Circumcision without hands (Col. 2:11)

Summary: Circumcision without hands—namely “by the Spirit” (Rom. 2:29)—is circumcision of the heart, which is a well-known Old Testament expression.  An uncircumcised heart “always resist the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:51). Circumcision of the heart makes an end to evil deeds (Jer. 4:4), makes an end to the desire to sin (Rom. 7:15, 20) and puts the Law in the heart and writes it on our mind (Hebr. 10:15-18).  Circumcision of the heart also makes people alive that “were dead in … transgressions” (2:13).  This means that the person’s guilt is removed.  “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more” (Hebr. 10:15-18). A circumcised heart “love(s) the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul (Deut. 30:6)

2:11 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;

Circumcision made without hands is circumcision by the Spirit, made to the heart:

But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God” (Romans 2:29).

This idea of circumcision of the heart as symbol for making an end to a life of seeking sin is a well-known Old Testament expression:

 “So circumcise your heart, and stiffen your neck no longer” (Deut. 10:16).

Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live” (Deut 30:6)

Circumcise yourselves to the LORD And remove the foreskins of your heart, Men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, Or else My wrath will go forth like fire And burn with none to quench it, Because of the evil of your deeds” (Jer. 4:4).

Consequently, at his defense before the Sanhedrin, Stephen said:

You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!” (Acts 7:51)

Physical circumcision removes part of a person’s body.  Col. 2:11 uses circumcision as a symbol for the removal of “the flesh”.  “Flesh” mostly has a neutral meaning, referring to the literal body (1:22, 24), but 2:11 should be read with 2:13, which defines “the uncircumcision of your flesh” as being “dead in your transgressions”.  In other words, the Colossians “were dead in … transgressions” (2:13), but have been “circumcised with a circumcision made without hands” (2:11), which removed the “uncircumcision of your flesh” (2:11).  As explained in Romans 7, this does not mean that the person no longer sins, but that he does not want to sin (Rom. 7:15, 20).  The desire not to sin is what differentiates Christians from other people.

Circumcision of the heart is when the Spirit puts the Law in our hearts and writes it on our minds:

The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: 16 “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” 17 Then he adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.”  (Hebr. 10:15-17)

Colossians Table of Contents

Return to 2:11-14

Certificate of debt consisting of decrees

Summary: The certificate of debt consisting of decrees is traditionally interpreted as the Law of Moses, concluding that Col. 2:14 teaches that the Law of Moses has been cancelled. However, many interpret it as the penalty for our sins, in terms of the Law, for reasons such as:

The word cheirographon (translated “certificate of debt” by the NASB), is used only here in the entire Bible.  Outside the Bible it consistently is a note of indebtedness written in one’s own hand as a proof of obligation.

Most translations renders it as the record of our sins that has been canceled; not the Law of Moses.

Verse 14 must be read with verse 13, which would define cheirographon as being “dead in your transgressions”.

Ephesians 2:15 should not be used to conclude that Colossians 2:14 refers to the Law of Moses because different things are cancelled in these two verses for two different purposes.

The deception, as described by the letter, is non-Jewish, indicated by the emphasis on the supernatural, the worship of angels and visions, on mystery and knowledge and on self-abasement and the severe treatment of the body.  Paul calls it a “philosophy” and a “self-made religion”.  A statement that the Law of Moses has been cancelled does not fit this context.

The Colossians still observed the Jewish holy days, but this does not mean that the deception included Jewish legalism.  The Colossians observed these days in a joyous, festive manner, while the Colossian false teachers preached “self-abasement” and “severe treatment of the body”.  It is therefore concluded that the Colossian deception criticized the believers for HOW they observed the Jewish special days (2:16).

Verse 15 refers to the “rulers and authorities” that have now been disarmed.  It is implied that they accused Christians before God, but since their guilt has been eliminated, these “rulers and authorities” are unable to accuse Christians.

The cheirographon, that “was hostile to us” (Col 2:14), refers to the “evils and troubles” that will come for breaking the covenant (Deut. 31:17-26).

2:14 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.

The purpose here is to determine what this “certificate of debt consisting of decrees” is, that was “against us”, but that was “canceled out” by being “nailed … to the cross” (2:14).

