Commentary on the Book of Colossians" who wrote: "... there is no more obligation to keep them."  See also, Calvary's Touch statement of faith "Why we don't observe the Sabbath?" (this has also been removed from the web) which cites this verse and said: "the NT explicitly teaches that the Sabbath keeping was not a requirement."  Or, the statement of belief at Mighty Fortress Orthodox Evangelical Lutheran Church THIS WE BELIEVE which says "the Old Testament observance of the Sabbath and other holy days has been abrogated by God and is not required of the Church under the New Testament."  Back to text

3. Korth, Jim "Keeping the Sabbath," was @ DEAD LINK as of 3/17/2001  In print this is the thrust of argument as presented by Kuschel, Harlyn J. Philippians, Colossians, Philemon. The People's Bible (Northwestern Publishing, 1986): page 157 -- "the insistence that the keeping of certain Old Testament laws and ceremonies, particularly laws concerning foods and festivals, had to be added to faith in Christ if believers were to have complete salvation."   An interesting alternative is presented by Casale [Marie " Seventy Scriptures on the Sabbath," @, page 19]: "... judgments resulting in, on the one extreme, either binding heavy burdens on you, or, on the other, doing away with the Sabbaths altogether."  Back to text

4. Constantelos, Demetrios J. "Religious Cultural Diversity and Christian Unity in the Church of Colossae: An Exegesis of Colossians 2.16 to 3.4," in Agape and Diakonia: Essays in Memory of Bishop Gerasimos of Abydos. Edited by Fr. Peter A. Chamberas (Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1998): page 55.  Back to text

5. Barclay, William The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians. Revised Edition (Westminster Press, 1975): page 145.  See also the perceptive remarks about rituals and ritualism by Richison, Grant C. "Colossians 2:16,17;" DeLashmutt, Gary "3 Spiritual Red Herrings;" Amato, Steve "Colossians".  Back to text

6. Ladd, George Eldon A Theology of the New Testament. Revised Edition, edited by Donald A. Hagner (Eerdmans, 1974, reprinted 1994): page 554; the only flaw that I know of in an otherwise excellent book.  Back to text

7. Ash, Anthony L. Philippians, Colossians, & Philemon. The College Press NIV Commentary (College Press, 1994): page 187.  Back to text

8. Newman, J. David "Tackling Tricky Texts*3 Colossians 2:16-17", page 4.  Back to text

9. Pipa, [Joseph A. The Lord's Day. (Christian Focus, 1997): page 97] refers to it as a "hybrid heresy."  One thing that needs to be kept in mind is that the Jewish elements of this syncretistic heresy, as Weiss points out (page 14), "have become separated from their Jewish matrix."  That is, we have to very careful that we do not import the full meaning of Jewish elements into anything that is mentioned.  It is more likely that as a heresy the meaning(s) of any Jewish element have been distorted and twisted into something other than what we are familiar with.

For those who are unfamiliar with Colossians and the nature of the heresy besetting it the following sources should be helpful:

10. contra Warren, Tony "The New Testament Sabbath Day" , page 5.  See also the claim by Thomas, W. H. Griffith Studies in Colossians and Philemon. (Kregel, 1986): [page 90] that Paul in part is "warning the Colossian Christians ... against the observance of these things ...."  Back to text

11. Thornton, T. C. G. "Jewish New Moon Festivals, Galatians 4:3-11 and Colossians 2: 16," Journal of Theological Studies 40 (1989): 97-100.  On page 99, he writes: "... the Christians at Colossae may be envisaged as being criticized, among other things, for their failure to keep the Jewish calendar and to watch out for the new moons ..."  Thomas [ibid., page 90] continuing from above: "but also against those who would call them to account for not observing them ...".  See also Dunnam, Maxie D. Colossians. Vol 8 of The Communicator's Commentary.  Lloyd J. Ogilvie, Gen. Editor (Word, 1982): page 373 - "Nor do we have to be ... intimidated by those who seek to impose religious or other rules and regulations."  From Living Way Ministries (" What about keeping "the Sabbath"? ") we find this choice admonition: "We are even warned against Sabbath-keepers who want to judge others for not keeping it: "Let no man judge you...regarding...sabbaths" (Colossians 2:16)."  Take careful note of how they have not only changed the text but the thrust of the warning as well.  Back to text

