Notice the following passage which some people cite to supposedly prove that Christians do not have to observe God’s Sabbath and annual holy days:
“So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival [‘holyday’—KJV] or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance
is of Christ” (Col.2:16-17).
To understand what Paul is speaking of in the passage above, it’s vital to consider
the context of that passage. What
we will now see is that, basically, the entire 2nd chapter of Colossians is devoted to Paul’s refuting certain
heresies that were being taught to Christians in the town of Colossae.
By looking at various verses throughout the chapter, we will now see some of the heresies
taught by these false teachers.
In verse 18, we see that they taught the “worship of angels.”
Similarly, they taught their followers to call for help of “principalities
and powers,” as alluded to in verse 15, where Paul said that Christ has “disarmed principalities and powers.”
In Colossae, one basic heresy seems to have been that Christians could reach God only
through the mediation of angels. In fact, most
first century Jews believed that virtually everything had “its angel.”
In the apocryphal Book of Enoch, the stars have their angels, each of the four
seasons has its angel, each of the 12 months has its angel, and each day of the year has its angel.2
This Book of Enoch also spoke of “angels
of power and angels of principality." And compare that phrase to Col.2:15, which speaks of “principalities and powers.”
Consider also the apocryphal work Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.
This book lists 7 “orders” of angels----the highest of which are
called “thrones” and “powers.” Again, this is very similar to Paul’s mention of
“principalities and powers.” 2
So, who were these heretical teachers that Paul was preaching against? They
were the Gnostics---the same group which the Apostle John warned against.
Gnosticism was a blend of “Jewish legalism, Greek philosophic speculation, and
Oriental mysticism.” 3 “Christian gnostics…adopted the complicated teaching
of a sphere of psychic intermediaries (aeons) between God and earthly things.”
4 The Gnostics taught that it is presumptuous for a Christian
to think that he can reach God directly (or through just the one Mediator, Christ). They said that we must humble ourselves and start lower down on the scale,2 and
then move through an ascending scale of angels.
Yet, Paul condemned this self-imposed humility, along with their purposeful neglect of
the body (which will be discussed later). Paul said that these things did
not amount to true humility. He spoke of their “false humility” (verses 18 and
The word “Gnosticism” comes from the
Greek word “gnosis,” which means “knowledge.” The
central teaching of these Gnostics was that secret knowledge could enhance one’s
religion---and, in fact, that one’s very salvation depended upon having this
secret knowledge.1, 5
“…in the first and second centuries A.D. it [Gnosis] came to mean an esoteric knowledge of higher religious and philosophic truths to be acquired by an elite group of intellectually developed believers… [The] thing common to all types of gnosis is the effort to transcend
rational, logical thought processes by means of intuition.”4
So, the Gnostics relied upon “intuition” for their vital, secret knowledge. In other words, they just made up teachings
that they regarded as “secret knowledge.” They made up “mysteries”
The Apostle Paul condemns their teachings. He
warns the Christians in Colossae to not follow “a person [who] goes into great detail about what
he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions” (verse 18, NIV). He says, “Let
no one defraud you” in these teachings (verse 18, AMP). “Now this I say lest anyone should deceive you with
persuasive words” (verse 4). Paul says that this secret knowledge
is nothing more than “hollow and delusive speculations, based on traditions
of man-made teaching” (verse 8, NEB).
He calls it a “self-made religion” (verse 23, NASV). Paul says that the more important knowledge is that “…of the Father and of Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (verses 2- 3).
Now notice something else that these false teachers were trying to teach the Christians
in Colossae. Gnostics oftentimes taught asceticism, and such was the case here. “Asceticism” was the
belief that the body---as well as all physical pleasure---is evil. It was taught that only by practicing rigorous self-denial
and extreme abstinence (and even self-torture) that one can attain a high spiritual state.
Notice verse 23: “These things indeed
have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body…” Regarding this phrase “neglect
of the body,” a marginal rendering
is “severe treatment [of the body], asceticism”
(The Ryrie Study Bible 3).
Now notice verses 20 to 21: “…why,
as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations—‘Do
not touch, do not taste, do not handle’[?]"
These “regulations” of not “touching, tasting or handling”
were, in fact, regulations of asceticism (or extreme self-denial).
“Many Gnostic practices
came from a Jewish sect known as the Essenes.”
