Monday, January 09, 2012

Exegesis of Colossians 2:16-17

One of the passages that I frequently quote on the Sabbatarianism issue is Colossians 2:16-17. I recently used it in an argument with some Seventh-Day Adventists on the issue of whether or not Christians should keep the Sabbath. Since they contested my claim that the passage in question supports my position, I decided to write down my exegesis of the passage. I'm posting it here for future reference purposes, for the benefit of anybody who is involved in this debate.
Colossians 2:16-17 (KJV): Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.

Original Greek: Mὴ οὖν τις ὑμᾶς κρινέτω ἐν βρώσει καὶ ἐν πόσει ἢ ἐν μέρει ἑορτῆς ἢ νεομηνίας ἢ σαββάτων, ἅ ἐστιν σκιὰ τῶν μελλόντων τὸ δὲ σῶμα τοῦ Χριστοῦ.
First of all, it is interesting to note that the passage preceding this (verses 11-15) talks about Christians being the true circumcision, having received a circumcision not made with the hands. What this indicates is that Paul had the circumcision controversy in his mind as he was writing this. Although this epistle was most likely written well after that controversy had already been resolved (cf. Acts 15), the Judaizing heresy was known to have continued in various sectors of the Church well after that (as seen in the existence of such groups as the Ebionites, among others). Paul’s argument in verses 11-15 is that Christians have been made alive in Christ and have been forgiven of their trespasses (verse 13), as Jesus’ death on the cross has cancelled “the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us” (verse 14, NASB), with the “debt” in question being the debt of sin, which in Paul’s theology has death as its penalty (cf. Romans 6:23).

Verse 16 starts with the phrase “Let no man, therefore [Mὴ οὖν τις]...”. The usage of the word “therefore” indicates that verses 16-17 are the conclusion of the argument that Paul is making in verses 11-15. This is where it is important to read Colossians 2:16-17 in light of what Paul has written in his other epistles, particularly Galatians. In particular, we must remember that according to Paul, the Law (with all its accompanying ceremonies, such as circumcision, the temple sacrifices, and keeping of the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays) is meant to be a schoolmaster that will lead us to Christ, but now that Christ has come, we are no longer in need of the schoolmaster (Galatians 3:24-25). That being said, however, the Law is still good, provided that it is being used lawfully. This lawful use is, of course, to convict sinners of their sin and lead them to the Saviour (1 Timothy 1:8-11).

When Paul says that nobody is to judge the Colossian believers on the basis of the Old Testament Jewish holidays, he is reaffirming the argument that he made in Romans 14, that the keeping of these holidays should be a matter of the individual conscience, and that Christians should decide for themselves whether to observe these holidays and not force the matter upon any of their fellow believers. In so doing, he is pre-emptively stopping the Judaizing heresy from entering into the Colossian church. Now, one could argue at this point that Colossians is concerned more with Greco-Roman pagan philosophies and proto-Gnostic heresies. While this is true, this does not mean that that is the only issue that he addressed. Heresies come at the Church from all directions, and although the Judaizers are less of a concern for Paul in Colossians, he does recognize the possibility that they may attempt to make inroads into the church of Colossae and is cutting them off at the pass (so to speak).

Having mentioned the fact that believers are not to be judged on the basis of the Old Testament Jewish holidays, Paul goes on to make a Christological application in verse 17. Here, he is making a type/antitype distinction, as he states that the Jewish holidays are a “shadow [σκιά] of things to come [τῶν μελλόντων, lit. the coming things, a present participial phrase],” and that Christ is the body [σῶμα] that casts the shadow in question. When a figure approaches us from a corner, we usually see its shadow before we see the figure itself. In the same way, the festivals, new moons and Sabbaths are shadows which were cast by Christ before He came into this earth, as a way of letting us know that He was on His way. One of (but not the only) the reasons believers who lived under the Old Covenant kept these holidays was out of faith in God’s promises. But now that the promises have been fulfilled, the body which casted the shadow has arrived, and believers who live under the New Covenant are now to look to the body rather than the shadow, as it does not make sense to look at the shadow rather than the one who casts it.

Historical Postscript: To say that Sunday worship has any kind of pagan influence whatsoever is pure speculation. There is zero evidence whatsoever that the Greco-Roman pagan religions involved setting apart any particular day of the week (let alone Sunday) for worship. I would challenge anybody to come up with a credible church historian that states otherwise. Philip Schaff doesn’t say it. J.N.D Kelly doesn’t say it. Jaroslav Pelikan doesn’t say it. So where is this claim coming from? In fact, we know from historical sources that when Christians met for their worship services on Sunday, they had to do so very early in the morning because Sunday was considered an ordinary working day during the Greco-Roman period.

Now, as I attempted to search for information regarding Sunday with regards to the Pagans, I did come across some sites which quoted historical sources that talked about the Mithra cult meeting on Sunday. The problem with this is that none of these sources make the assumption that is made by the sites that quote them, which is that Mithraism influenced the Christian Church. In point of fact, anybody who is versed in the history of Mithraism would know that Mithraism evolved considerably in its pre-Christian and post-Christian forms. What this means is that it is more likely that Christianity influenced Mithraism than that it was the other way around (and in fact, there are quite a few historians who will adopt this position). Ironically, this is actually historical evidence in favour of the Sunday worship position, since in order for Christianity to influence other religions into worshipping on Sunday, the Christians must have been worshipping on Sunday!

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