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Download Colossians Part 18

Colossians #18.  Colossians 2:11-12

This passage talks about circumcision, so we might as well have a quick refresher course in what that is about. (Warning for parents: I will be using [just once] the name of a uniquely male body part. You may get questions from young kids.) The physical act of circumcision is when a small piece of skin on the penis (called the foreskin) is cut away. Usually, Jews did this to their infant males when they were exactly eight days old. If you were a grown man who wanted to convert to Judaism, you have to have this done to you when you decided to become a full Jew. In Biblical times, this was done without the benefit of anesthetics or pain killers.

There was a spiritual significance to circumcision. When God made his covenant (solemn agreement) with Abraham, he commanded that Abraham and all his male family members be circumcised. Every male descendant of Abraham was also supposed be circumcised. At that time, and for many centuries after, no one but the Jews practiced circumcision. The idea was this: you belonged to God, entirely. The sign that you belonged to him was right there on your body. It was deeply personal. You gave up a part of your very person as a sign of your belonging to him. The point of this was that it was a reminder of God’s grace. He chose the people of Israel, and it was not of their own doing. No one circumcises himself – it is done to you, for you. So, circumcision was a reminder that they were chosen by God. It was supposed to remind them of the covenant that God had made with them.

Though this was supposed to be a positive thing, reminding people of God’s grace in choosing them, eventually, the Jews began to use it as a sign of being better than everyone else. If you were circumcised, you were “in.” That is, you were in the covenant, you were one of God’s people. If you weren’t circumcised, you were out. That wasn’t how God intended them to take it, but it is how the Jews themselves eventually began to think. If you read some of the historical books of the Bible (Judges, 1-2 Samuel, etc.), you will realized that as far back as 1200 BC, or maybe even earlier, the Hebrews would insult their enemies by calling them “uncircumcised fellows.”

When Paul and others went around planting churches, they started out by talking to Jewish people in the local synagogues. Though a few Jews came to Jesus, most did not. Many of the first believers were non-Jews who were seeking God by hanging around the synagogues. They were interested in the Jewish religion, but hadn’t decided yet, and when they heard the good news about Jesus, they realized it was the truth they had been looking for.

However, once Christian churches had been established, some people began to dispute about how much of the Jewish religion was necessary for following Jesus. Those who had been full Jews were used to thinking of circumcision as the sign of the covenant, the sign that they were God’s chosen people. Even many of the non-Jews (called Gentiles), had spent a lot of time in Jewish synagogues, and they were confused by the Jewish arguments. They started to wonder if they needed to be circumcised – which probably also meant becoming fully Jews – in order to follow Jesus.

Paul was very clear: the answer is no. We already have all of God given to us in Jesus Christ, who lives within us by his Spirit. Paul says that in Christ we have a true spiritual circumcision. In the Greek, one way of translating part of verse 11 is, “You were circumcised with a circumcision, not an artificial one.” Paul is saying that in Jesus, we don’t just have a little piece of skin cut off – the whole body of sinful flesh has been removed from us. That is the real circumcision, circumcision of the heart – allowing the Lord to cut off your sin, and make you holy to himself.

As far back as the time of Moses, the Bible teaches us that the outward circumcision was, at best, just a sign of something that the Lord was doing in the hearts of his people:

16 Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer. (Deuteronomy 10:16, NKJV)

6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. (Deuteronomy 30:6, ESV)

Paul also makes it very clear in Romans:

29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter of the law. (Romans 2:29, ESV)

So actual outward circumcision was never any more than just a sign of God’s work in the hearts of his people. But now, says Paul, there is a new sign of the covenant, and it is even more than just a sign. Through this new piece of the new covenant, God actually does for our hearts what circumcision was supposed to represent. He says we were buried with Christ in baptism, and also raised with him. This is all through faith in the powerful work of God who raised Jesus from the dead.

He says something similar in Romans:

3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4, ESV)

In baptism, God killed our old sinful flesh with Christ on the cross. In baptism, we are raised with Christ to new spiritual life. Now, let’s be clear: baptism alone does not accomplish this. It says it right here in Colossians: it is baptism, combined with faith. Let’s hear it again:

“You were buried together with Him through baptism, and also raised to life together with him through faith by the mighty working of God which raised Christ from the dead.”

