The Ebionite Gnostics, the Sabbath Day, and the Apostle Paul
"You observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid for you...." Galatians 4:10-11
"Let no one judge you in food or drink or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ. Colossians 2:16-17
Many Christians are troubled by certain texts by the Apostle Paul which seem to be telling the early Christian church that observance of the fourth commandment of the Decalogue was not necessary. Indeed, a cursory reading of some of Paul's statements regarding justification by faith alone have lead many who are not rooted and grounded in the word of God to believe that Paul preached not only against observing the Sabbath commandment but against keeping the Ten Commandments at all!! It is only those who do not understand the context of these statements of Paul who stumble and are offended by these texts and fall away from the true Gospel and into antinomianism. They try to paint Paul and the other apostles as preaching a gospel that is against the Law of God as the standard of righteousness, but the attempt is completely failing when one actually considers the textual and historical context of the New Testament epistles.
The history of the Christian church is full of the ship wrecks which some have made of their faith which foundered upon either the reef of Legalism on the one hand or on the rocks of Antinomianism on the other. The Apostle Paul had to confront the threat of false teachers on both the starboard and the port side of the Gospel ship. The false teachers on the right taught that before God would accept a sinner as righteous, he had to do certain works of righteousness. These works consisted in certain deeds that he had to perform before he could be assured of eternal life and acceptance with God.
One such group was a group called the "Ebionite" Jewish converts to Christianity. They taught that Jesus was one of many great heavenly "illuminated" teachers or "intermediators" who came to reveal the secret rituals that were to be performed by the followers of "hidden knowledge". The followers were to pass through the steps of initiation or "degrees" to each successively higher step until one became a Master of Knowledge such as they supposed that Jesus was. These Ebionite followers incorporated the ritualism of Judaism into the Gnostic "secrets" and many saw the Christian religion as a source of higher "knowledge" and Jesus as the great Master of the Mystery Religions.
The rituals of these Jewish Gnostic "Christians" consisted of ritualistic ascetic observance of the feast days, the new moons, and the Sabbath. There were cultic ceremonies for each of these "holy days" which were to be stringently observed. There were also strict dietary observances, fasts, neglecting of the body, self imposed religious austerity, false humility, and the worship of heavenly messengers or Angels.
Christ, to these apostates, was not the unique Creator God made flesh who cancelled our sins and gave us eternal life, justifying us by faith alone in His precious blood. Christ was merely one of many heavenly Masters to show the way to the Godhead and Divinity. Jesus was to them the great Example of how to work ones way to "perfection" through stages of cultic progression through asceticism and visions and heavenly revelations. Salvation was to perform the good works of the Torah just as Christ had performed and fulfilled the Torah. To them Christ was circumcised, observed the ceremonies of the Torah and had worked the works of the Law and finally earned His reward of eternal life and conferred divinity by His good works. Therefore by following the Example of Jesus as perfectly as He had performed the Torah, they could, through the "degrees" of mysticism, attain to blessedness, divine perfection and eternal life.
These Gnostics wanted nothing to do with the Gospel that Paul preached. He taught that the Lord Jesus Christ was first and foremost our Substitute. Christ "became" sin for us that we might "become" the righteousness of God in Him by faith. That is, God imputes the perfect life and atoning death of Jesus unto the believing repentant sinner and he is accounted sinless in the merciful reckoning of God. Paul taught that sinners are reconciled to God by grace alone through faith in the works which Jesus did for us on the Cross of Calvary NOT the works which the believer performs. Those repentant sinners who rest in the finished atonement of Christ on the cross receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and bring forth the fruits of the Spirit in their lives. The ceremonies and rites associated with the meat and drink offerings and holy days of the Torah were mere shadows of that which Christ was the substance and fulfillment.
