6. Does Water Baptism Replace Circumcision?

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1 Bible Doctrines: Baptism 6. Does Water Baptism Replace Circumcision? By Dr. Paul M. Elliott From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase Part 6 of a series. Read part 5. The position on baptism presented in this series is the author's personal doctrinal position, and is not part of TTW's official doctrinal statement. Water baptism signifies membership not in a visible body composed of believers and unbelievers, but in the invisible Church composed of believers only. For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the Spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh. (Philippians 3:3) The second premise underlying the paedobaptist position states that baptism with water in the New Covenant is the direct replacement of physical circumcision in the Old Covenant, and that both circumcision and baptism are signs and seals of membership in a visible community. The text most often cited as the foundation of this premise (along with alleged "good and necessary inference" from Acts 2:38-41) is Colossians 2:9-12: For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power. In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. "Sign" and "Seal" In discussing this passage, paedobaptist theologians speak of both Old Covenant circumcision and New Covenant baptism as a "sign" and "seal" of the covenant. They often cite Romans 4:11 as a proof-text regarding circumcision: 1

2 And he [Abraham] received the sign [semeion, mark or token] of circumcision, a seal [sphragida, confirmation or authentication] of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised... It is true that circumcision is called a "sign" of the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 17:11). But it is never called the "seal" of it. In Romans 4:11, which is the only place Scripture uses the term "seal" in relation to circumcision, it declares circumcision to be "a seal of the righteousness of the faith which [Abraham] had yet being uncircumcised." In other words, circumcision was not a seal of physical membership in the Abrahamic Covenant, but of Abraham's personal saving faith. Furthermore, Romans 4:11-12 goes on to say that circumcision was a seal of Abraham's saving faith in order that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised. And as we saw in the previous article, Galatians, Romans, and Hebrews all declare that it is believers who are the true seed of Abraham - not believers and their infant children. Likewise, Scripture never calls baptism the "seal" of the New Covenant. The seal of the New Covenant, already evident from Acts 2:38-41, is the regenerating, indwelling Holy Spirit: In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the Gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, Who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory. (Ephesians 1:13-14) 2

3 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. (Ephesians 4:30) Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us is God, who also has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee. (2 Corinthians 1:21-22) For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God. (Romans 2:28-29) What Is the "Circumcision of Christ"? In Colossians 2:9-12, Paul explains to his primarily Gentile readers that they are complete in Christ (pepleromenoi, fully furnished in every particular, lacking nothing that is necessary). They do not need to be physically circumcised, as the Judaizers would require, because they have been "circumcised with the circumcision made without hands" which is "the circumcision of Christ." This raises the question: What is the circumcision of Christ that they had already received? Here again we must look to the Greek grammar and syntax. The words translated "of Christ" (tou Christou) are in the genitive case. In context, those words could legitimately be interpreted either as referring to Christ's death as a circumcision, or as referring to the circumcision of the believer's heart by the Holy Spirit because of Christ's work. Since no other passage speaks of Christ's death as a circumcision, but several others speak of true salvation as involving circumcision of the heart, clearly the latter is correct. But in any case, these words cannot be legitimately interpreted to mean a physical circumcision in any sense. Either of these grammatically legitimate interpretations focuses on the preeminence of the saving Christ, which is Paul's theme throughout 3

4 Colossians, as well as the benefits of Christ's death and resurrection for the saints. Because of Christ's death, the Colossian believers had received a better circumcision than the Judaizers insisted upon. Let me offer a slightly expanded rendering: They received that better circumcision in the putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the [heart] circumcision [that is yours because] of Christ, buried with Him in [the figure of] baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. Paedobaptists may say, "Yes, but this passage does establish linkage between physical circumcision and water baptism, and therefore establishes them as direct counterparts." But is Paul in fact referring to water baptism as the counterpart of circumcision? The answer is no. Furthermore, the circumcision of which Paul speaks is "made without hands." No human hand administers it, either by the Jewish mohel's knife or by the waters of baptism. New Covenant "circumcision" is through Christ's death. Baptisma and Baptizo in the New Testament What, then, of the "baptism" of which Paul speaks in verse 12? It is not a physical baptism. Now perhaps some of my readers are thinking, "Well, Paul does use the word 'baptism' in verse 12. How can it mean anything but water baptism? And if it does not mean water baptism, then just what does it mean?" To answer those very important questions, first of all we need to understand the meaning of the Greek word that is translated "baptism" in verse 12. The Greek word is baptisma. The word in English is merely a transliteration of the word in Greek. When English-speakers think of baptism, the first thing we usually think of is water. But the Greek word baptisma, in and of itself, has nothing to do with water. It is not limited to water. Baptisma can mean "immersion" or "submersion" or "a placing into" something 4

