Who is Israel?
Israel and New Testament Interpretation
The enemy’s tactics to defeat the emerging Christian Church was to strangle it in its cradle. The instruments the enemy used to strangle the Church initially were the Jews and the Judaizers. The enemy’s tactics were so successful that Paul had an Elijah experience, where he was virtually standing alone against the Judaizers influence in the Church. In addition, there was constant Jewish harassment and persecution from outside of the Church. As a result of this pressure Paul obviously felt compelled to write some strong statements that can easily be misunderstood by readers living 2000 years later, and they have had a profound effect on interpreting the New Testament.
What was ‘Nailed to the Cross?’
Paul’s letter to the Colossian Church reveals one of these misunderstood passages of Scripture – misunderstood because many readers do not understand that Paul is counteracting the influence of the Judaizers. Paul begins his attack on the Judaizers by warning the Colossians thus:
And this I say, lest any man should beguile you with enticing words. Col. 2:4.
Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. Col. 2:8.
How do we know that Paul is referring to the Judaizers in these verses? We know Paul is warning the Colossians about the Judaizers because Paul proceeds to instruct the Colossians about the true meaning of circumcision:
And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power: in whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ. Col. 2:10, 11.
It is the Judaizers who were so concerned about circumcision. But Paul does not dwell any longer on the circumcision issue, in this instance, he wants to deal with another Judaizer issue which was plaguing the Church:
And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross. Col. 2:13, 14.
Those who believe that the Ten Commandments have been abolished use verse 14 to teach that the Ten Commandments have been ‘nailed to the cross.’ But this is not what Paul is referring to at all. Paul is tackling the Judaizers second obsession (after circumcision). Paul is now addressing the Judaizers insistence that the Jewish ceremonial law needed to be observed by all new converts, including the Gentiles.
That, Paul is referring to the ceremonial law is, evident for several reasons. Firstly, he does not use the word law at all. Rather what was nailed to the cross Paul calls ‘the handwriting of ordinances.’
The Greek word for ‘handwriting’ is cheirographon and means: ‘a document written by hand.’ There is only one such document of ordinances, written by hand, in the Bible and that is the ceremonial law written by Moses:
And it came to pass, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law in a book… That Moses commanded the Levites… saying, take this book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God… Deut. 31:24-26.
Notice how there is a clear distinction between the ceremonial law and the Ten Commandments. God wrote the Ten Commandments with his own finger on stone. Moses wrote the ceremonial law, by hand, in a book. The Ten Commandments were placed in the Ark of the Covenant, directly under the mercy seat, indicating the two chief principles of God’s government – law and mercy or grace. The ceremonial law was placed in the side of the Ark, indicating an inferior and temporary status.
It is indeed a peculiar thing that, many believe, the only part of Scripture written on stone, by God Himself, is now abolished. It is also important to realise that this notion that the Ten Commandments have been abolished is something that historically the Christian Church never taught. It is only in recent time that this doctrine has become popular.
We can further prove that Paul is referring to the ceremonial law because he calls ‘the handwriting’ that was nailed to the cross ‘ordinances.’ The Ten Commandments are never described as ordinances, but the ceremonial law is. For example when God gave instructions about the keeping of the Passover, He constantly called His instructions ordinances:
And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt. And this day shall be unto you for a memorial… ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever… And ye shall observe the feast of unleavened bread… observe this day in your generations by an ordinance for ever… And ye shall observe this thing for an ordinance to thee and to thy sons for ever… This is the ordinance of the Passover. Ex. 12:13, 14, 17, 24, 43.
Other instructions concerning the ceremonial law are also described as ordinances. (For example, see Num. 9:12-14).
An ordinance is a term describing rules and regulations of local and limited application. An example would be a city ordinance, applicable locally and limited to a specific jurisdiction, and not applicable in neighbouring jurisdictions. Ordinances are also subject to change as circumstances change. For example, as cities grow they require parking ordinances to govern the limited space in cities, whereas small rural towns often have no parking ordinances at all. But the Ten Commandments are described as ‘laws.’ Laws are by definition universal and perpetual. An example would be laws of nature such as ‘the law of gravity.’ They cannot be abolished just as reality itself cannot be abolished.
The same irrevocable concept applies to moral law (which is what the Ten Commandments are). Moral law derives its authority from God Himself. Moral law is a reflection of the moral character of God Himself (this is why God wrote the Ten Commandments Himself). Therefore, in order to abolish the moral law (the Ten Commandments), one would have to abolish God Himself – this is why the Ten Commandments are irrevocable, permanent and perpetual – described by James as being the ‘perfect law of liberty’ and ‘the royal law’ (James 1:25; 2:8).
