Let no one pass judgment
The reader may be surprised at my division of this passage at the close of Col 2:17 seeing as the continuance of thought seems to follow on to at least the close of Col 2:19 as most commentators state (some continuing until the end of the chapter).
There’s certainly a good reason for doing so but it appears to me that Col 2:16-17 form an individual unit that speaks specifically concerning Jewish legislation and which can’t reasonably be expected to be applied to purely Gentile religious practices and observances.
From Col 2:18 onwards, however, the apostle moves on to speak of adherents to a type of religion which could easily be put into a Gentile context and, when Col 2:19 is considered, seems to be applied to men and women who may be resident within the fellowship who could be swayed into incidentals rather than to rely upon Jesus Christ for everything needed.
We also need to address the issue of the ‘therefore’ which occurs at the opening of the RSV’s verse and which is important in the Greek text to relate back what the apostle is about to write to his immediately prior statements. Just how far back we should go to allow for the context of his conclusion here set out is difficult to imagine but, in view of the fact that Col 2:16-17 is predominantly Jewish in nature and to do with the OT commandments, I would suggest that the ‘therefore’ is best taken as a reference to Col 2:14 in which he’s spoken of God
‘...having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this He set aside, nailing it to the cross’
and so shown the inadequacy of the shadow now that the reality has come and fulfilled that which had been promised. Some commentators try to bring this conclusion out of Paul’s immediately prior statement concerning the principalities and powers but this seems to be rather forced and unnecessary.
As I’ve said on numerous times before, we shouldn’t think that Paul’s words here are pointing out to the Colossians an area of their lives before God that he’s found to be in error for he’s already stated in Col 2:5 that
‘...though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ’
Rather, this is Paul’s perceived understanding of the dangers which will seek to gain an infiltration into their ranks and so affect their service of God in the simplicity of Jesus Christ. Being predominantly of a Jewish nature at this point doesn’t mean that they had already stumbled by a regression into legalistic observance but that there’s a very real danger that they’ll think that obedience to God means that they must adopt religious practices and observances.
In other words, that their faith is insufficient to save them and that the work of God in Jesus Christ needs supplementing. Paul has already shown, however, that He’s all-sufficient for each of their needs and the practicalities of this are now being outworked as he demonstrates to them the irrelevancy of legal observance to what they already have.
Let no one pass judgment
We’ll look at Paul’s statements that no one should pass judgment on the Colossian believers at the end of this section but, initially, we need to determine over what that they’re being made exempt. They fall into two specific categories, being
‘questions of food and drink’
‘with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath’
As to the first, there seems to be a misunderstanding of Paul’s meaning amongst commentators who regard the latter item - drink - as being something which goes uncommented on under the Mosaic Law and, therefore, which can’t be referred to in the body of the letter here being considered.
That food was a major consideration under the Old Covenant is clear from even a superficial reading of Leviticus chapter 11 (see my notes here where I’ve included a concluding section to try and show what the spiritual principles were which can be understood as having been fulfilled in Christ - something which is particularly relevant to the next section where I've redeveloped these notes) but that no such extensive passage concerning the consumption of drink exists is also equally certain. So much so is this evident that Colbruce (my italics) notes that
‘The Jewish food laws did not extend to beverages but here the reference is to more stringent regulations of an ascetic nature...’
and so goes on to strip the verse of it’s simpler everyday Jewish background. Colbruce’s statements are actually incorrect because there are a number of places where the consumption of liquid is specifically regulated. Firstly, in chronological order, there’s Lev 10:8-9 where YHWH spoke directly to the high priest Aaron after his sons Nadab and Abihu died before Him and commanded him (Lev 10:1-2) that he should
‘Drink no wine nor strong drink, you nor your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, lest you die...’
