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Col 2:15-17 – Aren’t the Sabbath and the Feastdays Just Shadows That Are Done away with?

by Michael Bugg

Updated 3/25/08

In understanding this passage, we have to understand four key points:  1) The injunction against passing judgment on one another goes both ways, so neither can my Sunday brethren judge those of us who observe Sabbath, Passover, etc.  2) One can only read this passage as discouraging keeping the Appointed Times if one considers the Feasts that God Himself gave us to be "philosophy and vain deceit."  3) Paul spoke of the things the shadows pointed to as being yet in his future, i.e., the Second Coming, so they still have value for us.  And finally, 4) it is no sin to love the Lord so much that we love even His shadow.

This passage actually encourages keeping the Sabbath and the other Feastdays rather than discouraging it.  It is often assumed that Paul was here addressing the Judaizers again, but the context of the passage shows otherwise: 

In v. 8, we read the setup: “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Messiah.” “Rudiments” here is stoicheia (στοιχεια), which means “elements” and is explained in v. 20 to mean, “the elements of the world” which Paul further elaborates to be equivalent to “the commandments and doctrines of men” (v. 22). This by definition excludes the Torah, of which he writes, “For we know that the Torah is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14), and “Wherefore the Torah is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good (7:12).

The Torah (i.e., the commandments of the Torah) was given by God Himself—it is therefore sheer blasphemy to say that anything the Torah commands are “the commandments and doctrines of men.”

What then is he talking about, if not about the Torah? Two possibilities suggest themselves:

First, that he is not referring to believers being judged in regard to the actual commands of the Torah, but on the extra-Biblical traditions of the rabbis. This would make this passage parallel with Mat. 15, in which the Pharisees judge the disciples of Yeshua HaMashiach not based on the violation of an actual command of the Torah, but because they were not obeying the extra-Biblical tradition of ritually washing their hands before eating. It should be noted that they did not make the same criticism of Yeshua Himself, which means that He was keeping the tradition personally, but that He still condemned them for judging His disciples based on “the commandments of men” (v. 9) and pointed out where their own transgression violated the actual Scriptures (vv. 4ff).

It is entirely possible that Paul was dealing with a similar situation, in which the Gentile believers were being condemned by some of the non-believing Jews, not for violating the actual commands of the Torah in regards to God’s Appointed Times, but for not keeping them in the fashion of Jewish tradition. One can easily imagine a Gentile being condemned for walking more than the half-mile “Sabbath’s day journey” allowed by the rabbis in order to attend service on a Friday evening, for example (modern day Messianics, who rarely have a Messianic synagogue close by, often face this criticism), or not saying the “correct” traditional prayers on the Feasts and new moons—especially if the Gentile believers were actively adapting and creating songs and liturgy to reflect their belief in Christ.

Indeed, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s also possible that whether they wanted to or not, many Gentile believers simply couldn’t observe the Sabbaths of both the week and the Feasts due to their situations: A slave did not get to claim time off, nor indeed did many freemen have that option. However, if such was the situation and the intent of Paul’s letter, such did not represent the abrogation of all the Feastdays—for we see throughout the book of Acts that Paul and the other Apostles continued to observe them—but a mercy extended to the Gentiles, a reassurance that their “circumcision without hands” sealed their salvation despite their inability to keep all of God’s commands. That would say nothing about whether a person who has the luxury of keeping God’s Appointed Times should or not.

However, the context does not seem to make this Paul’s primary intent, which brings us to our second possible interpretation: That Paul was speaking of judgment being passed by pagans, not by Jews.

Stoicheia, the elements, can also bear the meaning, “the elemental spirits.” John MacArthur gives a fair presentation of the two possible translations when he writes:

b) Rudiments of the World

That is not an easy term to determine because there are several possibilities. Let me give you a general idea of what Paul had in mind.


In its literal sense, the term refers to the basic elements of learning. Rudiments would be like learning ABC's. It literally means "things in a column," or "things in a row" (i.e., 1, 2, 3, or a, b, c). Paul says that those are the rudimentary principles of instruction for childhood and not adequate for mature adults.

The thought of Paul is this: To return to philosophy would be to cast away the mature teaching of the Bible for the infantile poverty- stricken opinions of an immature religion drawing its being from this world and not God. The same phraseology is used in Galatians 4:3, "Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world [The elementary teaching of human religion]" (cf. Heb. 5:12). In Galatians, Paul was referring to the Jews' religion; in Colossians, he is referring to the religions of the Gentiles. And what is the elementary teaching of human religion? Salvation is by works. Where does that philosophy come from? It comes from tradition--perpetuated error--and from man's infantile, primer religion. It isn't some advanced, deep, new, profound spiritual knowledge. The really advanced people are those who know the Word of God.


