Christ commands us early in His teaching to reject the notion that He has abolished Torah, the Mosaic Law, or relieved us of our responsibility to obey it. His teaching on this point is so clear that even well-known Christian scholars who do not actually obey Him here, also do not misinterpret Him here. It is not the teaching of Christ, but rather a long-standing tradition of wresting numerous Pauline passages, such as this one in Colossians 2, which causes most believers today to miss Christ’s heart in Torah. Yet what does Paul mean when he says, “let no man judge you” in regards to certain kinds of ceremonial observances? A careful look at the immediate context shows that he was warning us against trying to obey man-made tradition as a means to ensure right standing with God.
In the Bible it is written, “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: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.” (Col 2:16-17) A shallow reading of this text may suggest to us that certain aspects of the Mosaic Law (Torah) are no longer applicable. In particular, the words “let no man judge you” suggest that we should not worry about breaking dietary or sabbatical laws. Additionally, the words, “which are a shadow … but the body is of Christ,” seem to suggest that the ceremonial details of the law merely foreshadowed what has now been fulfilled in Christ, that the Old Testament rules and regulations were temporary and are no longer important for us. Many well-respected Christians take this view on the text, and in doing so appear to ignore Christ’s plain statements in the Sermon On the Mount that He intended no such thing, telling us specifically not to think this way. (Keep My Commandments) We should therefore address this text all the more carefully and thoroughly.
Let us begin by carefully noting Paul’s description of the biblical sabbaths and feasts: he says they “are a shadow of things to come.” The various biblical feasts and holy days are (not were) functioning as a single prophetic shadow, an image cast for us by spiritual reality in the radiance of divine glory. Each feast and holy day continues to function in this manner for us, each one contributing unique and precious detail to this composite shadow so that we might understand, anticipate and enjoy the works of God more fully.
This divine shadow is not merely the kind of flat grey shadow we find in nature; it is similar in that it has less dimension that its source … but these feasts and holy days comprise an image of spiritual realities, the biblical shadow is in itself a robust, recurring spiritual tangibility which we can actually explore, savor and relish; each facet is rich with detail which we may study and contemplate together in community year after year. Each new cycle brings new insights and delights as we compare scripture with scripture, journeying together with God and delighting in His ways. We cannot explore even these shadowy things fully, though we try, for they cast for us an image of the unfathomable, the infinite riches and glory of Christ Himself.
The spring feasts of Passover, Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, and Pentecost, were evidently fulfilled in Christ’s first coming, at least in part, precisely on their respective feast days. But even the written record of their fulfillment is itself another kind of rich shadow — and not the reality itself. The fall feasts (Trumpets, Atonement, Tabernacles), and the remaining monthly and weekly feasts, have evidently not yet been even partially fulfilled … and if the spring feasts are any indication of a pattern, they each point us to eschatological events of a profoundly cataclysmic and mysterious nature, each revealing more and more of the mind, glory and power of Christ.
If we are to connect with God in His Ways, as He evidently intends for us to, it is imperative that we engage with Him in both of these two shadow-types which He has so richly provided us, both the written Word and the recurring feasts and sabbaths. Anyone thinking that the written Word is the infinitely better of these two shadows, sufficient without the other, has not yet enjoyed the rich wholesomeness of the feasts. The two work together in a complimentary fashion, each embellishing and enriching the other in the heart set on fellowshipping with the living God as He bids us join Him in His works.
Rather than encouraging us to ignore the biblical feasts and sabbaths, as many would from this passage, God rather seems to be calling us toward them, encouraging us to cherish and keep them as His gifts to us so that we might be aligned with Him in what He is doing, and not be “in darkness, that that day should overtake (us) as a thief.” (1Th 5:4)
Next, let us consider what the word therefore is there in our text for. It provides the grounding and motivation for Paul’s instruction to “let no man judge you,” connecting and integrating the command with the preceding two verses … which explain that the man-made laws separating Jew and Gentile have been invalidated in and by the work of Christ. (For a full development and explanation of this concept please see One New Man, which addresses Ephesians 2:14-15 in detail, another very similar text commonly used to teach that Torah has been abolished by Christ, and explains the historical context more fully.) Based on this truth, Paul is saying that Gentile believers should not allow themselves to be intimidated, manipulated, pressured or coerced into submitting to Jewish man-made traditions in order to maintain a right standing with God or to fully participate in the spiritual community of the Church.
