In his refutation of Judaizers within the early Christian movement, the apostle Paul made reference to “the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and stood opposed to us.” Paul further stated that God “took it away, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:14)
Paul’s meaning was clear: God had cancelled the written code through Christ’s crucifixion, therefore the written code was no longer binding upon God’s people, that is, the Christian community.
So what written code was Paul talking about?
It helps to understand that the people of Israel were historically responsible for obeying two laws: The Ten Commandments, written by the hand of God; and the handwriting of ordinances, written by the hand of Moses, the mediator of the Old Covenant or Testament.
Both laws were given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai, but God distinguished them from one another.
The Ten Commandments were written by God Himself with His own finger on two tablets of hewn stone; and God later directed Moses to make an ark out of acacia wood in which to keep the stone tablets on which He had inscribed the Commandments.
This is documented by Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 10, verses 1-5: At that time the LORD said to me, “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones and come up to me on the mountain. Also make a wooden chest. I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. Then you are to put them in the chest.”
So I made the ark out of acacia wood and chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I went up on the mountain with the two tablets in my hands. The LORD wrote on these tablets what he had written before, the Ten Commandments he had proclaimed to you on the mountain, out of the fire, on the day of the assembly. And the LORD gave them to me. Then I came back down the mountain and put the tablets in the ark I had made, as the LORD commanded me, and they are there now.
It seems apparent that humans knew and understood the Ten Commandments long before God inscribed them into the tablets on Sinai. The Sabbath, after all, had been declared Holy from the time of creation; and humans certainly understood that murder, adultery, covetousness, dishonesty and the like were sinful acts. The Ten Commandments, it might be argued, were merely a concise written version of God’s directives for all human beings who sought to please Him, from creation onward.
In contrast, the secondary but extensively detailed “handwriting of ordinances,” although dictated to Moses by God, were written by the hand of Moses. They were given, the Bible says, because of the stubbornness or hardness of heart of the Israelite people, and were directed specifically to the Israelites. God told Moses to write them down in their entirety and to have his successor, Joshua, keep them beside the Ark of the Covenant in which the Ten Commandments were kept. In addition to that, God instructed Moses to have Joshua, after crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land, to build an altar on Mount Ebal. The altar was to be made of “whole stones,” great unhewn stones, which were to be covered over with plaster, and the law in its entirety was to be written on them.
Again, didrect reference is made to these events in the book of Deuteronomy:
After Moses finished writing in a book the words of this law from beginning to end, he gave this command to the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD: “Take this Book of the Law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God. There it will remain as a witness against you. For I know how rebellious and stiff-necked you are. If you have been rebellious against the LORD while I am still alive and with you, how much more will you rebel after I die! Assemble before me all the elders of your tribes and all your officials, so that I can speak these words in their hearing and call heaven and earth to testify against them. For I know that after my death you are sure to become utterly corrupt and to turn from the way I have commanded you. In days to come, disaster will fall upon you because you will do evil in the sight of the LORD and provoke him to anger by what your hands have made. (Deuteronomy 31:24-29)
Deuteronomy 27:1-8 further relates:
Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people: “Keep all these commands that I give you today. When you have crossed the Jordan into the land the LORD your God is giving you, set up some large stones and coat them with plaster. Write on them all the words of this law when you have crossed over to enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the LORD, the God of your fathers, promised you. And when you have crossed the Jordan, set up these stones on Mount Ebal, as I command you today, and coat them with plaster. Build there an altar to the LORD your God with fieldstones and offer burnt offerings on it to the LORD your God. And you shall write very clearly all the words of this law on these stones you have set up.”
The Book of Joshua, chapter 8, verses 30-35, recounts Joshua’s carrying out of Moses’ instructions:
Then Joshua built on Mount Ebal an altar to the LORD, the God of Israel, as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded the Israelites. He built it according to what is written in the Book of the Law of Moses – an altar of uncut stones, on which no iron tool had been used. On it they offered to the LORD burnt offerings and sacrificed fellowship offerings. There, in the presence of the Israelites, Joshua copied on stones the law of Moses, which he had written. All Israel, aliens and citizens alike, with their elders, officials and judges, were standing on both sides of the ark of the covenant of the LORD, facing those who carried it – the priests, who were Levites. Half of the people stood in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the LORD had formerly commanded when he gave instructions to bless the people of Israel.
Afterwards, Joshua read all the words of the law – the blessings and the curses – just as it is written in the Book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded that Joshua did not read to the whole assembly of Israel, including the women and children, and the aliens who lived among them.
Having distinguished between the two laws that were given on Mount Sinai, let’s now return to the NT for additional clarification.
Remember Jesus’ words from Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 5? “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
The Law and the Prophets, in the religion of Judaism at the time Jesus spoke these words, meant essentially what we know as the OT writings.
The Law consisted of the first five books of the Jewish Scriptures: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
The Prophets included not only the latter prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, which we call the Major Prophets, but also the twelve Minor Prophets (lumped together by the Jews as “the Book of the Twelve” – and also the Former Prophets – that is, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings.
Taken together, “the Law” and “the Prophets” designated the entire OT, including “the Writings,” the third section of the Hebrew Bible.
Jesus said He had come, not to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill all that had been written about Him in them.
He went on to say that not the least thing would disappear from them “until everything is accomplished.”
What did Jesus mean by that? Until what was accomplished?
The Apostle Paul, we believe, clearly answered that question in his letter to the Colossians, chapter 2, verses 13-15: When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross!
Paul was making reference to the “written code, with its regulations,” or the Law of Moses, being canceled, not God’s Ten Commandments.
This is further clarified by the continuation of Paul’s thought in the following verses, in which he alludes to various ceremonial laws of the OT, not the Ten Commandments:
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come, the reality, however, is found in Christ.
Please take note that Paul’s mention of “a Sabbath day” was not in reference to God’s seventh-day weekly Sabbath. Rather, Paul was talking about other special days that God had designated as Sabbaths in connection with the various Hebrew religious observances, or feasts, which God had established through Moses.
Click into our next segment for a NT example of one such special Sabbath.