5 or "an overwhelming" by something. But in the Greek language the word is not limited to "immersion" or "submersion" or "a placing into" physical water. It can also signify an "immersion" or a "submersion" or "a placing into" something other than water, something that need not be physical, such as placement into a state or a situation. The meaning of the word baptisma in the New Testament always depends upon the context in which the word is used. Sound Biblical interpretation demands close attention to context. With these facts in mind, we can examine the specific ways that the noun baptisma and the verb form baptizo are used in the New Testament. Of course baptisma and baptizo are used many times in the New Testament to mean water baptism. We have the various references to John's baptism of preparation for the coming of Messiah, in the Gospels and in the book of Acts. We also find many places where the word refers to Christian baptism, which is based on Jesus' Great Commission: "Go therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19). However, there are other uses of baptisma and baptizo in the New Testament that have nothing to do with water baptism. Let us briefly examine three very important examples of this. The first is in First Corinthians 10:2. Paul tells us that the Israelites in the wilderness were all "baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea." The "cloud" speaks of the cloudy pillar, the visible presence of God, that led the Israelites under Moses through the wilderness. The "sea" speaks of the Red Sea. It speaks of the passage of the children of Israel between the parted waters of the Red Sea on dry land. Notice carefully what Paul says in First Corinthians 10:2. He says that the Israelites were "baptized into Moses." They were, literally, "placed into Moses." However, the context tells us that this had nothing to do with water baptism. 5

6 What does this signify? It signifies the fact that the people of Israel were placed into that kind of a close and intimate union with Moses in the eyes of God, so that they all passed through the Red Sea on dry land with Moses, and they were all led by the cloud through the wilderness with Moses. The identity and relationship between Moses and the children of Israel was that close, that intimate. A second passage where baptisma is used without any connection to water baptism is in Mark chapter 10, beginning at verse 35: Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to [Jesus], saying, "Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask." And He said to them, "What do you want Me to do for you?" They said to Him, "Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" What is the "baptism" of which Jesus spoke here? Clearly, once again, the context tells us that it is not physical baptism with water. Jesus had already been baptized by John at the beginning of His public ministry. So what is the meaning of baptisma here? We find the answer in Jesus' own statement. Notice that He speaks of "drinking the cup that I drink" and then He gives the parallel statement of being "baptized with the baptism I am baptized with." Both the "cup" and the "baptism" that Jesus speaks of are His sufferings. What did Jesus say to the Father when He prayed in the garden of Gethsemane? He said, "Father, let this cup" - the cup of Your wrath against sin - "pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will" (Matthew 26:39). Jesus is saying to His disciples, literally, "Are you disciples able to experience the suffering for sin that I am going to experience - total immersion into the full force of My 6

7 Father's wrath?" And for emphasis, Jesus uses the words "baptism" and "baptize" not once, but three times. As in 1 Corinthians 10:2, clearly this baptism has nothing to do with immersion in water. Yet a third example is perhaps the most significant for a proper understanding of Paul's use of the word "baptism" in Colossians 2:12. In First Corinthians chapter 12, Paul sets forth the doctrine of the church as the Body of Christ. He says this: For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit [God the Holy Spirit] we were all baptized into one body - whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free - and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many. (1 Corinthians 12:12-14) What is Paul saying here? The context tells us that he is not speaking of water baptism. If Paul were saying that, he would be saying that water baptism saves sinners - places them in the true Body of Christ. Scripture emphatically teaches that this is not the case. But Paul is not speaking here of being placed into water. He is speaking of being baptisma-ed, or placed into, one body - the body of Christ, the true church of Jesus Christ. How has that come about? Not by physical baptism with water, but by the work of the Spirit of God, who places believers in Christ in the body of Christ, which is His true Church, the invisible Church comprising believers only. It is placement into New Covenant membership. What Does It Mean to be "Buried With Christ in Baptism"? With all of this in mind, we come back now to our question: What is Paul speaking of when he uses the word "baptism" in Colossians 2:12? Paul says that believers have been "buried with Christ in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead." Literally, Paul is saying, you "have 7

