When we moved to Canada, our guys were way behind in their ability to skate (even though they had taken some skating lessons here). And one thing is certain in life: if you can’t skate, you can’t play hockey; and if you can’t play hockey (especially in Canada), what is the sense of getting out of bed in the morning? In any case, we immediately enrolled both Dan and Matt in an accelerated skating class, and things started to turn a corner. Unbeknownst to us, however, this preparatory class for playing hockey (think action and mayhem and passion) ended with conscripted participation in an ice-capades-like production of Grease (Oh, the humanity!). Yes, they would show off their newly-developed skating skills, but they would also be dressed in costumes (Dan was a mechanic; Matt was a football player) and forced to do some choreographed skating. And throughout the whole performance, a CD would be playing tunes like, “You’re the one that I want (ooh-ooh-ooh)” and “Go, greased lightnin’, go, greased lightnin’).” To be honest with you, I get chills (they’re multiplying) just thinking about it. But it could have been worse. They could have been forced to skate to Olivia’s “Let’s Get Physical” (“Let me hear your body talk, your body talk”). Long story short: Canada almost killed us with this class.
Here’s today’s question: Is undergoing baptism a spiritual or a physical exercise? Granted, it sounds like a silly question (isn’t it both?); but this question is not only important, it also has a history. Let’s start with Abraham.
God comes to Abraham with a promise, and Abraham believes all that God said so that act of faith was credited to him as righteousness. And then, God blessed Abraham with a sign of the covenant. And when Abraham was 99 years old, he was circumcised and marked as a member of God’s people. Abraham also circumcised his whole household. And when Isaac was born, Abraham circumcised him. Now note: Isaac had no faith yet (he was only 8 days old), but Abraham still circumcised him, believing that his own faith would “cover” his son. But Abraham also understood that circumcision, by itself, could be a meaningless rite; and so, he nurtured his son into his faith so that, in time, Isaac would have a faith all of his own. And this was the pattern for all fathers and sons in Israel. The father would take his son to be circumcised; and then he would raise his son so that, in time, the boy would embrace his father’s faith as his own. In other words, circumcision was never designed to be a single act where it was one and done. It was always the first step in becoming a fully devoted follower of YHWH. Yes, it was a physical act, but it was also to be a deeply, deeply spiritual one.
Years passed, and this physical/spiritual act began to deteriorate into an act that was only physical. Instead of pointing to a spiritual reality, it only pointed to a cultural one. Yes, fathers circumcised their sons, but it was all choreography: all “show” with no action or passion. And in the dark days of the apostasy, the only thing to which circumcision pointed was the hypocrisy of the people. Now, this duplicity did not escape the eyes of the prophets who quickly made a stunning move. Instead of singing, “Let’s get physical, physical,” they began singing, “Let’s get spiritual, spiritual.”
For instance, look at Deuteronomy 10 (14-16):
“To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations—as it is today. Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.”
In other words, physical circumcision is nothing unless it is combined with the spiritual circumcision of the heart.
And take a look at Deuteronomy 30 (2-3, 5-6):
“When you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. . . . He will bring you to the land that belonged to your ancestors, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors. The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.”
Underline that: the physical circumcision you perform isn’t cutting it. You need God to circumcise your hearts!
Jeremiah follows suit. There, we read (Jer. 4:3-4):
“This is what the Lord says to the people of Judah and to Jerusalem: ‘Break up your unplowed ground and do not sow among thorns. Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, circumcise your hearts, you people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or my wrath will flare up and burn like fire because of the evil you have done—burn with no one to quench it.’”
It seems here that Jeremiah is not at all thrilled with physical circumcision because it is accomplishing nothing to change the ways of the people. Physical circumcision is only of use if it is combined with the spiritual act of circumcising yourself to the Lord and cutting yourself off from all other gods.
Jump to the New Testament and particularly to Paul. I know we like to think that Paul was the great innovator; but with this background, we can see that he was simply forwarding what the Old Testament prophets had already said. Circumcision was not simply a physical act. If it wasn’t combined with a real spiritual surrender, it was worthless. Listen to what Paul says in Romans 2 (and tell me you could not hear Jeremiah saying these exact same words). Paul says (Rom. 2:28-29):
“A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.”
Again, note who does the circumcising here. It is only by the Spirit (and we are back to Deuteronomy 30!) and that means circumcision of the heart is a spiritual act (that’s right, sing it with me: “let’s get spiritual, spiritual”).
