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 to them 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. God had brought them to life.
“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 His body.” (7-9)
These elementary principles all come back to one thing: I can save myself. I am good enough. Paul goes on to say that God, through Christ has triumphed over every force (spiritual or physical) that would tell you that you can save yourself and publicly displayed their ineffectiveness and Christ’s effectiveness.
“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. Some false teachers wanted them to go back to the world’s “elementary principles” that would keep them in a spiritual cave. So 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.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)
Let’s put some context to this discussion.
The Jewish converts had been raised on the book of Leviticus, a book about how sin may be put away. It gives different types of laws to avoid sin (ceremonial, moral, civil, dietary); it provides five offerings to make up for all the times they still sinned anyway. There were feasts and festivals (some associated with the New Moon) and a temple full of symbolic things and activities. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that the "types" are but the “shadow of good things to come.”(Hebrews 10:1) – specifically, Christ.*
It pointed toward the real thing. It was meant to give hope. It represented something greater in a way that served as a promise: So it’s not that shadows are bad – in fact, people need to be faithful to God if they felt that strictly adhering to these customs were important for their spiritual growth and maturity:
“There may be a believer who regards one day as more sacred than any other, while another views every day as sacred as the next. In these matters, all must reach their own conclusions and satisfy their own minds. If someone observes a day as holy, he observes it in honor of the Lord. If another eats a particular diet, he eats in honor of the Lord since he begins by giving thanks! If yet another abstains from that same food, he abstains out of respect for the Lord and begins his meal by thanking God too.” Romans 14:5-6
So there is a way to honor the Lord with these observances. But a "shadow" is an out-of-proportion, 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 rob us of the ability to be fully united with Christ, and as a result be denied the fullness of the new life and freedom he has given us. These two shadows are moralism and mysticism.
- Morality is a good thing, but Moralism says, “If I do, I can be good enough.” It detaches us from Christ because we are trying to harness our own desires: that is, to live lives of holiness and purity on own power.
- Supernatural experiences are a good thing, but Mysticism says, “If I experience enough, I will be good enough.” Both are shadows that will detach you from Christ.
If you are content with either of these approaches to God, you will either become proud or be driven to despair. With these two categories in mind, let's look at the breakdown of shadowy problems in the CO
“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 grow kids God’s Way… I only listen to Christian music and read Christian books…I only watch movies rated PG or less…”
None of those things are bad in themselves. If God convicts you that in your life this is important, honor Him with your obedience. That’s an important part of God’s work in your life. But if they become the standard by which you think you 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 I can be in control of my holiness and goodness – I can manage my life 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. When you do well, you will become proud and sit in judgment of those who don’t do what you do. When you fail, you will despair because you believe God and everyone else thinks you are a terrible person.
“Festivals, feasts, moons and days”
In the OT, it clearly mattered to God whether or not his people did this with sincerity. Many times, the prophets warned of God’s anger and frustration at how callous, shallow, hypocritical of forgetful his people had become. There was an understanding that honoring the festivals and feasts pleased God and brought reward, and dishonoring them displeased God and brought punishment (often in the sense of, ”If you don’t honor my presence, I will remove my presence.”) Conclusion? Faithful observance make me a good, holy person. Once again, the problem is not in the holiday or festival; it was that they were just shadow pointing to the reality of Christ, and the people had made them the most important thing.
We aren’t Jewish, so we don’t observe the Feast of Trumpets, for example. What do we do instead? We have Sundays, Christmas, Easter, the National Day of Prayer, The March for Life, 40 Days of Purpose, Prayer Circles, Blood Moons, 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, none of those things are bad. 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? Are they Laodiceans?). When you fail, you will despair because you believe you have let God down, and now you are in trouble – so you try even harder the next time to do even more.
“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.
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. If you have a genuine supernatural encounter with God, that’s an important part of God’s work in your life. But if they become the standard by which you gauge if you are doing things right or getting to know God, this is mysticism, and you are worshipping the shadow rather than the One who casts it.
Here, I think, is a good rule of thumb: When the story deflects glory, drop the story. If people give a message so that others will follow them and not the One who is the point of the message, that is precisely the kind of person you should not follow.
The pursuit of or fascination with angels and visions will take you captive – nothing else will matter as much as your experiences. If something glorious happens, you will become proud and sit in judgment of those who don’t have the connection with God that you do. 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.
Do you see what is happening here? If we live in such a way that we mistake shadows for the real thing, we are disconnected from Christ and we can’t grow. We will long for the fullness of life with Christ, but we will never find genuine peace, joy, love, hope, contentment. We will never understand genuine grace, or forgiveness, or worth, because we sought them in the shadow of the One who offers them. 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, enmeshed with Christ, who is in God.” (Colossians 3:1-3)
It's a huge worldview shift. In the next post in this series, we are going to look more closely at what Paul means by the realities of the Kingdom of Heaven.
* Some examples of the types and shadows in the OT that point toward Christ:
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.
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)
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. 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)