What was nailed to the cross?

In my last post, I promised to take up the question about what was nailed to the cross in Colossians 2. Cindy said that every argument about what was nailed to the cross could also be applied to the Sabbath. I kind of agree, except that most of the arguments about what was nailed to the cross miss what the text originally meant.

Most of the time, the Greek behind the NT doesn’t matter. We have been blessed with such excellent translations of the Bible, that the vast majority of passages can be easily understood without recourse to the Greek. And we have been blessed with many resources that help with the Greek, so that the believer does not need to feel excluded when the original language is discussed.

But the word translated “handwriting of ordinances” by the KJV in Col. 2 is a case where the Greek matters quite a lot. Some have interpreted this to mean the 10 commandments, or simply the law of Moses. But the Greek word here is not nomos, which means law, nor is it entolē, commandment. Instead, it is a word used only this one time in the Bible, cheirographon, literally “handwriting.”

As mentioned, it does not occur elsewhere in the Bible, but we know quite a lot about it from contemporary culture. The best translation, as I understand it (and I am far from an expert in Greek), is the NASB’s rendering: “the certificate of debt.” The NASB renders the full text as follows:

13When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions,

14having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.

Still, this is one of those cases where we can understand all the words, but may still have difficulty with the meaning. For me, the best rendering that gets at the meaning of the text, is from the Philips translation:

You, who were spiritually dead because of your sins and your uncircumcision (i.e. the fact that you were outside the Law), God has now made to share in the very life of Christ! He has forgiven you all your sins: Christ has utterly wiped out the damning evidence of broken laws and commandments which always hung over our heads, and has completely annulled it by nailing it over his own head on the cross.

Now, there is nothing in the Greek about guilt which “hung over our heads.” That is a figure of speech missing from the Greek. But that is the sense of the Greek. We need no longer be haunted by guilt for all our failings.

So, in that sense, our violations of the Sabbath are included. But nothing in this verse indicates that we are suddenly free to fornicate, or murder, or violate any of the 10 commandments. In fact, in the very next chapter, Paul says:

But now, put all these things behind you. No more evil temper or furious rage: no more evil thoughts or words about others, no more evil thoughts or words about God, and no more filthy conversation. Don’t tell each other lies any more, for you have finished with the old man and all he did

Yes, our guilt was taken care of at the cross. No. we shouldn’t go around doing bad things–we’ve left all that behind.

Finally, as concerns the Sabbath vs. the feasts. The feasts were instituted to remember certain specific saving actions of God for Israel, and to point forward to a greater saving act in the life, death, and teachings of Jesus. The Sabbath, by contrast was woven into creation itself. God created the world in six days, (Yes, I affirm that, and I have no problem dealing with science), and set aside the seventh day to commune with us.

When Jesus died, the reason for all the sacrifices and feasts disappeared. In Paul’s language, the shadow had met reality, so why focus on the shadow? But Jesus reaffirmed the Sabbath in his death. How so?

God created the world in six days–creation week– and rested the seventh. The triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, the action that initiated the chain of events that led to his death, took place on Sunday–the first day of the week. We call the next seven days “passion week,” but I call it “redemption week.” For just at evening on the sixth day (the hour of the evening sacrifice, we are told) Jesus cried out “It is finished.” The context makes it clear this was a cry of triumph, not resignation. Jesus had accomplished the work of redemption, and he died. He rested in the tomb during the hours of the Sabbath. Thus redemption week mirrored creation week.

When we observe the Sabbath, we rest from our own efforts to save our selves, rest in Christ’s finished work of redemption. Far from engaging legalism, we celebrate creation, redemption (a new creation), and grace.

I hope that answers your question, Cindy.


What was nailed to the cross? — 2 Comments

  1. Ed, that’s interesting exegesis on that passage, and it seems sound to me. It so happens I was dealing with that text last night for another website I’m involved with, and for whatever it may be worth, this is what I posted (focusing on the “sabbaths” in that passage rather than the “certificate of debt”):

    The Old Testament introduced other sabbaths besides the weekly day of rest. The Mosaic ceremonial laws had monthly and yearly sabbaths beyond the weekly Sabbath of the Ten Commandments (see Leviticus 23:38, for example). These ceremonial monthly and yearly sabbaths are obviously what’s under discussion here in Colossians 2: “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (verses 17, 18).
    The weekly Sabbath of Creation and Calvary is not a shadow pointing forward but rather a memorial pointing back to Christ’s historic accomplishments. Remember that word “remember”—pointing us back, not forward. It has nothing to do with Jewish rituals or festivals or monthly or yearly sabbaths.
    If Paul had been saying that the seventh-day Sabbath was done away with, there would have been a firestorm of controversy.


    • Thanks again, Martin, for your input. The cheirographon, which Dr. Johnsson translated as “bill of indebtedness,” or the NASB’s “certificate of debt” is focused on our mistakes, not on any law.

      It’s as if someone paid all your traffic tickets. You would no longer have to pay them, or be under threat of losing your license. But it would have no effect on traffic laws!

      Just because your fines were paid wouldn’t make you free to speed–the speed limit would remain just as it had been.

      What gets dealt with, it seems pretty clear to me, is our violations, not the law that points them out.

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