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After Paul discusses Jesus abolishing the handwriting of requirements that were against us, he writes in Colossians 2:16-17 (NKJV, emphasis mine):

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.

Many commentaries see the "food or in drink" clause as referring to clean/unclean meat distinctions. However, this site argues that the phrase is instead connected to food and drink offerings since Colossians 2:16 parallels Ezekiel 45:17 (KJV, emphasis mine):

And it shall be the prince’s part to give burnt offerings, and meat offerings, and drink offerings, in the feasts, and in the new moons, and in the sabbaths, in all solemnities of the house of Israel: he shall prepare the sin offering, and the meat offering, and the burnt offering, and the peace offerings, to make reconciliation for the house of Israel.

But is this accurate? The New King James Version translates the phrase as "grain offerings" rather than "meat offerings." While some of the terms in Ezekiel 45:17 parallel Colossians 2:16, are food and drink offerings ever clearly referred to as just "food and drink" in Scripture? I'm skeptical.

Which interpretation of Colossians 2:16's reference to food and drink is the correct one? Is the reference to 1) Jewish dietary laws of clean/unclean meats, 2) food and drink offerings, or 3) something else?

3 Answers 3

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Which interpretation of Colossians 2:16's reference to food and drink is the correct one? Is the reference to 1) Jewish dietary laws of clean/unclean meats, 2) food and drink offerings, or 3) something else?

Summary
First
The context of the passages in Colossians and Ezekiel indicate that in Colossians "eat or drink" does not mean "sin offerings, grain offerings, burnt offerings and fellowship offerings" found in Ezekiel.

Second
Even if "eat or drink" did mean "sin offerings, grain offerings, burnt offerings and fellowship offerings" the point Paul is making is the same. The items in the list are not needed for salvation.

Let's go to the passage in Colossians.
The letter is written to the mostly Gentile church at Colossae, a Greek city

6 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

Paul encourages the church at Colossae to continue and grow in Christ Jesus

8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.

Because there is a danger that some will try to divert them from Jesus Christ towards philosophy, human tradition and spiritual forces of this world

9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.

Here is a strong statement of Christ's Deity and His sufficiency for salvation. Before Christ the church at Colossae was ruled by the flesh but in Christ the flesh was put off, buried with Christ.

13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

They were made alive in Christ. Powers and authorities were defeated by the cross
Now we come to the key passage.

16 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. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 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. 19 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.

Paul lists things that some "powers and authorities" are trying to impose on the Christians in Colossae.

  1. What they eat or drink
  2. Religious festivals - the New Moon festival included sacrifices
  3. Sabbath day - Sabbath includes sacrifices

Paul goes on with strong words concerning the value of these practices

22 These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

This is a list of Jewish practices. Food laws refer to food and drink, sacrificial law refers to food offerings and drink offerings.

Ezekiel 45 passage for reference

16 All the people of the land will be required to give this special offering to the prince in Israel. 17 It will be the duty of the prince to provide the burnt offerings, grain offerings and drink offerings at the festivals, the New Moons and the Sabbaths—at all the appointed festivals of Israel. He will provide the sin offerings, grain offerings, burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to make atonement for the Israelites.

Ezekiel is describing the responsibilities of the people to bring offerings to the prince who then passes them on to the priests at the appropriate times.

The only things these two passages have in common is that they are both a list of Jewish practices. Lists similar to this appear in 2 Chronicles 2:4, 2 Chronicles 8:13, and 2 Chronicles 31:3. These passages - including the Ezekiel one - deal with laws that were to be followed. The list Paul gives are things that are not needed for salvation.

First
The context points us toward understanding the Colossians 2:16 verse as referring to food and drink, what one eats and drinks at meals, rather than the grain offerings and drink offerings we see in the Ezekiel passage.

Second
Even if "eat or drink" really means "sin offerings, grain offerings, burnt offerings and fellowship offerings" The point Paul is making in the passage remains the same.
Christ is the focus of our faith not rituals.

10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority.