These apostates then turned on Paul and slanderously accused him of teaching, "Let us do evil that good may come" (Rom 3:8). They blasphemously charged him with teaching that since we are justified only by the unmerited mercy of God, Christians are free to "sin that grace might abound". Paul was teaching nothing of the kind. Paul was teaching that obedience to the Law of God must never be used as a "means" to acceptance (justification) with God, but rather that obedience to the commandments was to be fulfilled in the believer only through the Spirit in works of love for God and one another (Rom 13:8). Thus love is the fulfilling of the Law. Rather than being saved "by" obeying God's Law, we are saved "to" the obeying of God's Law. Loving obedience to the Ten Commandments is the fruit of having been justified by God's grace (see Romans 8:1-9)
Romans 8:1-9 So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. 2 For the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you through Christ Jesus from the power of sin that leads to death. The law of Moses could not save us, because of our sinful nature. But God put into effect a different plan to save us. He sent his own Son in a human body like ours, except that ours are sinful. God destroyed sin's control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the requirement of the law would be fully accomplished for us who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. If your sinful nature controls your mind, there is death. But if the Holy Spirit controls your mind, there is life and peace. For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God's laws, and it never will. That's why those who are still under the control of their sinful nature can never please God. But you are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you. (And remember that those who do not have the Spirit of Christ living in them are not Christians at all.)
So to summarize what we have said: the Ebionite sect was a very popular Judaising pseudo-Christian sect in the first century church which vehemently opposed the teachings of Paul and John. The Ebionites believed that Christ was the true sinless Messiah, but they denied His inherent eternal divinity and His atoning sacrifice on the cross. They taught that salvation and eternal life were earned by perfectly keeping the entire Torah including the Ten Commandments and the ceremonial holy days. To them Christ was merely one's example of how to perfectly keep the Law in order to obtain eternal life. Since Christ kept the entire Torah perfectly, including circumcision, and never sinned, they believed that salvation was earned by the believer in the same way. They denied faith in the imputed righteousness of Christ and His substitutionary vicarious atonement on the cross as the repentant sinner's free gift of justification and eternal life.
With this background in mind the Pauline epistles of Galatians, Colossians, and Timothy; and the epistles of Peter; and the epistles of I, II, III John: and the epistle of Jude all come into sharper focus and understanding. The apostles were continually battling with the Judaising Ebionites who were teaching this false gospel. By the way, the term "Ebionite" means "humble poor one" and Paul mentions the fact that they were practicing "voluntary humility" in his epistle to the Colossians. With the historical understanding of the heresy that the Ebionites were teaching, the real meaning of what Paul was opposing in his epistles to the Galatians and especially Colossians literally jumps out of the pages. The apostles were continually having to defend 1.) the eternal divinity of Christ and 2.) the vicarious atonement of our Lord.
John in his epistles declares the teachings of the Ebionites to be the "unpardonable" sin which denies the equal and full divinity of both the Father and the Son and denies the propitiatory atonement of Christ. It is because of their ignoring this historical context of the apostolic epistles that the majority of the present day "evangelicals" are painting the apostles as being Antinomians against the Ten Commandments and especially the Sabbath.
The law of God as the standard of righteousness and the gospel of God's justification of repentant sinners by His unmerited grace alone through faith alone in the sinless life and atoning death of Christ alone will be upheld by those who are to finish the Protestant Reformation before the coming of the Lord. The seventh day Sabbath in the heart of God's law is His emphatic "No!!" to all forms of religious perfectionism on the one hand and secular Darwinian perfectionism on the other hand. Christ is both Savior and Lord. He saves us from the guilt and the power of sin. He becomes the Lord of our life as we obey His commandments in our daily walk of faith.
The good works of love of the believing repentant saints are still in need of the imputed righteousness of Christ however. The incense of Christ's imputed righteousness must be the "salt" that is added to every good work, even those good works motivated by the Holy Spirit. Paul never intended believers to feel that the Law of God was to be willfully disregarded, including the fourth commandment. But to the believer, the Sabbath takes on even more significance. The Sabbath day is a sign, not only of God's rest after having created the universe in six days, but also of the rest we have in the finished redemptive work of Jesus . We "rest" in His perfect sinless life and His atoning death for our sins. We celebrate His victory.
Heb 4:9 There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God. For he that is entered into His rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from His. Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest.