Colossians 2:16-17

By: Larry J. Walker


Colossians 2:16-17 is one of the passages most commonly used to document the claim that the Sabbath and Holy Days are not required to be kept in the new covenant. The conclusion is that the "judging" refers to Judaizers trying to put pressure on the Colossians to keep these days, which Paul allegedly says should not be kept because they are only a shadow of the spiritual reality -- Jesus Christ.

Let's take a fresh look at these verses to see what they actually mean. Proper exegesis is necessary to clarify the meaning of this controversial passage. If we carefully examine the verses in question on the basis of grammatical points and historical facts, we can eliminate errors of interpretation and clearly understand what Paul meant. By way of historical background, it is widely known that the "Colossian heresy" was not Judaizers but Gnosticism. Many have assumed that both elements were present due to the references to circumcision, Sabbath, and Holy Days. However, Gnosticism was not a separate religion, but a religious concept that could be combined with an established religion with the promise of "improving" it. It was a sort of spiritual "hamburger helper" in the sense that it was a belief system that combined with, and allegedly improved, the host religion. So Gnostic Judaism was a blend of Jewish religious practices with a Gnostic flavor (to extend the hamburger helper analogy). It is most important to bear in mind that Gnostic Judaism, seeking to absorb the newly emerging Christian religion into its syncretic admixture, was the main culprit Paul was combatting in this epistle, as it was in Galatians and other New Testament books. This fact provides a perspective which is vitally important to understand the points Paul makes in Colossians 2:16-17.

A brief summary of the basic tenets of Gnosticism will enable us to understand the philosophical underpinnings of the problems in Colosse that Paul was addressing. Gnosticism gets its name from its claim of higher knowledge (Greek "gnosis") which it promised to its disciples.

One of the basic tenets of Gnosticism was that matter is evil. This belief led many down the road of asceticism as a way to avoid physical pleasure, which was considered evil. (This makes the hamburger helper analogy a humorous oxymoron.) The idea was that one must purge himself of evil matter by asceticism (avoiding physical pleasures) and by punishing the flesh. The libertine element of Gnosticism took an opposite approach, that since one cannot avoid matter, and being spiritual is totally unrelated to matter, one could do as he pleases and indulge the flesh to the limit and still be spiritual. The ascetic aspect is the obvious target of Paul's warnings in chapter 2.

Angel worship was also a fundamental aspect of Gnosticism. This took many forms, including celebration of special days and other religious customs based on astrological concepts of time.

Gnosticism achieved a large measure of success in Judaism and Christianity, as evidenced by the many Gnostic-based terms and concepts found in several New Testament books. This is a fascinating topic, but we need not consider any further information on the subject at this time.

The Daily Study Bible by Barclay (vol. 11, pp. 97-99) has a good basic description of Gnosticism. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia contains a lot of good information on the topic as well. With this in mind we will now delve into the text.

After Paul's customary salutation, he stresses his wish for the Colossians to be filled with, and increase in, knowledge (1:9-10). This is an oblique reference to, and subtle putdown of, Gnosticism.

The word "knowledge" in the Greek is "epignosis" ("gnosis" preceded by the preposition "epi"), which means complete knowledge (implying Gnosticism was not complete despite its lofty claims).

The primacy of the incarnate Jesus Christ is a major point of emphasis throughout the epistle because of the heretical Christological claims of Gnosticism, another interesting topic that we need not digress into here. One significant point that needs to be stressed, however, is the emphasis on the body of Christ, both literally and figuratively. Divinity and humanity as well as spirit and flesh were totally incompatible according to the dualistic Gnostic concept of evil matter. It was utterly inconceivable to the Gnostic mind that God could appear in literal flesh and blood. So Paul also uses "soma" (the Greek word for "body") to stress the corporeality of Christ (1:22, 2:9), a point which is fundamental to the message of the cross. He also emphasizes by the figurative use of "soma" that the Church is the body of Christ (1:18, 24; 2:17, 19; 3:15).

Paul clearly identifies the "Colossian heresy" in 2:4-8 as a philosophical system based on worship of "the Elemental spirits of the world" (Moffatt for Greek "stoicheia tou kosmou," cf. RSV, NRSV). So Expositor's Bible Commentary explains:

Understood in this manner, the passage means either (1) that the "philosophy" of the errorists was a system instigated by the elemental spirits (perhaps thought of as the powers of evil) or (2) that it was a system having the elemental spirits as its subject matter. The second meaning is more likely the one intended by Paul, for we know from 2:18 that the Colossian heresy made much of the "worship of angels" (vol. 11, p. 198).

Paul tells the Colossians, "See to it that no one take you captive (NIV) (plunder you or take you captive,' NKJV margin)." Expositor's Bible Commentary points out:

The word translated "takes captive" (sylaggn), which was regularly used of taking captives in war and leading them away as booty, depicts the false teachers as men stealers' wishing to entrap the Colossians and drag them into spiritual enslavement (vol. 11, p. 197-198).

