Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
Recently someone commented on one of the articles here with an article of his own. As I squinted at it, not knowing if I should take it as an offense, compliment, or some sort of advertisement suddenly the Holy Spirit lit up verses around the Bible. Therefore it seems that it is time for me to write about Member-ship in the body of Christ.
There’s a long-standing debate in the church as to what constitutes salvation in Christ. One of the arguments is the concept of “Solo Fide” (that’s Latin for “by faith alone”). The other version is basically “Grace +”; which is that one is saved through faith and God’s grace plus some sort of acts they perform (generally baptism). I’ve heard sermons on both sides of the baptism argument, but I ended up basing my opinion on what I learned through Scripture and it is through Scripture that we shall examine this topic.
However, before we get to baptism, let’s turn back the clock to the Old Testament days- actually close to the beginning and discuss why this article has a hyphen in its title. When Abraham met God, the Lord made a covenant with him. Scripture records the Lord’s words,
I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God (Genesis 17:6-8).
And, as part of the covenant, God gave Abraham a physical symbol as a reminder; we read,
Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner- those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Genesis 17:9-14).
And thus began the covenant of circumcision. Later, when he met God, Moses was presumably also instructed to be circumcised (and to do so to his family as well); because when he didn’t circumcise his son, the Lord went full on wrath on him. Exodus 4:24-26 records,
At a lodging along the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. So the Lord let him alone. (At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.)
From then on it had been assumed that any man who wanted to enter the assembly of God must be circumcised, and so Israel has circumcised all their males in response to the Lord’s command.
All this was fine until Peter, led by the Holy Spirit, visited a Gentile’s house. The story begins as Peter is coming out of a Spirit-induced vision;
While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”
Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?”
The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to have you come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say” (Acts 10:19-22).
Cornelius claimed that he was given instruction to contact Peter via an angel,
Cornelius answered: “Four days ago I as in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us” (Acts 10:30-33).
Although it was religiously illegal at the time, Peter spoke to the Gentiles:
Talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean” (Acts 10:27-28).
And as Peter spoke to them, the Holy Spirit showed up and Peter had the Gentiles baptized:
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
The Peter said, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days (Acts 10:44-48).
Take note that the Bible goes out of its way to say that the circumcised believers were shocked- this implies that Cornelius and his crew were probably not circumcised (as Gentiles didn’t usually do that at the time). This created a shockwave in the church:
The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them” (Acts 11:1-3).
But Peter explained,
“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who was I to think that I could oppose God?”
When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life” (Acts 11:15-18).
And that was the end of the discussion for a while.
Fast forward a bit. The church realized that if God was accepting Gentiles (which he was starting to do in droves thanks to the work of Paul), then they must too. So, what constitutes membership in the body of Christ? There was a split in opinion. Some argued on behalf of Moses, “Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). But others had a different opinion,
After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, we do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (Acts 15:7-11).
Paul also shared his experiences among the Gentiles, “The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them” (Acts 15:12). After hearing the testimonies it was decided what would be told to Gentile believers from the church:
It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath (Acts 15:19-21).
Noticeably missing from this proclamation was the topic of circumcision. This was a complete paradigm shift for the church that has had far-reaching consequences even to today.
But the story doesn’t end there, as this was before internet and TV so it was hard to make proclamations stick on a global level. Therefore Paul ended up having to build part of his ministry around the concept that circumcision wasn’t a requirement for salvation (just so people were clear on it). He wrote to the Romans,
Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker (Romans 2:25-27).
What Paul touched on is the paradox that the Law creates: although we are to follow the Law, any breaking of said Law negates any good we had done previously. Therefore circumcision is great- until you sin and have suddenly cut yourself for no good reason (and are unable to do so again). He continued,
A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God (Romans 2:28-29).
Paul spoke of circumcision of the heart, not of the flesh. Now here’s where it gets interesting, Paul actually wasn’t the first to use this concept. It turns out that Moses had already spoken of circumcision of the heart. Thus saith the Lord through Moses,
Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your fathers, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live (Deuteronomy 30:4-6).
This brings the question then of why one can be circumcised of the heart (and saved according to Moses) even if they are not cut in the flesh. The answer is that salvation is separate from the Law. Or as Paul put it,
For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. Is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith (Romans 3:28-30).
As his ministry progressed, Paul even became quite angry at those who were insisting that circumcision was a necessary part of salvation. He wrote of them in Philippians 3:2 “Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh.” And in Galatians 5:12, “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” Wow Paul, that’s hardcore. But his anger wasn’t without reason. He explained,
Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love (Galatians 5:2-6).
Paul reasoned that if you are circumcised due to the Law as some sort of work associated with salvation, then Jesus’ death was rendered moot because apparently you can save yourself (through not sinning). Since self-salvation is actually impossible (as we all sin), then slicing your jimmy for God is stupid because you’re putting your flesh above Jesus’ grace.
The good news of this is that guys, if you are not yet cut and want to become a follower of Christ, worry not; as there is no need to go under the knife! Christ accepts you even if you are sporting a turtleneck.
Now, what does this mean in regards to baptism? Find out in Part 2 by clicking the link!