Let me be honest, I have never met a Revolutionary War battlefield with which I have not immediately fallen in love. It’s true, put me on the grounds of any of these National Historical Parks and I will be moved to a sense of reverence and awe within mere seconds; Saratoga (the Boot Memorial is intensely heart-rending), Bunker Hill (those white eyes get me every time), Cowpens (home of Daniel Morgan’s brilliant stratagem), Guilford Courthouse (“Another such victory would ruin the British army!”), and of course, Lexington and Concord (say what you want, but for me, this is holy ground, even more so than Fenway Park). But while these are special places to me, it is the job of all historic parks to move us to remember the past by connecting us with the ground where history was made through monuments, plaques, gravesites, weaponry and engaging landscapes so that we can virtually experience firsthand the events of the past. Now, it helps that I am a pushover for all things American Revolution, but all parks should transport us to another time so that we remember, so that we “feel” the past, so that we understand. To say it another way, historical parks act as memorials that invite us to relive the past by connecting with the ground on which the battle happened.
Scot McKnight writes: “Though of a different kind and of a supernatural order, both circumcision and baptism are memorials of what God did in the past: the covenant with Abraham and the redemption through Jesus’ life, death, burial and resurrection.” (It Takes a Church to Baptize, pg. 75). Don’t miss that: according to McKnight, baptism is a memorial that invites us to relive a past event. How does it do that? Let’s start at the beginning.
In Genesis 15, Abraham believes the promises of God (especially that he will be given a son) and it is credited to him as righteousness. Two chapters later, in Genesis 17, God gives Abraham the sign of the promise-covenant, namely circumcision; and on that day Abraham (99 years old), his son Ishmael (13 years old) and all the males (born or bought) in his household were circumcised. And eight days after Isaac is born in Genesis 21, Abraham circumcises him. In doing this, Abraham was incorporating his children into his faith and this became the pattern for all of God’s people, Israel. Even Jesus followed this pattern (Luke 2:21).
Now, circumcision was both a sign of the covenant and an entry-rite into it. We’re never told why this “snipping” was to be the sign except to say it was an identity marker that separated God’s people from the world. This marker would be particularly obvious when members of the covenant were having sex with women outside the covenant community (You would have to think that Delilah was shocked to find out that Samson’s strength was the result his being dedicated to God because he certainly wasn’t acting like someone dedicated to God; so here, being circumcised would result in all sorts of awkward conversations when Israelite men and pagan women were all set to knock boots, but then had to stop and discuss the cut of his jib, so to speak – but that seems to be at least part of the purpose. If there is a better argument against tattoos, I haven’t seen it. God could have required his people to be tattooed instead of circumcision which I think is a much more presentable option, but he chose circumcision; and the only reason I can think of is that God must really dislike tattoos.).
Again, the comparison with circumcision and baptism is rather staggering. Both are entry rites into the covenant. Abraham believed and was justified and then circumcised. And then, as his son’s father, he circumcised his son to enter him into the same covenant. Christ followers in the New Testament believe and are justified and then baptized. Therefore, we would expect that we would see the same pattern and that believing parents would bring their children to be baptized to enter them into the (new) covenant. Again, let me quote Scot:
“If God entered Abraham into the covenant by circumcision and demanded that Abraham enter his son through circumcision, then it is clear that God thinks the best way to form children into the covenant faith is by way of birthright entrance into the covenant. I cannot emphasize this enough: this is God’s way. No one in the New Testament or early church ever questioned this process of formation.”
Now, we throw terms around all the time, so let’s unpack what it means to be the “sign” of the covenant. The first use of this term is found in Genesis 17:11 (“You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.”). This term, “sign” is used in other places in the Pentateuch. The rainbow is a sign (Gen 9:12-13). The Sabbath is a sign (Ex. 31:13). The redemption of the firstborn is a sign (Ex. 13:16). Here’s the point: All of these “signs” look back at a redemptive act of God. When the people of Israel saw a rainbow, they were reminded of God’s saving grace and promise. When they approached a Sabbath, they were reminded that God created the world and that he rested on the seventh day. When they offered the first of the flock, they were reminded that God brought them out of slavery with a mighty hand and redeemed them. In other words, signs looked back. When Israel circumcised their sons and when we baptize our infants, we also are looking back so that we can remember. We remember what God did to redeem us and make us his own. Again, let me quote Scot: “The sign of the covenant functions as a sacrament of memory, a sacrament of what God did long ago. It is a sign of something God does and not a sign of something we do.” Don’t miss that: baptism is a memorial and is set in the holy ground of God’s gracious redemption in the past.
If that is the case, what are we looking at when we see a baptism? If the purpose of a baptism is to act as a memorial, we will not be looking at the person being baptized and cheering on their faith, but we will be looking at God’s redemptive act in Christ Jesus that saved this person. We will be looking back and remembering the life, death, burial, resurrection and Jesus and, if anything, cheering on his grace. Again, baptisms are not about us or about our faith and certainly not about our decision to trust in Jesus, but about all that Jesus did to secure our salvation. Through our baptisms we look back and remember all that Jesus did for us. To say it another way, baptisms act as memorials that invite us to relive the past by connecting with the ground (in this case, the water) on which the (real) battle happened.
But baptism, like circumcision before it, is also a seal of the covenant. Paul, writing about Abraham, says in Romans 4:11: “And Abraham received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them.” A sign points to something beyond what we see (for instance, my wedding ring is a sign that I am married to Jo). A seal, meanwhile, testifies that the words spoken and the promises made are true and binding. Circumcision originally was a seal that confirmed that God’s promise to Abraham was true. Baptism is a seal that confirms that God’s gracious promise of redemption in and through Jesus is true. In both cases, we look back to the promise that was made; and that means that baptism is, indeed, a memorial. And if this is the case, then infant baptism is never intended to look forward to when the child will accept Christ as his or her own. It is, first of all, a memorial of what Christ has done. And by partaking in baptism, we “relive” by faith, Jesus’ life and death and resurrection for us.
Here’s the point: much of the argument against infant baptism is that baptism is all about our faith, a faith that an infant does not and cannot have. But here, we see that baptism is all about Jesus’ faithfulness to us in securing our redemption. In a baptism, we look back and remember and we “relive” Jesus’ gracious sacrifice for us by revisiting his death and resurrection. No wonder baptisms are so meaningful and wonderful! We revisit holy ground. We relive what Jesus has done for us by remembering his sacrifice. We stir up all those emotions of gratitude and worship and awe. And we reclaim that the promises of God are true. And there are kids and grace and joy and adding new members to the (church) family. No wonder why people love Memorial Day! What other day can we look back with thanks and know our future is secure.
We still have more to say about Abraham, but we will do that next time. Blessings!