Colossians 2:16-17 has been translated and explained various ways. What does the context and background tell us about what Paul was trying to convey?
Examining information in its proper context is a fundamental rule of good communication and never more so than when seeking to understand a potentially difficult section of the Bible. Colossians 2:16-17 is such a section. In the New King James Version it reads: “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 is of Christ.”
Most modern readers never give a thought to Old Testament festivals, new moons (in a religious context) or the Sabbath, much less worry about being criticized (“judged”) for keeping them. And, since they are a “shadow of things to come,” do the things mentioned in these verses even concern us today?
On the other hand, our Savior reminded Satan: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, emphasis added). In light of Jesus’ forceful words, quoted from the Old Testament, Christians should search out the correct understanding of what Paul wrote.
There are people who believe that Colossians 2:16-17 warns against thinking that some Old Testament laws apply to Christians. We will see that this conclusion takes what Paul says out of context, literally reversing his intended meaning.
Context includes the verses before and after, as well as what the Bible says on the same topic elsewhere. The verses before these are explained in “What Was Nailed to the Cross in Colossians 2:14?” The broader context of his teaching is covered in “Law and Grace: Jesus vs. Paul?” The subject of God’s grace is also covered in our section on “Grace.”
Old Testament laws
First, there can be no doubt that Paul has now turned to the topic of Old Testament laws and practices by referring to a “festival,” “new moon” and “sabbaths” (verse 16). But do these verses then mean that all Old Testament law is null and void? Let’s go through the words carefully and find out.
Verse 17 has some difficult-to-follow language. As you may know, where verses begin and end was determined by translators, and they don’t always make good sense. Verse 17—“which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ”—is just part of a sentence.
The fact that festivals, new moons and Sabbaths are a shadow of things yet to happen is clear enough language, although most have never been shown what the Bible says about how these days picture events in God’s plan.The fact that festivals, new moons and Sabbaths are a shadow of things yet to happen is clear enough language, although most have never been shown what the Bible says about how these days picture events in God’s plan. For eye-opening information about God's festivals and His plan, see the “Life” section of this website. The observance of new moons is a separate subject that we explain in “New Moons: Should Christians Observe Them?”
Modern-language Bible translations have wide variations in their translations and paraphrases of the section “but the substance is of Christ.” Some versions substitute words that essentially imply that the Old Testament laws weren’t real (they were only a shadow) and that genuine reality is in Christ. But this interpretation does a disservice to the reader.
The Greek word translated as “substance” means “body” (Online Bible Greek Lexicon). And the word “is” was inserted by the translators because they thought it helped the word flow. Without the word “is,” it reads, “but the body of Christ.”
Paul is famous for his long sentences. He begins verse 16 with, “So, let no one judge you”; and he ends verse 17 with, “but the body of Christ.” In other words, let no man or group of men judge you on how you are practicing the Old Testament laws and customs. Listen only to the body of Christ, the Church (Colossians 1:24; 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 27)!
Understanding “food” and “drink” in Colossians 2
The words “food” and “drink” are in the gerund form, so a more accurate translation would be “eating” and “drinking.” The biblical festivals especially included much eating and drinking (not drunkenness)—literally feasting. And the New Testament speaks of elders and believers eating together after worship services, which enhanced the joy of Sabbath fellowship.
We need still more background to understand completely, but at least we now know:
(1) Christians—both Jew and gentile (Colossians 1:27)—were keeping Old Testament laws and customs.
(2) Other people were judging (criticizing in a condemning manner) these Church members for their joyous eating and drinking, which is part of the observance of God’s commanded assemblies.
(3) Paul didn’t discourage what they were doing, but rather told them not to allow others to condemn their practices! Instead, they were to allow only the Church—the Body of Christ—to instruct them.
Now for the last piece of the puzzle, which is knowledge of something that was happening in the Asian churches at the time Paul wrote to them. This information comes out in the verses that follow Colossians 2:16-17. Here is what they say: “Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God.
“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,’ which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:18-23.)
The background information that helps us understand why Paul wrote these words is that the religious philosophy of what would become gnosticism was beginning to show up in congregations of the Church of God. Several New Testament letters correct pre-gnostic dogmas that were creeping into the Church. The false dogmas included angel worship, man-devised ideas (“principles of this world”) and self-denying regulations (don’t touch this, don’t taste that, etc.). It held a certain appeal, Paul acknowledged, because people are inclined to think that denying a desire means they are righteous.
The problem with this thinking is that no one is made righteous by following rules men invent! Righteous character grows out of living by the laws God gave. Psalm 119:172 says, “My tongue shall speak of Your word, for all Your commandments are righteousness.”
In summary, Colossians 2 shows that people in the congregation who were promoting ungodly doctrines were criticizing the Christians (both Jews and gentiles) for their joyous observance of festivals, new moons and Sabbaths. Paul confronted these heresies, and he told the members who were feasting according to God’s festival and Sabbath laws to carry on as they had been doing.