Legalism or Responsibility (Colossians 2:16-17) ~ A Devotion for October 20, 2014

“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 the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” ~ Colossians 2:16-17

Explanation of the Text: Using the word ‘therefore,’ Paul now comes to a practical application to his teaching. Having just taught about life in Christ, Paul brings forth the conclusion, indicating that in light of the truth he just taught, the Colossians live a life in Christ not a life in the law. In these particular verses the prominent idea Paul conveys is a showcase of the differences between ordinances of the law and the teaching of the Gospel.[1] Paul indicates that they should not let others judge them based on their eating habits or on the celebration of festivals. Underneath the law, specific instructions were given for both. These requirements were meant to be followed as an indication of obedience to the one true God. As a result, there were some who were passing judgment on others based on obedience to this. However, “the only basis for anyone to pass a judgment upon Christian behavior regarding these matters was the assumption that the Mosaic Law still held its condemning force against them.”[2] This is a fallacy that we often see in a world that does not understand the entirety of Scripture and the significance of Jesus Christ, although Paul indicates earlier in Colossians that this is not the case (cf. Colossians 2:13-14. Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the law of the Old Testament, and therefore we are no longer bound to Him, but instead are bound to Jesus Christ. Eduard Lohse suggests that it is because of arrogance that one will pass judgment on others for not following the law in the same manner that he does.[3] In other words, one will pass judgment because he follows the law, while his neighbor does not. Lohse further suggests that this results in sarcastic criticism because of a conviction of superiority.[4]

Paul goes on to compare the shadow and substance. The Greek terms for shadow and substance “are obviously used to contrast the ‘shadow’ and the solid ‘body’ which casts it.”[5] A shadow is something that has no reality and no existence. While substance is something physical and substantive. It is noted that this contrast comes from Jewish eschatology, which was meant to indicate “the incomplete nature of the former obligations with the fullness brought about by Christ.”[6] In Christ all things are complete, and apart from them, they are a merely a shadow of what they could be. The former restrictions, while give a representation of what God’s plan and requirements intended, they were inadequate and only Christ provides the real substance, or fulfillment of the law, as we earlier indicated.

Examination & Application of the Text: It can be asked, is it possible for Christians to live in the shadows today?[7] While the obvious answer would be no, that fails to get at the heart of the real issue of why a Christian cannot live in the shadows. As the fulfillment of the law, Christ is the substance of faith. To live in the shadows is to live apart from Christ, which then separates us from God because the law remains unfulfilled (because we cannot fulfill it apart from Him). This is further accentuated when we recognize that the term ‘Christian’ literally means little Christ. To be a Christian is to be like Christ, which can only be done in Christ. Living in the shadows would indicate that one is not in Christ, and thus cannot be considered a Christian.

Of major importance here in this text is the difference between legalism and Christian responsibility. To live under the law is to live in a world of legalism. One who is legalistic is simply fulfilling the law and living according to its requirements without a real heart change or right heart attitude. It denies the power of Christ and is instead an indication on one who is living in his or her own strength. However, on the other side of that, we must not forget the human responsibility that comes with living in Christ. It is true, we are free because of Christ, but this does not give one the right to sin or to neglect the responsibility they have been given. “We must recognize that when Christians are told that they are free from ‘the law’ (Galatians 5:1) that does not mean they are under no obligation to God (Galatians 5:13).”[8]

[1] Joseph Barber Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, 8th ed., Classic Commentaries on the Greek New Testament (London; New York: Macmillan and Co., 1886), 192.

[2] Homer A. Kent, Jr., Treasures of Wisdom: Studies in Colossians & Philemon (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978), 92.

[3] Eduard Lohse, Colossians & Philemon, Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 114.

[4] Eduard Lohse, Colossians & Philemon, Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 114-115.

[5] Homer A. Kent, Jr., Treasures of Wisdom: Studies in Colossians & Philemon (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978), 94.

[6] Andreas J. Kӧstenberger, Holman Christian Study Bible, Edwin A. Blum, Editor (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2010), 2058.

[7] R.C. Lucas, The Message of Colossians & Philemon, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 115.

[8] Homer A. Kent, Jr., Treasures of Wisdom: Studies in Colossians & Philemon (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978), 94.

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