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Understanding Infant Baptism: An Explanation from Genesis 17 (Lesson 5.7)


A) The CONTEXT of the Passage: We're told in the first verse of Genesis 17 that Abram is now 99 years old, which means that it had been nearly a full 25 years since he left Haran for the land of Canaan. We're also told in the last verse of Genesis 16 that 13 years had passed between Chapter 16 and Chapter 17. What happened in Genesis 16? Abram had listened to his wife Sarah to take her maid Hagar as another wife. God had promised to make Abram into a great nation, but over 10 years later, he still had no children, and he wasn't getting any younger. So at the suggestion of his wife, Abram tries to force God's timing by taking things into his own hands. He takes Hagar as another wife and she bears Ishmael to him. And from that point on, there's nothing but trouble. When Hagar conceives, she looks down on Sarah; then Sarah retaliates by getting violent with Hagar. Scripture doesn't tell us anything else about those 13 years, but judging from Sarah's words later in 21:9-10, it seems that the family unrest continues. What does this teach us? Unbelief only leaves us empty. Abram had given into unbelief; he had failed to trust in the Lord; and his sin had brought real consequences not just to himself, but to his whole family. But that wasn't the end of the story...

In Genesis 17, God comes once again to Abram to comfort and revive him. And the way God does this is by reminding him of two things: His character and His covenant. God reminds Abram both of who He is and of what He has promised. So, God says, “I am God Almighty. . .” (v1). This is His character; this is who God is. He is God Almighty; the Living God who does the impossible (like cause a 100 year old man and his 90 year old wife to bear children). He is the Sovereign King who rules the earth. God also reminds Abram of His covenant: “. . .My covenant is with you” (v4). God is confirming the covenant He had made with Abram so long ago. In fact, God is here basically reiterating the same covenant promises He had made to Abram back in Genesis 12.1 Now, why would God do that? Why would God tell Abraham in Genesis 17 the same stuff He already told him back in Genesis 12? Because 25 years had passed since Genesis 12. And if you've been a believer for 25 years, you have a much more realistic view of yourself than when God first saved you. If you've been a believer for 25 years, you've been confronted with the depths of your weaknesses, your failures, your sin. And so, God coming to Abram in Genesis 17 to reiterate the same promises He had made 25 years earlier is really the sweetest thing in the world. Because it means that 25 years of Abram's worst sin and failure couldn't mess up the promises God had made to him. Abram had failed God, but God would never fail him. God's promises after 25 years were just as true as ever.

B) The NATURE, IMPORTANCE and PURPOSE of Covenant Signs: After the promises of verses 1-8, the Lord gives to Abraham circumcision as the sign of His covenant with him. We've talked about covenant signs before: The rainbow was the covenant sign given to Noah; circumcision is the covenant sign given here to Abraham; the Sabbath would be the covenant sign given to Israel later through Moses. And, as we mentioned before, “covenant signs declare covenant promises to covenant people.”2 A covenant sign was a tangible picture of God's eternal promises to His people.

We've seen that covenant signs are the foundation for our understanding of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord's Supper). What this means is that we need to have a right understanding of covenant signs if we want to have a right understanding of the sacraments. And this is so important, because so much false teaching has resulted from a lack of understanding of covenant signs and how they relate to the covenant. This is why, for instance, there are denominations that teach that you can't be saved unless you're baptized.3 It's because they have failed to understand the nature of covenant signs.

In particular, covenant signs are given for the purpose of assuring God's people of His promises. That's what they're for. Covenant signs were never given as some kind of ritual to save unbelievers. Covenant signs aren't given to unbelievers at all—they're given to those who already do believe. God was already in a relationship with Abraham long before Genesis 17. God didn't give Abraham circumcision to save him—Abraham had been walking with God for 25 years! No, it was in order to encourage and strengthen him in God's promises. And to do that, God gives Abraham a very tangible reminder of what He had promised. God marks Abraham's body with the covenant sign of circumcision, so that he would never forget the reality of the promises that God had made to him.4

A question might arise here: Why did Abraham need this kind of tangible sign, and why is it that we need tangible pictures like baptism and the Lord's Supper to strengthen our faith? Shouldn't God's Word be enough? Why can't we just preach? The short answer is that if God has given us covenant signs (or sacraments) and commanded us to take part in them, then we need them—whether we think we do or not. The truth is, we are a weak people who need to be reminded of God's promises. And so, we are strengthened when we hold the bread with our hands, and smell the wine, and taste them both; to remember that just as real as this bread and wine, are the promises God has made to us.5


A) The MEANING of Circumcision: So, how are we to understand the covenant sign of circumcision?

1) Circumcision was NOT an ETHNIC sign: it was not a sign to mark Jewish ethnicity (the physical offspring of Abraham). We know this, first of all, because Abraham is commanded not only to circumcise his children, but to circumcise all the household servants that lived with him, who were not of his offspring, but foreigners (vv12-13). If Abraham is here commanded to circumcise those who are ethnically non-Jewish, then circumcision cannot be an ethnic sign.6

2) Circumcision was also NOT a NATIONAL sign: Some people argue that circumcision in the Old Testament was merely a mark to identify the members of the nation of Israel.7 They would grant that Gentiles were indeed, at times, circumcised just as the Jews were (as in the case of Abraham's servants), but they maintain it was a badge of national allegiance, not spiritual allegiance. According to them, it was given, not to mark the people of God, but the members of the nation of Israel. In other words, they say that circumcision had no spiritual significance—it was merely a sign of national identity. Scripture teaches us, however, that circumcision was never given as a national sign; but as a spiritual one.8

