Why are we baptized, and not circumcised?
11 and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision performed without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. 13 And when you were dead in your wrongdoings and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our wrongdoings, 14 having canceled the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. 15 When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him. (Col 2:11-15)
In Him we were circumcised by His death; His death, the removal of the body of the flesh, is our circumcision. The physical circumcision of Christ in the death of His body was our spiritual circumcision, that which removes us from our wrongoing and the uncircumcision of our flesh. For this reason, we need no physical circumcision, for in His physical circumcision we ourselves have been physically circumcised. In His death we were also buried with Him in baptism, not a physical baptism, but a spiritual one like the spiritual circumcision we recieved. In Christ we have physical circumcision by His death, spiritual circumcision by the removal of our guilt and the canceling of our debt of sin, and spiritual baptism, by which we were washed of our sins having been buried with Him in His death (for the wages of sin is death) and raised to life in hope that we will inherit a resurrection like His. The only thing which remains is physical baptism, the washing of the body. All four are necessary: physical circumcision, spiritual circumcision, spiritual baptism, physical baptism.
But where is the ordinance of physical baptism in Israel?
For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our fathers were all under the cloud and they all passed through the sea; 2 and they all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; 3 and they all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased; for their dead bodies were spread out in the wilderness. (1 Cor 10:1-5)
Israel was physically baptized when they passed through the red sea. Not only were they baptized, but they partook of communion, all eating the same spiritual food and spiritual drink. Israel was baptized. Christians are circumcised. These covenantal elements are not well known.
But why, if Israel was baptized in the red sea, did the ordinance of baptism continue?
It continued because not all Israel has come from the familial line of Abraham; some have been grafted in. A proselyte, a stranger seeking to become an Israelite, would at their introduction into Israel bring a sacrifice to atone for sin, be physically circumcised to show that they had been cut off from the death (uncircumcision) in which they had previously walked, and then be baptized as a ceremonial washing. It must be noted that circumcision was applied to all males in the household, and baptism to all household members, signifying that the whole household had covenanted with God. Circumcision and sacrifice, for us, are found in Christ; what remains as a covenant sign is physical baptism.
What then, was John’s baptism?
There have been two baptisms; one looking forwards, and one looking backwards. John’s was a baptism into Israel; it was a baptism of repentance, a forward-looking baptism akin to the baptism of Israel in the Red Sea, a ritual ceremonial washing. Christian baptism, by contrast, is a backward-looking baptism; it is a death and resurrection, signifying that we have died and risen with Christ as He died and rose.
Were these baptisms identical?
No, for the Apostle himself re-baptized those Corinthians who had been baptized into John’s baptism, giving them Christian baptism.
Paul said, “John baptized with a baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 19:1-7)
What then is the continuity between the old and the new covenant?
Great indeed. They are one Covenant of Grace. Each covenant in the Biblical narrative is not a discrete and isolated administration, but each covenant builds upon the former, and all are fulfilled in Christ.
The Adamic Covenant required obedience; Christ, the last Adam, obeyed where the first Adam disobeyed.
The Noahic Covenant promised never again to destroy the world; Christ came to redeem the world.
The Mosaic Covenant required lawfulness; Christ fulfilled the law.
The Davidic Covenant promised an eternal king; Christ, the son of David, ascended to be seated at the right hand of the Father.
But most importantly for this discussion, the Abrahamic Covenant promised to make Abraham the father of many nations.
“As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, And you will be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall you be named Abram, But your name shall be Abraham; For I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. (Genesis 17:4-5)
And so it is that all those who are in Christ are children of Abraham. Not children according to birth, but children according to new birth; not children of flesh, but children of promise.
6 Just as Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. 7 Therefore, recognize that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. 8 The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations will be blessed in you.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. (Galatians 3:6-9)
So Abraham was given the gospel: that through Christ, God would justify the Gentiles by faith. It was on the merit of Abraham’s faith that he was credited righteousness. And so, one is a child of Abraham, the believer, by being a believer. One is not a Jew by birth, but a Jew by faith. So we who are in Christ are children of Abraham; a great multitude of billions, a kingdom of nations, a mighty army terrible with banners; a great fruitful tree. This is only the beginning.