but this could hardly be considered to be an all-inclusive regulation that was to be enforced upon the entire nation. Neither can Num 6:2-3 be taken this way as it applies to a man or woman who’s put themselves under the vow of the Nazirite and so is obligated to
‘...separate himself from wine and strong drink; he shall drink no vinegar made from wine or strong drink, and shall not drink any juice of grapes or eat grapes, fresh or dried’
But, even though Leviticus chapter 11 is regarded as the ‘food laws’, regulations do occur here about liquids which were considered to be unclean to drink. When instructing the Jews about the unclean animals which swarm (the RSV translates the list as ‘the weasel, the mouse, the great lizard’ - Lev 11:29), YHWH also notes that vessels in which these are found to be dead shall render the liquid which could be placed inside them as unclean and, therefore, not fit to be drunk (Lev 11:34) though there was also provision made for vessels defined as ‘a spring or a cistern holding water’ (Lev 11:36) which would keep them available for human consumption. When Colbrien notes that
‘...the Torah contained no prohibitions respecting drinks except in a few special cases...’
what fails to be pointed out is that it’s one of these ‘special cases’ which actually occurs in the midst of the ‘food laws’ so that the chapter might well be summarised as the commandments concerning ‘food and drink’. Therefore, there’s no problem with accepting Paul’s statement concerning these two as being a direct reference to considerations which had to be made everyday as part and parcel of normal Jewish living, considerations which had now been fulfilled and removed in Christ (Col 2:14).
Although Colwright correctly identifies the phrase as referring
‘...to the kosher laws of the OT...’
he goes on to note that in Paul’s time they were already
‘...extended...to include wine as well as food’
In support of his statement, he cites Hullin 8:1 in the Mishnah which states that
‘No flesh may be cooked in milk excepting the flesh of fish and locusts...’
and which was an interpretation taken to an extreme from the Scriptures Ex 23:19, 34:26 and Deut 14:21 (that it was repeated three times elevated the Scripture to a place of importance) and then goes on to state in a footnote that it
‘...was extended by Rabbinic interpretation to the prohibition of drinking any milk with any meat’
But this isn’t supported by the Mishnah as it only specifies there the actual culinary preparation. Although I tend to agree that such a prohibition would have been a logical necessity in view of the other Mishnaic applications, it has to be noted that there doesn’t appear to be a specific regulation which forbids the combination of food and drink in this context.
The second group of words that Paul uses is rendered by the RSV as
‘...a festival or a new moon or a sabbath’
representing, respectively, annual, monthly and weekly celebrations that were tied in with the Mosaic Law. The phrase is indicative of all the appointed festivals of Israel under the regulations (see Leviticus chapter 23 especially) and is used as such in at least three different places in the OT. Ezek 45:17 is by far the most conclusive for the prophet recorded that, in the new Temple which was to be inaugurated before Christ was to come, it was to be (my italics)
‘...the prince’s duty to furnish the burnt offerings, cereal offerings, and drink offerings, at the feasts, the new moons, and the sabbaths, all the appointed feasts of the house of Israel...’
where the final phrase seems to be a summary of the three descriptors which have preceded it. In II Chr 31:3, however, the order of the celebrations is reversed (as it is in I Chr 23:30-31) but what makes this verse interesting is that ‘the feasts’ of the first Scripture now become summated in the phrase
‘...the appointed feasts...’
Even so, they’re firmly placed as being commanded as having been
‘...written in the law of YHWH’
Both groups of regulations - the food laws and the festivals - were only a shadow of those things which have now come in Christ (Col 2:17) and we’ll go on to look at this principle in the next section and of how both were fulfilled in Him in reality in the one following that. But, for now, we need to note simply that they’re centred in Judaism and aren’t even remotely linked to a Gentile or pagan lifestyle that Paul observed might gain adherents amongst the Colossians’ ranks.
Paul states plainly that no one should be allowed to pass judgment on the believers in Colossae with regard to either of these two OT observances - not in the sense that they should be allowed to do whatever they please with regard to their legalistic observance but that they shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that they had anything whatsoever to do with them being saved.
