Friday, November 16, 2012

Did Jesus Nail the Law to the Cross?

Today I would like to address two passages of Scripture that have been widely misunderstood and misinterpreted. They come from the apostle Paul's "twin epistles" to the Colossians and the Ephesians.  Since these two epistles are so similar, they can be used to help interpret each other, much the same as we often use the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) to clarify passages within each other.

Abolishing the Enmity
The first passage is this: "For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity." (Eph 2:14-16)

This passage is used by some people to teach that Jesus abolished the Law of commandments.  It is understandable how they could arrive at such a conclusion by reading into the text what they already believe, not considering the broader context of the passage, and simply using a modern English translation without checking the original grammar. So in order to avoid making the same mistake, let's do each of these carefully.

Grammar:
Let's investigate the grammar behind the expression "the law of commandments contained in ordinances," which in Greek is "ton nomon tōn entolōn en dogmasin" (τὸν νόμον τῶν ἐντολῶν ἐν δόγμασιν").

Upon examination of the original grammar in these verses, we learn that the expression "Law of commandments" comes from the Greek words nomos and entole.  Nomos is the word commonly used to refer to the Law, sometimes generally and also to a specific aspect of the Law.  It sometimes refers to the law written on our hearts (e.g., Rom 2:15; Heb 10:16).  It can also sometimes refer generally to a principle (e.g., Rom 7:21), such as the law of faith (e.g., Rom 3:27), or the law of sin (e.g., Rom 7:25). So we should make a note to self here to be careful we don't assume that this word here refers to the entire Law of Moses.

Next we discover that the Greek word "entole" means "commandments", and can also mean "an injunction, authoritative prescription, or precept".  So we can now see where this English expression "the Law of commandments" was derived from.  But as we will see in a moment, there are other ways to translate this.

We also learn that the word "ordinances" comes from the Greek word "dogma" which means "a civil, ceremonial or ecclesiastical decree or ordinance". Keep in mind that an ordinance is a rite or ceremony, such as circumcision or baptism.

So based on this brief study, we find that it's possible to translate this Greek expression, "ton nomon tōn entolōn en dogmasin" ("τὸν νόμον τῶν ἐντολῶν ἐν δόγμασιν") other ways besides saying, "the law of commandments contained in ordinances."

For example, we could translate it to say "the principle of commandments in ceremonial precepts"or "the regulation of precepts in ceremonial rites." That's enough for grammar study for now.  Let's go next to the context!

Context:
In the context, this passage states that Jesus abolished something in His flesh.  Specifically what He abolished or rendered inoperative and inactive was the enmity. It was the opposition or hatred that was rendered inactive!  So now we need to determine what hatred or opposition this is referring to.

For this we have to read the context before and after this phrase.  First we'll look at what comes before it.  Paul said, "Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called 'Uncircumcision' by the so-called 'Circumcision,' which is performed in the flesh by human hands-- remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall," (Eph 2:11-14)

This passage was written to Gentiles in the flesh, who are called "Uncircumcision" by those who are the so-called "Circumcision." The Jews considered Gentiles to be uncircumcised dogs.  The Gentiles were on the outside looking in. The reason for this is that the ceremonial rites contained in the Law required Jewish males to be circumcised on the eighth day after birth, and the Gentiles did not do this. Paul wrote about their terrible plight before Christ saved them.  The Gentiles were a class of unclean people, who were not allowed to enter the temple.  They were excluded from the commonwealth of Israel.  They were strangers to the covenants of promises.  They were far off from God and in the world without Him, therefore, they had no hope.

After showing them and all of us Gentiles our hopeless situation apart from Christ, Paul tells the good news of what Christ has done for us.  Now we have been brought near to God by the blood of Christ, who is our Peace.  He made the two groups one -- Jews and Gentiles, the Circumcision and Uncircumcision.  He broke down the barrier or dividing wall that kept these two groups separate.

Now let's shift to the context that comes after the expression we are examining.  Paul said "so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity." (Eph 2:15-16).  This settles all question about the meaning of the passage.  It's about Christ reconciling Jew and Gentile to God in one Body -- the Body of Christ.  How did He do this?  He did it through the cross.  By Christ's death on the cross, He put to death the enmity that was between these two groups of people, and between them and God.  All enmity between these parties was put to death there!

