Genesis 12, Genesis 15, and Genesis 17 are all significant in redemptive history because they record God appearing to Abram and making a “covenant” with him. We see it here again in Genesis 17:2, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between Me and you,…” A covenant is a sovereignly-given promise. It’s not like a contract or other human forms of promises that can be broken by one or both sides. God is giving this promise to Abram and neither Abram nor anyone else can ever prevent God from carrying it out.
This covenant reveals the Scarlet Thread of Redemption to us in these words: “This is the everlasting covenant: I will always be your God and the God of your descendants after you” (Genesis 17:7 NLT). This is God’s one-sided unilateral promise that, although Abram is unrighteous (i.e., not worthy, undeserving, not “a good person,” etc.), He will regard Him as righteous. It’s the promise of redemption – that God will do for us what we are completely unable to do for ourselves!
Then God calls Abram (now Abraham) to “be circumcised…, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (Genesis 17:11). It’s as if God is saying, “If you’re going to be My people, belonging to me, then you’re going to be distinct from all the rest of the world.” Circumcision is the physical sign of that distinction – a physical picture of what is really an internal, spiritual reality. So, as God extends the Scarlet Thread of Redemption to Abraham and Israel, He gives them the rite of circumcision as the main symbol of their relationship with Him. God never intended the rite of circumcision to be a ‘step’ or a ‘work’ that merits or otherwise earns His favor, His righteousness, and inclusion into His family. Submitting to circumcision was instead to be an act of faith (trusting in God’s covenant promise) and obedience (submitting to His commands in response to His love).
But it doesn’t end there. As we read the whole Bible with the perspective of the Scarlet Thread of Redemption in view, we learn that the thread runs from Old Testament circumcision to a New Testament reality. In other words, it is another ‘type’ – which I defined briefly yesterday as an instance where a person, event or place in Old Testament history becomes the pattern by which later persons, events or places are interpreted. As the historical person of Melchizedek was a pattern for the great high priest that Christ ultimately fulfills, so circumcision sets a pattern. What does this pattern point to?
The Apostle Paul discusses Abraham’s circumcision in Romans 4. He notes that Abraham’s circumcision in no way made him righteous. In other words, it was not a meritorious act or work that ‘earned’ Abraham God’s favor. How do we know this? Paul says we know it because of the timing of God’s act of making Abraham righteous. “It was not after, but BEFORE he was circumcised” (verse 10). This is all part of Paul’s case that we are made righteous (right with God) by faith in what He has done for us through Christ, and not by anything we have done or could ever do. “Circumcision was a sign that Abraham already had faith and that God had already accepted him and declared him to be righteous– even before he was circumcised. So Abraham is the spiritual father of those who have faith but have not been circumcised. They are counted as righteous because of their faith.” (Romans 4:11 NLT) In our culture we’ve probably been medically circumcised if we’re male. But, unless we’re born into a practicing Jewish family, we’ve not been through anything like the Old Testament ritual of circumcision. Therefore, we are those who Paul describes in Romans 4:11 as “those who have faith but have not been circumcised,” and who “are counted as righteous because of [our] faith,” and not because of ritual circumcision or any other religious ritual or work.
So what does the ‘type’ of circumcision in the Old Testament set the pattern for today? I believe the answer is found in Colossians 2:11-12 where Paul writes, “In [Christ] also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” Baptism is the ‘sign of the covenant’ for the follower of Christ. The same comments I made above about circumcision in the Old Testament apply here to baptism in the New Testament. Because God graciously redeems us and makes us His people, belonging to Him, He wants us to be distinct from all the rest of the world. He wants us to be a holy people, dedicating our lives to Him. Becoming baptized is the physical sign of that distinction – a physical picture of what has spiritually occurred in us as we have died to ourselves and now live for Christ (see Galatians 2:20). Baptism is never to be thought of as a ‘step’ or a ‘work’ that merits or otherwise saves us. Becoming baptized is instead to be an act of faith (trusting in God’s promise of redemption and new life through Christ) and obedience (submitting to His commands in response to His love).