the substance of Christ  /// 2:16-23

the substance of christ

Colossians 2:16-23


“These are a shadow of the things to come, 

but the substance belongs to Christ.”

(Colossians 2:17)



[Begin behind the screen, holding objects up to see if they can guess what it is.]

Tell Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. SHOW VIDEO


Last week we talked about the victory that we have in Christ. He has removed the barrier between us and God by nailing our record of debt (our sins) to the cross – completely canceling it and giving us access to God by disarming, disrobing, and totally wiping the floor with our enemies. And, we defined those enemies. There are essential two enemies of the cross. It will either be religion or irreligion.


Religion, we saw, was the Jewish legal regulations that are actively standing against us. These rules or legal demands can easily point its finger at us and accuse us of every little thing that we have done (or not done) that separates us from God.


Irreligion, we learned, is the opposite of religion. It follows after the gods of Rome. power, wealth, and pleasure. These gods are still alive and far too easily get in our way and create a barrier between us and God. We talked about how so many American Christians naturally pursue the American dream to acquire for themselves as much wealth, power and pleasure as they can.


We concluded last week with an explanation of verse 15 where Jesus puts the rulers and the authorities (or religion and irreligion) to open shame, by triumphing over them in the cross. And since Jesus is the champion. Since he as utterly destroyed these two enemies of the cross we should exhibit victory in our lives over all of those sins and bad habits that we continue to struggle over. If Jesus has disarmed our enemies, if he has totally stripped them bare, then we have nothing to fear – they have no teeth. The battle is his and he has already won. So… if we want victory we must let him fight those battles for us. We will never win by trying harder. We will not obtain victory by white knuckling our moral behavior. We must admit that we can’t do it, only he can – and he already has. We concluded the evening by literally nailing our personal and specific sins to the cross.


Now, with all of that understood, Paul concludes with the word “therefore”. The implication of Christ victory is this: stop clinging to shadows, instead cling to what is real. Stop chasing after the shadows or things that only look real, instead chase after the actual substance of those shadows.


I want to break these verses into 3 sections. First, there or those who will set themselves as judges over you. They want to exclude you because you don’t follow their rules. These judges have a lot of rules, and when you fail at them – they judge and exclude you. And — I am sure that you can imagine exactly what I am talking about. Second, there are also some who seem more like umpires. Umpires who disqualify you from the game – by saying you don’t measure up. “You’re not qualified to run this race, you’re not qualified to fight this fight. You’re not big enough – you’re not fast enough. You’re unqualified.” The umps are too cool for you, and you just don’t measure up because well —  you’re not cool enough. These are the super spiritual who fast, pray, and get visions from God or angels. If you want to be qualified, then you need to do and experience those things. And third, there is Jesus. He is the real tangible substance of it all. So, you can try to please the judges, and you can try to be as cool as the umps, but in the end they are only leading you further away from Christ because those things are just shadows, but he is the real deal that casts those shadows.



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. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17 ESV)


Paul has already said in verse 14 that these legal requirements no longer stand in our way, and so — “therefore” — do not let anyone make themselves your judge in the area of food and drink or in special holy ceremonies or celebrations. Of course it’s obvious that Paul is talking about the Jewish dietary laws. They weren’t allowed to eat pork, they weren’t allowed to eat bacon. Can you imagine that? No bacon! Actually, there was a whole list of foods that were off limits.  They were also required to give up certain kinds of foods and certain kinds of activities on certain kinds of days. In fact there are over 615 specific laws that could fall under this category that Paul is talking about here. Don’t let them judge you because all of those laws are just a shadow of what was to come.


In fact if we look a little further in this text —  go down to verse 21 — Paul says, “They say, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch’ referring to the things that all perish as they are used according to human precepts and teachings.”  In other words they have all these rules about what you’re not allowed to handle (which is the strongest word of the three), and what you’re not allowed to taste, or to put into your mouth, and what you’re not allowed to even touch. When I was growing up I remember this little jingle some folks would quote, “We don’t drink, we don’t chew, and we don’t go with girls who do.” And so, we don’t handle the stuff,  we don’t taste the stuff, and we don’t even touch or associate with those who do.” This is still very true today. In fact, William Barclay says, “The spirit which makes Christianity into something bound to regulations is not yet dead by any means.”


And Paul gets a little feisty – he gets a little sarcastic – when he says, “These things all perish with use.” Or another translation says, “Perish by their very use.” In other words, the very use of it requires it’s distruction. To put it bluntly, Paul is being rather crude because he is saying,  “By very nature of eating something you are destroying it. You are chewing it up, you’re swallowing it and it goes into your digestive tract and turns into something unspeakable and then comes back out of your body and is finally flushed down a drain and it’s destined to become fertilizer.”


Now don’t get mad at me. I didn’t say the “p” word. I’m just telling you what Paul said or better yet, Jesus says it too. Lets look at Matthew 15:1-20. [read it].


And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” (Matthew 15:16-20 ESV)


So – don’t get hung up on all of that. It’s just silly, and they are shadows that pull us from Christ, not toward him. Because Jesus really wants much more for you than to simply obey a check list of do’s and don’ts. He wants your heart. He wants you to have a clean heart, and abstaining from foods, or drinks, or even germs that go into our body – has nothing to do with your heart. All that is silly shadow chasing. We want the heart of the matter- we want the substance – we want the thing that he has to offer which is real.



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, 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. (Colossians 2:18-19 ESV)


Next there are these other guys. I like to call them the umpires, who set the standard way up here. Their judgments are not based on legal observances but  on a particular style of spiritual life. Paul is pretty contemptuous as he mentions their super spirituality which seems heavenly minded and seem super spiritual but it’s in fact bordering on idolatry and they’re disconnected from the head who is Christ.