Interpretation
So we can easily interpret this passage correctly to mean: You Gentiles were in a terrible situation until Christ saved you.  You were considered unclean dogs -- the Uncircumcision.  You had no access to God's covenants of promise that the Circumcision group enjoyed.  You were separated from God, from the Jews, and without any hope.  But now that Jesus our peace has died on the cross for us, He made both groups into one!  Now that He has broken down the barrier of the dividing wall, you are no longer separated from God or His family. Our Lord did this in His own flesh on the cross, by rendering inoperative the opposition that existed between you and God and between Jews and Gentiles.  This enmity existed because of "the principle of commandments in ceremonial precepts." It was due to "the regulation of precepts in ceremonial rites," such as the rite of circumcision and the exclusion of Gentiles from all Jewish rituals.  Now that the enmity is out of the way, and those ceremonial rites are fulfilled in Christ, the two groups -- Jews and Gentiles -- are one new man in the Body of Christ.  That's right! On the cross, in His Body, Christ put to death that opposition.

Obviously this passage is not about Jesus abolishing the Law.  For Paul taught from the Law in his same epistle to the Ephesians (6:1-3), as well as his epistle to the Corinthians (14:34). In fact, Jesus Himself said, "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill." (Mat 5:17).  Therefore, Jesus fulfilled all the ceremonial rites for us, and in His body abolished the enmity that existed for uncircumcised Gentiles.  Now let's compare this with the corresponding verses in the second passage from the twin epistle, Paul's letter to the Colossians.

He Canceled Out the Certificate of Debt
The second passage is this: "When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross." (Col 2:13-14)

Again, there are some who use this passage to teach that the Law of the Lord was nailed to the cross at Calvary.  We'll see in a moment that this is not correct.

Grammar:
First let's study the original words in the expression, "having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us," from the Greek "exaleipsas to kath' hēmōn cheirographon tois dogmasin ho ēn hypenantion hēmin" ("ἐξαλείψας τὸ καθ ἡμῶν χειρόγραφον δόγμασιν ὃ ἦν ὑπεναντίον ἡμῖν").

The expression "certificate of debt" comes from a Greek word cheirographon, which literally means "a handwritten, legal certificate of debt".  This is not referring to the Law of God, but rather the debt we as sinners owed to God as a result of the judgments against us in the Law.

Again we find the word "ordinances" which comes from the Greek word "dogma."  You will recall from our study above that it means "a civil, ceremonial or ecclesiastical decree or ordinance, such as the rite or ceremony of circumcision".

Context:
In the context, this passage states that Jesus cancelled something by nailing it to the cross.  Specifically what He cancelled was the certificate of debt. It was the certificate of debt that was cancelled!  So now we need to determine what certificate of debt this is referring to.

In the preceding verse, Paul tells us when Christ cancelled this certificate of debt.  It was cancelled "When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions," (Col 2:13).  So once again this passage is about Gentiles, who were uncircumcised in their flesh and dead in sin.  Christ found us in this condition and made us alive together with Him.  At that time He forgave us all our transgressions.

In the verses before this, Paul states: "and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ;" (Col 2:11).  So again, just like in the Ephesians passage, here he was emphasizing the fact that they as Gentiles were uncircumcised when Jesus found them. And He circumcised their hearts with a circumcision made without hands.  This is the only circumcision that counts now.

Interpretation:
Therefore, we can easily interpret this passage like this: You Gentiles were uncircumcised, but Jesus circumcised your heart without using His hands.  You had transgressed God's righteous Law, and there were many judgments against you as a result.  You were so dead, but then Jesus came and made you alive!  When He cancelled the certificate of debt, he cancelled the punishment or judgment due to us, which separated us from God; He forgave all our transgressions.   This certificate of debt consisted of ordinances, or ceremonial laws and decrees. 

