Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. (2:16–17)
Legalism is the religion of human achievement. It argues that spirituality is based on Christ plus human works. It makes conformity to man-made rules the measure of spirituality. Believers, however, are complete in Christ, who has provided complete salvation, forgiveness, and victory. Therefore, Paul tells the Colossians, let no one act as your judge. Do not sacrifice your freedom in Christ for a set of man-made rules. Inasmuch as “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4), to become entangled again in a legalistic system is pointless and harmful. Paul reminded the Galatians, who were also beguiled by legalism, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).
Legalism is useless because it cannot restrain the flesh. It is also dangerously deceptive, because inwardly rebellious and disobedient Christians, or even non-Christians, can conform to a set of external performance standards or rituals. The nineteenth-century American pastor Gardiner Spring warned,
A merely moral man may be very scrupulous of duties he owes to his fellowmen, while the infinitely important duties he owes to God are kept entirely out of sight. Of loving and serving God, he knows nothing. Whatever he does or whatever he leaves undone, he does nothing for God. He is honest in his dealings with all except God, he robs none but God, he is thankless and faithless to none but God, he feels contemptuously, and speaks reproachfully of none but God. A just perception of the relations he sustains to God constitutes no part of his principles, and the duties which result from those relations constitute no part of his piety. He may not only disbelieve the Scriptures, but may never read them; may not only disregard the divine authority, but every form of divine worship, and live and die as though he had no concern with God and God had not concern with him. The character of the young man in the Gospel presents a painful and affecting view of the deficiencies of external morality (see Mt. 19:16–22). He was not dishonest, nor untrue; he was not impure nor malignant; and not a few of the divine commands he had externally observed. Nay, he says, “All these have I kept.” Nor was his a mere sporadic goodness, but steady and uniform. He had performed these services “from his youth up.” Nor was this all. He professed a willingness to become acquainted with his whole duty. “What lack I yet?” And yet when brought to the test, this poor youth saw that, with all his boasted morality, he could not deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Christ. (The Distinguishing Traits of Christian Character [Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presby. & Ref., n.d.], pp. 7–8)
That Christians not be intimidated by such legalism was Paul’s constant concern. He commanded Titus not to pay attention to “Jewish myths and commandments of men who turn away from the truth,” because “to the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled” (Titus 1:14–15). Romans 14–15 and 1 Corinthians 8–10 also discuss Christian liberty and the only legitimate reason for restraining it: to protect a weaker Christian brother or sister.
The false teachers were telling the Colossians that it was not enough to have Christ; they also needed to keep the Jewish ceremonial law. The false teachers’ prohibitions about food and drink were probably based on the Old Testament dietary laws (cf. Lev. 11). Those laws were given to mark Israel as God’s distinct people and to discourage them from intermingling with the surrounding nations.
Because the Colossians were under the New Covenant, the dietary laws of the Old Covenant were no longer in force. Jesus made that clear in Mark 7:
After He called the multitude to Him again, He began saying to them, “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside the man which going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man. If any man has ears to hear, let him hear.” And when leaving the multitude, He had entered the house, His disciples questioned Him about the parable. And He said to them, “Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him; because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.) (vv. 14–19)
Paul reminded the Romans that “the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). That the dietary laws are no longer in force was illustrated by Peter’s vision (Acts 10:9–16) and formally ratified by the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:28–29).
A festival was one of the annual Jewish celebrations, such as Passover, Pentecost, the Feast of Tabernacles, or the Feast of Lights (cf. Lev. 23). Sacrifices were also offered on the new moon, or first day of the month (Num. 28:11–14).
Contrary to the claims of some today, Christians are not required to worship on the Sabbath day. It, like the other Old Covenant holy days Paul mentions, is not binding under the New Covenant. There is convincing evidence for that in Scripture. First, the Sabbath was the sign to Israel of the Old Covenant (Ex. 31:16–17; Neh. 9:14; Ezek. 20:12). Because we are now under the New Covenant (Heb. 8), we are no longer required to keep the sign of the Old Covenant.
Second, the New Testament nowhere commands Christians to observe the Sabbath.
Third, in our only glimpse of an early church worship service in the New Testament, we find the church meeting on Sunday, the first day of the week (Acts 20:7).
Fourth, we find no hint in the Old Testament that God expected the Gentile nations to observe the Sabbath, nor are they ever condemned for failing to do so. That is certainly strange if He expected all peoples to observe the Sabbath.
Fifth, there is no evidence of anyone’s keeping the Sabbath before the time of Moses, nor are there any commands to keep the Sabbath before the giving of the law at Mount Sinai.
Sixth, the Jerusalem Council did not impose Sabbath keeping on the Gentile believers (Acts 15).
Seventh, Paul warned the Gentiles about many different sins in his epistles, but never about breaking the Sabbath.
Eighth, Paul rebuked the Galatians for thinking God expected them to observe special days (including the Sabbath) (Gal. 4:10–11).
