Last week, we looked at Paul’s central appeal in Colossians: to encourage his first hearers to live their lives in light of their belief that Jesus is Lord (2:6), and not to be taken captive by an alternative way of life (“philosophy”, 2:8). This week, we see something of a description of what those alternatives involved, for Paul’s Colossian readers, beginning from 2:16.
Colossians 2:16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.
As we talked about in our overview, there was a strong (some would say, exclusive) Jewish flavour to the competing worldview Paul was arguing against. “What you eat or drink” probably refers to the Old Testament food laws, although it could relate to fasting in preparation to hear a word from God (and so relate to the receiving of visions in verse 18). The second part of the verse echoes the descriptions found in the prophets of Israel’s special days:
Ezekiel 45:17b …at the festivals, the New Moons and the Sabbaths —at all the appointed festivals of Israel.
Hosea 2:11 I will stop all her celebrations: her yearly festivals, her New Moons, her Sabbath days—all her appointed festivals.
Paul tells his audience not to let anyone judge them for not observing the Jewish laws about food and holy days. He didn’t tell Jewish believers to stop observing them; just for this issue not to be a cause for judgement. That is, observance (or non-observance) of religious practices should not be the grounds on which individuals are accepted (or not accepted) among the people of God. There’s nothing inherently wrong with those practices, and indeed they may be helpful for some; but they are no longer what marks out God’s people as different. They aren’t central to the way of life for followers of Jesus. Why?
Colossians 2:17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
All of the practices God prescribed for his people in the Old Testament were helpful: in revealing the character of God; in showing the way God wanted his people to reflect that character; in giving practical ways in which his people could avoid conforming to the immorality of the nations around them. But now, Jesus has turned up: revealing in a far greater way the character of God; teaching a way of life not based on the letter of the law; and giving the indwelling Spirit (that circumcised heart we read about last week) which would make his people holy.
Christ has now superseded the need for them. Borrowing from Plato’s terminology (about material things being a copy, or shadow of the ultimate, spiritual reality), Paul describes them as a shadow of the ultimate reality that exists in Christ. They aren’t needed, because we now have Jesus.
So what does that mean for us? It’s hard to apply this directly, because we’re not normally tempted to observe Jewish regulations about food and holy days in order to fit in with God’s people. But if we think about the pattern for a minute, we might see something there for us. After all, what was the reason for those practices in the first place, and what made those regulations attractive to the Colossians? There’s at least a couple of factors involved:
(1) They prescribed a way of life that, in the past, was pleasing to God. And it’s not as though it suddenly became displeasing to him. The point was simply that it was no longer needed, because God had provided a better way than regulations: the power of the resurrected Christ in us. But still, going back to rules and regulations might have seemed to some a bit simpler and clearer than this more nebulous inner transformation.
(2) They were an outward marker of belonging to the people of God. More than that, they were handed down from the people who had been the people of God for a lot longer. So those who’d arrived more recently might be tempted to adopt these practices in order to fit in, and to avoid the judgement from the old guard. And in turn, the old guard might have been tempted to use these practices as a way protecting their status as gatekeepers. Sure you can join us! Just do things the way we’ve been doing them. Sound familiar?
I don’t think it would take you long to spot that dynamic occurring in many social groups, including the church. Service styles, Bible translations, evangelism strategies, leadership structures, bible teaching methods, dress codes, music styles, and discipleship disciplines (just to name a few) that worked well in a previous era can become fossilised as the only way it can be done; or at the very least, the only way it should be done if you want to hang out with us; if you want to be accepted here.
Paul’s letter to the Colossians reminds us that no matter how helpful a human-created guideline or resource or way of doing things might have been in the past (and might still be for some), it can’t be imposed on others in different times and contexts. The risen Christ and the power of his indwelling Spirit are central; anything else, however helpful, should not be a source of pride or judgement or division; nor should it ever replace humble Spirit-dependence as a means of living a life that’s pleasing to God.