Baptism: A New Appreciation

Covenant Eschatology is a comprehensive study. It is not just about the end time things such as the coming of the Lord, judgment, and resurrection. Eschatology reflects upon and is interconnected with almost every subject in the New Covenant; indeed one cannot preach the whole counsel of God without preaching eschatology. Some have stated that eschatology is mentioned once every eighteen verses in the New Testament — but to hear some preachers today you would think it is not even in the Bible.

This pervasive subject, when studied anew, brings new understandings. Things take on a new significance because they are seen in a totally new light, the Lord’s Supper for instance. When seen in the light of Covenant Eschatology it becomes a celebration of fulfillment; not a supper of anticipation.

To this scribe baptism is one of those subjects that has taken on new significance-new appreciation because of my understanding of Covenant Eschatology. I would like to share with the readers why this is true for me. The text for this study will be Colossians 2:11-23.

The Historical Context
To properly understand this text one must remember the historical context and controversy that was present at the time.

For the first ten years or so of the life of the church the gospel was preached exclusively to the Jews. Jehovah had to club Peter over the head with a vision from heaven to get him to (reluctantly) go to the house of Cornelius and preach the gospel. It was not until the Holy Spirit descended on Cornelius and those gathered with him that Peter was fully convinced Gentiles were fit subjects for the kingdom, Acts 10:44f. Peter’s Jewish Christian brethren back at Jerusalem, when they heard Peter had gone in to the Gentiles, were more than a little offended and immediately called Peter on the carpet for his unorthodox and heretofore unthinkable actions.

Peter’s defense at Jerusalem was to explain how "the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also"; that the Spirit "fell on them as on us at the beginning" Acts 11:15. He challenged his puzzled brethren with this rhetorical but logically compelling question "If therefore God gave them the same gift as he gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?" Peter’s account and question carried the day and the crowd responded with joy "Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance unto life" Acts 11:18.

It is critical to understand that to this juncture Jew and Gentile were inveterate discriminators against each other. For the brethren at Jerusalem to make this concession and praise God for Gentile conversion was astounding. Even with this however, Gentile equality in Christ did not come without a fight.

In Acts 15 the fight began. Some Jewish brethren from Judea went to Antioch and began to preach in the Gentile churches "Unless you are circumcised and keep the law of Moses, you cannot be saved." We believe these men were interpreting the Old Covenant scriptures of the kingdom and Gentile membership therein in an almost literal way. Those prophecies which spoke of Gentile membership also indicated, when interpreted literally, that the Gentiles would be subservient to the Jews, see Isaiah 60:10ff; 61:4ff, etc. Be that as it may the Judaizing fight was on–a large and vociferous segment of the early church was essentially saying to the Gentiles "If you want to be a Christian that is fine, but you have to become a Jew to do it!" To Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles, this was nothing less than a total rejection of the salvation by faith that he preached and for which he suffered.

He was preaching a new creation, II Corinthians 5:17; a salvation not dependent on personal meritorious works of perfection, Philippians 3:9. He was not preaching the Old System imposed on Gentiles. His message insisted the Old Things be left behind — they were not part of the New — and he would not stand for one moment for those things to be imposed on this new creation.

This raging controversy about whether Gentiles must keep the Law and become Jews is central to understanding and appreciating Colossians 2:14ff.

New Things
There are we believe three new things lying in the context of Colossians 2 — a new people, a new circumcision and new baptism. The first may not be quite so apparent as the other two, but is vital we believe to understanding the other two.

Essentially the Judaizers were saying "You must become a Jew by submitting to the marks of the Jew to be saved!" But to Paul the question of "who is a Jew?" went far beyond a question of physical actions or lineage!

In Romans 2:28 the apostle said "he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart". Remember, Paul is writing an epistle that is known as a "Gentile epistle"; he is addressing the pressing issues facing the church and one of those questions was who is a true Jew? His answer is that a Jew before God is not related to physical circumcision. God was creating a New People.

This thought is continued in Romans 9:6-8 "They are not Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham…that is those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as the seed." There was indeed an Israel of God in Paul’s thinking–but it was not the Old Israel — that Old Creation was about to be taken completely away, Hebrews 12:25-28! It was the New Israel comprised of Jew and Gentile.

This thought of a New People permeates the New Covenant scriptures. In II Corinthians 5:16-17 Paul says that whereas they had known Christ after the flesh, under the Old System, "yet now we know him thus no longer. Therefore, if any man be in Christ he is a new creature; old things have passed away, behold all things have become new." We believe the emphasis is not only on the "New Creation" here but as well on the "any man" indicating Jew and Gentile privilege — both comprised this new creation.

