Chapter 8 Christ the Antidote to Jewish Legality

Colossians 2:11-17

In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. 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; and having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it. Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ, (vv. 11-17)

This somewhat lengthy section, beginning (as previously mentioned) in the middle of a sentence, might be more easily expounded if divided into two parts, but it is so intimately linked together that I am taking it up as a whole. Philosophy, as we have observed, is the working of the human mind independently of divine revelation. Legality is the endeavor to use a divinely given code, to which may be added precepts of men, as a means either of salvation in the first instance or of growth in grace afterward. Neither of these conceptions is in accordance with Scripture. “By the works of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight.” This forever bars out legal works as a procuring cause of salvation. “Ye are not under law but under grace.” This, as effectually, forbids the thought that holiness of life for the Christian is found in subjecting himself to legal principles. “The strength of sin is the law,” we are told in 1 Corinthians 15:56. It is not, as multitudes have supposed, the strength of holiness or the power for righteousness. It is the indwelling Holy Spirit, who occupies us with Christ crucified, raised, and glorified, that is the dynamic of spirituality.

Gnosticism was as much indebted to Judaism, which it perverted to its own ends, and to a weird Jewish Kabalism, as it was to the vapid reasonings of Gentile philosophers and, as we shall see later, to Mithraic and Zoroastrian mysticism. Here the apostle specifically deals with Jewish legality, and shows how Christians have been forever delivered from the law and the legal principle in its entirety, but are now linked with the risen Christ. For the believer to go back to the law for his perfecting in holiness is, as he shows in the epistle to the Galatians, to fall from grace. That is, it is the virtual setting aside of the gospel of grace, forgetting that having begun in the Spirit we are not to be made perfect by the flesh.

There were those ever dogging the footsteps of the great apostle to the Gentiles who sought to pervert his converts by teaching them, “Except ye be circumcised and keep the law of Moses, ye cannot be saved.” While the council at Jerusalem gave forth no uncertain sound in opposition to this, it is evident that its decisions were by no means everywhere accepted. It was hard for converts from Judaism to realize their complete deliverance both from the law of Moses as a rule of life, and from the ceremonies and ritual of that law as a means of growth in grace. Here the question at issue is handled in a remarkable manner through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Having declared that we have our completeness in Christ, our exalted Head, he continues: “In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body… of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ.” I omit the words “of the sins” as being without sufficient manuscript authority. It is not merely a question of sins here, but the flesh itself that is in view. Circumcision was the cutting off of the flesh physically, and it was given by God to picture the judgment of the carnal nature and its complete setting aside. This is what God has done in the cross of Christ. In His cutting off by death when He stood vicariously in our place, we see the end of the flesh as viewed from the divine standpoint. It is cut off, put to one side, as absolutely worthless. “The flesh,” we read, “profiteth nothing.” “It is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” Therefore God is making no attempt to improve it. Consequently, there is no place for merit so far as man is concerned. He has none, and, blessed be God, he needs none. All merit is in Another!

The same truth is set forth in Christian baptism. Personally, I have no sympathy with those who in our day would seek to do away altogether with water baptism on the plea that there is now, since the full truth of the church is revealed, only one baptism, and that the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 4:4-6 was just as true from Pentecost to Acts 28 as it has ever been since. Paul did not receive the revelation of the mystery after he went to prison. The rapture, which is part of that great mystery, is taught in his earliest epistle—1 Thessalonians. In his postscript to the Roman letter he tells how he has been making known the mystery throughout his ministry, “Made known to all nations for the obedience of faith.” To the Ephesian elders he said (as recorded in Acts 20) that he had “not shunned to declare unto [them] the whole counsel of God.” That counsel in its entirety had already been made known to him and was proclaimed among the Gentiles. The baptism of the Holy Spirit whereby believers were brought into the body of Christ took place on the day of Pentecost. It was thus that the body, the church, was formed.

There is no hint of any such supernatural work in a widespread manner after Paul’s imprisonment. The body had been formed for years, and each believer was added to it when he received the Spirit. The one baptism of Ephesians 4:5, in my judgment, cannot refer to this event because this is already mentioned in the previous verse. In verse 4 we read, “There is one body, and one Spirit,… [and] one hope of your calling.” This is the full revelation of the mystery, the body formed by the Spirit’s baptism, waiting for the coming of the Lord. In verse 5 we have “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” This is responsibility here on earth—Christ owned as Lord, the church called upon to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints, and water baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in recognition of our subjection to the one Lord. It is not a question of form, formula, or subjects. It is simply the broad fact declared, that Christianity knows only one baptism, and that, of course, is baptism unto the death of Jesus Christ. To speak of the Holy Spirit’s baptism as a burial with Christ unto death is nonsense. It is after my identification by faith in death, burial, and resurrection that the Holy Spirit baptizes me into the body.

Nor is this to say that persons who for various reasons, valid or otherwise, may not have been scripturally baptized are not in Christ. In drawing an illustration from what is scripturally correct one does not un-Christianize those who fall short either because of ignorance or willfulness. The argument of verse 12, as I see it, is this: the Christian confesses his identification with a rejected Christ in his baptism. He has owned that the man after the flesh deserved to die. He has died in Christ’s death. This, therefore, is the end of the responsible man before God. Necessarily then, it is the end of all self-effort, of every attempt to improve the flesh by subjecting it to ordinances, that is, regulations, whether divinely given as in the Old Testament or humanly devised as in so many unscriptural systems. God is not attempting to improve the old man, He has judged him as too evil for any improvement and has, therefore, set him to one side in death. Baptism is the recognition of this. It is burial unto death.

