The letter to the Colossians mentions “festival,” “new moon,” and “Sabbath,” and concludes, according to most English translations, that these things “are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col 2:16-17, NRSV; cf. NASB; NIV; RSV). Other versions say that “the reality is Christ” (2:17, NET), which implies that the “shadow” is somehow unreal or deficient. These translations lead many readers to think that Yeshua supersedes the Law because everything that came before him was a mere shadow. Yet, the text does not relegate the Mosaic commands to the trash bin in light of Jesus’ arrival. Instead, Colossians alludes to the universal observance of the biblical holidays when the Messiah inaugurates the world to come.
Whereas many translations speak of Jesus as the “substance,” and days like the Sabbath as “only a shadow,” these English renderings are imprecise. First, “only” is an English import that does not have a Greek equivalent in the sentence. Second, the original language is more concrete in its description of Jesus vis-à-vis the shadow. A better rendering of Col 2:17 would be, “These are a shadow (σκιὰ; skià) of the coming [things], but the body (σῶμα; sōma) is the Messiah’s.” Jesus is not the “reality” over against non-reality, nor is he the “substance” in place of the unsubstantial biblical feasts. Rather, Yeshua is the body that casts the shadow; there would be no shadow without the body and vice versa. The body does not replace the shadow; on the contrary, the continued existence of the shadow is contingent on the body. Likewise, Colossians states that the arrival and presence of the Messiah undergirds the legitimacy of biblical feasts.
Moreover, these terms conjure the image of a body casting a shadow—that is, the shadow appearing in front of someone and moving across the sun-soaked ground ahead of the person’s body. This is why Paul speaks of biblical holy days as a shadow of “coming [things] (μελλόντων; mellónton),” rather than that which lags behind the body. Some New Testament readers conclude that the shadow denotes observances for Israel before Jesus came, but this is not what the text says. Rather, it states that the “shadow” of festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths are things still to come. Instead of claiming that Yeshua renders God’s appointed times meaningless, the letter assures Gentile believers at Colossae that they will observe these celebrations the in eschatological future (cf. Isa 66:22-23; Heb 4:9). At present (and always) one’s focus should be on Jesus—the “body”—but the letter to the Colossians also envisions the universal observance of biblical feasts in God’s coming kingdom.