Out of the Shadows and Into the Son (Colossians 2:16–23)

While many have heard of claustrophobia (a fear of enclosed spaces), acrophobia (a fear of heights), and arachnophobia (a fear of spiders), fewer are familiar with sciophobia—a fear of shadows.

One publication explains that, for someone wrestling with it, sciophobia “may dictate major decisions they make in their day-to-day life such as choosing to not go outside in the daylight … in fear they may come across a shadow.” This fear can lead to intense, paralyzing anxiety. Now, most understand that a shadow is harmless, just a shape produced on a surface by an object blocking light. But for sciophobics, something so common and powerless can enslave them and stop them from fully enjoying the life they have.

Many Christians suffer from spiritual sciophobia, ensnared by “mere shadows” (Col 2:17). Paul, however, insists that such a hindrance is avoidable and that followers of Jesus can come out of the shadows and into the Son.


Most people have heard of claustrophobia (a fear of enclosed spaces), acrophobia (a fear of heights), and arachnophobia (a fear of spiders). But few are familiar with sciophobia—a fear of shadows. 

One publication explains that, for someone wrestling with it, sciophobia “may dictate major decisions they make in their day-to-day life such as choosing to not go outside in the daylight … in fear they may come across a shadow.” Like all phobias, this fear can lead to intense, paralyzing anxiety. What a burden that must be!

Now, most of us—including most sciophobics!—understand that a shadow, in and of itself, is harmless. It’s just a shape made on a surface by an object blocking a light source. But for sciophobics, something as common and powerless as a shadow can enslave them and stop them from fully enjoying life.

Many Christians today have spiritual sciophobia, trapped by what Paul calls mere shadows—teachings that are actually powerless as they block the light of truth but that can enslave if we let them. And we’re going to self-diagnose this morning, make sure we aren’t suffering from anything like that and, if we are, take the prescribed steps needed to come out of the shadows and and into the Son.

Out of the Shadows

To thrive in our walk with Christ, to grow up in the Lord with a growth which is from God (v. 19), to enjoy life in the Son, we must first step out of the shadows, deceptive teachings that masquerade as powerful truth but are, in actuality, pathetic substitutes. 

Teachings like legalism (v. 16). It’s important to remember what Paul has written up to this point in Colossians. Essentially: “Christ is all you need and, in him, you’re free from sin, death, guilt, and fear.” Therefore (v. 16), don’t let anyone take that freedom. No one is to act as your judge.

Some in Colossae were insisting on certain dos and don’ts around food, festivals, and Sabbath, commands found in the Law of Moses. It seems these teachers were saying that believers must continue to keep them so as to secure righteousness in God’s sight, something Jesus and the apostles disagreed with (see John 1:17; Rom 7:6; 10:4; Gal 3:23; 4:9-11; 5:1). Those in Christ are not under the Law.

I’m not waterproof but the ocean can’t touch me if I’m in a submarine. I’m also not law-proof—I can’t keep it and it condemns me for that fact—but its demands can’t touch me if I’m in Christ. 

While the Law is still inspired, didactic, and edifying its commands are not binding. Legalism is the attempt to place free people back in bondage to that from which we’ve been freed insisting it aids freedom. “Your debt’s been paid but keep making payments so as to be debt-free.” It’s nonsense.

And it’s a mere shadow, Paul says (v. 17). The substance belongs to Christ. It anticipated him—his righteousness, his obedience. He’s the real deal. He’s all we need for justification. Legalism is useless, distracting, and enslaving. It’s the place in Christianity where no light shines, where it’s dark and cold.

And the Colossians were being coaxed back in. “You say you’re a Christian. You must not be a very good one because we saw you eating a pork-chop at the new moon festival on the Sabbath. If you’re truly a follower of Christ like we are, you need to get it together.” That’s the type legalism that was threatening Colossae and it’s the type of legalism threatening Oakridge and every other assembly today. 

