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Colossians 2

  Introduction Colossians 2 is an important Bible chapter. Specifically, verses 14-17 are used by many Christians to justify disregarding the seventh-day Sabbath. This study examines the context of Colossians 2, looking at the original meaning of words to let the Bible interpret itself.

Let's first overview the context before delving into word meanings. Paul is expressing his concern for the Colossians with admonitions such as:

  1. "lest any man should beguile you with enticing words" (v4)
  2. "Beware lest any man spoil you" (v8)
  3. "Let no man therefore judge you" (v16)
  4. "Let no man beguile you of your reward" (v18)
He is warning them of the dangers of being drawn away by man from their established faith in Christ. The danger from these men is philosophy, vain deceit, the tradition of men, and the rudiments of the world (v8). These dangers are presented in opposition to faith in Christ. Whatever is being discussed as to what the Colossians should or should not do, we could expect to fall into one of two categories - either the things they are being warned against or things that are consistent with faith in Christ.

Before going further let's try to identify some of the questions that we need to find answers to in order to properly understand or help others understand this important portion of Colossians 2. Some of the more important ones are:
  1. What is the "handwriting of ordinances" that was nailed to the cross? (v14)
  2. What exactly is indicated by holydays, new moons and sabbath days? (v16)
  3. What does "which are a shadow of things to come" mean? (v17)
We will now go through this portion of Colossians 2 verse by verse and determine the meanings of the words used through examining other Biblical uses of the same original words and their context. This is a well-established rule of Bible study. "...no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation." (2 Pet 1:20). We want to allow the Bible to interpret itself as we look for answers to the above questions.

The Handwriting of Ordinances

"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;" (Col 2:14)
The real question with this verse is the understanding of what was nailed to the cross. The verse says "the handwriting of ordinances" but this is not a very self-explanatory term. Many people claim the whole law including the Ten Commandments was nailed to the cross and thereby use this passage to attack those who observe the Seventh-day Sabbath. Sabbath keepers, wanting to uphold the Sabbath, counter that this handwriting of ordinances does not include the Ten Commandments.

"Handwriting" is translated from the Greek word "cheirographon" (Strong's number 5498), a word used only once in the Bible. The word "ordinances" in the Bible is translated from six different original words. In this case, it comes from the Greek word dogma (Strong's number 1378). Dogma is used 5 times and is translated as decree or decrees in Luke 2:1 (from Caesar Augustus), Acts 16:4 (of the apostles and elders) and 17:7 (of Caesar) and as ordinances in Eph 2:15 and Col 2:14. There is not much here to help with its meaning.

We make a lot of assumptions about this handwriting. Generally, it is assumed that the handwriting, because it was handwritten, was equivalent to the ceremonial laws given by God to Moses that he wrote and put in the side of the ark. Well, actually, the Ten Commandments were also handwritten - by God's hand. In fact, there was no other means of writing - there were no printing presses, computer printers etc. Everything was handwritten.

Another assumption we tend to make is that the laws other than the Ten Commandments that were written by Moses and placed "in the side of the ark" were somehow temporary and not very important because of that placement. We need to set aside our assumptions and be careful of drawing conclusions not based on a thus saith the Lord. We need to look for solid Biblical evidence for the meaning - there are three things we can examine to help us understand Colossians 2:
1. other phrases linked to this verse
2. establish the meaning of "which was contrary to us"
3. significance of "nailing it to his cross"

The first is other phrases that could help explain this verse. One author explains the relationship between phrases in verses 13 and 14 like this: "The first of those two phrases is 'having forgiven us all our trespasses' (verse 13, RSV). The parallel and repetitive phrase is 'having cancelled the bond [cheirographon tois dogmasin] which stood against us' (verse 14, RSV). Both phrases mean essentially the same thing, the second simply repeating in different terms what is meant for him to forgive our sins. Thus forgiveness of our sins has resulted in the cancelling of the bond that was against us." (Richardson, William E., PhD. Chair of the Department of Religion, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan)

The second is to establish the meaning of "which was contrary to us." Col 2:14 describes this "handwriting of ordinances" as something "that was against us, which was contrary to us". Does this description fit the Ten Commandments or any portion of God's law? His law is not against or contrary to us; God's law is entirely for the blessing and benefit of mankind. The Bible describes God's law as:

spiritual Rom 7:14 good Rom 7:12
just Rom 7:12 pure Psa 19:8
love Matt 22:37-40 truth Psa 119:142
righteous Psa 119:172 holy Rom 7:12
perfect Psa 19:7 to stand forever Psa 111:7-8
unchangeable Matt 5:18 the law of liberty Jam 2:12
not grievous 1 John 5:3    

Granted, some of these verses are in the New Testament and could be said not to apply to certain parts of God's law if those parts (animal sacrifices for example) were done away with at the cross. But there are many passages in the Old Testament that talk of the law of God in very positive terms; not as something that was against us or contrary to us. See Psalm 119 and, for example, verses 44-48.

What we need then is to find how "the handwriting of ordinances" can be understood to be something "that was against us, which was contrary to us."

Ephesians 2:11-19 is a passage that is parallel to Colossians 2 which discusses how Jews and Gentiles, once separate from each other, have been made one. Paul emphasizes the separation of Gentile from Jew by means of several terms referring to Gentiles, which the Ephesians were:
v11 "called Uncircumcision by ... the Circumcision"
v12 "without Christ"
      "aliens from the commonwealth of Israel"
      "strangers from the covenant of promise"
      "having no hope, and without God in the world"
v13 "ye who sometimes were far off"
v17 "preached peace to you which were afar off"
Having emphasized the previous separation "in time past" (v11) he then shows, through several phrases in Colossians 2, how they have subsequently been made one:
v13 "made nigh by the blood of Christ"
v14 "made both one"
      "broken down the middle wall of partition between us"
v15 "for to make in himself of twain one new man"
v19 "ye are no more strangers and foreigners"
      "fellow citizens with the saints"
      "of the household of God"

This reconciliation happened as a result of "having abolished in his flesh the enmity" (v14). The "enmity" is further described as "the law of commandments contained in ordinances" and this term seems to be parallel to the handwriting of ordinances in Colossians 2. Whatever this enmity is, the abolition of it resulted in there no longer being a separation between Jew and Gentile.

It also resulted in both groups being reconciled to God (v16). This includes non-Jews, non-believers, people who never participated in sacrifices as God ordained them or in any aspects of the ceremonial system.

To understand more of the meaning of Colossians 2, the relationship between law and grace, what was nailed to the cross etc. go to Part 2 - Grace and Law - of this 3-part study on Colossians 2.  

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The Greek has multiple words for forgiveness? God forgives (charizomai) whether we ask or not. Receiving forgiveness (apheimi) is by our choice.
God always forgives!
   

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