Circumcision, Baptism, and the Transforming Work of Christ

I wonder what particular spiritual blessing you are especially thankful for?

While I obviously don’t know what came into your mind, I would doubt for many of you, it was the word circumcision. When we think about our spiritual blessings, we don’t often think about the fact that in Christ, we have been circumcised.

In Colossians 2:11, it is clear Paul did.

He writes,

“In Him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”

One reason we don’t think about this circumcision as much of a blessing is because it is hard for us at first to understand what Paul means.

Most likely the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word circumcision is a physical procedure. If you know your Bible at all you realize that physical circumcision did play a special role in the Old Testament. The Old Testament talks a lot about circumcision.

Let me give you a refresher why.

Men rebelled against God but God in His grace pursued man. Because of God’s desire to show mercy He chose to enter into a special relationship with a man named Abram. You read about that relationship in the book of Genesis. The Scripture calls the relationship that God entered into with Abram a covenant relationship. We don’t use that word covenant too often anymore, but biblically speaking a simple definition of a covenant would be a promise God confirms with an oath. There’s more to it than that, but that gives you the idea. So God makes a promise to Abram and he confirms that promise with an oath. Now this promise God gives Abram is good, and it’s so good it’s not just given to Abram but it extends to his descendants. And this promise God gives Abram is important, so important that the Bible talks about it again and again and again.

God promises to bless Abram and his descendants physically and he promises to bless them spiritually.

In making this covenant with Abram, God gives him a simple way by which his descendants will be identified. There will be a sign that they are children of Abram and that sign was physical circumcision. God says in Genesis 17:10 and 11, and this is here in the context of the covenant He makes with Abram, “Every male child among you shall be circumcised, and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.” The descendants of Abram circumcised their male children and they did that as a demonstration that they in fact did belong to the physical lineage of Abram himself. They had a part in the covenant God made with him.

As you come back to Colossians you have ask is this the specific circumcision that Paul is talking when he says that we’ve been circumcised here? And you know that most emphatically it’s not. Paul is not talking about a physical procedure.

In fact he goes to great lengths to make that clear. He’s actually contrasting the circumcision he’s talking about with that physical circumcision. He says we’ve been circumcised with a “circumcision made without hands.” When the Bible wants to talk about something that God Himself has done, that’s the phrase it often uses. “…made without hands…” It’s like this little phrase is supposed to set off an alarm in our heads, ding, ding, ding, Paul’s talking about an act of God Himself.

We know then Paul’s talking about a spiritual procedure not a physical one, something that God performs in you and not something that man does.And again you have to come back and say does the Bible talk about that kind of circumcision anywhere else? And the answer of course is yes, it does.

Circumcision is often used as a picture of a spiritual surgery that takes place in the soul. In fact, the primary purpose of physical circumcision was to be an object lesson that pointed the Israelites forward to the need for a spiritual circumcision. It was intended to be a graphic picture of the cutting away of fleshly desires that keep a person’s heart from being truly devoted to God.

Moses puts it like this in Deuteronomy 10:16, he tells the people of Israel, “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.”   In other words, you are physically circumcised but what you really need is to be spiritually circumcised! Then, over in Deuteronomy 30:6 he makes a promise if Israel rebelled against God but then repented, “the Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” You are physically circumcised, but you need to repent in order for God to spiritually circumcise you. Experiencing God’s blessing is not dependent on physical circumcision, but on the circumcision of the heart.

Stop there for a minute.

Think about this.

Are you tracking with me?

The Bible talks about two kinds of circumcision, one physical and one spiritual. Throughout the whole Old Testament you have all these object lessons, ritual after ritual, ceremony after ceremony and they pointed forward to a greater reality. That’s one reason why you had physical circumcision. It pointed forward to the need for a circumcision of the heart. The problem was there were a lot of Jews who didn’t get that. You see, there were many Jews who didn’t understand that there were two different kinds of circumcision.  When they thought about being a Jew and when they thought about pleasing God and when they thought about circumcision, all they thought about was the physical act.   That’s what took priority in their minds.

So Paul has to keep confronting this and putting it all into its proper perspective.

I think one of the clearest explanations he gives is over in Romans 2:28 and 29. Paul is explaining what it means to be circumcised and what it means to be a Jew and he writes, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.”

Now think carefully about what he is saying.

He says circumcision is not a physical thing. “nor is circumcision outward and physical.” Well, that might throw you off, because is there such a thing as physical circumcision? I mean is that a possibility? Of course.

But what Paul is saying is that physical circumcision is not the main point.

You see these Jews seem to have thought they were saved by being physically circumcised.

