Well, I trust you all had a peaceful and joyful holiday break. Happy New Year to you. As 2019 gets underway, we are going to return to the message of Paul's letter to the Colossians. You will remember that we broke off our studies in Colossians just before Advent season, so please do go ahead and take a Bible in your hands, turn with me to Colossians chapter 2 - page 984 in the church Bibles. Our focus this morning will be on the words of verses 11 and 12; that's where we left off last time. Let's back up and read from verse 6 through verse 12 just to give us some context.
Paul's great concern, his burden, is to help strengthen the faith of the Colossians. The Colossians have been under some pressure from false teaching that has crept into their church. And so in verse 6, you'll see he urges them to, having received Christ, to "walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him, established in the faith, just as they had been taught." He wants them to stay with Christ and not waver. Or more negatively in verse 8, "Don't let people deceive you or lead you astray by philosophy or empty deceit." They want to drive you away from Jesus. No, stick with Christ. Christ is the center and heartbeat of his message.
And this morning here in verses 11 and 12 he's going to press, continue to press the centrality of Christ-centeredness. But he does it, if you'll notice in verse 11, by introducing a new idea that is at least new to the context of Colossians so far. He brings up the subject of circumcision. Do you see that in verse 11? "In him, you also were circumcised with the circumcision made without hands by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ." And so the issue here is, it seems, the false teachers at Colossae have been peddling a sort of amalgam of pagan and Christian and Jewish ideas. We know there had been a Jewish community in Colossae from about the second century BC, and so it seems at least here, and as you'll see later in the chapter when Paul mentions dietary restrictions and festivals and Sabbaths, that there were some at least who were urging the Colossians to embrace Jewish ceremonial ritual requirements in order to faithfully follow Jesus.
Now Paul, as we're going to see, is a master of pastoral theology. And so he is able, as he responds to that error insisting on circumcision as part of the Christian life, as he responds to that error he is able not to be diverted from his central purpose but actually to harness that discussion to further his purpose, which is to promote a Christ-centered life. In particular, in the context of this part of the chapter, he's talking about union with Christ in His death and resurrection. Believers are one with Jesus when they believe the Gospel. We are united to Him so that His death becomes our death. We die to the old life and His resurrection life gives new life to us. We are born again and given newness of life in Jesus. That's the center of Paul's concern. And as we're going to see, he will show them that circumcision points toward that Gospel reality and actually so does baptism in the new covenant era - points back to the work of Christ and to that same Gospel reality. But the focus of both, just as the focus of the whole of this letter, is on the Lord Jesus Christ in His perfect sufficiency as our only Savior and Lord.
So we’re going to read God’s Word in a moment. Let’s bow our heads first and ask for God’s help and blessing as we turn to the Scriptures. Let’s pray.
O Lord, we pray as the new year begins and as we sit together under the ministry of Your holy Word, that You would drive its truth deeply to our hearts and by it draw us once again, or perhaps for the first time, to repentance and faith, to returning and rest upon the Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
Colossians chapter 2 at the sixth verse. This is the Word of God:
“Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. 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, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”
Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.
When I was a student in art school in Dundee in the northeast of Scotland, the particular field of fine art that I studied was printmaking. So we used printmaking techniques to produce original artwork. And one of the challenges of printmaking is that the artist has to learn to think in reverse. He has to think forwards and backwards as it were. So let's imagine I am doing an engraving. I have a copper plate, I have a stylus, an implement. I'm scratching the surface of that copper plate and producing a drawing or a design of some kind onto that plate. And then ink is applied and it's passed through a printing press, an impression of made, and you have an image transferred from the copper plate onto a sheet of paper. That's the process. And of course, the image is the mirror of the image scratched onto the copper plate. And so when you're doing an engraving you have to think not only about what you're drawing but how it's going to look in reverse. You have to think forwards and backwards, do you see.
