What is the meaning of Colossians 2:16?
By Calvin Burrell
This second chapter of Colossians contains a series of warnings against false teachings that threatened the church in Colosse. “Let no one deceive, or cheat, or judge, or spoil you,” Paul says, “with persuasive words” (v. 4), by philosophy and man’s traditions (v. 8), in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths,” (v.16), or “in false humility and worship of angels” (v.18).
Scholars recognize in these terms the elements of a syncretistic brand of first-century faith that would later be called gnosticism. It blended Christian and Judaic elements with astrological, angelic, philosophical and ascetic influences. Paul objected to this perverted mixture of man-made religion because it refused to recognize the supremacy of Jesus and the salvation He brought.
Note the emphasis given to Christ throughout this passage:
* in Him are all treasures of wisdom and knowledge (v. 3);
* in Him all the fullness of the Deity lives (v.9);
* we are complete in Christ (v. 10);
* He is the true circumciser and baptizer (vv. 11, 12);
* He raises us, forgives us, and defeats our enemies (vv. 13-15);
* Jesus is our head (v. 19).
Paul’s primary burden in this chapter is to uphold the essential nature of faith in Christ, when compared with other forms of religious expression.
Not that all other expressions are wrong. Many of the elements Paul mentions in Colossians chapter 2 have a place in the life of faith: good philosophy, Christian baptism, wholesome eating and drinking, the fruit of self-control, and respect for the role of angels. It is not the use of food and drink or holy days that Paul deplores in verse sixteen, but their misuse. Why, then, should we employ this text to abolish the joyful observance of a weekly Sabbath kept in honor to Christ? No, we need not force the text in this manner!
The message of this book is that none of these religious elements separately, or as a package, can take the place of Christ. Paul is no more against the Sabbath here than he is against eating and drinking. He is, however, against anything that effectively dislodges Christ from the central and pre-eminent position in our faith (see Colossians 1:13-19; 2:2, 3, 9, 10, 17; 3:1, 11).
Paul consistently supports the moral law of God as a standard for human conduct, but not as a method for personal salvation. In Colossians alone, he alludes to nine of the Commandments–and to all ten if the meeting in 2:16 is on Sabbath.
Understood in this way, these tough texts agree fully with other Scripture, and the Bible is unanimous: the Sabbath is God’s gift for the benefit of His people, designed for ceasing routine labor and practicing the priority of Christ and His Kingdom.
Enjoy the gift!
Calvin presently serves as the secretary of the BSA board.