I want to make sure we get the picture. Romans 6:23 says that the wages of sin is death. Imagine you committed a terrible murder. You really did it. You get caught, and then you are sentenced to life in prison without parole. The only way you are getting out of that prison is to die. You could be free, if you died, but of course, you would also be dead. God, through Jesus, made a way for us to die so that we could be free of sin, and yet also become alive again so that we can enjoy that freedom. That is what it means that we were buried together with Christ, through baptism, and also raised to life again. Our life sentence has been served. Justice has been done. Now we can live in freedom from sin.

Like circumcision, baptism is something that is done to us, and for us. No one baptizes herself. In baptism, unlike circumcision, God actually does things in us and for us: here it shows that our sinful flesh was killed and buried, and we were raised to new life. In Acts 2:38-39, it says that baptism initiates the forgiveness of sins, and gives us the Holy Spirit.  However, it is clear here, and elsewhere, that baptism alone does not do these things: it is baptism combined with faith.

By the way, all indications in scripture show that people are generally baptized just once. If you were baptized as a baby, don’t be concerned about whether or not you had faith in that moment. If we go down that road, we might end up being baptized again and again, because we weren’t quite sure if we truly believed it enough last time. No. If you have been baptized, you receive by faith all that is given in that baptism, no matter when it happened. To get baptized again because you weren’t sure you believed is to say that what matters is how well you believe. This is not true. What really matters is God’s grace. A tiny bit of faith – faith the size of a mustard seed – is all it takes to receive that grace. We don’t have faith in our own ability to have faith. We have faith in God’s grace given to us through Jesus, and baptism in one way in which he gives us that grace.

This is a lot like communion. What makes communion truly the Lord’s Supper is that when we receive it, we believe that we are receiving what Jesus promised: his new covenant, his forgiveness through his body and blood. If we don’t believe it, we are merely eating bread and drinking wine (or juice).

Let’s be sure we understand something else here. In the Greek, all of these verbs are past tense. We have been spiritually circumcised. If we trust in Jesus, this has already happened. We have already been brought into the New Covenant. We already belong. It’s a done deal. Through faith in Jesus, through baptism, our flesh has been killed and buried with Jesus. It’s a done deal.  Through faith in Jesus, the resurrection of the spirit has already happened, and the future resurrection of our new bodies is a certainty. These things have been done to us and for us in baptism, through faith. They are not still in process. They are done.

I really want to make sure we get this straight. About halfway through chapter 3, Paul starts telling us how Christians behave. I don’t want us to get the wrong idea. We don’t behave like this in order to go to heaven. We behave like followers of Jesus because Jesus has already saved us, done away with the sinful flesh, forgiven us, and given us his Spirit.

One of my daughters recently married her teenage sweetheart. I had the honor of performing the ceremony. Once we were done with the ceremony, in God’s eyes, they were married. I announced them to the audience as “Mr. & Mrs.” However, as far as the State of Tennessee goes, there was more to be done. I had to get one of the witnesses to sign the marriage license form. Then I had to fill it out myself, and sign a couple forms for them. Then I had to mail it to Davidson county, and then someone at Davidson county had to open the envelope, send to the right department, and then notarize it, and then file it, and then make copies.

When my daughter gets back from the honeymoon, she’ll have to go to the county clerk’s office, and get a copy of the marriage license. Then she’ll have to take that to the DMV, and get her driver’s license changed. Then she’ll have to file a name change with the social security administration and possibly a few other places.

Even so, as soon as we were done with the wedding ceremony, we counted them as married. They drove away later in the day, and began living together as a married couple. It was a done deal. It wasn’t quite done, as far as the government goes. It still isn’t, because she hasn’t gone yet to do all the name change stuff. But they can begin living like it is done, even now. And when the paperwork is finally done, it will show that they were married on the I put on the form. The marriage begins not when the state says it does, but when God says it.

So it is with Jesus. The wedding vows have been spoken. Our old sinful flesh has been killed. We have already started our new life. There are still some things going on behind the scenes that will finalize everything, but when we get to the New Creation and stand before Jesus, I am sure that we will discover we began our new lives him now, even before the paperwork is finalized. So, even now, we can begin to live like it is all done. The way to do so is to believe it, and act like we believe it.



Following rules and regulations cannot make us close to God. Only Jesus can do that.

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Galatians #4 . Chapter 2:1-5


Last time we considered Paul’s claim that he received the gospel from Jesus alone, not from any human being.

