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Of Festivals, New Moons, and Sabbaths

Colossians 2:16-23 (text); Leviticus 23:1-2, 37-38; Isaiah 1:1-17; Hebrews 8:5; 10:1

September 29, 2013 • Download this sermon (PDF)

When Christ returns from heaven, he will complete his sacrifice on the Passover, remove the leaven of sin, and carry his people to his heavenly kingdom as firstfruits. He will gather his people in a final, great harvest gathering of souls. On that day, a final trumpet will sound to announce the great news that the Day of Atonement from sin is consummated—sin and death will be no more. And God’s people will finally dwell in the new heaven and earth, where God will dwell with them as their God.

Beloved congregation of Christ: The church in Colossae was probably started by Epaphras, a man who believed after he heard the gospel preached by Paul in Ephesus. Epaphras probably reported the dangerous teaching threatening the church at Colossae (Col 4:12). This letter is Paul’s response to this false teaching, and to build up the Colossian believers towards Christian maturity.

What is this false teaching commonly called the “Colossian heresy”? There are different answers offered. Gnosticism, an early heresy that taught that the world was created by an inferior god, that the material world is evil, and that asceticism should be practiced. But Paul never argues against another god being taught by the false teachers. “Judaizers,” such as those mentioned in Galatians, might have been teaching observance of Old Testament Sabbaths and festivals. Perhaps, they were also interested in a form of Jewish mysticism that includes angel worship and visions.

But the most convincing interpretation is that the heresy is a syncretism of Old Testament Jewish and pagan beliefs and practices, including the invocation of angelic help and protection from evil spirits. So there is deception involved because some of the teachings come from Scriptures, but they mix in their own paganism with it.

In our text, Paul encourages the Colossian believers to free themselves from this Jewish-pagan folk religion, because Christ is sufficient for their salvation and walk with God. All the Old Testament regulations and feasts are but a shadow of the things to come, and Christ is the substance and reality of those things. Christ has also freed them from worthless self-made religion.

In the past several Lord’s Days, we studied the sacrifices and offerings in Leviticus 9 during the first worship service in the tabernacle in the wilderness. Today, we start a new series in Leviticus 23, where God gives us a short description and chronological sequence of Israel’s seven feasts. But we study them not merely for information, but that we may better know the person and work of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and the gospel that he preached.

“A Shadow of the Things to Come”

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. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (verses 16-17).

In these two verses, we see the false teachers burdening the people with legalism regarding Old Testament ceremonial laws. They teach that these practices are the means of spiritual growth.

Some think Paul is encouraging Christians to practice Old Testament ceremonies. No! He’s teaching the opposite. He’s condemning false teachers who burden believers with ceremonies that have become obsolete. Salvation and holiness cannot be found in ceremonies. Not in self-effort, or in what we eat or drink. Works and obedience are fruits of salvation. Against the false teachers, the Colossian believers are not to be concerned if they are not performing these regulations.

What are these regulations? These are found mostly in Old Testament ceremonies.

Food and drink regulations are found in the dietary laws in the Mosaic Law. There are clean and unclean foods. There are no laws regarding drink, except the prohibition of wine for priests (Lev 10:8-9) and Nazirites (Num 6:2-3) and against drunkenness.

Festivals, new moons and sabbaths are also part of the Mosaic ceremonial laws. They involve sacrifices and offerings. Leviticus 23 lists Israel’s feasts. Sabbaths are rest days, usually the seventh day of the week. In addition, the last three feasts listed are also called sabbaths. And “new moons” are the first day of every month, when burnt offerings are offered (Num 28:11).

In the next seven Lord’s Days, we will study each of God’s appointed feasts for Israel. These are Passover, Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, Weeks, Trumpets, Day of Atonement, and Tabernacles. Except for the Feast of Firstfruits, ordinary work is prohibited on these feasts.

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Paul says that all these feasts are but “a shadow of the things to come.” Are shadows the real things? When you were little, were you scared of your own shadow, or the shadows of others? Or did you play with the shadow of your hands, making them look like a dog, a bird, or a rabbit? If you touch your shadow, you’re not touching yourself, you’re touching a wall or a floor or a street. A shadow of yourself is not your real self. But it points to you, not to someone else.

In the same way, these festivals, new moons and sabbaths in Israel point to something else. Sometimes, they are called a foretaste. When your Mom is cooking something really good like adobo, and she asks you to taste just a tiny piece of it, it’s a foretaste. I like the aroma of coffee in the morning, so even just the aroma becomes a foretaste. Biblical shadows are sometimes also called types. Types are also a foretaste of something that is still coming. And those things that are coming are always better than the types. For example, Adam is a type of Christ, because he was also called a son of God, he was created good, and he was the covenant head of mankind. But Christ was the better fulfillment of the type, because he is The Son of God, he is the perfect Man forever, and he is the covenant head of God’s people.

