The Law of God – Part 1 – Understanding Colossians 2

We would like to be able to say that a controversy rages over the issue of the law of God. But we can’t. Only a very few think it important to obey God’s law. We are with the few. The exposition of our case begins with the second chapter of the book of Colossians.

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When I was in college taking theology classes, something I ran into was the argument that the law of God need not be observed. It never crossed my mind that it would have been, but my theology instructors assured me that such was the case. There wasn’t any entire class that was dedicated to that issue, but I’m sure it was mentioned many times in the other classes…

After I got out of college and made a study of the entire issue for myself – at least as much of it as I could find in the Bible – and since then, I don’t think I’ve ever run into anyone that wanted to argue about the issue. But it was intensely helpful to me to dig into it for my own faith. I’m hopeful that this presentation will help others dig into it as well, especially those who are younger. 

One of the most outrageous misinterpretations of a scripture that I’ve encountered is in Colossians 2:16 and 17. To explain it, we have to talk about what the law of God is, and which parts of it are no longer necessary to observe, and how the law works and what it’s for. So I don’t think we’re going to be able to get all of that today, but we’re going to have a run at it and we’ll probably pick it up later. 

So let’s jump into it today with Colossians 2:16 and what comes with it. Ephesians 2 is also going to be helpful to us, I think. There are so many things that we can learn from it. So let’s begin with the scripture itself. Paul said, in Colossians 2:16 and 17:

Colossians 2:16-17 – Therefore, let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 

It sounds, in that translation, like Paul thinks that the shadows of things to come are not important – at least as much as Christ is. He’s the substance – the meat. The Sabbath days, and the holy days, and what you eat and drink are just temporary things that are done away with now and don’t matter that much. As one translation flagrantly mistranslated it: the shadows of things that were to come – as though they’re already obsolete now and done away with. 

So what can we make of this scripture? Well, a little bit of background: As we’ll see later, Paul had never been in Colossae. He was in prison when he wrote this letter. The congregation – like most congregations Paul had dealings with, since he was sent to the Gentiles – was a mixture of converted Jews and also Gentiles, and he was worrying out loud for the spiritual health of that little congregation. They were under siege from the community. The local culture was one of pagan asceticism. We can see him refer, later on in the book, to touch not, taste not, handle not. So that sort of sums up the religion of the area. The deprivation of enjoyment was the order of the day. They thought it was godly to deprive themselves. 

Paul used a number of different terms that have to do with the law in general. And, if we believe that the law still exists, or if we strongly believe that it doesn’t, we have to be careful to understand what Paul is talking about when he refers to the law. Sometimes he’s talking about the rules that went along with being ascetic in Colossae, and sometimes he’s talking about the law of God and the various parts of it. So we’ll get to that later. But right now, let’s get back to what the scripture means as translated word-for-word. 

The substance is of Christ. Now I can agree that Christ is our Savior and He is the most important part of it. He’s the substance of salvation. Can you? And that would be fine if that’s what the scripture is saying, but it’s not. The phrase translated the substance is of Christ is a mistranslation. So let’s look at what it really says. The word for substance in the Greek is soma. It means body. Many English words have this Greek word as their basis. For example: somatic diseases refer to diseases of the body. Literally, the word means body. The phrase – which is what this phrase is – the body of Christ is found in four other places in the New Testament. Two of them refer to the literal body of Christ, as crucified, and two of them refer to the church, which is also the body of Christ. So here are the four other places that are mentioned: Romans 7:4, 1 Corinthians 10:16, 1 Corinthians 12:27 and Ephesians 4:12. 

Don’t you think it’s odd that, in this case, it’s translated differently? How did that happen? Well, I can just imagine some translators, who don’t believe in the law anymore – particularly the Sabbath and the holy days – looking at the translation and thinking to themselves, “Well, that surely can’t mean that! That would mean the Colossians weren’t supposed to let anybody judge them about their observance of the Sabbath and the holy days, except for the church. No, no, no, that’s what it means!” So, instead, to help us understand what they thought to be the true meaning, they mistranslated the verse to make it sound like these observances don’t matter anymore. If you stop and think about it, that was actually an ingenious move. They changed one English word and this scripture appears to mean the opposite of what the scripture means if you translate it literally.

