The Debt of the Law
…And ye are complete in him….And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; 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…
In this section of being complete in Christ we have seen, so far, that we are circumcised in Christ, and baptised into Christ. We now move to the third aspect of this completeness.
The third aspect of us being complete in Christ is that we are freed in Him: that is freed from the Law and the debt due to the Law.
The first part of this passage is near enough identical with a well know section of Ephesians
And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses;
And you hath He quickened who were dead in trespasses and sins …But God who is rich in mercy for His great love wherewith He loved us even when we were dead in sins hath quickened us together with Christ (By grace ye are saved.)
Our previous condition without God was one of death, spiritual death – dead in our sins and trespasses. But God intervened and quickened us, that is made us alive with Christ. He did this because of His great love for us.
C11.1 The runaway slave
A key phrase in this Colossian passage is ‘handwriting of ordinances’, and it is important for us to understand its meaning. For this we turn to Philemon. Another book written at the same time as Colossians. Indeed the people mentioned therein were members of the Colossian assembly.
Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellow labourer, And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in thy house: Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers, Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints; That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother. Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient, Yet for love’s sake I rather beseech thee, being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ. I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds: Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me: Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels: Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel: But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly. For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever; Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord? If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself. If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account; I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides. Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord. Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say. But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you. There salute thee Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus; Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellow labourers. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen. Written from Rome to Philemon, by Onesimus a servant.
Paul was writing to Philemon in whose house the Colossian church met. Philemon had a slave called Onesimus who had run away. Why, we are not told and so it is therefore best that we do not speculate. This man came to know Christ, and ministered to Paul whilst he was a prisoner. Despite being a great blessing and of great profit to the apostle, Paul thought it only right to send Onesimus back to his rightful master.
However in this small epistle Paul entreats Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a brother, and not as a slave. And in the process to forgive him;. Whether the forgiveness was just because he ran away, or because of some other thing we are not told. But asking Philemon to forgive Onesimus Paul did.
There is one further detail that Paul puts in. If this runaway slave had wronged Philemon, or owed him anything then Paul would pay what was owed. Paul said he would pay it and has written it with his own hand! We could say that there was a handwriting of debt against Onesimus. Whatever the debt this slave had incurred against Philemon, the apostle would stand up and take the responsibility of paying it.
This is a wonderful illustration of what Christ has done for us. We had a debt against us and Jesus paid it as if it were His! We have already looked at the fact that Jesus has paid the penalty for our sin. But what is Paul talking about when he refers to the handwriting of ordinances?
C11.2 The Handwriting of Ordinances
..having forgiven you all trespasses; 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.
Looking at the passage more closely we note that Paul is now referring to our trespasses rather than sins. He then goes on to say that the handwriting of ordinances against us have been blotted out. The question is: what are the handwriting of ordinances that was against us?
Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh. For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father. Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.
The second chapter of Ephesians is well known to many, if not all believers. The first half of the chapter deals with the Christian’s relationship to God before and after salvation. Before we were saved we were dead in trespasses and sin. After we were saved the God who loved us, made us alive in Christ and has raised us into the heavenly places with him Eph.2:1-10.
The second half of the chapter deals with the believer’s relationship with Israel. And it is in this context that Paul tells us what the ordinances are. So we need to examine this carefully.
There are two things to note first of all. Before we were saved, without Christ, we were strangers from the commonwealth of Israel. Then Paul says that the law of commandments contained in the ordinances were the enmity between unbelievers and Israel.
C11.3 The problem of the Law
The physical nation of Israel in the OT was God’s special people. He took them out of Egypt and led them to the promised land. They had a special law and religious ceremonies. All this made them distinct from the nations around them Lev.18:1-5.
It was this law, the Mosaic Law as we call it, that was the enmity between Israel and the Gentiles. For the Gentiles because it caused a clear division between Israel and them. It was also a problem for Israel because those who broke the Law were cursed! Deut. 27:26 quoted Gal.3:10. And Israel could never keep it! Later in the epistle to the Hebrews, the writer says that God found fault with Israel because they could never keep it Heb.8:8a.
It is important to understand that in scripture a curse does NOT mean the casting of spells. Rather it means being exposed to God’s vengeance/judgement. In other words those who break the Law are exposed to God’s judgement. If we are guilty of breaking one point we are guilty of all the Law, Jms.2:10. Further, if we try to keep one point we are obligated to keep it all, Gal.5:3. So one can see the problem!
Does this mean that the Gentiles are free from law? Rom.2:12-17 gives us the answer. Whilst Gentiles do not have the Mosaic Law there is a law of conscience. It that by which the Gentiles are judged. Paul in Romans sums up that all the world is guilty before God, Rom.3:10. There is NO Law that can bring in Righteousness, Gal.3:21, whether Mosaic or conscience, or any system that anyone can dream up.
So we have it that the Law contained in the ordinances is the Mosaic Law that the Gentiles were excluded from, and which Israel could not keep.
C11.4 The Purpose of the Law
So what was the purpose of the Law then?
For our present purposes we identify four purposes for the Mosaic Law. We will only briefly outline this here. It has already been covered in our series on Galatians. For a fuller discussion the reader is advised to read the series on the Galatians’ letter where the subject is dealt with in much more detail.
(1) To identify sin Rom.3:19-20; 7:7.
(2) To measure sin Rom.7:7-13; I Cor.15: 54-57
(3) A temporary measure until Christ should come Gal.3:19-22
(4) A schoolmaster to bring us to Christ Gal.3:23-29
C11.5 The curse of the Law
For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
Paul reminds us in Galatians of the what the Law said: if one does not continue in it then one is cursed. In fact James underlines the point when he says that breaking one part renders us guilty of the whole Jms. 2:10-11.
The soul that sinneth it must die, Ezk. 18:4. Paul in that famous verse in Rom.3:23 concludes his treatise on the condition of the human race – all have sinned. There is no exception. And because we have sinned, and not kept God’s Law we are cursed. So we see that there is a handwriting of debt against us.
However, the good news is that Christ has taken our place, by being made a cursed instead of us, He became our substitute. The debt was paid, the handwriting of ordinances has been blotted out Isa.43:25. The word blotted is the same as wipe away in Rev.21:4. In the Revelation reference the context is one of permanence: in the new heavens and earth, all the tears have gone forever. So we are to understand too, that the handwriting of ordinances has been wiped away for ever!
The handwriting that was against us was wiped out. The debt, the law caused, has been removed and was nailed to the cross – this, an allusion to the ancient method of cancelling debts by nailing a bond to a post.
The word redeem means a payment of a price to recover from the power of another, in this case the Law. Jesus paid the price and His life was that price. However Paul gives us further insights into our relation to the Law. And it is this we shall consider next.