The Sabbath and Colossians 2:14
And when 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, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross (Colossians 2:13, 14).
Some critics of Sabbath observance cite these verses to support their view that Christians are not subject to the Ten Commandments per se because they were nailed to the cross. Their next step is to reason that all but the Fourth Commandment have been restored, in principle, to Christian life through the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.
Verse 13 shows how believers are brought from spiritual death to new life in Christ through the forgiveness of their sins. Verse 14 provides a graphic illustration of that forgiveness. Let's take a closer look at that picture.
- canceled out
- The Greek word here means to wipe out, to erase, to obliterate. It can also mean “to root out, to destroy.”1
- certificate of debt
- The experts are divided in their interpretations of cheirographon, the Greek word behind this phrase. It is used nowhere else in the New Testament. The literal meaning of the word is “handwriting,” as in a manuscript. It has been popular to understand this figuratively as the Ten Commandments. John Calvin and many others after him have taught that the “handwriting” represented the Old Testament ceremonies which, according to Paul, have been abolished.2 modern scholarship has suggested an alternative interpretation.
- Samuele Bacchiocchi notes that the Greek word for law (nomos) does not exist in Colossians; therefore this handwriting that was canceled /wiped out cannot be the Law. Even scholars who disagree with his pro-Sabbath views recognize the strength of his position here.3
- Cheirographon is now widely understood to be not the Law but “an ‘IOU’, a statement of indebtedness, personally signed by the debtor.”4
- “This graphic image conjures up the plight of one whose faults are staring him in the face, like a contract brandished before its acknowledged signatory. Our sinfulness is just as plain as a documentary pledge, upon which is written our plain duty towards God.”5
- “The effective action seems more to lie in the removal of a list of sins by wiping it clean. For this Isaiah 43:25 (LXX) provides some anticipation: “I am the one who wipes out (Gr. xaleiphōn) your iniquities and I will not remember them.“6
- Scholars have suggested two other possible interpretations of chierographon: a record book of our transgressions; and Christ Himself, who became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21), taking our sins upon Himself and bearing them to the cross in our place.
- The “certificate of debt” had legal validity because it was based on “decrees” or “regulations” (New International Version) or “ordinances” (King James Version). This terminology indicates “why the bond or certificate of indebtedness has a case against us.”7
- It is reasonable for us to think of the “decrees” as God’s laws. Remember, it is not these “decrees” that were “canceled” and “nailed…to the cross” but the “certificate of debt” itself.
- against us
- This translation makes it appear that the “decrees” were against us—probably an overly interpretive rendering of the original. The New Revised Standard Version has “the record that stood against us.” It may help to think of the “IOU” metaphor—the statement of our debt that shows a huge balance due—more than we could ever pay.
- The point is this: it was the “certificate of debt” that was “against us,” not the “decrees” (God’s laws). “According to the Pauline view, the law is not oriented against human beings, but on the contrary, the sinful human being orients himself against the law. The law is holy, just, and good (Rom 7:12), even though it is “weakened by (sinful) flesh” (Romans 8:3). The law did not bring about death for human beings; rather, sin brought death through that which is good, namely through the law (Romans 7:13).”8
- which was hostile to us
- “Hostile” translates hypenantios, a word that is used in the Greek Old Testament—the Septuagint (LXX)—to designate personal or national enemies.9 The “certificate of debt” is “hostile” in that it goes beyond a mere statement of account. It is an active enemy that threatens our very lives.
- He has taken it out of the way
- More literally, “He has taken it out of the middle.” This may have to do with the fact that the middle “was the position occupied at the center of the court or assembly by the accusing witness. In the context of Colossians the accusing witness is the cheirographon which God in Christ has erased and removed out of the court.”10
- nailed it to the cross
- This is how God disposed of the “certificate of death.” Christ took all of our sins upon Himself, in effect signing His own “IOU” for the accumulated debt of every sinner. In Him our sins were nailed to the cross, the evidence against us wiped out, thrown out of court. The Eerdmans Bible Commentary sees it like this: “Paul imagines God taking the statement of debts and nailing it to the cross of Christ, a vivid way of saying that the death of Christ is the basis of God’s forgiveness of man’s sin.”11
Colossians 2:14 focuses not on the law or the Sabbath, but on the forgiveness provided by Jesus Christ through His atoning death on the cross. Far from teaching that the law was made void at Calvary, this verse testifies to the exalted nature of the law by reminding us of the magnitude of the sacrifice required for our salvation.
1 Markus Barth and Helmut Blanke, Colossians, tr. Astrid Beck, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 328.
2 The Epistles of Paul The Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, Calvin's Commentaries, trans. T. H. L. Parker (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd,1965), 334.
3 Samuele Bacchiocchi, The Sabbath Under Crossfire (Berrien Springs: Biblical Perspectives, 1998). On page 244 Dr. Bacchiocchi includes this quotation from Douglas R. De Lacey, Professor of New Testament at Cambridge University: “Bacchiocchi lays great stress on the fact that the term nomos [law] is entirely absent from Colossians…he is surely right in his conclusion that this passage cannot be interpreted as stating that the Mosaic law itself was ‘wiped out’ in the death of Christ.”
4 C.D.F. Moule, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Colossians and to Philemon (London: The Syndics of the Cambridge University Press, 1957), 97.
5 Patrick V. Rogers, Colossians, New Testament Message 15 (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1980), 36.
6 Ralph P. Martin, Colossians and Philemon, New Century Bible (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1974), 86.
7 Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, Word Biblical Commentary 44 (Waco: Word Books, 1982), 125.
8 Barth and Blanke, Colossians, 328, 329.
9 Ibid., 330.
10 Samuele Bacchiocchi, From Sabbath to Sunday (Rome: The Pontifical University Press, 1977), 351.
11 The Eerdmans Bible Commentary(Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 1147.