Baptism into Christ’s circumcision (Col. 2:11-12)

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 actwith 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 inheritanceYet, 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 handsthat 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.

Conclusion

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

Participating in the Lord’s Supper

It is commonly accepted that if we claim something to be true about someone or something, we must be able to prove it.  The bigger the claim, the more evidence required and the stricter the process of verification.  For instance, an immigrations officer is not just going to just accept your word about your citizenship; he’ll want proof.  A criminal court is not going to acquit you without evidence that dispels reasonable doubts about your innocence.

There is no greater claim than to profess to be a follower of Jesus Christ.  While it is true that believing in the gospel is ultimately a matter of individual decision and only God knows the heart of man, the Christian life is not an individual and private affair.  Rather, our lives as disciples of Christ unfold in the context of the church: under the leadership of its officers and in fellowship with other believers.  The church is that one place in which our claims to faith and godliness are both tested and strengthened according to the Word of God through God’s appointed means.

In the sermon this morning, I would like to explain from God’s Word why good church governance insists that our claims to faith and a godly life require examination by the elders before we can come to the Lord’s Supper.  The Supper is that special time when the church family congregates togetherunified in faith and in life in the gospel – to receive God’s life-giving grace in the body and blood of Christ.  The Lord’s Supper is the clearest sign of the certainty of God’s forgiveness of us revealed in his Word.

Proper church governance

The book of Titus is one place in which we see God setting forth the protective and nurturing role of the church for the good of Christians.  In Titus 1:5, Paul writes to the young church-planter, Titus, on the island of Crete: “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you…”  Paul goes on to say that ministers and elders are to be appointed by the church only once they meet certain requirements.  For instance, a person may claim to be called by God to be a minister, but the church must weigh the evidence for this through various objective tests relative to his learning and life.

To claim to be called to be an elder is a very serious thingQualified and ordained ministers and elders are entrusted with the weighty responsibility of judging the claims and lives of those under their care: both those who are already members and visitors.

Now, Scripture imposes no conditions on anyone who wants to hear the gospel preached.  There are no requirements to fill a chair in the church.  However, when someone claims faith in Jesus, the Word of God teaches that the person must become part of the visible church and submit to her ministry.  Why?  Because God has chosen to work through the means of the church to communicate salvation to his people.  It is by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the public means of the Word preached and the sacraments administered that God ordinarily saves sinners and strengthens the faith of Christians.  Contrary to the rampant individualism and anti-authoritarianism of our age, the Word teaches that there is no such thing as having God for your father without having the church for your mother.

However, to become a member of the visible church and enjoy the benefits she offers – like the Lord’s Supper – requires that certain conditions be met.

Baptism: the sign and seal of our entrance into the church

Even though a person may indeed be a part of God’s saving kingdom by faith, God nevertheless still requires certain things of us if we want to join the church.  For those who have not grown up in the church, God commands that they receive the mark of baptism.  At the end of his sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2, Peter proclaims to the masses: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Nevertheless, the wisdom of good church governance teaches that before the mark of baptism is applied, the elders must examine the individual’s claim to faith.  Therefore, ordinarily, the elders spend a period of time ensuring that the new convert understands and believes the basic truths of the Bible.  Once church leadership is satisfied that this has happened, the new Christian will then make a public profession of faith before the church and receive the sacrament of baptism.

In the case of children of at least one believing parent, they too are to receive the sign of baptism.  But only once it has been determined by the elders that at least one parent or guardian makes a credible profession of faith as a member of good standing in the church.

The point that I am trying to make is that like other aspects of church governance, the administration of the sign of baptism entails a degree of elder oversight and care.  Why?  Because baptism is that rite of passage into the visible church, which carries with it various profound benefits and obligations for those who receive it.  For the ordained church officers, baptism, and church membership that comes with it, are the objective means by which they can best determine who is inside or outside the visible church.  In Hebrews 13:9, we read that church leaders are those who are charged with keeping watch over our souls and will one day give an account to God for this.  Therefore, membership is that form of church governance that helps elders determine – though imperfectly – who are under their care.  Church discipline and excommunication assumes that elders have some way of knowing who belongs to the visible church (cf. Matthew 16-18).

The Lord’s Supper: effectual grace for members of the church

In light of what we now know about the care involved in church governance and how it functions with regard to baptism, how then do we approach the important matter of giving and receiving the second sacrament instituted by Christ, the Lord’s SupperFirst off, we must understand that the Lord’s Supper, like baptism, never acts independently from the Word preached.  Rather they both communicate grace that confirms God’s promise of salvation.  While baptism is a once off sacrament, the Lord’s Supper is God’s means of assuring and strengthening our faith throughout our Christian life.