I often think the apostle Paul would make an excellent printmaker because, at least in this passage in verses 11 and 12, he shows an amazing knack for thinking forwards and backwards and he wants to help us do the same. He thinks forwards from the old covenant rite of circumcision forwards toward the reality that it spoke of which, he says, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ - His person and work and the benefits we receive in union with Him. So he thinks from the Old Testament ritual of circumcision toward the Gospel. He thinks forwards. And then in verse 12, he thinks backwards. He thinks from the present new covenant rite of baptism back toward the Gospel, to the cross, to which baptism also points us. Showing us that both circumcision and baptism alike point to the same spiritual reality - the work of Christ and the saving benefits that flow to us in union with Him. And all we’re going to try and do is to think forwards with Paul in verse 11 and backwards with him in verse 12 and try to tease out some of the implications of the teaching.
Now let me admit up front, these are among the most difficult verses in Paul’s letter to the Colossians and commentators are all over the map as they seek to provide some interpretation of them. So strap in and let’s have our thinking caps on! We’re going to have to wade through some careful unpacking of these two verses together. Let’s think about verse 11 and how Paul thinks forwards from circumcision toward the Gospel first.
He starts with circumcision. It was given, you remember, by God to our father Abraham - Genesis 17 - to be the great sign to him and all his descendants after him of His covenant promise; to be a God to him and to his children and to his children's children. That through his children all the nations of the earth would be blessed. The sign of circumcision was the sign of belonging to the church in the Old Testament, the covenant community; of being the object of the covenant promise - circumcision was the sign. Now, these false teachers at Colossae have been saying to the Colossian Christians, "Now if you really want to follow Jesus faithfully, you need to go ahead and get circumcised as well."
What’s interesting is that in verse 11 it seems Paul completely agrees. Look at verse 11. “In him,” he says, “you were circumcised.” There’s a sense in which the false teachers are absolutely right. You do indeed need to be circumcised if you’re faithfully to follow Jesus. “And Colossians, you already have been. But not with the external, physical rite of circumcision. No, you Colossian believers you have the inner spiritual reality to which that old covenant sign pointed. Yours is a circumcision,” he says, “made without hands.” That phrase is important. “Made without hands” is used everywhere in the New Testament to establish a contrast between the fleeting product of human ingenuity and human effort and the abiding work of Almighty God. So when something is made with hands it is human and passing. When it is made without hands it is the sovereign work of Almighty God.
Let me give you some examples. Jesus’ persecutors, they confusedly quote Him in Mark 14:58 says, “He said, ‘Tear down this temple that is made with hands and in three days I will build another made without hands.’” Or the martyr, Stephen, Acts chapter 7 verse 48, he reminds his hearers, “The Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands.” Or Paul himself in the companion letter to this one, Ephesians chapter 2 verse 11, he once again describes physical circumcision as “made in the flesh by hands.” So to say here that the Colossians have a circumcision not made with hands is to say they have something far greater, something superior - true circumcision performed by God Himself in the heart.
Change of Heart
And actually, that was always the meaning and the significance of circumcision from its first being given to the church in the Old Testament. It was an outward sign of a changed heart. Deuteronomy chapter 30 verse 6, Moses says, "God will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your offspring so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and you will live." So circumcision, physical circumcision was a sign of spiritual circumcision, the circumcision of the heart which involves the work of grace enabling us to love the Lord and so live. Paul says the same thing - Romans 2 verse 9, "A Jew is one inwardly and circumcision is a matter of the heart by the Spirit and not by the letter."
So are we tracking so far? Circumcision, physical circumcision was the outward sign given to God’s people in the Old Testament pointing to an inner spiritual reality available to them in those days. The circumcision of the heart, a change of heart, enabling them to love the Lord and to trust in His covenant promises. And Paul is saying here, “You Colossians, you have that inner spiritual reality already right now. Your hearts have been circumcised; you have died to the old life and you are alive to God through faith in Jesus Christ.”