Our readings in Hebrews also mention types and shadows. The tabernacle in the wilderness, with all its priesthood, structure and furnishings, was only a lesser copy of the heavenly pattern shown to Moses at Mount Sinai (Ex. 25:40), “They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Heb 8:5). The Law, with its priesthood, covenant, sacrifices, and tabernacle can never make a person perfect since it is but a shadow of the true form. It is but “a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (Heb 10:1).

What are these “good things to come”?

“But The Substance Belongs to Christ”
All these Old Testament ceremonial laws about food and drink, festivals, new moons and Sabbaths, are but types and shadows, a foretaste of the good things to come, which is Christ himself. This is what the writer of Hebrews says:

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption (Heb 9:11-12).

The Old Testament high priest is a type of Christ, our High Priest forever, because of his “indestructible life.” He is the better High Priest of a better Tabernacle not made with hands, which is heaven. He is the Mediator of a better and new covenant, because God himself provided a Redeemer for his people. He is the better Sacrifice, because he is the Perfect Lamb of God, and his Sacrifice is a once-for-all sacrifice.

Why offer the Perfect Lamb again and again every time there is a Mass? Why rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, since Christ is the “more perfect tent” and there is no more sacrifice to be offered except Christ’s sacrifice on the cross 2,000 years ago? “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb 10:10).

Why is Jesus Christ the substance and reality of the good things to com? Paul explains earlier in Colossians 1 and 2 that he is the all-sufficient Savior and Lord. Through Christ, we “reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ.” As well, in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:2-3).

Christ is also fully God with the full divinity of God himself, “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority” (Col 2:9-10). “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15). He has God’s full authority in the whole universe, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:19).

His resurrection as “the firstborn from the dead” (Col 1:18) demonstrated his authority and victory even over Satan and all demonic powers, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col 2:15).

Because of all these“good things that have come” through Christ’s perfect life, death and resurrection, God has given him authority “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20).

This is why all the seven feasts appointed by God for his Old Testament people Israel were shadows, types, copies and foretaste of the life, death, burial and resurrection of Christ. He is the substance of all these foreshadows.

Every seventh day is “a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work” (Lev 23:3). By his perfect, sinless life, Jesus is able to offer us rest from all our works for our salvation. He invites all those who are heavily burdened by sin and misery, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). Our Lord’s Day worship service is only a foretaste of our perfect rest in Christ. No amount of good works will merit us into heaven, because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). One sin, even in thought alone, sends us to death and hell. This is why all of us die, because we are all sinners who are condemned to death. Christ, the only sinless person who ever lived died, not for his own sin, but for the sin of his people. Therefore, God raised him from the tomb, and now he lives forever!

How are you saved from this condemnation of sin and death? Repent of your sin and believe in Christ as your Savior and Lord! You are saved by faith alone, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9). Nowhere in the Bible do we find a sinner who is saved by doing good works. Faith alone in Christ alone is the only way to eternal Sabbath rest.

Feasts of Israel (vertical)After the Sabbath day in verse 3, Moses lists seven appointed feasts for Israel. These feasts require three separate trips to the temple in Jerusalem. The first three feasts are celebrated on the first 21 days of the 1st month. The Feast of Weeks requires a second trip 50 days later, on the sixth day of the 3rd month. And the last three feasts are on the first 21 days of the 7th month, a third trip.

The first appointed feast is the LORD’s Passover. On the 14th day of the 1st month. Christ is our Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7) who was sacrificed on the very hour that the Passover lamb was being slaughtered in the Temple.

The second appointed feast is the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the day after Passover. And what happens the day after Christ’s death? He was in the tomb. Christ was buried so that the leaven of sin is taken away from his people. He is the Bread of Life who takes our leaven of sin away.

The third appointed feast is the Feast of Firstfruits, in which a sheaf of the harvest is waved before the LORD. It is offered on the day after the Sabbath, which is the first day of the week. Christ rose from the tomb on this day, “the firstborn from the dead.”

The fourth appointed feast is the Feast of Weeks, later called the Feast of Pentecost. On this day, a grain offering is offered. This is commemorated 50 days after the day after the Feast of Firstfruits. Fifty days after his resurrection from the dead, Christ sent the Holy Spirit to his disciples, and they harvested 3,000 souls from sin. These are also “firstfruits” because they were the first to repent and believe in Christ on that first Pentecost Sunday.

The fifth appointed feast is the Feast of Trumpets. The trumpets are sounded to mark the first day of the seventh month, the holiest month of the year for Israel. This is later celebrated as the Jewish New Year. When Jesus first came, he was a herald blowing his trumpet to announce the good news of peace, happiness and salvation in the kingdom of God (Mk 1:15).

