Day 9: Reading Backwards
Therefore, let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or Sabbath days. Colossians 2:16
No One – Every letter Paul wrote fits into the cultural context of the audience he addressed. The first principle of biblical interpretation is to determine the cultural context. Unless we know what the original audience understood, we are almost certainly going to read the text from our own cultural perspective and that can cause all kinds of problems. This verse is a classic example of reading the message as if it were written yesterday, not two thousand years ago to a particular group of Turkish believers who were discussing town issues.
What do we know about these believers? Well, we know they were followers of YHVH. We know that they had a good grip on the Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament). We know that there were Gentile proselytes (converts to Judaism) in this group. We know that they believed Jesus was the Messiah. And we know that there were those in the city who accused them of religious fanaticism. With just this much in mind, let’s try reading this verse again.
Paul tells the disciples in Colossae to allow no one (Greek: me tis humas) to act as judge. The construction is important. The first word (me) is a Greek word for the conditional no. This is not ou, a word that also means no but is without conditions. Me would be used in a conditional sence like “I might not make it for lunch.” Ou would be used in a definite sense like “I will not break the commandment.” So, Paul is telling his readers not to let something happen as a matter of the present circumstances. In other words, do not let the circumstances of your situation cause you to be judged.
Who would do such judging? Well, Paul uses the Greek tis humas. This is literally “someone or anyone (second person personal pronoun).” Ah, so that means someone you know. Not simply an external acquaintance or third party, this is someone familiar to you. Don’t let anyone who has a familiar relationship to you become your judge.
Judge over what? Well, now we see the real concern. Everything that Paul lists here is a part of Torah obedience. What you eat and drink, what festivals you celebrate, what calendar you follow (the Jewish calendar is lunar, not solar) and keeping Sabbath are all found in God’s instruction book for life. Paul tells his readers in this pagan city, “Don’t let anyone you know stand in judgment over you with regard to keeping these instructions.”
Uh, that’s not the way we read this verse today, is it? We read it backwards. Instead of seeing that Paul is defending believers for keeping Torah, we side with the pagans and claim that Paul is advocating on behalf of those who want to push Torah-obedience out of the picture. That would have been impossible from Paul’s perspective. He was Torah-observant all his life. He says so on numerous occasions. He even fulfills a vow ritual proclaiming his endorsement of Torah. Why would he side with the ones who want to argue that Torah observance doesn’t matter? No, we read this verse from the pagan perspective. We are the accusers, not the defenders. Paul might as well include us in the “no one” category for we are the ones judging those who keep the Torah. Maybe it’s time to read this verse in the right direction.