The Shadow and the Solid
Geoffrey J. Paxton is an Anglican clergyman and
principal of the Queensland Bible Institute, Brisbane, Australia.
His entire ministry since his ordination in 1966 has been spent
in Brisbane diocese.
All who are acquainted with the epistle to the Colossians exult
in its Christ-exalting tone and content. After his prayer of thanksgiving
(1:3-12), Paul expatiates on the supremacy of the Son of God (1:13-20),
reconciliation through His death (1:21-23) and the glorious secret
of God, "hidden for long ages and through many generations"
(1:26, N.E.B.). "The secret is this: Christ in you, the hope
of a glory to come" (1:27, NEB.; cf. also 2:3). Paul stresses
the fact that he speaks to the Colossians about Christ Himself being
the secret — the Christ in whom is hidden all (2:3) — to save them
from being talked into error by specious arguments (2:4).
What was the danger against which the apostle was so earnestly warning
the Colossians? The danger was nothing less than confusing the shadow
with the reality! (2:17, N.E.B.). The "shadow" in this
instance was empirical piety-regulations concerning eating and drinking
(2:16), observances (2:16), self-mortification, angel worship and
private revelations (2:18) — and the "solid reality" was
Christ (2:17), the Head (2:19). To embrace an empirical, piety-centered
religion is to embrace a shadow and to lose the solid reality. It
is to give oneself to the perishable, the precepts of men, and to
lose hold on the imperishable, the precept of God (2:22). To confuse
the shadow with solid reality, to concentrate upon the rigoristic
and self-mortifying activity, gives a great appearance of spirituality;
but in actual fact it is stuck in the very ditch of legalism and
To state the
obvious, Paul does not repudiate practical morality and true piety
(3:5-10; 3:18-4:6). But he does, with all his apostolic zeal, repudiate
a confusion of such with the reality of Christ as alien righteousness.
This explains his avowed repudiation of piety in Colossians 2:16-23
and his exhortation to piety in Colossians 3:5-10 and 3:18 to 4:6.
The worldly deceivers (2:4, 8) thought that such piety, such self-mortifying
rigorism, is in actual fact that which pleases God, when all the
time it is Christ Himself, and Christ alone, who is pleasing to
the Father. The believer is pleasing because
he is in Christ and Christ is his life (2:9, 10; 3:3, 4). The seemingly
wise (2:23) were placing their confidence in and receiving their
encouragement from things on the earth, whereas Paul exhorts the
Colossians to look away to heaven because that is where Christ is!
(3:1, 2). The Colossian troublers were affixed to the visible,
whereas Paul calls those in Christ to realize that their acceptability
with God is a thing well and truly hidden (3:3). That righteousness
which is the sole righteousness pleasing in God's sight can only
be viewed by faith. Sight does not behold it until the time of the
Those caught away by the tradition of men (2:8) mistook their empirical
piety for newness, whereas Paul exhorts the Colossians to good works
on the basis of the fact that they have (already) put off the old
man and have (already) put on the new man (3:9, 10). Paul would
not have the Colossians tricked into thinking that the new man consists
in not lying, etc. (3:9). When observable piety is the expression
of faith in Christ as our alien righteousness, then such works are
the fruit of the Spirit. If not, irrespective of how wise and spiritual
and loving they appear, they are flesh.
What, then, are some consequences of this New Testament message?
What should it teach the evangelical church of today about faith?
1. Faith is always faith in the alien righteousness of Jesus Christ.
This righteousness must never be confused with the new obedience
of the believer, for the righteousness of faith is Jesus Christ
Himself. He, Jesus Christ, is all in all. Faith in Jesus Christ
as alien righteousness is the peculiar creation of the Spirit.
Has not piety, or what we are accustomed to call "sanctification," replaced the alien righteousness of Jesus Christ? That which ought
to be the by productive fruit of gratitude for a new life in the
person of Christ, has become that which we offer to God for our
acceptance in His sight.
2. Faith is never centered in conversion or the new birth. Conversion-mentality
and not Christ-mentality characterizes so much preaching and teaching
today. We need constantly to be on our guard against the tendency
to substitute psychological and sociological newness for the New
Man, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is hidden except to faith, and faith
(fides) is opposed to sense (sensus) and sight.
Hence we need to exercise
great care in the use we make of the "changed life." Empirical
piety may be ambiguous. It may not be empirically different whether
it comes from the Spirit or the flesh. The exchanged life of Christ
creates the changed life of the believer, but the changed life of
the believer must never occupy the place of the exchanged life of
Christ. The tendency to present our own righteousness to God in
the place of the one true righteousness of Christ, is the constant
leaning of the flesh.
The Colossian message has much to say concerning the present-day
emphasis upon fullness — and visible fullness at that. Colossians
knows a fullness, and it may benefit us greatly to have a closer
look at it.
1. The fullness is in Jesus Christ (2:9), and by virtue of their
faith-union with Christ, believers already possess that fullness
2. The fullness which the believer has in Jesus Christ is, of necessity,
hidden with Christ (3:3) and will not be manifested until Christ
is manifested (3:4).
3. This possession of fullness does not mean a cessation of the
battle against those things which seek to pull us away from the
Head. It is not always remembered that the positive statements concerning
the possession of fullness, riches, etc., were made of a group that
still needed to be told to mortify their earth-bound sensuality
(3:5), to stop lying to each other (3:9) and to persevere in prayer!
(4:2). Such richly-endowed believers were involved in the grind
of daily existence!
4. This possession of fullness in Christ does not eradicate the
hope of the believer (as does so much present-day fullness teaching)
but rather is the basis and guarantee of such a hope! (1:27). Because
he has put on the new man (3:9, 10), the believer does not expect
a here-and-now empirical completion but rather looks forward to,
and indeed presses forward to, a final fullness and newness which
will (then) mean the cessation of all further grind and battle!
Finally, anyone who reads the epistle to the Colossians thoughtfully
must be struck by the silence concerning the Holy Spirit. Without
any intention whatsoever to deprecate the Third Person of the Blessed
Trinity, there may be a real corrective here to so much Spirit-centered
mentality. My own particular understanding here is that faith in
Christ as our fullness and righteousness before God, and the believer's
union with Christ, are but different ways of speaking of an important
facet of the Spirit's work. A comparison of Colossians 3:15-17 with
Ephesians 5:15-20 is quite instructive. The passages are very similar
indeed. Could "Let the Holy Spirit fill you" (Eph. 5:18,
N.E.B.) and "Let the message of Christ dwell among you in all
its richness" (Co!. 3:16, NEB.) be the same reality? Is not
the tendency (!) of our day to interpret the Ephesian passage in
such a way that gives more place to sensus than to fides? How would
the Holy Spirit fill the Ephesian congregation if it were not with
the message of Christ? Perhaps Colossians is an exposition of what
Ephesians 5:18 ought to mean in the life of every congregation.