Many members in Galatia had already gone back into this same source of "bondage" (Galatians 4:3, 8-10). Gnosticism was the culprit there also as Walter Schmithals explains in his blockbuster book entitled, Paul & the Gnostics. Identification of the Gnostic influence in the apostolic church is a major key to understanding many scriptures that have long been erroneously explained in an anti-Judaizer context and thus used to denigrate anything "Jewish." Syncretism does not lend itself to either/or reasoning when identifying the source of heresy in the early church. Gnosticism was combined with Judaism, which was the catalyst for introducing Gnosticism to Christianity. One must recognize the Gnostic twist behind the alleged "Judaizing" to avoid "throwing the baby out with the bath water." In other words Paul is not condemning "Jewish" customs but the manner in which they were being observed.

It doesn't require much scholarship to recognize from the context of the second chapter that the pressure upon the Colossians was decidedly not from Judaizers. Paul issues a series of three warnings linked together to identify the same source of danger. The terminology in 2:8 and 2:18 (before and after the passages in question) clearly identifies Gnosticism and just as clearly rules out Judaism. It therefore would make no sense to read Judaism into verse 16.

The main point of verses 16-17 is the Colossians should not allow these heretics to judge them. Zodhiates says, the word "judge" (Greek "krin") means "to separate, distinguish, discriminate between good and evil . . . . In the NT, it means to judge, to form or give an opinion after separating and considering the particulars of a case" (The Complete Word Study, by Spiros Zodhiates). The verb form is imperative (a command). The emphatic statement is linked to the previous context by the conjunction "therefore." The point is that since Christ wiped out our debt of sin and "disarmed principalities and powers" ("wicked spirits in high places" _ Ephesians 6:12) by His death (cf. Hebrews 2:14; Romans 8:38-39), angel worship (climbing the ladder of "emanations" to work one's way up to God, the idea behind Gnostic angel worship) was unnecessary and inappropriate. The "false humility" (verse 18) involved ascetic practices of Gnostic Judaism, as Rienecker explains, " . . . the consequence of this ascetic practice is entrance into the heavenly realm." (A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, by Fritz Rienecker, vol. 2, p. 230).

Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament by Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider explains the link between ascetic food regulations and the "elemental spirits" of Colossians 2:8, 20: This philosophy . . . regarded these spirits as powers capable of preventing a person from attaining the fullness of salvation (cf. v. 9), if that person did not submit to them by following certain religious practices such as worship of angels, partial renunciation of food [emphasis mine], etc. (vol. 3, p. 278).

There are many grammatical points that bear upon the true meaning of this passage. Greek is a very precise language. Verb inflections, case endings of nouns, and syntax offer important exegetical clues, as we will soon see. Translation from one language to another also presents problems that can blur the meaning intended in the original language.

The expression "in meat or in drink" in verse 16 (KJV) is an inaccurate and misleading rendering of the Greek words "en brsei kai en psei." A better translation is "eating and in drinking," not food and drink, for which Paul would have used "brma and poma" (Expositor's Greek Testament, by W. Robertson Smith, vol. 3, p 530). The two practices under attack were "eating and drinking" (proper translation) and part of the matter of observance of Festivals, new moons and Sabbaths. It was not the fact of what should or should not be eaten or drunk, but the act of eating and drinking in the process of worship, because feasting would be considered indulging the flesh and thus sinful.

The question is not altogether between lawful and unlawful food, but between eating and drinking or abstinence. Asceticism rather than ritual cleanness is in his mind. The Law is not ascetic in its character, its prohibitions of meats rest on the view that they are unclean, and drinks are not forbidden, save in exceptional cases, and then not for ascetic reasons" (Expositor's Greek Testament, by W. Robertson Smith, vol. 3, p. 530).

A. T. Robertson explains, Paul has here in mind the ascetic practices . . . of the Gnostics (possibly Essenic or even Pharisaic influence . . . . The Essenes went far beyond the Mosaic regulations. (Word Pictures in the New Testament, vol. IV, p. 496).

So the topic in question was decidedly not clean and unclean meats but asceticism versus Christian rejoicing and feasting.

