Plato told a story in which people are trapped in a cave, watching shadows on a cave wall and thinking it’s reality. Occasionally, some of them recognize the shadows for what they are and leave the cave, entering into the sunlight of Truth and experiencing Reality for themselves. It might surprise you to know that the Apostle Paul tells a very similar story.
The Colossian church had a problem with living in the shadows. Paul started out his letter by stressing the preeminence of Christ in everything, then noted how glad he was that the Colossians were rooted in and built on Christ, because He was the source of all that mattered.
“Be strong in the faith, just as you were taught, and always spill over with thankfulness. Make sure no one deceives you through some misleading philosophy and empty deception based on traditions fabricated by mere mortals. These are sourced in the elementary principles originating in this world and not in Christ. You see, all that is God, all His fullness, resides in Christ.” (7-9)
Paul goes on to say that God, through Christ, has beaten all the principalities and powers – that is, every spiritual or supernatural force - and publicly displayed their ineffectiveness and Christ’s effectiveness. Then he adds:
“It was God who brought us to life with Him, forgave all our sins, and eliminated the massive debt we incurred by the law that stood against us. He took it all away; He nailed it to the cross. He disarmed those who once ruled over us—those who had overpowered us. Like captives of war, He put them on display to the world to show His victory over them by means of the cross.
But here comes the problem. There are those who want them to rob them of the freedom Christ has offered. There are those who want them to go back to the world’s “elementary principles” that will keep them in a spiritual cave. And Paul tells them what this will look like:
Don’t let anyone stand in judgment over you and dictate what you should eat or drink, what festivals and feasts you should celebrate, or how you should observe a new moon or Sabbath days— all these are only a shadow of what shall come.* The reality, the core, the import, is found in Christ. Don’t be cheated out of the prize by others who are peddling the worship of heavenly beings and false humility.[i] People like this run about telling whoever will listen what they claim to have seen; but in reality they testify only to an inflated mind, saturated in conceit—not in the Spirit. They are detached from the very head (Christ) that nourishes and connects the whole body (of Christians) with all of its nerves and ligaments, a body that grows by the kind of growth that can only come from God. Listen, if you have died with Christ to the world’s legalistic ordinances, then why are you submitting yourselves to its rules as if you still belonged to this world? You hear, “Don’t handle this! Don’t taste that! Don’t even touch it!” but everything they are obsessed about will eventually decay with use. These rules are just human commands and teachings. They may seem wise, but they are promoting self-imposed forms of worship, self-humiliation, and bodily abuse. No matter which way they try to tether their bodies, they cannot harness their desires. (Colossians 2:13-23)
Shadows aren’t bad things in and of themselves, because they point toward the real thing. In a drought, you want to see the shadow of clouds across the land. On a hot day, you want to see the shadow of a tree. But those don’t exist without the cloud or the tree; we would be foolish to exalt the shadow and ignore that which cast it.
The same it true of spiritual realities. The Old Testament was full of shadows: the Law; various people whose lives we now see as in some ways prophetically revealing of God; the promise of physical blessing to Israel that pointed toward spiritual blessing in Christ.
One could argue that even the pagan cultures had shadows. Tolkien and Lewis were fond of pointing out how fictional myths of the gods captured our greatest fears, longings and desires. They were stories we made up about what we feared or longed to be true. In Jesus, all the deepest human longings and hopes were fulfilled truly and ultimately in history in a real world in a real way.
So shadows aren’t bad things. They point us toward the Shadow Caster. But a "shadow" is an imperfect representation of the thing it reveals. Problems arise when people mistake the shadows for the Real Thing.
Paul identifies two ways of “staying in the shadows” that can rob us of our prize: that is, rob us of 1) fullness of the new life and freedom he has given us in this life, and 2) our heavenly reward. I’m going to address two shadows in this passage that Tim Keller calls moralism and mysticism.
“What you eat and drink”
This refers to Old Testament laws that focused on diet and hygiene. The problem was not in the regulations; it was that this physical “clean” was only a shadow of the genuine spiritual “clean” that Christ gives to us. For us, it’s probably not “Don’t go to Red Lobster or eat bacon.” It’s probably more along the lines of, “I don’t have a TV… I only listen to Christian music and read Christian books… I don’t shop at certain stores.”
