Are All Spiritual 'Shadows' Obsolete?

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Are All Spiritual 'Shadows' Obsolete?

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When you go for a walk on a sunny day and you glance down at the ground, what do you see? You see a shadow. There you are in silhouette, a perfect representation of your profile is exquisitely etched onto the ground.

You cannot fool it. You cannot run away from it. Your shadow precisely represents your features, your every move. Wherever you go it is there, telling what you are like-fat or thin, hairy or bald, big ears or small. It's there for all the world to see.

But can someone watching your shadow know the real you?

Of course not. He can grasp your profile. He can even, if he observes long enough, get a feel for many of your mannerisms. If you often scratch your ear, he can see that. If you nervously fidget with your watch, someone watching your shadow can notice that also. But he can still know only a little about you.

Obviously, your shadow isn't you. Your shadow corresponds to your physical features but is not the reality. Your shadow tells a shadow watcher nothing about the inner you. It says nothing about your frame of mind, except as your profile may vaguely reflect your moods. A person watching your shadow would not know what is really going on inside your head.

Your shadow gives a hint of you, an intimation of what you may be like-but only a hint, not the fullness of your existence.

You and your shadow

What is the significance of this discussion about you and your shadow? We often hear the argument that, because some objects or acts referred to in the Old Testament are only shadows, they are of no lasting value for spiritually minded people. We are told that we are to lift ourselves above any physical, earthly representations of God's great spiritual truths into the comprehension of the truth itself. Such physical representations, some say, are voided by the greater spiritual truths they represent.

For centuries Bible students have debated the question of the role, if any, of Old Testament law in the lives of Christians. Two schools of thought are at extreme odds. One school believes Old Testament moral law is still incumbent on a Christian as a guide to life. The other says it isn't, that we have moved from the Old Testament era of law to the New Testament era of grace and the gospel.

The first way of thinking says that, unless the New Testament rescinds an Old Testament precept, either in word or in principle, then we can consider it still binding. The second approach counters that, unless the New Testament restates an Old Testament law, also in word or principle, it is obsolete, vanishing along with the entire Old Covenant.

The two schools converge in their view that one part of Old Testament legislation is definitely not relevant as a guide for Christian practices today-that section of the law often referred to as ritual or ceremonial. Most agree that all that is ceremonial is merely a shadow of a greater reality.

However, most take for granted that all that can be termed "shadow" is ceremonial and hence of no value as a guide to Christian behavior. Ceremonies are considered synonymous with shadows, and therefore all are rendered obsolete by the arrival of the reality in Christ.

Some who believe this way can make a convincing case, especially to those who are not willing to prove what the Scriptures really say. With their preconceived ideas, their arguments go like this:

  • Doesn't the shadow analogy make sense? If you grasp the reality, and are actively engaged in living out the reality, do you need to waste your time with the mere hint of the reality?
  • Doesn't the Bible itself, in Hebrews 10:1, seem to indicate the limited value of shadows? That verse calls the sacrificial system "a shadow of the good things to come." The sacrificial system was only a shadow of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Now that we have the reality, we no longer need to sacrifice animals.
  • Likewise, we are told that the Sabbath and Holy Days are also shadows: "So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ" (Colossians 2:16-17).
  • If circumcision for uncircumcised converts is no longer necessary because the Old Testament command was a shadow of circumcision of the heart, then does it not logically follow that you don't need to worry about a shadow of spiritual rest? You have already entered that rest in Jesus Christ. You don't need to be concerned in the slightest about some mere intimation of that spiritual rest, as the Sabbath is thought to be.

The preceding four points are precisely the implied argument of much of Christendom regarding shadows.

These points at first appear valid. If we don't need to sacrifice because sacrifices were merely a hint of the reality of Christ's sacrifice, then shouldn't we be consistent and realize that we don't need to keep the Sabbath or Holy Days, which are hints of spiritual rest and the plan of salvation and a memorial (in the case of the Sabbath) of the creation? And, if the physical mark or sign of circumcision is negated in the New Testament, shouldn't that tell us that all physical practices are unnecessary?

