[Author’s note: I wrote this study almost 15 years ago as a means of trying to understand what God’s word said about who should partake of the bread and wine within the Passover ceremony, as that was a topic of debate in our small group at that time (specifically regarding children). The study outlines what I concluded, though in my mind this is not a topic I would “fall on my sword” about.]
Circumcision required in God’s covenant with Abraham
Abram was a righteous man who followed and obeyed God throughout his life. In Genesis 12, we see the Lord (who later came as Jesus Christ) come to Abram and initiate a covenant, which was later reiterated and expanded upon in Genesis 13 and 15. More than thirteen years later, the Lord again appeared to Abram, tells him to be blameless, and instituted a new part of their covenant:
“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…and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.” (Gen. 17:1-14)
These verses show circumcision being added as requirement of God’s covenant with Abraham and applying to his descendants as well. Circumcision was a symbol of the faith Abraham already had, an outward symbol or action of the change already evident in Abraham’s heart. It was also used to signify the people God had made a covenant with.
Circumcision involves the shedding of blood, a crucial component in sacrifices for the atoning of sins. Leviticus 17:11 tells us that “the life of the flesh is in the blood…for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul”. This is a forerunner of Christ shedding His blood for the atonement of mankind’s sins (I John 1:7).
Israel’s requirements as God’s covenant people
Fast-forward to Israel preparing to leave Egypt and to keep the Passover for the first time. Throughout Exodus 12, God gives Moses and Aaron the instructions for the sacrifice of the lamb, the blood on the doorpost (again, the shedding of blood and coming under it), and eating the meal. Towards the end of the chapter, God instructs them that no foreigner shall eat the Passover (the body of the lamb that has been sacrificed), and tells them:
“All of the congregation of Israel shall keep it. And when a stranger dwells with you and wants to keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised…For no uncircumcised person shall eat it.” (Ex. 12:47)
The Lord is very clear that no uncircumcised person can keep the Passover, because it’s impossible to come under the blood of the lamb (Lamb) and partake of its (His) body without being circumcised—the sign of God’s covenant with His people. In this patriarchal society where God made a covenant with the nation as a whole, circumcision for family members was ascribed to the head male family member, who stood for the whole family (and all males in the family were also circumcised).
Over the centuries, God frequently made a connection between the act of physical circumcision and an analogy of spiritual circumcision, or circumcision of the heart. Throughout many years of wandering in the desert, Israel continually rejected God and longed with their carnal hearts to return to their old ways. Before they finally were allowed to enter the Promised Land after the 40 years of wandering, God hammered home this connection and how He wanted His relationship with them to function.
- “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes which I command you today for your good?…Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer.” (Deut. 10:12-16)
- “Then the Lord your God will bring you to the land which your fathers possessed…And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live…And you will again obey the voice of the Lord and do all His commandments.” (Deut. 30:5-8)
Circumcision represented removing the part of a person that is resistant to God. This never happened with physical Israel, though they were (often) physically circumcised. The fact is that this circumcision of the heart can’t truly happen without God’s spirit at work in a person, and this was not available beyond a few specific cases until Christ’s sacrifice.
Right after Joshua led Israel into the Promised land across the Jordan River, the Lord commanded Joshua to see that all the males were again circumcised, since circumcision hadn’t been practiced during the 40 years’ wandering (Josh. 5:2). As soon as they were circumcised, they were able to keep the Passover (Josh. 5:10). Again, circumcision was required before keeping the Passover and partaking of the lamb.
Read next: Jesus Christ as Kinsman Redeemer (Passover Themes)
What does circumcision symbolize?
In the New Testament, Paul frequently addressed the subject of circumcision and how it applied to spiritual Israel, those who have a relationship with God through His spirit. He addressed Jewish church members in Rome who wanted Gentiles to be circumcised (outward physical obedience/tradition) before becoming members of God’s ekklesia, saying:
For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.” (Rom. 2:28-29)
Circumcision of the heart makes us want to keep God’s commandments; it’s not outward, but a change of the inward spirit. Paul says that physical circumcision is all well and good, but isn’t the point—the point is to not sin and to grow in godly character. As he points out a little while later in Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”, so this is where our focus should be.
Paul continues in Romans 4 and specifically points out that Abraham’s faith was counted as righteousness quite a while before the physical ceremony of circumcision was actually performed—though circumcision was still required to seal that covenant. The physical circumcision wasn’t what made Abraham righteous. Rather, it was an outward sign of his faith—it symbolized the yielded, submissive, and faithful state of mind he already had. Or, as Paul states in I Cor. 7:19, “circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters.”
