Understanding Colossians 2:15-17
by Kelly McDonald, Jr.
In Colossians 2:15-17, Paul wrote “15 Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it. 16 So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival [feast day] or a new moon or sabbaths, 17 which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” (NKJV)
In this excerpt from Colossians, Paul proclaims our triumph over the forces of evil through Jesus Christ. He then shifts to explain that due to Christ’s victory over the enemy, we should not let anyone judge us in food and drink. The Greek word translated as food is brosis; it refers to food defined by Leviticus 11.
Paul then takes this attitude towards food and applies it to certain days. The word “regarding” in verse 16 is translated from two Greek words: en meros. En means inside of and meros means your share or participation in something. The believers in Colossae were eating and drinking during special times. Three specific kinds of times are mentioned: festival, new moon, and Sabbaths.
Some have used this verse to say that we can make any day a festival or Sabbath and no one can pass judgment on us. How do we go about understanding the terms festival, new moons, and Sabbath? How do we define them?
When we read the Bible, context is key. There are different kinds of context. One of the main forms of context is comparing all verses in the Bible on a given subject. Some people call this “using the Bible to interpret the Bible.” This type of research will generate many references and allow us to better grasp the subject.
It is imperative to understand that the entire Old Testament is the background material for the New Testament. When the apostolic authors, such as Paul, use certain terms they often are derived from their uses in the Old Testament. This is especially true with the subject matter we are considering. The Feast Days, New Moon Celebrations, and the Sabbath are mentioned together multiple times before Paul wrote Colossians 2. I have listed three below:
I Chron. 23:31
“and at every presentation of a burnt offering to the Lord on the Sabbaths and on the New Moons and on the set feasts, by number according to the ordinance governing them, regularly before the Lord…”
“…for the showbread, for the regular grain offering, for the regular burnt offering of the Sabbaths, the New Moons, and the set feasts; for the holy things, for the sin offerings to make atonement for Israel, and all the work of the house of our God.”
“Then it shall be the prince’s part to give burnt offerings, grain offerings, and drink offerings, at the feasts, the New Moons, the Sabbaths…”
Thus, we can see that these three special days are used together in the Old Testament. By the time Paul used these terms in his letter to Colossae, a context of meaning already existed. This does not allow us the opportunity to twist or change the meaning based upon what we want the verse to say, but how the Bible has already defined these terms.
The Greek words used for each of these three celebrations bears witness to this as well. The Greek word translated as festival is heorte. It is used 27 times in the New Testament; all of them reference the feast days in Leviticus chapter 23. Paul uses the verb form of heorte in I Corinthians 5:8 to instruct the Corinthians to keep Passover and Unleavened Bread.
The Greek word translated as New Moon is noumenia; it is only used once in the New Testament. It refers to the New Moon celebrations [while these are mentioned in Numbers 28:11-15, we do not have a lot of information about them]. Finally, the Greek word translated as Sabbath is sabbaton, and it is translated as Sabbath or Sabbaths.
Thus, the Colossians were partaking in Biblically approved food and drink during God’s appointed times. Other people were judging them FOR their participation in them! This is absolute proof that the early Christians celebrated them. Another question which arises in this discussion is as follows: Why were they being judged for Biblical behavior?
Colossae was a city in Asia Minor. This area of the world had been influenced by the Greek thought for centuries before Paul lived. A common philosophy among the Greeks was called asceticism. Asceticism is the belief that spirituality could only come through abstinence from things in life that were physically enjoyable – such as certain kinds of food. Thus, these enjoyable behaviors were considered morally wrong. Some ascetics treated their bodies harshly; they viewed it as a way to subdue their carnal desires as a preparation for spiritual experiences. Some thought angels could be seen through rigorous asceticism. Unfortunately, this man-made philosophy was present among the Colossian congregation.
To confirm this detail further, we will apply another kind of Biblical context. This method involves reading the rest of the chapter, which is verses 18-23: “18 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, 19 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. 20 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— 21 “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” 22 which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? 23 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.”
These verses display obvious references to asceticism. Paul references spiritual experiences, including the worship of angels. Next, he references the doctrines and commandments of men (not the doctrines and commandments of God). Lastly, he describes their neglect of the body. The human teaching of asceticism cannot truly overcome the desires of the flesh; it temporarily restrains them.
In the Bible, the Festivals of Leviticus 23 and the seventh-day Sabbath are the most joyous times of celebration and feasting. The believers were eating the nicest foods and drinks available. The ascetics judged the Colossian believers for physical enjoyment during God’s appointed celebrations.
Paul concludes verses 15-17 by saying that these celebrations “…are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” The Greek word translated as substance is soma. It means body. These special times have past and future meaning [the shadow]. But a shadow only exists when light shines on a body. Paul explains that these days are more than just shadows; their true purpose belongs to Christ’s body. In other words, they are part of Him! In Leviticus 23:2, they are called the Feasts of the LORD.
In conclusion, Paul wrote that we should let no one judge us FOR celebrating these special times. Christ followed them on earth. If Peter’s shadow could heal a man, how much more can the shadow of Christ empower us and strengthen His body! This gives Christians yet another reason to celebrate them.
Kelly is President of the Bible Sabbath Association (BSA). www.biblesabbath.org