Friday, September 12, 2014

Shadows, Nails and the Fall Holy Days

Many of you who visit this blog are about to celebrate the Fall Holy Days. I hope you have an edifying season and safe travels, especially to the Feast of Tabernacles. I have fond memories of the Feast as a child in the Worldwide Church of God. What child - especially one who grew up in triple-tithing family - wouldn't love a week spending a tenth of the family's income on travel, restaurant food, mini golf and new toys?

As I grew older, the Feast was still a highlight, but mostly because it meant time with other teens. We'd gone through a few splits by then, and church friends were fewer and further between. I never missed a Feast, even in college. Then I married a man in "The Church." Two working adults with 10 percent of their income, forced to choose between destinations like Florida, Italy and Hawaii! What could be better? Of course, by then, our extended families were split among several different COG groups. We'd eagerly watch the Weather Channel to see which counterfeit group God would smite with a hurricane during the Feast. If poor Aunt Milly had just come to the Feast with us, in God's True Church, He would have protected her from the storm. Looking back, that bad fruit should have been a clue to us that something was wrong in the COGs. But hey, don't judge. You know you've done the same thing.

A few years later, we had our first child! We were now celebrating the Feast as a picture of the God family! This was what we had been planning for our whole lives! We were at the Feast with all of our brethren. Ok, with some of our brethren. Those ones meeting in a hall on the other side of town with a different COG group - well, they probably never really were true brethren, anyway. (This does happen. Last year half a dozen different groups met in and around Panama City Beach alone). Let's just pretend they're not there. And we're here with our family! Well, with whatever family members belong to our current splinter at this point in time. But anyway, we're here, living God's way! It's what He intended for all of mankind! This is the most meaningful time of our lives!

Except it wasn't.

I know, some of you have already decided that I never really "got it." Or that God was already removing my understanding because of my lack of faith. You've already made up your mind. You're free to think that way. I know I did when I was in your shoes. 

Many of you probably love the Holy Days, and, if so, I hope you enjoy them this year. There's nothing wrong with worshiping God any day, any time, any place. But if you've started to notice a hollowness while everyone around you is having the "best Feast ever," you're not alone. If you suspect something is missing, you're right.

During the Fall Holy Day season, I'd like to examine Paul's comparison of the festivals (among other things) to shadows of the coming Savior in Colossians 2. In studying this topic, I've found that the COGs play word games, violate the rules of logic and ignore even the records of Flavius Josephus to twist verses 16 and 17 to support their teachings about the festivals. In this series of posts, we'll turn to the original Greek text, examine the logical fallacies of COG arguments and explain the 600-year-old Jewish New Moon ritual that believers at Colossae were likely being pressured to keep. We'll also look at the symbolism the Jews attached to the Holy Days and show how that symbolism pointed to the coming Savior. By the end, I hope you will understand what I've come to see - that Colossians 2:16-17 mean the opposite of what the COGs claim.

Before we dissect the COGs' misguided interpretation of verses 16 and 17, we need to take a some time to understand the background of what was going on at Colossae. Taking individual verses or even words out of context give us a hazy picture at best, and at worst, distort our conclusions.

In this book, Paul refutes false teachings that some are trying to impose on the Colossian brethren. Those who promoted the heresy claim that faith in Christ wasn't sufficient for salvation - that physical actions also factored into it. Besides addressing the false doctrines, Paul uses this letter to demonstrate Christ's supremacy and the total sufficiency of His sacrifice.

So who were these heretics, and what did they teach? The COGs accurately portray them as embracing Gnostic ideas like ascetic restrictions and angel worship. Gnostic Christianity traces it official beginnings to around 100 AD, but it stands to reason that the movement didn't spontaneously appear on the scene. Gnosticism had been around since Plato's day, so it's likely that some Gnostic ideas were present when the book was written, sometime around 60 A.D.