12. Hultgren, Arland J. "Colossians," The Deutero-Pauline Letters: Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus. Proclamation Commentaries: Gerhard Krodel, editor. (Fortress Press, 1993).  On page 36 he claims that "All the heretical demands [are] spelled out in 2:16-23."   See also MacDonald, Margaret Y. Colossians and Ephesians. Sacra Pagina series, Vol. 17 (Liturgical Press, 2000): page 105 -- "... the ascetic measures propounded by the opponents (Col. 2:16-23) ..."  See also De Lacey, D. R. "The Sabbath/Sunday Question and the Law in the Pauline Corpus," in From Sabbath to Lord's Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation. Edited by D. A. Carson (Zondervan, 1982): 160-95; page 182 - "The most natural way of taking the rest of the passage is not that he [the ascetic judge] also imposes a ritual of feast days, but rather that he objects to certain elements of such observation." Contra Hunter, Archibald M. The Letter of Paul to the Colossians. Vol. 22 The Layman's Bible Commentary (John Knox Press, 1959); page 133.  Back to text

13. Martin, Troy "Pagan and Judeo-Christian Time-Keeping Schemes in Gal 4.10 and Col 2.16," New Testament Studies 42 (1996): 105-119, page 107.  Back to text

14. Hay, David M. Colossians. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Abingdon Press, 2000): page 103.  Back to text

15. Ratzlaff, Dale "Response" Book review by Desmond Ford, page 3.  Back to text

16. One web site ("The Substance Belongs To Christ") takes Nichol to task for using the KJV and not consulting the Greek.*  It is noteworthy that they failed to do so in reference to this word.  Mike Oppenheimer is another example of one who examines "sabbaton" and other Greek words to understand the passage and yet completely skipped "heorte" @ "COLOSSIANS 2:16 Sabbaths."  Walter Martin claims that "Sabbatarians, however, overlook the preponderance of contradictory evidence and appeal to certain commentators who do not analyze the uses of the word "sabbath," or exegete the New Testament passages where the world occurs. Such commentators are Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament; Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, Critical and Explanatory Commentary; and Adam Clark in his Commentary. If a commentator's opinion is not in accord with sound exegesis, it is only an opinion, and the commentators named above make no grammatical or textual analysis of the second chapter of Colossians!" -- (" The Sabbath and the Lord's Day " based on material lifted from his book The Kingdom of the Cults. (Bethany Fellowship, 1965): page 399) and yet Martin himself didn't look at the meaning of "heorte"!  Why condemn something in others when you aren't willing, or don't, do it yourself?  BTW, just because the commentators previously mentioned didn't provide a full exegesis for the verse in their commentary is that proof that they didn't do a full exegesis of the verse?  Or, is it just proof that they have provided only a summary of that exegesis?

*  This site also claims that Nichol admits that of the sixty times "sabbath(s)" is used in the NT "fifty-nine of them refer to the Saturday Sabbath of Seventh Day rest."  One notes in vain for a source of this; which is even more puzzling considering it is false!  The word "sabba*" is used 69 times in 63 verses and in 9 cases it means "week".  For me it raises a red flag in my mind when a source can't get simple counting and analysis of that straight; so much so, that I begin to wonder if I should trust anything else they say that is more complicated.  Back to text

17. Noted by Sullivan, David " Note on Colossians 2:16, 17 ," page 6.  It is amazing to see how many anti-sabbatarians completely skip over this simple fact.  Back to text

18. Stedman, Ray C. "The Seventh Day."  Back to text

19. Such as: "Let no man judge you...regarding...sabbaths" as found in "What about Keeping "the Sabbath"?"; or, "Let No Man Judge You ... In Respect of .. A Sabbath Day" from D'Sena, George W. The Sabbath, The Lord's Day and God's Word. (The People's Church, 1971): page 21; or, "No man judge you in moon...sabbath days:" by Dennis Schmidt in his COLOSSIANS .  More examples of mis-translating occur in verse 17.  Back to text

Back to Homepage

© David J. Conklin (11/11/2002)

Created using: The HTML Editor Version 1.3.54