DID JESUS NAIL THE LAW OF GOD TO THE CROSS AND BRING IT TO THE END? The traditional Christian interpretation of two passages, Colossians 2:14 and Ephesians 2:15, is used to prove that the law of God was nailed to the cross with Christ at His death; therefore, none of the laws in the Old Testament are valid, we are taught, anymore for any Christian. However, when we look at these passages in context, as well as take them back to the original Greek, we discover that the traditional interpretation and understanding of these verses are, in fact, a misreading and a misinterpretation of these texts. In this first part of this study, we will examine Colossians 2:14.
EXAMINING COLOSSIANS 2:14
>>WHO WAS THE AUDIENCE?
The book of Colossians was written to the Christian congregation at Colosse.
>>WHAT WAS THE PROBLEM?
Epaphras, a native of Colosse, came to Paul in prison with the news of how things were going in the area, but also news of a heretical group who had gained a foothold within the church. This heretical group was Gnostics. Gnosticism is a word derived from the Greek word gnosis (or “knowledge”). Gnosticism was a religion of syncretism with Hinduism as its root core. Syncretism often takes place when foreign beliefs are introduced to an already existent belief system and the teachings are blended. The new, mixed religion then takes a life of its own. “What is Religious Syncretism?” Gotquestions.org).
Gnostics would search different religions to mix with their already growing mixture. But at its ultimate core is basic Hinduism. For example, basic Hindu teaching is that Brahman (the Supreme Spirit in Hinduism) is all things, and all things are part of Brahman. Ultimately, with the right teacher (think “guru”), and enough “insight” (or special teaching) and ascetic practice, the person can discover and experience the form of Brahman within them (called atman), and in that discovery, the person can finally experience “freedom” or “liberation” from the continuous wheel of reincarnation (or what Hindus call moksha).
Gnosticism, much like Hinduism, teaches that within each individual is “god,” but people don’t know it, so with the right teaching or instruction, including asceticism, we can come to know and experience the “god” within ourselves, but rather than experiencing “freedom from reincarnation” (as Hinduism teaches), Gnostics teach that one will experience “salvation.” In essence, then, Gnostics believed that salvation is not found outside of ourselves in God and Jesus Christ, but it’s found within each individual. And this syncretic belief system, Gnosticism, was a problem for the Jews and for the early Christians.
Consequently, then, the Christians at Colosse were NOT struggling with a sect of Jews who were trying to convert them to their form of Judaism, but they were struggling with a group of NON-JEWS (or GENTILES) who were very heavily involved in GNOSTICISM.
BURIED & RISEN WITH CHRIST
To properly understand Colossians 2:14, we need to examine it within context, so I want to examine Colossians 2:12 – 23. Beginning with Colossians 2:12, we read,
Buried with Him in [water] baptism, wherein also you are risen with Him through the faith of the operation of God, who has raised Him from the dead.
In this verse, Paul again reminds these believers that their old life died with Christ and has been “buried with Him in [water] baptism.” The sins that once controlled them no longer has any hold or control over them. But not only did their old life “die” with Him, but “you are risen with Him through the faith of the operation of God, who has raised Him from the dead.” Just as the Spirit of God raised Jesus from the dead, so He raised them as “new creations” in Christ when they came up from the waters of baptism to walk in newness of life.
Paul then continues this same idea in the next verse.
And you being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, has He quickened [made alive] together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses. (Colossians 2:13)
We’ve not only been raised in newness of life, but God has also forgiven us from all of our trespasses of sin.
WHAT WAS “BLOTTED OUT” AND “NAILED”?
It is here in verse 14, we come across one of the passages that’s traditionally been used to prove that Christians are no longer required to obey God’s Laws.
Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to His cross.
Now it is important to remember that verse 14 is a continuation of verse 13. In verse 13, it was our “sins” and “the uncircumcision of [our] flesh” that was “forgiven.” So logically, since verse 14 is a continuation of verse 13, then what is being “blotted out” is “our sins” and “the uncircumcision of [our] flesh,” not something different.
THE HANDWRITING OF ORDINANCES
The phrase “handwriting of ordinances” is the English translation of the Greek phrase cheirographon tois dogmasin. The first word cheirographon is a compound word made up of two parts, cheiro (hand) and graphon (to write), or as it is translated here, in its simplest sense, “handwriting,” or more accurately, “a handwritten document.” However, other than Colossians 2:14, the Greek word cheirographon does not appear in the Bible, nor is it used anywhere in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint. Consequently, we cannot use the Bible to interpret the Bible in this case.
