The apostle Paul said that something was taken away by being nailed to Jesus Christ’s cross. What was he referring to and how does it apply to us today?
The answer countless sincere people would quickly give to this question is “the law”—meaning they believe the law of God was nailed to the cross. But is that what the Bible teaches?
Examining the context
Have you ever been frustrated by someone misrepresenting what you said by taking a few words out of context? Perhaps what the person quoted from you was accurate, but he left out most of what you said, thereby changing the meaning entirely. Unfortunately, this is what has happened with this scripture.
The full statement reads: “And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). It is important to get what is said in its immediate context, as well as the context of the rest of the Bible. That is the only way we can be “rightly dividing the word of truth,” as Paul admonished the evangelist Timothy he must do (2 Timothy 2:15).
The answer to what was nailed to the cross is in the previous sentence, which begins in the previous verse. “And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-14).
Some commentaries suggest that “the uncircumcision of your flesh” refers to the law of God. The truth is, this phrase is nothing more than another way of saying that these people were gentiles, because the gentiles did not practice circumcision, while the Jews did. For additional explanation of this subject, see our article on Acts 15.
What was nailed to the cross is described as “the handwriting of requirements [‘ordinances’ in the King James Version] that was against us, which was contrary to us.” Because “ordinances” (the word used in the King James Version) sounds like “law,” some twist the meaning of “nailed it to the cross” into Paul saying the force of the law of God ended at the death of Christ.
The writ of charges
In using the words “handwriting of requirements … contrary to us … nailed it to the cross,” Paul was describing the record of our sins, the indictment that required the penalty of death.
Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words says this about the word translated “handwriting,” cheirographon: “This means a memorandum of debt, ‘a writing by hand’ used in public and private contracts, and it is a technical word in the Greek papyri. …
“In the famous Florentine papyrus of A.D. 85, the governor of Egypt gives this order in the course of the trial,—‘Let the hand-writing be crossed out,’ which corresponds to the ‘blotting out the hand-writing’ of Col. 2:14” (Foreword to New Testament section by W. Graham Scroggie).
The wages of our sins—our debt—is death (Romans 6:23). Jesus Christ was willing to pay that debt by dying in our place, thus blotting out the record of our debt and pardoning our sins. Reflecting this concept, the English Standard Version reads: “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).
An interesting parallel to this official death warrant that is against each of us because of our sins is the sign that Pilate had nailed to the cross or stake upon which Christ was crucified. You can read in John 19:19-22 how there was some controversy over the wording, but the intent was plain. It was customary to publish a writ of charges against the condemned, and the board above Christ’s head was inscribed with the charges for which the Jewish authorities demanded His death.
The NKJV Study Bible has the following note on John 19:19: “It was a Roman custom to write the name of the condemned person and his crime on a plaque to be placed above his head at the execution. Mark calls this title ‘the inscription of His accusation’ (see Mark 15:26).”
Paul chose this symbolism to emphasize a theme that he began earlier in the letter: “And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight—if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister” (Colossians 1:21-23).
Paul wanted to underscore the truth that gentiles who were called by God were just as much a part of the Church as converted people of Israelite heritage were. Paul wrote plainly of this in Colossians 1:27. “Mystery” means “hidden.” The apostle told the gentile Christians that what had been hidden was hidden from them no longer, meaning God had opened their minds to the truth. Christ, through the Spirit of God, was in them, in converted gentiles.
The charges removed
The clear intended meaning, then, of Colossians 2:13-14, based upon the immediate and the broader context is: “You gentile believers had a death sentence against you due to your sins. But through the process of repentance and the forgiveness of sin—made possible by Christ’s death instead of yours—everything that one time could have been held against you has been removed.”
Many commentaries twist the wording of “requirements” or “ordinances” being “nailed” to the cross to mean that Christ’s death did away with the law, so that the law couldn’t be “against” believers any more. But it wasn’t God’s law that was against believers; it was the sins that they committed.
Moreover, common sense tells us that pardoning someone for committing a capital crime doesn’t do away with the law that was broken. If anything, it shows that the law carries force, for without the pardon, the criminal would die!
In the same way, the law of God carries force since breaking it (committing sin) requires the death penalty. The law is that powerful, that important. It is holy. People aren’t saved from that which was against them (the death penalty) by doing away with the law. What saves people from death is the death of Christ in the place of those who repent of their sins. Jesus Christ’s life is that valuable.
In fact, the phrasing Paul chose to use in Colossians 2:14 showed that the law of God continues to carry great force. By saying the penalty demanded under the law of God was nailed to the instrument that killed Christ, Paul was showing that the law of God was still in force, still requiring death for sin.
By contrast, if the law had been brought to an abrupt end by the death of Christ, from that point on, nothing would be “against the law.” Nothing could be called “sin.” Of course, we know that is not true. Sin exists, which means the law that calls it “sin” also exists!
For further study on the difference between law and grace, read the articles in the section: “Law and Grace: What Does the Bible Really Say?”