It is written:
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, 12 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. (Colossians 2:11-12)
The church in Colosse was composed of Christians from both a Jewish and Gentile background. These Christians faced extreme persecution from without the church, and difficulties with heresies from within the church. There were some teachers who tried to bind the Old Testament Law on Christians, and there were others who tried to blend paganism and Christianity together (Gnostics). These were some of the issues that Paul dealt with when he wrote his Epistle to the Colossians.
One factor that both the Jewish and pagan false teachers had in common was their denial of the all-sufficiency of the Word of God which had been delivered to God through Christ by means of the Apostles. As such, Paul continually exhorts these disciples to hold to the Word of God as they had been taught:
Colossians 2:6-7-As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, 7 rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving.
The Christians needed to be built up in and established in “the faith.” The phrase “the faith” in the New Testament had reference to the Word of God. For proof of this, notice how “the faith” is used interchangeably with “the Word of God” in these passages:
Acts 6:7-Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.
Acts 13:6-8-Now when they had gone through the island to Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew whose name was Bar-Jesus, 7 who was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man. This man called for Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. 8 But Elymas the sorcerer (for so his name is translated) withstood them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith.
Acts 16:4-5-And as they went through the cities, they delivered to them the decrees to keep, which were determined by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem. 5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and increased in number daily.
Philippians 1:27-Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of your affairs, that you stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel,
The Word of God at this point was contained in both the oral teaching of the Apostles, and in the written Word of God. Remember that by this time, the New Testament Scriptures were in the process of being written down. Paul himself points this out when he discusses how his writings had the authority to be read in churches (cf. Colossians 3:16-17; 4:16). As such, the New Testament Scriptures were inspired and authoritative (1 Corinthians 14:37; 2 Timothy 1:13).
Furthermore, these Christians needed to hold to the Word of God “as they had been taught.” The Judaizers and Gnostics tried to convince the church that they had some kind of superior knowledge than that which was found in Christ. This is one of the things which leads to the discussion of baptism in Colossians chapter 2. While the Gnostics claimed to have superior knowledge to Christians, what the Christians had access to in Christ was fullness of knowledge and wisdom (Colossians 2:3). This is why they needed to beware that no one deceive them through philosophy and empty deceit.
Shockingly, Paul identifies the source of the Gnostic teachings in Colossians:
Colossians 2:8-Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.
Notice the phrase “basic elements of the world,” which is translated in many Bible versions as “elemental spirits.” The phrase was well-known and used in both Jewish and Gentile religious texts to reference spiritual beings:
“The interpretation of stoicheia as personal spiritual entities is the most compelling view. Consequently this interpretation has commanded the consent of the majority of commentators in the history of the interpretation of the passages.12 This view is based partly on the widespread usage of stoicheia for astral spirits in the second and third centuries A.D. (and probably before). The word was used, for instance,, in the Greek magical papyri in connection with the Zodiac: “I conjure you by the 12 stoicheia of heaven and the 24 stoicheia of the world in order that you would lead me to Heracles.”13 It is important to realize that not only pagans used this word to refer to spirits, but Jews also used this word in that sense. The Jewish Testament of Solomon, written during the Roman Imperial period, includes five references to stoicheia as spirit beings. In the following passage the stoicheia are linked with the kosmokratores (cf. Eph 6:12):…These terms further reflect the wide array of vocabulary in reference to spirit beings, shared by Jews and Gentiles alike. Paul drew from this reservoir of terminology with which his readers would be readily familiar.. He showed no interest, however, in discussing what he believed to be true about the starry host. Rather, he lumped all manner of spirits together, affirmed Christ’s superiority, and encouraged believers to be prepared for their hostile intentions and attacks by reminding minding his readers of their past ability to enslave.” (Clinton Arnold, Powers Of Darkness: Principalities & Powers In Paul’s Letters, 54 (Kindle Edition); Downers Grove, Illinois; InterVarsity Press)
Paul, drawing upon the fact of the Christian completeness and all-sufficiency in Christ Jesus, moves on to discuss how their baptism ties these truths together.
Let’s notice several facts this text teaches us about baptism.
First, the text teaches us that baptism is a burial. We are immediately reminded by the language here of the fact that baptism is an immersion in water. Baptism was not practiced as sprinkling or pouring until long after the Apostolic age, and that without Divine authority.
