I get little satisfaction from trying to correct faulty interpretation. The only reason I do it, is because people ask me to. I would much rather dwell on topics I find more positive. In many cases, others have already addressed these issues, but my readers don’t know where to find these answers. Often, the discussion is “dry” because we have to get technical about language, culture or geography. None of these conversations come out warm and relational. However, sometimes, they trigger an “Aha” moment where the lights go on, trumpets sound and a paradigm shift in thinking occurs. So, I hang in there. Today, once again, find myself dealing with another so called “problem passage.”
So let no one judge you
Now that we have started to look into Paul’s writings, it’s time to think about a passage in the letter Paul wrote to the believers in Colossae. I’m referring to chapter 2 and verses 16 thru 18. This section is often seen as a proof text for Paul’s “anti-law” position, which is a tenet (of the false doctrine) of replacement theology.
In this passage, we read the following in the NIV translation: “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. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions.”
A popular interpretation of this passage is that Paul is telling us that the ordinances of the law in verse 16 are a mere shadow of what came with Christ. In other words, what we have now in Christianity is SO much better than what the Jews had to deal with in Judaism and we should avoid these things, as they no longer have any value. Some people will express this a little differently, but that is the gist of it.
Untangling the mess
There are so many problems here that it is difficult to know where to start. We have translation issues, Western presuppositions and just plain shallow reading. Argh!!! It will be a challenge to unravel, but ultimately, I think it will be worth the effort.
First, some background
Just about any good Bible dictionary will inform us that Paul had not yet visited this young church at the time he wrote the letter. That is likely why he wrote in chapter 1 verse 4 that “we have heard of your faith”. Also, since the Colossae population was a mix of Jews, Greeks and Phrygians, we could expect that church membership consisted of a similar mix, but one that was predominantly gentile. Some of the people we know who were likely members include: Epaphras (verse 7 indicates he may have been the one who planted this church), Philemon, and Onesimus (his slave, see the letter to Philemon). Again, the names suggest all three were gentiles.
Early on, the church had to wrestle with many false teachings. Gnosticism was a big one – one that spawned a ton of heresies. It was a form of hellenistic (Greek) religion that emphasized the importance of knowledge, in particular, the possession of secrets. These included aspects of Greek mythology and astrology and separation from matter (or the physical world), which was considered to be inherently evil. Consequently, it placed a lot of emphasis on angels and the spirit world in general. Paul dealt with a number of gnostic beliefs when he wrote his first letter to the Corinthians.
One associated heretical system was asceticism. Ascetics believed in austerity and extreme self-denial. They believed that the ascetic life released the soul from bondage to the body and led to union with the divine. Again, sensual pleasures were deemed to be inherently evil and were to be discarded in pursuit of “the spiritual.”
Avoiding paganism and embracing what?
In Acts chapter 15 we learn that the apostles and elders in Jerusalem wrote to gentile believers telling them to abstain from the pagan rituals and idolatrous practices in which they had once participated. This clearly included the pagan feasts and holidays. The letter sent out to the gentile churches ends by saying “You will do well to avoid these things.” Denied these practices, what “holy days” were they now to observe? A natural conclusion, is that they would adopt “the appointed days” of Scripture. This seems to have been the case for the young church at Colossae.
Paul’s clear admonition
Paul says “do not let anyone judge you” when you observe “the appointed days” of the law of Moses. It is quite clear that when Paul speaks of the festivals, New Moon celebrations and the Sabbath, that he is talking about the lunar-based calendar God gave His people through Moses. So, both Jews and gentiles in this church were apparently keeping the biblical festivals but someone was discouraging them from doing so. Who could this have been and why?
Did you notice the “NOT” in this verse? Before we talk about “who”, let’s just pause for a moment and dwell on the realization that Paul is NOT discouraging them from participation. Rather, he is telling them NOT to let anyone judge (or discourage) them! This is the exact opposite of the false interpretation we started out with. Does it really make sense that Paul would discourage biblical festival observance right after these gentile believers had given up all their pagan festivals? Again, what “holy days” are they supposed to observe?
Getting to the “who”
By now you may be concluding (as I did), that Paul was speaking against the growing influence of Gnosticism and Asceticism in the church. The context makes that clear. Verse 18 describes a gnostic when it says “who delights in false humility and the worship of angels”. He goes on to say “such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen” (as in visions, which reveal “secrets”).
Later, in the same chapter (verses 21 and 22), he says their rules are “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch! These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings.” Clearly, Paul is not referring to God’s law as human commands and teachings! These however, were the rules of the gnostics, who claimed that everything physical was in some way evil.
For the record, let me state that our Master is NOT an ascetic nor a gnostic. Rather, he invites us to the “marriage supper of the lamb” where there will be tons of delicious food and where he will join us in drinking wine – which he has not done since the Passover seder with his disciples prior to the cross. It was He who bound our souls to bodies and said that the physical world He made was good.
Side note: It is fascinating to see that Paul’s prophesy – that the rules (of Gnosticism) “are all destined to perish with use” – literally came true.
The translation problem
We still have to contend with verse 17. The NIV translation moves so far from a literal translation that it implies (in my opinion) something Paul never intended. It reads “These are a shadow of the things that were to come, the reality, however, is found in Christ.” In other words, it implies that God’s appointed times were a shadow of a reality that was fulfilled in Christ. But is this what the Greek says?
Here is a more literal translation of this sentence: “These are a shadow of things coming; the body [is] Christ.”
The first thing to note is that in the NIV, the grammatical tense was switched from present to past, or from “is” to “were”. Second, the words “the reality, however, is found” are all English additions.
Did the NIV translation of verse 17 result from trying to make it more readable in English, or is it a result of theological bias? For now, I choose not to speculate but to focus on getting back to what Paul intended.
Another way to read these words
Rather than dismissing God’s appointed times for believers, another way to read this passage is to understand that biblically, the “body” that casts the shadow is our Messiah. Ultimately, under His leadership, the appointed times of Scripture will become law – for all nations. His presence (particularly as future ruler of the world), casts a shadow back to the present. What will be the law of the entire world, is now a voluntary way to express our love for our king. It is a shadow of what is to come. Indeed, ALL of the biblical festivals speak of the Messiah. In fact, only a believer in Jesus can truly appreciate them. This has been confirmed repeatedly by orthodox Jews who have become messianic. They come to understand each festival in a whole new light.
For centuries, Israelites have looked forward to the coming of the Messiah who will release them from oppression, bring back all citizens of Israel from exile and establish a kingdom where they will be uniquely blessed and favored. They are expecting a literal, earthly kingdom. The prophets tell us that is exactly what will happen.
Even after the millennium, the prophet Isaiah states that: “They will proclaim my glory among the nations. And they will bring all your brothers, from all the nations, to my holy mountain in Jerusalem as an offering to the Lord . . . From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,’ says the Lord.” (Chapter 66)
If you are one of those who accepted the “anti-law” interpretation of Colossians 2, do you now have some doubts about that position? If so, then this post is a success. Keep digging.