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Connecting spiritual circumcision and baptism
Paul then directly connects the notion of spiritual circumcision (removing the sins of the flesh) with Christ’s sacrifice (shedding of blood) and the commitment we make at baptism (removal of sins and death of the flesh) in his letter to the Colossians. This is a rather key passage in tying all of this together.
In Him 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, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us…And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” (Col. 2:11)
This transfers the sign of the old covenant to the sign of the new one. The foreskin removed in a physical circumcision symbolizes the body of the sins of the flesh. Spiritual circumcision similarly pictures removing that carnal, fleshly part of us that keeps us from following and fully submitting to God.
Baptism is the outward action symbolizing the spiritual circumcision taking place inwardly in our hearts with the aid of God’s holy spirit—which is only made available to us through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice.
Directly after talking about the need for spiritual circumcision in Romans 4, and the way in which Christ’s sacrifice allows us to receive God’s spirit in Romans 5, Paul brings home his point about baptism and the removal of the old body of sin:
“Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Chris Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead…even so we should walk in newness of life…
Knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the old body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed [cleared] from sin.” (Romans 6:3)
Baptism pictures the removal of sin through Christ’s sacrifice the way that circumcision pictures cutting off the carnal part of us that separates us from God. The circumcision of that “old body of sin”, the carnal mind, is not optional in God’s eyes—without that cut being made, we cannot receive salvation.
In Rom. 8:7, Paul says that “the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be…those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Just like with the Israelites, God wants us today to commit to Him wholeheartedly, to completely remove the part of us that is resistant to Him and allow Him to work in us to develop His character in us.
Read next: Passover & Our Betrothal to Jesus Christ
Passover and entering into covenant with God
Circumcision of the heart, like that of the body, requires suffering and shed blood (Christ’s), and seals the covenant we make at baptism. We formally receive God’s spirit through baptism and the laying on of hands (Acts 2:38). Unlike the covenant He made with the nation of Israel, the covenant God has with His people today is a one-on-one relationship, a personal covenant.
God calls individuals to the knowledge of His way. Baptism is a necessary part of the conversion process because it pictures the removal of our sins through repentance and God’s forgiveness—of death to the physical person and re-birth as a spiritual being (Acts 2:38, 22:7; John 3:5-6; Rom. 6:3-7).
Without the removal of the males’ foreskins, the Israelites were not allowed to partake of the Passover and come under the lamb’s blood on the doorpost or eat the lamb’s body. Likewise, without baptism and making that covenant with God, we cannot come under the blood of our Lamb Jesus Christ, have our sins removed, or formally receive God’s spirit. Our sins, by their very existence, separate us from God.
“Your iniquities have separated you from your God; And your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear…Therefore justice is far from us… For salvation is far from us…Our sins testify against us.” (Is. 59:2-12)
As Isaiah brings out here, our sins must be removed before we receive God’s grace and forgiveness. If we cannot come under the blood of the Lamb due to our sins still being imputed to us, how can we justify eating of His body and drinking of His blood at Passover—claiming His sacrifice for ourselves when we have not first come into covenant with Him?
In the old covenant, this was a family and national affair as the chosen people of God. In the new covenant—an individual covenant—baptism is the sign of spiritual circumcision and repentance (cleansing of sins). Without this step, a person cannot come under the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, taking of the symbols of the new covenant before baptism is taking them in an unworthy manner without discernment; it is taking of something that you don’t yet have a right to, without making the commitment and being cleansed of your sins.
While it’s true that the children of God’s people are set apart and made holy by God (I Cor. 7:14), their sins as individuals are not washed away and forgiven until they, themselves, repent and enter into a personal covenant with God.
As a society we understand that a child can’t truly grasp legal implications and enter into contracts until they reach a certain age or maturity, and this same principle applies here—they should not be entering into a personal covenant with the Almighty until they can fully understand what it requires of them. It’s why we don’t practice infant baptism.
Similarly, partaking of the bread and wine at Passover shares a lot of symbolism with a marriage contract, and this is not a relationship that children can enter. As such, I have to conclude that children and any other unbaptized people should not take the bread and wine at Passover. Hopefully this study sheds some light on what the bible has to say about this topic.
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