The phrase "rudiments of the world" has a second possible meaning in the ancient world, although I would guess that the first meaning I gave you is probably the one Paul had in mind. It could also refer to elemental spirits--spirit beings. The people of that day were bound up in associating spirits with the stars and the planets. They were heavily involved in astrology. It's amazing that people today think that astrology is something new when it's the same old rudiments of the world.

For example, Julius Caesar was an astrology buff who governed his whole life by what the stars told him. Alexander the Great ruled his life in the same way. They were both devout believers in the influence of the stars. People who believed in those elemental spirits were in the grip of a rigid kind of determinism that was set by the stars. The influence of those spirits through those stars dominated their lives.

It was said that there was only one way of escape: You were an absolute prisoner of the stars and the spirits unless you knew the right passwords or formulas in order to escape the fatalism built into the stars. It was said that you had to have a secret knowledge--a secret teaching. So along came the false teachers who said, "We have the secret teaching that can relieve you from the fatalistic determinism of the stars. Jesus Christ can't save you from the spirits in the stars and planets. We have the secret information for that." Some of the people in the Colossian church had probably been involved in that kind of system. Even when they were saved out of that system, they still might have had lingering thoughts about it. They might have been tempted to say, "What if these teachers are right?"

But Paul warned them (and us) to be constantly aware of the false truth--that which is just human tradition. It is perpetuated ignorance--infantile, inadequate human religion of the past being revived. We have Christ; God is enough.

Though not absolutely required, the latter interpretation definitely seems to be favored by the context, in which Paul emphasizes that the Messiah “is the head of all principality and power” (v. 10) and “having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show (public spectacle) of them openly, triumphing over them in [the cross]” (v. 15). It’s also supported by the mention of “the worship of angels” (v. 18) and asceticism (v. 23), neither of which were nominal Jewish practices in the first century. The entirety of the passage is written around assuring the Colossian Christians that the old gods and spirits who once dominated their lives had no more power over them, for they were fully in the Messiah Yeshua, baptized with Him in death, and raised to live in Him, forgiven of all sins. It would seem odd to suddenly take a swipe at the “Judaizers”—on the contrary, Paul is telling them not to let themselves from being dissuaded in joining with their Jewish brothers and sisters in celebrating “an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath” just because the stars weren’t right!

The very most that our Sunday brethren can glean from this verse is a reiteration of the idea conveyed in Rom. 14, that we should not judge each other on matters of holy days and kosher—but if that’s the case, that’s a two-way street:  Neither should Sunday Christians condemn Messianics for keeping God’s Appointed Times; indeed, Sha’ul encourages us to keep them when he says they “are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of the Messiah.”  He did not see them as having been all fulfilled in the Cross, but rather looked forward to yet future events that they portended, all having to do with Yeshua HaMashiach.

We see this same encouragement, and explanation of the types, in 1Co. 5:6-8:

Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?  Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Messiah our Passover [Lamb] is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Likewise, we read in Hebrews 4:1-11, so often mis-cited as being against the Torah, that there remains a Sabbath-keeping for the people of God that they should endeavor to enter into by faith and in keeping with the Lord's own example which He set at the beginning of time. That's not to say that there is not also a greater spiritual rest which we have in the Messiah, just as there was a greater physical rest awaiting Israel in the Promised Land, but just as entering the rest of the Promised Land did not put an end to the command to rest on the Sabbath, neither does entering the rest of the Messiah.

And I don't know about you, but while my spiritual rest has come, I still have a lot of labor to do at my Lord's command, and I thank Him weekly for the physical and mental rest He has commanded me to take on the Sabbath, just as I look forward to participating in the Feasts which remind me of what God has done for me in the Messiah Yeshua, and the things yet to come.

Update:  Some time ago, I answered a post by a Christian Jew which said, in effect, "Keeping the Feasts is like looking at baseball cards when you can actually see the players in the field."  My answer was to point out that a man may get to see his wife pretty regularly, but most will still carry a picture of her in their wallets.  They do so because they love their wives so much that they want to be able to look on them even when they aren't there.

In the same way, while I have Yeshua in my heart, I still see Him only "in a mirror darkly."  Like keeping a picture in our wallet, the Feasts give us a chance to look on His image even though He is not yet physically with us.  We love our Lord so much that we love even His shadow, and celebrate and rejoice in His shadow.  Indeed, it is for this very reason that Christians keep the Lord's Supper:  "For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes" (1Co. 11:26).  There is no difference, in principle, between proclaiming the Lord's death with a tiny wafer and thimble of new wine than there is in proclaiming it with a whole Feast set on the anniversary of His death. 



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