However, the COGs totally overlook the Judaising elements of the heresy at Colossae, probably because they embrace many of the same teachings Paul discourages in this letter. Most of the Colossian brethren were probably gentiles - in verse 21, we are told they were "once alienated" from God. Sin alienates all mankind from God, but up until that point in history, God worked primarily with Israel, gentiles were not a part of that relationship. And the discussion in Colossians 2:11 hints that audience was uncircumcised, and therefore, probably gentile. The Colossians would have been easy prey for those who insisted elements of Judaism be carried forward into Christianity - like those whom we see pressuring gentiles to adopt practices from the Sinai Covenant in Acts and Galatians.

Scholars struggle to define these heretics and their teachings. Expositor's Bible Commentary says it's difficult to get a clear picture of what was being taught, since the Epistle doesn't list its tenets. But from many allusions to the heresy, we are able to sketch its leading features: ascetic denial of the body, emphasis on ritual circumcision, dietary laws, and the observance of Holy Days, and affirming the mediation of various supernatural powers in creation and salvation, as well as worshiping those powers. It seems to be a syncretist movement combining Judaism, a pagan forerunner of Gnosticism and elements of Christianity. 

"While at its heart it was a combination of Judaism and paganism, it wore the mask of Christianity. It did not deny Christ, but it did dethrone Him. It gave Christ a place, but not the supreme place. This Christian facade made the Colossian error all the more dangerous," Expositor's concludes. 

Some suspect those promoting the Colossian heresy were Essenes - a Jewish sect that originated in the second century BC and died out in the second century AD. The Essenes embraced the Sinai Covenant like the Pharisees and Sadducees, but also factored in strict ascetic practices and other Gnostic elements. Little was known about the Essenes until 1947, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered at Qmran. No one is sure whether the teachers at Colossae were Essenes, but it would explain the mix of Gnosticism and Hebrew teachings Paul addresses in Colossians. And could shed light on how Paul could label a religion that included elements of the Sinai Covenant as a "hollow and deceptive philosophy" based on "human traditions"

Paul starts picking at the Gnostic ideas early in the letter. In verse 16, he asserts that Jesus was supreme above all things on heaven and earth, visible and invisible - above the angels they claimed must mediate between man and God. In verse 22, Paul points out that Jesus reconciled humanity to himself through His physical body, countering the Gnostic teaching that flesh itself was inherently sinful. And I suspect that Paul was needling Gnostics who believed they had special, hidden knowledge when, in verse 26, he asserted that ALL the saints understand the great mystery hidden from the generations. (I'll refrain from making the easy "Mystery of the Ages" comment here. But I will mention the full body shivers I got during my last year in the COGs, listening to hundreds of prayers thanking God for the "special knowledge" He revealed to The Church, compared to almost none thanking Jesus for His suffering in our place on the cross).

However, in verse 11 of chapter 2, Paul starts addressing issues that would only matter to those who placed value in tenets of the Sinai Covenant. Paul reminds the brethren in verses 11-13 that they were circumcised in the spirit by placing their faith in Christ, a superior "circumcision" to the fleshly one they lacked. Hmmmm. Could circumcision of the flesh have been a "shadow" of that spiritual circumcision of the heart? Anyway, if the heretics were simply Gnostics, they wouldn't have cared one bit about circumcision. But we do have a record of those from a Jewish background pressuring gentile believers to be circumcised (Acts 15:1, Galatians 5:2-6). Remember, circumcision was never just about being circumcised, no matter what the COGs tell you. In ancient Israel, men who wanted to keep the Passover had to be circumcised (Exodus 12:43-49). What did the believers who had been Pharisees say about the gentiles in Acts 15:5? "It is necessary to circumcise them and to command them to keep the law of Moses." Circumcision was the gateway to joining Israel and keeping the Sinai Covenant.

So about that Law of Moses... some Protestant commentaries assert Colossians 2:13-15 show that the Sinai Covenant was what Paul said was nailed to the cross. Other Protestant commentators agree with the COG view - that it was the record of our sins that was wiped out, citing Greek legal traditions from Paul's era.

