A Shadow of Things to Come
In a video called A Shadow of Things to Come, our friends at 119 ministries address the following passage, “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” (Col 2:16-17). These verses are a common target of Hebrew Roots Movement teachers because their plain reading indicates that the Mosiac commandments listed are no longer required. Thus, HRM teachers offer non-traditional interpretations of the passage which try to harmonize it with their Torah-observant theology.
And this is the case with the 119 Ministries video in question, which challenges the traditional Christian understanding of this passage. And I say, good for them to test it. All truth is God’s truth, and iron sharpens iron (Prov 27:17). I also have to give credit to 119 Ministries for making their videos and the transcripts of those videos free and easy to access online. It shows a commitment to their core ethic of “test everything.” So let’s honor their culture and test their teaching on this passage.
Testing the Shadows
In the video, the unidentified 119 teacher not only correctly frames the traditional Christian interpretation of this passage, but he also shares a quote from John MacArthur making the traditional case:
“Don’t let anybody hold you to the Sabbath. It was part of the system that included the temple, the priesthood, the sacrifices. It’s gone. It was only the shadow, not the substance . . . Paul is saying, you no longer need the shadow, you have the substance.”John MacArthur
The traditional Christian interpretation of this passage is that Paul is teaching the church at Colossae (and by extension all believers) not to let others judge them on whether or not they keep the Jewish dietary and calendar requirements listed in verse 16. But 119 challenges that interpretation, asking:
Is that really what Paul is saying in Colossians? Does he declare commands like the Sabbath and festivals to be irrelevant now that Messiah has come? That seems unlikely for a couple of reasons.Anonymous 119 Ministries Teacher
The 119 teacher offers two reasons he rejects the traditional teaching on Col 2:16-17. Let’s test those two reasons.
The first reason offered in the video is that:
Such an interpretation doesn’t fit with the broader biblical witness of Paul’s perspective on these commandments. For instance, throughout the New Testament, we see that Paul regularly attended and participated in the synagogue services on the Sabbath.Anonymous 119 Ministries Teacher
The teacher goes on to list additional Scriptural examples of Paul’s keeping Jewish traditions. He then suggests that:
Based on Paul’s behavior and teaching elsewhere in Scripture, it’s difficult to imagine him thinking that these parts of the Torah became irrelevant in light of the Messiah’s coming. Instead, these examples of Paul observing and teaching these commandments are what we would expect if he believed they were still important.”Anonymous 119 Ministries Teacher
(Side note: I find it interesting that the 119 teacher refers to the Torah commandments in equivocal terms such as “relevant” and “important,” rather than “required.” Make of that what you will.)
So, the first reason given for rejecting the traditional interpretation of Col 2:16-17 is that, in this teacher’s mind, it doesn’t match Paul’s behavior and teaching throughout the New Testament. In other words, we see Paul keeping the Jewish commandments elsewhere, so it doesn’t make sense that here in Colossians 2, he would say that those commandments were just a “shadow of things to come.”
This is a common argument from 119 Ministries and many other Hebrew Roots or Torahist teachers. They point to the fact that Jesus and the apostles are seen keeping the Jewish traditions in Scripture and claim this proves that the Law of Moses is still binding. What they are missing, however, is the simple principle of permitted but not required. The commandments that God gave to Israel under the Sinai Covenant are, under the New Covenant, permitted but not required. They are allowed but not mandatory. Believers can choose to voluntarily observe those things, but we are not obligated to do so. Paul makes this evident in his letter to the church at Corinth.
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.1 Corinthians 9:19-23
Therefore, if Paul—or any other Jewish believer in Jesus—wants to keep Shabbat, or keep the dietary restrictions, or celebrate Yom Kippur, they are free to do so. But under the New Covenant, it’s not required of them. So when we see Paul or the apostles keeping Jewish traditions in the New Testament, it does not mean that they were required to do so. These are descriptive rather than prescriptive passages. We read about Paul going to synagogue on the Sabbath, but we don’t see him teaching anything like, “See to it that you attend synagogue every Sabbath.”
