“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. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” ( referring to things that all perish as they are used) —according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self- made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. (ESV)
The issue in Colossians has been the sufficiency of Christ. The issue in our text is whether we are going to trust God’s provision for us or not. Will we see that God has provided everything we need for life and godliness in Christ or will we be taken captive by human wisdom and attempt to do, in our own strength, what God has already done?
As we begin, I think it is important that we spend some time looking at some of the details of this text. In this passage we find some language that may not be immediately clear to us. So we need to be good students of the Word of God and wrestle out just what Paul is warning the Colossians believers about.
So, to begin with, Paul warns the Colossians in 2:16,
“… 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.”
Notice that the Colossian believers were in danger of letting someone “pass judgment on” them. What does that mean?
It appears that the false teachers were insisting that in order to be obedient and to grow toward maturity and to live a life fully pleasing to God one must do these certain things and conform to these certain religious regulations. But Paul says, “Don’t submit to their demands. The things they are requiring of you, God does not require.”
So, we need to think about what these things were. Paul is warning them not to let anyone pass judgment on them regarding food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. What are these things that Paul says are not to be required of God’s people in the church?
Well, the last two things Paul mentions here at the end are unquestionably Jewish in origin: “…a new moon or a Sabbath.” There is some question about whether “food and drink” also falls quite so naturally into that same Jewish category. The Old Testament had strict dietary regulations for Israel but no explicit drinking regulations.
But, at minimum we can still say that Paul in verse 16 is speaking into a context where the Old Testament Jewish traditions were being promoted and made to be requirements for those in the church. Paul is saying don’t let anyone tell you that you must keep the OT regulations.
Why? Isn’t the OT God’s Word? Shouldn’t we, in fact be making use of the Word of God in the OT?
Shadow and Substance
I have a good friend, who is a part of a group who does in fact celebrate the Old Covenant festivals and holy days. They say we are commanded to observe them in God’s Word. They do not celebrate Christmas because this is nowhere commanded in the bible. They would look at you and I and say we are not following God’s Word.
But, Paul is here saying, don’t let these teachers tell you that you must follow these Old Testament regulations. Paul seems to be saying exactly the opposite of what my friend is demanding. And in fact Paul sees this as a big deal. And it is a big deal because a glorious change has come. A massive transition has taken place with the coming of Christ.
Lets look at how Paul thinks about the difference between the Old Covenant and the New. Here in verse 17 Paul says the Old Covenant regulations, that he just listed, (regulations about food (and possibly drink), festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths), these things are a shadow and Christ is the substance.
(17)These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.
The transition from Old to New was like moving from seeing only a shadow of something to beholding the substance of that thing.
We need to see how significant this transition is in Paul’s mind. Moving from the Old Covenant into the New was of utmost importance to Paul and should be to us as well. Something glorious has taken place that we must not take for granted or confuse. It is in fact, at the very center of the bible’s message.
Listen to Colossians 1:24-28a. This is ground we have covered in weeks past, but oh how precious these things are.
As I read these precious verses be listening for how Paul is thinking about the arrival of Christ in the New Covenant. Listen to how Paul thinks about the coming of this good news:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim…”
Paul claims that the hope of glory, which is Christ in you, was, for ages and generations, a mystery. It was hidden. It was something that was not available for all to see. But, now, in this age, it has been revealed. A massive transition has taken place. The revelation of God was not complete in the OT, but it came to fullness with the NT. What a transition! From an age of mystery, to this age: the age of full revelation of the glory of God in Christ Jesus, the hope of glory.
Listen to how Paul talks about this transition in Galatians chapter 4.
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son…”
In Paul’s mind the coming of Christ took place at the fullness of time. Meaning the incredible and surprising event of the coming of the Son of God, came at the end of some set period of time. When that period was brought to fullness, then God sent the Son!
What is implied in this passage is that God had a period of time in mind before He would finally at the fullness of time execute His glorious plan.
Listen also to how Paul talks about this in Ephesians 1.
“In him (Christ) we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight…
(catch this next phrase)
…making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
So here Paul makes it explicit. God has had a single purpose and a wise plan from the beginning to unite all things in Jesus. Once, for long ages in fact, this was a mystery, but now, in this age, it is revealed. Christ was God’s plan for the summing up of all things.
I want to make sure we understand that in Paul’s mind, and this should be in our minds, the gospel is not timeless principles for living. As though Jesus merely came to teach us the right principles for living a life pleasing to God and gave us a good example to follow. That is not what Jesus came to do.