Let's turn back to the original Greek text to see if we can make sense of this debate. The first word in question is "handwriting," or, in Greek, cheirographon. Spiros Zodhiates' Complete Word Study of the New Testament says this word can refer either to handwriting, to something handwritten or a manuscript - specifically a legal document or bond. The next word in question is "requirements," or in Greek, dogmasin, which means a law, civil decree or ordinance. Hmmmm. At this point, I can see both sides. It could be either a manuscript of ordinances - such as the Sinai Covenant - or a bill of debt. It is my understanding the tois between the two words requires the three words to be linked as a phrase, instead of just translating the two words individually. But I can see why some would consider the words separately and might see it as a note of debt.

Paul used three expressions to describe the document being discussed, according to Expositor's. It was, literally in the language, "written in ordinances," with regulations and legal demands. These claims were against us - they had a valid claim on us. And it stood opposed to us - likely because we could not meet the claims of the document, or because we had violated them. It's hard to imagine any legal document that would have any legitimate claims against humanity besides the Sinai Covenant, especially one that would somehow relate to Christ, but the language isn't explicit.

When words could go either way, we need to look at the context. Let's consider the two options of what Colossians 1 and 2 could mean, in context.

1. COG translation: "Christ is supreme over everything - creation, the heavens, the seen and the unseen. You have been joined to Him and you are complete in Him. He canceled the record of sins that was against us and nailed it to the cross... so don't let anyone judge you in how you do all these things. Which of course you are still legally required to do. Except for the New Moon part."

2. Protestant translation: "Christ is supreme over everything - creation, the heavens, the seen and the unseen. You have been joined to Him and you are complete in Him. He canceled the record of your sins (per verse 13) and canceled out the Sinai Covenant and nailed it to the cross... so don't let anyone judge you in these points of Sinai Covenant law, because they are no longer required of you.

As you can see, the COG explanation does not make much sense when you consider the context. The phrase about our sins being blotted out has no logical link to potential judgment for the way one eats, drinks, keeps Sabbaths, and so on. It would seem the more logical translation is that the Sinai Covenant really WAS fulfilled in Christ's death, and its tenets are no longer binding.

This becomes more clear when we look at the rest of the verse. The word used to say that the requirements are "against" us - kata - denotes opposition. But the word translated "contrary" - hupenantios - in the Greek personifies an opponent or adversary. Of course a bill of debt would be against us and could be viewed figuratively as an adversary. But consider some of the other passages written about the Sinai Covenant:

"Clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart. And we have such trust through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit, for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." 2 Corinthians 3:3-6. The letter of the law, written on tablets of stone, kills, but the Spirit of God brings life to our dead, stony hearts.

"But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away, how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious? For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory." 2 Corinthians 3:7-10. This passage clearly contrasts the Sinai Covenant with the New Covenant, calling the Sinai Covenant a ministry of death and condemnation.

"What purpose does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator. Galatians 3:19. The Sinai Covenant was added to help demonstrate transgressions until Jesus came to fulfill the promises made to Abraham - that in him all the nations of earth would be blessed (by providing the Savior).

"Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law." Galatians 3:21. The Sinai Covenant was not against the promises of God. But following it could not make man righteous before God. No law could do that.

(Tangent alert! Christians who accept this view of the Sinai Covenant are not necessarily antinomian. Sin and law of some nature clearly existed before Sinai - or else God would have had no reason to banish Cain or flood the earth. And passages late in the New Testament still talk about sin and law. Many believe God expected man to keep the Noachide laws before Sinai - which is not so crazy, considering they largely mirror what the Apostles told the gentiles to do following the Acts 15 conference. Add to that the commands Christ and His Apostles gave to His followers - and there is still quite a bit required of Christian believers. Just not the Sinai Covenant. Ok, tangent over.)