That’s why the parallel passage in Gal 4:8-11 has Paul noting that the fellowships of Galatia were observing
‘...days and months and seasons and years’
which was a regression back to an obedience to
‘...the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, whose slaves you want to be once more’
a clear indication that the phrase ‘elemental spirits’ means not something akin to either evil or good ‘spiritual forces’ but to the ‘underlying principles’ of a matter and which gets its colouring by the context in which it’s used (see my definition of the term here). Paul’s statement that
‘I am afraid I have laboured over you in vain’
is strong and worthy of careful thought. The apostle isn’t saying that the fellowships were living in gross immorality (though words such as these would indeed be applicable had that been true) but that they’d now switched over to the observance of regulations, thinking that, in doing so, they were both pleasing God and securing their own individual salvation. Actually, they’d thrown it away (Gal 4:19).
So Paul’s statement is not to be understood in Col 4:16 as meaning
‘let no one pass judgment on you if you choose to observe any festival that takes your fancy’
‘let no one pass judgment on you because you choose not to follow after justification before God by the observance of the Law’
In other words, the burden of Paul’s statement that no one should pass judgment on them concerning the Jewish regulations was because they weren’t celebrating them and weren’t obliged to. The danger Paul envisaged as being a problem was that they might be compelled to be bound into their observance and forget that knowing Christ was the sum total of what they needed.
They would need to be careful not to allow another person’s assessment of their standing before God to be the instrument which condemned what they had in Christ as being worthless because, as Paul has already shown, they are totally complete in who they already are.
It seems an isolated occurrence in today’s Church when the subject of ‘food and drink’ raises it’s head and the only objections which may be raised against another might be on the grounds of whether vegetarianism or veganism is the ‘way of God’ concerning the diet (I’ve been told categorically by a non-believer that God doesn’t want us to eat any animal products and, even though I pointed out the Scripture about permission being given to Noah [Gen 9:3], it was firmly rejected because of what the person wanted to believe). But it may be a very real problem for Gentile believers who live amongst Jewish communities in which kosher food laws are practised and accepted as being part of the way that a human finds his way rising to God in acceptance.
The same may be true of a society in which the OT festivals are observed - but there’s a very real sense in which we’ve failed to learn the lessons of the observances and have, even today, created not only divisions amongst us but have allowed ourselves to be so bound by our own religious calendars that we begin to serve God by reference to the day or season of the year rather than in the freedom that Jesus Christ has delivered us in to.
Colbruce tends to obscure the relevancy for today’s Church by observing concerning Paul’s writings that
‘Had this lesson been kept in mind in post-apostolic generations, there might have been less friction than there was in the Church over the divergent calculations of the date of Easter...’
His words are extremely relevant to the centuries in which they occurred, of course, and we should do nothing to undermine their perceptive statements - but the problem with attributing Paul’s words as particularly relevant to another generation is that they often lose their relevancy for our own and we therefore continue along the same lines as we have done and fall foul of those things which we would have done better to have been delivered from.
After all, as we’ve seen above, the observance of a religious calendar which binds the believer into a format for his own life actually strangles the life out of him and is one of the main reasons why Paul has taken the time to write to warn the Colossian church.
Had the matter simply been an incidental, why did he bother to mention it? And why take such exception to what the churches of Galatia were doing, too? Following Colbruce’s observations, though, before we move on to the present day, let’s read Eusebius’ account of the problem in his History (5:23) because it betrays the writer’s fervency concerning the matter when he opens with the observation that
‘A question of no small importance arose at that time’
when it’s plain from Scripture that God wasn’t bothered by the matter - but he was bothered about the Church’s apparent failure to perceive that the matter was wholly irrelevant to following Jesus and, worse, that it could rob a believer of the freedom and liberty that was in His Son. Eusebius continues that
‘...the parishes of all Asia, as from an older tradition, held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which day the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should be observed as the feast of the Saviour’s Passover. It was therefore necessary to end their fast on that day, whatever day of the week it should happen to be. But it was not the custom of the churches in the rest of the world to end it at this time, as they observed the practice which, from apostolic tradition, has prevailed to the present time, of terminating the fast on no other day than on that of the resurrection of our Saviour.
‘Synods and assemblies of bishops were held on this account, and all, with one consent, through mutual correspondence drew up an ecclesiastical decree, that the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord should be celebrated on no other but the Lord’s day [that is, Sunday], and that we should observe the close of the paschal fast on this day only’
As can be seen, even the ‘celebration’ of the fast would be under serious threat if the words of Paul were taken seriously - let alone the failure of the Church of that day and age to realise that getting ‘dates’ harmonised was irrelevant to the need to evangelise the world and to bring the reality of the cross into men and women’s lives.