It was the certificate of debt that Jesus cancelled, that consisted of its ceremonial laws and decrees that were against us.  He did not cancel the Law, because we've already mentioned that He said He did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Mt 5:17).  He also warned us about the serious consequences of annulling even one of the least of the commandments (Mt 5:19).  This passage is about those of us who were Gentiles, who were at enmity with these ceremonial laws and decrees, due to not being physically circumcised.  Now that the certificate of debt is cancelled, and its ceremonial decrees no longer stand against us, we may come near to God with a full assurance of faith.

Justification By Faith, Not the Works of the Law
Here I would just like to list some important Scriptures, regarding our means of justification before God.  I am not suggesting we seek to be justified by the works of the Law.

"For it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified." (Rom 2:13)

A man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. (Gal 2:16)

Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, "THE RIGHTEOUS MAN SHALL LIVE BY FAITH." (Gal 3:11)

because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. (Rom 3:20)

For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. (Rom 3:28)

Putting it All Together
It should come as no surprise that the epistles of Paul are incorrectly understood, because that has been happening since the first century when they were written.  For the apostle Peter said, "As also in all [Paul's] letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Pe 3:16).  He said that Paul's writings have been distorted, along with the rest of the Scriptures, by people who are untaught and unstable. The word "untaught" comes from a Greek word that means unlearned or ignorant. That's why it's important to study to show yourself approved, and to learn to rightly divide the Word of truth.  Likewise, it is just as important to be stable in all your ways.

From these two passages (in Ephesians and Colossians) we learn that God's Law (in terms of His commandments) was not cancelled.  Neither was it abolished or nailed to the cross.

Rather, the enmity was abolished, or rendered inoperative.  All that was against us as uncircumcised Gentiles, which was contained in the ceremonial rites of the Law, is no longer in force to be used against usPut differently, the Mosaic Law as a covenant or system of worship is now obsolete (Heb 8:13).  This is only possible, because Christ fulfilled all the ceremonial rites of the Law at the cross; through His work there, He provided a circumcision of the heart for us that satisfies God's righteous requirements.  He has made a new covenant with His holy people.

As uncircumcised Gentiles, dead in transgressions, we owed a debt we could not pay.  Due to our transgression of God's righteous Law, there were penalties and judgments standing against us.  And now that He paid that debt, which He didn't owe, he nailed the certificate of that debt to the cross.  This action on His part has obliterated, erased, and wiped out all our debt to God for our sin!

As Paul said to the Ephesians, "He came and preached peace to you who were far away (Gentiles), and preached peace to those who were near (Jews); for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father." (Eph 2:17-18).

Finally, you cannot rely on your obedience to the Law to save you, because it is only by grace that you are saved through faith (Eph 2:8-10).  We are not endeavoring to keep up the law of Moses in conjunction with the gospel of Christ.  Always remember that we can do nothing apart from the Lord Jesus (Jn 15:5), and if you keep His commandments, you will abide in His love (Jn 15:10).

Attribution notice: Most Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Other Scriptures from the Holy Bible NIV version. "I Love You" painting © 2012 Danny Hahlbohm, all rights reserved by the artist.

Author's note: If you enjoyed this post, you may also like the following, which provide helpful clarification, as well as application:

Deleted Scriptures in the Bible?
The Law of Christ
Law of Love in the New Testament
Zipporah Mushala’s Second Testimony of Hell
Is Obedience Optional?
The Law Fulfilled in Us
The Law Established Through Faith
The New Covenant
Resting from Work
Obedience by the Spirit  

You may also access my complete blog directory at "Writing for the Master."

Do You Want to Know Him?
If you want to know Jesus personally, you can. It all begins when you repent and believe in Jesus.  Do you know what God's Word, the Bible says?

“Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” (Mar 1:14b-15).  He preached that we must repent and believe.

Please see my explanation of this in my post called "Do You Want to Know Jesus?"
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Len Lacroix is the founder of Doulos Missions International.  He was based in Eastern Europe for four years, making disciples, as well as helping leaders to be more effective at making disciples who multiply, developing leaders who multiply, with the ultimate goal of planting churches that multiply. His ministry is now based in the United States with the same goal of helping fulfill the Great Commission. www.dmiworld.org.

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