Keeping rules does not make a Christian. Believing in Jesus Christ for everlasting life does. Anything else is works-righteousness. You can see why Paul would be so adamantly against this—it’s challenging the sufficiency of Christ’s work on the cross.

Some of you come from legalistic backgrounds, homes, and churches and still struggle to shake its cold grip from your now-free heart. You still hear the whispers: “Real Christians don’t consume that. True believers always do this. Faithful followers actively avoid them.” 

Legalism is alive and well today. We may not think in terms of festivals and Sabbath days, but we do think in terms of vaccines, church dress code, perceived sorrow for sin, tithing, schooling choices for our children, particular views on social ethics, involvement in social justice, and political platforms. Issues like these can become treated, not as issues of maturity and immaturity, conscience and opinion, but as indicators as to whether or not you belong to Christ, whether or not you love God and his word. 

Max Lucado: “Legalism makes my opinion your burden, makes my opinion your boundary, makes my opinion, your obligation.” The bottom line is that my opinion means little if not washed by the rightly handled word. Legalists confuse these two things. And nothing kills a church faster than graceless, law-soaked, moralistic, opinion dressed up as Christian maturity. It may not always be the Mosaic Law, but legalists today have their own stone tablets they hold tightly as they sit in the shadows.

Another teaching that faced the Colossians was asceticism. Asceticism refers to extreme self-discipline for perceived religious gain (vv. 18a, 23a). Some here were promoting performance humility. “Who’s the best at being the worst?” 

Whereas legalism demands unnecessary submission, asceticism demands unnecessary deprivation. “We know you’re serious about Christ by what we see you giving up in the name of Christ.” Maybe they fasted from food, sex, or friendship. “If you’re faithful to Christ, then see verse 21!” Deprive yourself. Humble yourself. How low you go shows how much you want to grow! What enslavement!

And this lie never went away. In 1988, Christianity Today published an editorial calling for a return to monasticism in the church. In the article they quoted John Stott, a respected theologian, who said that if he were beginning his Christian discipleship over, he would establish an evangelical monastic order where men would take a vow of celibacy, poverty, and peaceable living. Not only does that sound terrible, it sounds like what Paul’s warning against.

Now, not all self-denial is wrong. In fact, it can be a healthy, worshipful way to refocus on our sacrificial Saviour in hedonistic culture. But that’s not what Paul’s warning against. Like with legalism, Paul’s concerned with the teaching that self-abasement and severe treatment of the body can add to our righteousness, our standing before a holy God. Again, Paul is motivated by an attack on the sufficiency of Christ.

Today someone may be tempted to think that God is most pleased with them when they’re lacking or hurting. Some may teach that you’re stopping God from blessing you because you have a savings account and went shoe-shopping last week. Or maybe you’ve caught the idea that God will be more sympathetic to your prayers if he sees you’re willing to deprive yourself. Asceticism is a way of earning God’s grace by denying ourselves pleasures that, often, he’s given us to enjoy. It’s a dangerous teaching that tries to add to the work of Christ.

One final teaching from the shadows in Colossae is mysticism. Mysticism prioritizes a personal, direct experience with God over anything objective (v. 18). While Paul taught that Christ is enough, others were teaching the opposite. “You can adore Jesus but remember also to praise the angels, like the pagans are doing in their cultic worship.

They also valued visions individuals claimed to have been given but that which Paul says are inflated without cause by [the] fleshly mind. Notice that Paul doesn’t bother refuting the reality of the vision. What he’s concerned about is that they’re elevating these human-centred experiences over Christ. Another attack on his sufficiency. He’s enough! 

Today many Christians are functional mystics, seeking experience over knowledge, celebrating feeling over knowing. In fact, whole Christian practices are devoted to conjuring up an experience. Often, corporate worship is engineered to provoke emotion. 

Experience and emotion aren’t bad, friends. They’re gifts from God. But when they become the desired end, when we prefer feeling God rather than knowing him, we are settling for the shadows and not the substance. We’ve heard the Gospel message, the power of God, we’ve believed it and received the Son of God and the Spirit of God, we don’t need to keep chasing a personal connection with the divine. We have it in Christ! He’s enough!