A similar confrontation occurred between the Roman Catholic and British Celtic churches in the first millennium. As the Celtic Church advanced from its strongholds in Scotland and Northern England, it was confronted by an aggressive tradition that sought to bring everything under its own control and dominance, eventually consuming the move of God which was reaching the lost by an insistence that there were correct dates and ritualistic practices (the correct form of tonsure) that had to be observed from the ‘mother church’.
These conflicts weren’t minor skirmishes or matters about which there was friendly discussion to the point of compromise. The exchanges were often heated and angry and showed up the nature of the heart of those ‘believers’ for what it was - centred in mere peripherals which were wholly irrelevant to the preaching of the Gospel to the nations.
The date and celebration of Easter may not be an issue today (though why we would ever decide to call the time at which Jesus died ‘Easter’ when the label is a confession of a pagan religion, I have no idea - see my notes here under ‘Easter and Passover’) but the Church is well-equipped to put down those - like myself - who’ve opted out of Christmas (see my notes here under ‘Happy Birthday to You’ for an exposition of the theme of Christ’s birth and what we might learn from Scripture’s statements concerning both the time at which He was born and whether we are obligated to celebrate it).
When my wife and I first decided to ditch what passed for being ‘acceptable to God’, we were dumbfounded by the objections that we received from believers - non-believers had no problem with it whatsoever and asked us when they first knew we were ‘different’ why we celebrated a time around the Festival of Tabernacles and what it all meant (and, you know, we were delighted to be able to tell them about the resurrection, the second coming of Christ and the judgment of all men and women - they didn’t ask us twice what it meant, though...).
And why should we have got such a reaction from believers? Were we advocating that everyone should ignore Christmas and switch? Most definitely not. Were we saying that their acceptance of Christmas was displeasing to God? Not in the least - but, given my time again, I might have done!
We were told that we were bound into legalistic observances whereas they were celebrating Christmas freely - and, when we invited them to demonstrate their own freedom by neglecting to celebrate Christmas one year, they found that, although they were being free in their celebration of Christmas, it actually meant that they weren’t free to stop celebrating it...a bit like an alcoholic who says that they can stop anytime they choose, except that they never stop.
And therein lies the problem - because, if any practice which we have is such that we find ourselves fearful of letting it go that God might be displeased with us, we’ve immediately put ourselves back under a legalistic observance that feels obligated to perform certain duties for acceptance before God.
That was the danger of the false teaching which lay as a threat to the Colossians because, in moving over to Law, they were undermining the all-sufficiency of the work of Christ. Unfortunately, today we tend to feel so free that we readily go ahead and pass judgment on believers for their non-participation in religious practices and observances that we feel are obligatory - but the Scripture condemns us for doing such a thing and shows our relationship with God to be based more upon works of the law than the free gift of Jesus Christ given solely on the basis of grace.
The RSV’s rendering of Col 2:17 isn’t sufficient for the reader to be able to understand Paul’s thought at this point, seeing as it renders the Greek as
‘[The food laws and the festival regulations] are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ’
whereas the thrust of the apostle’s teaching is to emphasise that the OT regulations were a shadow of what was to come and that the reality has now appeared in Jesus Christ so that the shadow becomes superfluous to their relationship with God (but not irrelevant to understanding Christ’s work).
It’s because Jesus is seen as the fulfilment of the Old Covenant that it can be spoken of as finding completion - if it had been totally immaterial to what Christ was to do, Paul would have spoken of it as being useless and misleading but, as it is, he sees the OT Law to be a pointer which was to guide men and women to realise that what He came to do was already foreshadowed in what had been given them over a millennia before.
I’ve already dealt previously with the entire concept of shadows in the OT finding their fulfilment in the New and the reader is directed there for a fuller consideration of the subject than occurs here.
