What does your baptism mean to you? In the early church, baptism was taken very seriously. It was not uncommon for new converts to Christianity – known as “Catechumens” – to spend up to three years learning the fundamentals of the faith before being baptised into God’s covenant community. Unfortunately, in the church today baptism has lost much of its importance and significance. For many, it is a just a distant memory of “something” that Jesus did. That “something” is often unclear. The fact that believers today at times get baptised over and over again is evidence of the misunderstanding surrounding this sacrament. Like the Lord’s Supper, baptism can be for many churches an uncomfortable and confusing ritual at best.
But is this Paul’s perspective on baptism? Not if the book of Colossians is anything to go by! According to the Apostle, baptism belongs right in the thick of our understanding of what it means to be a Christian. In Chapter 1, the Colossian Christians have just heard a soaring description of the all-sufficiency and preeminence of Jesus Christ as creator and redeemer of the world. In Col. 1:24-2:8 Paul shares how he is willing to gladly suffer as a follower of Christ and a minister of the gospel. And then he encourages the Christians at Colossae to stand firm in Jesus in the face of false teaching that would exchange the liberty of the gospel for slavery to human works.
It is in the midst of this struggle of faith that Paul directs our attention to salvation in Christ and its sign and seal, which is our baptism. In Col. 2:11-15, Paul shows how the reality of Christ’s death and the sign of baptism are intimately connected – in fact, for those of faith they mysteriously become one. In our passage, Paul teaches that in baptism we have come to share in Christ’s circumcision death at the cross, which has brought us forgiveness of our sins and new life. Baptism is God’s badge of ownership of us in Christ.
God’s promise of salvation and circumcision
In the beginning of our passage in Col. 2:11, Paul uses another “in Him/in Christ” statement, which signals that he is about to tell us more about what it means to be united to Jesus by faith. 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.” Now to understand Paul’s reference to circumcision here – which will also help with our understanding of baptism – we need some familiarity with its OT symbolic and theological meaning. Generally speaking, circumcision was a bloody cutting off of the male foreskin that signified entrance into God’s covenant community (OT church). The physical act “with hands” had no power to save. But rather the external sign of circumcision pointed to a person’s participation, by faith, in the spiritual realities of God’s salvation. In other words, it confirmed God’s promise of salvation made to Abraham in the early chapters of Genesis. Circumcision was in the OT the sign and seal of the covenant of grace.
In Gn 15 God makes an unconditional or unilateral covenant with the patriarch Abraham. Out of his eternal love, God makes an oath-bound promise to give Abraham an innumerable offspring with a land as an inheritance. Yet, while God’s promise of redemption is a free gift from Abraham’s standpoint, it still had to cost someone: blood still had to be shed. Remember that in Gen 3:15 God prophesies that salvation will come through the seed of the woman – the seed of Abraham – who will one day crush the head of the serpent, Satan. But the seed of the woman will suffer in the process. Why? Because in order for God’s holy justice to be satisfied, the moral problem of human sin must be dealt with. And this is what circumcision was supposed to teach Abraham and is illustrated for us in the peculiar ritual recorded for us in Gn 15.
Here we read that God confirmed or signed in blood his covenant promise to Abraham by passing through the bloodied bodies of a goat, ram, turtledove and pigeon cut in two. By walking through the pathway of severed animal halves in dark of night God was swearing to be cursed if he did not keep his promise made to Abraham. But it was also meant to confirm – like the sign of circumcision – that God would indeed be the one who would suffer the curse for sin in order to make his promise in Gen. 3:15 and to Abraham come true. In other words, what we have in Gen. 15 is God’s covenant with Abraham and his offspring to walk the way of the Cross.
Two chapters later, in Gn 17, God makes the covenant of circumcision with Abraham. Here, God makes such an intimate connection between circumcision and the promise of salvation, which it symbolised, that God calls circumcision “the covenant” – in fact he calls it “an everlasting covenant in your flesh.” This teaches us that circumcision was inseparable from God’s covenant of grace. This is why we call circumcision the sign and seal of the covenant. It was supposed to teach Israel and confirm to them God’s sworn oath to save his people from their sins, which would one day be fulfilled in Messiah.
Now, consider for a moment the physical act of circumcision itself. Israelite circumcision involved the pain and bloody mess of cutting away part of the male reproductive organ. It symbolised partial judgment upon the individual, as well as the need for further and ultimate bloody judgment involving the whole person. Yes, circumcision signified separation from the world unto God, but more importantly the need for complete purification from sin. But, again, there is that big problem, isn’t there? Sinful man can neither purify himself nor endure God’s fiery judgment.
