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Summary: Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-ab

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I’m struggling with Colossians this week - not with the ancient people of Colossae of course but with St Paul’s letter to the Colossians, and not with the whole letter either but with one word in one verse that really has me bamboozled:

Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths.

That’s the verse (Colossians 2:19). Can you guess which word it is that is bamboozling me? It’s the word ‘sabbaths’, and it’s not actually the word as such that bothers me but rather the casual way in which Paul drops ‘The Sabbath’ into his list of things that you shouldn’t get too worked up about when ‘The Sabbath’ was one of the ‘big ten’ -. the Commandments of Moses - and if you’re not supposed to get worked up about the 10 commandments, what are you supposed to get worked up about?

In the church I grew up in the 10 commandments were painted on one of the front walls of the church in letters that were each the size of an adult man’s hand! This was symbolic of the importance these commandments held for our religion. Indeed, many people would define Biblical religion in terms of keeping the commandments of God, and not just Christianity either, but equally the other two ‘religions of the book’ - Judaism and Islam - and these two religions of the book are equally religions of the commandments.

Now I don’t pretend to be an expert in Islam by any means, but as my friend Sheikh Mansour has explained it to me it is quite simple. There are certain things that God commands and certain things that God forbids. If you do the things that God forbids (such as lying, stealing and fornicating) these actions will move you further away from God. If, on the other hand, you do the things God requires, you will move closer to Him. It’s pretty straightforward.

If this is true for Islam it is even more obviously true in the religion of Moses. For what was the defining moment for the Jewish people in their formation as the people of God? It was the giving of the 10 commandments at Mount Sinai - the divine passing down of the fundamental rules for life! Follow those commandments and you shall live.

"See, I have set before you today life and death, good and evil. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” (Deuteronomy 30:15-16)

That’s Moses speaking, spelling out to the ancient people of God in no uncertain terms exactly what it means for them to live as children of God and to lives that are pleasing to God, and it’s pretty simple. You follow the commandments and the statutes and the ordinances of the Lord. You live by the rules, and as you live by the rules you get closer to God but if you disobey those rules you alienate yourself form God.

There were of course more rules than those written on Moses’ two stone tablets. Indeed, the archives of divine commandments and statutes and ordinances take up the bulk of the first five books of the Bible. And yet at the heart of all these laws and rules and statutes and ordinances lie the ‘big ten’ - the ‘ten words’ given to Moses on Mount Sinai, including such classics as ‘Thou shalt not steal’, ‘Thou shalt not murder’, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ and ‘Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy’. And yet St Paul says, ‘I wouldn’t let yourself get too worked up about the Sabbath!’

“Do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come”

So far as St Paul was concerned, it seems, some people fasted and some didn‘t, some abstained from certain foods - never eating fish on Fridays, etc. - and others didn‘t, some observed special religious festivals and others didn‘t, just as some remembered the Sabbath and kept it holy and others didn’t, and it really wasn’t a big issue! And the thing that gets me is that if turning your back on one of the ten commandments isn’t a big issue, what is a big issue?!

I used to think, when I first started reading St Paul, that he was making a distinction between the ceremonial law, regarding religious practice, which he was very relaxed about, and the moral law, which he remained very straight about, but I’ve come to realise over time, in my studies of the New Testament, that to the Hebrew mind there was no distinction between ceremonial law and moral law. There was just the law - God’s law.

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