Ninth, Paul taught that keeping the Sabbath was a matter of Christian liberty (Rom. 14:5).
Tenth, the early church Fathers, from Ignatius to Augustine, taught that the Old Testament Sabbath had been abolished and that the first day of the week (Sunday) was the day when Christians should meet for worship. That disproves the claim of some that Sunday worship was not instituted until the fourth century.
The dietary laws, festivals, sacrifices, and Sabbath-day worship were all things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. A shadow has no reality; the reality is what makes the shadow. Jesus Christ is the reality to which the shadows pointed. For example, regarding food regulations, He is “the bread that came down out of heaven” (John 6:41). There is no need for Christians to observe the Passover either, because “Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). What justification could there be for demanding that Gentiles observe the Sabbath when God has granted them eternal rest (Heb. 4:1–11)? Any continuing preoccupation with the shadows once the reality has come is pointless.
Paul’s point is simple: true spirituality does not consist merely of keeping external rules, but of having an inner relationship with Jesus Christ.
16 Because of what God has accomplished through Christ (note the “therefore”), Paul commands the Colossians not to let anyone judge them with reference to diet or days. Until this point in the epistle, Paul has spoken of the “philosophy” in rather general and polemical terms (1:23; 2:4, 8). Here, however, the reader is belatedly given concrete clues concerning the commitments of the movement against which Paul is reacting. (It is unlikely that circumcision [2:11, 13] was a point of contention in the light of Paul’s pacific treatment of the topic [so also Kümmel, 338 n. 4; Lincoln, 623].) It seems there were some (the pronoun is once again indefinite [cf. 2:4, 8]) who were seeking to act as umpires over what the Colossians ate and drank (cf. 2:21). Controversy over “appropriate” foodstuffs also arose among Roman and Corinthian Christians (Ro 14:1–4, 6, 13–23; 1 Co 8:1–12; 10:14–11:1). A number of early believers, presumably under the influence of their Jewish brothers and sisters, were scrupulous about what they ate and drank and in some instances about where and with whom they dined (Ac 11:2–8; 15:19–20; Gal 2:11–14). (On difficulties arising over dietary issues among Pauline Christians, see my Conflict at Thessalonica, 182–85.) Concerns stemming from Jewish purity laws appear to have prompted some believers with whom Paul interacted to abstain from certain food and drink. Ascetic tendencies (extending even to abstinence from sexual relations) also seem to have arisen from a desire to enhance one’s spirituality and to enable closer communion with Deity (1 Co 7–10). Dietary scruples and revelatory longings appear to be linked in the Colossian context. It appears that personal purity gained through the swearing off of certain foodstuffs was thought to foster and facilitate mystical spiritual encounters. The tack Paul takes here in addressing dietary issues differs from that which he employs elsewhere. While the apostle enjoined the “influential strong” in Corinth and Rome to acquiesce and accept the “vulnerable weak,” he commands the Colossians who were being regarded and castigated as “spiritually inferior and inept” to ascertain and assert their standing and status in Christ (cf. Bruce, 114; O’Brien, 139).
In addition to matters of eating and drinking, the apostle addresses calendric concerns. Certain unnamed people were apparently advocating dutiful observance of certain days, including religious festivals, New Moons, and Sabbaths. As with food and drink, the valuing of particular days has precursors and parallels in Judaism (Eze 45:17; in Paul, cf. Ro 14:5–6; Gal 4:10). Presumably the “philosophy” was prescribing certain religious activities in conjunction with these special days, perhaps with a promise that these observances would enhance congregants’ purity and spirituality. It is now impossible to know precisely who was seeking to pass judgment on the Colossians (“[Jewish—] Christian insiders” and/or “Hellenistic Jewish outsiders”?) and exactly what motivated them to act as self-appointed arbiters (Jewish regulations and/or theosophical asceticism?). The paucity of textual particulars results in interpretive uncertainties. While such ambiguity does not sate our curiosities, “biblical studies are not helped by being certain about the uncertain” (Brown, 596). Nonetheless, the following verse makes it clear that Paul perceived enforced regulations regarding diet and days to be both peripheral and passé.
17 If dietary regulations and calendric observations were part and parcel of the “philosophy’s” spirituality, Paul perceived them as comparatively inconsequential. At best and most, the apostle pronounces, such things are but “a shadow” (cf. Heb 8:5; 10:1). Although they may foreshadow spiritual reality, they should not be confused with it. (For a similar argument from Paul in reference to the law, see Gal 3:23–25; cf. also Ro 5:14, where Adam is referred to as a “pattern” in relation to the coming Christ, the “second Adam.”) Devotion to diet and days should neither divert one’s spiritual attention nor subvert one’s spiritual affections. Christ is the body, i.e., the substance, the true reality, the fullness of the Deity. Every principality, power, and precept wanes and pales in comparison to the incomparable Person and instruction of Christ. He is the Light of the world who dispels all darkness and redefines what illumination truly is (1:12–13; see also Jn 1:5; 3:19; 8:12; 9:5; 12:35–36; 1 Jn 1:5; cf. 1 Ti 6:16).