None of those things are bad in themselves. If God convicts you that in your life this is important, honor Him with your obedience. But if they become the standard by which you think you or others can become clean enough for God, that’s moralism, and you’re in trouble. This is still a version of “Don't Handle, Taste or Touch!” which come from the idea that if I just try hard enough that I can be clean enough for God.
Eventually, nothing else will matter as much as your self-imposed regulations of what it means to be good enough, and you will constantly be looking for all the ways in which you are currently failing as well as how you are succeeding. If you do well, you will tend to become proud and sit in judgment of those who don’t do what you do. When you fail, you will tend toward despair because you believe God and everyone else thinks you are a terrible person.
“Festivals, feasts, moons and days”
There was an understanding that honoring the festivals and feasts pleased God and brought reward, and dishonoring them displeased God and brought punishment. Their conclusion? Faithful observance made them good, holy people. Once again, the problem was not in the holiday or festival or in obedience; it was that they were just shadow pointing to the reality of Christ, and the people had made them the most important thing.
What do we do? We have Sundays, Christmas, Easter, the National Day of Prayer, The March for Life, 40 Days of Purpose, Prayer Circles, and every big push in Christian circles that is promoted as being the crucial thing that will bring God’s blessing if we just observe them properly.
Once again, if God convicts you that in your life it is important that you observe any or all these things in a particular way, then by all means do so. That’s an important part of God’s work in your life. But if they become the standard by which you attempt to honor God and therefore earn his blessing, that’s moralism, and you’re in trouble.
When you do well, you will become proud and sit in judgment of those who aren’t as committed to the cause (“Are they embarrassed of Christ? Don’t they care like I do?) When you fail, you will despair because you believe you have let God down, and now you are in trouble, and probably everybody else around you thinks of you as a failure – so you try even harder the next time to do even more.
Here, I think, is a good question to ask in relation to the quest to do the right things: Is doing good things about honoring God or elevating the person?
- Is my self-control about my work or the fruit of the Holy Spirit in me?
- Am I doing this to be good or as an act of worship to honor the God I serve?
- Do I need to be noticed?
- Am I more interested in behavior modification or heart transformation? (Do I want to ‘surrender my desires’ or merely ‘tether my body’?)
- When I tell my testimony about a changed life, does Jesus increase while I decrease? Do people go away talking about me or Jesus?
- When I look at others, do I try to see what God is doing in them or settle for what they are doing for God?
“Worship of Heavenly Beings/False Humility”
Some of the Jews thought angels were intermediaries between God and men. Other sects actually tried to be an angelic presence on earth. There was a desire to know more about God, but they got so enamored with the messenger that they forgot the message. They began to believe that superior knowledge and experiences made them important. What should have fostered a desire for others to know and experience God instead became a desire to be known and seen for their experience.
And to make it worse, they expressed false humility. Elliot’s Commentary explains it well:
“Humility is a grace, and is unconsciousness, and cannot live except by resting on some more positive quality, such as faith or love. Whenever it is consciously cultivated and “delighted in,” it loses all its grace; it becomes either “the pride that apes humility,” or it turns to abject slavishness and meanness. Of such depravations Church history is unhappily full.”
There are still people and groups in Christianity that put a lot of stock in those who convey information about visits with angels, or being caught up into heaven, or having supernatural encounters in which they spend time with really important people and are given crucial insights, or even simply having overwhelming ecstatic experiences.
If you have a genuine supernatural encounter with God, that’s an important part of God’s work in your life. But if those moments become the standard by which you gauge if you are doing things right or getting to know God, or if your experience becomes the measure by which everyone else’s walk with God is judged, you are giving in to mysticism, and you are in danger of worshipping the shadow rather than the One who casts it.
The pursuit of or fascination with angels and visions will take you captive when nothing else matters as much as your experiences. If something glorious happens, you will tend become proud and sit in judgment of those who don’t have the connection with God that you do. Sometimes people even feel pressured to lie about what they’ve experienced. When you don’t have them, you will despair because you believe something is terribly wrong with you, and you will become increasingly radical in what you will do to recapture the experience.
Here, I think, is a good question to ask in relation to genuine supernatural encounters with God: When I think or talk about it, who increases: me or Jesus? Does what happened cause people to think about me or Jesus? Does my story of emotional rapture cause people to think about me or Jesus? Does my testimony of healing cause people to think about me or Jesus? Does my miraculous conversion story cause people to think about me or Jesus?