"What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, "You shall not covet." But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death." Romans 7:7-10. The Sinai Covenant was not sinful, it demonstrated what was sin to those who were a party to the covenant. Once Paul was able to understand the what was considered sinful under the Covenant, he was aware of the dark nature of his desires. Complete obedience to the Sinai Covenant would bring life, but since that was not possible, it brought death.

"Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor." Galatians 3:24-25. The Sinai Covenant taught us that it was impossible to be justified by keeping it. It showed us our need for a Savior. And now that the Savior has come, we no longer need that teacher.

In Colossians 2:14, Paul could have stopped at saying the "cheirographon tois dogmasin" was against us - that what the COGs insist was simply our bill of indebtedness was against us until Christ blotted it out. But he went further. He also called it an adversary, an opponent. The scriptures I've listed demonstrate how the Sinai Covenant, as holy as it was, could not make man holy. It couldn't change his heart. It only demonstrated his sinfulness, how short he fell, and how his only hope was the promised Savior. It led him to Jesus by accusing him of wrongdoing and failure - rightfully so - every day of his life. Is this not the role of an adversary?

The items listed in Colossians 2:16 - the food, the drink, the festivals, the New Moons and Sabbaths - they were all a part of the tutor - the Sinai Covenant - that was intended to lead Israel to Christ. They didn't lead Israel to try harder - we all know that. The Sinai Covenant was given, I believe, to demonstrate that even a nation chosen by God, rescued by God, sustained by God, planted in a blessed land by God and told exactly how to worship by God couldn't obey. They couldn't achieve true righteousness. Heck, they barely made it out of Egypt before they started complaining. If they couldn't do it, with all those advantages, what chance do we have? Our only hope is to throw ourselves upon the mercy of God. And once we are given the gift of salvation, the gift of Christ's righteousness imputed to us, those shadows have done their job.

The Sinai Covenant was an administrative covenant of detailed written laws given for a time, to restrain the Israelites' sin and to be a custodian to point people to Christ, according to Galatians chapter 3, verses 19 and 24 (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 521). The sacrificial system outlined in the covenant did not really take away sins (Hebrews 10:1-4), it simply foreshadowed Christ's sacrifice for sin.

"Nevertheless, the Mosiac Covenant itself, with all its detailed laws, could not save people. It is not that the laws were wrong in themselves, for they were given by a Holy God, but they had no power to give people new life, and the people were not able to obey them perfectly," Grudem says, alluding to Galatians 3:21.  

I'm aware that I haven't conclusively proven that the Sinai Covenant was nailed to the Cross, or that we can cast off its tenets. You can read more on that topic here.  My intention is to encourage you to do is look at Colossians 2 in context. When we ignore the context, and just look at words or scriptures in isolation, you can make them say pretty much whatever you want. Which is why you often have upwards of 30 individual verses, almost none adjacent, in a 45-minutes COG sermon. It takes intellectual honesty to look at a passage of scripture in context. In my next post, we'll look at a few words and verses from Colossians 2 that the COGs twist in isolation to support their misinterpretation of this passage.

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; ) Acts 17:11


AC said...

" But hey, don't judge. You know you've done the same thing."
Actually we pray for good weather and safety for all. Some really do take loving others very seriously and some really do realize that being sinners ourselves leaves little room to judge.
Not trying to be smart here just saying some really do take things seriously in that way.

Martha said...

Thanks for reading, AC! I understand that you aren't trying to "be smart."

You're right, there are some who take the kinds of things you mentioned seriously. I can think of names and faces of gentle folks who were slow to judge and quick to give others the benefit of the doubt. Sadly, they were not the majority and were often whispered about behind their backs for showing grace. I wish I had learned more from them than their naysayers.

Perhaps this is one of the few positive effects of continued COG splintering - it's hard to demonize another group as deceived and Laodicean when one's respected aunt or nephew attend it. Regardless, I respect and applaud your gracious approach.