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"Do Not Let Them Judge You" (2:16-17)

There is a sense in which divine grace will always be a threat to human nature. Why a threat, you ask? Because grace undermines our efforts to justify ourselves. Grace runs counter to human pride and that impulse we all feel to boast in our own accomplishments. Grace requires that we defer all praise to God. Grace undermines our best efforts at establishing a list of requirements and prohibitions that we can impose on ourselves and others as the condition on which we gain acceptance with God. Grace demands only one thing: that all glory and honor and credit be given to Jesus Christ for what he has done, not for what we have done. And human nature instinctively hates that.

That is why wherever the gospel of grace is preached, legalism rears its ugly head. Once you declare that God has graciously provided everything we need in the person and work of Jesus Christ you can rest assured that fallen human nature will rise up in protest and try to sneak in somewhere a rule or regulation that we, in our strength, can fulfill, or an observance or ritual that we, without God's enabling power, can perform that will enhance our spiritual standing or gain some reward that will put God in our debt.

The Colossians had heard and received, by grace, the gospel of grace. They had turned from self-reliance and prideful self-justification to rest wholly in the all-sufficiency of what God had done for them in Jesus Christ alone. But there were some folk in Colossae, as there are similar folk everywhere in our day, who refused to leave well enough alone. We know what they were up to because of Paul's passionate, indeed heated, exhortation: "Don't let them judge you!" (Col. 2:16a).

The focus of these false teachers was multiple and varied, but in vv. 16-17 Paul mentions two things in particular. First, the enemies of grace were insisting that the Colossians abstain from certain food and drink. This is probably not a reference to Old Testament dietary regulations, because the Mosaic Law contained no significant prohibitions concerning what a person drinks (there were a few exceptions, of course, as in the case of those who took a Nazarite vow).

Rather, these people were probably demanding abstinence from meat and strong wine regardless of the amount of intake. They were most likely convinced that abstinence per se was inherently more pleasing to God than participation. In other words, like many today they believed that self-denial was intrinsically more spiritual or an indication of greater fervency for God, regardless of what the activity or experience might be. The self-discipline allegedly required to say 'No' to the offer of something to eat or drink was thought to be a mark of genuine piety and commitment.

Perhaps they feared that by partaking of certain foods and drink or participating in certain practices they would be spiritually infected in some way. They might have believed that partaking would diminish their religious fervor and perhaps expose them to even greater evils. Nowhere is this perspective endorsed in the New Testament. It is true, of course, that those who over-indulge and drink or eat to excess are rebuked (drunkenness is never permissible). But that is not because partaking is itself inherently less godly than abstinence.

Evidently the heretics in Colossae were declaring that those who enjoyed their freedom in Christ to eat and drink within the parameters established in Scripture stood condemned or were on the threshold of loss of divine approval or some such notion. "No," said Paul. "Don't let them judge you!"

The second feature of this particular brand of legalism indicates there may well have been a Jewish element involved, for the "festival" and "new moon" and "Sabbath" are no doubt a reference to the holy days of the Jewish calendar (specifically, the annual, monthly, and weekly observances). This very language is used often in the Old Testament to describe the sacred times binding on all under the Mosaic covenant (see 1 Chronicles 23:31; 2 Chronicles 2:4; 31:3; Ezekiel 45:17; Hosea 2:11).

These observances, says Paul, were but a "shadow of the things to come" (v. 17a). The "things to come," of course, is not a reference to what is future to Paul, but what was future to those who lived when the obligation to abide by these holy days was in force (cf. 1 Cor. 5:7-8; Heb. 8:5; 10:1). During the time of the Mosaic covenant they certainly had their place and fulfilled a glorious divine purpose. But that purpose was to point to Christ! They were adumbrations of a greater and more substantive reality that is now present in its fullness in Jesus Christ and all that we have by faith in him.

That is why Paul exhorts the Colossians (and us) not to let anyone suggest they are sub-Christian if they choose not to celebrate these festivals or observe the regulations associated with them during the time of the old covenant. Everything they symbolized, everything they foreshadowed, everything they were designed to teach and accomplish has now come to full and final fruition in Jesus!

Is a Christian free to abstain from certain foods and drink? By all means, yes, so long as you do not impose your choice on others or suggest that they have fallen short of what is acceptable to God.

Is a Christian free to observe those religious holy days mentioned in v. 16b? Yes. But not because you think that God, for that reason, now regards you as more holy or more committed or more acceptable than those who do not observe them.

Indeed, if you now have in Christ everything and more that those days were designed to provide, why would you want to observe them? Would not your observance come perilously close to denying that the fulfillment that is in Christ has come? Would not your observance have the potential to undermine enjoyment of who Christ is and what he has accomplished by continually taking you back to the age of shadows and types?

In any case, we would do well to heed Paul's counsel. Beware the legalists! Beware those who pass judgment on spiritual worthiness based on practices and observance that God does not require. What his grace has provided for us in Christ is enough. Period.

Satisfied with the Substance,

Sam