Law of Moses – The KJV translation of this phrase is the “handwriting of ordinances”.  This sounds like the Law of Moses, which Moses wrote up by hand. Support for this interpretation includes the following:

The “handwriting of ordinances” “was hostile to us” (Col 2:14), while the Law of Moses served “as a witness against you” (Deut. 31:26).

Ephesians 2:15 is in many respects similar to Colossians 2:14, and in Ephesians “the Law of commandments” was abolished, which probably refers to the Law of Moses

For such reasons many people over the years concluded that Col. 2:14 teaches that the Law of Moses has been cancelled by the cross.

Translations differ – This phrase is translated very differently by other translations.  For instance:

Phillips calls it “the damning evidence of broken laws and commandments”.  If this translation is correct, this is not the Law of Moses.

The NIV reads, “the charge of our legal indebtedness”.  This also does not sound like the Law of Moses.  It sounds more like what we owe because we disobeyed the Law.

Importance – It is important to understand what this “certificate of debt consisting of decrees” (2:14) is because it helps to explain the nature of the Colossian deception.  If it refers to the Law of Moses, then it supports the view that the Colossian deception included Jewish legalism.

Greek – The transliterated Greek phrase translated as “certificate of debt consisting of decrees” by the NASB is Cheirographon tois Dogmasin:

  • Certificate of debt – cheirographon (G5498)
  • consisting of – tois (G3588)
  • decrees – dogmasin (G1378)

Proposed meaning – It is proposed here that the “certificate of debt consisting of decrees” (NASB) either refers to the record of our sins, and/or to the penalty we owe for such sins, according to the Law of God.  The evidence for this proposal is as follows:

Cheirographon

The word cheirographon is used only here in the entire Bible.  Literally it refers to something hand-written and the more literal translations simply render it as “the handwriting”, but outside the Bible and in the LXX (ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) it is consistently used for a note of indebtedness written in one’s own hand as a proof of obligation.  For instance, in the Apocalypse of Elijah is found a description of an angel holding a book, explicitly called a cheirographon, in which the sins of the seer are recorded.  For this reason many translations use the word “debt” (NASB, NIV and others) or “bond” (RSV).

The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown commentary defines ‘cheirographon’ as:

  1. A handwriting, what one has written by his own hand
  2. A note of hand or writing in which one acknowledges that money has either been deposited with him or lent to him by another, to be returned at the appointed time (Thayer’s).

For more information, refer to the “versebyversecommentary”-website. It states that this meaning is well-attested in both the Jewish and Greco-Roman world.

Translations

Secondly, most translations imply that the record of our sins has been canceled; not the Law of Moses.  It is really only the KJV and some other literal translations that allow one to identify it as the Law of Moses.  Other translations keep the cheirographon (something handwritten) and the dogmasin (decrees) apart as two separate concepts, interpreting the phrase “certificate of debt consisting of decrees” either as:

  • The record of our transgressions resulting from “disobeying the Law of Moses” (CEV); OR
  • The legal consequences or “legal demands” (RSV) of our transgressions.

See here for more a more detailed discussion of the alternative translations.

Context

Thirdly, the context implies that the record of our sins has been cancelled; not the Law of Moses.

Since the word ‘cheirographon’ occurs nowhere else in Scripture, the interpretation must be carefully guided by the context.  Theologians spend so much time on individual words and phrases, comparing it with similar words and phrases elsewhere, that they sometimes neglect the immediate context.  One of the fundamental assumptions of this website’s interpretation of Paul’s letters is that no one verse should be interpreted in isolation.  One has to allow the meaning of a verse to be determined by the surrounding verses in such a way that a series of verses will be telling a logical story and form a logical sequence.

The immediate context of the previous verse (2:13) defines the former condition of the Colossians as “dead in your transgressions”, but now the Father has “forgiven us all our transgressions” (2:13).  Since this is the immediate context, and since verse 14 starts with the word “having”, which is often used to indicate that what follows will elaborate on what was said before (2:2, 7, 12, 13), it is proposed that verses 13 and 14 form a unit and that verse 14 also deals with the forgiving of sin.  This would mean that the “certificate of debt” that was “against us … hostile to us” is explained by the statement that the Colossians previously were “dead in your transgressions” (2:13).  It would also mean that nailing the “certificate of debt” to the cross is a symbolic way of saying that the Father has “forgiven us all our transgressions” (2:13).