In 1 Cor 11:27-32, Paul is clear that there is definite individual aspect to partaking of the Lord’s Supper.  Here he exhorts us to examine ourselves before partaking of the bread and wine, lest we do so in an unworthy manner and eat and drink judgment upon ourselves.  Basically, this means that in order to come to the Table, we must have repented of our sins and be trusting in Christ alone for salvation.  We should also have an understanding that Christ is indeed mysteriously present in the Lord’s Supper by the Holy Spirit for the good of our faith.  (This individual element of examination is one of the reasons why infants may not partake of Communion.  They must wait until they can consciously exercise faith.)

The historic Reformed tradition has not, however, kept examination merely to the individual level.  Why?  Because Scripture affirms that the Lord’s Supper is ultimately a family meal for the body of Christ: it is a corporate celebration.  In 1 Cor 10:16-17, Paul writes: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?  The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?  Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”  Later in 1 Cor.12 Paul writes about the church as being one body with many parts.  In verse 26, he states: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”

Just as it is detrimental to the whole church to allow someone entrance into the visible church who does not qualify, so too is it damaging to allow someone to the Table who does not meet the criteria I just mentioned.  It is therefore the responsibility of the elders to guard the Table by only allowing those who make a credible profession of faith and who are known to lead a godly life.

Participating in the Lord’s Supper

Things, however, become more complicated when it comes to serving the Lord’s Supper in a church plant like this one today.  No doubt, we rejoice at having many regular attendees and visitors who are from various church backgrounds outside of the Reformed Churches or no church background at all.  The difficulty with this situation, however, is for us elders to verify your claim to faith through any other way than a time of teaching and careful examinationWhy?  Because, unfortunately, as far as we can tell there is a serious lack of consistent evidence of Biblical teaching and practice in the broader church today.

This is not to say that we believe there are no churches or no true believers outside of the Reformed Churches of South Africa (God forbid!).  We are not the ones to ultimately make this judgment.  But the sad reality is that based on what we can discern from a human perspective, there are too many social gatherings that claim to be churches which lack the marks of a true church.  These marks are the pure preaching of the Word, the faithfulness administration of the sacraments and the due exercise of church discipline (cf. Belgic Confession 29).

Often one cannot even tell what a church believes because they have no substantive confession of faith.  In other cases, a church has a confession in name only and in reality it has little bearing on the governance of the church.  It is all too common today to find the preaching of the gospel replaced with moral pep talks and humorous stories.  Instead of the sacraments representing God’s action in grace towards us, they are turned into our testimony of obedience to him.  Instead of elders exercising discipline by paying careful attention to what their people believe and how they are living it out through church membership, their energies are diverted to more “so-called” noble causes.  The result is that God’s grace is routinely replaced with human works, and the gospel confused with the law.

How, then, can we as responsible elders have confidence that people coming out of such churches are ready to come to the Lord’s Table without our further pastoral examination and care?  How do we know that such churches have indeed prepared Christians adequately to wisely approach the Lord’s Supper?

All this to say, I hope you are beginning to have some appreciation for why the elders overseeing this church plant have chosen to ordinarily accept only those who are members in good standing of one of the Reformed Churches in South Africa.  There is unfortunately no perfect system in guarding the Lord’s Table this side of heaven.  This is our best attempt to be faithful to the Word of God.

If you are someone who is worshipping with us from another church background – again – we are glad to have you!  God welcomes you.  God extends his promise of forgiveness to you in Christ.  Please understand that by not allowing you to sit around the Table this morning, we are not saying that you are not a true Christian or you are not from a true church.  Only God knows.  However, because we take God’s Word seriously, and therefore church governance seriously, we ask you to wait until you become a member of a Reformed church before you enjoy this benefit with us.  Some of you are already in the process of taking membership classes in anticipation of joining us at the Table next time.  I hope that what has been preached this morning will encourage others to join us as well.  Lord willing, the next time the Supper is served here, you too can be eating and drinking with us.

For those of us who do get to partake this morning, let us be thankful that we are members of church in which the elders care about our claims to faith and godliness.  Let us remember that we approach the Table now not because of anything inherently good in us, but out of the goodness of our God who sent his Son to pay the penalty for our sins.  If you have repented of your sins and are trusting in Jesus, come now and receive God’s grace, which is confirmation of this Word that has been preached.  Amen.