Our 119 Ministries teacher wants to claim that Paul kept those traditions because he was still under the Law of Moses. But that conclusion clashes with what Paul taught about the Law everywhere else in the New Testament. I’d like to suggest two different—and stronger—reasons that Paul kept those traditions. These two reasons, which align with the body of New Testament teachings, are tradition and unity.
Remember that the dietary restrictions, feasts, and so on began as commandments to Israel. They were required in the Law of Moses and, thus, became the foundation of Jewish tradition. And when Jesus came and through His blood initiated the New Covenant, those commandments ceased to be required. Jesus fulfilled the Law of Moses (Matt 5:17; John 19:28-30). The Covenant that God made with Israel at Mount Sinai—which had been in effect for something like 1,500 years—had become obsolete (Heb 8:13) in Paul’s lifetime.
Yet, these traditions were deeply ingrained in the fabric of Jewish life and culture. It would have felt strange and “wrong” to Paul, as a Jew, not to keep them. It’s similar to the year my wife and I had a Christmas tour in Norway (we’re musicians). We were in the States for most of November. We experienced our world leaning into the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. The weather was turning cold, holiday specials and commercials saturated television, grocery store coupons touted turkey and mashed potatoes. But on the actual holiday, we found ourselves in a country that does not celebrate Thanksgiving. Nothing was going on. It was just another Thursday. As Americans, it felt strange and “wrong” for us not to celebrate Thanksgiving. Especially since our two daughters were there with us. So we decided to keep the tradition anyway and had a delicious ad hoc Thanksgiving dinner.
Of course, the importance of the Thanksgiving holiday to an American pales compared to the importance of the Law of Moses to a Jew. But you get the idea. Paul kept those Jewish traditions because they were part of his cultural DNA.
Paul also kept those traditions for the sake of unity. It was a major theme of his writings, as well as the other New Testament authors. (See: Rom 12:3-8, 14:1-23; 1 Cor 8:7-13, Gal 3:23-29, 5:1-15; Eph 4:1-16; Phil 2:1-11; 1 Peter 3:8-22, etc.) Paul was constantly promoting unity between believers, especially between Jewish and Gentile believers. Thus, Paul keeping those traditions makes perfect sense. He wanted to model for his fellow Jewish believers—then and now—that following Jesus does not require them to leave their Jewishness behind. And he knew that those traditions were now, under the New Covenant, permitted but not required. So, contrary to what 119 claims in their first objection, interpreting Col 2:16-17 as indicating these observances were no longer required does match Paul’s behavior and teaching throughout the NT.
The second reason the 119 Ministries teacher gives for rejecting the traditional interpretation of Col 2:16-17 is:
The false teaching Paul addresses in Colossians is characterized as “according to human tradition” (Colossians 2:8). It is “according to human precepts and teachings” (Colossians 2:22). That description does not seem to apply to the Sabbath, festivals, and dietary laws. Those things were not human teachings; they were commanded by God.Anonymous 119 Ministries Teacher
Here we find a couple areas of agreement with our unidentified video host. First, the commandments in question were, indeed, given by God to Israel. And second, we can agree that the false teachings being addressed in Paul’s letter were human teachings. However, that’s not all they were. Those false teachings were also Jewish in nature, and they specifically addressed commandments from the Law of Moses.
Context is King
Before we jump into Col 2:16-17, let’s step back and establish some context for what Paul is saying here. The book of Colossians is a letter that Paul wrote to the church in Colossae. He was writing to help bolster their faith in the face of false teachings that were spreading in their midst, sometimes referred to as the “Colossian heresy.”
Chapter two opens with Paul encouraging the Church. He is expressing a desire to help them “reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding” (v. 2) of “Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (v. 3). In expressing his desire for their wholeness and assurance in faith, Paul reminds them that all wisdom and knowledge are in Christ. Why does he say this? “I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments” (v. 4). (Some translations render this phrase “arguments that sound reasonable” or “fine-sounding arguments.”) Paul is beginning to address false teachings.
In verses 6-7, he again encourages the Church in Colossae to walk with Jesus and remain rooted and built up in him established in the faith just as they were taught. And then he turns to the false teachings directly. Paul writes, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (v. 8). This is a warning to the Church. Paul is urging them to be diligent and on guard against the false teachers in its midst.
