Shadow of Things
We begin the next section (2:16-23) of the letter to the Colossian church. This section Paul addresses the Colossian Heresy. Previously Paul has made the case that Christ is supreme and sufficient. As you have received Christ, so walk in him (Col 2:6). He has explained the Christian’s union with Christ through baptism, that we are to be made alive in Christ. Paul has addressed the false teaching in part (2:4, 8). Beginning in verse 16 Paul has a closer look at the false teaching which the church is listening to. We have looked at the Colossian heresy a few times in the past, so we will not specifically go into detail at this point. I tend to believe the Colossian heresy is a mixture of Greek Philosophy with Jewish tradition. This passage tends to be centered on Jewish tradition.
I. Let no one pass judgement
Paul explains that no one should pass judgement on you in regard to four things. We will look at the four things shortly, but we will speak to the introductory comment. It appears that there were people, either inside the church or outside the church that were passing judgement on the believers in the church. Romans chapter fourteen is a good chapter to look at in this regard. Paul’s point is summarized in Romans 14:4, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” God alone is the Lord of the conscience. Christian liberty does not mean that anyone can do anything that they would like. But man should not impose doctrines and commandments contrary to the word of God. Paul does explain in 1 Corinthians 5:12-13, that the church is not to judge those outside, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.’” Paul’s point in Colossians is not to let no one pass judgement on you, but it is in regard to four things that clearly were an issue to the believers in Colossae. Often the, “let no one judge,” argument is one that is removed from the Word of God and seeks to give an excuse to continue sinning. The Bible does warn us that we should be more aware of our own sin and look first to our own heart, but it does explain that biblical judgements can be made, under the word of God. Church leaders should always be cautious about overreaching when it comes to Christian liberty.
a. Food and Drink
The list of four things mentioned in Colossians 2:16 appear to be more of Jewish origin rather than Greek philosophy. Especially considering verse 17 which mentions that they are shadow of things to come. These words are used to describe the work of the priest in the temple (1 Chr 23:31, 2 Chr 31:3, Ezek 45:17). Food and drink were ritual markers of Jewish identity. Food and drink are more than cultural dishes. Jewish identify, was about how food and drink was prepared, what foods where clean and unclean, and also who you were to eat with. Two major factors were considered in the first century Judaism; 1) Levitical food laws (Lev 11; Deut 14:3-21) and 2) food laws passed on by oral tradition called “halakoth” meanings “ways.” One of the first problems that the church faces was one of dietary requirements. Peter’s vision commanding him to “kill and eat” in Acts chapter 10, explains that Peter, like any Jewish man has never eaten any unclean animal (Acts 10:14). He shared the gospel with gentiles and the Holy Spirit fell on them (Acts 10:44-45). Paul was later criticized for eating with Gentiles (Acts 11:3). Acts 15 explains that gentile converts were not to be under the law of Moses but were to “abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality” (Acts 15:29). Paul explains that you should not be convinced by plausible arguments to turn back to Jewish dietary requirements.
Romans did practice festivals, however with Paul’s comment in verse 17 I believe it speaks of Jewish festivals. The word festival is used 24 times in the New Testament and every other time it is translated “feast.” The Jewish calendar was centered around agricultural rhythm, with three major feasts in spring, summer and autumn (fall). These feasts were harvest feasts. The three feasts were the feast of unleavened bread (Lev 2:11, 6:17), this was also called Passover (Luke 22:1). The Passover has a deeper meaning than a feast, based on the event in Exodus 12. The feast of weeks or Pentecost (Lev 23:15-22; Deut 16:9-12) which was celebrated seven weeks after the feast of unleavened bread. The final feast is the feast of booths or tabernacle (Lev 23:39-43), also known as ‘Sukkoth.’ The three major feasts were an important piece in the life of the Jews (Ex 23:14-17, 34:23; Deut 16:16-17).
c. New Moon
Our calendar system is based on a lot of various cycles, we have days, weeks, months, seasons, and years. A day is based on the earth’s rotation, a week is based on the seven days of creation, the months are somewhat based on a lunar cycle (29.5 days), based on the Egyptian 30 day per month and 12 months per year. Seasons follow the seasonal equinox and solstices, based on the tilt of the earth’s equator, basically the long and short days of the year. A year is the earth’s rotation around the sun (365.242199 days). The Jewish calendar had similar ‘cycles’, their calendar was more centered around the cycles of the moon than the sun. The New moon was the first day of the lunar month and was a holy day. Additional sacrifices were made (Num 28:11-15) and similar to the sabbath, trade and handicraft were stopped (Amos 8:5). We see a couple of clear explanations of the new moon festivals in Numbers 10:10 and 28:11.
