16 Jul 2008

What Was Nailed the Cross? Colossians 2.14

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Colossians, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Ministry, Preaching, Restoration History
Paul & The “Old Testament:” What Was Nailed To the Cross: A Look at Colossians 2.14

having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.

It is commonly assumed across much conservative Christianity (and Churches of Christ included) that with this verse Paul taught that the “law” or the “Old Testament” was blotted out or abrogated or done away with. This particular interpretation has contributed to the semi-Marcionite view toward the Hebrew Bible among CofCs. A recent writer for example claims that this interpretation is so clear and established that one has to “shut his eyes, stop his ears, and scar his heart like the Pharisees of old to miss this truth” (Wade Webster, “Crucial Questions Concerning the Old Covenant,” Power {June 2008}). I confess that I am guilty because I do not agree that Colossians says anything of the sort about the “Old Testament.”

Something was nailed to the cross but it was not the “Old Testament.” It is an interesting fact to note that if Paul was concerned about the Law why he never even used the word a single time in Colossians. “Law” or nomos does not occur even once in the epistle. A strange fact if it was the “law” that was nailed to the cross.

Whatever was nailed to the cross Paul says it was “against us and stood opposed to us.” This statement is hard for me to reconcile with not only Paul’s attitude toward the Torah/Hebrew Bible elsewhere but also what the Bible itself says. For example the following attitude is directly contradictory the attitude expressed in those words

The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
The precepts of the LORD are right giving joy to the heart

This attitude in Psalm 19 could never be understood as saying the law was “against us or stood opposed to us.” Further no one could read Psalm 119 and come away with such a conclusion. The Bible itself does not support the idea that the Law was “opposed to us.” Paul does not support that idea either. In fact he states in Romans “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (7.12). He further declares that the Hebrew Bible is “spiritual” (7.14). And perhaps most importantly, Paul declares that the “law” was a gift of God’s grace, yes grace, to Israel (Rom. 9.4)

Paul certainly says there is a problem but that problem is not the “.Old Testament.” The problem was not the law but you and me! Paul is not anti-torah, nor anti-Hebrew Bible and Paul never believed that God’s word was destroyed or obliterated.

Paul says that the cheirograph was nailed the cross. This word is a Pauline hapax and never occurs again in the NT. In the 19th century the word turned up in the sands of Egypt inscribed on papyri. Adolf Deissmann in his epoch making book Light from the Ancient East demonstrates that the term refers to an I.O.U., a certificate of debt incurred by a person (cf. pp. 331-334).

Historical context is a cardinal rule in biblical interpretation. 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.

Paul shows the Colossians that the cross was not a defeat of Christ by the cosmic forces of evil. Rather the cross was where Christ stripped the powers of their power. He nailed the debt we owed to the cross and canceled it. He then paraded those beings in a procession like a victorious Caesar. Once Jesus took our Sin Debt out of the way those beings had no power of us. The cross was a triumph not because it destroyed three-fifths of God’s word rather the Cross was victorious because it was there that Christ won the cosmic battle. Eugene Peterson captures the sense of this text in The Message,

Think of it! All sins forgiven, the slate wiped 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.”

That is what Colossians 2.14 celebrates. The removal of sin … not the removal of the Hebrew Bible.

Bobby Valentine

18 Responses to “What Was Nailed the Cross? Colossians 2.14”

  1. Alan Says:

    I have to agree with you wholeheartedly on this. I have spent a lot of time in congregations where the Old Testament is barely noticed.

  2. laymond Says:

    You are right Bobby, Jesus died for our sins, not for any mistakes God made. But when he wiped the slate clean, he also did away with the old covenant, and invoked the new one.
    The Old Testament is as good today as it was when Paul recommended it to Timothy, and for the same thing.

  3. nick gill Says:

    Bobby, you know how I understand this.

    “He made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might in him be the righteousness of God”

    And, from an even closer context, “…through [Jesus] to reconcile everything to himself, aking peace by the blood of his cross, whether things on the earth or things in the heavens.” Colossians just isn’t about what many want it to be about. You’ve done a beautiful job of pointing us towards the true import of this epistle. Thank you!

    In HIS love,

  4. Les Ferguson, Jr. Says:

    Great stuff, Bobby–ths post is a keeper!

  5. JeremyNSunny Says:

    Absolute, vehement, resounding, enthusiastic ‘Amen’ from the Folding home, man!! I plan to include a link to this post in my own blog – unless you should ask me not to. Thank you for this logical, clearly-communicated, to-the-point explanation.

    We’re glad you’re ‘back’ – blogging. We’re praying your month of … dreariness … is going as quickly as possible.

  6. ben Says:

    An important reminder, clearly articulated! Thank, Bobby

    Ben (newgenesis.wordpress.com)

  7. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Hey guys Im in the Tucson Airport going to Nashville (about 5am). Alan thanks for the comment and it is true that many congregations virtually ignore 3 fifths of the Bible.