The Lord’s Day (vv. 16–17)
Verses 16 and 17 are key verses on the Christian Sabbath/Lord’s Day question. Some people have suggested that Jesus did away with Sabbath observance, and maintain that the New Testament church is no longer to observe a special day for worship and rest. Some go so far as to say that to keep Sunday as a Sabbath day on the first day of the week is legalism. According to them, Sabbath-keeping robs them of their Christian liberty. What’s more, they appeal to Colossians 2:16–17 as proof. This is the wrong way to think about these verses. It misunderstands Paul, who is saying here that believers are under no obligation to keep the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) now that the new covenant has come. He is not setting aside the principle of one day in seven involved in the keeping of Sunday as the Lord’s Day, but reinforcing the fact that Christ has come to set us free from the law as a way of salvation.
The three terms Paul uses in verse 16, ‘a festival or a new moon or sabbaths’, are often used together in the Old Testament. They describe the various ceremonial days Israel was required to observe (cf. 2 chr. 31:3; Neh. 10:32–33). The Greek translation of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint) uses the exact three terms that Paul uses here in 2:16. Christ wants Christians to realize that they are not obliged to observe these days. The ‘spoilers’ were seeking to impose these ceremonies on the Gentile converts. However, Paul makes it clear that believers are not required to keep Old Testament ceremonial law; they must look only to Christ, as every part of that law pointed to him, ‘the substance’ (i.e. the reality, v. 17b).
Thus the ‘sabbath’ of verse 16 is not the Sabbath of the Ten Commandments in its moral aspect, but the Jewish (Saturday) Sabbath imposed by the ‘spoilers’ on the New Testament church. Christians meet now for worship on the first day of the week with Christ’s mandate, which was given between the resurrection and the ascension. The apostles as his representatives made the change, and it was in accordance with the mind and Spirit of Christ (John 20:1; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2; Rev. 1:10). (See Appendix for further comment on this issue.)
2:16 / Christ’s defeat of these evil powers forms the basis for Paul’s polemic in this section. Therefore refers back to the work of Christ and his victory over those spiritual rulers and authorities that were thought to exercise power over the Christian. Christ has freed these believers, and they must guard that freedom by resisting all attempts from the false teachers to subject them to another set of legalistic rules and regulations.
This entire passage is somewhat difficult to interpret. First, Paul uses slogans and phrases that were employed by the false teachers. Though these would have been familiar to the Colossians, they are difficult for the modern reader to understand. Second, in spite of such specific references to the beliefs and practices of the false teachers, it is impossible to identify the heresy with any precision. Some of the things that Paul says look Jewish; others appear more pagan and Hellenistic. A third alternative, and one that attracts the most attention, is that the heresy represents a form of syncretism that combined elements from a number of religious sources (see discussion in the introduction).
Identifying the heresy is not essential for understanding Paul’s basic message. He wants to reassure his readers that, by virtue of the person and work of Christ, they have no need to surrender their freedom to legalism (do not let anyone judge you). The anyone refers to the person(s) attempting to set up as a judge over members of the congregation who do not follow certain laws with respect to food and the observance of religious festivals.
These regulations go far beyond the requirements of the OT, since the food laws that governed the people of the old covenant were set aside by Christ (Mark 7:19) and declared nonbinding upon the Gentiles (Acts 10:9–16; 15:19–29). One gets the distinct impression that the regulations threatening the Colossians were all man-made traditions. People in the ancient world would abstain from certain foods for a variety of reasons (cf. Rom. 14:17, 21; 1 Tim. 4:3).
The Colossians are not to be bound by rules with respect to food (what you eat or drink) or the religious calendar (a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day). It is quite possible that these “special days” governed what a person might or might not eat as well. At any rate, Paul declares freedom from all regulations imposed by the false teachers. By submitting to such regulations, the Colossians would be acknowledging the continuing authority of the evil powers over them. They need to remember that in Christ they have been set free from such tyranny (2:20).
2:17 / All these dogmas are a shadow of the things that were to come. At one time such rules may have served as a transitory “type” or shadow of something more permanent in the future. But since the age of fulfillment has come in Christ, these rules have no further intrinsic value. Their function in foreshadowing has been surpassed by Christ: He is the reality (cf. rsv: “the substance belongs to Christ”; gnb: “the reality is Christ”; niv: the reality, however, is found in Christ).
The word used to express reality is sōma. On the one hand, it may simply distinguish true reality (substance) from appearance (shadow). But sōma is the same word that Paul uses for the church as the body (sōma) of Christ (1:18; 2:19). This fact, along with the corporate identity that exists between Christ and the believer, makes one wonder whether Paul actually has the church as Christ’s body in mind. If so, he would be saying that the reality that exists in Christ is likewise shared by members of his body, the church.
