Nailed To The Cross

“And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; 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” (Colossians 2:13–14)

This has been one of the classic verses used against the Old Testament. I’ve mentioned before one of the horrible moments in my ministry, when one young man referred to the Psalms during a heated discussion at a men’s meeting. One older man, who had been in ministry for over 30 years, interrupted him, saying, “My Bible says that was nailed to the cross.”

Really? The Psalms were nailed to the cross? Is that what Colossians says?

Well… no, not at all. What was nailed to the cross?

The King James says “the handwriting of ordinances.” The word “handwriting” is cheirograph in Greek. That word appears nowhere else in the New Testament. However, the word is seen in some writings found in Egypt. In those writings, the word referred to an I.O.U., a record of debt. That reading makes sense in this context.

In an article about this verse, Bobby Valentine notes:

In Jewish apocalyptic there was an idea that there existed a book of records that kept track of our evil deeds. This book, like the mortgage (an I.O.U.) at the bank, provided powerful leverage with less than friendly spirit beings called principalities, powers, angels and the like. This book is mentioned often in Jewish literature of the time (1 Enoch 89.61-64; 108.7; Testament of Abraham 12.7-18; 13.9-14; and many other places). Enoch, for example, tells how he heard the words “write down every destruction {sin} … so that this may become testimony for me against them.” We have an IOU that stands against us and that IOU is our own sin debt. It is that sin that the malignant powers hold over us.

The translators of the ESV understood this passage to refer to a record of debt. They phrased it:

“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:13–14)

But what if Paul were referring to the Law here? That doesn’t seem to fit with other passages where Paul quotes the Law as authoritative, but it is a possibility.

The removal of the Law from a position of opposition to Christians doesn’t mean that every writing before the cross loses validity for Christians. We have to remember that God’s Word is not merely a law book; it is a living, sacred document which teaches us about the nature of God and the way God’s people should live. I’m not talking the plan of salvation; I’m talking about sanctification.

It’s true that we are no longer under the Law of Moses. We no longer offer sacrifices. We await the eternal sabbath rather than keeping a weekly one. Our hope for salvation comes through Jesus and his sacrifice, not through law keeping.

That doesn’t mean that the writings of Isaiah and Jeremiah suddenly cease to be God’s Word. That doesn’t mean that the lessons we learn from David and Moses and Abraham no longer hold truth. The Psalms still speak volumes about the nature of God and his creation.

It’s easy to confuse the Old Law with the writings we call the Old Testament. (remember that the term “Old Testament” wasn’t used to refer to Scripture until well into the second century) The Jews referred to the first five books of the Bible as the Law. If Paul really says that “the Law” is nailed to the cross, he is only referring to those books! And even at that, who among us thinks that the creation story was against us and needed to be nailed to the cross? Can anyone read Paul and think that he felt a need to nail Abraham’s story to the cross? Or the story of the exodus?

We need to read Colossians 2 as a celebration of Christ’s victory, not a proof text for dispensationalism. Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message can help us capture that feeling:

“Think of it! All sins forgiven, the slate whiped clean, that old arrest warrant canceled and nailed to Christ’s Cross. He stripped all the spiritual tyrants in the universe of their sham authority at the Cross and marched them naked through the streets.”

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