Shadow and Substance: Colossians 2:16-23

Overview of Verses 16-23

Paul’s tone in this passage is urgent; the apostle wants to make it abundantly clear to the Colossian church that the false teachers among them have no connection to Christ or his body. The Colossians do not have to listen to those who would try to tell them they must observe the regulations of self-imposed religion. The apostle wants the Colossians to know that in Jesus, they have everything they need to resist the desires of their flesh.

Break it Down: Verse-by-Verse (ESV)

v16-17: “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 the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”

Now that Jesus has defeated the enslaving spiritual forces of evil, the Colossians do not have to listen to the empty threats of false teachers who insist that they must follow their strict religious practices. These practices have served their purpose. They were a mysterious shadow, vaguely outlining the figure that we can now clearly see. They were signposts pointing ahead to the reality that was to come. This Reality has come to us in the person of Jesus. In Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, heaven has begun to invade earth; God’s new creation has broken out into the world through Christ.

v18-19: “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, 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.”

The false prophets in Colossae have presented themselves as super-spiritual sages with access to hidden wisdom and knowledge. They deny themselves worldly pleasures and boast with great detail about their supposed visions of the supernatural realm. They make themselves out to be great spiritual masters but are not connected to Christ or his body, the church. It is only through connection to Jesus and participation in his body that we can grow into the mature disciples that God wants us to become.

v20-23: “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—  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? 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.”

If the spiritual forces of evil were already dealt a fatal blow through Jesus’ death on the cross, why should the Colossians, united with Christ in his death, be bound to the religious rules of mere humans?

The Christian life is an ongoing battle. Christians fight an internal tug-of-war between our renewed spiritual nature and the sinful nature of our flesh.1 While the false teachers might appear to be wise and spiritual, it is nothing more than a show. True Christian spirituality empowers us to fight against our sinful impulses and disordered desires, even our spiritual” impulses and desires. This power comes from God himself and from nowhere else. He freely gives it to us when we come to him and seek his help. When we try to stop the indulgence of our flesh by our strength, we end up weary and burned out. And when this happens, let us remember these words of Jesus: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”2

~Father, we thank you for giving us everything we need in Jesus. Please help us discern truth from lies. Help us remain connected to the Head and his body, so we can grow and become who you are calling us to be. Empower us to have victory over the cravings of our flesh and give us rest when our souls get weary. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Reflection Questions

1. What is a “spiritual” practice that can be misused and lead us away from God?

2. How can I intentionally rely on God as I seek to fight against my unhealthy desires?

This the ninth part of our series on Colossians.

Previous: Let No One Take You Captive: Colossians 2:6-15 

Next: Put On The New Self: Colossians 3:1-11 

Referenced Sources

1. cf. Romans 8:1-17; Galatians 5:16-26

2. Matthew 11:28-30 NIV

3. BibleProject – Overview: Colossians 

4. The Naked Bible Podcast – Colossians Series 

5. St. John Chrysostom – Homilies on Colossians

6. N.T. Wright – Colossians and Philemon: Tyndale New Testament Commentary

7. Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible – Colossians 

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