Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. (Col 2:16-17 // NASB95)
I’ve seen this passage used quite a number of times to support several conclusions: (1) that the ceremonial portion of the Law were a type that pointed to Christ (the anti-type) and therefore should not be followed anymore—whereas the moral portions should be followed; (2) that the Torah was integral to pointing to Christ so that a person currently has the freedom to keep it (yes, including the ceremonial portions) as long as they do so in respect to Christ; and (3), that all those things that belonged to Israel (law, tabernacle, priesthood) were shadows that now belong to the body of Christ, the Church, to be used by her as she sees fit. Obviously some disagreement on to what should be done with the shadows in Colossians 2—but they are in agreement that the shadows are the things from the past. I deny all three positions.
The general thinking that backs the idea that Paul is speaking about the ceremonial laws being types doesn’t come from Colossians 2 but actually from Hebrews 8 and Hebrews 10. Noting that all three passages are speaking about shadows (skia), they transport the meaning from two into Colossians. Some have even argued that since the word skia (shadow) comes up in all of these portions then we are justified in assuming they’re speaking about the same thing.
But skia doesn’t only occur in these three passages.
For example, Christ leaves Nazareth and settles in Capernaum and Matthew 4:16 says that this happened to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah: that the people who were sitting in darkness, in the land under the shadow of death, saw a great light that dawned in the Land of Zebulan and the Land of Naphtali, and beyond Jordan, and Galilee of the Gentiles. Now someone may want to argue that this passage is speaking typologically, but the point here is that skia is being used as a metaphor—not a type.
In Mark 4:32 Christ uses skia to refer to the shade of a large tree where all the birds of the air nestle. Now, here he wasn’t speaking about the shadow as a type; he was speaking about the cooling coverage that the tree provides for the birds and the whole story was analogous to something else.
In Acts 5:15 we have people carrying their sick out in the street so that when Peter walks by his skia (shadow) would fall upon them and here we know that they weren’t waiting for something that pointed to Peter; they saw how Peter was being used and hoped that even his shadow would do something.
Each of these portions use other words to modify in what sense skia is being used. So for example, in Acts 5:15 we see the word episkiazo being used, which means fall or overshadow. In Mark 4:32 the birds kataskanoun, or encamp there, giving us a locale where the shadow dwells. In Matthew 4:16, the parallelism has skotia (darkness) on the first line, being affected by phos (light) followed by a second line where those in the land of skia are also affected by anatello (dawning) light. The equation is obvious.
Similarly, if you hop up to the Hebrews 10:1 you’ll discover a contrast: the skia (shadow) of good things to come was not the very form (eikon) of things: the shadow wasn’t the representation…they weren’t enough; the writer goes on to say. In Hebrew 8:5 the author says that previous things were hupodeigma (copies) and skia (shadows) and he substantiates it by quoting Moses who built things according to the tupikos (type, example, pattern) of what Moses had seen on the mountain. In both these passages the skia is modified to mean something that prefigures or typifies something coming later on.
Colossians 2 does a similar thing but not with tupikos or even hupodeigma but with soma (body) so that the King James version literally translates it as:
Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.
Other translations try to clear up the problem here by clarifying the phrase (NASB: the substance belongs to Christ // ESV: The reality, however, is found in Christ // NET: but the reality is Christ). So the example here isn’t so much type versus antitype; it is a shadow versus body. That starts moving us out of all three positions, but not quite yet.
Contextually, these shadows here are doing completely different things from the shadows in Hebrews 8,10
The Colossian heresy (whatever it was) consisted of a teaching (Col 2:8) which made believers look for a solution to the flesh outside of Christ (Col 2:4)—be it with angels or rules, whatever. As a corrective Paul points out that there aren’t treasures of wisdom and knowledge found anywhere else but in Christ (Col 2:3), that Christ is altogether God (Col 2:9); that they’ve been firmly planted in Christ to grow in Christ (Col 2:7); that they’ve been made complete in Christ (Col 2:10); and that God has worked miraculously on their behalf. Not only has he done something they couldn’t do (identified them in Christ’s cutting off of the flesh, identified them in Christ’s burial, identified them in Christ’s resurrection—Col 2:11-12), he forgave them while they were in their sins (Col 2:13) and he cancelled the bill that was against them by nailing it to the cross (Col 2:14) and taking away the power of all authorities, he made a public joke by parading them about (Col 2:15), powerless and weak.
It is in this context that Paul says that the commands with authority of do not touch, do not taste, keep this feast, keep that feast are things that have no bearing—they are useless. More than that, he says not only are they useless they are empty practices that have the appearance of being religious but ultimately does nothing with their flesh problem (Col 2:24)
Paul’s point in showing the completeness of what God has done makes following everything else not only problematic, but (almost) laughable. It’s like watching someone who is thirsty drinking deep from an empty bucket—there’s no way that their thirst will be satisfied. It’s like submitting to the power of a conquered king while he’s walking around denuded and cuffed. It’s like talking to a shadow and expecting answers when shadows cast on the wall only when someone is turning the corner.
These shadows are then not types at all—they’re the useless and substanceless processes and procedures that have no bearing since Christ has conquered decisively. Like a shadow has no substance, life or benefit; these things are the same; the most they can do is say “we were beaten.”
But the body is Christ’s doesn’t point to the purpose of the shadows but to what a real body consists of: it has a substance, you can feel it, it is complete, it is active, it has a real affect on surroundings, it can be spoken to, it can interact with a person. It is real. But since this body is Christ’s body—not his Church—the body which was cut off, buried and raised again by the power of God (which was incarnated in Christ) this fullness is decisively and infinitely superior. There is no going anywhere else but to Christ, who is the authority and the life-blood.
From this end of things it’s real easy, therefore, to see why Paul calls any other man-centered thought-structure an empty lie (Col 2:8).
So against (1), this shadow isn’t the ceremonial portion of the law allowing the other portions of the law to stand. No, as Paul says in Colossians 3, seek the things above where Christ is seated—if you were raised with Him (and therefore seated with Him Eph 2)—nothing else. Believers have already triumphed and are awaiting the denouement. Against (2), this shadow isn’t given proper direction by being practiced under Christ because believers already have Christ and seeking some hidden wisdom and knowledge in religiosity is ultimately pointless contributions to the flesh to combat the flesh (Col 2:24). If we are raised in Christ (Col 3:1) then we must keep seeking after Christ in all things. And against (3), these shadows aren’t things that have been conquered by Christ’s body (the Church) to be used how she wills. No, in the context of Colossians 2 Christ is victor and there is nothing that the believer can do to find a source of completeness beyond Christ Himself. Adding because of some preconceived idea of authority denies the completeness of Christ’s victory for the sake of His conveyed authority. The Godhead is not so divided; neither should His victory.