Does Colossians 2:14-17 prove the Ten Commandments, Sabbaths and Holy Days were “against us,” “contrary to us,” and were therefore blotted out — “nailed to the cross”? Just what do these verses really mean?
Nineteen hundred years ago, on a stony slab of ground jutting upward near Jerusalem, a young man was nailed to an upright stake, suffering a uniquely harsh form of execution.
The one who was put to death was not merely a man — but also GOD in the flesh! And His death was a potential atonement for the sins of all mankind!
We know Jesus Christ died to pay the penalty of our sins. But when He was nailed to that stake, what else was nailed there? Do you know?
A Much Misunderstood Scripture
Many fundamentalist theologians point to Colossians 2:14-17 in an attempt to prove that the entire law of God, sabbath days, and God’s annual festivals were done away — nullified and abrogated at the death of Christ. According to them, these verses say that the Ten Commandments were “against us,” and so Christ took them out of the way, “nailing them to His cross” when He died.
What do these verses in Colossians 2 really mean? Before examining Colossians 2:14-17 word by word and comparing it with other scriptures, let’s understand who the Colossians were, and why Paul wrote to them.
The City of Colossae
Colossae was a city in Asia Minor near Laodicea, in the province of Phrygia, on the south side of the Maeander river. At one time the city was controlled by the Macedonians. It was later transferred to the Seleucids, and finally became subject to Rome.
The Colossians were Gentiles and pagans. In the apostles’ time, the city, like the other cities of Asia Minor, was wholly given over to the worship of false gods and goddesses. Those of the saints who lived in Colossae had formerly been steeped in the same pagan idolatry.
Because pagan teachings and anti-Christian influences were rife in the city, and deceptive teachings of numerous religious philosophies abounded, the Apostle Paul was deeply concerned for the brethren in Colossae. He was actually alarmed lest false teachers, propounders of a mixture of Oriental philosophy and Judaistic beliefs, should again deceive them and subvert their faith in Christ.
In chapter 2, verse 8, Paul warned the brethren in Colossae: “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments [elements] of the world, and not after Christ.”
Here Paul clearly outlined the danger. False teachings of PHILOSOPHY — pagan philosophical ideas — as well as traditions of MEN, and elementary concepts of THE WORLD were rife in Colossae and threatened to subvert new believers in Christ, deceiving them, pressuring them into returning to their old PAGAN practices and beliefs!
It is important to note that in that day the word “philosophy” was often used to describe an ascetic approach to life.
Notice! This truth is made even clearer if we drop down to verses 20-23: “Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the RUDIMENTS of the world [the teachings of the world around them, the PAGAN philosophies] why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines OF MEN?” (Verses 20-22.)
These “ordinances,” or religious customs and decrees, seemed to be wise and good to the human mind (verse 23). They involved “neglecting of the body” and various forms of ASCETICISM — abstinence from pleasure, strict codes of conduct. These religious customs involved numerous taboos (“Touch not; taste not; handle not,” etc.). But they were merely the ideas and teachings of MEN (verse 22) — they did not come from the Bible!
We will see later just what these “ordinances,” commandments and doctrines of men were. So now let’s examine Colossians 2:14-17, and understand it in its proper context.
Is God’s Law “AGAINST Us”?
In Colossians 2:13-14 we read: “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.”
Just what do these verses mean? If, as certain fundamentalists assert, the Ten Commandments are “against us,” and “contrary to us,” then the Bible must contradict itself, because the same Apostle Paul wrote elsewhere of the Law of God: “Wherefore the law is HOLY, and the commandment holy, and just, and good” (Rom. 7:12). He wrote: “For we know that the law is spiritual …” (verse 14). How then can God’s Law be “against us” or “contrary to us”?
The clear answer is — it isn’t!
The Ten Commandments — which summarize the Law of God — are GOOD for us. They show us how to love and worship God, and how to love our neighbor. Read the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. Do you see any one of them which is “against us”? Of course not! Each one of the Ten Commandments is a GOOD commandment, ordained for our welfare, established for our eternal benefit!
This is why Jesus told a young rich man, “… but if thou wilt enter into life, KEEP THE. COMMANDMENTS” (Matt. 19:17).
Which commandments did Jesus mean? He went right on to tell us: “Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (verses 18-19).
He was clearly talking about the Ten Commandments, because He went right on to list several of them, pointing out which law He was talking about!