Their attitude was basically this: “I’m a Jew because I’ve been physically circumcised.” They thought because I’ve been circumcised, I’m in the covenant, I’m a Jew, I get all the blessings, it doesn’t matter what I do, it doesn’t matter what my heart is like. But Paul says to them, “You are not a Jew just because you are a Jew.” He’s not saying there’s no such thing as a person who is of Jewish ethnicity. That’s not the point. Physically and ethnically you are a Jew. Nothing can change that. Nobody’s arguing that. You look at the Old Testament and you find that you didn’t have to have a new heart to be physically circumcised and thus to be considered part of the nation Israel. And if a person was part of the nation of Israel, if he was circumcised physically, if he was a Jew, that did grant him certain blessings. There’s no denying that. As a Jew he participated in the temporal, earthly blessings of God’s covenant with Abraham. He got to live in the land of Canaan for example.

But as we’ve seen even within the Old Testament there’s another kind of circumcision, one that is even more important, a spiritual circumcision.   And if you don’t have that, you may be a Jew outwardly, but you are not a Jew inwardly. To use Paul’s words, and I’m quoting Romans 9, “…just because you have descended from Israel doesn’t mean you belong to Israel and just because you are a child of Abraham doesn’t mean you are his offspring. It’s not the children of flesh who are the children of God but the children of promise who in fact are.”

Just because a person is physically related to Abraham and just because they had been physically circumcised that didn’t automatically make them the “children of Abraham” who were part of the covenant. “Just because you are descended from Israel doesn’t mean you belong to Israel.”

Paul’s saying in the Old Testament you have two things going on – you have an ethnic Israel – you got into that by being circumcised physically and then you have this true spiritual Israel that God is calling out – which was only made up of those who were spiritually circumcised. So although by virtue of being born a Jew a person may in the Old Testament participate in some of the earthly blessings of the covenant God made with Abraham if he is not spiritually circumcised he will not participate in the spiritual blessings of that covenant. He is a Jew, but not a Jew at the same time.

Now that’s not true in the church. You can’t be a Christian and not a Christian at the same time. Because Christianity is not a matter of ethnicity at all.  There’s that great little passage in Romans 10:12, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him.” Or as Paul explains in Galatians 3, it’s a matter of being in Christ. And if you are in Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

That’s why Paul can say in Romans 2 you can be a Jew physically and not be a Jew spiritually and you can not be a Jew physically and be a Jew spiritually at the same time, which obviously has tremendous implications, it means that although you may not participate in some of the temporal earthly blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant like the physical Jew did, for example you are not going to inherit the actual land of Canaan, but you because of your union with Christ, will participate in the spiritual blessings of the Covenant itself – the meat of the Covenant Promise.

This is really important to get, so I hope I’m being clear, if you are wondering why Paul talks about circumcision here – I mean why bring up this whole long complicated issue at all – it’s because in the early church there were people so hung up on physical circumcision and so confused about this that they were going around teaching that in order to experience the blessings that flow out the promise God made to Abraham, to be part of the people of God. it was kind of like they were saying if you want to be part of true Israel you have to be part of ethnic Israel. Paul calls them the circumcision group and they believed you needed to get circumcised after you were saved. And this simply wasn’t true.

The reason why this was such a big deal to Paul was that by saying people had to get circumcised after they were saved to experience God’s blessing, they were saying ultimately that you are saved by something you do. They were pointing away from Christ and minimizing His work on the cross and on our behalf. It’s salvation by works.  You need Christ and something else.

So Paul has to confront that, it’s likely that’s what he’s dealing with there in Colossae, you look down at verses 21 –23 you see that the false teachers were going around saying you need to do this and that – really probably go back to the Old Testament Law – if they were going to be godly – and as you read your New Testament you find that’s a big issue in the early church – he continually confronts that – he takes this whole have to be physically circumcised thing very seriously – because we are not justified by keeping the law – we have been justified through faith in Christ. If you are trusting in a ceremony or work to save you, you are not saved. It’s that simple: your relationship with God rests not on what you do, but on what God has done.

So it’s not about you going out and getting physically circumcised. That was only intended to be a symbol. A special symbol to identify the physical nation of Israel. It’s always been about God circumcising your heart. And with the coming of Christ the need for that particular physical symbol has been done away because the church isn’t identical to ethnic Israel. As John Piper explains, “The church is not based on any ethnic, national distinctives but on the reality of faith alone, by grace alone in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Church is not a continuation of Israel as a whole; it is an continuation of the true Israel, the remnant -not the children of the flesh, but the children of promise.

That’s why you find Paul constantly rebuking these people who are going around saying Christians needed to be physically circumcised. Paul had no problem with people being physically circumcised in and of itself. I mean he was physically circumcised. And he even had Timothy physically circumcised to make his witness to the Jews more effective. What Paul had a problem with was people going around saying you had to be circumcised to be saved, because by doing that they were adding works and rituals to the gospel which is justification by faith alone.

