SCRIPTURE: Genesis 17:9-14
Today’s passage leads us into the place in Abraham’s journey with God where he’s introduced to the practice of circumcision. I have to admit that for many years this whole idea of circumcision for the Jewish people was a difficult thing for me to grasp. Not that I didn’t understand what it was, but rather that I didn’t get “why” it was so important. After all, in our day, for totally different reasons most men in our culture are circumcised. That seems to have added to the dilemma…
So, let’s just start at the beginning and walk through it. Remember the setting – God has come to Abram, has changed his name to Abraham (“father of many” is a good translation) and is expanding upon His promises to Abraham. Everything He’s doing in this encounter is for the sake of clarifying and solidifying the covenant between them. God Himself initiated this entire thing and is now fleshing it out.
Previously, we’ve only seen God’s responsibilities in the covenant. It was very one-sided. Now He gives Abraham a responsibility, a thing he is to make sure happens in himself and his descendants in order to keep their side of the agreement. Their responsibility? Circumcision.
Look carefully at what God says about it – “You are to undergo circumcision and it will be a sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” OK, let’s walk through it…
- Circumcision was to be a “sign” of the agreement they were making together. A sign for who? It couldn’t have been the surrounding groups of people – when would THEY ever see that the men were circumcised? It had to be a sign for THEM, the Jewish people. Every time a man urinated, every time he and his wife were intimate, every time they changed their clothes they would be reminded by this physical “sign” that they served God and were promised to be blessed by Him. A covenant “sign” is a reminder for those involved in the covenant. It was the same with the rainbow after the flood (read it here). The sign was to remind Noah of God’s promise never to destroy the world with water again.
- The sign of the covenant was an important thing to God. So important that anyone refusing to have it applied to them would be separated from the nation of Israel. That’s pretty serious.
- It’s interesting to me that all the people had to do was to have a small operation. God was the one who was on the hook to do all the heavy stuff.
So, what is the application today? Are we to have “covenant checkers” who go around checking to see if the men among us are circumcised? No, this was for Abraham and his physical descendants… it had to do with the specific covenant that he had with God. We are not a part of that agreement today (unless we are Jewish people too – remember, it was an “eternal” covenant).
But we ARE participants in a different covenant, one that the New Testament (which means, “new covenant” by the way) calls a “new covenant.” Jesus Himself used those words to describe it. It’s a covenant based upon Jesus’ work on our behalf. The agreement we have with God is this – “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life.” Our part is to believe in Jesus. God’s part is to give us everlasting life. Again, He’s doing all the heavy work.
Interestingly, we have a “sign” of our covenant with God too. Can you think what it is? Baptism. It is for us what circumcision was for Abraham and his descendants. It’s what we are instructed to do after entering into God’s covenant (through our belief in Christ) to DEMONSTRATE that the covenant is in force. And if you think about it carefully, you’ll probably agree that like circumcision, it’s a sign for us more than it is for those around us. It is a reminder, a memory we have of the time in life when we received God’s gift of the new covenant through Jesus. It’s not as heavy-handed as circumcision (being “cut off” from the rest of the church if we don’t do it) – but I believe serves the exact same purpose.
Many (Christians) believe that baptism corresponds to circumcision so strongly that they insist that by baptizing our children (as Abraham was instructed to circumcise his descendants at a very young age), we will be passing along the covenant benefits to them until such a time as they are able to enter into the covenant with God of their own free will. I know of very few of the people who hold to this view who would say that by doing so the child’s eternal salvation is being guaranteed. It’s just the same as in Abraham’s case – circumcision didn’t guarantee that they would be right with God (that would depend on their own faith, or lack of faith in Him), it just showed that they were part of the group that God originally made the covenant with.
I understand the logic behind this viewpoint. In some ways, it makes total sense to me and I’m tempted to adopt a new policy of baptizing children as a sign of the new covenant in their family… BUT the main problem I see with it is that the scriptures that talk about baptism NEVER mention children being baptized specifically, like this passage does regarding circumcision. In fact, baptism is presented as an action that a person does immediately after believing in Christ (receiving Him as Savior / repenting / getting saved, etc.). If a child has not made that decision for him or herself, then baptism will have no meaning for them. It will be a symbol that represents something that has nothing whatsoever to do with them – yet. We have to be careful to examine ALL that the Bible says about an issue before we jump to a conclusion that will effect the practice of our faith. When we don’t’ we put together theologies and practices that misconstrue our intentions and cloud our vision as to what faith in Christ and the living of the Christian faith are really all about.
Why is this an important issue? Because many tragedies and abuses spring out of issues like this. I’ll give some examples.
- I’ve known of many adults who feel that they don’t need to trust in Christ at all because they were baptized when they were an infant. Granted, they weren’t educated properly about what the true intention of the baptism was supposed to be (a sign of their parent’s faith in God, to be established in their life later when they are able to choose into it themselves) – but nevertheless, the practice easily lent itself to misunderstanding. We have to understand that. Religious rituals and symbols have significant power in people’s lives. I think that’s part of why God implemented “signs” and symbols in the first place. He knows that they stick with us longer than the academic belief itself. Communion is another of those signs, those markers of remembrance. For many people, communion – because it is tangible and symbolic of something deeper – is a great time of intimacy with God. But it too can be and has been misconstrued to mean things that it does not. Some people even believe that by partaking in communion they are made right with God. But that’s not its intention. My question is this, Why put any potential stumbling block or barrier in the way of people in regards to their relationship with God being genuine or not? If infant baptism clouds the real issue of what truly puts a person into the new covenant with God (which it almost always does) then why practice it when it is not specifically addressed in scripture?
- Many cultic religious groups will focus too intently on an Old Testament passage such as this and make their beliefs about it a major distinctive of their religious practices. It becomes a dividing area – a place that sets them apart from everyone else. It could be circumcision, dietary laws, what day to worship on, etc. That’s OK, if it is consistent with the continued revelation of scripture (Old and New Testaments). But when it’s not (which is often the case) it becomes a barrier to understanding true faith in Christ and the new covenant that Jesus came to establish between God and men. Keep this in mind – one of the major tip-offs as to whether a group is a cult or not has to do with their view of grace. If there are specific “rules” or practices they have to keep in order to be “right” with God, then they are twisting the new covenant – because it is an agreement between God and mankind based on what Christ has done, not on what we can do. Any group that twists that understanding through the implementation of rules in order to please God is a bonefide cult.
So, I don’t believe we should be practicing infant baptism. But I heartily believe that “believer’s baptism” is supported and even commanded in scripture as a first step of obedience to God within the new covenant.
Father make us wise – give us Your Spirit’s direction and guidance on issues such as these. And make us aware of the importance of the symbols and signs You’ve given us as believers in Christ. Enable us to look back on our own baptisms as markers, signs of what You did at that specific point in our lives. Show us anew how much You love us, and use our obedience in baptism to reiterate that fact over and over in our lives.