In Colossians 2:16-17, we read: “Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (NRSV).
On Colossians 2:16-17, Sabbatarian scholar Desmond Ford says the following:
“Colossians 2:16 is asserting that no one should be allowed to make rules and regulations for believers concerning the way in which they observed holy times. The text takes for granted the observance of the times, but it rejects ascetic practices on such times. The verse no more wipes out all Sabbath-keeping than it wipes out all eating and drinking (referred to in the same verse)” (see here).
This is actually a fairly decent argument. Obviously, Paul (or, for liberal scholars, “Paul”) was addressing more than just the observance of Jewish rituals. The Colossian heresy also focused on visions, the worship of angels, asceticism, and severe treatment of the body (Colossians 2:18-23). For Paul, these things were detracting from Christ, the true source of spiritual growth (v 19).
In Des Ford’s interpretation, Paul is saying something like this: “You Colossian Christians are trying to please all these angels and spirits by keeping the Jewish rituals in a certain way. But Christ’s death and resurrection have disarmed such rulers and authorities (v 15). That means you don’t have to act like you’re their slave. You only have to believe in Christ to please God, not appease a bunch of angelic intermediaries. Plus, these Old Testament rituals point to Christ. You should keep him in mind when you keep them, not use them to make a bunch of angels happy.”
For Ford, the issue was how to keep the Jewish rituals, not whether one should observe them.
Maybe. But, on the other hand, Paul could be saying: “You Colossians are keeping these days to appease the angels, but these institutions are shadows of Christ. That means you don’t have to do them. So that’s one more thing you’re doing wrong! Not only are you fasting and worshipping angels, but you’re also focusing on Jewish rituals rather than Christ. And these are days you don’t even have to keep!”
In both scenarios, Paul interacts with a heresy that merges Judaism with proto-Gnostic elements.
Which is right? I think we should take into consideration two things:
First of all, the Jerusalem conference said that Gentile Christians don’t need to be circumcised or observe the Mosaic law (Acts 15). I know there are Sabbatarians who will disagree with that reading, but how else can one interpret Acts 15:19-20: “Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood”?
Obviously, as far as James was concerned, the Gentile Christians didn’t have to do everything that the Jews were doing, for they had their own set of requirements. Many Sabbatarians will argue that James was freeing the Gentile Christians from the ceremonial law, which doesn’t include the weekly Sabbath. For them, the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments, which is part of God’s eternal moral law. But Colossians 2:16 seems to put the Sabbath in the same category as other Jewish rituals: food laws, new moons, and festivals. Sure, it’s part of the Ten Commandments, but can we truly separate it from the ceremonial law?
Second, other than Colossians 2:16, there is only one other place where the Mosaic law is called a “shadow.” That’s Hebrews 10:1, where the sacrifices are called a shadow of good things to come. For the author of Hebrews, the sacrifices are null and void now that Christ has fulfilled them. Can the same be said of the food laws, festivals, new moons, and Sabbath day? Do the New Testament authors compel Christians to observe “shadows”?
Colossians makes the point that one particular Old Testament ritual has a spiritual application for Christians, not a physical one. In Colossians 2:11-13, we read: “In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses[.]”
According to this passage, Gentile Christians don’t need to have their foreskin removed, for they are circumcised when they remove their sinful nature (body of flesh) through Christ. Could the author believe the same thing about the dietary laws, festivals, new moons, and Sabbath days? That, with the coming of Christ, we do these things spiritually, not necessarily in a physical sense?
It’s something to think about. Personally, I’m not clear how the Jewish dietary laws foreshadow Christ. I can see how the Sabbath relates to believers’ spiritual rest (Matthew 11:28-29; Hebrews 4:3, 9-10). I know that the festivals pertain to certain aspects of Christ’s ministry (I Corinthians 5:7; Hebrews 9-10). And maybe the new moon has something to do with the new beginning that Christ offers us. But what’s avoiding pork have to do with Jesus?