But, what we need to realise here is that the OT Law is a shadow (that is, a ‘type’ or an ‘illustration’) of who the Christ was to be and what His death, burial, resurrection and ascension were to achieve for all mankind. It’s not that the Law was a dreamed up series of statutes that were cunningly put together to project an image that the Israelites wanted to see, but that the Law was given, as the Scriptures say, to a real people to be observed but, also, that they were given by God Himself to shadow the life and work of the One who was to come.
They not only reformed Israelite society, then, but they looked forward to the time when God’s anointed King would fulfil what they alluded to. We find support for this in Mtw 5:17-18 where Jesus instructs His followers to
‘Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished’
and the writer to the Hebrews (Heb 10:1) states that
‘...the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities...’
where the writer is concerned to show the Law as only having a glimpse of the realities that have now become available to believers ‘in Christ’ rather than it having the ability to bring those realities through its observance (see also Gal 3:24 where the RSV’s translation ‘custodian’ is the Greek word used to denote a slave who transported His master’s sons both to and from their teacher to give them safety and to keep them out of mischief).
This ‘Law’ shouldn’t be considered to be just the statutes, ordinances and judicial decisions given by YHWH through Moses to His people Israel, but should be interpreted as the first five books of the Bible (Genesis to Deuteronomy) - known as the ‘Law’ books or as the Jewish ‘Torah’.
These five books (or ‘scrolls’ as they were originally) are considered to be one complete unit for, by tradition, Moses was the author of all five, thus declaring their unity.
So, though the Scriptures are true records of real events that took place within the framework of time, we can also see in them examples of the person and work of the Christ. I’ve already given enough examples of how the old foreshadowed the new on the previously linked web page but one such example should suffice for our considerations here (we’ll look at the two groups of words of Col 2:16 in the next section and how they are now fulfilled and how in Christ their substance has come).
Jesus is spoken of as being a fulfilment of the snake on the pole that was used in the wilderness to heal the Israelites after they’d been bitten (Cp Num 21:4-9 with John 3:14-15, 12:32-33). When men and women look upon Him (or ‘look to Him’) on the cross by faith (see the subject ‘Faith’) they receive (I Peter 2:24)
‘...healing from the effects of sin’
Many have struggled to accept that Jesus could be referred to as the ‘serpent’ on the pole seeing as that animal is normally a symbol of satan (for example, Gen 3:1) but, in the Israelites’ experience, the serpents were a symbol of their own sin that had brought upon them the judgment of God and, by looking at the serpent, they were told to look to the place where sin’s hold over them is broken. The same is true with regard to the cross.
And there are numerous sections that foreshadow the person and work of the Christ - not only within the Law but within the entire OT. Therefore Jesus says to the Jews (John 5:39 - my italics) that
‘You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to Me’
and Peter says to the crowds after the resurrection and ascension (Acts 3:24 - my italics) that
‘...all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came afterwards, also proclaimed these days’
In the OT, then, we get a prophetic glimpse of what God was planning in Christ but which was not wholly made available until He came (Heb 11:39-40). Whatever part of the Law (Genesis-Deuteronomy) we look at, we should be able to see a picture of Christ, what He’s accomplished and what has now become available to believers under the New Covenant.
Jesus is the Key, therefore, who unlocks an understanding of the Mosaic law. The application to the Colossian believers is particularly relevant for, if they have the reality (as Paul has been maintaining that they have), what would be the point in observing the shadow in order to gain justification before God?
The safeguard against the believers going over to adhere to religious rites and the observance of festivals isn’t for Paul to stand up angrily and to ridicule the false teachers because they don’t speak with his permission (as is so often the case today in the Church) but to show clearly that what they are proposing is superfluous to a relationship with God in Christ.
Perhaps, if we understood the Gospel more fully, we’d equip the saints better to stand against those things which seek to undermine their union with Jesus Christ. As it is, we often attempt to dissuade men and women from following after what we consider to be false teaching by methods which the early Church chose not to employ.
