What about Colossians 2:16?

Colossians 2 is about man-made rules, not God's Torah.

A follower on Twitter asked me about Colossians 2:16 last week.

I’m including the rest of the chapter here for context:

16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.

20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

Does Colossians 2 Cancel the Torah?

Does this mean all of God’s commandments about food and drink, sabbaths and feast days, etc., have been nullified? Not unless you think God’s instructions are “elemental spirits of the world”, “human precepts and teachings”, and “self-made religion” with only “an appearance of wisdom”. Certainly many atheists would agree with that, but I don’t see how anyone who accepts the Bible as authoritative could.

Have you heard the phrase “Torah terrorist”? It jokingly refers to someone who is always telling other people they’re doing it wrong. Paul was saying, “Don’t let people condemn you for not eating, drinking, or keeping a feast day in exactly the way they think it should be done. It’s okay if you don’t do everything exactly right or if you disagree with someone else about the details of what’s good for food and what isn’t.”

Paul was addressing two categories of erroneous teaching:

  1. The elevation of the forms of religion over the substance. See verse 17. For example, many people were teaching that new converts must be circumcised in order to be considered truly saved. There is NO commandment in Torah for a grown man to be circumcised in order to be considered an Israelite. You can’t eat the Passover unless you are circumcised, but otherwise, the only commandment is to circumcise newborn boys on the 8th day.

    This is directly related to the ruling of the Jerusalem Council in the Book of Acts. New converts shouldn’t be expected to keep the whole Torah perfectly, let alone all of the man-made rules that we have added to Torah. Start with the basics and learn the rest as you go, not letting anyone condemn you for the things you haven’t mastered yet.
  2. The elevation of man-made tradition over God-given instruction, whether it be Christian, Jewish, or pagan. As an example, consider the rabbinic rule against eating dairy and meat together. Some people will say you are sinning if you eat a cheeseburger, but this is based only on the opinion of some rabbis, not on what the Torah actually says.

    Other examples would be the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, mandatory attendance at church, the celebration of Easter, etc. These are man-made traditions with little or no foundation in Scripture, yet many will insist you can’t possibly be a Christian or a Jew unless you follow the Pope or the rabbis or your local pastor instead of the clear commandments of God.

Don’t let those people pile their rules on your shoulders as if you are beholden to their weak consciences. Their rules, no matter how wise they sound, are not even a “shadow of the things to come”, but only a shadow of their own minds.

And don’t let people condemn you for being imperfect. God knows we all sin. We all fall short. I think him all the time that my salvation does not depend on my perfect obedience, but on my repentance and on his grace to forgive.

Live in peace with those people as much as you can, but don’t let them poison your relationship with the Father, with Yeshua, or with your fellow believers.

Sabbath-Honoring Labor

 And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other.

But if you had known what this is, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” you would not have condemned those who are not guilty.
Matthew 12:7

“Master, which is the great commandment in the Law?”
Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Matthew 22:36-39

Yeshua plainly refuted the idea that there is no hierarchy or precedence within God’s law. There are greater commandments and lesser commandments. Some laws must be held higher than others in order to resolve apparent conflicts such as healing or feeding the poor on the Sabbath.

Most Christian theologians divide the law into two or three parts (civil, moral, and ceremonial), and they usually dismiss the ceremonial as irrelevant to life after the cross. That division is incorrect and does a great deal of harm. It would be much better to divide the law the same way that Yeshua did: by beneficiary. All of God’s laws have a beneficiary, and usually more than one: Self, Others, or God.

Keeping the Sabbath benefits all three.

It honors God, strengthens the community, ensures a day of rest for even the lowest laborer, but keeping the Sabbath is also self-serving. It gives you an excuse to say no.

  • No, sorry, I can’t help you move on Saturday.
  • No, I can’t come into the office on Saturday.
  • Sorry, I have an appointment at 7 tonight.

There is nothing wrong with that. God gave us all of the law for our own benefit. For many people, especially in a society that doesn’t recognize God’s appointed times, it is a vital opportunity to say no without causing hard feelings.

Other laws are aimed at the benefit of others and take precedence over the former. “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years. And in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.” A slave owner is required to care for the physical and spiritual welfare of the slave.

Like the Sabbath, the laws governing Hebrew slavery fit all three categories: They honor God by honoring his image and his chosen people. They benefit the slave owner by ensuring the good will of his slaves and the health of his community. However, the slave reaps the greatest benefit. His servitude was limited in duration, scope, and rigor. He is assured generous compensation for his service. In fact, if he sold himself into slavery, he will be paid at least twice, three times if he has a God-fearing master: first when he sold himself, second during the course of his service, and third when he is released.

There are some laws that appear to benefit only God, but we must be especially careful with those, because their purpose is often obscure. Sometimes they seem like empty ritual, and it’s easy to let them slide. Sometimes we can only guess at the purpose of these commands, but it’s an illusion that they are only for God’s benefit.

Every commandment that God has given also benefits the law-keeper, his family, and his community. “You shall have no other gods before me,” for example. Worshipping other gods is a waste of effort and invites sickness and disaster, but primarily we worship only one God because that is what he wants.

Sacrifice is another example. Blood sacrifices were never about satisfying God’s blood lust, for he has none. Like Yeshua’s sacrifice, the sacrifice of animals was to bring us closer to God. Hence, blood sacrifice is mostly for the benefit of the one bringing it. “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” God said, but we need both.

If you encounter an apparent conflict in obeying God’s laws, he has already given us the standard which we are to follow. Choose the path which honors God first, then that which honors others, and finally that which honors ourselves.

