Friday, February 1, 2008

Baptism III: Cutting a covenant, entering Israel

As my friend Ryan wisely advises, “in any attempt to hammer out a theology of ‘whatever’ from the New Testament we have to listen for the Old Testament echoes.” We can’t understand what a band of Jewish men believed to be such wonderful News if we have no idea what they believed or what hope they were looking for—“hope in the promise made by God to our fathers” (Acts 26:6-7). And it must suffice for now to say that the summary of the Bible is the story of God’s covenant promise(s) to rescue a cursed and estranged world from sin and become the God of a redeemed people. Abraham received the promise that his seed would receive an inheritance and become a great nation of blessing for all nations. Being part of Israel, where God’s blessings lived and were promised (see Rom. 9:4-5; Eph. 2:12, 19; 3:6), meant being a “son of Abraham” (e.g., Luke 3:8).

Many biblical covenants between God and men have some sort of visual “sign” and “seal” accompanying them. The Noahic covenant was given the rainbow to show that God has made a promise not to curse the world through rain ever again; it is a sign pointing to a promise, and it is a seal guaranteeing its reality. It’s like God saying, “See that rainbow? I’ve put it in the sky both to remind you of my promise (sign) and to guarantee its fulfillment, because as surely as it is real and shown to you, so too is my promise real for you (a seal).”

In Genesis 17 Abraham is told to circumcise himself and his whole household: “You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (17:11). In other words, forgetful and fickle Abraham could look at his circumcised body and see in it God’s promise to bless him and make from his seed a great nation. In like fashion, today we give wedding rings to illustrate (as a sign) a covenant between a husband and wife. When a woman sees the ring on her finger, she is reminded of her husband’s vows that he will love her and be faithful to her at all times. Likewise, that ring is a seal in that when it’s put on the bride, the promises are not only pledged but enacted; the man now has become her husband, and the ring assures her of this.

Because this covenant was not with Abraham alone, but with all his offspring, God demanded that his whole household, including infants (Note this!) and foreigners, be circumcised (17:12). God’s promise was to bring about blessing through Abraham’s children—a blessing that would one day be for “all the families of the earth” (12:3). Even in later years, after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, when a foreigner joined the people of Israel, he was to receive circumcision (Exod. 12:48). Circumcision was therefore both a sign of God’s covenant and a mark of inclusion into the covenant people of Israel.

But receiving the “sign of circumcision” and entering Israel also meant being consecrated to the Lord and living under his authority. It meant separating oneself from the unclean practices of the nations, trusting in the Lord’s character as the great I AM, and obediently following his Law. Belonging to God to inherit his promises also necessitated obedience; hence the circumcised people of Israel were a “covenant community” separated from the nations and sanctified unto him. They were thus called to trust in God and love him unreservedly. Because of this, cleansing and circumcision were often used synonymously (cf. Deut. 30:6), and “uncircumcised” and “unclean” were used the same way (cf. 1 Sam. 14:6; Isa. 52:1; Ezek. 44:9). Being both circumcised in heart and flesh were required of God (see Rom. 2:25-29); the former alone would not suffice. Rather, the former pointed to the need for the latter and encouraged the Israelite to live in faith.

In Romans 4:11, we also see that circumcision is also said to be a “sign” and a “seal,” guaranteeing to Abraham the reception of the promises given to him. “He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” Paul’s point is that it isn’t circumcision or any ritual that justifies anyone; bearing the marks alone of inclusion into Israel did nothing (again an ex opera operato presumption). Rather, it was certainly faith that caused Abraham to be reckoned righteous before God (the argument of Romans 4). But he does teach that the reception of circumcision guaranteed to Abraham the righteousness credited to him on account of his faith (4:3; cf. Gen. 15:6).


In the next posts, I will attempt to explain how baptism is the New Covenant replacement of circumcision, and what that means for our lives.

1 comment:

Ted M. Gossard said...

I look forward to your posts in attempting to bring NT baptism as equivalent to OT circumcision. The only clear-cut viable argument on your side for infant baptism, as I see it at the moment, pardon the pun.

I do most certainly agree with you that the rite of circumcision in the old covenant was much more than just making a new nation. It was about this people being set apart as holy for God and for his purposes that they were called to live out in this world. And a sign and seal, that circumcision of this covenant.

I think "seal" only underscores what God has already promised to Abraham and all who follow in the footsteps of the faith of Abraham. The promsise itself received by faith is the essence of the matter (see Dunn in his Word Romans commentary).

You describe things well. You sound like just my kind of professor/teacher, who helps everyone in the church understand.