Shadow, Substance, and the Lego Vatican in Philadelphia

Shadow, Substance, and the Lego Vatican in Philadelphia

In recent days, the pope made a historic visit to the United States. One of his stops was Philadelphia, where a Catholic priest had built a replica of the Vatican out of Legos. If I took you to Philadelphia and showed you the Lego Vatican and said, “Look! It’s the Vatican.” You might reply by saying, “Well, it’s a model of the Vatican.”

“No, no, no! This is THE Vatican. See the courtyard and the columns? The dome, the piazza, and all the people? The nuns? And look – the Pope is here and he’s even waving to the people.” If I said that you would know that I was either delusional, lying, or maybe a bit of both.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been doing a deep-dive of Colossians. I’ve taken a slow and Spirit-led (and also very non-linear) approach to studying this book. It has long been one of my favorite parts of the New Testament, and I am finding a vast richness and untold treasures as I have dug in and allowed the Holy Spirit to reveal things to me.

One of the more significant passages in Colossians 2 has struck me recently:

16 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. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.

20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

With the things of God, there is shadow and there is substance. These themes run throughout Scripture:

  • The temple was a shadow of the reality of heaven and eternal life (the presence of God in and around humanity).
  • The Old Testament high priests were a shadow of our great high priest, Jesus Christ.
  • The Sabbath is a shadow of our eternal rest found in the work that Jesus did on the cross.

There are many more, but I think you get the idea. Now, if this is unfamiliar to you, please bear with me and hopefully it will become more clear.

The Shadow Points to the Reality

The things of God which are a shadow point to the reality. The shadows themselves are not the true things; however, they are often mistaken for things which have true substance. This was the problem with the Pharisees. They took the things of God which were shadows and built a religion out of them. Their understanding was limited and much of what they saw was not the true reality.

Take healing on the Sabbath, for instance. It was forbidden by the Pharisees. Why? Because it was considered work, and God had told them that the Sabbath was a day of rest. There was to be no work. When Jesus came, he healed people on the Sabbath. Again, why? Because he understood the reality of the Sabbath (that it was a shadow of things to come). God is for His people and He is working to restore all things back to Himself (See Colossians 1:20).  This is just one way that Jesus demonstrated that truth.

As impressive as the Lego Vatican is (it does have a waving pope, by the way), it is not the real thing – it’s merely a representation of a greater reality. That’s what the shadows are as they relate to the things of God. The shadows are a representation of a much grander reality, and we must come to know the reality, or we will be left (like the Pharisees) holding up the obscure things as those with substance.

The Substance Belongs to Christ

These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (Colossians 2:17).

Because Christ dwells within us, we have a vast wealth of resources at our disposal.  I have said before that although we have an inheritance of princes and princesses, we often live like spiritual paupers. That’s because we live by shadows and forget about the true substance. (The reality is that many Christians have been taught more about shadows than substance. It likely isn’t even your fault.)

The things which have substance are Christ’s alone. Colossians tells us that the great mystery of the ages is not just found in Christ, but it is Christ Himself. If that’s not enough, the mystery is also referred to as “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Can there be a greater mystery? How Christ could dwell in us? It is almost unthinkable. But that is the greatest reality. Christ dwelling in His believers.

One of the most challenge things for me in my spiritual journey has been to sift through the shadows to find the true substance. It is a journey that God is hammering into me at this very moment, and it is one of my favorite times in all my years of following Christ.

Leave the shadows behind and follow what’s real. You will not regret it.

What other things can you think of that are mere “shadows” of things to come? What are you holding on to that’s merely a shadow of the truth? (Feel free to share in the comments below.)

First Church of IKEA (i.e., Designer Church)

This week I returned to my old stomping grounds in Dallas, Texas.  My wife and I lived in Carrollton and Arlington while we were still dating and for the first few years of our marriage.  It’s amazing how things have changed just in and around our old apartment complex where we used to live in a relatively short amount of time.  We also visited an area of town known for it’s high end shopping and stores and restaurants.  I had my first experience in an IKEA store, which upon entering, my wife declared, “Welcome to the mother ship of shopping!”  Boy, was she right!  Rows and rows of things that you never knew you needed until they were displayed in an oh-so-friendly manner.  And, there was room after room of all kinds of things for your home.  We wound in and out of the aisles and I realized that they were herding us in one direction like a cow heading towards the branding chute.  But, I was so amazed by all the products and displays that, hey, I didn’t really mind all that much.  And, I have to say, the prices were really good on a lot of things.  And, there was all kinds of furniture and closets and kitchens that you could design on your own or with the help of one of the associates.  Closet systems, tables, entire kitchens, even entire homes could all be designed to your liking.

As we were leaving, I thought about how our churches have become much like my experience at IKEA.  We try to offer something for everyone.  We try to offer the slickest, coolest kids program in town.  Our youth program is second to none – complete with video games and their own worship experience.  We have every kind of small group imaginable.  Our programs reflect our culture much of the time, and dare I say it, maybe even more than they reflect the heart of Jesus?  We want to reach people and think that by offering all these programs and a “build your own church experience” mentality that the people will come and we’ll be able to speak to them and share the Gospel.

We tend to ask the questions, “What do people want?  What will bring them into the building? What can we offer them to keep them?  How can we draw people into our building?”  But, how many times do we stop and ask ourselves, “What would Jesus want?  How can we go outside of the building to reach people?  How do we meet people where they are like Jesus did?  What will make the people want to go out of the building and share the Gospel and serve Jesus and the community?”

To be fair, I believe that many of these pastors and people running these programs have great hearts and want to do the right thing and want to reach people for Christ.  But what Gospel are we presenting to the people who walk through the doors?  Are we presenting a “Choose your own Gospel adventure…” Or are we presenting the way of the Cross?  Are we presenting the “Lay it all down because that is what Christ has asked us to do” Gospel?  Or do we continue to present a “Come to church, give more money, and bring more friends” because that’s what a good little Christian does kind of Gospel?  Much of the time, though, it seems we continue to ask the wrong questions.  How would our experience of church differ if we started asking different questions?  Maybe some of it would look the same.  Maybe a LOT of it would look very differently.  But, the first step is to start asking different questions.  

And leave the design-it-yourself experiences to IKEA.  Because, let’s face it, they do a great job at it!