Chasing Shadows: Paul VS. the Religion of Self

(Colossians 2:16-19) Paul confronts the shadows we like to chase instead of the Light of the World.

Elongated shadow of woman walking.
Photo by Martino Pietropoli / Unsplash

Remember how Paul described Jesus’ victory of your life’s invoice of sin?

In short, He paid it in full from His own account.

Today’s dab of Bible is a follow-up to last week’s. It’s also a super hard section of Colossians to explain and to make relevant to you guys.

Oh well—onward!

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

Colossians 2:16-17

Paul lists some religious practices common to his day…

  • Ritual eating and drinking (implies clean vs. unclean foods)
  • Festivals
  • New Moon celebrations
  • Sabbath day observation

I am not an expert on the historical details for each, so I consulted the IVP Bible Background Commentary. It notes how the Sabbath day marks new weeks while the New Moon celebration marks a new month.

But, the detail which stands out to me the most is how Paul calls everything else a shadow in comparison to Jesus.

The NIV says “the reality” is found in Christ, but the original language literally says “body.” It’s the same word used earlier in chapter 1 of Colossians when he calls Jesus the head of “the body,” referring to the church.

"chasing shadows is missing the Savior."

Here’s the image I get in my mind:

I picture the glorified Christ standing atop a hill and the sun’s glaring light silhouettes Him.

Some turn to Him for salvation and worship, while others play with the shadows for fulfillment. They trip and fall after them, accusing others for getting in the way or for hoarding the shadows for themselves.

Either way, chasing shadows is missing the Savior.

Knowing the Colossians’ cultural roots in the thinking of Plato, I am sure Paul is alluding here to Plato’s metaphor of the sun. It talks about how “the Good” is illuminated throughout the world. Though one can’t see its truest form, one can perceive what the light touches. Therefore, shadows are a mere reflection of this ultimate “Good.”

Jesus is the Fulfillment

So, Paul goes for the kill shot, nailing both Greek and Jewish reliances on knowledge and law for righteousness.

Jesus is the body, the fulfillment, the “reality” of these shadows.

Paul then continues in a different direction, about others who take pleasure in mystical and revelatory experiences…

Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

Colossians 2:18-19 (NIV)

Did you catch the body imagery there?

Those who are chasing after these ecstatic experiences are losing the connection to Christ, the head of the body.

In both pieces of Scripture, people are looking to something other than Christ for the fullness of salvation.

What do these all have in common?

  • Rituals, festivals, and eating
  • Ecstatic visions
  • Worshipping angels
  • Being “puffed up” (conceited) about their spiritual insight

They each have a root in self.

Each seek to obtain a fuller wisdom or spiritual experience through means other than Jesus.

Modern Day Shadows

So, how do these apply to us?

I can’t speak for all Christians, but I’d like to share some false religious expectations I feel placed on us at times…

  • You must speak in tongues or prophesy to have the true marks of a saved Christian (I’ve had someone share a pamphlet to me about this and explain why I wasn’t saved without these).
  • You must have a big platform to be a real prophet or world-changer for God. If you’re not reaching the masses, you’re not making a difference.
  • Or the more subtle: You must be popular and accepted in religious circles. You gotta be in the inner circle to be a real follower.
  • Or this dangerous mantra: “Just have more faith.” In other words: Show your faith by doing and being more.

Though we don’t worry about New Moon festivals, we do chase certain shadows in modern Christianity. We also place odd expectations on others, weights we aren’t willing to bear ourselves.

Illuminating Christ

In this short section of Colossians, Paul...

  • Topples the religion of self.
  • Kicks over the throne of pomp and conceit.
  • Lights the flame of truth, illuminating the goodness of our Savior.
  • Points to Jesus–the reality of all truth, wisdom, and worship.

Like Paul's challenge to the Colossians, don't chase the shadows.

Look to Jesus, "the author and perfector of our faith."

More to Savor 😋

The work week is hard enough. Devotional time in the Word is strained. And, the Bible can be a hard book to read.

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