Colossians 2:16-17 (ESV):

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.

  1. What are the things to come?
  2. When will they come?
  3. Why are the things listed in verse 16 a shadow? What is meant by shadow?
  4. Overall, what was Paul expecting his audience to take away from his words? What kind of effect did he intend these couple of verses to have on his audience?

4 Answers 4


I really like Dottard's discussion of shadow & symbolism and agree that the ceremonial system was symbolic of Christ. This is made explicit in Hebrews 7:11-28 (esp. verse 27).

I'd like to focus then on question 4 from the OP: Overall, what was Paul expecting his audience to take away from his words? What kind of effect did he intend these couple of verses to have on his audience?

Paul is counseling the Colossians not to heed those who criticize them for not observing the rites and requirements of the Mosaic Law that have been fulfilled. The Law was not an end in itself, but rather:

the law as our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ (Galatians 3:24)

Since Christ has come, they've reached the point Paul addressed a few verses prior, speaking of the Law of Moses:

it was added because of transgression, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. (Galatians 3:19)

The mediator is identified explicitly in Hebrews 9:14-15

14 How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?

15 And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament

Paul is therefore telling them that the dietary laws & festivals need no longer be observed by disciples of Christ, and that they shouldn't be swayed by those who tell them otherwise. A number of Paul's epistles--especially Galatians & Romans--are designed around this point specifically--Paul is countering the teachings of those who, in his words:

trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. (Galatians 1:7)

P.S. new moons

The Jewish calendar begins with the new moon. Much attention was given to getting the right date--approved by the Sanhedrin--of a new moon, especially if it was going to impact the date of a feast. That there was sometimes controversy over the exact date of the new moon, and therefore the exact date a feast should be observed, is discussed on this site here and more fully by Ben Dreyfus here. Paul appears to be counseling against getting involved in, or being troubled by, these disputes over the date of the new moon.


To summarize my thoughts on the OP's questions:

  1. The doctrines of Christ
  2. They are coming now (it's a present participle verb)
  3. Thayer puts it well "a shadow, i. e. an image cast by an object and representing the form of that object: opposed to σῶμα, the thing itself"
  4. Paul wants them to give no heed to those who would require Christians to abide by the ceremonial system that was fulfilled in Christ.

There are so many things here - let me try to take them one at a time.


The idea of the OT Ceremonial law and system being a shadow occurs several times in the NT:

  • Col 2:17 - These [religious festival and temple rites] are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
  • Heb 8:5 - They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: "See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain."
  • Heb 10:1 - The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming--not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.

Thus, the stated purpose of the Jewish ceremonial system was as a teaching device to inculcate the plan of salvation (Heb 9:8, 9, 11-14, 10:1, Col 2:16, 17) and had no salvific function (Heb 9:9, 10:4, Ps 51:16, 17, 1 Sam 15:22). That is, it used symbols to teach about the coming Messiah. When Messiah arrived and offered sacrifice for sin and the example of the exemplary life, the ceremonial system’s usefulness ceased to exist.

Thus, the ceremonial system was merely a "shadow" or "type" of things (then) yet future; ie, "to come".

Even in Old Testament times, the ceremonial system had been misunderstood and abused and did not provide propitiation but only symbolized the sacrifice of Jesus (yet to come), eg, Isa 1:10-17, Ps 40:6-8, 51:16, 17, 1 Sam 15:22, Hos 6:6, Prov 15:8, 21:3, Jer 6:20, Micah 6:6-8, etc. Jesus used some of these verses to teach the superiority of the moral and ethical requirements over the ceremonial rules. Matt 9:9-12, 12:2-8, 9-14, 23:23, 24, Mark 12:33. Therefore, in New Testament times, after the reality of Jesus had come, its value was gone.

When Jesus died on the cross, the ceremonial system was finished and the temple curtain dividing the Holy from the Most Holy Place was torn in two from top to bottom (Matt 27:51, Mark 15:38, Luke 23:45, see also 2 Cor 3:13-16) to symbolise this. Jesus became the High Priest of the New Covenant (Heb 4:14-16) and fulfilled the Levitical Covenant. Col 2:16, 17, Gal 4:10, Heb 9:10, Rom 14:17, (comp Isa 1:13, 14) explicitly make these ceremonial laws redundant.


