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Colossians 2:16-17: Are God's Laws Obsolete?

Feb 1, 2011 by United Church of God

Many people assume from Colossians 2:16-17 that Paul is saying that God's laws about the Sabbath, Holy Days and clean and unclean meats are no longer necessary.
“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 . . .” he wrote (KJV). Let’s examine these verses’ context and historic setting to see if they support that view.

Did Paul intend to say that God’s laws are abolished? If so, we find some immediate problems. If this is what he meant, it’s difficult to explain why he left the issue so muddled by not clearly stating that these practices were unnecessary. After all, the Colossian church was primarily gentile (Colossians 2:13), so Paul could have used this epistle to make it plain that these practices were not binding on Christians.

However, Paul nowhere said that. Instead, regarding the practices of festivals, new moons and Sabbaths, he said only to “let no one judge you,” which is quite different from saying these practices are unnecessary or obsolete.

A more basic question to ask is whether Old Testament practices were even at the core of what Paul was addressing here. Was Paul even discussing whether Christians should keep the laws regarding clean and unclean meats, the biblical festivals, the weekly Sabbath or any other Old Testament laws?

When we read the rest of this chapter, it quickly becomes obvious that other issues were involved. Among these were “principalities and powers” (Colossians 2:15), “false humility and worship of angels” (verse 18), ascetic rules forbidding to touch, taste and handle (Colossians 2:21) and “neglect of the body” (Colossians 2:23).

Further, Paul referred to the false teachings in Colosse as rooted in “persuasive words” (Colossians 2:4), “philosophy and empty deceit” and “the tradition of men” (verse 8). He also referred to submitting to “regulations” of this world (Colossians 2:20) and “the commandments and doctrines of men” (Colossians 2:22).

Could Paul, who in Romans 7:12 described God’s law as “holy and just and good,” possibly be referring to the same law here, or is he addressing something entirely different?

When we consider the historical context, the answer becomes clear. As the Church expanded from the Holy Land into pagan areas such as Asia Minor, Italy and Greece, it had to deal with pagan philosophies, some with very ascetic beliefs. These influences are particularly noticeable in the writings of Paul, Peter and John.

Some of these philosophies overlapped in the idea that spirit is good while matter is evil. The physical body, consisting of matter, was considered evil. And since the body was evil, it was to be treated harshly.

The Colossian Christians were being judged by a worldly philosophy for how they observed festivals, new moons and Sabbaths—which they apparently did in a joyous and festive manner. The Colossians celebrated these days in a manner that was entirely contrary to the ascetic approach of self-denial. They understood that the Sabbaths and annual festivals are clearly commanded in the Old Testament. (New moons, it should be noted, were used as the biblical markers of time but never declared to be sacred Sabbaths, nor are they listed among the annual sacred festivals.)

By cautioning the Colossian members not to let others judge them for how they observed these times, Paul didn’t question whether they should be kept. The obvious implication of these verses is that these gentile Christians were in fact observing these days, and in no way did Paul tell them to desist.

Instead, the issue he addressed is that Christians should not let others judge them by misguided ascetic standards concerning what they ate or drank or how they observed the Sabbaths or festivals (verse 16).

Colossians 2 is actually a condemnation of ascetic human philosophy, not a discussion of which laws are binding for Christians!

United Church of God, an International Association
Used with permission.

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