How did they have it, however? Paul tells us if you look at verse 11 again. How is it that circumcision of the heart became theirs? Verse 11, "In him, you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands by" - so here's how this circumcision made without hands became theirs; it became theirs "by the putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ." Now that is a very difficult phrase. It is the battlefield for an awful lot of debate. How you interpret, especially the phrase, "the putting off the body of the flesh," will determine how you understand the rest of the passage. Some interpreters, orthodox, faithful interpreters, take the view that the phrase, "the body of flesh," really means the sinful nature. Paul sometimes uses the expression, "the flesh," in his letters to speak about the sinful nature, our remaining corruption. Even though we've been born again, sin still clings to us as it were and the flesh, sometimes in Paul means "the sinful nature." So they read this verse as saying you have this circumcision of the heart, this inner change, when the sinful nature was crucified in union with Christ. And the circumcision of Christ is really another way to say the circumcision of the heart that Christ effects in you when you believe the Gospel. That's an orthodox, Biblical way of understanding it. I don't think it's what Paul means here. If you have an NIV, a New International Version, I think it actually interprets the verse in precisely that way. It sort of interprets it; it doesn't translate it. What we have before us is more of an accurate translation. The NIV doesn't say "putting off the body of flesh" but "putting off the sinful nature." I don't think that's right.
Here’s why. The phrase, “the body of flesh,” is only used one other time in the New Testament, also here in Colossians - Colossians chapter 1 verse 22, when it does not refer to the sinful nature but refers to the physical body of Jesus. Colossians 1:22, “He reconciled us in his body of flesh by his death.” And I think that is still what Paul has in mind when he uses the phrase here again in Colossians 2:11. The sign of circumcision was a bloody ritual performed on males at eight days. It was a blood ritual as though to say, “If you break covenant with Me, then judgment will fall upon you.” That’s what the sign meant. When Paul says here, when he talks about the putting off of the body of flesh he’s talking about the cross of Jesus Christ and he’s saying circumcision, the covenant curse that circumcision speaks about, fell on Jesus. Jesus’ death, the cross was a kind of circumcision where His flesh was torn from Him violently and He underwent the wrath and curse of the covenant judgment of God as though He were a covenant breaker. We are the covenant breakers; He’s a covenant keeper, but He is our substitute and He undergoes the penalty for us.
So here's what Paul is saying. He's saying, "In union with Jesus Christ, you Colossians, you have heart change, you have new life, you have the circumcision made without hands performed by the Holy Spirit in your heart. When you were united to Jesus in the dreadful crucifixion of the cross - the circumcision that is the cross - when the flesh was put off, violently torn from Him at Calvary, in His death you died to the old life that in His resurrection you might live to God for His glory. So are you still with me? I haven't completely anesthetized you? You're still with me. Okay, good! So you see how Paul is looking forward. He says, "Okay, let's talk about circumcision. You want to talk about circumcision false teachers? Let's talk about it. It's an old covenant sign and it's designed to point forward to a spiritual reality that is ultimately sourced in the cross of Jesus Christ where the full meaning and significance of circumcision, the covenant curse of God etched itself into our Savior, the Lord Jesus. And when you're united to Him, the circumcision of the heart becomes yours." So circumcision - he looks forward from circumcision to the Gospel and to the benefits that flow to us in union with Christ. That's verse 11.
Now let’s look at verse 12 where Paul does the same thing looking backwards. He looks from the new covenant - right, not circumcision now but baptism - and shows how it, just like circumcision, also focuses us on Christ and the saving benefits that are ours in Him. Look how Paul argues. He says, “In him you were circumcised, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” So the eternal rite to which their spiritual circumcision made without hands now corresponds isn’t physical circumcision; now it’s baptism. Baptism now does duty for circumcision. It now means the same thing circumcision once meant. Baptism speaks to us of the same inner spiritual reality - the circumcision of the heart, union with Christ in His death and resurrection, bringing radical change, regeneration, the new birth to all who believe.
Well okay. So what? So what? Circumcision and baptism are paralleled. Do you see that? Circumcision in the old covenant points to union with Christ and the saving benefits that are ours in Him. Baptism now means the same thing in the new covenant. Well, so what? That's very interesting. What use should we make of all of this? Two things and then we're done; two ways to use the teaching of these two verses and then we're done.
