Which Came First?

Which Came First?

The Fourteenth Sunday After Trinity

Genesis 17

Which Came First?

I have some great memories of a Bible lands tour Marjorie and I took some years back.  We began in Jerusalem and saw the usual sights there; then we swung south to Qumran and Masada, then bent back north and on up to the Sea of Galilee, Har Megiddo and Caesarea Philippi.

Then came time to leave Israel.  We rode a bus to the Tel Aviv airport and began the elaborate security ritual required of all travelers.  One fellow in our group was aware of my college affiliation and because his school had beaten mine in football the year before he had been razzing me throughout the trip.

It happened that he and I arrived at opposite sides of the same table in the security area at the same time.  Each traveler was required to hoist his bags onto the table and open them for inspection.

I swung my bags up and on and unzipped them without incident but my fellow traveler had the dickens of a time getting his suitcase to open.  Two unsmiling security officers were staring at him like a known terrorist and he was becoming increasingly frustrated.

The more nervous he became the more he struggled, and the officers were neither saying nor doing anything to help.  So I decided I would.

“How many Aggies,” I said, “does it take to open a suitcase?”

It’s my conviction he should have been taken into custody for the look he shot at me.  There was surpassing evil in his heart.  He didn’t say another word to me for the rest of the trip.  Mission accomplished.

I have been repenting of that glib line ever since . . . and maybe enjoying it ever so slightly.  And the memories don’t end there.

We flew from Tel Aviv to Izmir, on the Aegean coast of Turkey.  Our next mission was to visit the seven churches of Revelation.  Izmir is the name today of the place the Bible calls Smyrna, site of one of those churches.  It’s a sprawling European city of 3 million.

We made base there and took bus trips to the other sites.  One sunny day we had a little free time and some of us were walking down a busy street when we noticed people on the sidewalk stopping to gawk at something happening in the street.

Well, everybody loves a parade.  We stopped to gawk, too.  A procession of several cars was making its way slowly down the street with much honking and shouting and streamers trailing.  People along the route shouted back and waved and even applauded.  Something heavy was going on.

The final car in the procession was a late-model convertible.  The top was down, of course, and perched atop the back seat was a boy.  He sat like a statue, wearing a fine suit and a golden turban and looking for all the world like a young potentate.

Men were walking alongside the convertible, smiling and waving.  But the lad wasn’t smiling.  He looked, in fact, like somebody had killed his cat.

When we asked around we learned he was on his way to his circumcision.  It’s one of those grand occasions the guest of honor would just as soon sit out.  Something like a funeral.

This downcast lad had turned 8, the age at which Muslims mark their male children in the flesh of the foreskin.

The next day we asked our young Turkish tour guide why Muslims circumcise at eight years when historically and even among Jews today the rite takes place at eight days.

He smiled a sad smile, maybe even a pained one.  “I think it was a mistranslation,” he said.


We arrive today at Genesis 17.  We have seen God open His covenant community to all who would populate the Garden of Eden, and then sin and more sin.  God begins afresh with Noah and his family, and then sin and more sin.

God calls Abraham out of Mesopotamia and designates him and his family, including a flood of descendants, as the new covenant community.  He will constitute that family as a nation under Moses.

We have looked on as God created – or “cut” – His covenant with Abraham, commanding him as He had Adam and Noah before him to be fruitful and multiply, and as He enacted the self-maledictory oath, by which He would take upon Himself the consequence for the covenant-breaking acts of Abraham and his descendants.

And now we turn to the sign God mandates to commemorate His covenant with Abraham.  It seems a simple enough thing.  In our place and time, circumcision proceeds without ceremony or fuss, a routine concession to hygiene performed on infant males.  In the Scriptures and in the ancient religions, it has a more interesting history.

We recall first – and we can hardly overemphasize this point – that God deals with His image-bearers on a covenant basis.  Is this approach fair?  Well, it’s God’s approach.

Consider Daniel and his faithful friends.  God condemned faithless Israel to bondage in Babylon and He did not spare Daniel and his friends on account of their righteousness.  As members of the covenant community they marched into captivity with the rest of Israel, there to live as aliens in a land of strange customs and stranger gods.

Nor did their obedience to Yahweh and His commandments excuse them from affliction in the country of their captors.  Quite the contrary; it made it worse.  Daniel faced terror in the lions’ den, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego confronted the peril of the fiery furnace, precisely because they refused to defect from the God of Israel.

God deals with people on a covenant basis.  The righteous and unrighteous often get scooped up together; it’s impossible to tell the wheat from the tares.

God knows – and only He knows – which are which.  Yet He demands that those identified as His people bear an emblem of membership in His community.  It matters because He says it matters.

This line of inquiry will lead us down a path to the contemporary debate about infant baptism and what is called believer’s baptism.  I don’t mind passing through that territory but I don’t want you to think it’s our destination.

The real issue is the one that lies behind that one.  It’s one of those “Which came first?” questions, and it’s even older than the chicken and the egg.  Which came first, grace or faith?  The fundamental issue regarding both circumcision and baptism is how we come into God’s covenant community, by His will or by our own.

As with many other things, Yahweh took something well known in the ancient cultures and adapted it to His purposes.  Tomb scenes from Egypt’s Old Kingdom show adolescent boys undergoing circumcision.  An image from the Sixth Dynasty bears an inscription in which a priest tells his patient, “This won’t hurt.”

I have an idea the boy perched in the convertible in Izmir had heard the same thing . . . and that he’d heard the truth from his buddies in the hood.

In one Egyptian inscription a man reports that he was among a group of 120 who were circumcised en masse as a rite of passage.  Depending on the context, circumcision appears to have marked the transition into puberty or served as a prenuptial ritual.