However, when we move outside of Scripture, we discover that the word cheirographon is used in extra-biblical Greek documents. From these documents, we learn that the term is a legal term that’s used to refer “to the written evidence of a person’s guilt in a courtroom. It is the written record of a person’s crimes – the laws he has broken and the penalty he owes for his law-breaking.” (Botkin). Using Dr. Daniel Botkin’s explanation, we could imagine the scene in this way.
John X has committed several crimes. He has been arrested and brought to trial. He is now standing in the courtroom, and in the middle of the courtroom, called tou mesou in Greek, there is the space where the prosecuting attorney stands and reads the cheirographon, the document with John’s crimes, the day and times he committed them, the locations of the crimes, and even the witnesses and evidence that the prosecutor has to prove that John, in fact, undeniably did commit these crimes. In addition, this document is recognized as a valid legal document both by the judge and John’s own attorney as being valid, accurate and true. Therefore, there’s absolutely no doubt that John X is, in fact, guilty and deserves the penalty for those crimes.
Each of us is “John X.” We have transgressed the laws of God, and one day we will stand in the courtroom of God, to stand trial for our sins [or crimes] against God and His Kingdom. In our culture, when we break the law, it is called “a crime,” but in God’s Kingdom, when we break one of God’s laws, it is called “a sin.” So “crime”and “sin” are really synonymous terms. In our culture, when we commit a “crime,” we would be called “a criminal,” but in God’s kingdom, when we break one or more of His laws, rather than using the word “criminal,” the Bible uses the word “sinner.” Therefore, a “sinner” is a “criminal” in the eyes of the Judicial system of God and His Kingdom.
The prosecuting attorney, “the accuser of the brethren,” Satan, will stand in the tou mesou (“the middle”) of the heavenly courtroom, and he will present his cheirographon to God, our Judge. Everyone there will know that this is a legal, accurate and valid list of every sin (or crime) against God we have ever done during the course of our life. And that we are indeed guilty of each and every one that’s being listed, and that we deserve the penalty demanded for each of these sins, which is “the Lake of Fire” and eternal separation from God (Revelation 20:11-15).
However, if we have placed our trust and faith in Christ, and have continued to faithfully serve Him during our lives, then Jesus Christ, who is our Advocate, Mediator, and High Priest, will stand up, and say, “But the sins (or crimes) that ‘John X’ has committed, I have all ready paid for by My death upon the cross and by My resurrection.” And because the penalty has been fully paid, God, who is our Judge, will dismiss the case and tell the Prosecutor, the Adversary Satan, that his cheirographon that was “against us,” and “which was contrary to us” is now inadmissible and can no longer be used. It will be removed from the hands of Satan, for it was “nailed to the cross,” proclaiming Christ’s victory over sin and Satan.
The article “Colossians 2:14 and the ‘Handwriting of Requirements’,” by Grace Communion International Church adds to this understanding of Cheirographon by noting,
The meaning becomes more clear if we notice that cheirographon is singular and dogmasin is plural. It is the cheirographon, the note of debt [the list of our sins], that was [singular] against us, which was [singular] contrary to us. And He has taken it [singular] out of the way, having nailed it [singular] to the cross.”
So what was “nailed to the cross” was the cheirographon, the singular note [or document] that contained the list of our SINS and the JUST PENALTY OF OUR SINS, which Jesus took upon Himself for us, AND NOT GOD’S LAW, which follows naturally from what Paul states in verse 13.
The author of another website, fogwhistle.ca, however, makes a rather interesting point about the word “ordinances” (Greek dogmasin):
God’s laws, ordinances, instructions, and commandments are mentioned many, many times in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) that was used by Greek-speaking people of Paul’s day. But how many times does the Septuagint use the word dogma (or any of its forms) when referring to God’s laws or instructions? Never. Every occurrence of dogma in the Old Testament refers to man-made decrees or rulings. Usually it’s the decrees of pagan rulers.
Was Paul ignorant of the Greek Scriptures? If Paul was referring to God’s law, he could have easily used one of the same Greek words that is frequently used in the Greek Old Testament to refer to God’s law such as nomos, entole, krima, dikaioma, or rhema. But Paul didn’t use any of these words. Instead Paul used dogma, a word that was never used in the Greek Old Testament to refer to any of God’s laws or instructions.
