Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from the King James Version.
[NOTE: It is important that Colossians 2:16-17 be examined within its context, which includes not only the surrounding verses of the second chapter, but the entire book as well.]
Colossians 2:16-17 generates far more controversy and misunderstanding than it deserves. In essence, Paul is saying in verse 16, “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days” (KJV). In fact, the word “judge” is the Greek verb krino, which means to decree, judge, decide, condemn, and criticize. The Revised Standard offers the translation, “Let no one pass judgment on you.” And verse 18 begins, “Let no one disqualify you.”
Before we fully identity the issue and the problem of verses 16 and 17, let’s note verses 20 and 21, for these latter verses help to make it a little clearer. In verses 20 and 21, the Colossians are warned against submitting to religious regulations related to touch, taste and handling. These regulations are based on human precepts which have “an appearance of wisdom” concerning ascetic practices (“self-abasement and severity to the body”), but in actuality “are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh” (verse 23, RSV). These regulations, which Paul advises the Colossians to let no one judge them in, are not referring to God-given commandments as found in Scripture. Rather they represent a human distortion and mixture of Judaism with pre-Gnostic elements.
As Edward Loshe in his commentary on Colossians and Philemon says:
In the context of Colossians, however, the command to keep festival, new moon and sabbath is not based on the Torah according to which Israel received the sabbath as a sign of her election from among the nations. Rather the sacred days must be kept for the sake of “the elements of the universe (2:8),” who direct the course of the stars and thus also prescribe minutely the order of the calendar.
Verse 16 now: Three basic explanations for the phrase in verse 16, “in meat, or in drink,” are usually given. They are: (1) meat and drink offerings; (2) clean and unclean meat laws; (3) ascetic, Gnostic-like practices. It is the latter of these three with which Paul is concerned.
Let’s rephrase the issue of verse 16. The brethren should not permit others to dictate to them petty rules regarding dieting and worship. Ascetic practices, such as those of the Essenes, were the focus. These ascetics practiced self-abasement, abstaining from eating and drinking on special days, such as festival sabbaths, new moon sabbaths, and even weekly sabbaths.
It isn’t meat and drink offerings that are being targeted. The word offering never appears in the text. In fact, the word for meat in the Greek is a form of brosis. Brosis denotes “eating” and is the same word used in Matthew 6:19-20 as “rust,” referring to “consuming” or “eating up.” So the issue concerns the consuming of food, in contrast to fasting as a form of self-abasement.
Some would disagree with this position, contending that the meat and drink are meat and drink offerings as part of the festival days mentioned. The text does not allow that, since literally the words are “in eating and in drinking OR in respect of a feast.” Again, keep in mind that the word “offering” does not appear, which Paul easily could have, and likely would have, included were that his intention. Meat and drink offerings were not a form of eating and drinking, but were forms of sacrificing. “Meat offerings” in actual fact were grain offerings, not animal sacrifices (see Leviticus 2).
Neither is “meat or drink” a likely reference to the issue of clean and unclean meats, because of the presence of the word, “drink.” What dietary restriction was there in the clean and unclean laws concerning drink? The obvious answer is none.
On the basis that the fullness of Christ has abolished the record of the believers’ sins (“handwriting of ordinances,” verse 14), Paul says the brethren should not allow themselves to come under the condemnation of those who would enjoin ascetic practices on the believers in terms of abstaining from eating and drinking and in relation to the ritualistic observance of festival, new moon and weekly sabbaths.
How do we know that this is what Paul is referring to in the latter part of verse 16? How can we be sure of the real issue? First, the problem Paul is concerned with is not what days are being identified here, but rather how or for what purpose they are being observed. Again, the concerns are ascetic practices and ritualistic observances which represent a distortion of true Christian worship. Paul is telling the Colossians that, if they were to practice ritualism and asceticism as essential — which was the doctrine being enjoined on them — the Colossians were missing out on the reality of Jesus Christ, who had already freed them from the necessity of human works as a means of endearing themselves to the Eternal (cf. Colossians 2:8-10).
If we take the position that it is not which days are being observed that is the issue, but how or to what end they are being observed, then it does not matter that the weekly sabbath is included here, which it in fact is. [The term “sabbath” does not refer to yearly festival sabbaths, as some propose, because the order of “holyday, new moon, and sabbath days” indicates annual, monthly and weekly observances (cf. Hoses 2:11; Ezekiel 45:17). Furthermore, Paul’s use of the term “holyday” already includes yearly ceremonial sabbaths. To have the word “sabbath” refer to annual festivals would be needless repetition.]
But what about verse 17? Is it not a disclaimer to the practice of these days altogether, since it mentions that they “are a shadow of things to [or, “which have”] come?” This is a good point. And, we need to understand what verse 17 is talking about. The “shadow of things to come” is in complete contrast to the “reality” or “substance” which is in Christ himself. The Greek word for “shadow” here is skia, which is the opposite of “substance” (soma in the Greek). The shadow is “a sketch, outline, adumbration, an image cast by an object and representing the form of that object.”
Now that we have defined the word shadow, let’s look at what Paul is declaring to be the shadow or outline. Once again, we must focus on the issue, that is, the false practices being enjoined upon the Colossians in regard to festivals, new moons and sabbath days. Those days of themselves are meaningless; without their special appointments, they simply would be another day of the week, month or year. The events and observances on those days are what gave them special significance over other days of the calendar.
Thus, the ascetic, self-abasing practices and ritualistic observances that were being enjoined on the Colossians as ways of proving themselves before God never would measure up to the reality which was in Christ himself. Those practices at best could only amount to a shadow or a sketch of the meaning of the life in Christ.
So the PRACTICE of these superstitious things (self-abasement, etc.) would not get the Colossians closer to God. Paul maintains that such observances are not salvific or meritorious. The reality is that salvation is through Christ; therefore, the observance of days (or any other rituals) cannot bring us any closer to God. Their meaning can only be found in seeing Christ as the only means to righteousness. Paul countered any practice which focused on works-righteousness, rather than on the principle of faith in Christ alone as taught in the Gospel.
How then does this interpretation affect Sabbathkeeping today? When one understands that Paul is addressing Gnostic-like perversions of the Gospel in connection with times observed in honor of angels (verse 18), then one can see that the issue of whether or not Christians should observe the seventh-day Sabbath is not even being discussed. At issue is not whether these days should be observed, but the manner and motive in which they were being observed. The validity of Sabbath observance must be determined on the basis of other texts. Colossians 2:16 alone cannot serve as a determining factor.
Paul’s condemnation of the heretical views about the Sabbath, no more condemns all Sabbathkeeping, any more than his condemnation of the heretical views about eating and drinking condemns all eating and drinking. Only when Sabbath observance is linked with man-made rules about asceticism, angel worship, works-righteousness, or perverted Judaism does it become unacceptable.