In Galatians Paul wrote extensively against imposition of the Law on Gentiles–his emphasis was on its futility–and how the Judaizers wished to impose those futile things on the Gentiles, 6:12-13. Paul’s message in Galatians is clear however, Gentiles came into relationship with Christ through faith like Abraham’s and by this faith they became Abraham’s seed, Galatians 3:26-29. In Christ there is no Jew or Greek — Gentiles did not have to do Jewish things and become Jews to be in Christ! There was indeed an Israel of God, Galatians 6:15-16, but it was not the Israel of Old; that was to be cast out, 4:22-31.

Perhaps no where else is the concept of a New People more clearly taught than in Ephesians. Paul forcefully demonstrates that Jew and Gentile "both have access by one Spirit to the Father" 2:18. This equality is the mystery of God foretold by the prophets, Romans 16:25-26, yet only slowly grasped by the first century church. It took the miraculous work of the Spirit to convince all that Gentiles were truly equal. That miraculous confirmation of Gentiles as equal heirs did not stop at Cornelius. The Holy Spirit continued to be imparted to all, Jew and Gentile alike, through Paul’s Gentile mission. Our point is that in Ephesians Paul clearly teaches the idea of the New People comprised of Jew and Gentile.

In Philippians, another Gentile epistle, the apostle addresses the same issue in a somewhat polemic manner. He says "Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation," 3:2. These were strong words indeed — so strong they have insulted the sensibilities of some commentators — but fitting to the circumstances nonetheless. Paul was warning against
the Judaizers.

Paul raises the question of the identity of the true Jew and says "We (Christians-Jew and Gentile alike, DKP) are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh" vs. 3. A stronger contrast between people could not be found. Paul is patently averring the existence of a New Israel — a New People of God.

This equality in Christ, this idea of the New People is no less present in Colossians. In chapter 1:25 Paul relates his stewardship of the Gospel, the mystery, "hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to his saints." What was it that was hidden for so long? It was the "riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you the hope of glory" vs. 26-27. The mystery was that God’s glory would be given to the Gentiles! What had belonged exclusively to the Jews would now be given to the Gentiles! See Ephesians 3:1-11 for a fuller discussion. Paul’s emphasis on "every man" must be seen in the light of the mystery of God in bringing all men, Jew and Gentile alike, into his New Creation. Unfathomable to the Judaizers, marvelously wonderful to the Gentile, God was creating a New People with Jew and Gentiles as equals. And Paul wanted no mistake about it — the New People were not being called to submit to Old Israel’s ordinances. With the thought of the New People before us then let us proceed to the next point.

New Circumcision
The Judaizers were saying "You must be circumcised"; in Colossians 2:11 Paul says the Colossians had been circumcised–but not in the flesh! Paul was saying "Yes, there is an Israel of God and yes, circumcision is necessary to be a part of the New Covenant people; but not circumcision of the flesh! You have already been circumcised in the heart!" What a contrast!

Just as God had mandated physical circumcision for the descendants of Abraham as a sign of their covenant with him and so that they might possess the land, Genesis 17:9-14, there is a New People, the spiritual seed of Abraham, Galatians 3:7-4:31 for whom circumcision of the heart is just as necessary. (There is one direct contrast between Old Covenant circumcision and the New Circumcision. Under the Old System a child was born into covenant relationship, circumcised, then taught the meaning of his circumcision and standing before God. Under the New Covenant system a person is taught, then born into Covenant relationship through baptism where the circumcision of the heart takes place. See Hebrews 8:8ff for the contrast of systems.)

In all of Paul’s writings his constant polemic against physical circumcision must be understood in the light of what circumcision meant to the Judaizers. They understood circumcision as absolutely imperative to inherit salvation; it was inextricably interwoven in their minds with the kingdom concept and the inheritance of the Abrahamic Covenant.

Paul unequivocally refutes this materialistic and fleshly idea of the kingdom and the Abrahamic Covenant. When he said a Jew is not one outwardly he was striking at the very heart of the promises as the Judaizers understood them. When he said that in Christ "neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything" Galatians 5:6; 6:15, and that if a person was circumcised to be saved he had in fact fallen from grace, Galatians 5:4, he was undermining the fortress of the Judaizers system. When he wrote the church at Corinth and said "Was anyone called being circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Was anyone called while uncircumcised? Let him not be circumcised", he was emphatically repudiating any significance fleshly circumcision might have for the New Creation.