I think the question here is an interesting one. If Paul was using the word “ordinances” to refer to God’s law, then why didn’t he use one of the multiple terms he could have used from the Greek translation of the Scriptures. Why did he use a word which is not found in the Bible? My guess, at this point, would be that none of these other words are used in a courtroom scenario; however, again, this would be a guess.
The author of the commentary written for BibleTools.org, Earl L. Henn (1934-1997), also believed that it was the “written document” that was nailed to the cross, not “the ordinances.” He gives the following historical example,
only two objects were nailed to the stake of crucifixion: 1) the condemned person and 2) an inscription naming the crimes for which he was being punished. Thus, when Jesus was crucified, only His body and Pilate’s inscription (“This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”; see Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19) were nailed to the cross.”
Pilate’s inscription, “the writing that was against Jesus,” in this case was written in three languages, “Hebrew, Greek, and Latin” (John 19:20), and it was nailed above His head while He hung there upon the cross. Interestingly, the author of the article “Colossians 2:14 – What was Nailed to the Cross?” on the website fogwhistle.ca, likewise goes back to the example of the cross.
If we allow Scripture to interpret Scripture as we should, Col 2:14 would be interpreted to say that it was some man-made handwritten document that was nailed to the cross. We can confirm this in the story of Christ’s death as recorded in the New Testament Gospels. There we find that a man-made handwritten document actually was nailed to the cross. It was the placard written in three languages that stated the “crime” of which Jesus was accused and that was placed on the cross by Pilate’s order.
That kind of placard is what Paul was evidently referring to in Col 2:14 – the personal placard listing my crimes that belongs above my head on my cross at my own execution. Jesus took that placard of mine and put it on his cross. Jesus paid the penalty for the crimes listed on my placard. I have been redeemed. Justice has been served and the law has been satisfied (not abolished). Jesus took your placard too.
Whether the “written document,” “placard” or “sign” that was supposed to be upon our own cross listing all of the crimes against God we have committed, Christ has removed it from us by placing it upon His own cross, and paying the debt of sin and the penalty of sin for us as our substitutionary atonement. And it is for this reason that Paul then writes in verse 15,
And having spoiled principalities and powers, He made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it.
Jesus triumphed over all the “principalities and powers” through His death on the cross for our sins and the penalty of our sins.
LET NO MAN JUDGE YOU
Notice that the very next verse then states,
Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of a holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: (Colossians 2:16)
This verse has traditionally been interpreted to mean the exact opposite of what this verse actually states. The traditional church has used this verse to say that people cannot judge us for not doing these things, but that is not what this verse says.
Remember that the Christians at Colosse were dealing with Gnostics who were criticizing them for not living an ascetic lifestyle. The word “therefore” means that they are to obey this command because of what Paul has just told them. They are new men and women of God, their old lives of sin have been forgiven by Jesus’ shed blood on the cross and through their identification with Him in the waters of baptism.
“Therefore,” Paul writes, “let no man judge you in eating and drinking.” Gnosticism promoted asceticism, sometimes severe asceticism, and indulging in “eating and drinking” would have been highly criticized by such a group. Consequently, they are not being “judged” for what they are NOT doing, but for what they ARE doing. A better understanding of this verse would be,
Therefore, let no man judge you for eating or drinking, or in respecting of a holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: (Colossians 2:16)
So rather than being judged for NOT keeping these things, they are being judged by the Gnostics because they are keeping them. This interpretation is in keeping with what we know of early church history. The early believers, both Jew and non-Jew, were considered to be “a sect of Judaism” (Acts 24:5), although a “heretical group” (Acts 24:14), and they still continued to live their lives in obedience to the commandments handed down by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai. And this the non-Jewish believers in Jesus did up until the 4th century, A.D. It was the Roman Catholic Church who eventually stomped out obedience to any of the practices listed in the first five books of the Bible. The Jewish believers never stopped obeying them. Therefore, at this point in history, in which Paul was writing, the criticism and judgment would’ve been coming from the non-Jewish world for doing these things, particularly from the Gnostics.
Notice verse 17, “Which ARE a shadow of things TO COME; but the body is of Christ.” There’s three important things to note here.