First, the first use of these verses is for confirmation and support for our Biblical and reformed practice of baptism in particular. We live in such a Baptist church culture in this part of the country, don't we? And I think it's worth our while taking a moment or two to rehearse the Biblical foundations for our practice as Presbyterians, rooted largely in the arguments of these two verses. So why do we baptize the believer, the infants rather, of professing Christians? We do it because God's covenant promise made to Abraham, Genesis 12, renewed in chapters 15 and 17 and 22, is still a promise to you and to your children. The apostle Peter himself says precisely that in Acts chapter 2 if you will remember. The sign of the covenant promise originally given to Abraham it used to be circumcision, but Colossians 2:12 says today the sign is baptism. Baptism points to the same inner spiritual reality that circumcision once pointed to. Baptism now serves the church in the same role circumcision once filled. That's the clear teaching of our text. A
And so, therefore, since the children of believers received the covenant sign in the old covenant era - because the covenant promise was for them, so now children of believers receive the covenant sign because the covenant promise is still for them. The sign, however, has changed from circumcision to baptism. The sign of belonging to the visible church is a sign given to believers and their children - the sign of baptism. The children of believers belong to the covenant people and to the covenant community, the visible church, and so they receive the sign of the covenant promise; not circumcision now, but baptism. That's why we baptize babies - because the Bible commands it. The Bible commands it by clear and necessary consequence from the teaching of God's holy Word.
Improving Our Baptism
And then finally we need to use this passage to help us do what the old Puritans called “improving our baptism.” They didn’t mean that our baptism was deficient in some way and we needed to fix it. They meant simply making sure that all the blessing God has for us offered to us in our baptisms really is ours by possession and not simply by promise; that you’ve taken hold of it for yourself, that your baptism isn’t an empty, external rite, but that you have the internal reality to which it points us. That’s what they mean by “improving our baptism.” Baptism speaks about the Gospel, remember. It speaks about the cross and the resurrection. It offers new life through the Gospel. It doesn’t do so automatically. Simply being baptized does not make you a child of God, does not give you new life, any more than circumcision in the Old Testament gave you a circumcised heart and a new heart. You remember Romans 9 verse 6, “Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” Just being circumcised didn’t save you in the old covenant. Romans 2:9, “ A Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart by the Spirit.” Simply being outwardly circumcised in the Old Testament age didn’t guarantee salvation any more than being baptized today guarantees salvation for any of us.
You may remember the story of Simon Magus in Acts chapter 8 verse 24. He professes faith, he makes a credible profession of faith in Jesus, and he was baptized; he was received into the membership of the visible church. But then he tried to buy the gift of the Holy Spirit and when he did the apostle Peter said this to him. “Let your money perish with you. You have neither part nor lot in this matter for your heart is not right with God.” So he had the outward sign, baptism, but he didn’t have the inner reality. He was not right with God. He wasn’t improving his baptism. He did not know the thing, the reality to which his baptism was designed to point him - union with Christ by faith alone. “You don’t need circumcision, Colossians; not now in the new covenant. Baptism has replaced circumcision. But you mustn’t trust in your baptism either. Baptism makes a dreadful savior. Baptism makes a dreadful savior.”
Listen, some of you were raised in this church. You were baptized in this church. You were catechized in this church. This week, last week rather, I was talking to Helen Powell in the nursery. She has served our nursery for forty-one years. If you see Helen when you to go pick up your kids, please will you congratulate her and thank her for her service. Isn't that wonderful? She was saying, "Some of the babies I'm looking after now are the babies of the babies I looked after when I started." Some of you have been here across generations in fact, and it's a safe, comfortable place and you know the vocabulary. You were baptized, you were catechized, you are a member of the church and you believe the Christian message much like you believe in gravity. It's a fact of life. It's simply there. Do you really understand, do you really understand, however, that your baptism is no guarantee of spiritual life? That your membership in the visible church will not indemnify you against the wrath of God? Your privileges, if you are a child of the covenant - you've been baptized into the visible church - your privileges are very great. Perhaps for the whole of your life, you've been around the people of God and you've sat under the ministry of the Word of God and the means of grace. You have great privileges, but your privileges will not excuse your lack of heart response to Christ. That's the one thing needful.
In fact, when you stand before Him on the great day, are you really going to come with your baptism and your church membership and your morality as your best argument? No, your baptism and your church membership will be witnesses against you at the last day because they were constantly saying to you, “What you need is Christ! Baptism is preaching the Gospel to you saying you need the cleansing He can give. You need the new life only He can give. Do you have Christ?” That’s the issue. You need to improve your baptism. You need to go beyond the mere external to the inner spiritual reality.