Unfortunately, we are not directly told what sort of false teaching was threatening Colossae. Like hearing half of a telephone conversation, we have to piece together an understanding from Paul’s comments about the heresy. And here, in verse 8, we find our first clues. This verse tells us that the teaching:
- Was a deceitful philosophy or worldview
- Had to do with human tradition
- Had to do with “elemental spirits” (some translations say “elementary principles” or “the rudiments of the world”)
- Was not in alignment with Christ
In verses 9-15—over against the heresy being taught—Paul reminds the church who Christ is and what He has done for them. He reminds them of Jesus’ divinity (v. 9) and that He is “the head of all rule and authority” (v. 10). Paul is underscoring the supremacy of Jesus over these false teachers.
And then he brings up circumcision, which offers another clue as to the nature of the heresy. Circumcision was a Jewish custom, something God gave as a sign of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 17). This suggests the false teachings were Jewish in nature. But Paul mentions circumcision in a new way. He’s not talking about the physical version required under Jewish law, but “a circumcision made without hands,” the spiritual “circumcision of Christ” (v. 11). Despite the newness of Christ at the time, the concept Paul is bringing up is not without precedent in the Hebrew scriptures. He is picking up on the idea of the “circumcision of the heart,” an inward change mentioned in several places in the Tanakh (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4; Eze 44:7; see also Romans 2:29).
Paul then describes the church at Colossae as having been “dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh” (v. 13). This tells us that the church at Colossae was primarily Gentile, those who were uncircumcised in the flesh. Paul next reminds the Church that God brought them to life in Christ, “having forgiven us all our trespasses” (v. 13). And not only did Christ’s sacrifice bring us forgiveness, but it also “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them” (v. 15). Once again, Paul underscores Jesus’ supremacy over the false teachers the Church was dealing with at Colossae. And that brings us to the verses in question that 119 is talking about in their video.
Paul lays out the case we see above and then transitions using the word therefore, meaning “as a result of what I’ve just told you.” Let’s pick it up at verse 16:
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
Verse 16 provides additional insight into the nature of the false teachings at Colossae. The fact that the criteria listed correspond with Jewish practices suggests that the false teachings were Jewish in origin. In fact, it indicates that the false teachers were most likely Jewish themselves. But, before we dig into these two verses, let’s continue to the end of the chapter to get the full context of Paul’s line of argument.
In v. 18, we learn that the false teachings included asceticism and the worship of angels. In v. 19, we again see how the false teachings were not based in Christ. In v. 20, Paul asks the church why they would submit to worldly regulations after having “died to the elemental spirits of the world.” In v. 21, he indicates that the worldly regulations he refers to included the commands: “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch,” apparently referring to purity and dietary laws imposed by these false teachers. This, again, suggests a Jewish nature for the Colossian heresy.
Paul completes his stream of thought by saying that, while these false teachings might sound convincing, they are ultimately ineffective because they don’t address the root of the problem: sin (v. 23). From here, Paul moves on to urge the Church to put on the new self and seek the things that are above where Christ is (Col 3). With that larger context marked out, let’s circle back to verses 16 and 17 and see what they tell us.
Back to verses 16-17
The criteria listed in this passage correspond with Jewish practices like food laws and calendar observances: “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” (v. 16). To this admonition, Paul adds, “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (v. 17). In this passage, we discover that the false teachers judged the Church in Colossae regarding these Jewish practices. But in what way were they judging them? The 119 video concludes this:
Paul does not state that the commandments are invalid; he states that the judgment of these false teachers is invalid. A better understanding, which is consistent with the context, is that the Colossian believers are not to accept judgment from these false teachers regarding how to observe these commandments.Anonymous 119 Ministries Teacher
Our teacher wants to frame Paul’s statement in v. 16 as opposing a false teaching about how the Church observed these Jewish practices. He claims that the Church was keeping these practices, and the false teachers were judging the manner in which they were doing so. To 119 Ministries, it’s not a matter of whether or not the Church should be keeping those Jewish practices; it’s a matter of how they should be observing them. Therefore, they conclude that:
In other words, proper observance of these Torah commands was not the problem in Colossians. The problem was that false teachers had mixed things like the Sabbath and festivals with their mystical teachings. Paul’s admonition to the Colossian believers, then, is not to accept judgment on these matters from these false teachers.Anonymous 119 Ministries Teacher
In the traditional Christian interpretation of this passage, Paul is saying something like, “Don’t let people judge you if—or whether or not—you keep those commandments.” By contrast, our 119 teacher wants to interpret Paul as saying, “Don’t let people judge how you keep those commandments.” As a Hebrew Roots organization, 119 interprets this passage from the position that keeping those commandments is required, no matter what.