Particular matters of concern (verse 16)
The actual matters of concern had to do with food and drink on the one hand, and sacred times and seasons on the other. Since the language used seems to imply categories rather than particular items, we are justified in classifying the two areas of debate in more general terms. First, there are those things which (according to the visitors) an authentic spirituality could not allow, and therefore must forbid. It simply could not do with them. Secondly, there are those things which an authentic spirituality cannot do without (so it was claimed) and therefore must demand. These were matters of religious obligation.
Here, it was a matter of certain unlawful foods and drinks. As drink is mentioned, these prohibitions go beyond Old Testament regulations. So it appears that the principles of the new teachers were based on an enthusiasm for a measure of asceticism, as well as on loyalty to old patterns of spirituality.
Every Bible reader knows that Paul was no enemy of self-discipline in the life of the Christian, but rather the reverse. It is axiomatic in his portrait of the effective servant of God that appetites will need disciplining, and self-control will need to be exercised, if time is to be found for prayer, if the body is to know its master, and if the ultimate prize is to be won. We also know that Paul respected the scruples of other believers in matters of abstaining from certain food and drink even when he did not share those convictions.2 Now since Paul clearly does not approve the prohibitions of the visitors, we must assume that their teaching in this regard was not personal and voluntary, but compulsory for all who would attain spiritual perfection.
Such prohibitions Paul always regarded as false. In the apostle’s teaching it is sub-Christian to deny the good gifts of a bountiful Creator in the cause of an advanced spirituality. This should not need arguing with the Colossians after his exposition in the previous chapter of Christ as the source of the created order. It would be a strange road to Christlikeness to refuse the blessings that Christ had made.
As a fascinating example of Paul’s dealings with immature believers tempted to move too far in the direction of asceticism, 1 Corinthians 7 repays more careful and sympathetic study than it often receives. Coming from a background in which marriage was all but obligatory, Paul justifies the unmarried state as also a good gift of God. But his approval of the celibate life is ‘very sharply qualified’ to use C. K. Barrett’s words. And from Paul there is no support whatever for the idea that refusal of marriage is a safer and quicker route to holiness. Indeed without a gift from God (Gk. charisma), it may well be the opposite. Paul’s commendation of the single life is based on quite other grounds.
This second category concerned the keeping of numerous festivals and fixed celebrations as indispensable means of grace for those aspiring to sanctity.
Festival, new moon, and sabbath is the terminology of the Old Testament, and makes a useful summary of annual, monthly and weekly celebrations. But here again it is doubtful if the visitors were content with traditional patterns. They were more thoroughgoing than that, and they were children of their own times. The fact that these sacred seasons are calendar feasts marked as yearly, monthly and weekly, strongly suggests, as Lohse puts it, that ‘the sacred days must be kept for the sake of “the elements of the universe” who direct the course of the stars and thus prescribe minutely the order of the calendar’.6This may be too severe on the visitors. In as much as they were Christian in their basic allegiance, they must have known that the marking of times and seasons in the Old Testament was a recognition of the authority of the Lord over the whole circle of life. But inasmuch as they recognized the authority of other powers in the heavenlies the temptation was there to stretch traditional and scriptural terms to absorb pagan content (the essence of syncretism).
Should present-day readers doubt the power of the ‘elemental spirits’ of paganism to influence the calendar, let them consider the English names of our own seven days of the week. Sunday is a day sacred to the sun, Monday to the moon, Tuesday to Tiw = Mars, Wednesday to Woden = Mercury, Thursday to Thor = Jove, Friday to Frig = Venus and Saturday to Saturn. With that in mind it is not difficult to understand the dilemma of those who had lived as pagans, but had recently confessed Christ as Lord. Does this mean a total rejection of all other ‘authorities’, hence alienating one’s own people, and, apparently, showing one’s new faith to be intolerant and severe? Or is it possible to make the transition easier by assimilating some of the old familiar interpretations and customs into the faith of Christ?
Unfortunately it seems that the visitors had taken this second course, and had constructed a new religious calendar of fasts and feasts, based on Old Testament models, but ‘enriched’ as they might claim by the best ‘insights’ and treasures of paganism. Then the keeping of such a calendar, with its regular rhythm of festival, prayer and praise, may well have been mandatory for all who would scale the spiritual heights.
But, as we shall now see, all this found in Paul a robust opponent.
The issues at stake (verse 17)
This verse is one of many unforgettable statements of the Colossian letter. It defines so well the issues at stake, and shapes so clearly this part of Paul’s message to the churches. And undoubtedly through this small section of the letter, the Bible speaks powerfully to us today.
The vivid contrast in verse 17 is between a shadow (defined by the dictionary, precisely, as ‘unsubstantial’) and the substance, real and solid. The shadow-land of verse 17a is the realm of the Old Testament. It is not to be despised because of that, but its true value lies in the future. It is a shadow of what is to come.
This remarkable phrase is found also in Hebrews, a book very close in sympathy with Colossians. An important aim of the writer to the Hebrews is to dissuade his readers, many of whom were converted Jews, from hankering after the old forms of their religion, and persuade them to recognize the substantial and ultimate realities they now possess in their risen and ascended Lord.
