I’ve been reading through the Bible slowly from Genesis to Revelation. This is something I have not done in many years. I have taken some sidetracks and rabbit hole excursions along the way, but I am still plodding forward.
It’s amazing that circumstances of life arise from time to time of which the particular passage I am reading comes to bear on those circumstances. This is the case in a poignant way in regard to a conversation I had with a very close friend recently.
We were talking about the Catholic Church and a very bad experience that someone very close to both of us had being raised by strict parents in a strict Catholic school setting. I was also raised Catholic, though my experience differed from his. I didn’t go to parochial school, and I didn’t experience the strictness of the Catholic Church like he did, though I certainly saw evidence of it.
In my friend’s case, the strictness and severity he experienced bordered on abuse. I don’t know the details, but his reactions to things religious suggest he might have some degree of PTSD as a result of his experiences.
I don’t mean to pick on the Catholic Church. I have seen the same “spirit” evident in other denominations as well. Certain Baptists and Pentecostals and people we might label “fundamentalists” or other labels have exhibited a similar spirit as the Catholics in the focus on do’s and don’ts and religious rituals practiced in front of foreboding audiences. The Westboro Baptist Church is a very extreme example of the legalism and dogmatism I am talking about.
In the context of this conversation and these thoughts, I read these words the very next day that were penned by Paul the Apostle about two millennia ago:
Therefore, let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival our new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance is in Christ. Colossians 2:16-17
It seems that some things haven’t changed in 2000 years!
People were apparently pressuring the Colossian believers to observe rules regarding what they ate and drank and the ritual festivals they observed. Paul addressed their concerns, urging the Colossians not to be influenced by the critics: “let no one pass judgment on you!”
Many people then, as today, would say that strict observance of various rules and rituals is what God and religion requires. It may be what religion requires, but these things are not what God requires!
Paul was adamant with the Colossians not to be taken in by this way of thinking because it is only a “shadow of the things to come”.
A person might be confused by this, pointing to the Old Testament and the law that was handed down by Moses in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Wasn’t that the whole point? Wasn’t the nation of Israel instructed to observe the Law in all of its detail?
If that is how it appears to us, we are completely missing the point. We shouldn’t feel bad, though, because we aren’t alone in this failing. The Pharisees and Sadducees (the religious leaders of Jesus’s time) also missed the point. The people trying to influence the Colossians missed the point. Many people today still miss the point.
Paul explains the point of the Law in Romans 7. You might be surprised to know that Paul says the Law arouses our sinful passions! (Romans 7:5). It doesn’t save us from them. This doesn’t mean the Law is bad, and it doesn’t mean the Law has no purpose. We miss the point of the Law if we don’t understand its purpose.
The purpose of the Law is to reveal our sin to us:
“I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.”’ (Romans 7:7)
The word translated sin means “to miss the mark”. The Law is meant, therefore, to demonstrate to us that we miss the mark. Something is off, and we can’t right ourselves. We all fall short. (Romans 3:23)
Jesus said He didn’t come to abolish the Law; He came to fulfill it! (Matthew 15:17) Jesus was able to fulfill the Law because He was God who became flesh. (John 1:14) And this is where we begin to get to the real point.
Paul told the Colossians that matters of food and drink and religious rituals are just “a shadow of things to come”. A shadow is caused by light reflecting on an object. The shadow is neither the object nor the light. In fact, a shadow is caused by the object blocking the light. If we focus on the shadow, we fail to appreciate the light.
Jesus is the Light! (John 8:12) He is the reality to which the Law points. Jesus doesn’t have to manufacture anything to keep the Law because the Law is in His character. He is the Law!
And we are not. We can’t manufacture it because it isn’t in our character. We miss the mark when we rely upon ourselves. And this is key.
Now we get to the important point.
Jesus didn’t come for the righteous (Mark 2:17) (the self-righteous!). He didn’t come for people who think they are healthy. (Matthew 9:11; Luke 5:31) He came for people who are sick and know they are sick. He came for people who know they don’t measure up.
The Law is only meant to show us our sickness, our lack and our need of God. The Law is meant to turn us to God for His help. The Law is the shadow; Jesus is the Light, and He came for people who seek Him (not the self-righteousness depending on their own morality or ritual observance) because they know they are not adequate in themselves.
“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God….” (John 1:9-12)
We are not justified by our ability to follow the law or our observance of religious rituals. The only way we are justified and can be made right before God is to acknowledge our need and to embrace the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, the perfect sacrifice, that redeems us from the justice the Law requires and offers us in place of that judgment the redemption of new life and freedom from our sinful natures that alienate us from God and prevent us from connecting with God.
In doing this (repenting, turning from ourselves and our own efforts, and turning toward God and what He has done for us), we become, literally, born again. If we have genuinely turned from ourselves to God and willingly embraced Him, He comes to live within us.
This is no abstract apparition or mere philosophical aphorism. Christ gains access to us with our invitation; He becomes Christ in us, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:7). The treasure of the Spirit of God in our earthen vessels (2 Corinthians 4:27) is something we actually experience.
God is who he is. As creations of God, we cannot hope to be like God is by our own efforts. God made us to be like him, but, in order to be like him, we must be willing to submit to Him and receive Him within us. We must allow Him to work within us (Philippians 2:13), to cause us to be born again, not of the flesh, but of the Spirit. (John 3:5-8)
This is the reality, the substance. The Law is only a shadow. Once we have embraced the Light, we have no need of the shadow. Once we have relationship with God through Christ and the Spirit within us, the shadow fades away into insignificance. We let go of our focus on the rules and rituals to embrace the One who made us and desires to dwell within us. And then, He works within us “to will and to act according to His good purpose”. (Philippians 2:13)
At best, the Law is nothing more than a barometer of the work God is doing within us – not matters of food or drink or religious ritual – but the Ten Commandments. A better, more positive measure, though, are the fruits of the Spirit:
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23)