We can further prove that Paul is referring to the ceremonial law in Col. 1:14, because, Paul states, that it is this law, “that was against us, which was contrary to us.” The Greek word for contrary is ‘hupenantios’ and its meaning is ‘adversary.’ Now, which handwriting or document or law was the ‘adversary’ of the people of God? We find the answer in Deuteronomy:
And it came to pass, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law in a book… That Moses commanded the Levites… saying, take this book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there for a witness against thee. For I know thy rebellion, and thy stiff neck: behold, while I am yet alive with you this day, ye have been rebellious against the LORD; and how much more after my death? Gather unto me all the elders of your tribes, and your officers, that I may speak these words in their ears, and call heaven and earth to record against them. For I know that after my death ye will utterly corrupt yourselves, and turn aside from the way which I have commanded you; and evil will befall you in the latter days; because ye will do evil in the sight of the LORD, to provoke him to anger through the work of your hands. Deut. 31:24-29.
Notice how Moses associates the necessity of a law that is a witness against them with the stiff necked condition of the Israelites – and how Moses defines stiff-necked as being the same as rebellion. Therefore the people needed an ‘adversary’ or ‘witness’ to testify against them when they rebelled. They needed to be notified when they were in a rebellious condition. It was the ceremonial law that was the measuring stick of the covenant. It was the ceremonial law that would judge, as to whether, the Israelites would keep the terms and conditions, of the covenant or not. The ‘adversary’ is used in the sense of a defendant appearing in court, for an offence, and the ceremonial law being a witness against him. There is no doubt that this is what Paul is referring to in Col. 2:14, when he wrote about the law ‘that was against us, which was contrary to us.’
Once we understand that Col 2:13, 14 are referring to the ceremonial law the meaning of the next two verses becomes very obvious:
Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ. Col. 2:16, 17.
Many have erroneously concluded that we can now eat and drink whatever we like and that the Seventh-day Sabbath has been abolished on the basis of these two verses. That, this is not the case is, obvious for the following reasons: the things that are abolished here are qualified and defined by the sentence ‘which are a shadow of things to come.’ Therefore, the meat and drink offerings mentioned here are the ones that pointed forward to Christ’s sacrifice and ministry. (See Lev. 23:13, 18, 37; Num. 6:15; ch.15, 28). The ceremonial meat and drink offerings clearly belong to the category of pointing to Christ. Paul is not giving the Colossians permission to eat and drink whatever they want. What he is saying is that Christians are no longer obligated to carry out the requirements of the ceremonial law. These meat and drink offerings have met their fulfilment in Christ.
Likewise the type of sabbath under consideration is identified by the sentence ‘which are a shadow of things to come.’ The weekly Sabbath is a memorial of an event at the beginning of earth’s history. (See Gen. 2:2, 3; Ex. 20:8-11). Hence, the ‘sabbath days,’ that Paul declares to be shadows pointing to Christ cannot refer to the weekly Sabbath designated by the fourth commandment. However, there is another type of sabbath that belonged to the category of ordinance and they were part of the ceremonial law written by the hand of Moses.
These ‘shadowy sabbaths’ are described in Leviticus. They fell on certain set days of the month – a different day of the week each year – as opposed to the regular seventh day Sabbath, always occurring on Saturday. Note how the ‘shadowy sabbaths’ are distinguished from the weekly Sabbath:
These are the feasts of the Lord, which ye shall proclaim to be holy convocations, to offer an offering made by fire unto the Lord, a burnt offering, and a meat offering, a sacrifice drink offerings, everything upon his day, beside the Sabbaths of the Lord… Lev. 23:24-27.
In other words, a clear distinction is made between two different Sabbaths. One set of sabbaths are called “holy convocations” with rituals including drink offerings and meat offerings. These holy convocation/Sabbaths are “beside the Sabbaths of the Lord” indicating another set of Sabbaths, which are the seventh-day Sabbaths.
Thus, we see there is a clear distinction made, between the one type of sabbath that was destined to pass away and another type of Sabbath that was destined to last forever. The weekly Sabbath is an eternal memorial of creation. The ceremonial sabbaths being prophetic pictures of the role and mission of Christ, were abolished when they were fulfilled at the cross.
The ‘phrase which are a shadow’ is the key to the correct understanding of Col. 2:16. All the items the apostle lists in v.16 are ‘shadows’, or types, symbolizing the reality that is Christ. A shadow has no substance – it is cast by something substantial. (Compare the use of the word ‘shadow’ in Hebrews 8:5 and 10:1). The Jewish ceremonies were shadows cast by heavenly realities. Christ’s life, ministry, and kingdom are the reality – the portrayal of which, in the ceremonial law was only the shadow.
On this passage the well-known Presbyterian commentator, Albert Barnes, states the following:
There is no evidence from this passage that he (Paul) would teach that there was no obligation to observe any holy time, for there is not the slightest reason to believe that he meant to teach that one of the ten commandments had ceased to be binding on mankind… He had his eye on the great number of days which were observed by the Hebrews as festivals, as a part of their ceremonial and typical law, and not to the moral law, or the ten commandments. No part of the moral law – no one of the ten commandments could be spoken of as “a shadow of good things to come.” These commandments are, from the nature of moral law, of perpetual and universal application.
