Thursday, November 08, 2007

All the Promises of God VI


The Cleansing-Incorporation Rites

Circumcision was the sacramental sign of entrance into the Abrahamic covenant. It was a sign that marked one out as a covenant member and sealed the promises of the covenant to the recipient.

And God said to Abraham: “As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant. He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money must be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.” (Gen. 17:9-14 cf. Rom. 4:11)

All those who were either born into or “bought into” a covenant family had both the privilege and the obligation to receive the sign of circumcision – a rite so important that it could be equated with the covenant itself (“This is My covenant… Every male child among you shall be circumcised…”). Failure to do so would mean that an individual would be “cut off” (karath) from the covenant community. This is why it was so important for Moses’ wife Zipporah to “cut off” (karath) the foreskin of her son’s flesh (Ex. 4:25). Either the foreskin was cut off or the person was cut off. Gentiles outside of such a covenant family could also enter the covenant through circumcision. It was not obligatory for them to do so, but they would need to be incorporated into the covenant if they wanted to partake of the Passover communion meal (Ex. 12:48). True communion with the covenant community presupposed union with it.

Along with being an incorporation rite, circumcision was also a cleansing rite. It cut off the old flesh in order to present a new man to God. This re-generation, performed on the male organ of generation no less, provided a graphic picture of God’s cleansing work whereby He cuts away the old, dead heart (Deut. 10:15, 16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4). Sinful man needs the old creation cut away before he can enter the new humanity.

There were other sacraments of incorporation and cleansing given by God in the Old Testament besides circumcision. The flood was the original circumcision. God was grieved that man had filled up the measure of his wickedness, so the mass of humanity was “cut off [karath] by the waters of the flood” (Gen. 9:11). However, He also reserved a remnant for Himself and He saved it through the waters. This salvation through water was in fact a baptism and an Old Testament type of which Christian baptism is the antitype (I Pet. 3:20, 21). He brought the people out of the old and dying creation and into a new creation via the circumcision/baptism of the flood.

The Red Sea crossing was another rite of cleansing and incorporation. “Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea…” (I Cor. 10:1, 2). The Red Sea crossing was a baptism. If God’s people had previously been circumcised into Abraham, then this generation was baptized into Moses. Through this crossing, the Israelites (as the new humanity) were brought out of the land of death and into life (cf. the cleansing of Israel, Ezek. 16:3, 4). The crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land functioned in the same way. It was another circumcision. The Israelites who entered the land had not been circumcised; they were the sons and daughters of those who were required to wander the wilderness for 40 years due to disobedience. When the second generation reached the Jordan, God held back the waters just as He had done with the previous generation at the Red Sea (Josh. 3; 4). But God did not just withhold the waters; the text says four times in three separate verses that He “cut off” (karath) the waters (Josh. 3:13, 16; 4:7). And just after this crossing, the Israelites were required to get circumcised (Josh. 5:2-7). Their foreskins were rolled away and cut off, because as God told them, “This day I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” (Josh. 5:9) The alternative to this would be for the people themselves to be “cut off” as God had done with the generation of the flood and as He would do again with the wicked inhabitants of the land (karath; Deut. 12:29; 19:1). These crossings were therefore baptisms and circumcisions. The waters were cut off for the covenant community so that they would not be cut off like the wicked.