As discussed on the page that analyses 2:11-14, in the slightly wider context we note that the entire 2:9-14 forms a unit. To summarize:

The fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” in Christ (2:9). Therefore “in Him you have been made complete” (2:10) through “circumcision made without hands” (2:11), by sharing in His death and resurrection through baptism (2:12) and through the forgiveness of “all our transgressions” (2:13).

Cancelling out of the Law of Moses does not fit this context because Christians are not made “complete” by cancelling a law. Cancelling the record of our sins, or cancelling the penalty we owe for our sins, according to the Law of God, most certainly fits this context.

Pagan nature of the deception

Fourthly, the nature of the Colossian “deception” (2:8), which was pagan and not Jewish, implies that 2:14 does not refer to the Law of Moses.

The pagan nature of the Colossian deception is seen in the following:

The frequent reference to “mystery” in this letter implies that it was similar to the mystery religions of that time (see discussion of 2:2), with its secrets that were only known by the initiates.

The emphasis on “wisdom and knowledge” in this letter implies that the deception placed particular emphases on “wisdom and knowledge”, which implies that the deception was related to the Gnosticism of that time.  The name Gnosticism is derived from the Greek word that means knowledge.

The deception included “self-abasement” (self-humiliation) and “severe treatment of the body” (2:23), including submission to decrees such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” (2:20-21).  The Law of Moses includes rules with respect to unclean food and the Jews added many rules for how food must be prepared, but the concept of “self-abasement” and “severe treatment of the body” went far beyond the Jewish rules.

The deception included worshipping angels (2:18).  It placed much emphasis on supernaturalrulers and authorities”, which probably describe different classes of angels.  It received its information via “visions” (2:18), probably claimed to have been received via angels.  This emphasis on the supernatural is foreign to Judaism

Paul calls it a “philosophy” (2:8), a “self-made religion” (2:23), the “tradition of men” (2:8): mere “commandments and teachings of men” (2:22).  It therefore was not based on the Law of Moses.

The church in Paul’s days was threatened by corrupting influences both from the Jewish and the Gentiles worlds.  In Paul’s other letters one would often find a confrontation between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians over the Law of Moses, but the word “law” is not found even once in the entire letter to the Colossians.

The reference to circumcision in 2:11 does not mean that the Colossians were troubled by people trying to circumcise them, like in Galatians.  It is merely used as a symbol of initiation into the church.

2:16, referring to “a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day”, is the only direct mention in this letter of requirements from the Law of Moses.  On the basis of this verse commentators often assume that the deception in Colossae included a dispute over the Law of Moses.  But since this is the only clear reference to the Law of Moses in a sea of references to influences that are distinctly pagan in nature, and since the early church did, in fact, observe the Jewish holy days, and since the Jewish festivals were observed in a joyous, festive manner, while the Colossian false teachers preached “self-abasement” and “severe treatment of the body”, it is proposed below that the Colossian deception criticized the believers for HOW they observed the Jewish special days.

Therefore, while in Galatians the threat was Jewish legalism, in Colossians it was pagan in nature.  A statement that the Law of Moses has been cancelled does not fit this context.

Ephesians 2:15

Fifthly, Ephesians 2:15 should not be used to interpret Colossians 2:14.

Ephesians 2:15 is often used to confirm that Colossians 2:14 talks about the Law of Moses. In both verses something related to “decrees”, that was “hostile to us”, have been abolished by the death of Christ. However, in Ephesians “the Law of commandments” was abolished, which probably refers to the Law of Moses, while in Colossians “the record of the debt we owed” (CEB), was “canceled out”.  Furthermore, the purpose in the two verses is different.  In Ephesians the purpose was to break down “the dividing wall” between Jew and Gentile and make “the two into one new man”.  In Colossians the context indicates that our guilt was removed.  It would therefore not be reasonable to assume that Colossians teaches that the Law of Moses has been cancelled simply because Ephesians teaches that.  See here for a more detailed discussion of Ephesians 2:15.

Against us

The cheirographon “was hostile to us” (Col 2:14), while the Law of Moses served “as a witness against you” (Deut. 31:26), but the context of Deut. 31 is the “evils and troubles” that “will come upon them” (v17) for breaking the covenant (v16).  It may therefore be appropriate to interpret the cheirographon as the “evils and troubles” that are due to us for our sins.  “Our sins testify against us” (Is. 59:12; Jer. 14:7).