8 been entombed together with Christ in the immersion [the baptisma] in which you also were raised together [from the tomb] with Him through the faith of the working of God who raised Him from the dead." There is no water in this picture. But there is a Cross in this picture. There is a tomb in this picture. There is a resurrection in this picture. We are in Christ. Paul repeats that thought five times in these verses. Our identity with Christ is so close, so intimate, that in the eyes of God we were crucified with Christ, we were placed into the tomb with Christ, and we were raised from death to life with Christ. Our crucifixion with Christ was the "circumcision made without hands" of Colossians 2:11, the circumcision that stripped away the body of the sins of the flesh, releasing us from the bondage of sin. Our burial with Christ made possible our being raised from the dead with Christ "through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead," according to verse 12. "You," Paul says in verse 13, "being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He [God the Father] has made alive together with Him [with Jesus Christ], having forgiven you all your trespasses..." This is how our salvation was accomplished. Now, how is that salvation applied to individuals? We have the answer in a statement that Jesus made to His disciples: "John indeed baptized with water," He said, "but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 11:16). Paul says the same thing in 1 Corinthians 12:13: "For by one Spirit [God the Holy Spirit] we were all baptized into [placed into] one body" - the body of Christ, the true church of Jesus Christ. This is not water baptism. It is Spirit baptism. We must be very careful to maintain the clear and definite distinction that Scripture maintains between water baptism and Spirit baptism. In First Corinthians 1:17 Paul says this: "For Christ did not send me to baptize, 8

9 but to preach the Gospel." What is Paul saying? He is making it very clear that water baptism is not part of the Gospel. Water baptism saves no one. Spirit baptism is the way in which God applies Christ's saving work to sinners. This is the distinction that the Bible makes. If you do not maintain that distinction, you enter a dangerous realm. If you embrace any teaching that says that water baptism has a saving effect in any sense - if you say that water baptism saves someone, or signifies God's promise to save someone, or allows us to presume that someone is saved - then dear friend, you enter Hell-bound territory. Scripture makes a clear distinction between God's work of salvation when we are baptized with the Spirit, and our act of testimony to that work of God within us when we are baptized with water. The very next verses, Colossians 2:13-14, confirm this fact. They define those who have received "the circumcision of Christ" as those who have actually been regenerated and pardoned by God, though they were once dead in sins and subject to the unclean desires of the sinful flesh - And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. The True New Testament Antitype Viewing the Old Testament record through the New Testament lens brings these facts into crystal-clear focus: Salvation by faith, through regeneration by the Holy Spirit, is the antitype that fulfills the Old Testament type. The believer's circumcision of the heart fulfills the figure of Abraham's circumcision of the flesh. Water baptism testifies publicly to a believer's already-effected union with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection, 9

10 which is by faith (Colossians 2:11-13, Romans 6:3-4). Such saving faith cannot be exercised by an infant or a child who has not yet come to years of understanding. In summary: Colossians 2:9-12, in the light of both the immediate context and language, and the light of other Scriptures, declares these truths: 1. Baptism with water in the New Covenant is not a direct replacement of physical circumcision in the Old Covenant. 2. Baptism with the Holy Spirit, not baptism with water, is the New Covenant seal. 3. Water baptism signifies membership not in a visible body composed of believers and unbelievers, but in the invisible Church composed of believers only. Next: Are the Children of Believing Parents Automatically "Saints"? sac Copyright TeachingtheWord Ministriesmmmmmwww.teachingtheword.org All rights reserved. This article may be reproduced in its entirety only, for non-commercial purposes, provided that this copyright notice is included. We also suggest that you include a direct hyperlink to this article for the convenience of your readers. 10

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