Let us now consider the other matter for which the Colossians were being judged. We now encounter yet another misleading translation. Most versions give the impression that the nouns "festival," "new moon," and "sabbaths" are objects of a preposition "regarding" (NKJV). There are several problems with this misconception. If Paul had meant to use a preposition, he could have used "peri" ("concerning") as in I Corinthians 8:1. Instead the Greek word is "meros" which is not a preposition but a noun, derived from the verb "merizo," which means "to cut in portions." "Meros" is nearly always translated "part" or "portion" elsewhere in the New Testament. It denotes a sharp division or separating off from something. When used conceptually, it sets up a dichotomy by drawing a distinction between what it represents and that to which it is contrasted, emphasizing the need for separate consideration of the two matters. In this passage "meros" is the object of the preposition "en" ("in"), whereas "festival," "new moon," and "sabbaths" have the genitive case ending, which connects them to "meros" in the sense of "portion of a Festival or a new moon or Sabbaths." The "anarthrous" construction of the nouns (i.e., not preceded by the definite article, "the" in English) implies quality or nature rather than identity, although the identity as "Jewish" days is not in question. Putting all this together, the significance is that only a portion or aspect of the inherent quality or nature of the Festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths were being criticized, namely how they were to be observed. Gnosticism had no problem with observation of special days. In fact astrological observance of special segments of time was a major part of Gnostic practice (Galatians 4:10). The conflict in Colosse was the manner in which the members were celebrating them. We know that Leviticus 23 designates the weekly and annual Sabbaths as feast days. Apparently the new moons were also major festive occasions at the time, as pointed out by Vincent:

The day was celebrated by blowing of trumpets, special sacrifices, feasting [emphasis mine throughout], and religious instruction. Labor was suspended, and no institutional or private fasts were permitted to take place. The authorities were at great pains to fix accurately the commencement of the month denoted by the appearance of the new moon. Messengers were placed on commanding heights to watch the sky, and as soon as the new moon appeared, they hastened to communicate it to the synod, being allowed even to travel on the sabbath for this purpose (Word Studies in the New Testament, by Marvin R. Vincent, vol. 1, ch. II, p. 495).

Again one can easily recognize the potential for gnosticizing this God ordained occasion by emphasis on the chronological aspect and by eliminating the festiveness on the basis of the dualistic concept of self-denial.

Now we come to verse 17. Here again the language plays an important role in determining the specific meaning.

It is most important to note the tense of the verbs, which are correctly translated as "are" (present active indicative) and "to come" (present participle). The point is that the tenses rule out the interpretation that the Sabbath and Holy Days became obsolete with the coming of Christ because of the time perspective of the statement. To have that meaning, it would have to say "were" since Christ had already come in the flesh, died for our sins, and was resurrected by the time Paul wrote Colossians. Yet he says the Festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths are (still) a shadow at the time Paul wrote, years after Christ's death. Shadow of what? Of "things to come." This is an accurate rendering of the present participle form of the Greek word "mell," which means " to be about (to do something)', often implying the necessity and therefore the certainty of what is to take place" (Vine's Dictionary of Biblical Words). The identical construction (except for gender and case ending) is also found in I Corinthians 3:22, where its contextual meaning is instructive. The present participle form in Greek projects a timeless, ongoing activity extending into the future as viewed from the temporal vantage point of the main verb, which in this case is the present tense ("are" or technically "is" in Greek to denote the aggregate of the three nouns) of the intransitive verb "to be." So the grammar makes a very decisive case for, not against, Christian observance of these occasions, not to "earn salvation" (which is impossible) but to foreshadow events yet to unfold in God's master plan, of which Jesus Christ is the focal point and central figure.

Also in verse 17, most translators insert the word "is" between "sma" ("body") and "tou Christou" ("of Christ") in an attempt to clarify the meaning in English, since English grammar demands a verb in this clause. No verb is required in Greek, and none is present in the original text of this verse. A similar example of this construction is I Corinthians 7:19, "Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments is what matters" (NKJV). The words "is what matters" are added to make sense of what is implied but left out in the text. Both are examples of "antithesis," which is "the rhetorical contrast of ideas by means of parallel arrangements of words, clauses, or sentences (as in actions, not words')" (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary).

Adding the word "is" between "body" and "of Christ" sets up an antithesis between "shadow" and "body," thus implying the inferiority and foreshadowing aspect of the Festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths to Christ. This serves as a theological basis for rejecting their observance under the new covenant by pitting them against the "reality" of Christ. You could add the verb "let" prior to the expression "the body of Christ," which sets up an antithesis between the sources of "judging" _ humans outside the church (verse 16) versus "the body of Christ" or the Church. Either is permissible in Greek. Let us consider both possibilities on the basis of the following points to determine which verb best fits the context.

1. There are examples of the antithetical apposition of "sma" and "skia" ("shadow") in contemporaneous extra-biblical sources, including Philo, who was, in fact, an influential figure in the development of Gnosticism.

2. However, "sma" (here translated "substance" in NKJV) is never used in the entire New Testament for anything other than a literal physical body (usually human) or to the corporeal "body of Christ," i.e., the Church. This makes a case against the use of "sma" for establishing an antithetical nuance of "substance" or "reality" in apposition to "shadow."