Whereas legalism demands submission to laws Christ hasn’t commanded and asceticism demands deprivation to things Christ wants us to enjoy, mysticism demands supplementation to that which Christ has revealed. These are all freedom-stealing shadows.

And while they’re all different, they have commonalities. They’re unnecessary, for starters. The fact that Paul is warning the Colossians to avoid them assumes they can (vv. 16a, 18a, 20). In verse 23 he admits, these things have the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion … but are of no value against fleshly indulgence. They can’t help with your sin struggles. They’re powerless to free you. You don’t need them. You’ve got the substance! Christ is enough. The rest is unnecessary.

They’re also temporary (v. 22). Not only do they not need these lies, but these lies move your attention from the eternal Christ to that which is passing away—self-made laws, disciples, and experiences, self-made religion and teachings of men. To spend your time and focus on what not to eat and where not to go and what angel to worship and what vision to brag about is all fleeting. They’re temporary.

They’re also costly (v. 18a). These shadows steal the light (see Phil 3:14). There is both reward in this life and the next for being faithful to Christ, he who is enough, he who is sufficient. When we get sucked into the shadows of false teaching rather than the light of Christ, we lose rewards. They’re costly.

And Into the Son

Whether it was legalism, asceticism, or mysticism, these are shadows Paul is warning the Colossians to avoid because they distract. “You’re free!” he says. “Don’t enslave yourself again.” Don’t be scared of them either. Instead, step out of the shadows and into the Son. What all of these lies lack, Christ has in abundance.

And you can’t be in the shade and the light at the same time. If you’re clinging to lies, then see verse 19. We’ve already been told that the head is Christ (1:18). Paul’s saying, you can’t grip both lies and truth at the same time. They’re mutually exclusive. You can’t walk debt free and, at the same time, walk as a debtor. You can’t rejoice in God’s gifts while, simultaneously, rejecting them. You can’t trust God’s revelation while insatiably seeking more.

Either Jesus is enough or he’s not. Either he supplies everything we need or he doesn’t and we have to go looking. Either he holds us together by the joints and ligaments of the church or he doesn’t and we have to hold on. Either he provides the growth or he doesn’t and we need to get striving. It’s the shade or the Son. One or the other.

Paul’s point, I hope, is clear. Run from those unnecessary, temporary, and costly ways of trying to please God, gain righteousness, and trying to mature in holiness. Instead, run toward Christ, the eternal and all-powerful source of ongoing growth. 

Live in Christ’s Freedom!

Step out of the shadows and into the Son. Live in Christ’s freedom (vv. 20–23)! Step out of the shadows and into the Son. Hold fast to the head. Live in Christ’s freedom! He is enough (see again 1:16–20). Christ is enough.

If you are feeling hopeless. Christ is enough. He gives hope. If you are feeling inadequate. Christ is enough. You don’t have to be adequate; he’s done the work. If you are feeling overwhelmed by sin. Christ is enough. He paid for even that sin that you can’t seem to shake. If you are feeling lonely. Christ is enough. He’s ever-present. If you are experiencing doubt. Christ is enough. He’s stong enough to hold you fast even when you feel your grip is slipping.

Everything we lack, we find in Christ. Not in rules, or self-deprivation, not in human teaching or manmade religions, not in new revelation or exceptional experiences. We find it all in Christ. He’s enough. Live in Christ’s freedom! Step out of the shadows and into the Son.


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Josiah has served the Oakridge Bible Chapel family as one of its elders and one of its pastoral staff members since September 2018, before which he ministered as an associate pastor to a local congregation in the Canadian prairies. Josiah's desire is to be used by God to help equip the church for ministry, both while gathered (edification) and while scattered (evangelization). He is married to Patricia, and together they have five children—Jonah, Henry, Nathaniel, Josephine, and Benjamin.

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