Let No Man Judge You
To validate this understanding of the text, let us observe that the words “let no man judge you” are not the same as “don’t worry about” or “don’t concern yourself with.” The focus is interestingly not on our own obedience to any particular law, but on the critical opinion others might have of us in how we respond to certain instructions. If Paul wanted to convey the unimportance and irrelevance of some aspect of Torah, focusing on how others react as we respond to Torah is indeed a strange and roundabout way to do so. If Paul meant to say, “Don’t feel guilty about breaking certain parts of Torah,” his passion for truth and clarity would likely have compelled him to say this kind of thing forthrightly. Yet he never does say anything like this, neither in this text nor anywhere else in his epistles. Rather than presuming Paul is telling us that Torah is obsolete in some backhanded, subtle kind of word-play, perhaps we might consider that he is pointing out an obvious danger and telling us to be careful about it.
The truth is that we cannot stop others from judging us; we can, however, refuse to be cowed, intimidated, pressured and manipulated by judgments that are not in accord with Scripture. This is indeed helpful when others seek to impose man-made religious rules and traditions upon us, as if their traditions were equivalent to God’s Law, treating our violation of such rules as sin. For example, Paul mentions being judged by others regarding what we are drinking, as when Jews forbid drinking milk with meat (based on the Torah command to not boil a baby goat in its own mother’s milk). Yet no law in Torah forbids either this or the general consumption of wine, juice, or any other kind of common beverage. Those judging others regarding beverages must of necessity be concerned with laws added to Torah by men. When we look at the larger context of Colossians we find that this is indeed Paul’s concern.
Paul begins this letter with a warm greeting and an expression of his love and prayerful concern for the believers (1-14), followed by a worshipful expression of the pre-eminence of Christ and of our union with and acceptance by Him. Then (vs 25) Paul begins to remind us of the fundamental purpose of his ministry, the reason God has chosen and equipped him, and what He has equipped Paul for. Paul calls this purpose “the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but is now made manifest to his saints.” (vs 26) Then in verse 27 he states the mystery plainly: “Christ in you.”
Now it certainly is a mystery that Christ would be in anyone, and most of us will be content to think this is all Paul intends when he speaks of the mystery of Christ in this particular context. However, in a different but related context, Paul describes this same mystery with a very different emphasis, one which is easily missed unless we are aware of the historical context and with the struggle these particular Gentile believers were having. It makes all of the difference in how we read the text, so we must be careful to note it.
The real import of this text is not merely in the wonder of Christ indwelling men, but in the wonder of Christ indwelling you: Gentiles, people outside the Jewish faith. This is much more easily seen in the more focused context in Ephesians.
“For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles, if ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: how that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel.” (Eph 3:1-6)
Paul explains this same mystery in more complete detail to the Ephesians, and it is evidently an important and recurring theme with him (“as I wrote afore,” vs 3). Paul’s wording in Ephesians states the mystery precisely: through the work of Christ Gentiles may enter the kingdom of God and participate fully in the Church without converting to Judaism.
This concept presented a mammoth problem in the early Church and it was evidently a key focus of Paul’s entire ministry. Paul alone was the initial apostolic champion of this truth; none of the other apostles were as passionate about it, and even at the apostolic level many believers struggled deeply with it and were deceived, even though the unity of the Body of Christ and the Gospel itself were at stake.
The depth and difficulty of this conflict is easily seen in the narrative of Galatians 2, where Peter himself and all of the other Jewish leaders of the church in Antioch were persuaded to act in a manner that was both inconsistent with the Gospel and also devastating to the unity of the Body of Christ by withdrawing from regular intimate fellowship with believers who had not converted to Judaism. (Gal 2:11-21) It was evidently not a localized problem, nor one that was easily overcome: all devout Jews had to struggle deeply with it, and most every congregation of believers was a Jew-Gentile mix at this particular stage of Church history. This problem was therefore significantly divisive and troublesome in most every Christian congregation, just like it was in Antioch. It was a constant threat both to the unity of the believing community and also to a proper understanding and grasp of the Gospel, and Paul is addressing it explicitly again in Colossians, just as he has in Galatians and Ephesians.
As we start chapter 2 in Colossians we find that Paul is again addressing this same issue, and urgently – he is greatly concerned for the Colossian and Laodicean believers, and for all other Gentile believers in the area that have not been directly and solidly encouraged by his ministry in this context. Paul wants them to know what great concern he has for them, how he wrestles and strives for them and on their behalf, that they would be comforted and fully connected to one another in love, acknowledging this mystery (that God fully accepts Gentiles), a mystery hid in and energized by the Trinity itself. Paul is warning them and greatly concerned for them because of the threat of those (Judaizers) who would try to deceive them (vs 4) and convince them otherwise (i.e. that God does not fully accept them until they convert to Judaism).