- Paul writes that these things in the law “ARE” – A PRESENT TENSE VERB, NOT PAST TENSE – this is important because it demonstrates that Paul did NOT see the Law as something ended, contrary to traditional Christian teaching, but as something that was still continuing. Also, notice that these things are “a shadow of things TO COME” – FUTURE TENSE, NOT PAST TENSE – stating that the full meaning of these things are YET FUTURE, they were not completely fulfilled or completed by Christ in His first coming. Again, this is contrary to what traditional Christianity teaches.
You have to watch modern translations here, because they will use past tense verbs when, in fact, the Greek verbs are PRESENT and FUTURE TENSE, not PAST TENSE.
- After “sabbath days” in the King James is a colon and then after “to come” is a
semi-colon. This clause, “Which are a shadow of things to come” is an appositive
clause. Its function is to provide added information to the word it is modifying, or
telling us more about, which are these various things listed. It is not part of the
- The word “is” at the end of this verse, “but the body is of Christ,” is italicized,
meaning that it is not in the original Greek text, but some later editor inserted it.
Therefore, these two verses, as Ray Foucher, in the third part of his article
“Colossians 2” could be better seen to mean,
Let no [individual] man judge you….. but the body of Christ.
Let no [individual] man judge you….. but rather the body of Christ.
Let no [individual] man judge you….. except the body of Christ.
In the book of Acts, we can see that instead of Paul allowing “individuals” to judge his presentation of the gospel, he returns to Jerusalem, and he presents his message to James and the other elders there, that his message may be “judged” by “the body of Christ.” Therefore demonstrating that Paul followed his own teachings. Consequently, the teaching that “the body of Christ” has replaced these practices from God’s law is, in fact, a misreading and misinterpretation of the text.
But in looking at more modern translations, look at how the modern translation has altered the text from what we’ve just seen:
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 a Sabbath day – things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17, NASB)
Notice that the indication the Colossian Christians are being judged FOR DOING these things has been removed. In addition, notice the inclusion of the word “mere” which is not in the Greek text in order to demean or decrease the importance of these “shadows,” as well as changing the word “body” to “substance,” and the added editorial word “is” to “to.” Thereby, completely changing the meaning of verse 17 from the original Greek.
Finally, I should add, that the word “shadows” was as close as Paul could get to the idea of an “image” or picture without violating God’s commandment about using any “images” with God. In today’s world, we would say that these various elements from the law actually present us with “pictures” (rather than “shadows”) of Christ, who He is, about what He is like, and about His ministry (in His first coming, now in heaven, and in His return).
LET NO MAN BEGUILE YOU
Right after making this statement, Paul writes,
Let no man beguile [deceive] you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, (Colossians 2:18)
Again, we see another deception based on human opinions, not based on Scripture, since Paul these things came from their “fleshly mind,” not their “spiritual mind.” He then continues by saying,
And not holding the Head [Christ], from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increases with the increase of God. (Colossians 2:19)
AVOID GNOSTIC LEGALISM
And then he ends this chapter by asking why there are getting tangled up with the non-Jewish (Gentile) legalism of Gnostic asceticism. He is not discussing the commandments of God at all here. We know this because in verse 22, he even refers to them as “the commandments and doctrines of MEN,” not God.
Wherefore if you be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are you subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; which all are to perish with the using;) after the COMMANDMENTS AND DOCTRINES OF MEN? (Colossians 2:20-22)
Obviously, if we are dealing with “the world, and the “ordinances” are “the commandments and doctrines of men,” then we are not discussing God’s law at any point here. But I find it sad that most Christians will use this passage as proof why they do not have to obey the commandments of God, even though they are not even being discussed here. But interestingly, Paul does acknowledge one fact about Gnostic asceticism,
Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in will-worship [as opposed to the worship of the Spirit], and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honor to the satisfying of the flesh.
Much of the benefits that come from this type of life is superficial, and are not of any eternal value at all.
Does Colossians 2 argue that the Law of God was indeed nailed to the cross of Jesus Christ, and that Christians are no longer responsible for keeping any of God’s commandments. Absolutely NOT!! Such an interpretation and application of this chapter is a complete and total misuse of Scripture to try and prove a point which this chapter does not make at all. Rather than abusing the word of God for our own benefit, we should be learning how to properly interpret and apply its teachings to our lives.