What was the apostle Paul really talking about?
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This is regarding Colossians 2:16–17, including the phrase “let no man therefore judge you”. Much has been written about that passage, and many dogmas have been built around it. But, what was the apostle Paul really talking about?
There are many factors to consider, in regard to that matter. Among them are the “handwriting of ordinances”, verse 14, the “principalities and powers” who were “disarmed”, verse 15, the high days and food and drink of verses 16 and 17, the “false humility” and worship of angels of verse 18, and more.
Here is an English translation of the passage in question:
Colossians 2:13 […] For he forgave us all our transgressions, 14 blotted out the handwriting of ordinances that stood against us and was hostile to us, and took it out of our way, nailing it to his cross. 15 Principalities and powers he disarmed, and openly displayed them as his trophies, when he triumphed over them in the cross. 16 Therefore do not permit any one to sit in judgment on you in regard to what you may eat or drink, or in regard to feast-days or new moons or sabbaths. 17 These were a shadow of things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (CT)
(The wider context shows that verses 13–15 refer to God and his son Jesus.)
In verse 16, where the above-quoted CT has “do not permit any one to sit in judgment on you”, some other translations have such wordings as “let no man therefore judge you”.
Verse 15, “principalities and powers he disarmed” – the word for “disarmed” is in the Greek text the verb apekduomai which had to do with “stripping”, “despoiling”. In this case, it appears to refer to how Jesus despoiled and “stripped of arms” certain wicked ones who had earlier had some legal powers over this world (planet) and its inhabitants. In other words: Jesus divested those “principalities” of their powers. (That is, on the “legal” level. When Jesus returns, those spirit rebels and their fleshly cronies and their rule here on Earth will be put to nothing even on the practical level.)
Concerning verses 16–17 in particular: There are many different views and claims in regard to those two verses, but it appears that most of them can be sorted into two main categories, both of which are connected to the keeping of days.
On the one hand: Some have used the words “let no man judge you” […] “in respect of an holyday” which some bible-versions have in those verses, in an effort to justify the keeping of various idol-related “holidays”.
On the other hand: In churches where people keep the Old Covenant’s high days (the weekly and the annual ones), some preachers have had a special way of quoting verses 16 and 17. They have cited certain words in those two verses, those that are highlighted in the below-quoted passage. And then, they have put those words together into a new sentence.
Colossians 2:16 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: 17 Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ. (KJV1769, highlighting added)
Again, some writers have produced a new sentence out of those highlighted words, and they have claimed that the word “but” should be read as “except”. [a] And so, they have claimed the meaning to be “let no man therefore judge you, except the body of Christ”. Then they have further claimed that the leaders of their church are that “body”, and that they are to “judge” and decide what days should be kept, and when and how.
Read on, for more on that passage and matter.
a Verse 17: Where the above-quoted KJV1769 has “but”, the Greek text has de. It does not mean “except”.
This is regarding the above-quoted verse 17. The meaning of the word “shadow” in that verse (Greek skia) is quite clear. The Old Covenant and its rituals were not the “real thing”. They were prophetic symbols which pointed to something that was to come.
The apostle was simply saying that the Old Covenant and its high days and other rituals, had been types, symbols and shadows of what was to come. The central figure in that matter is the Saviour Jesus (who through his Sacrifice made it possible to launch the New Covenant).
But, what about the word “body”, Greek sôma, same verse? (Some translations have “substance”.) How should that word be interpreted, in this case? – Here is point 4 in the entry on the noun sôma in the OLB Greek lexicon:
4) that which casts a shadow as distinguished from the shadow itself
A number of translators have in Colossians 2:17 rendered the word sôma as “substance”. An example:
Colossians 2:17 These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is the Messiah. (HCSB)
The Saviour Jesus, and things connected to him, were indeed the “substance” or “body” which cast the “shadow” which that verse mentions.
Putting that in other words: The Old Covenant and its rituals had been a shadow which pointed to Jesus and his saving work.
Here is verse 16 once again:
Colossians 2:16 Therefore do not permit any one to sit in judgment on you in regard to what you may eat or drink, or in regard to feast-days or new moons or sabbaths. (CT)
Some have built around that passage a dogma which claims that the saints in Colosse kept the Old Covenant’s high days, and that the judging or criticism which verse 16 refers to, was in regard to how they kept those days, including what they ate and drank during them.
That revolves around the phrase ê en merei in the Greek text of verse 16. Some have claimed that it should be translated as “as a part of”, and that the meaning of verse 16 is “so let no one judge you in food and drink, as a part of a festival or a new moon or a sabbath day”.
It appears that that concept is based on the Catholic Vulgate version where the Greek phrase ê en merei is translated into Latin as aut in parte. In the 1395 Wycliffe bible, which was largely based on the Latin text, that became “or in part” – “therfor no man iuge you in mete, or in drink, or in part of feeste dai, or of neomenye”.
This writer has checked around sixty different translations (“traditional”, “paraphrase” and “literal”) that are in common use today. None of them supports the “as a part of” dogma. Nor does the Greek text give any support to it. In short, the meaning of the Greek text of Colossians 2:16 is,
“consequently, let no man criticise you, in regard to food and drink, or in regard to feasts or new moons or sabbaths”.