When you aren’t sure, choose life. All of God’s instructions are designed to restore us to right, healthy relationship with both God and man. Therefore, Christians and Jews alike consider those who save and restore lives to be exempt from the strictest interpretation of the Sabbath.

To heal on the Sabbath is to keep it, even if such healing requires great physical exertion.

Every Journey Begins with a Single…Day?

He said to them, “This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD; bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over lay aside to be kept till the morning.’” So they laid it aside till the morning, as Moses commanded them, and it did not stink, and there were no worms in it. Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath, there will be none.” On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. And the LORD said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws? See! The LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.” So the people rested on the seventh day.
Exodus 16:23-30

Before Israel arrived at Sinai, before God had spoken a single word from the mountain top or carved a single letter on the stone tablets, he said, “How long do you refuse to keep my mitzvot and torah?” God expected Israel to obey his laws, specifically the Sabbath in this case, before he had a covenant with them, before Sinai.

Before that, God commended Abraham for heeding his call, keeping his charge, his commandments (mitzvot), his statutes (khukot), and his laws (torot). Most people interpret that to mean the seven Noahide laws, but Noah certainly had more laws than those.* How else would he know what animals were clean and unclean? God’s Law (also known as the Torah) existed from the beginning. How else did Abel know what kind of animal to sacrifice, and how should Cain have known that his sacrifice would be unacceptable? How did Judah know about Levirate marriage?

God’s laws are eternal and not tied exclusively to any particular covenant, although they are included as terms of the covenant with Israel at Sinai. When you enter your neighbor’s house, he expects you to observe the rules of his house: don’t play football in the living room, don’t put your feet on the furniture, don’t open the refrigerator without an invitation, etc. This doesn’t mean that he invented those rules the moment you walked in the door. They were always the rules of his house because they are a part of his character. He doesn’t have anything against your shoes in particular; he just doesn’t like it when people put their shoes on his sofa. God’s laws are the same; they are a reflection of his character. They differ from our own because where our personal rules evolve with our character over time, God’s do not. One can make a case (a very weak case, in my opinion) that God invented the laws concerning tabernacle rituals and the Levitical priesthood arbitrarily or only for the specific nature of the Israelites, but one cannot make the same case regarding Sabbath, animals that are acceptable for food and sacrifice, acceptable and unacceptable relationships, and behavior toward your neighbors. God’s standards in those matters all clearly existed before Sinai and will continue to exist so long as heaven and earth remain.

There are passages in the Apostolic scriptures that appear at first reading to disagree, especially the writings of Paul: Romans, Galatians, Colossians, etc. When I tell people that I believe we should keep the Torah, they quote these scriptures to me as if they think I haven’t read them before. The bare truth is that most of those people never got passed a Sunday School level of Scriptural understanding. Torah contains the key to advancing that understanding if they would be willing to examine it a little more closely.

First, it lays out its dualistic nature.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live. Deuteronomy 30:19

Torah is both a law of life and a law of death. It’s both, depending only on how you use it. If you keep it, trusting in God’s grace to cover our flaws and inevitable failures, you keep a law of life and liberty. If you refuse to keep it, whether by trusting in your own power to keep it or by simply refusing to even try, you will instead be yoked under a law of sin and death.

Second, Torah states unequivocally that nobody is authorized to change it in any way.

And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you. You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you. Deuteronomy 4:1-2

It doesn’t get much plainer than that. The orthodox Christian view of the Bible for almost 2000 years is that it must agree with itself. No part of the Bible contradicts another part, and the clear passages must be used to understand the less clear. In various places, Jesus, James, Peter, and Paul all reiterate the point of Deuteronomy 4:2 in fairly unambiguous terms. Take Jesus’ words in Matthew 5, for example:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17-19

And Paul’s in Romans 3:

Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. Romans 3:31

We must think very carefully about those passages that appear to be teaching in direct contradiction to the words of Moses, Jesus, and Paul, resisting the urge to interpret them in a way that makes large portions of the Scriptures to be meaningless or worse: lies.

One rule of thumb that seems nearly self-evident is that the more time and text God spends on any particular subject, the more important it probably is to him. Using this rule, mankind’s obedience to the commandments must be among God’s top two or three priorities. Among the commandments, some appear to be more important than others.

  • Love God.
  • Love your neighbor.
  • Keep the Sabbath.

Among others.

To get back to the Sabbath, judging by the amount of text devoted to the topic, God cares very deeply about it, whether we understand why or not. It was among the first rules that God gave to Israel after they left Egypt, and He said that it will always be a special sign of God’s people. Keeping it on the seventh day as God commanded can be difficult at times in a culture that doesn’t cooperate–not difficult in the sense that it’s laborious, but in that lifelong habits are difficult to change and the rest of the world won’t rearrange its schedule to accommodate you. But I assure you that making a concerted effort to keep a seventh day Sabbath will be worth the inconvenience.

If you are unsure about whether or how much of God’s Torah you should keep, consider starting with the Sabbath. Don’t worry about getting it perfect and don’t worry about all of the complex rules that the rabbis have piled onto the simple day of rest that God prescribed. If you haven’t done it before, just start with this: between sunset on Friday and sunset on Saturday, don’t do anything that feels like work to you. If there is something you feel that you must do, relax about it. Don’t get yourself fired from your job or put anyone in danger, but take it slow and easy. After you’ve done this for a few weeks, come back to the blog and let me know how it’s going.

A holy Sabbath unto the Lord.

* Although based on Biblical principles, the Seven Noachide Laws are a man-made code imposed on the Biblical text. They were probably not codified until thousands of years after the Flood.