Jesus is the high priest of the New Covenant Heb 4:14-16, 5:10, 7:23-28, 8:1, 2, 9:1-28, 10:1-18. Thus, Jesus inherits and was the fulfilment of the Levitical Covenant (See Mal 3:1). Jesus did this in several ways as well such as:

  • Jesus was the fulfilment of what the sanctuary/temple typified, John 2:19-21, Heb 9:1-28, 10:1-18
  • Jesus represented the foundation of the temple as well, 1 Peter 2:4-8 (Compare Isa 28:16, Ps 118:22)
  • Jesus’ body was represented by the curtain in the temple, Heb 10:20.
  • Jesus was the bread of life, John 6:35, 41, 48 (compare Ex 25:23-30, Lev 24:8).
  • Jesus was the light of life, John 8:12, 9:5 (compare the lampstand Ex 25:31-39, Lev 24:3, 4, Isa 53:11, Ps 56:13, etc)
  • Jesus provides the water of life, John 4:13, 14 (Compare the laver Ex 30:17-21. See also 1 Cor 6:11)
  • Jesus is the promised seed of the woman Gal 3:16 (compare Gen 3:15, and the Abrahamic Covenant)
  • Jesus was the Passover Lamb and thus the promised Messiah, John 1:29, 1 Cor 5:7, 1 Peter 1:19 (compare Ex 12:1-14).
  • Jesus is the High Priest of the New Covenant in fulfilment of the Levitical covenant, Heb 4:14-16, 5:10, 7:23-28, because He was “pure, blameless, set apart” exactly as the Levites were. See also Heb 9:15, 12:24.
  • Jesus provided the blood of the new covenant of which the communion ceremony was to be a memorial, Matt 26:28, Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20, 1 Cor 11:25, Heb 13:20, 1 Peter 1:19 (compare Ex 24:5, 8).

Annual Festival/feasts

There were several annual "Sabbaths" or festivals which also pointed toward the sacrifice, atonement and final salvation of Jesus. See Lev 23.

Passover - Jesus is our Passover lamb, John 1:29, 1 Cor 5:7, 1 Peter 1:19

Unleavened Bread - this represented sin the need to rid it from our lived following Jesus' sacrifice, 1 Cor 5:6, 8, Gal 5:9, Matt 16:6, etc see also Ex 12;19, 13:7, Deut 16:3.

Pentecost - represented the coming of the Holy Spirit - see acts 1 & 2

The remaining festivals are less explicit but here is a possible interpretation:

Trumpets - possibly alluding to the "last trumpet" at the second coming, Matt 24:31, 1 Thess 4:16

Atonement - possibly alluding to Heb 9:28 - so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.

Tabernacles - may be allusion to the heavenly homes of rest Jesus discussed in John 14:1-3.

Col 2:14-17

In Col 2, V16 & 17 cannot be divorced from V14 & 15.

having canceled the debt ascribed to us in the decrees that stood against us. He took it away, nailing it to the cross! And having disarmed the powers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. Therefore let no one judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a feast, a New Moon, or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the body that casts it belongs to Christ.

The debt of sin is what was nailed to the cross. However, the Judaizers believed this debt of sin had to be paid by works of the ceremonial law 9or some other law). Jesus paid the debt and the ceremonial system was fulfilled in Christ as listed above.

Ellicott sums up this way:

(14) Blotting out the handwriting—i.e., cancelling the bond which stood against us in its ordinances. The “handwriting” is the bond, exacting payment or penalty in default. (Comp. Philemon 1:19, “I Paul have written it with mine own hand; I will repay it.”) What this bond is we see by Ephesians 2:15, which speaks of “the law of commandments in ordinances,” there called “the enmity slain by the cross.” On the meaning of “ordinances” see Note on that passage. The metaphor, however, here is different, and especially notable as the first anticipation of those many metaphors of later theology, from Tertullian downwards, in which the idea of a debt to God, paid for us by the blood of Christ, as “a satisfaction,” is brought out. The Law is a bond, “Do this and thou shalt live.” “The soul that sinneth it shall die.” On failure to do our part it “stands against us.” But God for Christ’s sake forgives our transgressions and cancels the bond. It is a striking metaphor, full of graphic expressiveness; it is misleading only when (as in some later theologies) we hold it to be not only the truth, but the whole truth, forgetting that legal and forensic metaphors can but imperfectly represent inner spiritual realities. And took it.—Properly, and He (Christ) hath taken it away. The change of tense is significant. The act of atonement is over; its effect remains.