There were two major ‘sabbath’ cycles, the first is what we would think of when we hear the word sabbath. The weekly cycle that we find in creation (Gen 2:1-3) of work six days and rest on one. This is commonly referred to as the sabbath (definite article and singular) (Cf. Matt 12:1-12). The second is the cycle of sabbaths (plural with no definite article), this can be referring to the first day of the week with the modifier ‘first day of the (sabbaths) week (eg John 20:1), but within this context speaks of the cycle of sabbaths explained in Leviticus 25. The cycle of sabbaths explains the cycle of rest for land over seven years (Lev 25:1-7), the year of jubilee (49 years) where forgiveness of debt, returning property, freedom from slavery, and showing kindness to poorer brothers (Lev 25:8-55). Colossians 2:16 speaks not of the sabbath (weekly cycle) but is the plural without the definite article, the NKJV translates (sabbaths) this correctly compared to the ESV (a Sabbath).
II. Shadow of things to come
Paul mentions two things, diet and days. The false teaching was explaining that you need Christ plus additional diet and celebration of days. The argument might have gone something like this, God has commanded in his law to follow these laws. To be a true Christian you must submit to God’s law, the word law here refers to all the laws given in the Old testament, plus maybe some additional one passed via human tradition (Col 2:8). We need to be mindful of the purpose of the law (the whole law). It is helpful to understand the law in three categories, moral, ceremonial and civil law. The moral law is summarized in the ten commandments (Ex 20; Deut 5) and the Westminster Larger Catechism explains that “is of use to all men, to inform them of the holy nature and the will of God” (WLC 95). The ceremonial law is the religious and ceremonial law given to the priests and the temple, the ceremonial law is about holiness, purity and cleanliness. The ceremonial law spoke to the regular Israelites (clean and unclean foods) and also Priests, sacrifices and the temple. These are what we find when we refer to the list in Colossians, we will discuss these as shadows shortly. The last category is the civil law, is the law given to the Israelites while they inhabited the promised land, laws such as the requirement of a parapet around the roof of a new construction (Deut 22:8). The civil law is based upon the moral, for example the requirement of the parapet is the value of life (6th Commandment).
The ceremonial law points to Christ. Paul in verse seventeen explains the two contrasts. The days and diet are only shadows and Christ is the substance. The author of Hebrews explains the relationship of the shadow to Christ, “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near” (Heb 10:1 cf. 8:5). The shadow is not the true form but point towards something, these shadows point to Christ. The word for substance is actually the word which is translated ‘body’ (Col 1:18, 22, 24, 2:11, 2:19, 23, 3:15), and the same root word is found in Colossians 2:9, “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” Paul explains, “why would you want to worship a shadow? When you have the true substance you can worship.” The food, drink, feasts, new moon and sabbaths all point to Christ. Douglas Moo a commentary explains, “Because it is in Christ that you have spiritual fullness, Paul is saying, do not let anyone impose upon you a program of spiritual development that does not have Christ at its heart.”
We need to be cautious about adding to or taking away from Christ. The church in Colossae was adding to Christ by requiring additional works. We need to be cautious about making additional requirements that are not given in the word of God. Legalism is adding to the Word of God. Antinomianism (anti-law) is taking away from the Word of God. Sinclair Ferguson explains, there is only one cure for both legalism and antinomianism, “There is only one genuine cure for legalism, it’s the same medicine the gospel prescribes for antinomianism: understanding and tasting union with Jesus Christ himself.” Christ is all that we need, he is sufficient and supreme. We need to be able to rightly divide the word of truth. We should be cautious of using the law (ceremonial and civil) to enforce holy days and dietary requirements. Again, Paul explains the point we do not worship the philosophy of Christ but the person of Christ. We need only Christ. The whole exhortation in Hebrews gives this argument. Why would you go back to the shadow when Christ is greater? We often seek to give additions to Christianity and forget the substance and focus on the shadows.