As Ye Have Received, So Walk
Paul’s first directive to the Colossians is found in verse 6 where he builds on this context, and his command here might be seen as the theme of the entire book: “As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him.” In other words, Paul is saying that those who receive Christ as a Gentile should walk with Christ as Gentiles (i.e. they should not convert to Judaism), and Jews who receive Christ should walk with Him as Jews (i.e. they should not renounce their Jewish heritage). Paul is telling the Colossians here what he has been telling all the churches: “As God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches. Is any man called being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision? let him not be circumcised … Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God.” (1Co 7:17-24)
On a deeper level, Paul is also saying that the same human responses, repentance and faith, which bring us into relationship with Christ are the same responses that keep us in fellowship with Him; the rules don’t change once we are in the kingdom. This is particularly important for us to understand as false teachers try to impose human traditions upon us as if they were God’s laws. If such laws didn’t help to bring us to Christ in the first place, they cannot be helpful in maintaining our walk with Him.
Beware of Man-made Tradition
Paul continues to build on this concern, clearly warning them in verse 8: “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 Christ.” The operative phrase here seems to be “tradition of men;” it is repeated in the immediate context in his stirring question to them in verses 20-22, “Why are ye subject to ordinances … after the commandments and doctrines of men?” These man-made ordinances were being positioned by Judaizers as essential for godly spiritual community; they insisted that fellowship with God and each other could only be found in submitting to historical Judaism and rabbinic tradition; as corrupt as it was, Judaism was the only extant religious expression promoting the living God in any fashion in their day.
Paul is writing to the Colossian believers very urgently in this context because they are being persuaded to follow a Jewish world-view (the “philosophy” of vs 8) in order to complete their acceptance in and with God. They are being taught, as were most all Gentile believers in that day, what the Judaizers were claiming in Acts 15:1: “Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.” Many devout and influential Jews of that day taught that to be finally accepted in Christ one must convert to Judaism and submit to rabbinic law (what they meant by “circumcised after the manner of Moses“). Most all Jews had been taught from childhood that only observant Jews would enter the kingdom of God, and they were therefore constantly teaching that conversion to Judaism was an essential requirement in being accepted by God. They intended to bring all Gentile believers under the burden and yoke of rabbinical Judaism along with themselves, with all of its additional ceremonies, traditions and man-made rituals, as they tried to follow Torah — the only standard of holiness available to anyone at the time (or since). This was, however, both a deep corruption of the Gospel and a disturbing threat to the unity of the Jew-Gentile congregations that were springing up everywhere.
The Body is of Christ
In opposition to the Judaizers, Paul was constantly asserting that “the body is of Christ” (Col 2:17b), that the spiritual community of God which comprises His kingdom, and the spiritual unity among believers in that kingdom, is not in their common nationality, culture or heritage, but in being justified by faith in Christ and received by God as His children regardless of their race, nationality, social status, culture or background. This was, at that time in history, a profound mystery to both Jews and Gentiles. Paul, in being taught the Gospel and its relation to the Law directly by Christ Himself (Gal 1:11-12) was able to distill this profound truth from the Cross itself and present the Gospel with power and clarity wherever he went. It was his particular gift and calling to present and reinforce this principle in every church, where ever he went, among all believers he met and encouraged.
Whenever Paul encountered the Judaizers in his ministry he also confronted them with this truth and confounded them. It was in his consistent refusal to preach circumcision, or the necessity of converting to Judaism to be saved, that most all of his persecution was rooted. (Gal 5:11) However, in preaching this message, Paul never renounced Torah itself, nor did he ever imply that obedience to Torah was optional or obsolete; he continued to affirm that Torah was God’s abiding and perfect standard of holiness (Rom 3:31) while claiming that dependence on obedience to Torah to be justified — depending on human effort and works, or in culture, nationality or heritage, in order to be counted perfectly and personally righteous before God — was profoundly dangerous and wrong, an abuse of Torah in every respect.
In a Nutshell
In the text we are considering, Colossians 2:17, Paul is not — as many biblical scholars would have us believe — telling believers to ignore Torah and sin (1Jn 3:4), dismissing the legalistic, judgmental opinions of those who wrongly think Torah is still valid. No. In saying “let no man therefore judge you,” Paul is encouraging us to avoid being enticed and manipulated into obeying man-made tradition (Jewish or otherwise) as a means to ensure right standing with God. The Cross of Christ proves that salvation is offered by grace through faith in Jesus Christ regardless of one’s race or nationality; it is neither offered as a result of — nor is it maintained or enhanced in any way by — ritualistic obedience to commandments of any kind.