Shadow Versus Substance

These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col. 2:17).

- Colossians 2:16-17

If there was any doubt as to the extent of Jesus’ victory, Paul clears it up for us in Colossians 2:15 when he speaks of the evil powers being put “to open shame.” This, as mentioned on Friday, alludes to the Roman practice of parading defeated foes in chains behind the emperor or conquering general. There was no doubt as to who was the victor in this parade, and Christ’s resurrection and ascension display His victory similarly. Jesus’ conquering of His foes was like the parading of a defeated army, so decisive was His campaign against them at Calvary (see Eph. 4:8).

Our Savior’s victory qualifies Him alone to judge the earth (John 5:19–29; 1 Cor. 15:20–28); therefore, no one else can judge us regarding indifferent matters like the food we eat or the holidays we observe (Col. 2:16). Today’s passage begins a section that most clearly describes the errors in Colossae, indicating that false teachers there promoted a higher spirituality based partly on the observance of the Jewish dietary laws and festival calendar, condemning those who did not follow these regulations. The apostle is not defining such laws as in themselves wrong, nor is he asserting that there is no place for keeping a Christian Sabbath; rather, the problem occurs when keeping such regulations is imposed on others as the mark of true spirituality. This was happening in Colossae, and judgments about things that should be indifferent continue even today. But Christians are free to follow their consciences when it comes to such matters, and Jesus alone has the right to judge whether one’s motives in following or not following such rules are holy (Rom. 14).

Paul also says that binding consciences where they are free is ultimately foolish because it is a way of turning back the clock to an inferior era. Obedience to kosher laws and festival calendars had a place under the old covenant because in that era of immaturity, these regulations pointed people to Christ (Gal. 3:15–29). In them, the faithful Israelites saw the outline of God’s redemption but not its full reality, much as viewing a shadow of a person allows us to make out certain details (height, gender, etc.) without seeing the full picture. Yet just as we learn more about people when we see them face to face and not in shadow, so too we know more about God’s salvation because we see Christ, who was but a shadow to old covenant believers (Col. 2:17).

Coram Deo

We might envy the old covenant saints because we do not usually see great seas parted, manna falling from heaven, and other “spectacular” displays of God’s power. But we are in a far better position than the old covenant saints, for we see Christ more clearly than they ever did. Let us be grateful for the era in which we live and never try to go back to life under the legal bondage that characterized those who lived before the coming of Jesus.

Passages for Further Study

Ecclesiastes 3:17
Matthew 7:1–5
1 Corinthians 4:1–5
James 2:1–13

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