    Laymond we have a disagreement.

    Nick We are on the same page I believe. Colossians is a great little epistle and it has nothing to do with the destruction of the Hebrew Bible.

    Les thanks for the kind words bro. I pray all is well on the coast.

    Jeremy how are things in the Mid West? Make sure you go to Fall Hall Glen in WI for the Preachers Retreat in September … I’ll be there.

    Ben so good to see you are around. I miss you guy.

    Seeking Shalom,
    Bobby V

  8. laymond Says:

    Bobby it’s rare when we don’t 🙂

  9. laymond Says:

    “It is commonly assumed across much conservative Christianity (and Churches of Christ included) that with this verse Paul taught that the “law” or the “Old Testament” was blotted out or abrogated or done away with.”

    No Bobby! Paul does not say the “Old Testament” was blotted out or done away with, it is simply stated that the “law” is fulfilled, no longer the way to salvation. There is more to the “Old Testament” than “The Law of Moses” / (ordinances against us)

    Col:2:14: 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;

    Mt:5:17: Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.

    Rom:4:14: For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect:

    Rom:4:15: Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression.

    Bobby you said “Colossians is a great little epistle” and I say it gives some good advise.

    Col:2:8: Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.

  10. Tim Archer Says:

    I agree, this is a much-abused verse. I was in a discussion once where a young man started to quote something from the Psalms and man who had been a preacher for over 30 years said, “My Bible says Psalms was nailed to the cross.” Ouch!

    I do believe that there was a change in the covenant, but I don’t believe that God threw out everything that had gone before.

    Grace and peace,

  11. Jeanne Says:

    Nashville? Can anything good come out of Nashville?

  12. Jeff @ truth-in-love.com Says:

    What of v. 16-17?

    Because whatever this was was nailed to the cross, they were freed from being judged on things that were a “shadow of the things to come.” Coincidentally, the listed things were all practices of the Old Law: the Sabbath, what one eats and drinks, the festivals, etc.

    These verses would seem to become a non sequitur if v. 14 does not refer to the Old Covenant.

  13. Stoogelover Says:

    Certainly makes more sense than the law being nailed to the cross, which never made sense to me when I was growing up.

  14. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Jeff thanks for joining the discussion and thanks for contributing. But I do not think the mention of Sabbaths and the like necessitate the conclusion you are suggesting.

    It is possible, even likely, that the reference to Sabbaths, etc are halakaic interpretations of the law of the kind that eventually found their way into the Mishna and the kind that Jesus critiqued in Matthew 5. Jesus is a good illustration here. Jesus clearly has no problem with the torah or Hebrew Bible and his sermon does not set up him vs Moses. His quotation of “you have heard it said Love your neighbor but hate your enemy” proves this beyond doubt for the Law never said nor implied such a thing. However a rule (halakaic interpretation) like that is in fact found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. So historical context (the first century) helps frame our reading of the text.

    Paul himself has no problem with Sabbaths or holy days even if they are “shadows” of things to come. But shadows are not necessarily “against us” nor “stand opposed” to us.

    Paul says that Christ took away the power of the principalities which was a record of our debt. This power is not to be dismissed as anyone seeking a loan today knows when a credit report is drawn up … that “decree” with its “ordinances” has incredible power over you … and me! Jesus destroyed it! That brother is Good News.

    Bobby Valentine

  15. rich Says:

    i would think to answer that question properly and understand what paul is saying,it is necessary to understand two fundamential questions concerning atonement.
    one: was jesus righteous under law.
    if so
    two: was god righteous to curse his
    this leads to the word “nullified” in eph 2:15 when he nullified in his flesh the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace.

    29tn Or “rendered inoperative.” This is a difficult text to translate because it is not easy to find an English term which communicates well the essence of the author’s meaning, especially since legal terminology is involved. Many other translations use the term “abolish” (so NRSV, NASB, NIV), but this term implies complete destruction which is not the author’s meaning here. The verb katargevw (katargew) can readily have the meaning “to cause someth. to lose its power or effectiveness” (BDAG 525 s.v. 2, where this passage is listed), and this meaning fits quite naturally here within the author’s legal mindset. A proper English term which communicates this well is “nullify” since this word carries the denotation of “making something legally null and void.” This is not, however, a common English word. An alternate term like “rendered inoperative [or ineffective]” is also accurate but fairly inelegant. For this reason, the translation retains the term “nullify”; it is the best choice of the available options, despite its problems.
    you might want to ask john mark that one.

    blessings rich in cal

  16. RICH Says:


    of course this presupposes the context
    2:8 For by grace you are saved19 through faith,20 and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God;


  17. jmoclair@yahoo Says:

    Very good, Bobby. Nice to know others out there who have a similar interpretation on this passage in the CoC!

    — Jeremy

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