“These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”
The interpretive grid through which we properly understand the world is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Everything was created by Jesus and for Jesus, and in Jesus is everything sustained (Col. 1:16-17). The world has always sought for a way to understand reality apart from the person and work of Jesus Christ. These lens or worldviews are mere shadows, and Paul mentions several of them in Colossians 2.
Rationalism – plausible arguments (2:4)
Traditionalism – philosophy according to human tradition (2:8)
Ceremonialism – festivals, new moon, and Sabbath (2:16)
Sensationalism – worship of angels, detailed accounts of visions (2:18)
Empiricism – do not handle, do not taste, do not touch (2:21)
All of these are “human precepts” (2:22) and “not according to Christ” (2:8). They give the appearance of plausibility on the surface but in reality they are only shadows. Nevertheless, we are tempted to make much of shadows. If it is not logic (rationalism), it is experience (empiricism). If it is not traditional, it is sensational. There are ditches on either side we are prone to fall into, unless there is something more substantive, more true, more corresponding to reality.
Paul says the substance is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (2:3). And when we look at the heart of Colossians 2, we discover the way we reject the shadowlands of “isms” is to dwell deep in the substance of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only through the gospel can we be “rooted and built up and established in the faith” (Col. 2:7). Paul says the fullness of God dwelt in Jesus, and we have been filled with Jesus (which means the fullness of God fills our lives!). The substance belongs to Christ, and Christ belongs to us.
In the gospel, you have been buried with Christ in baptism (2:12)
In the gospel, you have been raised with Christ through the powerful working of God (2:12)
In the gospel, you have been made alive together with Christ (2:13)
In the gospel, your life is hidden with Christ in God (3:3)
That’s the substance.
Everything else is shadows. The gospel is an invitation out of the shadowlands and into the eternal realities purposed by God who works all things according to the counsel of His own will (Eph. 1:11). We are called to live gospel-centered lives because any other kind of living would be explorations into the various dimensions of shadows. When the gospel is our hermeneutic for life, we are embodying the divine critique of all elemental principles of the world, calling people out of the dominion of darkness and into the kingdom of His beloved Son (1:13). And the more we center our lives in our union with Christ in his life, death, and resurrection, the more substantive and satisfying our lives will become.
May God give us grace to make much of the substance that is found in Jesus Christ!