Shadow laws

We can find this view of shadows in many theological books and treatises. The following statements from conservative theologian George Ladd describe this reasoning succinctly:

"The permanence of the Law is reflected further in the fact that Paul appeals to specific commands in the Law as the norm for Christian conduct . . . It is quite clear, however, that the permanent aspect of the Law is the ethical and not the ceremonial . . . Although circumcision is a command of God and a part of the Law, Paul sets circumcision in contrast to the commandments, and in doing so separates the ethical from the ceremonial-the permanent from the temporal. Thus he can commend the entolai theou (commandments of God) to the Gentiles, and yet adamantly reject the ceremonial entolai (commandments), such as circumcision, foods, feasts, and even Sabbath keeping (Colossians 2:16), for these are but a shadow of the reality that has come in Christ" (G.E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, p. 510).

We can find another typical example of this assumption in the New International Version Study Bible's note on Colossians 2:16-17:

"The ceremonial laws of the OT are here referred to as shadows . . . because they symbolically depicted the coming of Christ; so any insistence on the observance of such ceremonies is a failure to recognize that their fulfillment has already taken place. This element of the Colossian heresy was combined with a rigid asceticism . . ."

If many consider the moral law of God a burden, the supposedly lesser aspects-any physical practices-are truly grit in the teeth, smoke in the eyes and a thorn in the side to them. Who would want to saddle himself with unnecessary trivial details like Holy Days or food taboos or Sabbath observance?

Trivializing truth?

This line of reasoning brands any suggestion that God requires us to do anything physical as akin to trivializing religion. "Look," the argument goes, "children are dying daily by the thousands from malnutrition. Jesus told us to love our neighbor, not to quibble over religious trifles like what you eat. Get out there and put food in the mouths of the starving rather than worrying about the Sabbath and those other Old Testament observances."

This is an emotionally impacting argument, to be sure. But such reasoning overlooks a fundamental biblical principle: It is not within man to determine what is right and wrong. Man on his own cannot ascertain what is important to God and what is not (Proverbs 14:12; Jeremiah 10:23; Matthew 7:13-14).

In like manner, many believe that observance of the Sabbath and other days makes you a "legalist," or what some people might call a "boundary rider." Here is an example of that kind of thinking:

"Religious groups, perhaps even more than other kinds, tend to want to distinguish themselves from outsiders. So the religious experts of Paul's day spent a great deal of time focusing on boundaries. These practices received the lion's share of attention-not because they were so important in themselves, but because they became litmus tests for determining who was inside and outside the people of God. This was a 'boundary-oriented approach' to the spiritual life. While the religious experts focused on clarifying boundaries, Jesus focused on what lies at the center of a faithful life" (J. Ortberg, "Why Jesus' Disciples Wouldn't Wash Their Hands," Christianity Today, August 15, 1994).

Though the Pharisees, as well as those Paul confronted who taught one could be justified by obedience to the law, undoubtedly used aspects of God's law to justify their legalism, that doesn't mean the fault lies with the law itself. Wrong use of something doesn't make the thing wrong. This is a false argument frequently advanced against God's Sabbath and Holy Days.

Asceticism vs. Christian freedom

How should we respond to such reasoning? Probably the best place to start is with Colossians 2:16-17, because critics of Sabbath-observance use these verses as the starting point for their argument that the reality has come and the shadows have now disappeared. This interpretation of this passage is nothing new-religious writers have interpreted Colossians 2:16-17 this way at least as far back as the second century.

In his epistle to the Colossians Paul takes to task a heretical teaching. The fundamental error he addresses here is the idea that Christians need more than Jesus Christ to attain reconciliation and a perpetual relationship with God.

The false teachers in Colossae asserted that Jesus Christ is not enough. One needs also, they taught, to work through angels as intermediaries (Colossians 2:18).

In addition, they taught that the route to true spirituality requires strict asceticism and ritual. These consist of "putting off the body of flesh" (verse 11), rigorous treatment of the body (verse 23) and prohibition of the tasting or touching (verse 21) or enjoying of foods (the "in food or in drink" of verse 16 is more properly translated "in eating and in drinking").

The error in this interpretation of this passage lies in assuming that the topic in question was whether we should worry about clean and unclean meats-or observing Holy days or the Sabbath. But this is not what Paul is discussing. It is asceticism vs. Christian rejoicing and feasting. The Colossian heretics were criticizing (judging) the Colossian Christians for eating and drinking during their festival celebrations. The question is decidedly not whether Christians should observe Holy Days or the Sabbath. It is a matter of how they observed these things.

Paul encourages the Colossian Christians to turn a deaf ear to such criticism and to enjoy their eating and drinking during the festive Holy Day celebrations. The conventional wisdom-that Paul is telling them to turn a deaf ear to anyone suggesting that they ought to observe the Holy Days-is unjustified because it ignores the many clear references to ascetic practices that form the context for Paul's instructions. (For more details, request our free booklet Sunset to Sunset-God's Sabbath Rest.)

