Paul makes no attempt to answer this question exhaustively—but what he does do is address it relative to the Colossians’ situation and circumstances. In effect, he draws a line from the cross to their lives. The other thing worth noting is the Jewishness of the context. Circumcision (v. 11, 13), old covenant ordinances (v. 16), and something that sounds a lot like the Mosaic Law (v. 14), are all mentioned.
In forgiving their sins (v. 13), Paul tells them that God “cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness” (v. 14). He goes on to say that this “stood against us,” and “condemned us” but has been “nailed to the cross.” What exactly is he speaking of?
Let’s start with the easier part. “Nailed to the cross” is a phrase synonymous with death, so whatever Paul might be speaking of here, its clear its power has been rendered null and void through the death of Jesus (John 19:30). While it’s true the titulus was also something nailed to the cross, it’s function was to inform people of the (alleged) crime for which Jesus was being crucified (Matthew 27:37). It’s clear from the context of our text (where Paul speaks in v. 14 of something being “cancelled” and “taken . . . away”), that he is speaking of something quite different that the cross work of Jesus has brought to an end.
“The charge of our legal indebtedness” is a bigger bite. Here are some other different translations of the phrase:
- “the record of the debt . . . with its legal demands” (ESV),
- “the certificate of debt consisting of decrees” (NASB),
- “the record . . . with its legal demands” (NRSV).
1. Whatever this was, it is connected with our redemption. Verse 13 tells us 1) we were dead in our sins, 2) God made us alive and v. 14 tells us how He did this—3) “He cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness.” The phrase has to be explanatory i some way or else it becomes just a tautology.
2. While the NIV”s “charge” is acceptable, “the record of debt . . . with its legal demands” (ESV) or “the certificate of debt consisting of decrees” (NASB) seem to do a better job of differentiating between our sin and the instrumentality (i.e., the record, certificate) which exposed it.
3. The instrumentality, not our sins, is what was nailed to the cross. Our sins were forgiven through Jesus’ sacrifice and v. 13 makes it clear that Paul has this in view, but unless the instrumentality that exposes them was dealt with, then the achievement would not be complete. (Think of it like a buzzer that goes off every time we make a mistake. Knowing we are forgiven is helpful and hopeful, but the buzzer needs to be disabled for us to truly have peace).
4. All of this would be true of the Torah as it was embodied in the Mosaic covenant. It was, of course, “holy, righteous, and good” (Romans 7:12). It was “spiritual” (v. v. 14). It was intended to bring life (v. 10). But as we all know, that’s not the way it worked out because Israel, on the whole, choose to live without God. Therefore, the Torah became a law of sin and death (Romans 7:13, 23, 8:2). Jim McGuiggan notes:
. . . In a fallen world it functioned as an enemy and it had to be reconciled to God and His redemptive purposes (compare 1 Corinthians 15:56; Galatians 3:10,13; Colossians 1:19-20; Romans 8:1-4). And what is true of the law of God is true of every other expression of God’s holy love, generosity and wisdom whether it is governments, economic structures, family structures and even the earth itself. Everything is swept up into our sinful agenda and becomes what is was never meant to be.
The law was a power that needed to be disarmed (Colossians 2:14-15) and reconciled (Colossians 1:20) and that’s exactly what happened at the cross. The result is that “through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2).
5. Verse 16 confirms Paul has the Torah as embodied in the Mosaic covenant in mind as he writes, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.” The “Therefore” connects the response of v. 16 with the cause for it in v. 14-15. Since the response called for is not to buy into the falsehood that they had to be part of the Jewish community (represented here by dietary and Sabbath observances), the cause is that the cross has disarmed and disabled the Torah as it existed in the Jewish covenant. Certain moral and ethical truths of the law that transcended any covenant were in force before the Mosaic covenant and after it as well (see Romans 13:8-10).
6. If the question is raised, “Why would Paul bother talking to a predominately Gentile church about a Jewish covenant that had never applied to them?
One possibility would be that they were enamored with Judaism and wanted to garnish their faith in Christ with it. This would be consistent with their pagan background which held the more religions the better. If this is the case, Paul has shown them the dark side of the Torah and why it needed to be disarmed and disabled.
However, I think there is a larger sense in which what he says applies to the Colossians. Even though the they didn’t have the Torah in the Mosaic sense, they certainly had some elements of the Torah in their knowledge of right and wrong (Romans 2:14-15). But this knowledge did no more for them than the Mosaic version did for the Jews because like them, they didn’t follow it. As a result, their “law” became like the Mosaic Torah—a law of sin and death. And just like the Jews, they needed deliverance from it. Paul tells us here that’s exactly what Jesus brought. Our failed efforts at righteousness have been nailed to the cross in the form of the law of sin and death.