Some translators read, “Wherein also ye are risen with him,” but the preponderance of evidence is, I believe, in favor of the reading, “In whom also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God who hath raised him from the dead.” It is through faith in the risen Christ that we become the recipients of the new life and are, henceforth, accounted by God as those who, having gone down into death with Him, are now one with Him in resurrection. What place does legality have here? None whatsoever. To put the new man, the man in Christ, under rules and regulations is contrary to the entire principle of new creation.

This is further emphasized in verse 13. We who once were dead in our trespasses and as Gentiles in the uncircumcision of our flesh have now been made to live together with Him, God having forgiven us all trespasses. The word is the same in each case, and if translated “sins” in the first part of the verse should be “sins” in the last, otherwise “trespasses” in each instance. Moreover, the bond that was against us (“the handwriting,” a term which could only be properly used of the Ten Commandments, which we are distinctly told were the handwriting of God, embraced in ten ordinances, or divinely given rules) because of the sinfulness of our natures, making our disobedience to the law, when once it came to our knowledge, a foregone conclusion, and which therefore made it to us a ministration of death and condemnation, has now been taken out of the way and no longer hangs over us as an unfulfilled obligation. Christ nailed it to His cross.

What are we to understand by this expression, “Nailing it to his cross”? It may help us if we remember that it was customary under Roman law when criminals were executed by crucifixion, hanging, or impalement to write out a copy of the law they had broken, or to indicate the nature of their offense on a placard and nail it above the victim’s head that all might know how Rome executed vengeance upon those who violated her criminal code. Pilate wrote out the inscription to be placed over the head of Christ Jesus, and that in three languages, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, that all might know why the patient Sufferer from Galilee was being publicly executed. “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” As the people read this they understood that he was being crucified because He made Himself a king and was thus disloyal to Caesar.

But as God looked upon that cross His holy eye saw, as it were, another inscription altogether. Nailed upon the rood above the head of His blessed Son was the handwriting of ten ordinances given at Sinai. It was because this law had been broken in every point that Jesus poured out His blood, thus giving His life to redeem us from the curse of the law. And so all of our sins have been settled for. There the law, which we had so dishonored, has been magnified to the full in the satisfaction which He made to the divine justice. Thus Christ has become the “end of the law… to every one that believeth.” It is, of course, the Jewish believers Paul has in mind when he says “us,” for Gentiles were not under the law. But it is true now in principle for us all, to whom the knowledge of the law has come. Christ has, by His death, met every claim against us and canceled the bond we could not pay.

And now as a victorious leader He has come forth from the tomb, having made a prey of the evil principalities and powers who gloated over His apparent defeat when He was crucified through weakness, but who are now themselves defeated in His resurrection. He has ascended to heaven in a glorious triumph, having made a spectacle of them, openly triumphing over them in His cross.

His be the Victor’s name
Who fought the fight alone,
Triumphant saints no honor claim
His conquest was their own.

By weakness and defeat
He won the meed and crown,
Trod all our foes beneath His feet
By being trodden down.

Bless, bless the Conqueror slain,
Slain in His victory;
Who lived, who died, who lives again,
For thee, His church, for thee.

He took our place upon the cross and now we share in all the results of that work. We are one with Him in the new creation. The law and all its ritual was given to man in the flesh. Christians are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, and the law, as such, has nothing to say to the man in this new sphere beyond the reach of death. And so he concludes this marvelous section with a solemn admonition not to permit ourselves to be disturbed by any who would put us back under the law in any shape or form. “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days.” All these once had their place and he who would be an obedient child of the old covenant was called upon to observe the regulations regarding them scrupulously. All these, however, were but a shadow of things to come—things which have now come—“For the body is of Christ.”

In the Old Testament dispensation the light of God was shining upon Christ, and all the forms and ceremonies, including even the weekly Sabbaths, were but shadows cast by Him. Since He Himself has come and fulfilled all the redemptive types the believer has “everything in Jesus, and Jesus everything.” The very fact that He links the Sabbath with the other ceremonies shows clearly that the rule of life for the believer is not the ten words given at Sinai. While confessing this law to be holy, just, and good, the new creation man is not under it. He is, as Paul expresses it elsewhere, “under law to Christ,” or more properly “en-lawed to Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21). That is, his responsibility now is to walk in fellowship with the risen Christ, the Head of the body of which he is but a feeble member in whom dwells the Holy Spirit to be the power of the new life—manifested in subjection to the exalted Lord.

None need fear that this will make for a lower standard of piety than if one were under the law as a rule of life. It is a far higher standard. He whose one thought and desire is to manifest the risen life of Christ in all his ways will lead a holier life than he who is seeking to subject the flesh to rules and regulations, even though given from heaven in a dispensation now past. This comes out very strongly in the contrast between the Sabbath of the law and the Lord’s Day of the new creation. There is no commandment in the New Testament inculcating the sacredness of the first day of the week and demanding that Christians observe it scrupulously for holy purposes, yet the consensus of judgment of spiritually minded believers all through the centuries has led to the honoring of this day as a time of worship, meditation, and Christian testimony, which has given it a preeminence from a spiritual standpoint that the Jewish Sabbath never had.

Nor are we called upon to substitute a Christian ritual service for the Jewish ritual that we have discarded. We worship now by the Spirit of God whose delight it is to occupy the hearts of the redeemed with Him to whom they owe all their blessing. Thus all that is fleshly or carnal must give way, as but prefatory and evanescent, and that which is spiritual and abiding takes its place.