The gospel is not simply a repackaging of what came before, as though God wrote a manual for living a life pleasing to him in the OT and now has undated that manual in the NT.
The gospel, in Paul’s mind, is the most glorious and unique action of God in the history of the world. It is the execution of the perfect plan of God when the fullness of time had come.
There is no question that Paul sees the work of Christ as the climax of God’s purposes. The life, death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ the Lord is the zenith of God’s work to redeem a people, defeat all his enemies, and glorify His holy and gracious name.
So when Paul hears that the Colossians may be tempted to go backwards and submit to Old Covenant regulations he sees that the very gospel, God’s incredible, perfect, powerful provision, is in danger of being undermined.
What we have in Colossians 2:17 is Paul describing the difference between what came before, with what has now been revealed. Paul describes these regulations given under that Old Covenant as shadows.
This doesn’t mean that these regulations serve no purpose.
They were and are glorious gifts to God’s people. And in their place they serve a crucial function. Here is how. They gave, before the time, some of the contours of what would come at the fullness of time. They reveal to God’s people something about how God would fulfill all His promises. They helped God’s people understand what the hope of glory would look like.
But, Paul calls them the shadow. When the substance comes the shadows are no longer necessary.
God had given, in the Old Covenant, external signs to mark the people of God off from the world and to lead His saints (all His people) toward Christ and a New and better covenant in His blood.
These marks were shadows of “things to come” while the true substance belonged, always, to Christ. When the fullness of time had come the shadows gave way to the substance. The external marks (the shadows) of dietary regulations and festivals, and new moons, and Sabbaths gave way to the substance (Christ).
I don’t know if you’ve been one of those science museums that have those special rooms where you stand up facing a white wall and a flash of light goes off. As you step away from the wall your shadow remains frozen on the wall for a while.
Well, the Old Covenant regulations were like that. A kind of silhouette, a shadow, which was very profitable at the time as it told us about what the coming hope was to be like. But when the coming hope came, the shadow had done its job.
I love pictures of my wife because they remind me of her. When I am away from my wife a picture serves to remind me of my wife. But it would be inappropriate to sit on the coach next to my wife ignoring her in order to gaze at a picture of her. To ignore my wife and prefer the picture is to reject the substance in favor of the shadow.
The Old Covenant was full of pictures and shadows of Christ. Once we had pictures and silhouettes telling us something of what the hope would be. Now we have the substance: Christ has come.
The reason we don’t sacrifice animals in the NC is because that was a picture of the Christ’s sacrifice. They practiced animal sacrifices in faith looking forward to the substance. We, having received the once for all sacrifice of the Son of God, proclaim His death until he comes.
The reason Israel had food regulations was to mark them off as holy to the Lord. Separate from the wicked nations. They were to be devoted to the Lord. In the New Covenant Christ has made people clean, from every tribe tongue people and nation(Act 10:28 and Rev 9:5) and so the shadow of food regulations has passed away. Christ has made all foods clean (Mark 7:19).
The reason Israel observed the festivals was to remind them of God’s provision and power and grace in their lives. The reason we don’t observe the Jewish festivals and new moons and Sabbaths is because these things pointed to Christ Jesus. He is our Passover lamb. He is our year of Jubilee. He is our Sabbath rest. He is the sum and substance of all these things.
So when Paul hears that there are those requiring these regulations of the New Covenant people of God, Paul sees that there is a huge issue. Why are you requiring that people submit to the shadow when the substance has come? In doing this you are rejecting the substance because you think that Christ is just one more thing to add to your ways of getting to God. Those things pointed to Christ. He is the substance to which they bore witness.
That is Paul’s point in verse 16 and 17.
Man Made Regulations
But, Paul goes on in verse 18 to talk about asceticism (that is, strict discipline of the body and the avoidance of physical pleasure – the word here translated asceticism seems to carry the idea of false humility). Paul says that asceticism and worship of angels, and visions were also being pushed on the Colossian believers as requirements as well.
They were being told, in order to grow and become mature and be fully pleasing to God, to reach true spirituality, you must follow these regulations. Now, these things don’t appear to have OT roots.
So it seems that the teaching that Paul is warning the Colossians about is a mixture of Jewish and some other religious ideas.
Neither the Shadow Nor Man’s Wisdom Are the Hope.
But notice that Paul isn’t very careful to differentiate the things that have a Jewish origin from those things with some other origin. He has lumped them all together and is warning the church not to submit to any of these regulations.