The circumcision of the heart in Colossians 2:11 then takes on a tremendous meaning. This circumcision is what matters, not the fleshly circumcision. This "putting off of the body of flesh" (ASV) is in fact the repudiation of all the fleshly things of the world including the fleshly circumcision of the Old Israel and all its other carnal ordinances. Salvation lay not in being physically circumcised as the Judaizers were insisting — in fact, that circumcision was absolutely of no effect for salvation. What mattered was the circumcision of the heart to make one a member of the New Covenant People, a true child of Abraham through faith.

There was an Old People and a New People; an Old Circumcision; and a New Circumcision. There was also a new baptism.

New Baptism
Circumcision was not the only outward action held to be important under the Old System. There were also the "divers washings" (ASV); or literally "various immersions", of Hebrews 9:10.

When the writer of Hebrews referred to the various washings the word he used for "washings" is "baptismois" from "baptismos". This word, according to Arndt-Gingrich refers to "ritual washings." Thayer’s Lexicon says this word means "a washing, a purification…of the washings prescribed by the Mosaic law." In commenting on Hebrews 6 Thayer says it "seems to mean an exposition of the difference between the washings prescribed by the Mosaic law and Christian baptism." Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words says baptismos means "as distinct from baptisma (the ordinance) is used of the ceremonial washings of articles." The Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament says baptismos means "ritual washings in Judaism" and on Hebrews 6 says the word is used to show the difference between Christian baptism and ritual washings in Judaism and paganism". Kittel’s Theological Dictionary concurs with all the above saying baptismoi are "Levitical cleansings of vessels or of the body." He adds that "baptisma" is the "specific New Testament word for ‘baptism’"; meaning Christian baptism.

The word "baptisma" is singular and according to Kittel’s and Balz and Schneider does not appear outside of the New Testament. This is the word that is invariably used to refer to the baptism commanded by Jesus; this is the form used in Colossians 2:12. Baptisma is never used in reference to the old covenant Levitical washings This led Oepke, in Kittel’s, to comment "Since the New Testament either coins or reserves for Christian baptism a word which is not used elsewhere and has no cultic connections, and since it always uses it in the singular and never substitutes the term employed elsewhere, we can see that, in spite of all apparent analogies, it understands the Christian action to be new and unique."

What does this all mean? It means that in the context of Colossians Paul is emphatically repudiating Jewish washings [plural] as meaningful and impressing on the Gentiles that Christ’s baptism [singular] is efficacious! The gentiles are not to be subjected to various and sundry washings that accomplish nothing — they were but a shadow of good things to come — they are to hold on to Christ. Christ’s baptism is effective — Jewish washings are not.

Compare Hebrews 9 with Colossians 2. In both texts the writer impresses the reader with the ineffectiveness of the Old Covenant Cultus — it could never make the worshipper perfect. That system, while still standing, signified futility. It was however, to stand only until the time of the reformation, vs. 10. That Old System was a type of the coming New Things.

In Colossians we find the identical pattern. The writer speaks of the futility of the Old, v.23. Those things, the food and drink ordinances, feast days, new moons, etc were mere shadows of the better reality — Christ, vss. 16f. No matter how often they went to the feasts, no matter how often they might wash, no matter how piously they observed the ordinances, they could not find salvation. Why then would they wish to a
bandon Christ the head and return to the shadow?

Why abandon and turn their back on the baptism in which their sins were forgiven, from which they were raised to life, 2:12, and which had demonstrated their faith in Christ’s resurrection to submit to multiple washings which simply purified the flesh but never the conscience? Futility of futilities!

There is then in Colossians a direct contrast between the Jewish baptisms [plural] and the baptism of Christ (singular).

When Jew and Gentile alike were baptized of Christ’s baptism it truly signified unity and equality in one body. But if the Gentile had to submit to the Jewish washings, if Christ’s baptism was simply one of the Jewish washings adapted and adopted by the Jewish Christians, the Gentile was not equal — he was having to come into Old Israel’s things — exactly what the Judaizers intended.

By being baptized into Christ, the Gentiles were made the seed of Abraham, Galatians 3:26-29 — and did not the Judaizers themselves emphasize that only Abraham’s descendants received the promise? But Paul’s point denies the effectiveness of any appeal to the physical lineage of Abraham thus completely thwarting the Judaizers argument.

By being baptized into Christ the Gentiles were circumcised in heart–the outward circumcision so emphasized by the Judaizers was in fact useless, availing nothing. The Judaizers demanded circumcision and circumcision was actually demanded by God. But Paul denies precisely what the Judaizers contended for (physical circumcision) and lifted it to the realm of the spiritual.