3. In all other occurrences of "sma" in Colossians, the meanings are the human body (2:11, 23, cf. Romans 7:24), the physical, human body of Jesus (1:22, 2:9, the latter actually an adverbial form of "sma") and the corporeal "body of Christ," i.e., the Church (1:18, 24; 2:19; 3:15).

4. Placing "is" within the expression "body of Christ" also has no precedent in the New Testament. The phrase "body of Christ" is found in four other passages (Romans 7:4; I Corinthians 10:16, 12:27; Ephesians 4:12) and implied in many other passages where "sma" is used in that context, even though the full expression "body of Christ" does not appear.

5. Judging is the main subject of the context of 2:16-17 as well as the entire section beginning in verse 8 and continuing through verse 23.

This presents a stronger case for a the meaning derived from inserting the word "let" than for a shadow/body antithesis implied by breaking up the expression "body of Christ" with the word "is," for which there is no New Testament precedent. Furthermore, I Corinthians 6:1-7 presents the matter of "judging" (same Greek word) within the Church in a positive context as defined earlier, "to form or give an opinion after separating and considering the particulars of a case." Likewise in this verse, "Let the body of Christ" finishes the thought at the beginning of the sentence, "Let no one judge you, . . . " which, as we have seen, is the main theme of the larger context of the chapter.

Let's briefly summarize the conclusions we have drawn in this paper.

1. The Colossians were observing the Festivals, new moons, and Sabbath, just as they were eating and drinking.

2. The ascetic, Gnostic-based heretics were criticizing them for eating and drinking and rejoicing in celebration of these festive occasions.

3. These occasions (including the "new moon," which is not one of the commanded Holy Days, but would not be wrong to observe) still have symbolic value and should continue to be observed as a continual reminder and source of instruction about the basic historic truths of the plan of God, past, present and future.

4. Therefore, the members should not allow anyone to stand in judgment of them or criticize them for keeping these days.

5. Rather, they must continue to look to Christ (the focal point of God's plan and of these occasions which foreshadow His future role in that plan) to determine the way they observe these days. They must also look to Christ to keep God's people united together. The Sabbath and Holy Days also help promote this unity by bringing members together in commanded assembly and reminding them they are "sanctified" ("holy" or uniquely special) members of the family of God.

Here is a paraphrased version of what Paul is saying in Colossians 2:16-17, based on the points made in this paper, "Don't let any man judge you for eating or drinking or for any portion of your observance of a Festival, new moon or Sabbath (which are a shadow of future events in God's master plan, of which Jesus Christ is the central figure), but let the body of Christ (which "casts the shadow" as He, walking in the light, moves forward toward their antitypical fulfillment), be your judge in these matters."

Paul said in I Corinthians 15:19, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable." God's Sabbath and Holy Days remind us of the past, present, and future reality of Jesus Christ. Those who would advocate abandonment of these intensely meaningful, relevant days and consider them obsolete ceremonial laws fulfilled by Christ, and who teach that the obligation (make that "privilege!") to observe them is no longer required of a Christian under the new covenant, are indeed to be pitied, and "will be called least in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:19).

In his final appeal Paul admonishes the Colossians, "Let no one defraud you of your reward . . . " by means of the deception of the pagan Gnostic heresies that were being foisted upon them. Vincent explains: " . . . from "kata" "against," "brabeu" "to act as a judge or umpire." Hence "to decide against one," or "to declare him unworthy of the prize" . . . which . . . I think must be retained, in continuation of the idea of judgment in verse 16, "let no man judge," etc. The attitude of the false teachers would involve their sitting in judgment as to the future reward of those who refused their doctrine of angelic mediation (Word Studies in the New Testament, vol. 1, ch. II, p. 494).

Those who allowed their thinking and conduct to be swayed by heretics outside the Church were "not holding fast (Greek "krate") to the Head [Jesus Christ], from whom all the body [the Church], nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments [individual members _ cf. Ephesians 4:15-16], grows with the increase which is from God" (Colossians 2:18-19).

This brings to mind a very sobering and timely warning issued by Jesus Christ to "the church at Philadelphia" to "Hold fast [same Greek word "krate") to what you have, that no one may take your crown."

Is there a message here even though the source and exact nature of the theological argument is not the same today? Would we be jeopardizing our "crown" by throwing away the Holy Days and Sabbaths on the basis of "persuasive words" (Colossians 2:4) and "empty [void of truth] deceit" contrary to what the Head of the Church led His Church to understand, and which still remains in print to instruct (or "judge") us? Perhaps the best way to answer the question is in the words of Jesus Christ Himself in Revelation 3:13, "He who has an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

This article (with minor editing) is from the Articles & Study Papers

by Larry J. Walker       1995-1996 

P.O. Box 36, La Pine, Oregon 97736

Larry J. Walker, minister,

United Church of God.

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