If all that confused you, and I’ve tried my best to explain it, but at least get this –the main point Paul is making here in Colossians 2:11 is that if you are in Christ God has done an awesome work in your heart – He has performed a spiritual surgery which you could never do yourself – He’s cleansed your heart. He’s brought you into the covenant with amazing blessings. He’s identified you as His own. And that’s happened not because of any ritual, not because of any little ceremony you went through, but because of Christ and His work on your behalf.

God has circumcised you by, and I like how the NIV puts it, “putting off… the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ.”

If you are a believer, Paul is saying, God has performed a spiritual procedure on your heart in which he has put off the body of the flesh, or to say it another way, your old sin nature, your old man. That means if you are a believer, you are not who you used to be. You say why do I live a Christ-centered life? Why do I live a cross-centered life? Because as Paul puts it in Romans 6:6, “your old self was crucified with Him.” As someone has said, “That old self that used to rebel against God, that old self-reliant faithless you, that old self who was living for himself, that old self who used to center his life on this world, that old self died.” When you put your faith in Christ, your old man dies. Galatians 5:24, “Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”

To put it another way – he’s been buried.

“…having been buried with him in baptism…”

This is not something fanciful or something that we imagine – no this is something that literally has happened – our old nature died and then being giving a new nature, you can say when Christ died I died.

You are still going to struggle with sin, because you are not in heaven yet, and because you still have old fleshly desires and habits; you have a new nature but an old body that is used to doing evil because it’s had a lot of practice (incidentally that’s where the struggle comes in – we have these new desires but still our old ways of living and thinking as someone has said, “set up formidable barriers to growth) but the main point to get here is that at a fundamental level you are different now than you used to be, you are not the same person any more, you have resources that others don’t have, you are different than the unbeliever who is at your job working right next to you because you’ve received the circumcision of Christ, you’ve been buried with Him.”

And at the end of verse 12, “you’ve been raised with Him.”

God’s given you new life. Now that’s awesome. Do you see what Paul is saying? God has done something in us that we could never do. That’s why he add this is “through the powerful working of God…” Anybody can do this little spiritual ritual, you know jump through the right hoops and look all religious and clean up the externals. But we can’t on our own change our heart. We can’t on our own pay the penalty of sin or free ourselves from the power of sin. We can’t give ourselves new life. Only God can do that. And if you are a Christian, He has done that. Not will do. Has. And all these blessings come to you – not by works – but by virtue of your union with Christ.

Now here’s the key: how does this all happen? How do we enter into this relationship with Christ?

Paul says, “…through faith…”

Those two words are very important. Not through works. Through faith.

That’s why Paul talks about baptism here. People get tripped up here. So follow this out.

He’s not saying that all this happens because you’ve been baptized. He’s not saying you are spiritually circumcised by being physically baptized. That’s important. That would not make any sense. Can you imagine Paul going to this great length to say that you are not saved by a human ritual only to then replace it with another ritual? He would be saying you are not saved by having someone circumcise you physically, but you are saved by having someone dip you in water.

As someone explains, “Do you think Paul would eliminate one ceremony just to bring in another one?…That would make him just as much a ritualist as those whom He is condemning.” That’s why he makes it very clear that the circumcision he is speaking of here is done without human hands, “there is no human hand involved in it’s administration, whether by knife or by water.”

Baptism is not the means by which God circumcises us but instead a symbol of the circumcision of Christ.

Get this.

What is the circumcision of Christ? What is Christian circumcision? Is it being baptized? No.

Christian circumcision is being united with Christ, which means that your old nature has died with Christ and it’s a picture as Paul puts it at the end of verse 12, of the fact that you were also raised with him…

Baptism is a picture of a person whose old nature has died with Christ and who has a new life in Christ through faith. If a person doesn’t have faith that picture is empty. That’s why you don’t baptize babies. Baptism is an external expression of an inward reality. It is not the exact same thing as Old Testament circumcision. In the Old Testament a baby didn’t need to have faith to be physically circumcised. Instead baptism serves as a picture. It’s a picture of what’s happened in the believer’s life.

As Paul explains in verse 13 it is a picture that, “…you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him…”

I’m a little scared that as we get into so much detail and really talk about such deep theological issues that you’re eyes are kind of glazing over and you’ll go away from here having missed the main point which is really this.

If you and I are believers, God has performed an absolute miracle in our lives through Jesus Christ.  

If you have zoned out – come on back. Hear this. We were spiritually dead. That means we were alienated from God. That means we were without hope in this world. That means there wasn’t a sign of life in us. That means we were in the state of being lost. We were in a state of rebellion. God’s enemies.

And God made us alive. We’ve been given new spiritual life. And that new life we have is only because of our relationship with Jesus Christ.

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