One final word needs to be written on the last phrase of Col 2:17 which records Paul as saying that
‘...the substance [body] belongs to Christ’
There may be a deliberate play upon words to not only state that the reality of the shadows belong to Christ but that the reality is found in the Church, the body of Christ. We would be going too far to attempt to draw much more out of the Greek than this but ‘substance’ is the regular word for ‘body’ and, as Colwright notes, the close proximity of the concepts of both ‘head’ and ‘body’ in Col 2:19 may be a deliberate attempt by the apostle to give his readers a double entendre that the perceptive would have received.
In the previous two sections, we’ve noted that Paul has spoken specifically concerning the Jewish Law in the two areas of ‘food and drink’ and the ‘festivals’ and announced to the believers that the OT legislation contained but a shadow of those things which have now become a reality in Jesus Christ.
In this section, what we want to do is to try and put into words just what that ‘substance’ is. That is, for example, in what way can we say that Jesus Christ has brought about the reality of the food and drink laws in the New Covenant that was only hinted at in the OT?
We shan’t be dealing with the festivals here. The reader should see here for the complete series of studies on the Festivals and their fulfilment - either past, present or future - in Christ. The weekly celebration of the sabbath is included as an introductory study and the monthly celebration of the new moon is included under the subject of ‘Trumpets’ which was a ‘specialised’ new moon celebration, occurring as it did on the first day of the seventh month (where our word ‘month’ is simply one created from the word for ‘moon’ or ‘new moon’).
What we want to do here is to concentrate on the issue of the regulations concerning food and drink and which I’ll lump together under the title of ‘the food laws’.
This may come as quite a shock to some people but, when my wife started thinking about God and whether He existed, Leviticus chapter 11 was the chapter that finally sealed it for her and prompted her to start praying - eventually concluding with her conversion to Christ.
Being an ornithologist, she would spend entire days in search of rare and unusual birds - not just in the UK where she lived but further afield wherever she thought would be a good location. When she arrived at chapter 11 of Leviticus (and, believe me, I have no idea how she arrived at that chapter in particular - the Bible doesn’t really point your way to it, does it?) it suddenly hit her that, if the Bible was a mythical book, dreamt up by some writer to fabricate a religious belief, then the animals and birds mentioned would be purely fictitious.
Instead of talking about vultures and falcons, it would have made mention of fire-breathing dragons, unicorns and centaurs - as it was, the practicalities of the passage proved to her that this was a real book written for a real people to put over what was knowable in real time.
From that day onwards, she began praying to God and, eventually, through a series of totally unrelated coincidences (yeah, right) she came to give her life over to Christ.
Just to stimulate some congregations, I say
‘Did you know that my wife got saved through Leviticus chapter 11?’
which, although not the absolute truth, does get them thinking - besides, if God can use such an obscure passage of Scripture, how can we limit Him to have to speak only through the John 3:16s that we think are the only way of reaching the lost?!
Having said that, Levwen notes (page 164) that
‘The meaning of many of the Hebrew terms for birds and reptiles is uncertain. One expert in this field suggested that only 40% of the Hebrew terms could be identified with accuracy’
This is partly due to the words not being everyday ones that are used not only elsewhere in the Bible but in ancient documents. In any far-off land that speaks the same English language, a label means virtually nothing unless some description is given so that the label can be pictured - unfortunately we don’t get that here.
‘Jay’, for instance, to an American may conjure up a different image than the real British bird. How much more will this happen when thousands of years have passed, the language has evolved and some of the animals have become extinct within the land that Israel occupied (though it needs to be remembered that this series of commands were given to the Israelites while they were journeying through the wilderness which contained quite a different variety of fauna and flora).
Having served us as an introduction, then, we need to move on to look at some of the NT comments on the food laws that may help us in determining how it was that they were able to be taken as shadows of those things of which Jesus Christ came to bring the reality. There are only a handful of NT Scriptures and, even though they’re important to look at, they don’t make too much comment on the chapter, even though a lot of commentators make quite a bit out of them.
The incident of the first Gentile convert sparked quite a bit of controversy amongst the Church (Acts 10:9-11:18) seeing as it was a widely held belief amongst the Jews that to eat in the presence of the Gentiles was to render oneself unclean (even to be found within their houses was considered a matter of ceremonial impurity - John 18:28).