If we look at the analogy Paul uses in v. 17, it can help illuminate what he meant in v. 16. In v. 17, Paul uses the contrast of shadow versus substance: “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col 2:17). Paul is pointing out that the commandments are a shadow, not the substance. The substance is Jesus. He is the real thing. What can we make of this contrast?
First, in the phrase “a shadow of the things to come,” we find a chronology. There is an element of time that indicates Paul is speaking of foreshadowing. It is like seeing the shadow of someone coming down a hallway. And when Jesus arrived, it was as if the person who was casting the shadow stepped into the room. The real thing is here!
Second, the shadow/substance contrast introduces a distinction of value and priority to the analogy. The shadow isn’t the substance; it is a symbol or representation of the substance. And the substance, the real thing, is Christ. And to press the analogy further, we can note that shadows are transient. They don’t last forever. In fact, you can only see shadows when the conditions are right. The substance, however, is the real thing. And in the case of Jesus, it lasts forever.
Lastly, this analogy suggests a difference in the nature of the two things being contrasted. The nature of the Jewish traditions is characterized as incomplete and shadowy and contrasted to the fullness brought about by Christ. As Paul alludes to elsewhere in his writings, the analogy suggests that God instituted the dietary laws and holy days to foreshadow the coming reconciliation in the Messiah.
What Kind of Judgement Was it?
That brings us back to the question: In what way were the Jewish false teachers judging the church at Colossae regarding these practices? Our 119 teacher suggests the false teachers were essentially saying, “Hey Church, stop observing those practices in the traditional Jewish way! You need to mix in our cool, new mystical teachings.” In other words, they were giving the church grief about how they were keeping those commandments. And therefore, in the 119 interpretation, Paul tells the church something like, “Don’t let them judge you! You go ahead and keep those commandments in the traditional Jewish way.”
However, if we interpret v. 16 as talking about how the commandments should be kept, three problems emerge. First, there is no direct indication in the text or the larger context that Paul’s comments were aimed at how the commandments should be kept. Second, the church at Colossae was primarily Gentile. And we know from the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15—where Paul was present—that the Gentile believers in Jesus are not required to keep the dietary restrictions, festivals, new moons, or Sabbath. They were given just four restrictions. So why would Paul teach the opposite here?
Third, if this was what Paul meant in v. 16, why would he support his statement by pointing out that the commandments were a shadow of things to come rather than the substance? Referring to the commandments as “shadows” downplays their importance and weightiness. If Paul intended to underscore the importance of keeping those commandments, we would expect his supporting statement in v. 17 to echo that sentiment. For instance, “Keep the commandments in the traditional Jewish way because they were commanded by God,” or “because they lead to life.” Not “because they are a shadow of the real thing.”
Remember, Paul wrote this letter to Colossae after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Jesus had already completed his earthly mission. That was a past event when the Colossian heresy broke out. Why would Paul categorize those commandments as shadows pointing to Jesus after Jesus had already arrived and ushered in the New Covenant? Indeed, the traditional interpretation of this passage is far more reasonable. It fits more seamlessly into Paul’s flow of thought, and it’s more consistent with what the New Testament teaches elsewhere. The better interpretation of verses 16-17 is:
“Hey, mostly Gentile Church. Don’t let those false teachers judge you for not keeping the Jewish practices. They were a foreshadowing of Christ, who has already come and fulfilled them.”
Like we read in Romans 10:4, Galatians 3:24, and Hebrews 10:1, Paul affirms here in Col 2:16-17 that the law ultimately points to Christ. The shadow is not the substance. It only points us to the substance. And Paul is saying, “Don’t let the Jewish false teachers judge you if you don’t keep those Jewish traditions.” They are permitted, but they are not required.