The sixth appointed feast is the Day of Atonement. On this day, the priest and the people shall offer a sin offering and a burnt offering to the LORD to atone for their sins. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is the substitutionary atonement for our sins. He who was righteous and had no sin became sin for us who are unrighteous sinners (1 Pet 3:18). The good news that he proclaimed is that salvation from God’s righteous wrath in hell comes through faith and trust in him.

The seventh and last appointed feast is the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles. The Israelites shall build booths outside their homes, decorate it with all kinds of trees and leaves, and dwell in them for seven days. This is to commemorate God’s gracious provisions for them during their sojourn in the wilderness for 40 years. When Christ came, he “tabernacled” with his people (1 Jn 1:14).

There is one appointed commemoration that is not listed here: the Jubilee. This is the year after seven Sabbath years, or every 50th year. In this year, all slaves are freed, all loans are forgiven, and all the land is left to rest from sowing and harvesting. At the beginning of this Jubilee Year, the trumpets are sounded, a year of rest is proclaimed. (Lev 25) When Christ first preached the gospel in his hometown Nazareth, he said he had come “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:16-19), the good news that he has come to save his people from sin. And in the fullness of time, when he returns from heaven, he will complete his sacrifice on the Passover, the taking away of the leaven of sin, and carry his people to his heavenly kingdom as firstfruits. He will gather his people in a final, great harvest gathering of souls.

On that day, a final trumpet will sound to announce the great news that the Day of Christ has come. The final Day of Atonement from sin is consummated; sin and death will be no more. And God’s people will finally dwell in the new heaven and earth, where God will dwell with them as their God.

How then shall we respond today to this great truth of the whole Scripture, from the Old to the New, that all of it is about the life, death, burial and resurrection of Christ the Savior (Lk 24:44-47)?

“Self-Made Religion of No Value”
We are to look at the regulations of the Old Testament as foreshadows of Christ, who is all the good things that have come. They are good things because he has freed us not only from all those regulations, but also from man-made pagan practices that “are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” or sin (Col 2:23). What are these practices? Paul mentions two things.

The first is asceticism. This involves punishing oneself, such as “severity to the body” in verse 23. Or putting restrictions against things that the false teachers consider evil, “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (verse 18). Paul is probably referring to the practice of fasting or taboos. But this is contrary to Paul’s teaching that there is nothing inherently evil in the body or in food. Fasting can also be a source of pride, “puffed up without reason” (verse 18) resulting in false humility. Asceticism also involves separating from the world, which Paul never teaches.

The second is mysticism in the forms of angel worship and visions. This involves invoking angelic help and protection from evil spirits. Today, many pray to Mary and to the saints for help. But Christ and no other is the only Mediator between God and man. As well, these false teachings were given by angels or saints or Mary in visions. Or maybe they had visions of God himself revealing his plans or prophecies. Or maybe from contemplative prayer, emptying and altering the mind, which is nothing more than Eastern transcendental meditation of Buddhism and Hinduism.

These are all “elemental spirits of the world” or “elementary principles.” These can mean two things: (1) the basic principles of pagan religion, or (2) demonic spirits, the equivalent of “rulers and authorities” (verses 10, 15). This is false teaching handed down as “self-made religion,” not from the Word of God.

Paul exhorts them to stay away from these elementary principles or demonic spirits, and instead “hold fast to the Head,” which is Christ (verse 19). It is Christ from whom the whole church is nourished and knitted together. How does the church grow together? It is through the means of grace—preaching and sacraments—according to God’s Word. The church is nourished by the food and drink that Christ offers: Bread from Heaven and Living Water. It is knitted together as one body with many parts with different responsibilities (1 Cor 12). Growing together in godliness and holiness that is from God and the Spirit.

Is there anything lacking in your salvation that you need to add obsolete ceremonies that are but a shadow of all the good things that Christ the Substance has accomplished for you?

Do you add the “elemental things of this world” to know God and obey his will? The Bible strictly forbids you to add to or take away from his Word, whether it is in doctrine, worship or practices, such as fasting or staying away from certain food or drink; or performing certain rituals as quiet times or nailing your sins to the cross; or attending worship concerts; or flogging yourself every Good Friday; or praying to the saints; or seeking visions; or by Eastern meditation.

Instead of trying to draw near to God and grow in grace through certain pious and religious works, draw near to Him by coming boldly to the throne of grace in prayer, using the Word of God. It is in his Word and Spirit that your salvation is completed. It is where you will find that the Old Testament feasts and ceremonies are but a shadow and a copy of the life, death, burial and resurrection and return of our Savior Jesus Christ.

The promise of our Lord and Savior Jesus is true, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).

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