In Egypt, it may have served as a qualification for entry into the priesthood.

But Yahweh commanded it for none of those reasons but to set apart Abraham’s offspring as the elect of God:

“This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.  He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations . . .” (Genesis 17:10-12a).

The female’s relationship to God came through the male, first her father and then her husband.  Everyone in Israel, then, belonged to Yahweh as a child of the covenant.  Circumcision, however, did not signal racial purity.

This we know from our passage in Genesis 17, which continues by commanding the sign for “. . . he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant” (17:12b).

For the foreigner, the mark of inclusion seems to have been voluntary.  We read in Exodus 12: “And when a stranger dwells with you and wants to keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as a native of the land.  For no uncircumcised person shall eat it” (12:48).

From the outset, then, the covenant covered both Jew and gentile.  Genesis 17 goes on to say, “and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant” (v. 13).  God’s plan, after all, was to bless all the nations, present and future, through Abraham.

To be circumcised was to be made suitable for the intended purpose.  The Hebrew Scriptures speak of circumcised ears and lips and hearts.  One of uncircumcised ears and lips was incapable of receiving and speaking divine thoughts; one of uncircumcised heart could not understand and obey divine commandments.

Abraham – called out of his native land by a God whom he was not seeking – became useful for God’s purpose and plan only after he had submitted to circumcision.  He begat Isaac, through whom the multitudes of covenant seed would issue, only after he had submitted to circumcision.

And those descendants, when they were uncircumcised in their hearts, were unwilling to love and obey God.  The prophet Jeremiah would indict them as indistinguishable from the surrounding nations who practiced mere physical circumcision.

Clearly, Yahweh initiated both the covenant and its sign for His chosen people and every infant born among them came forthwith under the conditions of the covenant.  God did not require their assent to designate them as His representatives.

This understanding accords with the bigger Old Testament picture of a sovereign God who works His ways even when they are not accessible to human understanding – and often precisely because they are not.  He demonstrates His power by using those who seem inadequate to His purposes.

He dubs Saul as Israel’s first king even though Saul is of the insignificant tribe of Benjamin.  He turns next to David, the youngest and as such the least son of Jesse and no more than a stripling at the time.  He uses sinners, even notorious sinners – this same David hardly least among them – to accomplish His ends.  God is in control.

The New Testament, as always, portrays a God who is entirely consistent with that of the Old.  Jesus calls 12 apostles who are not seeking Him but whom He seeks.  He calls them out from among a pool of sinners who are hopelessly and irredeemably lost.

Again, God’s purpose is to reveal His power.  St. Paul writes to the Corinthians:

“But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty . . .” (1 Corinthians 1:27).

Paul reveals that this God, ever consistent in His character and His interactions with His people, has replaced – yes, replaced – circumcision with baptism as the mark of the covenant.  He writes to the Colossians:

“In (Christ) 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, 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.

“And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses . . .” (2:11-13).

God has done the seeking, the finding, the calling, the saving.  You?  You were dead in your trespasses and sins before He made you alive together with Him.

Just as clearly, God works through human understanding.  Whether in Abraham’s day or Paul’s, He summons those He has ordained to respond in faith.  He cut His covenant with Abraham and commanded all males born under it be circumcised on their eighth day of life.

He appeared in the flesh as Mediator of His renewed covenant and beckoned the first believers in Yahweh the Son.  Like Abraham, these adults responded in faith . . . faith supplied by God.  Then this God ordained that they submit their offspring to baptism, the sign of His renewed covenant, as infants.

Oh, but Preacher . . . how do you know?  Show me a passage commanding infant baptism.  I cannot . . . no more than I can point to a verse that sets out God as Trinity.  But here’s how I know:

We have already peeked at Paul’s letter to the Colossians, which equates the two rites as covenant signs.  The apostle ties God’s old and new churches together further in his epistle to the Galatians:

“And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, ‘In you all the nations shall be blessed’” (3:8).

We can go to Luke’s gospel, where Christ’s disciples try to shoo away some pesky children.  Their Lord tells them:

“Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God” (18:16).

And so it is.  Would you tell your 4-year-old she may not know God?  She has not attained the age of reason.  Would you tell her not to pray to her Lord?

But does this same Paul not make faith a condition of salvation?  So he does.  He writes to the Romans:

“. . . if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (10:9).

Any adult God calls must be disposed by faith to answer in the affirmative.  Yet in Peter’s famous sermon at Pentecost we hear him say:

“Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39).

The baptism of the Holy Spirit heaves into view . . . but the sign of this renewed covenant, baptism in water, is ordained for all.

In Acts 16 we find two adults, first Lydia and then the Philippian jailer, offering a faith response, then to be told that they and their families must be baptized with water.  Paul and Silas tell the jailer:

“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household” (v. 31).  It seems not too long a reach to suppose some among the households baptized were small children.

God works by means, and in the usual course of events His means of adopting image-bearers into His everlasting family is seeing them raised from infancy in the nurture and admonition of the Lord in a loving Christian home.

And just as not all who were marked with circumcision under Abraham’s covenant entered into salvation, not all who are baptized with water into Christ’s church will spend eternity with Him.  But that truth, we must insist, is valid for those baptized upon a profession of faith as it is for those baptized as infants.

Beloved, I say again I am not concerned with winning you over to a fine point of doctrine.  Many beloved brothers and sisters who seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness hold fast to believer’s baptism.

I am instead committed to showing you the overarching, undeniable truth behind the theological disagreement.  Which came first?  Grace precedes faithGod’s grace precedes man’s faith.  Only because of what our Lord has done can we count ourselves members incorporate of His covenant community, the church.  Thanks be to God.  And amen.

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Posted on: August 28, 2016Ed Fowler