Shadows Versus Substance
“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a newmoon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”- Colossians 2:16–17
At night, the darkness of the world hinders our ability to see what is around us, but shadows often help us discern that which is not directly visible to our eyes. A streetlight might cast the shadow of a four-legged creature, and we understand that a cat or a dog is standing just off to the side. The shadow of a winged creature may indicate that a bird or a bat is flying overhead. No matter the shadow we see, it usually provides us with enough information to understand something of the reality behind the shadow.
The New Testament often speaks of the old covenant saints as living in a time of shadows, particularly in regard to the ceremonies and sacrifices of the Mosaic law (Heb. 10:1–18). Such things were like shadows in relation to Christ because in them, the old covenant saints saw something of what would be required for their redemption. Seeing bulls, goats, sheep, and other animals offered up in the temple showed the people that the high price of death had to be paid to cover their sin. They did not yet fully understand that the only death that could pay for their sins would be the death of God’s Son in their place, but they did realize that life had to be given for atonement. The substance, the reality that these shadows anticipated, is Jesus, the One whose death alone is sufficient to pay for our redemption.
As the answer to question 19 of the Heidelberg Catechism tells us, these shadows were yet another way that God preached the holy gospel to the saints who lived before the incarnation. Colossians 2:16–17 is but one of many texts that the catechism cites to prove this point. In it we learn that no matter how important these sacrifices were, we make an error if we locate this importance in the ceremonies themselves and not in their ability to point people to the Messiah. Nothing in the Law was ever revealed as an end in itself but was given to show us our need for Christ and the work He would do in our behalf (Gal. 3:23–29).
God preached the gospel for centuries leading up to the birth of Jesus, but in Christ Jesus He fulfilled what He had been saying all along, proclaiming the truth of salvation in Jesus alone most clearly (1 Peter 1:10–12). Let us be thankful that we live today when the fullness of the gospel is available to all the people of God.
In addition to a fuller experience of the Holy Spirit, new covenant saints have an advantage over old covenant saints in that we more clearly see God’s work of salvation than those who lived before Christ. Let us be grateful for this and also thankful that we have God’s completed revelation, the Apostolic word that shows us how to understand the Lord’s acts in history. May we study the Apostles’ writings diligently that we might know Christ truly.
Passages for Further Study