Before Peter is asked by Cornelius’ (the Gentile) servants to accompany them to their master’s house, he sees a vision while he’s on the rooftop waiting for dinner to be prepared (Acts 10:10-16). A lot of commentators see this as a reference to the ceremonial food laws (which it is) but, in my opinion, they go one step too far in trying to interpret the passage to say that God was instructing Peter to now disregard them.
The context is that the Gentiles were considered to be unclean by the Jews and, in imagery that Peter can understand (even though he didn’t immediately understand it at the time), He’s instructing him not to refuse the request that’s about to be made of him (Acts 10:22-23). Besides, the conclusion of the matter is not that the ceremonial food laws can now be disregarded but that God has now granted the Gentiles the right to enter eternal life (Acts 11:18).
Though Peter recoiled at the suggestion of eating with Gentiles (even more so when the ‘circumcision party’ were around trying to insist upon the Gentiles’ observance of the ceremonial law - Gal 2:11-13) which, in the culture of his day was tantamount to being rejected by God for being unclean (as it was the case for Christ when he ate with tax collectors, prostitutes and ‘sinners’), God put him in to the situation where he was a witness to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon them in the same manner as he had received it on the day of Pentecost (Acts 11:17).
In this way, God overcame the prejudice of the Jewish believers towards accepting the Gentiles as co-equal believers (Gal 3:28) - but the passage does not teach us that the dietary laws were made obsolete or that they were fulfilled under the New Covenant.
Mark 7:1-23 also relates us to the dietary laws and includes a word of interpretation by the author on one of Jesus’ words.
Having been reprimanded by the Pharisees for not first washing their hands before they ate to remove ceremonial uncleanness from them, which they believed would be imparted to the food and ingested - thus making them unclean and defiled before God - Jesus went on to point out that this was not what defiled a man but that the cause of man’s defilement was what already lay within the man.
When He was alone with the disciples, He had to repeat His teaching for, as often was the case, they’d failed to grasp what He’d been saying. He asked them (Mark 7:18-19)
‘...Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on? (Thus he declared all foods clean)’
Though the actual disagreement had been over the act of washing hands, Jesus expanded His teaching to include the dietary laws of Lev chapter 11. What He is not saying, though, is that the ceremonial laws are obsolete - what He is saying is that the ‘uncleanness’ of which the legislation speaks has nothing to do with the state of a man’s heart before God - that is, the Gentile who may eat unclean foods is no worse a sinner than the Jew because ceremonial purity has nothing to do with the moral state of an individual before God.
By extension, we should see that most of the laws of cleanness and uncleanness have to do with the separation of the Jewish nation under the Old Covenant to be that special and distinct people that God required them to be - but their observance or rejection didn’t alter the moral state of the Israelite before God. That was determined by what was in the heart of the Israelite, not by the assimilation of food.
In a passage (Rom 14:14) that I have commented on elsewhere, Paul writes (Rom 14:14) that
‘I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for any one who thinks it unclean’
which is probably the clearest indication of the way that the early Church regarded ceremonial dietary law. The passage deals with many different issues but here the idea is that of stumbling a brother by what another brother eats - if they participate in a food that they consider to be unclean because they see another brother eat of it and, as a result, they feel tainted and stumble in their walk with God, then the cause of that stumbling is not the lack of faith of the weak brother but the strength of faith of the strong one. Therefore the latter is condemned by God - not the former.
But, says Paul, nothing is unclean in itself.
The indication here is that all believers may eat of anything if they truly believe that the food is acceptable to be eaten - but, if they have doubts, then they will condemn themselves by eating.
While it is true that all foods are clean to eat in the sight of God, the dietary laws may be observed by some today and by others they will be treated as obsolete. Neither way is wrong but both ways mustn’t stand in the way of the other believer.
The NT would therefore see Lev chapter 11 (and, by extension, all ceremonial/cultic law) as unbinding upon the believer and obsolete. But, as regards Paul’s comments in Col 2:!6-17, none of these NT passages help us in determining what shadow the OT Scriptures represented of which the substance or reality has now arrived in Jesus Christ.