It just so happens in the providence of God this afternoon is the first of our communicants classes where our covenant children are meeting together to explore what it means to profess faith in Jesus and come for the very first time to the Lord’s Supper. So kids, if you’re here and you’re coming to that class, please understand why you’re coming. Understand what this is about. You’re coming to improve your baptism. You’re coming to do everything you can to ensure that the external rite, the sign of baptism placed upon you when you were very young, is fulfilled by your possession of the spiritual reality your baptism speaks about, that you really know Jesus for yourself. That’s why you are coming.
And if you look at verse 12 again, you’ll see Paul shows us exactly how we improve our baptism, how we can make sure that the thing baptism speaks about is ours. Look at verse 12 again. He says, “We are buried with him in baptism in which you were also raised with him.” And then we expect the rest of that verse to complete the symmetry - “You were buried with him in baptism. You were raised with him in baptism.” That’s what we expect; nice and neat, equally balanced, symmetrical. That’s not what he says. Is it? Verse 12, “You were buried with him in baptism in which also you were raised with him through faith in the power of God who raised him from the dead.” Baptism doesn’t work automatically. The spiritual blessings that it offers are yours by one means only - you must respond to the good news about Jesus for yourself from the heart, believing in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. It is through faith in the power of Him who raised Jesus from the dead that the blessings of new life can be yours.
You see, baptism works in exactly the same way a sermon works, this sermon works, the Word of God works - not automatically. You can come to church for the rest of your days, never miss a Sunday, hear the clearest, simplest, most moving expositions of the Gospel of grace and leave the church utterly unchanged. You can be baptized. You can live out your life in the membership of the visible church and still be lost at the last. What makes the difference? How is it that you can be sure that as you hear the preaching of the Word that you profit and you benefit? How can you be sure that your baptism isn’t simply an external but that you possess the reality it speaks of? The Word of God must be mixed with faith. The Gospel offered to you, even in your baptism, union with Christ, new life, death to the old life, to sin and to self, resurrection life in union with Jesus, you must take it by faith, you must trust yourself now and for the rest of your days, for time and eternity you must trust yourself into the hands of Jesus Christ.
It doesn't matter if you're a teenage communicant or a twenty-five-year-old young adult or an octogenarian in the golden years of their lives. Baptism preaches Jesus to you and He's the one you must have. Please do not go another day into 2019 without having settled this issue, answered this question - Are you in Christ? Do you have Christ and the new life only He can give?
Last week on the island of Lewis, which is in the Outer Hebrides on the northwest islands of Scotland, there was a commemoration of the worst peacetime, maritime disaster in the UK since the sinking of the Titanic. On New Year’s Day 1918, a ship called the Iolaire was bringing soldiers and sailors home at the end of the Great War. And just a few yards from shore, about a mile from its destination, the port of Stornoway, the Iolaire hit rocks - just a few yards from the shore - it hit rocks on a stormy night and it sank. Of the 283 passengers, 205 of the drowned. They made it through the war, they were a mile from home, and they drowned.
Here’s my point. They were on the boat that was taking them home and they were not safe. They thought they were safe but they were not safe. Trusting in your baptism or in your church membership or in your morality or in your good name, your Christian upbringing, your parents’ faith, instead of trusting in Jesus Christ for yourself is like sailing for home on a ship doomed inevitably to sink. You might think that you are safe, but only Jesus is a safe harbor. Only Jesus. He says we are raised with Him through faith in the power of God who raised Jesus from the dead. Do you trust in Christ? What are you trusting in today as we begin a new year? There is no more urgent question. Are you in Christ? Are you trusting in Jesus? Only He is a safe harbor. Anything else is a sinking ship.
Let’s pray together.
It may be that there are people here, O Lord, who have been for years presuming upon their baptisms, upon their church membership, on their respectable lives and their good reputations and have never for a moment paused to consider that they themselves must humble themselves before You and cry out to You for forgiveness and ask for the Lord Jesus to be their Rescuer. And so we pray for one another, for grace to improve our baptisms by placing our confidence for acceptance with You, now and for eternity, only in Jesus Christ. Help us, all of us, to do that, that we may begin this year united to Jesus, strengthened by grace through faith in Him. For we ask it all in His name, amen.
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