So, ‘what was to come’ is Christ. In Paul’s fine phrase, ‘the substance belongs to Christ’. In him is to be found all the treasures of spiritual reality and fulfilment foreshadowed in the Old Testament. To discover all that God has for his people in these last days one must be in Christ. And that is all.
The word for ‘substance’ could equally well be ‘body’ (Gk. sōma). Some commentators take this to be another reference to the church of which Christ is head (in view of 1:18 and 2:19). This seems over-subtle, and is not followed by modern translations. Neither would it be so consistent with Paul’s aim here which is to locate the fullness of divine truth and life in Christ alone.
We are now in a better position to assess exactly what was happening at Colossae, and to appreciate Paul’s second warning to the church there.
The essential claim of the visitors we have already considered. It was to ‘fill out’ the understanding and experience of the young Colossian Christians. In terms of verse 17 this means that their teaching was a practical denial of the truth that ‘the substance belongs to Christ’.
A practical denial, notice, for we have no reason to suppose that these teachers did not speak well of Christ. How else could they have won a respectful hearing at Colossae? Nevertheless they taught that even though a man was ‘in Christ’, for him fullness had not necessarily come.
Paul’s answer is radical and striking. What, in effect, he says to the visitors is this: ‘If you are still trying to “fill out” people’s spiritual experience, then you are living as though Christ has not yet come. So it is you, with your claims to be superior, who are still living in the shadows.’
‘Living in the shadows’. Is it possible for Christians to do this today? If so, what can it mean in practice? To answer this, we take one illustration from the letter to the Hebrews. That letter is one long appeal to the church not to return to ‘shadow-land’. And the strategy of the author is the same as Paul’s to the Colossians—a comprehensive exposition of the all-sufficient greatness of Jesus Christ.
It must have been a temptation for young Jewish Christians to regret the loss of the richness of the old worship. There was no room now, in the simplicity which is in Christ, for all the elaborate arrangements and regulations of the earthly sanctuary under the first covenant. But against all demands to recover such ‘worship’, Hebrews insists that there is no going back.
As the supreme illustration of this, the writer takes up the matter of the priesthood, that most sacred institution of the old covenant. Now, the levitical priesthood is superseded, and in Christ and Christ alone (echoes of Colossians!), Christians have a high priest sufficient for all their needs.
This high priest, Jesus Christ, first exercised his unique ministry in history, on earth, at the cross. There he offered himself as a sufficient sacrifice for all of our sins. Now he exercises his ministry in heaven, at the throne of God. It must follow therefore that the possession by the church of an active priesthood on earth is no longer conceivable. Trenchantly, the author writes, ‘If (Christ) were on earth, he would not be a priest at all.’
These are still uncomfortable words. They rebuke traditional catholic teaching on the priesthood of the apostolic ministry, just as they rebuke more generally loose talk about the ordained ministry as priesthood.
But here, once more, the substance belongs to Christ. In his unique and eternal priesthood, the solid reality of priesthood, quite beyond the range of the Old Testament levitical priesthood, exists for ever.
The question for our own day concerns what part of his priesthood Christ now shares with his people on earth. The consistent apostolic answer is that Christ’s unique priestly work is untransferable to anyone on earth, and this for two reasons. First, its earthly exercise is over, finished by the sufficient sacrifice at the cross. Secondly, its heavenly exercise (e.g. in intercession) is beyond the capacities of mortal man since it demands the possession of an endless and indestructible life.12This must mean that the exercise of sacrificial priesthood on earth today, however sanctioned by traditional authority, is not ‘according to Christ’, and must prove to be an exercise in futility, since we can have no call or competence to undertake it. Worse than that, all the patterns of ‘shadow-land’ begin to reappear. The importance of earthly sanctuaries, the sacred transmissible orders of priesthood, the detailed rituals of preparation, and the continual offerings that make nothing perfect, all these ‘shadows of what is to come’ reappear.
What Christ does unquestionably share with his people on earth are the substantial fruits of his priestly work, fruits which never ‘belong to the shadows’: full assurance of faith, and a heart truly clean from an evil conscience, with freedom now from former ways to serve the living God.14 Here is the fulfilment of all that the prophets had said was to come, at last, substantially and really ours, in Christ.
It is just this privileged access to God through Christ—this drawing near in worship—that constitutes what it means to be a Christian. It is the necessary privilege of all Christian people, which they can divest themselves of, or delegate to others, only by ceasing to be fully Christian people. For this reason the whole church (and precisely not a section of it) is constituted a royal priesthood.17In addition to this there is a further ‘priestly’ work which belongs to the whole church, and obviously cannot be exercised properly by delegation to representatives since it includes the basic elements of Christian living. This work involves the daily offering of ‘spiritual sacrifices’ in a life of consecration, generous giving and good deeds, as well as lips that praise God. Then there is the work of evangelism in winning all people and nations to Christ: here some Christians will have special responsibilities, as Paul did,19 yet it is evidently the responsibility of every Christian believer to see that the good news reaches every creature. For carrying out all these privileges the whole church is rather than has a priesthood. Nor can we describe the church’s ministry as a representative priesthood since no Christian has liberty to appoint a representative to carry out for him these particular responsibilities.
