Does Colossians 2 refer to God’s laws about clean and unclean animals in a negative way? Or does the context provide a different explanation?
“So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance [body, King James Version] is of Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17).
Some claim that these verses abolish the law about clean and unclean animals, and that Christians may now eat pork, shellfish and the other meats designated as “unclean” in Leviticus 11:1-23 and Deuteronomy 14:3-20. Is this true?
Understanding the context: the influence of pagan philosophies
As in all matters of biblical interpretation, context is important. The Colossian church was being troubled by various strange ideas, such as worship of angels. Some of the philosophies mentioned in Colossians bear resemblance to the teachings of the later gnostics, who believed that spirit and matter were in essential conflict. They considered the spirit good and the body to be evil. Some gnostics tended toward libertinism (indulgence of the physical), while others were ascetic, believing all pleasurable activity was sinful.
These elements of gnostic doctrine are reflected in the book of Colossians. Note the mentions of false humility and worship of angels in Colossians 2:18: “Let no one cheat you of your reward [eternal life in God’s Kingdom], taking delight in false humility and worship of angels.”
Note also the reference to asceticism in verses 20-21: “Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations—‘Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle’ … ?” Verse 23 also talks about “neglect of the body.”
Eating and drinking
When placed in this context, Colossians 2:16 and 17 make good sense. These verses don’t use the Greek word for meat or flesh, kreas, which is used in Romans 14:21 and 1 Corinthians 8:13. Rather the word is brosis, a more general word for eating of food, coupled with posis, the general word for imbibing of any beverage. There is no explicit mention of animal flesh here at all.
It seems the ascetic heretics wished to deprive the Christians of lawful enjoyment of the normal activities of eating and drinking, such as in celebrating a festival. Apparently these ascetics thought some in the congregation at Colosse were enjoying their food and drink too much!
Paul told the members in Colosse not to be concerned about what these ascetics were saying about their eating and drinking (of things that were biblically lawful) or to worry about any other ascetic practices related to a new moon, festival or Sabbaths that these people might try to force upon the members. These two verses don’t change God’s laws about eating and drinking and they don’t abolish festive occasions.
For more about clean and unclean animals, see the article “Clean and Unclean Animals: Does God Care What Meats We Eat?” and the chart “Clean and Unclean Meats.”