By Michael J. Vlach
With this entry I address the term and concept of “shadow” concerning the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Often times the concept of “shadow” is used to make sweeping statements concerning how Old Testament realities relate to New Testament ones. But here I will argue that Christians should be careful in how they use the “shadow” concept.
Some Thoughts on “Shadow” in the Bible
A shadow is a dark image or shape that occurs when an object interrupts rays of light. The term “shadow” is found 47 times in the New American Standard Bible. Forty occur in the Old Testament and seven in the New Testament.
The Hebrew term often translated “shadow” is tsel. Tsel is closely connected with the ideas of “shelter,” “protection,” and “shade.” The term is used both literally and figuratively. A literal shadow is referred to three times in 2 Kings 20:10-11. A shadow from a plant protected Jonah from the sun (Jonah 4:5-6). Isaiah 38:8 refers to a “shadow” on a stairway (Isaiah 38:8).
The concept of “shadow” is often used figuratively concerning something transitory. A figurative and transitory use of “shadow” occurs in 1 Chronicles 29:15: “our days on the earth are like a shadow.” Kings and powerful people could operate like a shadow for others (Songs 2:3; Lam. 4:20; Ezek 31:6). Human life is brief like a shadow (Job 8:9; 14:2; Ps. 102:11).
Of the forty uses of “shadow” in the Old Testament none are used concerning matters like Israel, Israel’s land, the temple, or Jerusalem. Nor is the shadow concept used to indicate that these realities were short-lived or transitory. Not even in the latter prophets do we find the “shadow” idea being predicted for matter such as Israel, land, temple, Jerusalem, etc. Perhaps other factors will make this point (which I do not believe), but “shadow” is not used in the Old Testament concerning these realities. And there is no hint these concepts were transitory like a shadow. The term tsel (“shadow”), while often picturing ideas of protection, shelter, and shade, is not used in the theological sense of a person, place, thing, or institution being a transitory and giving way to something greater in the future.
But is the idea of transition from lesser to greater realities found in the New Testament concept of “shadow”?
In the New Testament the term for shadow—skia—is found seven times. Four appear in the non-theological sense similar to that in the Old Testament (Matt. 4:16; Luke 1:79; Acts 5:15; James 1:17).
There are three uses of “shadow” (skia) that carry specific theological relevance concerning something in the Old Testament being a temporary shadow of something greater in the New Testament. These three are Colossians 2:16-17; Hebrews 8:4-5; and Hebrews 10:1.
Colossians 2:16-17 states:
Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ (emphasis mine).
Here Paul indicates that food laws and the festal calendar associated with the Mosaic Law are explicitly linked with the “shadow” concept. Two points are important here. First, forced compliance with the food laws and calendar of the Mosaic Law was not to occur. Second, the matters associated with the Mosaic Law pointed toward Christ who is the “substance” of these matters. Jesus fully embodied what these other realities pointed to. Thus, it is accurate to say that realities of the Mosaic Law functioned as shadows that pointed to a greater reality in Christ who embodied what these matters were pointing to.
Hebrews 8:4-5 contains the next use of “shadow” with theological significance:
Now if He [Jesus] were on earth, He would not be a priest at all, since there are those who offer the gifts according to the Law; a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, just as Moses was warned by God when he was about to erect the tabernacle; for, “,” He says, “that you make all things according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain” (emphasis is mine).
This verse highlights the superiority of Jesus’ priesthood over the Levitical priesthood associated with the Mosaic Covenant. So again, a Mosaic Covenant reality—the Levitical Priesthood—is said to be a shadow.
Then, Hebrews 10:1 states:
For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near.
Here the Mosaic Law is said to be a “shadow” of coming good things. In the context of Hebrews 8-10 the Mosaic Law with its sacrifices and priesthood were inferior shadows of Jesus’ priesthood and New Covenant.
Significance of “Shadow”
These three passages—Colossians 2:16-17; Hebrews 8:4-5; and Hebrews 10:1 all have one thing in common. The concept of “shadow” concerns the Mosaic Law and its components. The Mosaic Law with its food laws, festal calendar, sacrifices, and priesthood are shadows that give way to greater realities of the New Covenant and Jesus’ superior priesthood and sacrifice.
So of the 47 uses of “shadow” in the Bible, three are invested with the theological idea of something in the Old Testament pointing to greater New Testament realities. In each of these the shift is from Mosaic Covenant to New Covenant.
Significantly, this idea of a transition from Mosaic Covenant to New Covenant was explicitly taught in Jeremiah 31:31-34, a passage the writer of Hebrews quotes in Hebrews 8:8-12. So the New Testament informs us this transition has occurred, but the Old Testament itself predicted the Mosaic Covenant would give way to the New Covenant.
So what theological implications are there for the “shadow” term and concept? In my estimation, it is correct to infer that the Mosaic Law functioned as a transitory shadow of the New Covenant. This includes the Mosaic Law as a whole and the components of the Mosaic Law. What is not appropriate, though, is using the “shadow” term or concept in a broad and sweeping manner that treats the majority of the Old Testament as shadows. In other words one can be too broad in applying the “shadow” idea.
The Mosaic Covenant is of a different nature than the covenants of promise—Abrahamic, Davidic, New. While containing conditional elements these covenants are eternal and unconditional covenants and are different in nature from the temporary and conditional nature of the Mosaic Covenant. Thus, matters such as Israel, Israel’s land, the temple, and Jerusalem, which are also related to the covenants of promise, cannot be swept under the rug of “shadow.” This is important since theologians and commentators sometimes try to treat these matters as inferior shadows that have no relevance in the New Testament era.