Conclusion

In summary, it is proposed here that the point of 2:14 is to say that our guilt has been abolished and annulled.  We still sin, but our guilt has been done away with.  This interpretation fits the context of the previous verses, which assure the Colossians that they have been made “complete” (2:10) because He has “forgiven us all our transgressions” (2:13).

To interpret verse 14 as saying that the Law of Moses has been cancelled would not fit the context because guilt is not removed by cancelling a law.  Such an interpretation would also not fit the wider context of the pagan nature of the Colossian deception.

To interpret verse 14 as saying that our guilt has been abolished also fits the context of the verses that will follow.

According to verse 15 He “disarmed the rulers and authorities” via the cross.  It will be argued that these “rulers and authorities” conducted a war of words and that they used the Christians’ guilt as their arms (weapons).  They accused the Christians before God, but in verse 14 Paul states that that guilt has been eliminated, “to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach” (1:22).  This eliminated the ability of these “rulers and authorities” to accuse Christians.

Verse 16 warns Christians not to allow people to judge them with respect to certain things.  Because the “rulers and authorities” have been disarmed, the Colossian Christian should not allow themselves to be judged and criticized by the Colossian deceivers.

The full assurance of the fullness of God’s forgiveness is the core of Paul’s answer to those in Colossae that were trying to attain perfection (2:10) by the “severe treatment of the body” (2:23) according to the “decrees” (2:20) of the false teachers.  Even for us today the memory of our sins can create in us a sense of incompleteness.  The solution, according to Paul, is to accepts that our own efforts cannot compensate for our mistakes, but to accept that, through the cross, God the Father has blotted out our sins and granted us full forgiveness.

Colossians Table of Contents

Back to 2:11-14

Colossians 2:15

SUMMARY

God “triumphed over” His enemies in heavenly places.  Through the death of Christ He disarmed them.  They remain enemies, but they are now powerless.

Before Christ died His enemies accused the believers “before our God day and night” (Rev. 12:10).  By accusing the believers, Satan effectively accused God of unfair judgment.  It therefore was a war of words.  This does not mean it was easy.  Revelation calls it “war” and according to Daniel only the archangels Michael and Gabriel stood “firmly … against these forces” (Dan 10:21).  Since Satan and his angels waged war by accusing God’s followers, their weapons were the sins and guilt of the believers.

The cross made an end to this war through public display.  On the one hand Christ was “displayed publicly” (Rom. 3:25) before the eyes of the universe.  The Cross shows that Christ “humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:8).  The Father “triumphed over them through” Christ, not by the mere fact that Christ died on the Cross, but by Christ remaining faithful to God’s principles, while suffering to death through the most intense form of physical and mental torture.  It was a display of Christ’s character.

On the other hand the cross publicly displayed His enemies as evil murderers.  It was the madness of the evil angels that drove the Jews to kill Him.

The cross therefore demonstrated both sides of the war in heaven for what they really are.  This displayed the fairness of God’s judgment.  It showed that God is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).  In other words, the cross showed that it is just for God to justify guilty people simply on the basis of “faith in Jesus”.

In that way the cross “disarmed” His enemies.  It took away their ability to accuse.  The cross made an end to the war of words in heaven, but Satan continues the war on earth.

2:15 When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him.

When – at the cross (2:14)

Rulers and authorities – Since God had to triumph over them, these “rulers and authorities” are His enemies.  As discussed in 2:9-10, the “rulers and authorities” are supernatural beings.  Christ’s death did not publicly display these rulers to human eyes, for in the cross human eyes only saw defeat and weakness.  It was a “public display” to heavenly beings.

Disarmed – this verse shows that, through the cross, God did three things to the “rulers and authorities“; He “disarmed’ them, He made a “public display’ of them and He “triumphed over them”.  This was all done “through Him” (Christ).  The means was the death of Christ.  By the death of Christ He “triumphed over them” by disarming them.  In other words, He took away their weapons.  What were their weapons?

