A True Gem of Biblical Understanding
Updated: Oct 29, 2018
by +Rt. Rev. Dr. Vince McLaughlin, Th.D., D.Litt., Ph.D.
In Colossians 2:14, the Apostle Paul says, “(Christ) having cancelled out (exaleipsas) the certificate of debt (cheirographon) consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” The word “certificate of debt” (cheirograpon) was a technical term meaning a written agreement, or more specifically a bond. An oriental practice sheds light upon this metaphor. Often, when a debt or an IOU was settled through payment or cancellation, the creditor would take the cancelled note (IOU) and nail it over the house of his debtor. Consequently, each passerby would know that the person was no longer in debt. The participle used here for having cancelled out this IOU is from the verb (exaleipho), which literally means ‘to wipe out, deface, obliterate.’ This letter of debt would have been written on papyrus with non-permanent ink. Since this ink was composed of soot, gum and water, it was an easy matter to clean off the writing with a wet cloth or sponge. This verb was used in the oriental world for “washing out” the writing on the papyrus so that the sheet might be used for other purposes.” This is the meaning of the verb and its strong negative in Revelation 3:5 where the glorified Christ speaks, “He who overcomes shall thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase (ou me exaleipso) his name from Book of Life . . .”
If this word exaleipho means, “to wipe out, erase,” then there may be an intentional contrast to the customary process of crossing out a letter of debt with the Greek Chi (English ‘X’). It was a common practice in this ‘letter of debt’ (cheirographon) that the handwriting was crossed out. This crossing out of the debt is designated by the verb chiazo, and it is significant that this crossing out (which is also used today) was not only private but public and official. The Apostle Paul does not say that the IOU was crossed out (chiazo), which is a perpetual reminder of the debt, but instead, that it was “washed off, obliterated” (exaleipho).
Based upon these two threads of meaning in Colossians 2:14, we can see a clear reference to the cross, where not only the accusation of sinful mankind was symbolically nailed, but His accusation was nailed there on an actual placard as well (John 19:19). The removal of sin is seen in the two word pictures: “having wiped away” (exaleipsas) and “having nailed it to His cross.” Therefore, as an act of victorious defiance to hostile powers, Yeshua released sinful mankind from the letter of debt by wiping the slate (papyrus) clean. This was a public affair, which released humankind from a state of hopeless bankruptcy. These observations lead to a translation that we find in Letters to Young Churches by J.B. Phillips, “He has forgiven you all your sins; Christ has wiped out the damning evidence of broken laws and commandments which always hung over our heads, and has annulled it by nailing it over His own head on the cross.”
I hope this brief word study has provided illumination and occasion for Eucharistic Celebration at what Yeshua the Christ has done on our behalf.