He makes three basic points. 1. If he got it from a human source, it hasn’t resulted in him pleasing other human beings (1:10). 2. The message that he preaches was revealed to him directly by Jesus, in his experience on the way to Damascus. He began preaching immediately after that, before receiving any instruction from humans. 3. He didn’t consult with anyone right away. Three years after his conversion, and after he began preaching, he did meet with the apostle Peter privately. But he remained unknown by and unconnected to the other apostles and the Jewish churches in Judea.

Chapter two continues Paul’s thoughts about these matters. He explains that fourteen years after his visit with Peter, (seventeen years altogether after his conversion) he went back to Jerusalem and met with the apostles.

I went up according to a revelation and presented to them the gospel I preach among the Gentiles — but privately to those recognized as leaders — so that I might not be running, or have run the race, in vain. (Gal 2:2, HCSB)

He says he did this because he had a revelation, or vision. He does not explain if he had a new revelation about the gospel, or if the Lord told him in a vision to go to Jerusalem. But in any case, at this point, seventeen years after he was converted and began preaching the gospel, he takes the opportunity to compare notes, to make sure that what he was preaching was in fact the true gospel. The apostles affirmed that Paul was called by God to the Gentiles, and that he was preaching the true gospel (2:6-10).

While Paul was in Jerusalem, the very issue that concerns the Galatians was brought up. Paul explains:

But not even Titus who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. This issue arose because of false brothers smuggled in, who came in secretly to spy on the freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, in order to enslave us. But we did not give up and submit to these people for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would be preserved for you. (Gal 2:3-5, HCSB)

Since Paul talks about circumcision quite a bit, let’s clarify what it was all about. Circumcision was part of the Jewish law. It involves removing a little bit of extra skin from a body part that only males have. According to Jewish law, all men and boys had to be circumcised, or they could not be part of God’s people. Even if man ate according to kosher regulations, and followed all the Jewish rules, he would not considered Jewish, or capable of pleasing God, unless he was circumcised first.

Think of it like this. When I lived in Minnesota, there were a few times when I happened to go fishing the same day that a professional fishing tournament was held. Once, the next day, I picked up the newspaper and found out that I caught more and bigger fish than anyone in the tournament. But I didn’t get any prize money, because I was not officially part of the tournament. I had never registered. It didn’t matter how many fish I caught, or how big they were. It didn’t count, because I wasn’t part of the tournament in the first place. In this analogy, circumcision would be like registering for the tournament. Fishing afterwards would be like keeping the other Jewish regulations. You have to do the first thing before you can do the second. If you choose to fish without being part of the tournament, that’s fine – but in that case your fishing has no relationship to the contest. If you choose to be kosher, that’s fine. But if you aren’t circumcised, that has nothing to do with Jewish law.

The reason Paul uses circumcision to make his argument is because it is the most basic requirement of Jewish law (at least for men). So he says, “Look, not only did Titus not have to be kosher, he didn’t even have to be circumcised. The very first and most basic requirement of the law did not apply to him.” There was pressure by “false brothers” to make Titus get circumcised. But Paul did not bend to it, and neither did the other apostles in Jerusalem.

Undoubtedly, one of you bright readers will come across Acts 16:1-2, and find out that later on, Paul mentored a young man named from Galatia named Timothy, and he encouraged Timothy to get circumcised. So what does that mean? Did Paul change his mind after he wrote this letter to the Galatians?

In the case of Timothy, I believe that both Paul and Timothy felt that it would be helpful for his ministry if he was circumcised. They were sometimes staying with Jewish people who weren’t Christians. Good Jews could not allow a Gentile to spend the night in their home, or even eat with him. Circumcision gave Timothy greater flexibility in reaching out to those Jews who did not yet trust Jesus. So he was circumcised – not in order to be saved, nor to keep the law, but because the Holy Spirit led him to do it in order to be more effective in reaching people for Jesus.

Our family has celebrated Passover every year for the past seventeen years. We do it because we enjoy it and it encourages us a Christians. But we don’t think it is required. If we didn’t do it this year, we would miss it, but no one in our family would think that we’d be in trouble with God if we failed to do it.The point is this: You do not have to keep any part of the Jewish law in order be saved through faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, keeping the law won’t help you in the least. But you are allowed to follow some or all of Jewish law – if you want to, and if you do it for some other reason than because you think it is required in order to be saved.