To do this, we need to return to the original laws and consider why it was that they were originally given. As with most of the ceremonial law of Israel, if observed it would have set apart the nation from the other nations that were round about them. It seems certain that the differing religions of the ancient world had cultic regulations governing their behaviour but, with Israel, the divine origin of the rules (and often present day relevance of their instruction) set the laws apart.
In the legislation under consideration now, many commentators have observed that such bans upon certain meats would have helped the natural health of the nation (see Levwen pages 167-8), even though, at that time, the realisation of this wouldn’t necessarily have been known.
But, behind each of the regulations were principles which, when thought about, would have instructed the nation concerning the One who was to come and/or the necessity and way of moral living that was acceptable to God.
The assimilation of ceremonially clean food demonstrated the principle of needing to allow only spiritually clean foods to become a part of a believer’s life. Though the Jews believed that unclean food was able to morally defile a person, Jesus showed that it wasn’t possible for physical food to have a direct effect on the spiritual life (Mark 7:14-23) but that what came from within the heart was what defiled a man in God’s eyes.
Therefore, to assimilate false and misleading beliefs, to feed our inner nature with material that contradicts God’s categorical law, is to cause the heart to overflow into the world around us with spiritual uncleanness - that is, it’s contaminated by whatever is put into it.
If, for instance, we partake of idolatry, we become idolaters and, if we assimilate adulterous material, we become adulterers. The West is of the opinion than pornographic material is a necessary part of society and that it can be contained and controlled - but feed people’s lives with those sorts of products and the overflow of their heart will soon start to show the flavour of what has been become part of their inner make up. By allowing spiritual uncleanness to become part of our lives, we become spiritually unclean people.
Jesus, however, proclaimed Himself as the spiritually clean food that believers are exhorted to assimilate into their lives (John 6:48-58 - see also I Cor 10:1-4, Phil 4:8), to remain in purity and to grow in the ways and likeness of God. All potentially spiritual foods must be judged as to whether they are clean for us to be partakers of - though inventions or discoveries are inherently neutral, their use can be tinged with either clean or unclean spiritual food that can lead us in differing directions as we allow them to become a part of our lives.
Though Christ has cleansed all believers through His work on the cross, walking by the Spirit rather than the flesh (the old way of living) takes a lifetime of effort and learning as to which spiritual foods are to be accepted to help growth into maturity - and which are to be rejected.
Of course, Lev chapter 11 went beyond simply telling the Israelites not to eat the unclean animals, it instructed them to not even so much as touch their carcasses so that ceremonial uncleanness would not be imparted.
The thought here seems to be uncleanness by association. What is not in mind is the association that believers have with the outside world (as Jesus showed by eating and drinking with the people of Israelite society that were considered to be the dregs - tax collectors, prostitutes and ‘sinners’ - Mtw 9:10-11) - after all, we can’t all find paid employment within the Church! - but the type of association that comes by being a part of something that’s set against God’s will.
Do we, for instance, hold shares in an immoral company? While not feeding our own spiritual life with unclean food, we can be partakers of immorality by association - in each and every situation that we find ourselves in, care must always be taken to ensure that by our involvement we are not part of something that’s the source of so much immorality in the world (no company will be ‘sin-free’, of course, but choices can be made between the ones who are more likely to uphold morals).
Therefore Lev chapter 11 teaches the NT believer, firstly, that he must be careful what types of spiritual foods that he allows to be assimilated into his life and, secondly, to be careful not to associate himself with situations that promote spiritual uncleanness even though he might choose not to assimilate that type of conduct into his own life.
For me, that’s meant making sure that I don’t buy certain branded products when I have a choice and of seeking companies who offer the service I already have when my existing company sets itself on a morally unclean course of action or, as can be the case, a morally distasteful advertising campaign.
What seems to be the main way of taking Jesus as being the reality of the shadow, then - if we’re to look positively at the matter - is that He alone is the clean, spiritual food that should be assimilated into a believer’s life which will cause growth and development in the things of God.
The idea of separation may also be present here for the food laws distinguished the nation of Israel apart from all the other nations of the world - so, too, the assimilation of Christ and the repudiation of all else is a clear mark of the believer who will stand out in the world as being something unusual within the society in which he lives.
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