Another area of the Jewish Law that was bound to cause difficulties between Gentile and Jewish believers was the observance of special days including Sabbaths. Leviticus 23: 1 – 44 refers to seven special Sabbaths to be observed each year along with the weekly Sabbath and makes references to various special festivals. The prophets forthrightly condemned the Israelites for their failure to observe the Sabbaths. Ezekiel, for instance, recorded God saying in words of condemnation, “They shut their eyes to the keeping of my Sabbaths” (Ez. 22: 26). Yet, Paul wrote in Romans, “One man considers one day more sacred than another, another man considers every day alike” (Rom. 14: 5). It didn’t really matter. As a young man I had a very restrictive view of Sunday. It was not for working around the house. It was not for going swimming. This was not an uncommon view of many Christians at the time. If I had been alive in Paul’s days I would have sided with many a Jew.
Circumcision, Food Laws and Special Days
Paul enlightened by the gospel, had the following perspectives: “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing” (1 Cor. 7: 19). Only the extraordinary gospel could bring about such an extraordinary statement from this well educated and zealous Jew, now an apostle of Christ. Again he wrote, “He who eats meat eats to the Lord and he who abstains does so to the Lord”. And again, “Each person should be fully convinced in his own mind … he who regards one day special does so to the Lord” (Rom. 14: 5, 6).
However, what one does in conforming to a sensitive conscience, or out of habit or felt need is one thing. To consider certain ceremonies or what some may consider rites, or forms of behaviour as mandatory in order to win God’s acceptance is quite another. Such a point of view undermines the gospel and the grace of God evident in the cross of Christ. Out of commitment to the truth of the gospel Paul with great concern for them, fervently wrote to the Galatians, “They try to compel you to be circumcised” (Gal. 6: 12). In a letter to Timothy, he warned him about false teachers, “who forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods” (1 Tim. 4: 3). To the Colossian Christians he wrote, “Don’t let anyone judge you with regard to a religious festival, a new moon celebration or a Sabbath day … or by what you eat or drink” (Col. 2: 16). And again to the Galatians he wrote, “You are observing special days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you” (Gal. 4: 10).
For Paul it didn’t matter whether or not you ate certain foods or abstained. It didn’t matter whether you observed special days or you didn’t. It didn’t matter if you were circumcised or if you weren’t. What you did have to consider was the spiritual welfare of yourself and others. In giving instructions on marriage and singleness Paul wrote, “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commandments is what counts” (1 Cor. 7: 19). To understand what Paul might have had in mind by his references to “commandments”, consider what he wrote in a similar vein to the Galatians. In that letter he declared, “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5: 6). Again, he wrote to them, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything. What counts is a new creation” (Gal. 6: 15). Of course the significance of circumcision was not the same as that for keeping special days or for abstaining from eating certain foods. Each matter had its own significance. The one thing they had in common however was that although the spiritual welfare of oneself and others needed to be considered, the observance of any of these was not to be regarded as obligatory unless, as in the case of eating meat knowingly offered to idols, it was considered to lead unavoidably to serious error.