Paul and the Sabbath
The apostle Paul didn’t abolish the seventh day Sabbath in his letters to the churches. He specifically abolished the rituals of the law of Moses like circumcision and the yearly sabbath feasts or holidays. Please note that there are two distinct and separate laws – God’s moral law and Moses ceremonial law.
When Paul in his letters referred to the law it was not God’s moral law which included the Sabbath commandment (Exodus 20:2-17) but the law of Moses and specifically the issue of Circumcision. Paul upheld God’s Moral law and he wrote, “Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law” (Romans 3:31). Salvation by faith shows God’s will for His law in requiring and providing the atoning blood of Christ. If justification by faith abolishes law, then there was no need for the sacrificial death of God’s Son to free the sinner from his sins.
In his epistles, the apostle tried to free the gentiles from the Mosaic ceremonies in order to walk in the liberty of the Christian faith. In that, he followed the example of Jesus who clearly stated that circumcision was from the law of Moses. And He rebuked the Pharisees for upholding the law of Moses above the law of God in Sabbath observance. Jesus said, “Moses gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man’s whole body well?” (John 7:22,23).
Circumcision (Not the Sabbath) Was the Issue in the Jerusalem Council
After the Pentecost, God poured His Spirit on the Gentiles who were not circumcised. “And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45). So, when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him saying, “You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!” (Acts 11:2,3). The issue that caused contention from Judaizers, which led to the Jerusalem Council, was not about the Sabbath, but about circumcision.
The book of Acts tells us that “some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved. And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question … When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders … But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses…” (Acts 15:1-41).
The Jerusalem Council Freed the Gentiles From Circumcision
After discussion, the apostles and the elders in the Jerusalem Council gave their decree to the church saying: “Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the law… it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality…” (Acts 15:24,28, 29).
After the Jerusalem Council
While most believers accepted the decree of the Council of Jerusalem, many Jewish converts continued to make this a matter of contention. And they followed Paul in his evangelistic journeys and opposed his teaching. And they urged circumcision on the gentiles and keeping the law of Moses. In Lystra to quite the Jews, “Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek …” (Acts 16:1-40).
Paul’s Epistle to the Romans
Then, the Jews followed Paul to Rome and troubled the Christians there and urged them to get circumcised. But Paul taught that God now requires the circumcision of the heart not the flesh.
He preached, “For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter…” (Romans 2:25-29).
And he added, “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Romans 3:1,2).
The apostle stressed that it is faith that saves not circumcision. He said, “Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness … And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also” (Romans 4:9-11).
Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians
Again, to undo the work of the Judaizers there, Paul stressed the necessity to keep God’s commandments not Moses’ circumcision. He said, “Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Corinthians 7:18,19).
Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians
Here, Paul also tried to correct the wrong teachings of the “false brothers” who pushed circumcision on the gentiles. He said, “Yet not even Titus who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. And this occurred because of false brethren secretly brought in (who came in by stealth to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage)” “and when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (Galatians 2:3,4,9).
Sadly, the issue of circumcision escalated to the point that it brought fear to James and persecution even to Paul. “For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.” “Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.” “But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed” (Galatians 2:12; 5:2,3,11).
Therefore, Paul stressed faith and conversion over circumcision. He said, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” “It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.” “For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh“ (Galatians 5:6; 6:12,13). And He gave the final admonition there saying, “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Galatians 6:15).
Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians
Paul taught that salvation is through faith not works (ex. circumcision). He said, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands” (Ephesians 2:8-9,11). And Paul there as well declared his famous verdict, “By abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace” (Ephesians 2:15).
Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians
To the Philippians, the apostle Paul again taught that circumcision is the work of the flesh not the spirit. He said, “… Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee” (Philippians 3:2-5).
Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians
Again, Paul taught the Colossians that Jesus in the New Testament became their circumcision. He said, “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses” (Colossians 2:11-13).
Paul’s Epistle to Titus
Here, Paul also refers to the deceivers in the circumcision party: “For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party” (Titus 1:10). These deceivers were the same perverted “teachers of the law” (1 Timothy 1:7), that maintained the necessity of circumcision and other rites of the Mosaic law.
The Jerusalem Council led by the apostles was organized to discuss “this question … this matter” of “circumcision” and “the law of Moses” (Acts 15:1, 2, 5). The Sabbath itself was not debated or even discussed there. The Church decided that the Gentiles were “saved … through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 11). And thus, they did not need to be circumcised.
At this early date in Church history, believing Gentiles were still worshiping with the Jews in their synagogues “every Sabbath day” (Verse 21). Thus, verse 21 proves that the “Sabbath day” was not changed to Sunday by the Jerusalem Council. The disciples kept the seventh day Sabbath.
In His service,