And here is why: (and, this is very important) by submitting to OT Jewish regulations and by submitting to regulations with some other origin as the means to life and godliness and fullness they would be rejecting God’s perfect provision in Christ. Neither the Old Covenant shadows nor anything man can contrive form the basis for your hope of glory. Those things can not add to that hope. In fact, submitting to those things betrays your misunderstanding of God’s provision.
The issue for Paul is the sufficiency of Christ in the New Covenant. What Paul saw in the false teaching at Colossi was an undermining of God’s final, perfect and powerful provision for his people in Christ.
These false teachers had fundamentally misunderstood the nature of God’s glorious work. They were trying to get done, by use of Jewish shadows and by use of other religious (man made) ideas, what Christ had already done.
Might we be tempted to do this as well?
Look at how Paul contrasts the power of Christ in your life with the power of the anything else in your life, because this is what it really comes down to. Neither the shadows of the Old Covenant, not the wisdom of men can possible form the foundation for your life and godliness.
Are we going to believe that we have everything we need for life and godliness in Christ, or are we going to look elsewhere?
When we look at ourselves and we see deficiencies of character. We see anxiety and worry. We see laziness and lying. We see pride and selfishness. We see sinful inclinations of all kinds. How will we go about making progress toward holiness? How do you plan to pursue godliness?
We have a tendency to forget that in the gospel we have what we need. We have a tendency to start trying to use anything and everything we can to climb our way up to fullness and peace and joy.
We start doing all kinds of things to restrain the power of the flesh. Rather than recognizing what we have – we go looking to conquer our problems in our own way and by our own effort.
If you don’t live and labor by faith in Christ all your efforts will amount to a heap of filthy rags.
Last time we recounted the glorious truth about what Christ has already accomplished for us, who have received Him by faith: God is on your side, the sinful nature has been stripped from you such that is no longer defines who you are before God, God has united you to Jesus such that you the sinner have died and you the new creature have been raised, and there is not power in heaven or on earth that can bring a charge against you, God nailed your sins to the cross!
If you don’t live from that glorious news, with that glorious new identity, upon that sure hope, if you don’t live your day to day life clinging to that work of Christ, by faith – nothing you do will ever stop the indulgence of the sinful nature (Colossians 2:23).
Growth From God
What Paul is concerned about is that we hold fast to Christ. In Him alone is the power of God for deliverance from sin and judgment. Look at verse 19. Paul is getting to heart of this dangerous teaching in Colossians:
…(these false teachers are doing these things) and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
Did you know that your spiritual growth is a growth that is from God? The Body of Christ … grows with a growth that is from God – the verse says.
Notice, it is when we hold fast to the Head (to Christ), that is, when we cling to Christ by faith, believing the glorious promises of the gospel, that we are supplied with growth … from God!
Paul Tripp has said that Christ did not just die for your past sins. He did not just die for your future in glory. He died for your here and now. That is right.
The moment we get our eyes off of Christ and the moment we start looking at and trusting in ourselves or trusting in the practices of Old Covenant, or to some other invention of man, we are grasping, in our own strength and by our own wisdom, for what is freely given in Christ.
God knows what you need to for life and godliness and He gave it freely to us by faith. The Lord Jesus Christ is the fountain of life.
5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.
This has been Paul’s point. Not only your everlasting life, but also the bearing of much fruit comes from God as we cling to our Savior by faith, like a branch drawing life from the vine.
All of God’s glorious provision, every spiritual blessing, is poured through Christ into you. Our growth comes from God as we walk through our days clinging to Christ, believing, understanding, and embracing the gospel message. I pray that you can see how powerful and perfect and precious is God’s glorious provision for you in Christ Jesus.
Andrew “Andy” Murray was born and raised in New Hampshire. His father, pastor Loren Murray, served Fellowship Bible Church in Chester, NH. At six years of age Andy trusted in Jesus Christ and was baptized. He was brought up “acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” At the age of 12 his father was in a fatal car accident. Reflecting on the loss of his dad Andy writes; “I see now the wise and loving hand of Christ in my life, as He used this event to, shape, mold and press me toward Himself. It was this event that sparked in me an earnest desire to know God from His Word. By His grace, this desire has continued to grow.” Andy met his wife, Elizabeth, at Philadelphia Biblical University (now Cairn University). They have four wonderful boys. Visit Windham Bible Chapel.