Second, baptism is a burial and a resurrection. It is not simply a plunging into water, but a rising up from the water. Without resurrection, baptism is meaningless. It is in the act of baptism-both burial and resurrection-that we are blessed with the gift of salvation.
Third, notice the preposition with. Baptism is a burial with Christ, and it is a resurrection with Christ. We are not alone in the act of baptism, for Christ joins Himself to us there. It is here that we see the Divine interchange: He freely takes our sins and graciously imputes His righteousness to us (cf. Romans 4:23-25)-all in baptism. Indeed, Paul is adamant that it is in the act of baptism that God is working!
A note should be made here regarding those who claim that baptism is not part of God’s plan of salvation because it is a “work.” When Paul talks about salvation not being by “works” he is referring specifically to works of the Law of Moses and to works of merit whereby a person tried to somehow earn redemption (Ephesians 2:8-9). However, the same Apostle points out in this passage that baptism is most definitely a work that is connected with salvation-it is a work of God!
Fourth, baptism is prophetically foreshadowed by circumcision. In the Old Testament, circumcision was the removal of the male foreskin. This was prophetic of how God would remove the entire sinful condemnation of His people. While the old man is done away with in baptism, it is always trying to reassert itself-which is why Christians need to continue fight against sin in this life.
Bryant has well noted:
“The “circumcision done by Christ” (2: 11) in this context refers, not to a removal of a small portion of the flesh, but to the stripping off of the whole sinful nature. The Colossian Christians had stripped off their “sinful nature,” had been buried with Christ in baptism and, by the power of God, they had been raised with Christ. By baptism they had related both to the death and to the resurrection of Christ. In Romans the baptized died to sin (6: 11) and began to live a “new life” (6: 4). In Colossians the baptized were circumcised of their “sinful nature” (2: 11) and God had made them “alive with Christ” (2: 13). As Beasley-Murray recalled, The structure of Rom. 6.3-4 was thought to be dependent on the primary elements of the primitive kerygma: ‘Christ died . . . was buried, and has been raised’ (I Cor. 15.3 f). These elements are even more clearly discernable in our passage . . . Christ’s body was stripped off in his death, He was buried, He was raised; in Him the Colossian Christians stripped off their body of flesh, were buried with Him in baptism and were raised with him therein (1962: 152-153). Although in one sense baptism is physical, in a deeper sense, baptism is a spiritual act, a spiritual burial and a spiritual resurrection. Likewise, the circumcision the Colossians underwent was not “done by the hands of men” (2: 11). Rather, it was a spiritual circumcision which occurred in baptism when the “sinful” nature was put off. This does not imply, however, that the “flesh” or the “sinful nature” is totally eradicated so that one never sins after his or her baptism. Instead, the concept is similar to Romans 6 where dying (to sin) with Christ means that “our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with” (6: 6). Nevertheless, Paul urged those whose “old self” had been “crucified” with Christ “not to let sin reign” in their bodies (Rom 6: 12). Likewise, in Colossians 3 Paul urged those who had “put off” the “sinful nature” in baptism to “put to death . . . whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Col 3: 5). Moreover, he urged them to “rid” themselves of such things as “anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language” (Col 3: 8). He urged all this upon the baptized believers at Colosse since they had “taken off” their “old self with its practices” and had “put on the new self” (Col 3: 9-10). Hence, Paul does not teach that the “sinful nature” is totally eradicated in baptism. In one sense it is “put off.” Yet, in another sense, it must be “put to death” repeatedly as a part of the new life in Christ.” (Res Bryant, George Beasley-Murray, Dean S. Gilliland, Baptism Why Wait?: Faith’s Response in Conversion, 2085-2109 (Kindle Edition); Joplin, Missouri; College Press)
When we consider the meaning of circumcision in the Old Testament, we can see how it remarkably foreshadows baptism. God promised to give Abraham and Sarah a son when they were well past the age for bearing children. The rite of circumcision was a reminder to every Jew that the only reason why they existed was because of the life-giving work of God!