6 The Essenes would not eat (or even touch) oil, wine,
or meat. 2 (Similarly,
in the 14th chapter of Romans, Paul spoke of some who practiced strict vegetarianism [no meat]---as a supposed means to be “more spiritual.”) The
Essenes “could prescribe times [such as certain days of the week] and conditions for the use of other
foods; it could also regulate the amounts so as to protect the members from the
evils of luxury or excess.” 2
Yet, Paul refers to these things as “commandments
and doctrines of men” (Col.2:22). This self-imposed, extreme
self-denial gave them feelings of spiritual superiority---that they had risen above
fleshly desires---and were in a separate category. 2
The Essenes vowed to impart their teachings
only to those who underwent rigorous initiation.2
Verses 16 and 17
With all the preceding information in mind, we can now better understand what Paul is
speaking of in verse 16. He says, “Therefore let no one judge you
in food or in drink.” This
phrase “in food or in drink” should actually be translated “in eating or in drinking”---says the Expositor’s Greek Testament (W. R. Smith, vol. 3, p. 530). Here, Paul is not
referring to the issue of clean and unclean meats. Rather, he is referring to
the heretical, ascetic teachings of abstinence from such things as oil, wine, and all meats (as alluded to in verse 21). If he was referring to clean and
unclean meats, then why did he say to let no one
judge you in drinking? “As
for drinking, there is no prohibition in the Old Testament that would affect anyone but
a priest (Leviticus 10:9) and a Nazarite (Numbers 6:3). An ascetic
teaching, however, such as that of the Essenes, could prohibit wine and milk.”2
Continuing in verse 16, Paul says, “Therefore let no one judge you in food or in drink
[in eating or in drinking], or regarding a festival [‘holyday’—KJV]
or a new moon or sabbaths.” Here,
Paul is warning the Colossian believers about these Gnostic teachers who “were
telling the Colossian believers how to eat, how
to drink, and how to observe the annual, monthly and weekly days. They were telling the believers that if you really want to be saved,
if you want to reach perfection, you have to eat in a certain way, drink in a certain way and observe the annual, monthly
and weekly [holy] days in a certain way.
They were laying down the dogma—that is the Greek term used—the rules and regulations
[or ‘ordinances’].” 1
In all probability, the Colossian believers were
being judged for eating and drinking---and
for rejoicing---during the Sabbath and other holy days.6 Again, ascetics believe that physical pleasure---rejoicing---is evil!
Furthermore, and to repeat, many
Gnostic practices came from a Jewish sect known as the Essenes. And, “according to first-century Jewish historian Josephus, they [these Jewish Essenes] kept
the Sabbath so strictly that they would not even take care of bodily functions
during it7…..No wonder the Gnostics were unhappy at Christian rejoicing
and feasting on God’s weekly and annual Sabbaths!” 6
“Paul, therefore, told the Colossian converts not to let these outsiders judge [or dictate to] them as to how
they were keeping these days, ‘which are a shadow of things to come’ (v. 17) ….[and] notice that Paul said
they ARE a shadow---not WERE a shadow. Thus,
[these days] are still to be kept”!
But why did Paul call them a “shadow”?
Because that’s what they are! Each of the annual holy
days pictures (or foreshadows) some aspect of God’s plan of salvation. Likewise, the weekly Sabbath (the 7th day) foreshadows the coming Millennium---the final 1,000 years of God’s 7,000 year plan. This 7th 1,000 year period (unlike the 1st 6,000 years) will be a period of
rest---a 7th day Sabbath rest---a rest from the sin that characterized
the first 6,000 years. Yes, both the weekly and annual holy days are shadows!
(Incidentally, as for Paul’s reference to “new moons” in verse 16: Christians today still observe the New Moon in the sense that we accept the lunar-solar,
Hebrew calendar as the means for determining the dates of the annual holy days.6)
So, Paul says that the holy days and Sabbaths “are a shadow of things to come,
but the substance is of Christ” (verse 17).
Why does he say, “the substance is of Christ”?
The Greek word translated as “substance” is soma. Every other scripture
in the New Testament where this word occurs, it is translated “body.”
In fact, the KJV translates it in this verse as “body”: “but the body is of Christ.”
And consider that the KJV has the word “is” in italics, which means
that this word was not in the original text---it was added by the translators, who were trying to make the verse make sense (according to their understanding). So the phrase is actually: “but the body of Christ.”
So what does this phrase “body of Christ” refer to? It refers to the Church---just as it does in the following
two scriptures: “Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually” (I Cor.12:27); “For the perfecting
of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph.4:12). (And in both these scriptures, the word “body” is translated from the Greek “soma,”
which is used in Col.2:17.)
With that in mind,
let’s now look at verses 16 to 17 to see what Paul was actually saying:
“Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of a holyday, or of the new moon, or of the
sabbath days: Which are
a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ” (KJV).
Paul is saying that Christians should let no man but---or except---the true ministers of the Church (the body of Christ) judge us as to how we observe these holy days. Let no man---no outsiders---judge or instruct you as to how
you keep the days. Let only the Church---God’s
true ministers---judge or instruct you in these observances.