Paul’s second warning can be summarized in this way. In Christ the fullness of God’s blessing for his church has come. Recognize this, and do not let anyone, however sincere (or superior) lead you back into the shadows.
One question remains. Why has it come about so often in the church’s story, that people have led their fellow Christians back to ‘shadow-land’ in order to try to find a spiritual reality they have missed in Christ?
(i) Is it a desire to be superior? Re-reading verse 16 in modern versions suggests that it might have been like this with the visitors. They ‘bothered’ people and ‘worried’ them. They boldly ‘took them to task’. They called for this observance and for that. They ordered people around, perhaps on the assumption that they were the officers while the ordinary Christian were ‘other ranks’. Certainly verse 17 powerfully introduces us to an equality among believers which must be unique. For since all who possess Christ have ‘the substance’, no Christian can have more or less. Therefore there can be no higher breed or upper class in this community. Easy to say, yet how hard we find it to live like that! There is a wish deep down in most Christian hearts to be ‘more equal than others’. We like to belong to an elite corps whose job it is to direct the army to God.
(ii) Is it false zeal? Again it may have been so with the visitors, and there are indications of it. Zeal is a subject about which the New Testament is curiously ambivalent. It goes without saying that zeal is essential for Christian service, and that by its absence a church stands condemned.21 Yet zeal without knowledge is frequently deplored by Paul, not surprisingly perhaps in view of his experiences.
False zeal is responsible for much spiritual misery. It not only denies Christians what God has not denied them, and commands of them what God has not required.24 It also promises Christians what God has not promised them. Ignorant, for example, of the intractability of sin, and God’s true remedy for this, false zeal promises a freedom from imperfection that is sheer illusion. Ignorant of the purposes of God in the sufferings of this present age, it promises for ‘our lowly bodies’ a freedom from weakness for which Paul taught the church to wait.
Only false zeal could presume to want to make the ‘substance’, which is Christ, more substantial still.
(iii) Is it dissatisfaction with scriptural patterns? Normally the ‘man of the world’ is spiritually satisfied and materially dissatisfied. The power of Christ turns that particular order upside down, so that, after conversion, dissatisfaction remains as a permanent mark of the Christian (Mt. 5:6).
But there is a morbid dissatisfaction that begins to question the pattern of normal Christian living in the New Testament. Such a dissatisfaction readily listens to the voice of false zeal.
This dissatisfaction (have we not all felt it?) rebels, for instance, against the hardness of the way. It questions the toil involved in Christian service (1:24, 29); is there no better way by which God would do his work among us? It questions the effort required for prayer (4:12); is there no new level of spirituality to relieve us from the effort prayer requires? It questions the difficulty of discovering God’s guidance in a complex world (1:9, 10); is there not reason to expect some more direct indications of God’s will? It questions the ‘sweat’ of daily work (3:23); is there no higher way to find my needs met, to live ‘by faith’?
However, the pattern Paul gives to the church for all these things is one that must include something of weakness, toil, hard slog, tears and anxieties.
(iv) Is it exaggerated spirituality? This also is revealed in verse 16. We may recognize this danger wherever there is a marked tendency to pay too little attention to the natural order (‘food and drink’) and too much attention to religious exercises (‘festivals’, etc.). By this false scale, the ‘religious’ life is specifically that without the demands of family or daily work, fully occupied in the liturgies of praise and prayer.
But this is not Paul’s scale, as chapter 3 will show, with its balanced picture of true spirituality, the normal Christian life, and the whole Christian person. There is no need to return to ‘shadow-land’ to find reality: for in Christ, at last and finally, the substance has come.
2:16–17. The fullness and freedom that are ours in Christ ought to motivate us to maintain our devotion to the one who gave us that fullness and set us free. We have no reason to become enslaved by legalistic living, mystical experience, or rigid self-denial. Because of our fullness in Christ (declared in 2:10 and described in 2:11–15), Paul tells us that we should not allow others to judge us. The term judge means “pass unfavorable judgment on, criticize, or find fault with.” We are not to allow others to intimidate us or question our spirituality.
How might others attempt to convince us that our spirituality is suspect? Apparently some in Colosse tried to convince the believers that spirituality was based on how well they observed certain codes of behavior. Paul mentions diets (what you eat or drink) and days (religious festival, New Moon celebration, Sabbath day). The false teachers said that the truly spiritual maintained a particular diet and properly observed all the right holy days.
