Shadow and Substance

It is a funny thing to watch a kid who has just discovered their shadow. They step on the pavement trying to hold the shadow down. Or they’ll run trying to get away from a shadow that runs just as fast. Shadows and the forms that they mimic are simple things that we see every day. The metaphor of shadows and substances is one of the simple ideas showing how the Bible is put together. In basic terms, the Old Covenant shadows the substance of the New Covenant in Jesus Christ.

As with any shadow, Old Covenant shadows have similarities to New Covenant forms. There will be a rough outline that is similar. But the form casting the shadow will have colour, three dimensional shape and true substance.

But in the Bible, the changes between what are shadows to what is substance seem to be counter-intuitive. As the book of Hebrews says, the law was merely, “a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (10.1). Now we know that the law encompassed elaborate ceremonial aspects outlined in Leviticus. There is so much ‘substantial’ detail in Leviticus, that our natural thought is that the law would be the substance, “the true form”. The Law had written codes, building-specific regulations, calendar dates, hygienic protocols and many more ‘concrete’ details. It seems counter-intuitive to view such substantial matters as only shadows.

This is why when Jesus came on the scene many 1st century Jews had a difficult time understanding Jesus’ mission. Those Jews couldn’t understand how the temple, the ceremonial laws, and the key distinctives of Jewishness were not the ‘true form’ but were only shadows. It was a tough pill to swallow. What was especially difficult was to recognize that Jesus as Messiah was not a Davidic superhero who would cast out the Romans and set up a powerful Jewish political state. Even Jesus’ disciples were confused after his resurrection saying, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1.6).

The result of this shadow/substance confusion was that even in Paul’s missionary work, he had to warn Gentiles about adopting Jewish ceremonial law-keeping as necessary for their new faith in Jesus. This is the main issue in the book of Galatians. It was hard for people to let go of the shadows, even after the substance has come, namely Christ himself.

Throughout church history, there has always been a misguided desire to orient Christian discipleship away from the ‘true form’ of life in Christ, to a shadow-type existence that resembles the political Israelite theocracy. Since the days of the Roman emperor Constantine there has been a tension among Christians who wish to adopt more shadows because they appear more tangible. The Vatican in Rome took on the posture of the New Jerusalem as the geographical centre of the world. The Crusades had the same problems. The medieval church sought to advance the kingdom militarily like Israel in David’s time These are examples of adopting shadows, but wrongly thinking they are the true forms.

As we consider how the Bible connects together we need to remember this counter-intuitive principle of the shadow and the substance. And among Christians we need to heed the counsel of the apostle Paul to the Colossians:

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Col 2.16-17