No More Mosaic Law? Shadow/Substance (Colossians 2:16-17)

This is part of a series that began here.

Adjusted Colossians 2

“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink,
or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.
These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”

Colossians 2:16-17

What the Verse Seems to Say

Don’t let anyone judge you for eating foods that were once considered unclean or for not keeping feasts or Sabbaths.  They were merely a shadow of things to come.  Since the substance is Christ, if you have Him, you have all you need.

The Problems

This interpretation requires re-working lots of other scriptures where we see the apostles and new disciples adhering to the dietary law and keeping the feasts even after the Savior’s death.  It also makes Paul, who kept the feast days, even “hastening to be in Jerusalem” for them (Acts 20:16), seem a bit hypocritical.

Aside from being hypocritical, this understanding of Paul’s words makes him a heretic when we consider that the Father warned that only false prophets would speak against His commandments (Deut 13:1-5). For the sake of brevity, we’ll look only at a few of His commandments on the topic of His Sabbaths:

  • “Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you.” (Exodus 31:13)
  • “Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.” (Isaiah 56:2, but the whole chapter highlights how important the Sabbath is to our heavenly Father.)
  • “Her priests have done violence to my law and have profaned my holy things. They have made no distinction between the holy and the common, neither have they taught the difference between the unclean and the clean, and they have disregarded my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them.” (Ezekiel 22:26)

By God’s own words, those who profane His Sabbaths profane Him.  This makes it all the more critical that we rightly understand Paul’s words here in Colossians.

The interpretation that God’s instructions are no longer important doesn’t fit with the larger context of the Bible.  It also doesn’t fit with the context of the second chapter of Colossians.

Context of Colossians

In Colossians 2:6, Paul begins by telling the Colossians not to be taken captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world.  He doesn’t want them to follow human traditions.

Are the feast days and Sabbath human traditions? Hardly.  In the verses quoted above, we saw God refer to “MY Sabbaths.”  In Leviticus 23, He clearly says, “these are MY appointed feasts.” They are our Father’s days.

So then what kind of human tradition is he warning the believers about? In verse 18 he tells us: asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind. In verse 23, he mentions asceticism again.

Asceticism

Merriam-Webster defines asceticism as “practicing strict self-denial as a measure of personal and especially spiritual discipline.” This definition precisely matches Paul’s warnings in this passage.

The ascetic philosophy and empty deceit says, “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (v 21).  These rules, based on severity to the body, are merely “human precepts and teachings” and “self-made religion,” not at all based on the word of God. They only have “an appearance of wisdom” (v 22-23).

Instead of walking in these ascetic ways, Paul wants the Colossians to walk in Christ, rooted and built up in Him (v 6-7). He wants them to hold fast to Christ, the Head (v 10, 19).

So, we have Paul warning about the danger of this ascetic philosophy and of not remaining rooted in Christ between verses 6 and 23.  In the middle, we’ve got verses 16-17 where Paul seems to be saying not to worry about keeping God’s days anymore.  But how exactly does asceticism fit with the feasts and Sabbath? Were the ascetics judging the Colossians because they weren’t keeping the dietary laws or because they weren’t keeping the feast days?

A closer look at the Greek

I am no Greek scholar, but when I watched this 15 minute lesson on the Greek construction of this passage and then tested it by looking at it for myself on interlinearbible.org, it made perfect sense why Paul was discussing being judged on the feasts and Sabbath in the middle of a discussion on wrong ascetic behavior.  And it all hinges on a couple of conjunctions.

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Another Small, But Critical Word

Another point in the Greek that isn’t made in the video above is regarding the Greek conjunction “de” translated as “but” in verse 17. (These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.)  This word can also mean “yet,” “and,” “moreover,” “indeed now.”  So, instead of making the two parts of the sentence seem to contradict each other, the writer could very well have intended to show the connection of the two thoughts.

A Literal Translation

After looking closely at the Greek, this literal translation emerges:

Do not, therefore, let anyone judge you in eating and in drinking
either in part of a feast, or a new moon, or a Sabbath,
which are a shadow of the things to come, yet the body is of Christ.

The Greek is clear. The Sabbaths, new moons, and feast days are valuable because they point us to what is still to come. They are not a shadow of things that WERE to come. They are a shadow of what IS to come – future tense.  Just as Christ precisely and perfectly fulfilled each of the spring feast days during His first coming, He will also precisely and perfectly fulfill each of the fall feast days during His second coming.

The substance of the Sabbath, new moon, and feast days belong to Christ Himself.  He is the body of these appointed times, and Paul wants the believers to hold fast to Him. The Colossians had no reason to be ashamed of these God-given days. In fact, they should stay firmly connected to them.

The eating and drinking associated with these joyous days were not to be abandoned as the ascetics would lead them to believe.  The believers should not let anyone judge them for how they eat or drink, either in partaking of a feast or a new moon or Sabbaths.

Rich Symbols

It is true that the feast days are shadows and symbols that point to Christ.  Many symbols are made rich with Christ’s meaning, but this doesn’t negate the necessity of the symbol. Churches use the symbols of baptism and communion.  Just because we understand deeper meaning when we understand how the symbol points to Christ doesn’t mean we then toss the symbol.  We continue to use the symbol as we celebrate all meaning that God always intended.

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