What about this? Is the Christian bound to strict observance of diets and days? No. Two passages of Scripture make this clear (Heb. 9:10; Gal. 4:8–11). Here in Colossians 2:17, Paul informs us that rule keeping is just a shadow: there is no real spiritual substance. The reality (literally the “body” which casts the shadow) is found in Christ. Again and again, whatever the topic, Paul brings believers back to Christ.
Legalism—measuring your own or someone else’s spirituality by the ability to keep man-made rules—is a rigid, confining, and lifeless way to live. It is easy because all it requires is a list of rules coupled with dutiful compliance. Wisdom or the skillful application of biblical principles to life’s situations is unnecessary. Just comply. Legalism is not only rigid and lifeless, but it also fosters hypocritical pride. The Pharisees (ancient and modern) prove that. A focus on conformity to a code can cause one to forget things like arrogant pride, smug judgmentalism, anger, and a host of other dark sins that never seem to make the list.
16, 17. In line with what he had been saying with respect to the persuasive argumentation (2:3), philosophy, empty deceit, man-made tradition, and worldly rudiments (2:8) that characterized the thinking and propaganda of the false teachers, and the requirements of the law (2:14) upon which they superimposed their own regulations, Paul now continues, Therefore allow no one to pass judgment on you in questions of eating or of drinking or with respect to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath …
The Jewish aspect of the Colossian Heresy stands out clearly here. Nevertheless, it is also evident that the error went beyond that mixture of Jewish religion and Christianity which is called Judaism, for the Colossian errorists passed judgment not only with respect to eating but also with respect to drinking, though with respect to the latter subject the Old Testament contains rather few prohibitions (Lev. 10:9; Num. 6:3; Judg. 13:4, 7, 14), though lack of moderation is strongly condemned (Isa. 5:11, 12; Amos 6:6; Prov. 20:1). As to eating, the false teachers seem to have superimposed their own regulations upon the Old Testament laws regarding clean and unclean animals (cf. Lev. 11). They also tried to impose restrictions in connection with festivals—think of Passover, Pentecost, Feast of Tabernacles, and perhaps others (cf. Lev. 23)—, new moon (cf. Num. 10:10; 28:11), and sabbath (cf. Ex. 20:8–11; 31:14–16). There was evidence, therefore, of a distinctly ascetic tendency. The main purpose of placing such stress on all such regulations was to convince the Colossians that strict observance was absolutely indispensable to salvation, or if not to salvation as such, at least to fulness, perfection in salvation (see on verses 9, 10). Paul issues a strong warning against this implied denial of the all-sufficiency of Christ, by continuing, which things—even in their legitimate Old Testament context—are a shadow of those that were coming, but the object casting the shadow is to be found with Christ.
Why regard as indispensable ordinances as to eating, when the One fore-shadowed by Israel’s manna is offering himself as the Bread of Life (John 6:35, 48)? How can the observance of the Passover (cf. Ex. 12) be considered a means unto spiritual perfection when “our Passover has been sacrificed, even Christ” (1 Cor. 5:7)? What justification could there be for imposing upon converts from the Gentile world the observance of the Jewish sabbath, when the Bringer of eternal rest is urging every one to come unto him (Matt. 11:28, 29; cf. Heb. 4:8, 14)? To be sure, for the time being a shadow that is cast by an approaching person may prove to be of some real value. For example, it is possible that one is eagerly expecting this person but happens to be so situated that, at his approach, for a moment his shadow alone is seen. However, that shadow not only guarantees the imminent arrival of the visitor but even provides a dim outline, describing him. Thus, too, the Old Testament regulations had served a real purpose. But now that Christ and salvation in him had arrived, what further use could such shadows serve? Though it was not wrong for the Jew, trained from his infancy in the law, for a period of transition to observe some of these customs as mere customs, having nothing whatever to do with salvation, it was certainly wrong to ascribe to them a value which they did not have, and to try to impose them upon the Gentiles. And if this was true with respect to Old Testament regulations, it was certainly even far more true with respect to man-made regulations of an ascetic character that were being superimposed upon, added to, and in some cases perhaps even substituted for the law of God. Thus the all-sufficiency and pre-eminence of Christ was being denied. And that, after all, was the basic error.
2:16 Once again the Apostle Paul is ready to make the application of what he has just been stating. We might summarize the foregoing as follows: The Colossians had died to all efforts to please God by the flesh. They had not only died, but they had been buried with Christ and had risen with Christ to a new kind of life. Therefore they should be done forever with the Judaizers and Gnostics, who were trying to draw them back to the very things to which the Colossians had died. So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths. All human religions place men under bondage to ordinances, rules, regulations, and a religious calendar. This calendar usually includes annual observances (holy days), monthly festivals (new moons), or weekly holidays (sabbaths). The expression “Therefore let no one judge you” means that a Christian cannot be justly condemned by others if, for instance, he eats pork, or if he fails to observe religious festivals or holy days. Some false cults, such as Spiritism, insist on their members abstaining from meats. For centuries Roman Catholics were not supposed to eat meat on Friday. Many churches require abstinence from certain foods during Lent. Others, like the Mormons, say that a person cannot be a member in good standing if he drinks tea or coffee. Still others, notably the Seventh Day Adventists, insist that a person must keep the Sabbath in order to please God. The Christian is not under such ordinances. For a fuller treatment of the law, the Sabbath, and legalism, see the excurses at Matthew 5:18, 12:8, and Galatians 6:18.