FIRST, Circumcision was a spiritual SIGN because the covenant was a spiritual COVENANT. The best way to properly understand the sign of God's covenant with Abraham is to understand the nature of God's covenant with Abraham. After all, the whole point of a sign is to point us to the reality that it represents. The whole purpose of a wedding ring—the sign of the marriage covenant—is to point us back to the marriage covenant that it represents. In the same way, the best way to understand the covenant sign of circumcision is to understand the actual covenant that God is making with Abraham. And Genesis 17:7 tells us one thing in particular that's absolutely vital in understanding this covenant. Here in verse 7, God says to Abraham: “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.” What does this tell us? The covenant God is making with Abraham is about salvation in the fullest sense. We've seen this over and over and we see it again here.9 God says to Abraham: “I will. . .be God to you and to your descendants after you.” This is the very heart of God's covenant with Abraham. It's about God owning a people for himself in the fullest sense—it's about salvation; it's a thoroughly spiritual covenant. And circumcision is given as the sign of that covenant. As God tells Abraham in Genesis 17:11: “And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.” If God's covenant with Abraham is about salvation, then the sign of that covenant has to be about salvation.10 Again, that's the whole point of covenant signs: the sign is given as a picture of what's being promised; the whole purpose of the sign is point to what's being signified.11 So, if God's covenant with Abraham is about salvation, then the sign of that covenant must also be about salvation (rather than national identity).12

SECOND, Circumcision was a spiritual SIGN because Scripture explicitly TELLS US so. Scripture actually tells us quite plainly that circumcision was a sign—not of national identity—but of spiritual identity; in two ways: FIRST, Scripture tells us that circumcision signified JUSTIFICATION by faith. Outward circumcision was given as a sign of inward saving faith. We see this in Romans 4:11, where we read: “and [Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised. . .” This passage is incredibly significant. Paul is here explicitly telling us what circumcision was all about: Circumcision was given as the sign, or mark, or badge of Abraham's faith. This passage of Scripture couldn't be more clear: Abraham's circumcision was not a sign of national identity; rather, it was one of spiritual identity. It was given to Abraham as a sign and seal of his justification by faith.13 SECONDLY, Scripture teaches us that circumcision was given to signify REGENERATION by the Spirit. Outward circumcision was given in order to point to the inward regeneration—the new birth—that takes place when God circumcises a man's heart. God would later warn His people through the prophet Jeremiah: “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord and remove the foreskins of your heart” (Jeremiah 4:4).14 Outwardly God's people were circumcised, but many of them in Jeremiah's day lacked the reality of what the sign pointed to—the circumcision of the heart.15

So, according to Scripture, circumcision wasn't a sign of ethnic identity or a sign of national identity—it was a sign of spiritual identity. It was a sign of salvation. And it was given to Abraham to mark him as one who belonged wholly to God. In circumcision, God's covenant sign is given to mark God's covenant man as an heir of God's covenant promises. That's what circumcision is all about. Further, the sign of circumcision wasn't just given to mark Abraham as a believer. From this point onward, it would be the outward sign that would mark all the Old Testament people of God.

Now, what is the sign that marks God's people now? It's baptism. Baptism functions now for us in exactly the same way that circumcision functioned for God's people in the Old Testament: Circumcision was the outward sign of justification by faith in the Old Testament; baptism is the outward sign of justification by faith now.16 Circumcision symbolized the new birth (regeneration) in the Old Testament; baptism symbolizes the new birth now.17 Circumcision was the sign given to mark God's people in the Old Testament; baptism is the sign given to mark God's people now. This is why Paul links circumcision and baptism together in Colossians 2:11-12, when he says, “in [Christ] you [New Testament believers] were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism. . .” Paul is telling us that baptism functions now in exactly the same way that circumcision functioned then: Baptism has replaced circumcision as the outward sign of God's covenant people.18

B) The RECIPIENTS of Circumcision: So, again, circumcision was given in order to mark the community of believers in the Old Testament in the same way that baptism has been given to mark the community of believers now in the New Testament. The two signs point to the same reality.

Now, in the Old Testament, circumcision was to be given to two groups of people in particular: FIRST, to ADULT CONVERTS: non-Jewish, Gentile outsiders who forsake their pagan heritage to embrace the Living God and join themselves to His people. This is how it was for Abraham; God called him as an adult. And we see this happen throughout the Old Testament Scriptures. We read of Gentiles forsaking their pagan heritage to take refuge in the Lord and join themselves to the people of God.19 Now, if this foreigner was a male, he was to be circumcised to signify his faith in the Lord and his entrance into the covenant community.20 So, for adult converts like Abraham, circumcision marked spiritual realities that had already taken place. Romans 4:11 tells us that circumcision was given to Abraham as a sign (a picture) and a seal (a pledge) of the faith he already had while uncircumcised. This is why we baptize adult converts only after they profess faith in Christ. We baptize them to signify what God has done—that God has called this person to himself—that God has washed away all their sins in the blood of Jesus and given them a new heart that loves Him and wants to follow Him.

But this sign was ALSO to be applied to COVENANT CHILDREN: And this is what Genesis 17:9-14 focuses on. God is telling Abraham to apply that same sign—the sign that was only given to him after he had believed—he was to apply that same sign to every male in his household. In Genesis 17:10, the Lord says to Abraham, “This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. . .” This included both sons and servants—everyone who belonged to Abraham's household and lived under his authority (vv10-13). And not only was Abraham to circumcise every male in his household, he was to do so from this point onward when they were just 8 days old: “And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations. . .” (17:12).21 So, in verses 23-27 we read of Abraham circumcising all of his servants, as well as his son Ishmael (who is 13 years old at this point). Later, after Isaac is born, we read in Genesis 21:4, “Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him.” So, this is what is vital for us to understand: the same sign of salvation that was given to Abraham only after he had already believed in the Lord, God then commands that same sign to be applied to his 8-day old c