‘… having been buried with him in baptism… And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.’
Martin Luther once famously wrote to Erasmus, ‘your thoughts of God are too human!’. Christians can have a ‘too human’ view of Jesus’ death on the cross. The Christians at Colossae certainly did. As their faith was depreciating, they were losing sight of Christ as the God-man, in whom the ‘fullness of the Godhead bodily dwells’ (2:9) and so had a too ‘human’ view of what Jesus accomplished on the cross. Paul’s response is to set before them the apostolic doctrine of the cross and its implications for believers in a series of wonderfully graphic and colourful word pictures (2:13–15). He paints what it means to be ‘delivered from the power of darkness and conveyed into the kingdom of the Son of his love’ (1:13) through Jesus’ crucifixion on that first Good Friday.
Initiation into the cross
Paul begins with a double word-picture of circumcision and baptism depicting the believer’s union with Christ. These initiation rites into the covenant community are signs representing how the grace of faith unites the Christian to new life in Jesus. The corporate use of ‘in him you were’ and the inclusion of ‘us’ in verse 14 shows this is the universal experience of every Christian. This new life in Jesus unites them into his death and resurrection by which the body of sin is removed and they know forgiveness.
Obliteration at the cross
Paul’s next picture explains the extent of God’s forgiveness. The believer’s sins are wiped out, ‘cancelling the record of debt’ owed. The picture is of wiping the ink off a piece of parchment, wiping the slate clean. Modern equivalent metaphors are how a whiteboard is wiped clean, or how that wonderful toy Etch a Sketch clears away what has been drawn on it. It is a total removal of the certificate of debt that we owe God. A transaction has occurred on the cross where the debt of sin has been obliterated. As the writer to the Hebrews tells us, ‘…we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all… when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God… For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified’ (Hebrews 10:10–14).
Whether Paul is referring here to the debt of God’s broken law as enshrined in the Ten Commandments, or to the universal debt every sinner accrues, the point is the debt we owe to God can never be repaid. Christ on the cross has utterly removed this debt, absolutely extinguished it, unequivocally cancelled out every iota we owe and with unqualified reservation removed our obligation for it. The psalmist speaks of this when he says, ‘As far as the East is from the West, so far have I removed your sins from you’ (Psalm 103:12).
Inscribed on the cross
Paul’s next word picture tells us how Jesus obliterated our sins. It is a play on the use of the Roman titulus, the sign that was placed above the one crucified, on which their crime was recorded. Pilate had Jesus’ supposed crime nailed above him on the cross, placarded for every passer-by to read! ‘This is Jesus, the king of Jews’ (Matthew 27:37). However, just as Pilate changed the accusation the Jews wanted written above the cross, so Paul sees that God has placarded above the cross of his innocent Son the guilt of the one in Christ. Their crimes have once and forever been ‘nailed’ to the cross, taken down, to be seen no more, as Jesus became their propitiation and soaked up the wrath of God. Henry Spafford put it so succinctly in his beautiful hymn, When peace like a river: ‘My sins not in part but the whole are nailed to the cross, and I bear them no more. Praise the Lord, O my soul!’
The conquest of the cross
Paul’s next picture goes on to paint the cosmic significance of the cross, as all the powers that oppose God were utterly defeated. He has already spoken of the cosmic scope of Christ’s reconciling work (1:20), which includes the conquest of all ‘rulers and authorities’. Whether this refers to the supernatural powers of evil or the civil rulers of this world, such as the powers that were in Rome or Israel, is not clear from the context but Paul tells us two things that Jesus inflicted upon every political, spiritual and demonic power at the cross.
First, Jesus has ‘disarmed’ them. Jesus’ victory on the cross has stripped them of their power. Jesus entered the domain of the strong man of this world and bound the powers no-one else could (Luke 11:21-22). Jesus accomplished this at the moment of his greatest weakness, as he was dying in agony on the cross. This was the moment in which he disarmed these rampant, rancid, malevolent powers. The cross was a public display of their defeat, revealing their utter failure to thwart God’s plan of salvation, silencing their every accusation brought against the repentant sinner in Christ. C. S. Lewis portrayed this disarming victory in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when Aslan, the Ruler of Narnia, defeated all his enemies by his voluntary death at the stone table, as the ‘deep magic’ brought about his resurrection and the defeat of his enemies. It is a beautiful portrayal of Christ, the innocent one slain, who rose victorious from the dead over all his enemies.
Second, this disarming was their ‘shame’, a word used of Joseph wanting to put Mary away quietly not wishing to make her a ‘public example’ (Matthew 1:19). To the everlasting glory of God in the moment of what his enemies believed was his greatest shame as he hung naked, accursed and dying on the cross, Jesus Christ made a public example of these powers, revealing to the entire cosmos their feebleness. Any power opposing Jesus and his people is now a cosmic joke in light of the victory the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world has won at Calvary.
Triumph through the cross
This utter rout of all powers that oppose God leads Paul to his final picture. It is that of a parade given in celebration of a victorious Roman general’s return from battle. He would lead a procession in which all his defeated enemies would follow in his wake. Beaten, captive, chained for all the world to see the spoils of his victory. At Calvary, the ‘power’ of Rome, Jewish authorities and malignant evil forces sought victory over the insignificant carpenter of Nazareth. But the Jesus they crucified has risen victorious, and in his triumphal march from the grave through human history as the resurrected, ascended and reigning Lord, he now leads every other power in his wake. ‘Paid in full’ is written large over all your sins, Christian! Written in Christ’s precious blood. All his enemies are vanquished, all yours shall be overcome. What have you to fear?