2:17 The Jewish religious observances were a shadow of things to come, but the substance (or body) is Christ’s. They were instituted in the OT as a pre-picture. For instance, the Sabbath was given as a type of the rest which would be the portion of all who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ. Now that the Lord Jesus has come, why should men continue to be occupied with the shadows? It is the same as being occupied with a picture when the very person pictured is present.
The basis for our freedom (v. 16a). It is found in the word therefore, which relates this discussion to the previous verses. The basis for our freedom is the person and work of Jesus Christ. All the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily in Him (Col. 2:9). On the cross, He canceled the debt and the dominion of the Law (Col. 2:14). As believers, we are under grace as a rule of life and not under Law (Rom. 6:14ff).
The believing Gentiles in Colossae never were under the Law of Moses since that Law was given only to Israel (Rom. 9:4). It seems strange that, now that they were Christians, they would want to submit themselves to Jewish legalism! Paul had the same problem with the Gentiles in the churches of Galatia, and he refuted Jewish legalism in his letter to the Galatian believers (Gal. 3:1ff).
The person who judges a believer because that believer is not living under Jewish laws is really judging Jesus Christ. He is saying that Christ did not finish the work of salvation on the cross, and that we must add something to it. He is also saying that Jesus Christ is not sufficient for all the spiritual needs of the Christian. The false teachers in Colossae were claiming a “deeper spiritual life” for all who would practice the Law. Outwardly, their practices seemed to be spiritual; but in actual fact, these practices accomplished nothing spiritual.
The bondage of legalism (v. 16). Let no one tell you otherwise: legalism is bondage! Peter called it a “yoke upon the neck” (Acts 15:10). Paul used the same image when he warned the Galatians: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1).
These legalistic regulations had to do with foods and with eating and drinking (partaking or abstaining). Under the Old Testament system, certain foods were classified as “clean” or “unclean” (see Lev. 11). But Jesus made it clear that, of itself, food was neutral. It was what came out of the heart that made a person spiritual or unspiritual (Matt. 15:1–20). Peter was reminded of this lesson again when he was on the housetop in Joppa (Acts 10:9ff) and when he was rebuked in Antioch by Paul (Gal. 2:11ff). “But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do” (1 Cor. 8:8, niv).
It is likely that God’s instructions about foods given through Moses had physical reasons behind them as well as spiritual. This point that Paul brings up is a different matter. If a man feels he is healthier for abstaining from certain foods, then he should abstain and care for his body. But he should not judge others who can eat that food, nor should he make it a test of spiritual living. Romans 14–15 is the key passage on this subject.
But the legalistic system not only involved diet; it also involved days. Once again, this was borrowed from the laws given through Moses. The Old Testament Jew was commanded to keep the weekly Sabbath, which was the seventh day of the week (Ex. 20:9–11). It is wrong to call Sunday “the Christian Sabbath” because it is not so designated in the New Testament. It is “the Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10), the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2), the day that commemorates the victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (John 20:1, 19, 26).
The Jews also had their feast days (Lev. 25) and their special “new-moon” celebrations (see Isa. 1:13). Their religion was tied to the calendar. Now, all of this had its proper function under the old dispensation; but it was not meant to be a permanent part of the faith under the new dispensation (see John 1:17). The Law was a schoolmaster that helped to train and discipline Israel in the childhood of the nation, preparing the people for the coming of the Messiah. Now that Jesus had come, the schoolmaster was no longer needed to perform the same functions (Gal. 3:24–4:11).
Does this mean that the Old Testament Law has no ministry to New Testament Christians? Of course not! The Law still reveals the holiness of God, and in the Law Jesus Christ can be seen (Luke 24:27). “We know that the Law is good if a man uses it properly” (1 Tim. 1:8, niv). The Law reveals sin and warns of the consequences of sin—but it has no power to prevent sin or redeem the sinner. Only grace can do that.
The blessing of grace (v. 17). The Law is but a shadow; but in Christ we have the reality, the substance. “The Law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming” (Heb. 10:1, niv). Why go back into shadows when we have the reality in Jesus Christ? This is like trying to hug a shadow when the reality is at hand!
People who religiously observe diets and days give an outward semblance of spirituality, but these practices cannot change their hearts. Legalism is a popular thing because you can “measure” your spiritual life—and even brag about it! But this is a far cry from measuring up to Christ! (Eph. 4:13)
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1992). Colossians (pp. 116–119). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Still, T. D. (2006). Colossians. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 316–317). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 McNaughton, I. S. (2006). Opening up Colossians and Philemon (pp. 53–54). Leominster: Day One Publications.
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