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  • Thanks for the reply! This seems to better fit the fact that Colossians 2:16's wording is "food" and "drink," not food and drink offerings. Though I asked in the other answer, since that's the one it's more relevant to, I'll ask you as well in case you have any information: Are food and drink offerings ever referred to as just "food" and "drink" anywhere in Scripture?
    – The Editor
    Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 23:24
  • 1
    @TheEditor Here is a link to the results of a Bible search for "food and drink"". It appears in the NIV translation 9 times. In all 9 examples the context is human nourishment, not offerings.
    – David D
    Commented Mar 28, 2022 at 22:12
  • Thanks for the answer!
    – The Editor
    Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 3:05
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Before discussing this, let me analyse Eze 45:17 which contains a series of single words (in the Hebrew) about the various offerings. The text begins with:

And it shall be the prince's [job/part] [to give]:

  • עֹלָה (olah) = burnt offering, literally, that which goes up (ie the smoke) to heaven on an altar, eg, Gen 8:20, 22:2, Ex 10:25, 18:12, 20:24, 24:5, 29:18, etc.
  • מִנְחָה (minchah) = a gift, tribute, offering made to God of any kind whether grain or animals, but sometimes a grain offering of roasted grain or cakes or loaves of bread, , that is food generally, eg, Gen 4:3, 4, 32:13, 18, 43:25, 26, Ex 29:41, 30:9, 40:29, etc
  • נֶסֶךְ (necek) = drink offering, literally, that which is poured out, eg, Gen 35:14, Ex 29:41, 30:9, Lev 23:13, 18, 23:37, Num 4:7, 6:15, 15:5, etc.
  • חַג (chag) = festival gathering, feast, pilgrim feast, eg, Ex 10:9, 12:14, 13:6, 23:15, 16, Lev 23:6, 34, 39, 41, Num 28:17, 29:12, etc.
  • חֹדֶשׁ (chodesh) = new moon or month, eg, gen 7:11, 8:4, Ex 12:2, 18, 13:4, 16:1, 19:1, Lev 16:29, 23:5, 6, 24, 27, 32, 39, 41, Num 29:6, 1 Sam 20:5, 18, etc.
  • שַׁבָּת (shabbath) = sabbath (plural in Isa 45:17, "sabbaths") whether one of the annual sabbaths or the weekly Sabbath, eg, Ex 16:23, 25, 26, 29, 20:8 (weekly Sabbath), Lev 16:31 (one of the annual sabbaths), Lev 19:3, 30, 23:11, 15, 16, 32, etc.
  • מוֹעֵד (mo-ade') = appointed time or place, ie, appointed times for ceremonial feasts (In Eze 45:17), eg, Gen 1:14, 17:21, Ex 13;10, 23:15, 27:21, 28:43, 29:10, 34:18, etc.
  • חַטָּאָה (chatta'ah) = sinful thing, sin, sin offering (in Eze 45:17), eg, Gen 4:7, 18:20, 31:36, Ex 29:14, 36, 30:10, 30, 32, 34:7, Lev 4:3, 8, 14, 20, etc.
  • שֶׁלֶם (shelem) = sacrifice for alliance, peace offering, eg, Ex 20:24, 24:5, 29:28, 32:6, Lev 3:1, 3, 9, 4:10, 26, 31, 6:12, 7:11, 13, etc.

Thus, it is abundantly clear that the ceremonial law of various burnt offerings is in view in Eze 45:17, with nine of the essential elements listed. Thus we have a parade of ideas in Isa 45:17 exactly parallel to Col 1:17 - food,(offering), drink (offering), festival, new moon, sabbaths.

Col 2:16, 17 cannot be divorced from the previous verses. Note the fuller text of Col 2:13-17 -

13 When you were dead in your trespasses and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our trespasses, 14 blotted out the handwriting in the decrees against us. He took it away, nailing it to the cross! 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

16 Therefore let no one judge you in regard to food or drink, or with regard to a feast, a New Moon, or sabbaths. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the body that casts it belongs to Christ.

The highlighted section, "handwriting of the decrees" is χειρόγραφον τοῖς δόγμασιν was the had-written note outlining a personal debt to someone [check out χειρόγραφον in any good lexicon] - in this case it is the debt of sin. This phrase amplifies the previous phrase in the text above which says "He forgave us our trespasses".

Thus, there is no law that was nailed to the cross - it is the debt of sin that was nailed to the cross.

V16 and 17 say the rather obvious, by alluding to Eze 45:17 and all the ceremonial offerings and feasts etc, Paul repeats what Peter said in Acts 15:10 -

Now then, why do you test God by placing on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?

The ceremonial law with all its sacrifices, feasts and circumcision etc, was abandoned at the cross because as Paul points out in Col 2:17,

These are a shadow of the things to come, but the body that casts it belongs to Christ.