In contrast with the shadow, Jesus is the fullness of reality, this is why Paul wrote “but the body is of Christ” (Col. 2:17). It is to Christ that every type points, and in Him that every symbol reaches its fulfilment. Jesus himself said:
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. Matt. 5:17.
In these verses Paul has completely removed the ground from beneath the feet of the Judaizers. They advocated a return to Judaic ceremonial requirements. The Apostle meets their arguments by asserting that the shadows have served their function now that Christ, the reality has come. In all this argument Paul is in no way minimizing the claims of the Ten Commandments or of the seventh-day Sabbath.
Ephesians Corroborates Colossians
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians corroborates what we have already found in Colossians. When Paul was writing about how the Gentiles were now accepted into the nation of Israel he also tells us that this was accomplished by abolishing the ceremonial law:
But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace. Eph. 2:13-15.
Notice how Paul, yet again, describes the ceremonial law in terms of ordinances – rules and regulations of limited application. It was the ceremonial law what made a Jew a Jew not he Ten Commandments. It was the ceremonial law that pointed forward to the coming of the Messiah – not the Ten Commandments. The Jews were supposed to keep the ceremonial law as a ‘witness’ to the nations of the world that the Messiah was coming. Once the Messiah had arrived the role of the ceremonial law was over. Now that the Messiah had come the ceremonial law was now a hindrance to the further progress of God’s Kingdom. When the ceremonial law was in place it created ‘enmity’ between Jew and Gentile (because of Jewish exclusiveness). Paul describes it here in Ephesians as a ‘wall of partition’ separating the two people leading to enmity. But now that the Messiah has come, He has ‘broken down’ the ‘wall of partition’ in His ‘flesh’ (by His sacrifice). By His sacrifice, Jesus ‘hath made both one’ – Jesus has made ‘of twain one new man’ – by the abolishing of the ceremonial law. In other words, there is no longer Jew or Greek – there is only the ‘one new man’ – thus ‘making peace’ in the church. As Paul said in Galatians:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. Gal. 3:28.
Paul’s concern for Unity in the Church
There are many passages of Scripture that can be understood much better if one looks at them through the same lenses that Paul was using in his battle against the Judaizers. One such passage of Scripture is:
Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations. For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand. One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks. Rom. 14:1-6.
After Paul has put the Jews and Gentiles together in ‘one tree’ (one Church) in Romans chapter 11, what would be a major concern that Paul would have? Two peoples who were formerly enemies now in the same church – what would Paul be concerned about? Yes, naturally, Paul would be concerned about unity, about the two very different peoples getting on together. Therefore, in Romans 14, Paul chooses two issues one that the Gentiles are very concerned about and one that the Judaizers are concerned about. The Gentile issue is about food sacrificed to idols and the Judaizers issue is about their insistence that Jewish holy days should still be observed. In both cases Paul calls both issues “doubtful disputations.” In other words, Paul says those who are weak in faith should be received (into the church) but do not argue with them over the issues that cause them to have weak faith.
The Gentile Issue
The Gentile nations were idolaters. In their societies it was customary for them to dedicate all their food to their gods especially the meat (considered to be the best food because, it was the most expensive). This posed a problem for Gentile converts because many of them believed they could not eat it (especially the meat). Therefore, some Gentile converts only ate ‘herbs’ (vegetables). Paul discusses this problem in more detail in 1 Corinthians chapter 8. There, he concludes that the Gentile who only eats vegetables is the ‘weaker brother’ because his faith does not extend to understanding that idols have no power in the world, and neither do the so-called gods they represent. Therefore, Paul’s point is that these ‘weaker brothers’ should be tolerated, but it is not worth arguing with them about it.
The Jewish Issue
After dealing with the Gentile Christian’s concerns about food sacrificed to idols, Paul then switches to Jewish Christian concerns about the ceremonial law – in this case specifically about Jewish holy days (of which there were many in the Jewish religion and most of them were called sabbaths). Paul points out that there were many different opinions about the observance (or non-observance) of these holy days. Paul’s solution to these ‘doubtful disputations’ is to allow everyone the freedom to make up their own minds about these issues – “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” In so doing, Paul is saying that these are non-consequential matters – which means, they are not necessary for salvation.
However, many have surmised from this passage of Scripture that is does not matter which days are kept or not kept. Therefore, the seventh-day Sabbath is no longer binding or necessary to be kept as a part of God’s will for His people. But this understanding is a superficial reading of the Scripture. Once the background story is understood – that Paul was constantly battling the influence of the Judaizers, then this passage of Scripture (and many others) are easily understood.