Nailing it to his cross.—At this point the idea of atonement comes in. Hitherto we have heard simply of free forgiveness and love of God. Now the bond is viewed, not as cancelled by a simple act of divine mercy, but as absolutely destroyed by Christ, by “nailing it to His cross.”

  • 1) There were several annual "Sabbaths" or festivals which also pointed toward the sacrifice and atonement and salvation of Jesus. See Lev 23. - Lev 23:3 mentions the weekly sabbath though, that's not annual (I'm having flashbacks of this question). 2) What about new moons? What are they shadow of?
    – user38524
    Apr 14, 2021 at 1:14
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator - I have not been exhaustive in the lists above for two reasons: (a) space and time, and (b) I only included that which is explicit in Scripture - I can find no explicit explanation of the new moons - perhaps you find something but it alluded me.
    – Dottard
    Apr 14, 2021 at 1:23
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator - as explained in that previous "flash-back" question, the weekly Sabbath had explicit overtones and meaning as well.
    – Dottard
    Apr 14, 2021 at 1:25
  • And what about my sub-question number #4: what was the overall takeaway that Paul was trying to get across to his audience? Was he trying to encourage them to start/stop doing something?
    – user38524
    Apr 14, 2021 at 1:33
  • 1
    @SpiritRealmInvestigator - updated as requested.
    – Dottard
    Apr 14, 2021 at 1:51

In this new covenant all things are fulfilled spiritually. A contradiction but therefore the spiritual conclusion becomes the final reality. The term shadow relates to physical events that we are to learn from. These physical events are described as a shadow as they are not the ultimate conclusion or spiritual reality.

I’m confused, some examples: The Law was fulfilled:

Matthew 5:15 Do not think I have come to abolish The Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish but to (SPIRITUALLY) fulfill them.

Romans 7:14 For we know The Law IS SPIRITUAL, but I am carnal (physical) sold under sin.

The Law has been transposed to the spiritual realm giving our High Priest the authority to offer sacrifices on our behalf, for those in covenant with him.

Passover as an example: Scripture gives numerous physical shadows / lessons regarding Passover. We see the Israelites being saved by the blood of the lamb as they flee Egypt.

When Abraham learns of God’s plan of salvation he mistakenly believes Isaac to be the Lamb and makes preparation for his sacrifice but is spared by a ram.

Upon his resurrection our Messiah became the spiritual fulfilment of Passover & we see that confirmed below:

Luke 22:16 16 For I tell you, I will not eat it again (Passover) until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God." Which is of course the spiritual fulfillment of Passover.

It should be noted the sacrifice of a lamb through Passover has always been the correct physical & now spiritual sacrifice for sin.

Paul confirms this spiritual fulfilment in Romans:

Romans 12:1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your (OWN) bodies as a living sacrifice (ON PASSOVER), holy and pleasing to God--this is your true and proper worship.

We become (SPIRITUAL) sacrifices by committing to His Laws & Feasts.


… These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

The problem with understanding this is that "but the substance" refers to something said earlier, not to "shadow".

Consider the scripture (KJV, with supplies removed) parsed as:

        no man
            judge you
                in meat
             or in drink
             or in respect
                        of an holyday
                     or of the new moon
                     or of the sabbath
                  which are a shadow
                      of things to come
        but the body of Christ

Then we see it says:

let no man judge you in [how Christians behave differently from most Colossian citizens] but the body of Christ.

The "body of Christ" refers to the Church, and the Colossian Christians are being told to ignore what the public (i.e their pagan friends, relatives, etc.) is saying of them and to listen only to what the Church says.

As for what is meant by "shadow of things to come", we see that it says:

judge you … in respect of [Biblical holy days], which are a shadow of things to come

The holy days are prophetic symbols of God's plan, they are the shadow of things to come.

I wrote more about this earlier: exegesis - Keeping the Sabbath and Colossians 2:16 - Christianity Stack Exchange.

My own web page has a much more detailed analysis of this and all of Colossians: Exegesis — Examples

And various churches publish booklets on the topic of: God's Holy Day Plan: The Promise of Hope for All Mankind | United Church of God.

(Note that I am not a member of that organization; I simply chose it as a good example.)

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