Certainly verse 17 tells us that some of these things spoken of are shadows. But to read that truth as if it means that they are no longer necessary is reading into Scripture something that is not there. Quite the contrary, that the Sabbath and Holy Days are a shadow of something wonderful is a worthy reason for keeping them, just as the realization that bread and wine represent Jesus Christ's broken body and shed blood is a wonderful reason for participating in the Passover service. Another good reason for the ceremony of baptism is that it pictures burial in a watery grave with Jesus Christ.

Why do those who espouse this erroneous view of this passage not stop to ask why Paul did not include sacrifices and circumcision on the list of shadows in Colossians 2:16 if the whole point of these verses is to show that Christians don't need to keep such things?

Jesus Christ's words and example

Are shadows obsolete? Or, worse than that, are they useless? This question is of considerable significance to anyone determined to obey God.

Before we go any further, we encourage anyone who doubts the value of shadows to consider the significance of a remarkable New Testament account. Who is our ultimate model and guide in all things? Our example is Jesus Christ, of course.

It is enlightening to realize that our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, took shadows seriously. The New Testament records two occasions on which Jesus stormed into the temple in Jerusalem and took drastic action. Even though the temple was a shadow (Hebrews 8:5), Jesus was moved to anger when He saw this shadow desecrated. You probably remember the story: He went in and overthrew the tables of the money changers, then drove them from the area.

Notice what He said: "Is it not written, My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you have made it a 'den of thieves' " (Mark 11:17). Then we have the Gospel writer's follow-up statement: "And his disciples remembered that it was written, 'Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up'" (John 2:17).

Shadows were certainly important to Jesus Christ. He risked His personal safety to angrily rebuke those who showed callous disregard for the spiritual significance of a physical location in which physical priests performed physical sacrifices.

Christ's example demonstrates that we must not ignore the shadows the Bible details. We do so at our own peril. To treat them as of no concern is frightening when we consider Jesus' own words: "Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:19, emphasis added throughout).

To brand attempts to observe the precepts of the Old Testament observed by Jesus and the early Church as Judaizing or dishonoring Jesus contradicts Jesus Christ's own words and example. By Jesus' own words, this treads on dangerous ground indeed!

God commands shadows

One simple fact conclusively abolishes the classical antishadow argument: The New Testament reveals several shadows that it declares we must keep. Two of the most significant are the shadows of baptism-symbolizing entering a watery grave with Jesus Christ-and celebration of the Passover. The bread and wine partaken at Passover are merely shadows of Jesus Christ's perfect sacrifice, yet we all know we must partake of them.

Yet these are not the only shadows commanded of Christians in the New Testament. Laying on of hands (Hebrews 6:2), anointing with oil (James 5:14), foot-washing (John 13:14) and other actions are commanded not because they are greater than the spiritual truths and principles they symbolize, but to aid in our spiritual comprehension as we do them. Throughout the Bible God commanded and still commands physical acts to help us understand spiritual lessons.

Don't let the significance of this simple fact escape you: If it were true that Christians don't have to worry about the shadow of Sabbath observance because it is only a shadow, then a logically consistent God would not require any shadow observance.

But He does!

Stop and think. If the shadows of baptism and Passover are worth keeping, who could dare say that others are worthless? The oft-quoted Colossians 2:16-17 certainly doesn't say any such thing.

This raises the important question of the meaning of 1 Corinthians 5:7-8. In the past many have read this as a simple instruction not to despise the shadow of putting leaven out of their homes during the Days of Unleavened Bread. Some go so far as to argue that this passage means no such thing but that it is an instruction to continue to be only spiritually unleavened. What does the passage say?

Let's look at it: "Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth."

This passage lends itself to two possible readings. The first is the simple and straightforward interpretation: Christians should observe the Days of Unleavened Bread, literally and spiritually. They should be always spiritually unleavened ("purge out the old leaven"), just as they are, during the Days of Unleavened Bread, physically unleavened ("since you truly are unleavened").

The other meaning comes from reading it more metaphorically, something like this: As Christians, let us every day of our lives observe the spiritual meaning of the Old Testament Feast of Unleavened Bread. Let us continue to be spiritually unleavened ("purge out the old leaven") in the same way that, at conversion, you began the process of becoming spiritually unleavened ("since you truly are unleavened").