(Colosse was an inland town in what today is the western part of Asiatic Turkey. That area was controlled by the Roman empire, but as in many parts of that empire, the local language was largely Greek. There were also many Jews in Colosse.)
Again, we read:
Colossians 2:16 Therefore do not permit any one to sit in judgment on you in regard to what you may eat or drink, or in regard to feast-days or new moons or sabbaths. (CT, highlighting added)
It is obvious that some people indeed were troubling the saints in Colosse, and criticising them. But who?
Some have suggested that it perhaps was some “Greek Gnostics” who were the problem. But, when one considers the context, it becomes clear that those who troubled the saints, must have been either Jews or judaizers.
In order to get some of the context into the picture, let us consider verse 14.
Colossians 2:14 blotted out the handwriting of ordinances [b] that stood against us and was hostile to us, [c] and took it out of our way, nailing it to his cross. [d] (CT, note signs added)
b “Blotted out the handwriting of ordinances” – some translators have replaced that with such confusing wordings as “cancelled out the certificate of debt”, or something similar. But, most bible-versions have “blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us”, which is a correct translation of Paul’s words exaleipsas to kath hêmon cheirographon tois dogmasin ho ên hupenantion hêmin. – See even notes [c] and [d], below.
c “That stood against us and was hostile to us” – here, Paul wrote as a Jew. The Jews had been under the Old Covenant and its rules. That is what Paul referred to, by the words “handwriting of ordinances”. Now, what did he mean by saying that the Old Covenant was “against” the Jews? Well, perhaps he referred to the fact that that covenant did not provide everlasting life to anyone. And, that it condemned all who were under it, to judgment – for, no normal human could keep the Old Covenant’s rules without failing in some part. (See even notes [b] and [d].)
d “Nailing it to his cross” – when Jesus made his Sacrifice by giving his life in place of others, that made it possible to launch the New Covenant. When that happened, the Old Covenant came to its end. That is obviously what the words “took it out of the way” and “nailing it to the cross” in verse 14 refer to. Clarification:
The Old Covenant was never meant to be permanent. Galatians 3:19 shows that it was “added because of trangressions”, and that it was to last “until the Offspring would come”. That is, until Jesus came. When Jesus came and then made his Sacrifice, it became possible to launch the New Covenant, and so, the Old Covenant had served its purpose and was set aside.
(See also notes [b] and [c], above.)
Here, one must keep in mind that the New Covenant is indeed a new covenant, and not a “continuation” or “modification” of the Old Covenant. For more on this, see the article eca098.htm. A note: This matter regarding the two covenants, old and new, must not be misunderstood in any way. Jesus and the epistle-writers including Paul put great weight on the importance of righteousness. The article ega086.htm has more on this, and explains what new-covenantal righteousness is and consists of.
(The article eca136.htm has some notes on translations which mislead by making it seem that the Old Covenant was to be “everlasting”.)
So again: Really who criticised and troubled the saints in Colosse? Jews, or some Greek people?
Consider the fact that the apostle Paul was talking about things connected to the two covenants, old and new. The Greek had their own gods and were not interested in the Jewish religion or its rules and high days. So, it is clear that those who criticised and troubled the saints in Colosse, must have been either Jews or judaizers.
Colossians 2:18 Let no man at his will defraud you of your prize through his false humility and worship of the angels […] (CT)
A note: The exact meaning of the Greek text in the last part of that verse is not clear. It could be that the meaning is something like “asceticism and angel-religion”.
The Greek worshipped “gods”, but among the Jews there has for a long time been “angelology”, and even the concept of “invoking angels”. It appears that those things are of Babylonian origin. Even the Kabbala, an occult book which in many ways is central for Judaism, contains among other things [false, Babylonian] “wisdom” regarding angels.
Right here, the point is that even the mention of angels, verse 18, indicates that those who criticised and troubled the saints in Colosse, must have been Jews.
Not really. If one understands the difference between the two covenants, old and new, then nothing more needs to be said. The important thing is to realise that when Jesus came and then made his Sacrifice, the Old Covenant came to its end, and that the New Covenant is indeed a new covenant and not a “continuation” or “modification” of the Old Covenant. The article eca098.htm has more on this.
And again: These things must not be misunderstood in any way. For instance the apostle Paul put great weight on the importance of righteousness. The article ega086.htm explains what new-covenantal righteousness is and consists of.
See also the “recommended reading” section, below.
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Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters
An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → esa095.htm
The New Covenant is indeed something new, and not a “renewal” or “modification” of the Old Covenant. → eca098.htm
What does the word “righteous” really mean? What does the Bible say about righteousness? → ega086.htm
On the word olam in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. Many bible-versions render it in ways that make it seem that the Old Covenant was to be “everlasting”, but that is not correct. → eca136.htm
What does the Bible say about authority? Who has biblical, spiritual or religious authority? Who can speak for God? → esa068.htm
Does the New Covenant have “food rules” of the kind the Old Covenant had? → eha016.htm
Acts 15 and the matter of the two covenants, old and new. → eoa046.htm
Colossians 1:26, “the mystery of the ages”. How Jesus conquered and spoiled certain principalities and powers. → eda067.htm
Should the Old Covenant’s Sabbaths, the annual ones and the weekly one, be kept today? → exa098.htm
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