Here’s a good translation: Therefore, do not allow anyone to judge you in eating or drinking, or with regard to a festival, or new moons or the Sabbath, which are a foreshadow of the things that are coming, but the body of Christ. In other words, “Don’t worry what your pagan neighbors think about your obedience to God in these things. Instead, let the church guide you in that.” 

But there’s more. What is a shadow? God loves shadows. He loves to foreshadow things. The erroneous translation assumes the shadow somehow makes whatever it’s shadowing less important. “Your Sabbaths are just shadows of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” But let’s think about that. Do you remember that Moses was a type of Christ? He was an intermediary between the people and God, just as Christ is our mediator between us and God. Do you remember that fort David captured near Jerusalem called Zion? That was a shadow of the Church of God. One of the reasons we’re to keep the Sabbath is because it’s a reminder that Christ is going to come. Did you know that? It’s true. The Sabbath is the seventh day of the week, just like the Millennium – which is the span of time after Christ’s return – is the seventh millennium in God’s plan. The holy days all foreshadow parts of God’s plan – many of them in the future. Is that a bad thing? All these observances have Jesus Christ stamped all over them indelibly. Jesus kept them all as an example for us. The early apostolic church kept them for hundreds of years before they were dropped. And we have historical and biblical evidence of that. So a shadow is a good thing. It’s not a bad one. In fact, the reason Paul brings them up in this verse is evidence that they are to be kept. 

What about eating and drinking? Well, as I said, Colossae was the city that was taken with asceticism in their worship of false gods. And Paul mentions one of the things that they apparently said a lot was, “Handle not, taste not, touch not.” Everyone agrees that that is a reference to the Colossians ascetic culture – a culture of self-denial. Would it be possible that eating meat of any kind or drinking alcohol might have been frowned upon? So don’t let the neighbors dictate your diet, or what you do or don’t eat, based on God’s law. 

The same goes for festivals and holy days. And what about new moons? Back then, Israel marks time by observing the new moon of each month. God told them to do this because their calendar was lunar. So, on the first day of every month, there was a little observance about that. The observance was not listed with the Sabbath and the holy days. It’s wasn’t a day that was set aside with no work, because it wasn’t a religious observance. Daylight savings is on all of our calendars, but it’s not a holiday – something like that. Jewish Christian in Colossae, who may have been marking time with a new moon, like Jews have always done, may have drawn criticism from their ascetic neighbors. So, while new moons aren’t essential, they’re not wrong either. 

So what else does Paul say to these beleaguered Christians? Well, he says in Colossians 2:18:

V-18-23 – Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels – which we don’t do – going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations….? Now, some people have thought – and I don’t know how they can possibly do this – that that’s talking about the regulations of the law of Moses. But then, in verse 21, he explains what he’s talking about: “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch,” (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings? “Why would you do that?” he says. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. 

So there he is. He’s talking about the customs that the people followed there in their pagan religion. It’s not about God’s law. Yet, some people somehow think that this is talking about God’s law. But I hope that you can see that he’s talking what’s going on in Colossae and the ascetic paganism that they confronted. 

And he didn’t stop there. Let’s continue reading in Colossians 3:1:

Colossians 3:1-4If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. So, stick to those things that foreshadow Christ’s coming. 

This is scripture jumps into the bigger picture of should we observe God’s law or not? Let’s look at Ephesians 2 then. Here’s one scripture that the no-law people put forward – Ephesians 2:14:

Ephesians 2:14-15 – For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace…. 