Heiser has well written:
“When God told Abraham to be circumcised, he was past the age of bearing children and his wife, Sarah, was incapable of having children (Gen 18: 11). Nevertheless, it would be through Sarah’s womb (Gen 17: 21; 18: 14) that God would fulfill His promise of innumerable offspring to Abraham (Gen 12: 1–3). God’s covenant with Abraham could only be realized by miraculous intervention. The miraculous nature of Isaac’s birth is the key to understanding circumcision as the sign of the covenant. After God made His promise to Abraham, every male member of Abraham’s household was required to be circumcised (Gen 17: 15–27). Every male—and every woman, since the males were all incapacitated for a time—knew that circumcision was connected to God’s promise. It probably didn’t make any sense, though, until Sarah became pregnant. Everyone in Abraham’s household witnessed the miracle of Isaac’s birth. From that point on, every male understood why they had been circumcised: Their entire race—their very existence—began with a miraculous act of God. Every woman was reminded of this when she had sexual relations with her Israelite husband and when her sons were circumcised. Circumcision was a visible, continuous reminder that Israel owed its existence to Yahweh, who created them out of nothing.” (Michael Heiser, I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible, 18-19 (Kindle Edition); Bellingham, WA; Lexham Press)
Circumcision thus foreshadowed Christian baptism in two ways. First: circumcision pointed to baptism by pointing out the need for the surgical removal of sin (symbolized by the removal of the male foreskin in this example). Second: circumcision pointed to baptism by reminding us that God is the Giver of life. In circumcision, the Hebrews were reminded of how God provided physical life; and in baptism, we see the giving of spiritual life as God removes our sins and gives us new birth.
Fifth, while circumcision was a foreshadowing of baptism, baptism does not take the place of circumcision. Circumcision was a part of the Old Testament which was removed when Christ died on the Cross (Colossians 2:14-15). No sinner today is obligated to be circumcised, while every sinner today is obligated to be baptized into Christ:
Galatians 5:6-For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.
Mark 16:16-He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.
Again, circumcision was only for males. However, baptism is for both males and females (Galatians 3:26-29).
Years ago, a Gospel preacher brought up this point in a discussion with a denominational preacher who claimed that baptism took the place of circumcision, and that therefore it was permissible to baptize babies:
“Mr. Wallace: 4. Do you teach infant baptism comes in the room of circumcision? Dr. Stauffer: I do. That baptism takes the place of circumcision, because the apostle speaks of the circumcision in Christ, which is baptism. Mr. Wallace: By what authority do you baptize girl babies? Dr. Stauffer: You can’t do that—I don’t know why you would raise that. Mr. Wallace: I would like for you to answer my question. Dr. Stauffer: You can make no distinction—all may be baptized. Mr. Wallace: Would the baptism of a girl baby be in the room of circumcision? Dr. Stauffer: No, you couldn’t very well circumcise girls.” (G.K. Wallace, E.E. Staffer, The Wallace – Stauffer Debate On Infant Baptism And The Lord’s Supper, 26 (Kindle Edition); Cobb Publishing)
Finally in this regard, remember that circumcision was usually performed on babies who were then instructed in the Law of God. But in the New Testament, baptism is only effectual “through faith in the working of God” (Colossians 2:12-13). Since faith is produced by the Word of God (Romans 10:17), then the only way that the baptized sinner may have faith is by having previously heard the Word of God (cf. Acts 18:8). This automatically excludes any notion of infant or small children baptism. Indeed, Jesus emphatically declares that the sinner is drawn to the Father through the teaching of God’s Word:
John 6:44-45-No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, ‘AND THEY SHALL ALL BE TAUGHT BY GOD.’ Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me.
While circumcision foreshadowed and prefigured baptism, it did not take the place of it.
Sixth, recall that according to Paul, the ones who deny these facts (of the Christian salvation in Christ, of access to all spiritual blessings in Christ, of baptism and new life, etc.) were being empowered by the “elemental spirits” of this world. This should be a sobering thought to those who decry baptism in our day and age.
Seventh, remember that even though these Christians had been baptized, they had either not been educated about these facts or had effectively misunderstood them. This failure to understand every fact about baptism did not invalidate their baptism: instead, the focus was upon the identification of Jesus and His work as the Son of God (cf. Acts 8:37).
This passage teaches us many important lessons about baptism.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.