- I wonder if this was why Paul wouldn’t talk about being caught up into heaven, and why in his epistles he never talked about raising a young man from the dead (maybe because his sermon killed him, I don’t know J (Acts 20:9-12)
- Paul and Barnabas were mistaken for Zeus and Hermes. I think I would probably love to tell that story if someone thought I was a god. Paul never talks about it.
- Peter heals the lame (Acts 3) and paralyzed Acts 9), gets visions from God (Acts 10), and raises a woman from the dead (Acts 9). People tried to position the sick so his shadow would fall on them (Acts 5) – and Peter never talks about it in his New Testament writings.
What they experienced brought them closer to Jesus, and what they did pointed others toward Jesus. We don’t read that they continued to pursue a replication of those things. They just faithfully did what God put in front of them to do. I wonder if that’s why Paul wrote, “Forgetting what lies behind, I press on…” In the context of that verse he was not talking about hardship or failure. He was talking about success (Philippians 3).
The Law is a good thing - it is a ‘schoolteacher’ to show us how God has designed us to live – but it is a shadow of the Lawgiver who fulfilled it. We can settle for trying to ‘tether our bodies’ when what Jesus offers is a transformation of our desires that will transform our hearts (and our bodies will follow). We will never find the freedom to flourish in God’s Kingdom through behavior modification. Because of Jesus, we are freed from the bondage of perfect living on our own power and drawn into righteous living through the power of God.
Supernatural experiences are a good thing – they reveal the reality of “God with us” – but the experiences are a shadow of the One being experienced. We are free to simply pursue Jesus, and allow God to decide if, when, and how He will reveal Himself in a miraculous way.
So what is Paul’s solution?
“So it comes down to this: since you have been raised with Christ, set your mind on the realities of the Kingdom of Heaven, where Christ is seated at God’s right hand. Stay focused on what’s above, not on earthly things, because your old life is dead and gone. Your new life is now hidden in and enmeshed with Christ, who is in God.” (Colossians 3:1-3)
But we will talk more about that next week...
* Some examples of the types and shadows in the OT that point toward Christ:
Feast of Unleavened Bread – holiness: "Purge out therefore the 'old leaven' that ye may be a 'new lump,' as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the Feast, not with 'old leaven,' neither with the 'leaven of malice and wickedness.' but with the 'unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.'" 1 Cor. 5:7,8.
The Law: “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming--not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.” (Hebrews 10:1)
The Temple: “The priests serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven.” (Hebrews 8:5)
Offerings: “In the first covenant, every day every officiating priest stands at his post serving, offering over and over those same sacrifices that can never take away sin. 12 But after He stepped up to offer His single sacrifice for sins for all time, He sat down in the position of honor at the right hand of God.” (Hebrews 10:11-12)
 Read up on the New Apostolic Reformation. The book God's Super Apostles: Encountering The Worldwide Apostles And Prophets Movement is a good place to start. Tim Challies offers a good review/overview of the book.
[i] An unusual word that appears to reference athletes who won the Games, then had their rightful reward taken away.
[ii] “It might seem strange that on the rigid monotheism of Judaism this incongruous creature-worship should have been engrafted. But here also the link is easily supplied. The worship of the angels of which the Essenic system bore traces, was excused on the ground that the Law had been given through the “ministration of angels” (see Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19), and that the tutelary guardianship of angels had been revealed in the later prophecy. (See Daniel 10:10-21.) For this reason it was held that angels might be worshipped, probably with the same subtle distinctions between this and that kind of worship with which we are familiar in the ordinary pleas for the veneration of saints. It has been noticed that in the Council of Laodicea, held in the fourth century, several canons were passed against Judaising, and that in close connection with these it was forbidden “to leave the Church of God and go away to invoke angels”; and we are told by Theodoret (in the next century) that “oratories to St. Michael (the ‘prince’ of the Jewish people) were still to be seen.” The “angels” in this half-Jewish system held the same intermediate position between the Divine and the human which in the ordinary Gnostic theories was held by the less personal Æons, or supposed emanations from the Godhead.” - Elliiot’s Commentary