Now Jesus could have told the young rich man, “Listen! There is nothing you must do to gain eternal life. Just believe on me. The Ten Commandments are (or will be) done away — abolished!” But He didn’t say that. Why? Obviously, because it is not true. Because Jesus knew that to inherit eternal life a man must KEEP THE COMMANDMENTS!
If we believe the words of Jesus, our Savior, then the Ten Commandments are still in effect and in force today!
But this being true, then what “ordinances” was the Apostle Paul talking about in Colossians 2:14?
The “Handwriting of Ordinances”
First, notice that what was blotted out was the “HANDWRITING of ordinances.” Why did Paul use this strange-sounding expression if he merely meant the Ten Commandments?
The original Greek word here translated “handwriting” is cheirographon and actually means “a (hand-written) document, specifically a document of indebtedness, bond” (Arndt-Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of The New Testament). The Arndt-Gingrich lexicon translates the expression in Colossians 2:14, “the bond that stood against us.”
Thus, the original Greek, according to the most up-to-date scholars and authorities, shows that a “bond” or “note of indebtedness” was against us. What was this particular “bond” or “I.O.U.” note?
Again, notice the original Greek. The whole expression is: cheirographon tois dogmasin. The whole expression in English should be translated “the note of indebtedness in the decrees.” The last word, dogmasin, is the dative plural of dogma, which actually means “decree, ordinance, decision, command” (Arndt, Gingrich). It is used in Luke 2:1 in reference to a decree from Caesar Augustus. It is also used in Acts 17:7, again referring to the “decrees of Caesar.” In Acts 16:4 it is used in reference to “decrees … ordained of the apostles” (obviously Paul wasn’t referring to THESE decrees being blotted out!).
The same Greek word is also found in Ephesians 2:15, where we find that Christ has reconciled Jews and Gentiles: “For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; having abolished in his flesh the ENMITY [hostility, hatred that existed between Jews and Gentiles], even the law of commandments contained in ordinances [dogmas] …” (Eph. 2:14-15).
But here again the question comes up: “What is this law of commandments contained in ordinances?” The original Greek is ton nomon ton entolon en dogmasin. Literally, it should be translated “the law of commandments in decrees.” Some have assumed falsely that it refers to God’s Law, or the Ten Commandments — but, as we have already seen, God’s Law is SPIRITUAL and endures forever (read Psalm 111:78; Rom. 7:14). Whatever this law is — it is subject to abolition, and one that consists of “commandments or decrees” — the SAME DECREES mentioned in Colossians 2:14!
So this brings us back to Colossians 2. The decrees (or “ordinances”) are mentioned both in verse 14 and in verse 20. As we have already seen, verse 20 plainly refers to MAN-MADE regulations, restrictions, decrees or ordinances — not the laws of God! Let’s notice it once again: Paul wrote, “Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances [Greek dogmatizesthe, literally “bind yourself with decrees”] … after the commandments and doctrines of MEN?”
Isn’t it plain?
These particular “ordinances,” or decrees, were NOT those of the apostles, or of God, but restrictions, or regulations and taboos imposed by MEN!
But precisely what restrictions, or regulations? The parenthetical expression in verse 21 explains. These decrees consisted of various ascetic do’s and don’ts such as “Touch not, taste not, handle not” — pagan religious injunctions and teachings of non-Christian philosophers.
Some of these pagans, of course, were masquerading AS Christians (compare II Cor. 11:13-15), but had substituted their own regulations and practices for the teachings of Christ!
The Ordinances of God
The word dogma is never used in the New Testament to refer to the statutes or Old Testament ordinances of God, or the Ten Commandments. You can check this for yourself in the Englishman’s Greek Concordance of the Bible. When the Old Testament ordinances of the Levitical priesthood are mentioned in the New Testament, God inspired the Apostle Paul to use other words.
You may notice the word “ordinances” in the King James Version of Hebrews 9:10. Paul wrote of the rites and ceremonies of the Levitical priesthood: “Which stood only in meats and drinks [meat and drink offerings], and divers washings, and carnal [fleshly] ORDINANCES, imposed on them until the time of reformation.” The Greek word here is dikaiomasi, not dogma.
The same word is used in Hebrews 9:1 speaking of “ordinances GdikaiomataH of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary,” referring to the Levitical priesthood’s ordinances and service of the tabernacle. These are super-ceded today, since they were only imposed till the coming of the Holy Spirit (“the time of reformation”), which made them unnecessary — spirit-begotten Christians now being able to worship God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). However, nowhere in the New Testament are these ordinances called dogma.