Paul gives us three descriptions of these super-spiritual umpires. First, they enter into great detail about visions. Literally, they are entering into their own visions.  They have these imaginary fantasies about things they’ve seen. Secondly, there puffed up (with out reason) by a sensuous mind.  Again, Paul is being contemptuous. They have a big head, for no reason, because – there’s nothing there. The word sensuous means of or pertaining to the senses. So they’re having experiences that puff up their head – and Paul adds “without reason” because their experiences are fake. And thirdly, they are out of touch with the head. Which is the most hostile thing he has said yet. Because those who try to judge or disqualify you from not being part of the body are themselves not part of the body.


“The true test of whether or not one belongs to God’s people is neither the observance of dietary laws and Jewish festivals, nor the cultivation of super-spiritual experiences, but whether one belongs to Christ, alive with his life.” (NT Wright, 124)


It’s a spiritual thing. We have been crucified and died and resurrected with Christ into new life. All of that happens from God — so it’s spiritual and you can’t obtain it by following a rule or doing certain steps to obtain the spiritual life. Now, I want to be careful, because I don’t hear Paul saying we should not keep certain laws,  and I do not hear Paul saying that we should not pursue spiritual experiences, what I do you hear Paul saying is that we should not let those people judge us for not keeping certain laws nor disqualify us for not having certain spiritual experiences.


Another way of saying it is – I hear Paul saying do not let those people, who chase after the shadows, judge you for not chasing after the shadows. Instead pursue the substance which is Christ. And that leads us to the last point. Judges exclude, Umpires disqualify, but Jesus raises us to new life.



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—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” …? 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. (Colossians 2:20-23 ESV)


Paul ends this section with the question. If you have died with Christ and resurrected with Christ to a new life – to a body in which he is the head, then why do you submit to the old life? Why do you submit to the old regulations? Why are you still living in the world that is pursuing shadows? He then adds that all of this may indeed have the appearance of wisdom. It really does look like a good idea. It seems right to abstain. It makes sense to long for spiritual experiences. In fact, the original could be translated, “it has the appearance of good reputation.” It looks like a good move. But — it has no value in stopping the indulgences of the flesh.


Did you hear that?  Chasing after externals. Chasing after shadows. Putting your life in a certain order.  Wearing a church mask and faking a set of church rules. Pretending to have certain kinds of experiences.  All of that silliness has no value of controlling your flesh. And you know it. Don’t you?


Why do we play those games?


Our leadership team put together about 10 values – before we launched. These are things that we value as a church and I want to share one of those guys with you right now one of those values is this:


It’s Not a Masquerade Ball
Being vulnerable takes courage. We are real people who believe that being a part of a community is essential to living full life in Christ. We will invest time growing together in an uncommon community. We are real people with real lives and real challenges. We are not perfect and we will live in that reality together.


For us, it is a high priority to put a stop to these games. We want to put a stop to the chasing of shadows which always creates this pretense that we have to pretend that everything is okay. Instead we believe that foster true community will force us to love each other and encourage each other and sharpen each other, with out judgment and with out umpiring. I want to go back up and look at a verse that we sort of glossed over before – verse 19. Paul is talking about these sensuous minded folks who are not connected to the head (which is Christ) of the body (which is the church) and he says specifically:


…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. (Colossians 2:18-19 ESV)


Now the reason I wanted to look at that verse again is because – I think it’s clear what Paul is teaching here. He’s teaching that this growth that comes from God – the substance that were pursuing – is nourished and nit together through its joints and ligaments, and the its there refers to the body, which just so happens to be the church. And so the point is this, now that you’ve been raised with Christ and you are connected to the body of Christ,  which is called the Church, stop pursuing the shadows, stop listening to the judges and the umpires who want to disqualify you and exclude you from the body, but pursue the substance which is Christ.


Incidentally the Greek word for substance is soma which the vast majority of the time is translated body. But here, because of the context, it is translated substance. Some older translations [KJV] actually say, “Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.” So… what does all that mean? Well scholars will tell you that it seems as if Paul is trying to create a double meaning in this passage. The first meaning is “don’t pursue after shadows, don’t pursue after false realities, chase the reality – which is Christ. Don’t pursue the rule to follow but a heart that needs to change. And, at the same time, he’s saying this body which is connected to the head that is Christ is the body of Christ or the church which is a new covenant community that has been set apart in a new age. The old age chased after shadows the new age chases after Jesus. The old age followed external rules in order to appear to be good and holy the new age has been raised with Christ and given a new heart in order to be set apart as holy for God’s purposes.


CONCLUSION: from SHADOWS to substance 

So, if you have died with Christ, then why, as if you have not died with Christ but still alive to the old age, do you submit to shadows? This question could be the perfect question to end the video with. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave illustrates it perfectly I think. If we have seen all of this — if we have tasted new life in Christ, if we have full and victorious life in Christ, then why in the world  — how in the world — could we go back to the puppet shadows?


Jesus doesn’t want you to name the shadows correctly. Jesus wants you to know him fully. Jesus doesn’t want you to not eat bacon, he wants you to eat the bread of life. Jesus doesn’t want you to not drink wine. Jesus wants you to drink the living water. Now we can see clearly how silly the shadows really are?


You could say, “Hey I’ve never murdered anyone.” Yeah, but your you such an angry person! “I’ve never cheated on my wife.” Yeah, but your heart is so full of lust. “I don’t drink wine.” OK, but you sure eat a lot of carbohydrates and cholesterol.

Here’s an idea — stop washing the outside of the cup – stop chasing shadows. Christ is the substance. Chase Jesus. Seek to be more like Jesus. Pursue the heart of the matter.