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Volume 17, Issue 5: Liturgia

Baptism is Baptism, VI

Peter Leithart

". . . 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; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead." (Colossians 2:11-12)

After citing this passage, Ray Sutton argues that "Baptism is New Covenant Circumcision. It replaces the Old Testament rite of blood with a rite of water, making Holy Baptism all that Circumcision was and even more." The church is the continuation/fulfillment of Israel so, "children are admitted by the Sacrament of Baptism, just as they were admitted by the Sacrament of Circumcision under the Old Covenant."
Even many who will not agree that this passage supports infant baptism acknowledge that here "baptism" means the rite of water baptism. The difficulty is not to determine what "baptism" means, but what "circumcision" refers to. Many commentators suggest that the "circumcision of Christ" (v. 11) is a vivid metaphor for the crucifixion of Jesus, when His "body of flesh" was stripped from Him. Though Jesus' death certainly fulfilled the type of circumcision, that does not appear to be the reference in Colossians 2. Rather, Paul is talking about something that the Colossians have experienced: they "were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands" when the body of flesh was removed in "the circumcision of Christ" (v. 11). Paul's point is that the Colossian Christians need not hanker after Jewish circumcision, which is among the "elemental things" of the world (2:8), since they have already received a Christian circumcision that is superior.
So, what kind of circumcision did the Colossians receive? One might point to the language of "heart-circumcision" in the Old Testament to answer this question. "Circumcise your heart," Moses exhorted the Israelites on the plains of Moab (Deut. 10:16; cf. Jer. 4:4), and he ended his series of sermons on Torah with the promise that "Yahweh your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live" (Deut. 30:6). Paul is announcing that through Christ this promise is fulfilled, and all God's people have their hearts renewed so that we can fulfill the demands of the Shema (Deut. 6:4-6).
Paul does believe that the Spirit works in the New Covenant to remove hardness of heart (2 Cor. 3:12-18), but it is doubtful that this is what he is talking about in Colossians 2. The difficulty with this interpretation is the apparently redundant phrase "body of the flesh." Body cannot mean "physical body," because Paul does not encourage us to hope that our physical bodies are stripped away to leave the soul naked before God (cf. 2 Cor. 5:1-10). And it is hard to see what the phrase means if Paul simply means (as the NIV translates) "sinful nature." What does "body" add to "flesh"? Why mention both?
Paul uses "body" not only to refer to the individual physical body (e.g., Rom. 4:19; 1 Cor. 6:13), but also to the corporate body of the church (Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 10:16-17). Within Colossians, he uses "body" in this corporate sense several times (Col. 1:18, 24; 2:19; 3:15). Perhaps "body of flesh" in 2:11 refers to a fleshly society from which the Colossians have been removed. Let us call this the "corporate" interpretation.
One difficulty with the corporate interpretation is that Colossians 1:22 uses virtually the same phrase as 2:11, and in the former passage it refers to the physical body of Jesus rather than the corporate body of the church: "He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death." Though the passages use nearly identical phrases, they do not use them identically. Colossians 1:22 informs us that Jesus identified Himself with the "fleshly" existence of those in Adam even to the limit of death ("flesh is grass," Is. 40:6), and through that bodily death has reconciled us to God. Those who believe the gospel, Colossians 2:11 informs us, are removed from the fleshly society of the old world in order to participate in the new life of the risen Jesus (2:12).
Through the work of Christ, as N. T. Wright puts it, the convert strips off and leaves behind "the solidarities of the old life, the network of family and society to which, until then, he or she has given primary allegiance." Just as physical circumcision stripped off a bit of actual flesh, so the Christian circumcision strips off the convert's cultural clothing, whether Jewish or pagan. Paul's insistence that the circumcision is "made without human hands" is perfectly consistent with this interpretation. It takes divine circumcision to break the network of relation and habit by which the world enslaves.
If this is correct, it helps us specify exactly how baptism is connected to this "circumcision." Baptism is the effective sign that removes the baptized from the fleshly body to which he once belonged and incorporates him into the life of the new body, the body of Christ, where resurrection life works through the Spirit. Through baptism, we die to the fleshly world in order to be raised up "with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead."

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