The King James Version also uses the word “ordinances” in Luke 1:6, speaking of the parents of John the Baptist, Zacharias and Elizabeth: “And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ORDINANCES (GdikaiomasiH) of the Lord blameless.”
“Ordinance” also appears in the King James Version in Romans 13:2, “Whosoever therefore resisteth the [governmental] power, resisteth the ordinance of God… .” But the Greek word here is diatage, not dogma.
I Peter 2:13 reiterates: “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake …” — Greek ktisis.
Finally, “ordinances” is used in I Corinthians 11:2: “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances [paradosis], as I delivered them to you.”
On the other hand, when Paul refers to dogma in Ephesians and Colossians, he means HUMAN RELIGIOUS DECREES — ascetic regulations or at best pseudo-Christian taboos!
The Way of Death
The “ordinances” — dogma — referred to in Colossians may have seemed good to the natural mind — but there is a way which “seems right” and ends in DEATH (Prov. 14:12; 16:25).
These religious decrees were perversions of the truth of God. They led to DEATH. These “ordinances” and “commandments of MEN” caused people to break GOD’S commandments — to SIN. And “the wages of sin is DEATH” (Rom. 6:23).
What, then, was the cheirographon (“bond of indebtedness”) of ordinances?
It was the “debt note” that was incurred as a result of having followed human religious taboos and decrees!
What was the “debt” incurred from following those “ordinances”? The debt of forfeiting one’s life!
Now note this carefully. Obedience to the Ten Commandments never led anybody into SIN. Rather, as David said to God, “All thy commandments are righteousness” (Ps. 119:172). Rather, as the Apostle John said: “Sin is the TRANSGRESSION of the law” (I John 3:4). Sin results from BREAKING the Ten Commandments! Not from keeping them.
These human religious ordinances caused people to break God’s commandments, thereby leading them into SIN. And the penalty was DEATH!
So now let’s recapitulate:
Obviously, the Ten Commandments are not “against us.” Keeping them, through the power of God’s indwelling Holy Spirit, is the way to eternal LIFE! What is “against us” is the debt note associated with man-devised dogmas, religious decrees, or commandments which take us AWAY from keeping the commandments of God, and cause us to break God’s Law. These religious decrees were the “ordinances” Paul wrote about.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ time had also fallen into the same ascetic spiritual trap as the Gentiles. They had strayed away from properly keeping the Law of God. They added a rigmarole of religious taboos and stringent decrees of asceticism to the law of God. They developed a whole system of religious regulations and traditions which, not uncommonly, were against the law of God, but which appeared “holy” and “righteous” in the eyes of the common people.
Christ rebuked them for these human-devised laws and decrees, “Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit IN VAIN do they WORSHIP me, teaching for doctrines the COMMANDMENTS OF MEN. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of MEN, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do” (Mark 7:6-8).
These human inventions and additions were included in the decrees Paul condemned in the epistle to the Colossians. Whether added by Jews, Gentiles, Pharisees, ascetics, philosophers or whoever, such dogma was wrong!
What Was “Nailed to the Cross”?
That which was really “nailed to the cross” was NOT the Ten Commandments at all! Rather, it was the figurative record of our indebtedness due to sin — which we incurred as a result of breaking God’s Laws in order to follow human precepts — which was “nailed to the cross”!
Before we knew the truth of God, we followed the wrong way of life. We became slaves to sin (Rom. 6:12-14, 16, 23). Due to false teaching, we broke God’s Laws and incurred a “debt” — we owed God our LIVES! Because we had sinned, we were “as good as dead” in the sight of God. When we repented of having broken God’s Law we acknowledged our debt. It is as if we had sent God an I.O.U., a legal certificate, stating: “Because I have followed wrong teachings, and the traditions of men, I have broken your Law. Therefore, I owe you my life. I have incurred the death penalty for my sins.
Signed: John Doe.”
But when Christ died for our sins, He took that death penalty upon Himself. In His Person, OUR SINS were “nailed to the cross,” or stake. As the Apostle Paul wrote: “For he hath made him [Christ] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (II Cor. 5:21).
He ransomed us from the grave. He paid our debt-note due to sin FOR us, in our stead! He DIED for us! Therefore, God tore up the I.O.U.
