Sermon – October 23, 2016
Colossians 2:11-13 Relating Circumcision and Baptism (mp3)
While not leaving Colossians, the next passage (2:9-15) introduces two major biblical themes, circumcision and baptism, that require a closer look. Some denominations, based on the similarities of baptism and circumcision, baptize infants (paedobaptism). Colossians 2:11-13 closely relates the two rites, and provides some credence to the paedobaptist theology. But baptism is not limited to the symbolism of physical circumcision, and is best saved for those who provide a credible confession of faith.
Circumcision was an OT practice that formed the basis of male identity in Israel; that is, it was the very least that a man must undergo if he is to be considered a son of Abraham. To help us see both the similarities and differences with baptism, it will be helpful to trace the nature and practice of circumcision throughout the OT.
1.1 Physical circumcision is a reminder
Physical circumcision was commanded of Abraham in Genesis 17. This command was part of the covenant that God made with Abraham, and focused specifically on reminding the children of Abraham of God’s great promises.
1.2 Physical circumcision is an initiation
As shown above, all of Abraham’s sons were to be circumcised. As the people moved forward, the rite of circumcision became the initial means of entrance into the people of God. See Exodus 12:43-48; Leviticus 12:3
1.3 Physical circumcision introduces a conflict
On the one hand, God’s promises were unilateral and unbound. On the other, it is a necessity that God’s people look and act like him (see Leviticus 20:26). Circumcision is at the heart of the matter, as it both reminds the people of God’s unconditional promises and initiates them into the conditions of the law.
1.4 Heart circumcision is the resolution
Moses seems not only to anticipate this problem, but to see its resolution! In Deuteronomy 30:1-6, Moses not only foresees the failure of the people, but also the enacting of the promises of God through a circumcision of the heart (see Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:22-32).
While much can, and should, be said about baptism, we are going to limit ourselves to our present passage. What can we glean from what Paul says here, the place in the NT where baptism and circumcision are most closely related?
2.1 Baptism corresponds to initiation
Baptism, like circumcision, was clearly used as a way to bring people into the church, and seal them as “brothers and sisters” in the Lord.
2.2 Baptism corresponds to heart circumcision
Importantly, however, initiation is where the similarities to physical circumcision end. Baptism is much more closely related to heart-circumcision. This can be seen through two phrases in 2:11. Paul speaks of a “circumcision made without hands” and of a “putting off of the flesh.” Another way to put it: baptism is the way we demonstrate that someone is “born-again” (compare Ezekiel 36:25-26 and John 3:1-10).
2.3 Baptism is done through faith
Furthermore, baptism is a sign of belief. Look at two small words in v. 12: “through faith.” Those who have been baptized are not fully passive in the promise, rather they are actively believing in the resurrected Lord. Notice further the idea of “knowing the Lord” in Jeremiah 31:34, largely missed amongst all of the other beautiful promises in the passage. This seems very damaging for the paedobaptist position, for they must tell their children “know the Lord.” See also Jeremiah 9:25-26. An outward sign performed on a child is not enough to put them rightly into the covenant as the people of God, the very position that paedobaptists hold.
2.4 Baptism demonstrates the forgiveness of sins
Because it is tied to faith in Jesus Christ, baptism rightly speaks of our union with Christ as the forgiveness of our sin. If this becomes only future oriented, the symbolism and demonstration of forgiveness loses its massive and vast importance. Furthermore, baptism does not just relate to our being washed, but being washed through our union with Christ. Sprinkling cannot symbolize this.
2.5 Baptism demonstrates reality
Physical circumcision was the rite of promise, not baptism. The language used by Paul here is not forward looking, but backward; it symbolizes a reality that has already been put into effect.
Baptism is a rite full of glory; it proclaims the gospel of the Trinity in one distinct, brief act. It demonstrates our union with Christ and with one another, our death and life now in Christ, our hope in the resurrection, the forgiveness of our sin, our passing through judgment, our hope of holiness in the shedding of our sin, the reality of the new creation in Christ here and now, and the belief that all of the promises of God have found their yes and amen in Christ. Praise God that his glory and works are shown so beautifully in such a simple act!