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 bad experience that close friend 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. A hyper focus on do’s and don’ts and religious rituals practiced in front of the foreboding audience of church authorities are the common denominator. The Westboro Baptist Church is a very extreme example of the legalism and dogmatism I am talking about.
The very day following this conversation, I read these words 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 in Paul’s day 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. Paul explains that 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 how we miss the mark. It is intended to show us that something is off. It is meant to show us that we all fall short of the perfect standard. (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 ultimate 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 understand 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 the standard in ourselves. We can simulate or approximate it, but it will always be just a shadow of the real thing because it isn’t in our character.
We also miss the mark when we rely upon ourselves to achieve the perfect standard – what God calls righteousness. And this is key.
Now we are getting to the ultimate point.
None of us are righteous. None of us measure up. We all fall short, and we need to come to that realization before we can get to the ultimate point.
When Jesus said he didn’t come for the righteous (Mark 2:17), he wasn’t suggesting that he came for some people who had achieved righteousness. He was really saying that he came for everyone, because everyone is unrighteous. Only, some people don’t know they are not righteous. (What those people are is the self-righteous!)
Jesus framed the same point differently when he said 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. In short, he came for people who know they don’t measure up.
People was speaking both to people who think they measure up to God’s standards and God’s character and to people who don’t. He was excluding the people who think they are perfectly fine, and he was inviting those who felt condemned to come to him.
As Paul says, the point of the Law is to show us our sickness, our lack, and our need of God. The Law is meant to bring us to the realization that we need to turn to God for His help.
The Law is the shadow; Jesus is the Light. Jesus came for people who seek Him (not the self-righteous who depend on their own morality or ritual observance). Jesus came for people who 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.
Jesus redeems us from the justice the Law requires and offers us in place of that judgment redemption. He offer us new life and freedom from our sinful natures that alienate us from God and prevent us from connecting with God by his atoning sacrifice.
When we acknowledge or sin, repent, turn from ourselves and our own efforts, and turn toward God and what He has done for us, we become, literally, born again. When we throw ourselves on God’s mercy, rather than our own ability to achieve righteousness, we find God waiting there to embrace us!
If we have genuinely turned from ourselves to God and willingly embrace Him, He comes to live within us. He has fulfilled the requirements of the law in Himself, and receives us as we are.
This is no abstract apparition or mere philosophical aphorism. Christ knocks on our door and comes in to us when we invite him; 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) becomes our living experience.
God is who he is. As creations of God, we cannot hope to be like God in ourselves and 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.
When we let go of our focus on following the rules and rituals to achieve right standing with God, we can 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)
In this way, God begins to “write His law on our hearts”. It is no longer an external code of conduct we must follow; it becomes an internal force working within us to regenerate us from the inside out.
When God is at work within us, we don’t follow rules and regulations because we have to; we begin to learn to act in concert with the Holy Spirit at work within us because we want to. It is not longer me striving to be like God, but me submitting to God’s Holy Spirit working within me to make me like Him.
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 God’s law (HIs character) being written on our hearts. When God is at work in us, we begin to bear the fruit of the seed: 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
The evidence of God at work in us is not our ability to notch off the a list of rules and do’s and don’ts. The evidence of God working in us is the fruit. The fruit is the evidence of God’s light in our lives. All else is just a shadow.