Clean vs Unclean meat

The distinction between clean vs unclean meat is not explicitly in view in Col 2:16, 17 for the following reasons:

  1. Col 1:16, 17 alludes to Eze 45:17 where such a distinction is not mentioned nor in view
  2. The distinction between clean and unclean food was originally part of the Noahide covenant in Gen 8 and 9 and so independent of (but repeated by) the Levitical/ceremonial law in the Torah
  3. The rules about food are repeated as binding upon Christians a part of the final communique of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15:28, 29.
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  • Thanks for the reply! Are food and drink offerings ever referred to as just "food" and "drink" elsewhere in Scripture?
    – The Editor
    Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 22:27
  • @TheEditor - that should be the subject of another question but suffice to say that "food and drink" can refer to either general nourishment (Ezra 3:7, Dan 1:10, 1 cor 9:4, 2 Chron 28:15), or, ceremonial food and drink (Heb 9:10). The former is by far the most common, and the latter very rare.
    – Dottard
    Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 23:55
  • I ask as it pertains to this question. Not that it couldn't be an extra question, though. My point is that if the offerings sense of food and drink is very rare or nonexistent, then perhaps it would prima facie not be the correct interpretation here. Even Hebrews 9:10 may be about distinguishing clean and unclean foods, according to some commentaries I checked. Does usage data from Hebrews 9:10 or elsewhere clearly show the offerings sense of the terms being implied by the terms themselves (i.e., without needing the term offerings)? If this can be shown clearly, your point strengthens.
    – The Editor
    Commented Mar 26, 2022 at 1:49
  • @TheEditor - "food and drink" only means "food offerings and drink offerings" in the right contexts, namely when new moons, festivals, sabbaths, as here, and in Heb 9:10 = "food and drink and various ceremonial washings". Otherwise it just means general nourishment. See my expanded explanation above.
    – Dottard
    Commented Mar 26, 2022 at 1:54
  • Do you have a scholarly source verifying that "food and drink" refers to "food offerings and drink offerings" in such contexts? Even in Hebrews 9:10, your main example, I'm not sure the meaning is offerings. In Albert Barnes's commentary, for example, he seems to see such a view as merely an alternative interpretation, not the primary view of the text. Unless there's a source showing that "food and drink" can be shorthand for "food offerings and drink offerings," would it be better to understand the term by its surface meaning, actual food and actual drink (NIV, "what you eat or drink")?
    – The Editor
    Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 3:12
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Question: Which interpretation of Colossians 2:16's reference to food and drink is the correct one? Is the reference to 1) Jewish dietary laws of clean/unclean meats, 2) food and drink offerings, or 3) something else?

Answer: 3) something else.

This section is often interpreted as being about criticism from Jewish Christians, who expect other Christians to follow the "old laws". But that is totally opposite to the reality of it.

Looking at the surrounding context, it's obvious that the criticism is coming from Pagans who object to what they consider the immoral behaviour of the Christians.

This is a small Christian community, mostly made up of converts from paganism, not Jews. Their families, friends, etc. all believe in asceticism, the purity of the soul and the evil of the body and physical pleasure. They are criticising the Christian converts for drinking alcohol, for eating meat, for celebrating God's holy days (which symbolize God's plan for mankind), for enjoying life.

Consider the structure of this scripture (KJV without the italicized supplied extra words):

Therefore
    let
        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

A much more obvious meaning immediately becomes apparent: let no one but the body of Christ judge you (the body of Christ being the Church). We should not feel bad about being condemned by non-Christians for our Christian practices such as honouring the symbols of God's promises. — exegesis - Keeping the Sabbath and Colossians 2:16 - Christianity Stack Exchange.

So, when Paul talks about being judged in food or drink, he's talking about the situation where Christians are enjoying pleasant drinks (e.g. wine), and eating delicious food (e.g. meat). For Christians, there is nothing wrong with such physical pleasures, but for the "morally superior" vegetarian non-Christians, such activity is considered a sin.

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  • Thanks for replying. My question isn't who's judging or what it means to judge. My question is what the "food" and "drink" reference.
    – The Editor
    Commented Mar 30, 2022 at 20:52
  • @TheEditor, I've added an ending paragraph to make it more explicit. There's nothing special about the food and drink other than that enjoying food and drink as a physical pleasure is something the ascetics consider wrong. Commented Mar 30, 2022 at 22:45

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