 So that word ordinances…they assume that that’s talking about the law of God. But does it refer to the Ten Commandments, the entire written law of Moses, or something else? Well, if we look in the Arndt Gingrich Lexicon, we find the definition of the word ordinances – decrees, ordinances, decisions and commandments of men. Not talking about the laws of God, but of men. But what laws of men? Well, the context of the verse shows us he’s talking about the veil in the temple, beyond which Gentiles were not allowed to go. And that veil was torn in two at Christ’s death. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were in charge of temple worship in Christ’s time. Notice what He has to say about them in Matthew 15:1. It says:

Matthew 15:1-9 – Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?” The tradition of the elders – so that is not the law of God. That’s something else. “For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” That’s the example they gave. He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? So two different things – the commandments of God and the traditions of the elders. For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Now listen to this: In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” 

So this was one of the biggest issues in the New Testament church, because Judaism in that day put forth their own traditions ahead of the commandments of God in some cases. 

Now, an easy way to identify what is a law of God and a tradition of men: When Jesus says, “It is written…,” He’s referring to the written law of Moses. That was all written down in the Old Testament. D And when He says, “It has been said….,” He’s referring to the traditions of the elders, which was called the oral law. They added it on.

Where did these traditions come from? Before Christ’s coming – I think it was approximately 500 years before He came – Judah was taken captive for about 70 years. And when God led them back from captivity – back to the Holy Land – the idea was to put a fence around the law of God. They would make traditions that would keep people far away from breaking a law, so that they would never even get close to breaking one, with the idea that they would never go into captivity again. Now, looking at the laws of our country – and any nation – it should be no surprise that this didn’t work. It backfired because man is just not capable of creating a system of laws that work in every case. That’s what Jesus was telling the Pharisees. You’ve got God’s law, which is perfect, but your traditions are so fouled up, it causes people to break God’s law – which is not what they wanted. So they wanted to keep people from breaking the law, but their traditions did just the opposite. They caused lawbreaking. 

Ultra-Orthodox Jews today, many of them still try to live by some of those traditions. If you go to a big hotel in Jerusalem, on Friday evening – the beginning of the Sabbath – you’ll see the toilet paper is stacked in small amounts and folded so the people have to tear it off for themselves. It’s too much work. It’s breaking the Sabbath. That’s not God’s law. That’s their tradition. Another example you may recall. There’s a phrase in the New Testament: a Sabbath day’s journey. There’s no mention of that in God’s law. That was a part of the oral law that was their tradition. There’s never been any distance that was prescribed in the law of God beyond which a person could travel on the Sabbath. Jesus is the one who said the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. So that was part of the oral law. We heard that an Orthodox congregation…most of the members could not attend synagogue services on the Sabbath because they lived more than a Sabbath day’s journey from the synagogue. So there’s another example of how they’ve become slaves to their tradition. 

Now, contrary to that, while He was down on the Pharisees traditions, He was up on God’s law. I’m going to read you the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said:

Matthew 5:18-20 – For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is – in the ESV, it’s accomplished and in the King James, it’s fulfilled. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments – now we’re talking about the law of God – anybody who relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Paul, who knew Jesus very well would have never said any part of God’s law was done away with. He just wouldn’t have done that – because of what we just read. 

One of the arguments that no-law people go with is, they try to change the meaning of the word fulfill, because Jesus fulfilled the law. One of the meanings of the Greek word pleroo is to fill up. That’s the word – pleroo is the word – that was translated accomplished or fulfilled. So it can mean to fill up. But pleroo can also mean to bring to full expression – that is, bring forth the true spiritual meaning, which He did in that very same chapter when He expanded the meaning from physical application of the law to its full spiritual intent. An example that He talked about right there was the act of adultery – under the Old Covenant, was a sin, but in the New – under the New Covenant – even lusting for someone is a violation of that law. 

So, if Jesus was doing away with the Ten Commandments, why would He say that they were more binding than ever in next few words? So, at the very least, since the word has several meanings, we should not use it to define the word fulfill. Instead, we need to show clearly from other verses our position, which we’re going to do next time. 

There’s a lot to this topic – the law of God. So we will go forward with it next week – or next time. We will be discussing the issue of law or grace.