The inadequate and misleading translation of a passage in Colossians 2 in some Bible versions is often used to support the flawed belief that God's law was "wiped out" by Jesus Christ who is improperly alleged to have "taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross" (using the words of Colossians 2:14).
The verse in question is Colossians 2:14, which refers to Christ "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." Does this say that God's law was wiped out or nailed to the cross, as many contend?
Let us first note that God's law is not something that is "against us." On the contrary, it is " holy, and just and good" (Romans 7:12). Scripture always refers to it being a blessing to humankind.
Christ did indeed take out of the way something that was nailed to His cross. But that something was the record of our sins—our transgressions—not God's law. A careful look at Paul's original wording in the Greek proves this to be true.
The Greek word translated as "having wiped out" or "blotting out" (KJV) or "having canceled" (NASB) in Colossians 2:14 is exaleipho. It means "to wash, or to smear completely . . . to wipe away, wipe off, obliterate" (Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1985, "blot out").
The Scriptures always use exaleipho in reference to wiping away sin, not law. In Acts 3:19 Peter uses this word when he urges his listeners to " repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped away" (NIV).
In the Old Testament the Hebrew word machah—translated "wipe out" or "blot out" is (like exaleipho) used for trespasses and sins. Isaiah quotes God saying, "I, even I, am He who blots out [machah] your transgressions for My own sake . . ." (Isaiah 43:25; compare Psalm 51:1-9; Exodus 32:31-33). Only sins, or people who insist on remaining sinners, are wiped out, not God's law. This becomes clear as we examine the next phrase that Paul uses in Colossians 2:14.
The "handwriting of requirements"
The Romans nailed two things to the cross at the time of Jesus Christ's crucifixion: Jesus Himself and an inscription that He was " king of the Jews"—the charge of treason against Rome for which He was executed.
But Paul adds that something else was also (figuratively) nailed to Jesus Christ's cross—"the handwriting of requirements that was against us."
The phrase translated "handwriting of requirements" is cheirographon tois dogmasin in the original Greek. This is the only place it appears in the New Testament.
The Friberg Lexicon explains cheirographon dogma as a "strictly handwritten document; in legal matters a promissory note, record of indebtedness, bond; figuratively in [Colossians] 2.14 not as the law itself, but as the record of charges . . .which stood against us and which God symbolically removed by 'nailing it to the cross'" (Bible Works software, emphasis added).
Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words further explains: "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. A large number of ancient notes of hand have been published and of these Dr. Deissmann says, 'a stereotyped formula in these documents is the promise to pay back the borrowed money, "I will repay"; and they all are in the debtor's own hand, or, if he could not write, in the handwriting of another acting for him, with the express remark, "I have written for him"'. . .
"In the famous Florentine papyrus of A.D. 85, the governor of Egypt gives this order in the course of a trial,—'Let the hand-writing be crossed out,' which corresponds to the 'blotting out the hand-writing' of Col[ossians] 2:14" (Graham Scroggie, forward to Vine's, Logos Library System, 1997).
The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament adds: "The point of the metaphor of the note of indebtedness is rather to underline the previous statement . . . [that] God has forgiven sins. He has canceled the note of indebtedness by taking it and fixing it to the cross of Christ" (Gerhard Kittel, 1995, Vol. 9, p. 436, emphasis added).
The language of Paul's time associates this word with a handwritten legal debt or a penalty owed, not with God's law.
The last word we'll examine is "requirements" as used in "handwriting of requirements." The Greek word used here is dogmasin, which denotes "an opinion, (a public) decree" (Robert Thomas, New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries, 1999). This expression was used of an official handwritten sentence or charge against someone for breaking a law.
Thus the New Living Translation renders this verse as: "He canceled the record that contained the charges against us. He took it and destroyed it by nailing it to Christ's cross."
The Contemporary English Translation translates this verse as: "God wiped out the charges that were against us for disobeying the Law of Moses. He took them away and nailed them to the cross."
The New Testament in Modern English reads: "Christ has utterly wiped out the damning evidence of broken laws and commandments which always hung over our heads, and has completely annulled it by nailing it over his own head on the cross."
What happened at the crucifixion
A good way to visualize this is to consider a detail of what happened at Christ's crucifixion: "And they put up over His head the accusation written against Him: THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS" (Matthew 27:37). The New Living Translation says: "A signboard was fastened to the cross above Jesus' head, announcing the charge against him."
Jewish religious leaders accused Jesus of having ambitions to replace Caesar as king of the Jews. Their precise charge before Pilate was, "Whoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar" (John 19:12).
This explains Pilate's question to Jesus, "Are You the King of the Jews?" (Matthew 27:11). When Jesus refused to defend Himself, Pilate consented to the charge brought to him by the leaders of the Jews and nailed it to Christ's cross at His crucifixion.
The handwritten decree that Pilate nailed above Christ's head stated publicly the official charge for which Jesus was crucified. It falsely implied that Jesus was guilty of committing treason against Caesar.
Therefore, Jesus was officially executed as a transgressor. That charge was false. But by accepting the death penalty for that false charge He became the substitute sin bearer for the legitimate charges that God has against us. He "wiped out" the charges that require our death for our transgressions by taking those charges on Himself. In so doing, He made possible the forgiveness of sin (Colossians 2:13).