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Studies on Baptism

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith


The relationship between circumcision and baptism is usually treated as a subdivision of the question of infant baptism. It ought to be the other way around. Baptism is a covenantal ceremony. We must first discover the meaning of a covenantal ceremony in general, then seek to understand the meaning of that particular ceremony in the old covenant which finds its fulfillment in the new. In our last chapter we looked in the meaning of covenantal ceremonies by considering Adam and Eve in the Garden. Now we are prepared to discus the far more controversial and theologically significant question of circumcision.

Circumcision In The Abrahamic Covenant

God appeared to Abram and renewed the promise of the covenant (Gen 17:1ff). He gave Abram and Sarai new names, Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 17:5, 15), and promised that she would bear a child in about one year (Gen. 17:21). At this time also God first commanded Abraham concerning the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, circumcision:

This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; every man child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant. (Gen. 17:10-14)

There are at least four important points to be noted. First, the sign of the covenant, which is so important that it can be identified with the covenant itself (17:10), is related to the birth of the seed. In essence, Abraham is commanded to cut off the flesh that inhibits the coming of the Seed. Just as the shame of sin was concentrated in the sexual organs at the time of the fall (Gen. 3:7), the sinfulness of man that inhibits the blessing of God is symbolically removed by cutting off the foreskin in circumcision.

Second, this means that circumcision is a bloody sacrifice of sorts, as many other ceremonies in the old covenant. Cutting off the flesh symbolized the removal of the "old Adam" so that the covenant people could bear fruit. Having removed the flesh which hindered God's blessing, Abraham is able to become the father of the promised seed.

Third, circumcision, as the sign of the covenant, distinguishes who is and who is not a member of Abraham's household (17:12, 14) and thus must be given to sons at the age of eight days (17:12).

Fourth, daughters are not mentioned in this passage. Though they are not circumcised, they are still members of the household, who can even inherit land under certain circumstances (cf. Num. 36). Apparently they are regarded as being representatively circumcised through their brothers or perhaps their fathers.

It is a gross distortion of the meaning of circumcision to suggest that it merely brought the external blessings of the covenant. The entire old covenant--identified by some with the Old Testament--is not infrequently considered "material" in contrast with the "spiritual" nature of the new covenant. This approach, however, not only divides the Bible into two books with two different kinds of religion, it undermines the Biblical doctrine of creation. God's world is created good. The material world is not the source of sin, nor does it tempt men to sin. The material versus spiritual antithesis is not a Biblical antithesis, but a non-Christian one that cannot be reconciled with the Biblical doctrine of creation.

Circumcision as the sign of the covenant initiates the recipient into the Abrahamic covenant. Until one receives the sign of the covenant, he is not an officially recognized member of the covenant community. Needless to say, this does not entail the idea that old covenant sons who died before the eighth day were not saved because they had not been officially included in the covenant. Salvation in the old covenant was not limited to the circumcised. Apart from Jewish women who were saved without circumcision, there is also the example of gentile adults who could become true believers with no obligation to receive circumcision at all. Melchizedek was certainly a Christian, but not circumcised. The "God-fearers" that the book of Acts speaks of were gentiles who believed in the God of Israel, but who did not receive the sign of the covenant. Circumcision, like the Abrahamic covenant itself, did not equal salvation; it was a ceremonial introduction into the Abrahamic priestly race, the covenant people who were to be the channel of salvation to all the world.

Circumcision and the New Covenant

When the new covenant comes, however, the meaning of circumcision changes. On the one hand, since it is an old covenant rite, it no longer signifies membership in the priestly covenant nation (cf. Gal. 5:2-6). True circumcision, according to Paul, is heart circumcision (Rom. 2:25-29), which is also no doubt what the Abrahamic covenant sought (cf. Rom. 4:10ff). Paul can even use circumcision to describe the transition from wrath to grace: "In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses" (Col. 2:11, 13).

Whereas under the old covenant circumcision is the rite of entering the priestly nation--not equated with salvation for Abraham was saved long before he was circumcised (Rom. 4:9ff.)--under the new covenant spiritual circumcision is associated with the reception of salvation (Col 2:11ff.). What has happened is a change in the covenant. In the old covenant era priesthood and salvation were distinguished. In the covenant with Abraham, gentiles could be saved, but they could not come near to God, unless they had been granted a special priesthood like that of Melchizedek. In ancient Israel the Levites had special privilege, but not so great as the family of Aaron. Israelites, Levites, and the family of Aaron are all priests in some sense. But Gentiles are not. They may be saved, but they cannot approach God's throne.

The complex priestly system of the old covenant is done away in the new. In the new covenant all members of the covenant are priests, whether they are Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, receive the new covenant equivalent of circumcision, baptism:

"For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise." (Gal. 3:26-29).

When Paul says that Jews and Greeks, bond and free, male and female are all one in Christ, he does not mean that all biological, social, or even theological distinctions between these groups disappear. Christian men do not begin to bear children. Slaves do not automatically become free when they profess faith. And when Paul goes from city to city, he continues to follow the rule, "to the Jew first, and also to the Greek." But all--Jews, Greeks, men, women, slaves and free--are heirs of Abraham, kings and priests in God's kingdom (1 Pet. 2:5, 9). Baptism, then, is offered to all. It is their official induction into the priesthood.

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