_ 10 This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised._ (Genesis 17:10)
And so it is in Christ, for Christ is our circumcision, a circumcision performed in the removal of His body at the cross, as the Apostle says. For those who believe, Christ is both a circumcision of the flesh and of the heart; of the flesh, for its removal of flesh, and fof the heart, for its removal of the curse of death. What counts is not the outward sign, but the inward being. This is why the command God gave to Israel warns of presumption:
So circumcise your heart, and do not stiffen your neck any longer. (Deuteronomy 10:16)
For they were circumcised of the flesh, but they needed circumcision of heart. They were covenant people, bearing the covenant sign, yet stricken with unbelief. So too we are warned of covenant presumption. The Apostle gravely warns the Corinthians to circumcise their hearts when He says,
Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased; for their dead bodies were spread out in the wilderness. Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they indeed craved them. (1 Corinthians 10:5-6)
In all times, for all peoples, it is faith alone in Christ alone which saves. In all times, for all peoples, there has been one Covenant of Grace, promising salvation for all those who have faith in Christ.
What then is the distinction between the Old Covenant and the New?
31 “Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant which I made with their fathers on the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. 33 “For this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord: “I will put My law within them and write it on their heart; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 34 They will not teach again, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their wrongdoing, and their sin I will no longer remember.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
What the Old lacked is given in the New: that God’s people will know Him, will be sanctified by Him, will obey Him, and will be forgiven by Him. It is the fulfillment of all the old covenant promises, the penultimate crescendo where God’s purposes of redemptive grace, which was shrouded for so many centuries, was finally revealed in the inaugerator of the New Covenant Himself, Jesus of Nazareth. It is a better coventant, a covenant of better promises and better ministry.
Where in the Old the levitical priests would enter an earthly tabernacle, in the New Christ entered a heavenly one. Where in the Old the blood of bulls was shed over and over again, in the New Christ’s blood was shed once for all time. This is because the blood of bulls and goats does not take away sin, and it never could take away sin; it was only a mere typological shadow of Christ, the only one whose blood could be shed to take away sin.
Where in the former God was far off, in the New He is near. Where in the Old God’s Holiness made Him unapproachable to sinful man, in the New we are encouraged to “draw near with a sincere heart in full asurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:22). Why? Because we have a perfect sacrifice, a great high priest, an advocate, a savior. We have the Holy Spirit who helps us in our weakness. We have the law written on our hearts. We are God’s, and He is His.
In short, the differences between the old and new covenant are not primarily differences of administration or economy, but differences of promise and blessing.
Who are God’s covenant people?
All those who have recieved the covenant sign of faith. In the Old covenant it was the sign of circumcision, in the New it is the sign of baptism. And just as the covenant sign in the Old was given to households, so the sign in the New should be given to households, including children.
Isn’t this incompatible with the nature of the New Covenant? Not at all! For as in the Old, a man could recieve the sign of the covenant and yet break the covenant, so in the New; those who have recieved the sign and have faith are covenant keepers, and the blessings of the covenant fall on them. Those who have recieved the sign and do not have faith are covenant breakers, and the curses of the covenant fall upon them as well. The Apostle does not warn the Corinthians about the dangers of covenant presumption for no reason (1 Corinthians 10:5-6), in the same way that Moses was providing a real warning to Israel when he told them to “be circumcised of heart” (Deuteronomy 10:16).
To put it another way, the covenant people of God is one olive tree, Israel, which has been pruned according to the unbelief of the Jews, and into which the Gentiles have been grafted according to their faith (Romans 11). Both the Old and New Covenants are one tree, one administration of grace, with two different sets of promises. They are not two different trees with two different covenantal structures, one for households and one for individuals, but one Covenant of Grace for one covenant people: the households of believers.Share this post:
Chris Carter is the Editor in Chief of The New England Reformer. Chris earned a Bachelor's degree in Mathematics from Clarkson University, but his post-univserity studies have taken him through various topics in theology and church history. He currently lives in Rochester, New York, but he also occaisionally preaches at a small baptist church in his hometown in Vermont.