By being baptized into Christ the Gentiles received the forgiveness of their sins — something a thousand Jewish washings could never impart! The Judaizers were, or should have been, acutely aware that circumcision and the Old Washings had never taken away sin, those things were actually "a yoke that neither we nor our fathers were able to bear" Acts 15:10. The beauty of Paul’s argument is simple and compelling. Why submit to a system that doesn’t give what you do have in Christ through baptism?

The Conclusion
Paul’s point could hardly be stronger: those things which the Judaizers were impressing on the Gentiles were in truth exercises in futility. They were part of the Old Way. They had never and could never accomplish salvation. The Old Circumcision and Old Washings could not give life; the Baptism of Christ had raised them from death to life, vs. 12-13. Those Old Ways were only "a shadow of good things to come but the substance is Christ." Why dwell in the shadows when you can dwell in the "Sun" of righteousness? This is why Paul told them "let no man judge you in food or drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths". Christ was the fulfillment not the shadow; Christ had triumphed over those things, vs. 15. He had crucified their debt of sin on the cross! Why would the Gentiles want to partake of the system that had crucified the Savior? Christ offered freedom; the Old Way offered bondage, vss. 20ff. Paul’s logic was devastating against the Judaizers.

The Application
What about today? Does Paul’s argument have any significance for the subject of baptism today? Indeed!

Consider the concept of the New People. In Isaiah 65 God predicted he would destroy the Old People and create a New People called by a new name. In Isaiah 66:22 Jehovah promised that this New People would remain before him–the New People would not pass away.

As we have tried to elucidate, Paul in his writings speaks of the creation of a New Israel. This New People is the true seed of Abraham through faith. The apostle is emphatic as to how one becomes one of the chosen seed "You are all the children of God by faith, For as many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ… and if you be Christ’s then are you Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise" Galatians 3:26-29.

Jehovah said Israel’s seed, the new seed of promise created when the old Israel was destroyed, would remain before him forever. The Bible gives only one way to become a member of that chosen seed — faith and baptism.

Paul emphatically repudiated any association between the Old Washings and the Washing of Christ. He absolutely warned the Gentiles against participating in the Jewish things of the Old System. (If Christ’s baptism was simply one of the Old Jewish Washings, Paul himself had commanded it, but was now saying not to let anyone judge them in regard to it! Seems rather self-contradictory!) He nonetheless reminded the Colossians of the significance of Christ’s baptism as entrance into the New Israel. The Old People were passing away; the Old Circumcision was passing away; the Old Washings were passing away. Set in direct contrast to the shadowy things that were passing is the New People, the New Circumcision, the New Washing! These things were not to pass; they are the substance, the reality!

The unending kingdom of God is comprised of the New Israel of God. All spiritual blessings are in Christ, that is, in his kingdom, Ephesians 1:3. Just as God had a chosen people of Old and without the outward circumcision and various washings they were not a part of the chosen nation, so God has a New Nation, I Peter 2:9, of those who have been circumcised in the heart when they were buried with Christ in baptism. It is at that point that one is "raised to walk in newness of life" Romans 6:3f, because they have truly become a member of the New People. They are privileged to dwell in the "New Heavens and Earth wherein dwells righteousness" II Peter 3:13, in fellowship with the Father. When the physical body is put off the true child of Abraham according to the promise is privileged to enter into the direct presence of God in heaven itself, Revelation 14:13.

Consider the subject of life and forgiveness. The entire New Covenant teaches that life in Christ was established at the Cross and was being brought to perfection in that generation. Their salvation was "ready to be revealed" I Peter 1:5. They were eagerly looking for the manifestation of the Sons of God, Romans 8:18ff and "the adoption, the redemption of the body," vs. 23. Baptism placed them in a position as heirs to inherit that salvation when it was fully consummated, Romans 6:5. That salvation is now complete. What they anticipated we can now enjoy. Baptism places us in the completed New Creation as the chosen seed of Abraham.

Baptism is sometimes denigrated by those who see it as a work of man to merit salvation. But when we recognize that baptism is the point of total surrender; it is the point of dying to self; it is the point at which one gives up lordship of his own life and accepts Christ’s rule by putting him on, then we can properly understand that baptism is not a work of man but a work of God in making us members of his new creation. We become part of the New Israel, the new people that is to endure before him forever. Baptism is thus seen in the proper light as it related to the contrast between the Old Things of Israel and its proper place today as God’s chosen means of bringing all men into the blessings of his New Creation.

These are just a few of the thoughts which have given this scribe a new appreciation for baptism.