Many commentators today interpret Paul as if he is in opposition to Moses. This is ironic, because this was the position of Paul’s critics (Acts 21:20 – 21). Today it’s the position of the Church. Yet Paul upheld Moses (2 Tim. 3:16-17; Rom. 3:31, for starters).
Pitting Paul against Moses is unnecessary at best, and at worst it paints him as the sort of false prophet described in Deut. 13:1-5. Colossians 2 is one of those passages that can be “hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do aslo the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:16). It a favourite of those who want to portray Paul as having abandoned Moses (Acts 21:21).
I’ll try to walk through Colossians 2 with you and anticipate the passages which appear to show that Paul is denigrating the Torah. Hopefully I can suggest an alternative understanding which places Paul’s writings in harmony with the rest of Scripture.
In Colossians 2:1-10, Paul establishes the Lordship of Christ and the fundamental aspect of the faith of the Colossians. However, he twice mentions matters of concern: “anyone [who] should deceive you with persuasive words” (2:4) and “anyone [who might] cheat you through philsophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (2:8). Is Paul setting us up for a polemic against Moses? Is there any precedent in Scripture for referring to Moses as “empty deceit, according to the tradition of men”?
If Paul is about to release his readers from the Torah, he has a strange way of introducing the subject. In 2:11-13, he uses the term “circumcision” as a figure for “putting off the body of the sins of the flesh” and “uncircumcision” as a figure of “being dead in your trespasses.”
Does the fact that Jesus has “wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us… [and] nailed it to the cross” (2:14) mean that God has “wiped out” the Torah and “nailed it to the cross”? Have we been saved from the Torah, or saved from our sins? This would seem to imply that we are no longer bound to obedience, a notion which Paul dispels in Chapter 3.
The comments by John MacArthur in his Study Bible are helpful here:
“The Gr. work [sic] translated “handwriting” referred to the handwritten certificate of debt by which a debtor acknowledged his indebtedness. All people (Rom. 3:23) owe God an unpayable debt for violating his law (Gal. 3:10; James 2:10; cf. Matt.18:23-27), and are thus under sentence of death (Rom. 6.23). Paul graphically compares God’s forgiveness of believers’ sins to wiping ink off a parchment. Through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, God has totally erased our certificate of indebtedness and made our forgiveness complete. [‘Nailed it to the cross’] is another metaphor for forgiveness. The list of crimes of a crucified criminal were nailed to the cross with that criminal to declare the violatoions he was being punished for (as in the case of Jesus, as noted in Matt. 27:37). Believers’ sins were all put to Christ’s account, nailed to His cross as He paid the penalty in their place for them all, thus satisfying the just wrath of God against crimes requiring punishment in full.”
Given that it’s our sins, or the account thereof, that has been nailed to the cross, isn’t it a strange notion that we are now free to disregard the Torah whose righteous requirements we have violated, thereby necessitating the sacrifice of Jesus? Did Jesus die so we can keep on sinning? May it never be! (Rom. 6:15.)
The real beauty is Colossions 2:16-17. Does this mean that the festivals of Lev. 23 have been done away with? It’s a strange irony that people will quote this section at you – in effect, to judge you – for your observation of the Sabbath. The fact is that if you spend any time observing the festivals, you will meet up with those who judge you for the very act of your observance. But you will also meet up with those who will judge you for how you observe them. There will be those who will tell you you aer observing the Sabbath wrongly, but only because you aren’t following their man-made traditions (2:8).
Given the lead-up, is Paul now denigrating the observance of the Sabbath?
What does Paul say about these judges? They take “delight in false humility and worship of angels…” (2:18). These are not orthodox followers of Moses.
So what does Paul say about the festivals? They are “a shadow of the things to come” (2:17). Three points need to be made here:
1.They “are”: They have not been done away with.
2.They are not “mere” shadows. The NASB has added this word.
3.They are shadows of “things to come.” They must still be relevant because they point to a future fulfillment.
The fact that “the substance is Christ” says nothing to denigrate these things. In fact, it points to their value.
What about the reference to “food or … drink” in verse 16? Does this mean we can eat pork? The reference to drink is the clue. Lev. 11 places no limitation on drink. Again, Paul is combating false teaching, but it isn’t Moses.
The fact is there were those who taught that food which God had designated for eating as per Lev. 11 could become unclean. Jesus dealt with this issue in Mark 7:1-14. His critics were following a tradition that said food could become unclean if eaten without undergoing a ritual handwashing foreign to the Torah. Jesus lambasted them not for following Moses, but for “[t]eaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (7:7).
Paul deals with a related issue in Rom. 14. In verse 14 he writes, “I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” Is Paul here arguing for a relativistic approach to the dietary requirements of Lev. 11? Paul uses a word for “unclean” here which means “common.” It’s the same word which Jesus’ critics used in Mark 7 to describe unwashed hands. The fact that some of his readers were eating only vegetables (Rom 14:2) and might be offended by his eating meat or drinking wine (14:21) is the giveaway that their sense of scruples was not derived from the Torah.
The background for the issue of diet that Paul was dealing with is 1 Cor. 8. The meat and wine sold in pagan marketplaces had in all probabililty been sacrificed to idols. Paul’s take on the matter is that the idol is nothing (8:4), but if the history of the meat becomes an issue, he would rather forgo eating it (8:13). We shouldn’t knowingly eat anything sacrificed to idols (Acts 15:29), but if we do so unknowingly, no harm will come to us.
If Paul is suggesting in Colossians 2:16 that all meat is food (What is food, according to Lev. 11?), then we have Isaiah 66:15-17 to explain. Read that and ask yourself whether the prophet is talking about a future event.
Given all this background, when Paul writes “why as though living in the world do you subject yourself to regulations — “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,’” (Col. 2:20-21), is he refuting the Torah? No. He tells us in verse 22, these are “the commandments and doctrines of men,” not the comandments of God. He is criticizing a self imposed asceticism that “has the appearance of wisdom in self imposed religion” (2:24). He is not denigrating the Torah, which, he writes, is “holy” (Rom. 7:12).
I hope this helps.
Additional comment on Col. 2:16, 17
Colossians 2 says three things about the festivals:
1. Let no man judge you.
2. They are are shadow of things to come.
3. Their substance is Christ.
What seems to be a subject of dispute is the first point. Does this mean “Don’t” or Do”?
Let’s look at the other two points. How are they a shadow of things to come? Look, for example, at Zech. 14:16 ff, which teaches that all nations will go to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, or face drought. We will “worship the King, the LORD of hosts” (v. 17). This refers to point 3, since we know that Jesus is the LORD (YHVH) in the flesh. He is the substance — the meat ‘n’ potatoes — of this and all feasts.
So, now let’s look at Colossians 2:16, in paraphrase:
“Gentiles, don’t let the Jews push you into celebrating festivals like the Feast of Tabernacles. This feast, of which Christ is the substance, forshadows the time when we will all come and worship him together. Don’t celebrate it.”
It doesn’t work for me.
Try this instead:
“Don’t let anyone criticize you for celebrating feasts like the Feast of Tabernacles. This feast, of which Christ is the substance, forshadows the time when we will all come and worship him together. Go ahead and celebrate it.”