Circumcision and Baptism in Colossians 2

In two recent episodes (here and here) of the CredoCovenant Fellowship, some debate arose regarding the definition of circumcision and baptism in the context of Colossians 2. I found myself in disagreement with Nehemiah Coxe on the meaning of the passage, and decided I’d like to use my bully pulpit to argue my case. I’ve consulted with JD ahead of time so that he might have time to prepare a response.

Nehemiah Coxe seeks to demonstrate in Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ how Colossians 2 teaches that water baptism replaces fleshly circumcision. He posits that the circumcision referenced in the passage is Christ’s own fleshly circumcision performed in His incarnate infancy. He further insinuates that, water baptism being a symbol pointing to Spirit baptism, we can assume that Paul means for us to recognize that he is in fact calling to mind water baptism. The conclusion to his argument is that water baptism, the symbol representing Spirit baptism, effectively nullifies the Covenant of Circumcision as symbolized in Christ’s circumcision. If you are confused by this argument, you may or may not be helped by reading Coxe’s argument in greater detail on pages 127-130 of Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ.

The Book We Discussed…

In this post, I would like to argue that what we find in Colossians 2 is not a conclusive statement regarding the nature of fleshly circumcision and the nature of water baptism. Rather, it is the beginning of a much different argument that persists on into the beginning of Colossians 3. In this argument, Paul’s statements evoking circumcision and baptism are best understood to be premises rather than the conclusion.

Paul establishes three premises in his argument (2:8-12), circles back around to further explain his premises (2:13-3:4), and then gives his concluding statements in the form of application (3:5ff).

  • Premise 1 (2:8-11)
  • Premise 2 (2:12a)
  • Premise 3 (2:12b)
  • Further Explanation of Premise 1 (2:13-19)
  • Further Explanation of Premise 2 (2:20-23)
  • Further Explanation of Premise 3 (3:1-4)
  • Concluding Application (3:5ff)

His first premise is the fact that Christ has established Himself as the ultimate authority over all, and particularly in the life of the believer through heart-circumcision (vv. 8-11; cf. 13-19). His second premise is that we have been buried with Christ in spirit-baptism (vs. 12a; cf. 20-23). His third premise is that we have been raised from spiritual death with Him through His resurrection (vs. 12b; cf. 3:1-4). Let’s take these point by point.

 

For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ (all Scripture citations taken from the New American Standard Bible);

As has been well documented, when Paul wrote to the church at Colossae, he was combating Judaizers and other false teachers (e.g. an early heretical group referred to by scholars as proto-Gnostics) who had added to the law of God and were perverting the teachings of Christ. He wanted to remind his brethren that they were under no yoke or burden but that under which Christ had placed them (Mt. 11:30). In fact, they had been placed under Christ’s yoke, not by rite of Jewish circumcision, but by regeneration—the greater reality:  spiritual circumcision of the heart.

In claiming His full and ultimate authority over all things, Christ is said to exercise His authority in two particular spheres: over creation generally (Col. 1:15-17) and over the church particularly (Col. 1:18-20). It is the second sphere to which Paul here addresses himself. Christ exercises His reign peculiarly in the lives of believers through the indwelling of His Spirit, but this indwelling has a starting point. That starting point is regeneration—the circumcision of the heart (Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; Rom. 2:29). After laying out his other two premises, Paul goes on to expound on this argument in verses 16-19:

16Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— 17things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. 18Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, 19and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God.

Christ Himself is the rightful King and Ruler of His church. Therefore, no one else is to attempt to usurp His authority. If anyone attempts to compel his fellow saints to return to the types and shadows or to adopt some form of legalism or asceticism, he is effectively heaving an added burden upon the shoulders of Christ’s subjects. He is removing the delight of Christ’s rulership and replacing it with an extra-biblical, despotic oppression. Christ is King and Ruler over His church and will not share His throne.

But it is not a fleshly circumcision under which we have come, not even (I would argue) Christ’s incarnate fleshly circumcision. Such a notion is not even hinted at in the text. Rather it is that same circumcision under which God’s true people have always come: the circumcision of the heart. Under this circumcision, there are no civil or ceremonial laws that must be obeyed. Likewise, there are no ascetic practices which must be observed. Rather, the true believer passively receives the stamp of God’s approval in Christ upon his heart, and upon his heart the law is written (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10; 10:16) that, in it, he might find his delight (Ps. 1:2; 40:8).

 

having been buried with Him in baptism,

Paul furthers his argument by calling to mind the doctrine of spirit baptism, a common theme in Paul’s letters (Rom. 6:6; 1Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27; Eph. 2:5). In order for Nehemiah Coxe’s argument to remain in tact, he must prove that this text is referring to either water baptism or Spirit baptism of which water baptism is a picture. Obviously,  he would have to make the second argument as (I will demonstrate), Paul is clearly referring to Spirit baptism. The problem is that Coxe does not make an argument that the symbol of Spirit baptism (water baptism) is being referenced here. He merely assumes it. Paul, on the other hand, will go on to make it clear that he is not talking about the physical symbol, but the spiritual reality.

20If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21“Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” 22(which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? 23These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.

When Paul refers to burial in this passage, he is referring to that spiritual reality of our dying in Christ. In a very real sense, we have died and been buried with Him. We have died to sin (Rom. 6:2, 10; 1Pt. 2:24), to the law (Rom. 7:2-6; Gal. 2:19), and to the elementary principles of the world (Col. 2:20). Like a wife whose husband had died in battle, we have been freed and lawfully betrothed to Another. Being dead to sin and the law, they no longer have mastery over us.

Having died to these things, we are no longer to come under their bondage. We have died to the Old Covenant system. Therefore, we are neither to come under the yoke of fleshly circumcision nor the yoke of the civil or ceremonial laws. Likewise, we are no longer in the world, so we ought not to submit to the edicts of man imposed upon our consciences. Our consciences are to be bound ultimately and finally by Scripture alone! This is the first aspect of what the apostle means when he speaks of baptism: our union with Christ in His death and burial.

 

in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.

The second aspect of Paul’s meaning is like the first: our having been raised with Christ! It is clear in the immediate text that Paul is not referring to water baptism when he says that we are raised “through faith.” This is not true of our water baptism. We are not raised up out of the water through faith, but by the joint efforts of the preachers arms and our abdominal muscles. Further, there is no talk of symbol in the text, so the faithful exegete is not at liberty to assume its presence in the argumentation. The baptism referenced here obviously takes on a spiritual meaning. Paul goes on to explain that meaning in Chapter Three, verses 1-4:

3:1Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. 3For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.

Our baptism in Christ: our death, burial, and resurrection in Him, has the intended outcome of a victorious lifestyle lived with the knowledge that Christ was not defeated. Christ was raised, He ascended, and He currently reigns with the Father in heaven. If we have likewise been raised, we likewise have the joy of knowing that we are currently seated in the heavenly places with Him (Eph. 2:6), ruling and reigning with Christ our Brother.

We are no longer to live as slaves, defeated and conquered by the world in which we live. Rather, we are to recognize our true, royal positions as sons of the King of heaven and earth. The contrast here in Paul’s language is not between two covenants: one of fleshly circumcision and the other of water baptism. Instead, the contrast is between slavery to the world and freedom in Christ.

 

Conclusion

Whatever we may say about fleshly circumcision and water baptism, and the covenants to which they belong, we are not at liberty to argue toward those conclusions from this text. The reason why not is very simple: this text is not arguing for a contrasted understanding between fleshly circumcision and water baptism. This text is talking about Christ’s authority over believers as demonstrated by our heart circumcision (regeneration) and Spirit baptism (union with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection).

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