Consequently, when we repent of our sins and accept Christ’s payment for them, we are no longer under the death penalty. We have been forgiven. The penalty of death has been REMOVED. We now have peace with God (Rom. 5:1).
But What About Verses 16-17?
Those who quote Colossians 2:14 in a vain attempt to prove God’s Law is abolished generally go on to use verses 16 and 17 of this same chapter to argue that Christians should not be concerned if people “judge” them for not observing the Sabbath days. But do these verses show that the Sabbath or holy days of God are abolished? Absolutely not!
Read carefully what Paul wrote, word for word; “Let no man [or, no one] therefore judge you in meat or in drink [Greek: eating or drinking], or in respect [merei, part] of an holyday [i.e., in connection with the observance of a festival], or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: which are a shadow [foreshadowing, or prophetic type] of things to come; but the body [“is” is in italics in the King James Version, and was inserted by the translators — it doesn’t belong in the verse] of Christ” (Col. 2:16-17).
In more modern English, we could translate the verses this way: “Let no one judge you regarding eating or drinking, or [other] part of a holy day … but [let] the body of Christ.”
In other words, Paul was telling the brethren at Colossae not to be worried, anxious, or concerned about Gentile neighbors or other human beings who dared to “sit in judgment” on them for eating, drinking and rejoicing instead of being ascetic, in observing God’s annual Holy Days and Sabbath days. They were not to allow outsiders to “judge” them, but rather to let the “body of Christ,” the Church of God, which is in training to “judge” even the angels (I Cor. 6:2-3).
God tells us how to observe His Holy Days through His Word and through the guidelines of His Church. His ministers instruct the people how these days are to be observed. Therefore, brethren should be concerned with how the CHURCH OF GOD would view certain activities on or connected with the Holy Days, or Sabbath days, and not with the ignorant opinions and gossip of unconverted neighbors or surrounding people.
Doesn’t that make this scriptural passage clear?
A Modern Application
Now let’s apply this principle, brethren. During the Feast of Tabernacles each year, some unconverted people at various festival areas have misunderstood what we were doing there. Sometimes ignorant rumors were circulated. Several years ago in Big Sandy, a rumor circulated that God’s people were having a drunken orgy at the Feast. The supposed “evidence”? The large number of beer cans and bottles which were collected in the trash! Unfortunately, the rumor-mongers didn’t stop to think that where several thousand people were gathered at a single site, in the course of several days a considerable number of cans or bottles would naturally accumulate!
That is one example of unconverted neighbors passing judgment on God’s people for the way they observed the festivals. Another example was even more ludicrous: somehow the rumor was circulated that we were performing animal sacrifices at the Feast site! One person even came and asked to see the channel that drained away the blood!
Of course, such gossip, rumors and evil speakings should not cause us to become unduly upset or to cease to observe the annual festivals! We are not to let these unconverted people who don’t have the facts “judge” us. Rather, we should let the “body of Christ” — the Church of God — JUDGE THE MANNER in which we observe the annual festivals. As we are always instructed, we should observe moderation in all things, and never go to excess. We should never unnecessarily give people occasion to vilify or bring reproach upon the Church. We should be wise in the way in which we observe the festivals; we should be careful in our eating and drinking, as the Church has “judged,” so that we do not carelessly and unnecessarily leave people with the wrong impression. But, on the other hand, we should not be worried or overly concerned about ignorant gossip or false accusations.
Our eating and drinking — or anything — in any part or portion of a Holy Day, ought to be done as the Church — the “body of Christ” — judges. This even includes, of course, driving down the street, following directions of festival traffic and parking attendants, the way we keep our temporary homes, and our example while eating out at restaurants. If we remember and follow this admonition, then we will avoid much needless gossip, fanciful tales and tall stories.
It should be crystal clear by now, brethren, what was really “nailed to the cross.” Jesus Christ was nailed there, bearing our sins upon Himself!
None of the laws, statutes, or ordinances of God were nailed to that upright stake. None of the Holy Days of God were nailed there. None of the Ten Commandments, including the fourth, were nailed there.
Rather, Christ Himself was nailed there bearing the “debt-note” of our sins for us — paying the penalty of our sins in our stead when we repent of sin and accept His sacrifice for us — so that we can inherit eternal life.
Let’s be thankful for His supreme sacrifice — and for the fact that He was resurrected from the dead, and ever lives to make intercession for us!
Source: The Good News, August 1972