Finally, we may consider some of the sprinkling, pouring, and washing rites that were instituted under the Mosaic covenant. The water crossings were not the only Old Testament baptisms; the New Testament also refers to the Mosaic washing rites which the writer of Hebrews terms “various washings” – various “baptisms” (diaphorois baptismois; Heb. 9:10). They involved water, oil, and blood, and through these baptisms the unclean were made clean. The writer referred to three such baptisms in some detail after he introduced the general topic. He first mentioned the sprinkling of sacrificial animal blood for cleansing of the unclean (Heb. 9:12, 13). Three examples of this kind of cleansing are as follows. A leper was cleansed by being sprinkled with blood, washed with water, and by having oil poured on his head (Lev. 14:1-32). An unclean house was also sprinkled with water and blood so that it would be cleansed (Lev. 14:51, 52). Finally, if someone came into contact with death, he was unclean. A mixture of heifer ashes and water was then sprinkled on him for cleansing (Num. 19:14-19). The second baptism mentioned by the writer of Hebrews is Moses’ sprinkling of blood and water on the people for the inauguration of the covenant (Heb. 9:18-20 cf. Ex. 24:1-8). The third baptism he listed is Moses’ subsequent sprinkling of blood on the tabernacle and its utensils (Heb. 9:21 cf. Ex. 24:6; Lev. 8:15, 19; 16:14-16).

In addition to cleansing the recipient, the various washings also served as consecration anointings and incorporation rites. Levites, for example, were set apart for the priesthood by a baptism. These would-be priests were to be anointed by the pouring of oil on the head (Ex. 29:7-9; Lev. 8:10-12), and they were to be sprinkled with blood and oil (Ex. 29:21; Lev. 8:30). They were also cleansed by being sprinkled with water (Num. 8:5-7). Through these washings and “anointings” (mashach; Ex. 29:7), the priests were “sanctified” (qadash; Ex. 29:21) to the holy work of the priesthood. Therefore, these various washings were cleansing rites. In addition, some were for incorporation into the covenant or the priesthood while others were for restoration to full covenant communion for the covenant member who had become unclean.

Many years after these rites were instituted, the prophet Isaiah spoke God’s promise to restore His fallen and exiled people and pour out His Spirit on them.

“Fear not, O Jacob My servant;
and you, Jeshurun, whom I have chosen.
For I will pour water on him who is thirsty,
and floods on the dry ground;
I will pour My Spirit on your descendants,
and My blessing on your offspring;
they will spring up among the grass
like willows by the watercourses.” (Is. 44:2, 3)

Here we see the connection between water being poured on the people and the Holy Spirit being poured down upon them. As Jeremiah related of the restored people, “I will cleanse them from all their iniquity by which they have sinned against Me…” (Jer. 33:8). Some measure of the blessing of the Spirit was given to those who returned from the Babylonian exile, but as was discussed earlier in connection with Ezekiel’s vision of a new temple, the promises offered here go well beyond the post-exilic period. The full and ultimate restoration had yet to come, but when it came, it would bring a new and glorious cleansing.

“For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes…” (Ezek. 36:24-27)

The prophet Joel spoke of the new age using similar language.

“And it shall come to pass afterward
that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
your young men shall see visions.
And also on My menservants and on My maidservants
I will pour out My Spirit in those days.” (Joel 2:28, 29)

The people would need these restorative cleansings because they had become unclean. The unfaithful Israelites had turned their circumcision into uncircumcision.

And the Lord said, “Because they have forsaken My law which I set before them, and have not obeyed My voice…” therefore thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: “Behold, I will feed them, the people, with wormwood, and give them water of gall to drink. I will scatter them also among the gentiles, whom neither they nor their fathers have known.”…

“Behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord, “that I will punish all who are circumcised with the uncircumcised – Egypt, Judah, Edom, the people of Ammon, Moab, and all who are in the farthest corners, who dwell in the wilderness. For all the nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart.” (Jer. 9:13, 15, 16, 25, 26)

Paul taught the same regarding the unfaithful Jews of his day. After pointing out their unfaithfulness (Rom. 2:17-24), he went to the heart of the matter: The cleansing rite of circumcision becomes uncircumcision to the one who is unfaithful to the covenant, while the faithfulness of the uncircumcised is counted as (i.e., reckoned as) circumcision.

For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. Therefore if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision? And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law? 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… (Rom. 2:25-29).

These words would no doubt have been shocking to a first century Jew, but the ones who were faithful to the covenant and who knew their history saw the connection.

The fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant by the new covenant in Christ brought changes to the mode of the cleansing rituals. Under the new covenant, baptism fulfils the function of circumcision and the various washings. Christ is the head of the new covenant. Just as people were circumcised into Abraham and baptized into Moses under the old covenants, so now people are baptized into Jesus under the new covenant. Baptism is a “putting on” or “clothing” of Christ. “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Gal. 3:26, 27). Under the old covenant, the sign of the Abrahamic promises was circumcision. It was the incorporation/cleansing rite of the Abrahamic covenant. It identified the seed. But because of Christ’s fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant and promises and His inauguration of the new covenant, one becomes a son through baptism into Him. It unites one to Christ and to the benefits of His death. “Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:3-5). Because it is a putting on of Christ, baptism reflects the point where the Spirit grafts someone into the body of Christ (I Cor. 12:13).

Additionally, just as the various OT rites mentioned above cleansed the recipient (thus opening the way for his covenantal incorporation or restoration), so also baptism cleanses the recipient today (Acts 22:16; Eph. 5:26; Titus 3:5). (Note: The subject here is not “baptismal regeneration” but the broadly parallel nature of certain covenant rites. No assumptions should be made here regarding my view of the former.) Thus, baptism is for the new covenant what circumcision was for the Abrahamic covenant: the cleansing rite of entrance into the covenant. So with the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant by the new covenant in Christ, baptism has fulfilled circumcision. “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.” (Col. 2:11, 12)

Since the Abrahamic covenant has been transformed and fulfilled by the new covenant, circumcision is no longer a theological requirement (Acts 15:1-29). One is now circumcised unto God by being baptized into Christ. However baptism, unlike circumcision, does not require the shedding of blood. This is because Christ has shed His blood once and for all as an unrepeatable sacrifice for our sins. No more blood needs to be shed (Heb. 7:26, 27; 9:9-12, 24-28; 10:10-18).

Indeed, the requirement of circumcision today would be a denial of Christ’s finished work of fulfillment. It would be a claim that the old covenants are still operating as they were before Jesus came. As we have seen, Paul wrote his epistle to the Galatians in order to address this very error: the Judaizers claimed that circumcision was still theologically relevant and necessary. But the one who insists on this would be attempting to roll back the clock as it were and to put himself “under the law” (Gal. 4:21) – under the Mosaic covenant apart from its Messianic fulfillment. And this would be a package deal. The Judaizers taught that the gentiles needed to get circumcised and keep all of the Mosaic ordinances because the Mosaic covenant was the continuation of and partial fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. Those under Moses were the seed of Abraham whom God had set apart to be His people. So if Jesus did not fulfill the Abrahamic covenant, then he did not fulfill the Mosaic covenant either. But Jesus was born “under the law” (Gal. 4:4) in order to fulfill it. He took its curses upon Himself and spread its blessings to the world by the same faith that Abraham had while uncircumcised. Therefore, someone who insisted on circumcision today would lose Christ as his sin offering and fall from the grace of the covenant because he would be denying the only way in which the Abrahamic covenant operates today – in Christ.

Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing. And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace….

As many as desire to make a good showing in the flesh, these would compel you to be circumcised, only that they may not suffer persecution for the cross of Christ…. But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation. (Gal. 5:1-4; 6:12, 14, 15)

Jesus came as the new Adam, and central to His messianic program was a new creation. From the old categories of Jew and gentile, He created one new man (Eph. 2:11-18). The physical rite of circumcision was therefore no longer applicable, for the new man comes by way of baptism into Jesus. It is this cleansing rite – this sacrament of entrance into the new covenant – that sums up and fulfills all of the old covenant cleansing rituals. Paul’s pun to the Philippian Christians encapsulates the matter. They were the true “circumcision” (peritome) while the unbelieving Jews around them had become the “mutilation” (katatome; Phil. 3:2, 3).

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