Paul's Prison Epistles: Paul And The Colossians


Colossian Problem II—Legalism: Colossians 2:11-16

Paul upheld the Mosaic law. And he was willing to accept and participate in many traditional Jewish practices for the sake of the gospel. So, if the false teachers in Colosse had employed the Law in a valid way, Paul would not have criticized their use of it. His criticisms indicate that the false teachers were using Jewish teachings and practices in corrupt ways.

In Colossians 2:16 Paul referred to a number of Jewish practices that the false teachers abused when he wrote:

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 (Colossians 2:16).

Evidently, the false teachers in Colosse stressed certain practices derived from the Old Testament law. These included observances of the Jewish calendar such as religious festivals, New Moon celebrations and the Sabbath day, as well as dietary restrictions. But they did not observe these Old Testament regulations in the way prescribed by the Mosaic law, nor did they apply them in the way that the apostles did. On the contrary, Paul declared that their practices distorted Old Testament law and endangered the eternal destinies of those who followed them. As he wrote in Colossians 2:17-18:

These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize (Colossians 2:17-18).

The Mosaic Law did not associate holy days with the worship of angels, but with the worship of God. And it did not advocate a special diet as a means of humility or asceticism, but as a sign of being set apart as God’s special people. The false teachers, however, had corrupted these laws, using them in idolatrous worship and pagan asceticism.

In Colossians 2:11-12, Paul added circumcision to the list of Jewish laws the false teachers abused:

In him you were also circumcised … not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism (Colossians 2:11-12).

Apparently, the false teachers in Colosse were advocating a form of Christian circumcision. So, Paul associated circumcision and Christian baptism in order to teach the Colossians that because they had been baptized they did not need to be circumcised. 

In short, in Colossians Paul wrote against abuses of the Mosaic law; he did not write against the law itself. Elsewhere, Paul affirmed that the law of Moses is a proper basis for Christian morality and practice and that it teaches us many true things about God. But here in Colossians he concentrated on refuting the specific teachings and practices of the false teachers, condemning the ways that they had corrupted particular statutes in the law and insisting that the church reject these corruptions.