"And this I say, that the Covenant which was confirmed earlier by God in Christ cannot be annulled by the law, which came four hundred and thirty years after, so as to make the promise of no effect. For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise. For what then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels through the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator is not a mediator for one, but God is one. Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should then have come by the law. But the Scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under the law, being shut apart from the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Therefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ." (Galatians 3:17-27 KJV)
In the last study we examined the end of the law or sabbatarian covenant. As outlined in the above passage, the purpose of that covenant was to shut people away from faith by plunging them into sin. It was not to bring about faith. For the non-elect who entered into the law-covenant, their breaking it was the end of God's purposes toward them. They perished forever in their sins and Hebrews is clear that their damnation is a warning to all future generations. For the righteous in that era, it was an administration of grace only in the preparatory sense-as a schoolmaster. So how were people saved before the coming of Christ and the gospel?
Paul makes it clear that the promise came before the law and the law could not nullify it. So the elect of God in pre-Christian times were saved under the covenants of promise, which administered the same grace that would finally be revealed in the glory of the new and everlasting covenant. In the ultimate reality, now that Christ has come, all of the people of God are saved within the same New Covenant of grace. The promise of the Abrahamic covenant has been fulfilled, filled-full, and swallowed up in the coming of 'faith' and all that it implies.
It is interesting (and important) to note that circumcision was originally the sign of the promise-not the law. It was given and commanded as a sign to future generations in Genesis 17, to confirm the promissory covenant that God ratified by himself in Genesis 15. The very fact of how circumcision was introduced tells us much about God's sovereignty and how his word never fails. When God first told Abraham about it, the response was that he 'laughed to himself' (verse 17). He doubted the fulfillment of God's promise. But he still hastened to obey the command to circumcise. This involved significant pain for himself and others. What can be learned from this incident? God always puts his commandments in the hearts of his elect. Even if his people commit serious sin, it doesn't cancel the deep-rooted transformation that has taken place by the work of the Holy Spirit.
So why does Paul make so much out of the end of circumcision? One reason is because Judaism had equated it with taking the 'yoke' of the entire law. However, we are mistaken if we leave it at that. The rabbinic position on this matter was extra-biblical. The Old Testament is very clear that the Sabbath, not circumcision, was the sign of the law-covenant. In spite of this fact the Jewish teachers had come to confuse the promise with the law.
The real issue in the end of circumcision is whether the promise has been fulfilled. Has the Messiah come or do we look for another? Has God completed what he promised to Abraham-in the creation of a new people of faith by the Holy Sprit? If we continue to make circumcision a legal and religious requirement, we are denying these realities.
Although the history of Christianity is laden with attempts to bring the Saturday sabbath, dietary laws, & even civic laws of the law-covenant into the new; Paul's statements about circumcision are explicit enough that no one (except those who deny Paul's authority) would be foolish enough to try introducing it. That is, literally. But have people tried to slip it in some other way? Most definitely, yes. Just as the Sunday Sabbath was introduced to replace Saturday, a number of views and practices of water baptism have been introduced to replace circumcision. All of these externals which require the observance of a day or a particular administration of water are in reality a return to the old letter. The letter kills but the spirit gives life.
Water baptism is, though commanded by Christ, nowhere called a covenant or covenant sign in the New Testament. It is critical to note that God has always made the external sign of each covenant specific (Noah-rainbow, Abraham-circumcision, Sinai-decalogue, David-throne, New-wine). The sacrifice was also a promissory covenant from Adam forward. But persons have tried to introduce a covenant of baptism, which is really a covenant of circumcision in disguise, for almost the entire Christian era. Well, what does the Bible have to say about it?
"And ye are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power, and in whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ. Ye are buried with Him in baptism, wherein ye also are risen with Him through the faith in the operation of God, who hath raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath He quickened together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us. He took it out of the way, nailing it to His cross; and having despoiled principalities and powers, He made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it." (Colossians 2:10-15 KJV)
This is the passage most often cited to introduce water baptism as a new covenant of circumcision. Basically, the logic is that God's promise to Abraham and the sign of circumcision is replaced with God's promise to 'the church' and the sign of baptism. But that is the exact opposite of what Paul is saying here! What a glorious passage and what a disappointing explanation of such tremendous realities! The emphasis is not on promise but fulfillment of the promise. The circumcision and baptism in this passage are realities that have become complete in Christ and the Holy Sprit quickening us with faith in Him.
The 'one baptism for the remission of sins' in the New Testament is that of the Holy Spirit uniting us to Christ. It is not the water of the Nicene Creed. Christian water baptism, however it is practiced today, was originally commanded as a testimony to the realities of the gospel. What a mess of things has been made by human teachers since then!
Just as Christ is our Sabbath, he is our circumcision. Don't try and bring either observance into the New Covenant in any form!
There are many more aspects of former covenants that do not belong in the new and everlasting covenant of grace.