What does Colossians 2:15-17 mean?
In Colossians 2:15-17, Paul wrote “15 Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it. 16 So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, 17 which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” (NKJV) There are those who use these verses to say that Paul was teaching against keeping the Feasts of the Lord. One of the chief things to understand about the church in Colossae is that they were dealing with the false teaching of asceticism. Asceticism is a man-made philosophy that views enjoyment such as rejoicing, feasting, or anything that brings about happiness as morally wrong or incorrect. To give an example of this, Paul says a little later in verses 20-23 that: “20 Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 21 ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’ 22 These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” (NKJV)
These ascetic teachers were teaching the Colossians not to participate in anything physically enjoyable because they viewed such things as sensual or indulgent. Paul rebukes this false teaching and says that it is merely a man-made teaching that cannot restrain sensual indulgence at all. Understanding this ascetic heresy is the key to understanding Colossians 2:15-17. Paul begins verse 15 by explaining Christ’s victory over the powers and authorities of this world through His crucifixion. He then continues in verse 16 by saying “So let no one judge you in food or in drink…” The Greek word he uses for food in this verse is the word brosis. This word refers to that which God made to eat in Leviticus 11 (see the section on I Timothy 4:1-6). He is actually pointing us to the dietary laws in this passage!
In the second half of verse 16, Paul says to let no one judge you “regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths.” The Greek words he uses for festival (heorte), New Moon Celebrations (noumenia), and Sabbath (sabbaton) are words used only to refer to the Feast Days in Leviticus 23, the New Moon Celebrations in Numbers 28:11-15, and the seventh day Sabbath in Genesis 2:1-3. Heorte is used 27 times in the New Testament, and it is only used in reference to the Feasts of the Lord. The Feast Days, New Moon Celebrations, and the Sabbath are often lumped together in the Bible (I Chron. 23:31, Neh. 10:33, Ez. 45:17). In the Bible, they are the most joyous times of celebrations and feasting. This is why the ascetic teachers began to judge the Colossian believers for keeping these things.
Paul concludes verses 15-17 by saying that these things “…are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” He tells the Colossians to let no one judge them for keeping the dietary laws or celebrating the Sabbath and Feast Days. Christ is the substance or reality of each one of these things. He is saying that the real meaning of the dietary laws, Feast Days, New Moons, and Sabbath is Christ. For instance, the dietary laws foreshadow that Christ would make our body the temple of the Holy Spirit. The Sabbath and Feast Days depict the plan of salvation in Jesus Christ. He made each of these things, so they all reflect Him! Since the real meaning of these things is found in Christ, Christians have yet another reason why we should obey them!