We no longer have a law that says you must be circumcised. But neither do we have a law that says you cannot be circumcised. The important point here is that following rules and regulations cannot make us close to God. Only Jesus can do that. So when it was all about salvation and the true gospel, as it was in the case of Titus, Paul refused to budge. But when the Holy Spirit led Timothy to get circumcised in order to be more effective at reaching people for Jesus, Paul encouraged him to do it. You see, certain things are useful in our lives, to keep us close to Jesus. But only one thing is necessary: to trust Jesus. There is not law you can keep, no good deed you can do that will help you receive salvation. You can only trust Jesus, and trust that he did it all for you.

When we really understand this, I think there are two very common responses. The first is say, “OK, got it. I trust Jesus. I’m saved. Now I am going to go off live however I please, because I don’t get to heaven by being good anyway.”

A huge number of people who call themselves Christians seem to have that response. I have used the analogy before, but I’ll use it again because it is both helpful and biblical. That approach is like saying: “OK, I’m married now. Now, I’m going to go live my own life. I’m not really interested in spending time with my wife or being faithful to her and all that. She said ‘I do,’ and so we’re good. When it’s time to retire, she’ll be there for me to nurse me in my failing years. If I get into a crisis before then, I’ll call. But until I hit retirement or a crisis, I’ve got better things to do than hang around with this woman.”

The natural questions are: Do you really truly your wife? Do you really have a relationship with her? Can you honestly call that relationship “marriage” when you have no intention of making a life together?

In the same way, “Christians” who have nothing to do with Jesus probably don’t really trust him in the first place. I doubt very much if their faith is genuine when they treat him like that. This group of people is not focused on Jesus, but on their own selfish behavior. They are fixated on the things they want to do.

But there is another response that some Christians have. They look at the first group of people and say, correctly, “That’s wrong. I don’t want to be like that.” Their solution, however, is to create a list of things to do that ensure you don’t become one of the first group. Like circumcision was for Timothy, some of these things can be genuinely helpful in your relationship with Jesus. Others are actually a natural part of a real relationship of faith – like praying, and listening to God through the bible, and living in community with other Christians.

But we cannot make them into laws. This second group can also end up focused on behavior – in their case, it is good behavior. But it is not Jesus himself.

This is where trust comes in. We have to trust that as we fix our eyes on Jesus, rather than our own behavior, He will make things right. We trusted him to make things right for our past sins. We need to do the same for our present behavior as well. It is only common sense to do things that are helpful, like praying, and reading the bible and fellowshipping with other believers. But we can’t trust in those things to keep us in Jesus. We trust Jesus himself, not any part of our own behavior.

If you are truly focused on Jesus, not on how you want to behave, you will begin to sin less. Jesus will work from the inside out and your goals will come from him, not your selfish desires. If you are truly focused on Jesus, not your behavior, you will begin to find more joy and freedom. You won’t worry so much about how you’re doing, because you are full of Jesus, not your own performance.

I play tennis. There are certain stances and racquet positions that are important in that game. Good footwork is helpful. But if you keep looking at your feet and hands and racquet, you will absolutely fail at tennis. Once you learn the basics, you need to watch the ball, always. If you watch the ball, the other stuff kind of takes care of itself. That’s a simplification of the sport of course, but it holds an important true lesson. When we are fixed on Jesus, not our behavior, he takes care of the behavior.

Martin Luther describes a similar situation in his own lifetime:

“In the same way we today do not reject fasting and other pious practices as something damnable, but we do teach that by these practices we do not obtain the forgiveness of sins.”

Luther says, basically: Look fasting and prayer and so on can be very helpful for living in relationship with Jesus. But they do not get you that relationship; they do not help Jesus to forgive you. They don’t contribute to your salvation.

Remember the illustration I gave a few weeks ago. Jesus has come all the way; he has closed the entire gap between us and God. We can’t do any of it for ourselves, whether by fasting or by circumcision or by any other good work.

Paul’s hard-line approach is not about being confident in himself or sick of opposition. It is his confidence in Jesus, and the importance of this issue that lead him to come across this way.

But we did not give up and submit to these people for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would be preserved for you. (Gal 2:5, HCSB) emphasis added

Let’s understand the issue. It is that Jesus alone has done everything that is necessary to bring us into relationship with God. Our only “work” according to Jesus, (and to Paul) is to trust him (John 6:29). This isn’t about “being free” or “standing up for my rights.” It is nothing less than defending the truth of the Gospel.