Consider the striking illustration of this fact in Gen. 22 where God keeps Abraham from sacrificing his son, Isaac, on the altar. Why? Because not even the cutting off of Isaac’s entire life could secure the promise made to Abraham. Not even the son of righteous Abraham was holy enough. Instead, God provided the substitute of a Ram caught in the thicket.
In fact, throughout the OT we see that Israel was made to feel her impotence and powerlessness in the face of God’s call to purity and obedience. For example, in Deut 10:16, God admonishes Israel: “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer be stubborn.” However, Israel could neither change her heart nor remove the stain of sin; she could not produce the spiritual reality symbolised in physical circumcision! Therefore in Deut 30:6, we find God’s promise that he alone would one day act, single-handedly,“[He] The Lord will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”
Our circumcision in Christ’s death
And, how has God fulfilled this promise? He has acted in his Son. Our hearts have been circumcised and our sins been washed away through the blood of Jesus
Therefore, beloved, to be “in him” – to be united to Jesus by faith – is to have the “circumcision made without hands” that Paul speaks of in Col. 2:11. What physical circumcision with hands could not do, but only point beyond itself, God has fulfilled by cutting off his Son with his own hand of judgment! The circumcision of Jesus has put an end to OT circumcision. The partial cutting away of the flesh of the male foreskin has given way to the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus alone has met the need for bloody purifying judgment that Jewish circumcision cried out for.
Jesus became like the bloody dismembered animal parts, and God has passed through them in flaming judgment on a cruel Roman cross. Jesus became the substitute ram caught in the thicket. He was burned on the altar of God’s judgment to make purification for our sins. In his Son, God has made purification for sin, once and for all: by “putting off the sinful nature or body of flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.” Brothers and sisters, the wonder of faith is that together with Jesus we have entered the passageway of death and judgment for our covenant breaking for our sin, only to exit safely on the other side: dead to sin and resurrected to new life.
This sounds a lot like what Paul says elsewhere about baptism, doesn’t it?
Our baptism into Christ’s death
Notice how Paul continues his line of thought on circumcision in v11 and connects it to baptism in v12. Notice how in the same sentence on circumcision – in the same breath – Paul introduces baptism.
Like circumcision, water baptism also symbolises the passageway of purification from sin through judgment and death. In 1 Peter 3, baptism is likened to Noah’s ark passing through the floodwaters of God’s judgment. In 1 Cor 10, the Israelites are described as having participated in the baptism of the Red Sea in which the pursuing wicked Egyptians were put to death. In Luke 12, Jesus speaks of his impending death on the cross as his baptism.
Now, here in Col 2:12, Paul tells the Colossian Christians that their participation in the circumcision death of Christ also means their “having been buried with him in baptism.” Like circumcision for OT Israel, Christian baptism also signifies our undergoing God’s judgment in Christ’s death.
Do you see it? Circumcision and baptism point to the same spiritual realities. At the cross, circumcision and baptism overlap in the bloody judgment of God’s only begotten Son.
In Christ’s circumcision death, the centuries of partial bloodletting in physical circumcision came to an end with the floodgate of Christ’s atoning blood. The OT sign of circumcision has been replaced with baptism as the NT sign of entry into the covenant community, the church. The eternal life through death that bloody circumcision pointed forward to, the non-bloody sign of baptism points back to in Jesus Christ. Our baptism teaches us that God’s salvation promise to Abraham has been fulfilled through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is why Paul can go on to say in v12b that not only does baptism represent our dying with Christ to sin, but our “also being raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” For Christ did not remain under the power of death, but overcame it, and therefore so have we.
Beloved, our baptism is the Spirit’s constant reminder to us that our life is found in Jesus and not us. For no amount of good deeds, no matter how rigorous or impressive, can add to or replace God’s redemption of us in Christ. This is the gospel truth we must believe, even when others tempt us and our own hearts tell us that God needs our good works in order to forgive us of our sins.
The thing is that according to Paul in v13, we are spiritually dead in and of ourselves because of our sinful nature. But God in his mercy has made us alive together with Jesus by canceling our infinite debt to God created by sin. Through Jesus, our record of obligation to God created by the law has been done away with. It has been nailed to the cross. In exchange for our record of death, we have received a place in the Lamb’s book life.
So, beloved, when you are tempted to doubt your salvation, remember the significance of your baptism into the death and the resurrection life of Jesus. For in baptism, everything that Jesus has earned has become ours by faith. In Jesus, we have overcome sin, death and hell. In Jesus, we reign triumphant over every God-hating ruler and authority in this present evil age. With Jesus, we will one day rule the world in heavenly glory. May God grant us the grace to keep on coming back to out baptism until Christ returns. Amen.
RCSS morning service, March 10, 2013