This is related to the discussion in 1:20-22 of the “war in heaven”:

there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels” (Rev. 12:7)

The “war in heaven” was a war of words.  Before Christ died the supernatural rulers and authorities accused the believers “before our God day and night” (Rev.12:10).  Their weapons therefore were the sins and guilt of the believers.  Satan accused the believers, but effectively he accused God of unfair judgment.

The cross “disarmed” them.  It took away their ability to accuse.  To explain:

On the one hand Christ was “displayed publicly” (Rom. 3:25) before the eyes of the universe.  The Cross shows that Christ “humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:8).  The Father “triumphed over them through” Christ, not by the mere fact that Christ died on the Cross, but by Christ remaining faithful to God’s principles, while suffering to death through the most intense form of physical and mental torture.  On the cross He could not see the future and He lost His continual contact with the Father.  He cried: “My God, My God, Why have You forsaken me?” (Mat. 27:46; Mark 15:34)  But still He did not use supernatural power to relieve His pain:

Philippians 2:5  … Christ Jesus, 2:6 who, although He existed in the form of God … 7 … emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant … 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth

On the other hand the cross was a public display of His enemies: the “rulers and authorities” that accused the believers “before our God day and night”.  The cross publicly displayed the real nature of the “rulers and authorities” as evil murderers of the Innocent because it was the madness of the evil angels that instigated the Jews to kill Him.

The cross therefore demonstrated both sides of the war in heaven for what they really are. “This was to demonstrate His (the Father’s) righteousness” (Rom. 3:25, 26) “so that He (the Father) would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).  Stated differently, the question is how it is just for God to justify guilty people simply on the basis of “faith in Jesus”.  The cross verified the fairness of God’s judgment.  The public display demonstrated God to be just when He justifies repentant sinners.  For that reason the rulers and authorities are now unable to accuse the believers (Rev. 12:10).  The gospel of Jesus Christ “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:15).

The cross made an end to the war of words in heaven, but as Revelation 12 indicates, Satan continues the war on earth:

… rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them. Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, knowing that he has only a short time” (Rev. 12:12 ).

Colossians Table of Contents

Next: 2:16

Ephesians 2:15

Summary:

Ephesians 2:15 seems to indicate that the Law of Moses was abolished. Since this verse is in many respects similar to Colossians 2:14, many take that as confirmation that Colossians 2:14 also declares the Law of Moses to be abolished. However, two different things are declared abolished by the two verses to achieve two different goals.

Discussion

This verse seems to confirm that Colossians 2:14 is talking about the Law of Moses.  It states that “the Law of commandments contained in ordinances” was abolished “in His flesh” to break down “the dividing wall” between Jew and Gentile.  In this verse the “Law of commandments contained in ordinances” probably refers to the Law of Moses.

This verse is in many respects similar to Colossians 2:14:

  • In both verses something was abolished.
  • In both verses that thing was hostile to us. (“against us … hostile to us” (Col. 2:14) – “the enmity” (Eph. 2:15)
  • In both that thing was abolished by the death of Christ. The “abolishing in His flesh” in Ephesians is equivalent to the “canceled out … He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” in Colossians.

 

  • Both verses use the word “dogma”. The Greek word translated “ordinances” in Ephesians is exactly the same as the word translated “decrees” (NASB) in Colossians 2:14.
  • The “contained in” in Ephesians may be compared to the “consisting of” in Colossians. Actually, in both instances these works were added by the translators. The “consisting of” in the NASB has not been added, but it is an interpretation of a Greek word (tois) with a rather uncertain meaning in the context.

It is admitted here that Ephesians 2:15 and the New Testament elsewhere teach that the Law of Moses has been cancelled.  However, there is a marked difference in what was destroyed:

In Ephesians “the Law of commandments” was abolished, which probably refers to the Law of Moses.

In Colossians “the record of the debt we owed” (CEB), was cancelled.

There is also a marked difference in what was achieved by that destruction:

In Ephesians the purpose was to break down “the dividing wall” between Jew and Gentile and make “the two into one new man”.

There is no indication in Colossians of this motif.  In Colossians the purpose, according to the context, was to make Christians “complete” (2:10) by removing their guilt (2:13).

Both these goals have been achieved through Christ’s death, but since two different things are declared abolished by the two verses to achieve two different goals, it would not be reasonable to assume that Colossians teaches that the Law of Moses has been cancelled simply because Ephesians teaches that.

Colossians Table of Contents

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