There are ardent advocates of either interpretation. The question is which is correct? Perhaps we cannot decide the answer by strict analysis (exegesis) of the verses in question. We have to stand back and consider a passage in the larger context of the book in which it appears, in the light of the Bible as a whole and the context of common sense (the science and art of hermeneutics).

Keep in mind that one's own system of belief affects one's interpretation. The standard Protestant belief system leads one to lean towards the latter explanation.

Let's first apply common sense. If someone said to you in June, "Let's remember July 4," would you be likely to assume that he means you should celebrate only the meaning of America's Independence Day and not the day itself? And, further, how do you celebrate a meaning?

Now let's consider at what time of year Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. Since chapter 11 says so much about the Passover, it is only sensible to conclude that the book was written during the same time of year as the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread, especially when you consider such other related statements as "But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup" (verse 28).

The imminence of the Holy day season is strongly noted here. The timing is confirmed by 1 Corinthians 16:8, where Paul says that he will stay where he is until Pentecost, another of God's festivals that occurred some seven weeks later.

With that timing as background, how should we understand Paul's exhortation to "let us keep the feast"? (1 Corinthians 5:8). The most natural, unforced understanding is that Paul was telling the Christians at Corinth to keep the feast both in a literal sense and even more in its spiritual intent-the meaning clearly intimated by the shadow. But he is certainly not ignoring the literal way.

To interpret the verse in the not-so-natural way-that all Paul's references are merely metaphors-makes sense only if you are approaching this passage with the preconceived idea that the Holy Days are no longer necessary. Since no passages in the New Testament explicitly invalidate the Holy Days, regarding these verses purely metaphorically amounts to deliberately disregarding the plain intent of Paul's instruction.

The example of Jesus Christ

If Jesus Christ did the things He did only because He was operating within the constraints of the Old Covenant, and if He said many of the things He said only because He was speaking to people bound by the Old Covenant, then you and I are in big trouble. We have no way to know how to determine which of His acts and statements apply to us today and which were applicable only to the audience of His day.

Those who seek to find words to live by in the Old Testament are often accused of picking and choosing the laws they feel comfortable with. But how much worse would it be to arbitrarily pick and choose from among Jesus' words and deeds?

No, we must not play fast and loose with the example of our Lord and Master. We must follow Him in all things. Remember Paul's words: "Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ" (1 Corinthians 11:1). And "the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked" (1 John 2:6, New American Standard Bible).

However you wish to look at it, one simple fact stands out. Jesus Christ observed the Holy Days and the Sabbath and did not eat unclean food. But His disciples offered no animal sacrifices for their sins, and He did not advise His followers to ritually wash themselves.

To ascribe the performing of the former practices simply to custom (or being under the Old Covenant) and the neglect of the latter practices to His fulfilling of the reality amounts to highly questionable-and totally unjustifiable-interpretation.

If it were good enough for our Savior and those He taught, surely it is good enough for us-isn't it? It sounds almost too simple, but this is a truth worthy of careful consideration.

Circumcision and sacrifices

Some say that, as go circumcision and sacrifices, so must go all the other shadows. But who says so? What evidence can be found in the Bible to justify such a view?

The New Testament makes abundantly clear that Christians are under no obligation to be physically circumcised or offer animal sacrifices for their sins (although circumcision certainly is not wrong), but it makes no parallel statements about the Sabbath and Holy Days.

Physical circumcision is not necessary for Christians because circumcision served as a sign of descent from Abraham. It was a symbol of a relationship between God and Abraham's descendants. It is not obligatory for Christians because Christians are not to be overly concerned about their descent, or lack thereof, from Abraham.

Sacrifices are not necessary because we have Jesus Christ's sacrifice to atone for our sins. Israel of old had only the sacrifices, which provided only a ritualistic atonement for sin.

God did not remove these shadows for Christians because they were merely shadows. He removed them for other reasons.

God presents some shadows to us as a wonderful gift to keep us mindful of deep and crucial spiritual principles. Just as your literal shadow doesn't reveal all there is to know about you, spiritual shadows do not tell us everything there is to know about that which casts the shadow.

On the other hand, shadows do tell us a great deal. Rather than viewing the debate as choosing between either the shadow or the reality, the evidence of the New Testament dictates that we look at the validity and spiritual importance of both shadow and reality.

Even when the reality has arrived-and by no means have the realities of all shadows yet arrived in full-we still need the shadow. We need both it and its reality.

That is the plain teaching throughout the Scriptures. GN