All of this, then, leads Paul to make his classic circumcision trilogy that cuts circumcision almost entirely out of the picture. In 1 Corinthians 7 (19) he writes: “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.” And in Galatians 5:6 he says: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” And in Galatians 6:15, he declares: “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.” In other words, physical circumcision is irrelevant. The spiritual aspect, however, is everything. So, again, “Let’s get spiritual, spiritual!”
It’s clear at this point that we are leaving the physical sign and moving on to the greener pastures of a deeper spirituality. But remember, God’s original design was both a physical and spiritual sign and God really likes physicality (for proof, look at your body, look at the bread and the wine and look at the incarnation). So, let’s not forget to “get physical, physical.”
And that brings us back to Colossians 2. Paul writes (11-12):
“In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.”
Let me just say at the outset that this passage is full of surprises. In fact, Paul starts off with a doozy and says, “you were also circumcised” which must have been a shock to the Gentile men in the crowd, to say nothing of all the women. And it must have been doubly so for Paul’s opponents in Colossae who were arguing frantically that, to be fully accepted into the church, one must be circumcised (Imagine the fun saying to these cut-rate Judaizers: “Surprise! Paul says we already are circumcised!”). Second surprise: this circumcision, like in Deuteronomy 30 and Romans 2 wasn’t performed by human hands. The prophecy of “heart circumcision by the Spirit” in the Old Testament was being fulfilled in the New Testament. But wait, there’s more. This circumcision untouched by human hands was accomplishing far more than any physical circumcision ever did (Paul is saying, “your whole self which was ruled by the flesh has been cut off—your whole sinful self!”). Third surprise: This spiritual circumcision by Christ wasn’t accomplished when we made a profession of faith (a spiritual profession), or in God’s election (a spiritual decision), or when we were incorporated into Jesus (a spiritual act), but in our baptism (a physical act)! Scot McKnight in his book, It Takes a Church to Baptize (Get it, it’s great) writes: “The physical-now-spiritual ritual of circumcision has become the physical-now-spiritual act of baptism.”
When Paul connects circumcision and baptism in this fashion, he is making a profound statement: what was true about circumcision, is now true about baptism, except like all things fulfilled in Christ, they are made even more glorious. The physical-spiritual rite of the Old Testament has been expanded in baptism to include men and women (which, by the way, is another huge piece of evidence proving the end of patriarchy). And baptism not only sets us apart as God’s people as circumcision did, but it speaks far more powerfully of our sonship, since we have all been incorporated into Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. And our baptism pictures a greater forgiveness, a greater redemption and a greater savior. And if baptism is greater than its’ Old Testament counterpart, then it has to include children of believing parents because baptism never loses any of its Old Testament corresponding benefits (but it certainly expands and glorifies them).
Okay, let’s review (You can help by singing the appropriate lyrics be they “physical” or “spiritual”). In Abraham, circumcision was both gloriously physical and spiritual. The two were equal and you couldn’t have one without the other. But over time, Israel mislaid the spiritual aspect. And so, when Israel finally went apostate, circumcision became a meaningless physical act (it signified nothing other than ethnicity). But then, the prophets tried to restore the spiritual aspect to the physical act; and while this took hold in the remnant, it never was widespread. Israel, generally speaking, remained cut off from God. But then, Christ comes and inaugurates the New Covenant. And under the New Covenant, physical circumcision became meaningless again because the only thing that mattered was the new creation (Gal. 6:15 — “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation”). And suddenly, we think we’re going full bore spiritual, “no turning back, no turning back.” And so, we start to read about how physical circumcision was now being replaced by a spiritual circumcision and done by Christ. And that seems to confirm our inclination: from here on out, it’s all spiritual all the time! But then in a surprising twist, Paul says that circumcision is also replaced by baptism so that God’s original design of a spiritual-physical sign would be instituted once again. And by having baptism replace circumcision, the glory of Abraham’s sign is restored and made even more spectacular than we thought possible! God’s original gift has been given to us; and it is even more magnificent in scope, in breadth and in glory. In other words, baptism swallows up circumcision with all of its meaning and purposes and promises and makes it a new creation ordinance. And if baptism and circumcision are now seen as prophecy and fulfillment, then baptism must welcome children as part of the covenant community. Let’s face it, baptism is far superior in every way. It shines with new creation glory, a glory that weds together the physical and the spiritual into one. In short, when comparing circumcision with baptism, we can now unambiguously point to baptism and say: “You’re the one that I want (ooh-ooh-ooh).”
Does that raise even more questions? Of course, it does! But we will deal with them with greased lightnin’ speed next week.