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The Circumcision of Jesus Christ (Col. 2:11-15)

Jesus Christ Circumcises Believers (vv. 11-12)

In the life of every child of God, our completeness in Christ will become the most practical truth and precious reality. He supplies all we need for joy and peace with the Father, guidance in darkest night, and strength for our warfare. Our completeness in him includes the thorniest issues of sin and temptation. We are righteous in Christ, but he does not give us instant victory over our sins. He would have us fight in the power of his grace and learn his fullness in sanctification, as well as in justification. Thus, the question that we all face this week is: how do we mortify our sinful desires? How do we live as new men and women in Christ? How can we walk in fellowship and obedience to Christ in our specific callings and places, especially when the old man of sin fights back against us at every step?

Some in Colosse were teaching that the path of holiness is following religious rules. They joined elements of Jewish ceremonialism with esoteric, speculative spirituality. They advocated “holy days” to make sure we “keep the schedule,” specific diets to subdue the appetites and body, and aesthetic self-denial – “do not eat, do not touch” (v. 21). Long stretches of church history have been dominated by these practices, but the Holy Spirit says they are useless to subdue the flesh (v. 23). They have an appearance of wisdom in “self-imposed religion,” but they are not from God or sanctioned by him. Therefore, they are powerless to help us in real holiness. They may make people feel better about themselves that they are “doing something” and are part of a “tradition,” but they are “man-made” religion rather than obedience to the Lord (Matt. 15:9). In this confusion, circumcision became an issue – not quite like in Galatia with the Judaizers, who insisted upon it as a condition of salvation, but as a mark that the body was being subdued. Circumcision among some in Colosse was a badge of ascetic self-denial and perhaps a mark of separation from the world. When the heart is cold toward Christ, externals and ceremonies substitute for vital religion.

Without Hands – Spiritual

This was never the intent of circumcision. Circumcision was an outward sign and seal of God’s covenant of grace (Rom. 4:11), and it aimed at the heart (Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4). It testified that we were corrupt at the fountain of our being and must be born again by God’s Spirit giving us a new heart to repent of our sins and believe in God’s Son. Thus, circumcision pointed to the person and work of Jesus Christ. In a unique description of his saving work, Paul here writes that our Lord circumcises us. He does so without hands, meaning spiritually. He performs the reality to which circumcision pointed but could not give – a new heart and cleansing at the fountain of our corruption. He circumcises us by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. “Without hands” emphasizes his powerful, sovereign, and gracious work in the sinner. To practice circumcision for bodily mortification perverted its meaning and practically denied that the reality had come in Jesus Christ.

Stripping Away of the Sins of the Flesh – Complete

The way or manner in which Christ Jesus circumcises us is by “stripping away the flesh.” There may be a slight play on ideas here. Circumcision snips a little bit of skin; Jesus Christ strips away the “whole body of the sins of the flesh.” He did this on the cross by being crucified and judged in the flesh for our sins. Flesh is our sin nature. Our physical body partakes of this corruption, so that while not the source of our corruption, the body groans and is greatly burdened by our sinfulness. It has become “the body of this death” (Rom. 7:24). The phrase emphasizes our total sinfulness, thereby helping us to see another aspect of our Savior’s completeness. He strips off the whole flesh. As we are crucified with him, so we are circumcised by him. He cuts away the whole root of our flesh and ends it dark dominion. And this is the foundation and pathway of our sanctification: union with Christ in his death to sin that we are circumcised by him and thus delivered from sin’s dominion so that we can walk in newness of life.

Uniquely of Christ – Buried and Raised with Him

“By the circumcision of Christ” is another adverbial phrase indicating the way our flesh is subdued and definitively stripped off of us. Our Lord does the work, and it is uniquely his work. He alone can deliver us from the curse, power, and love of sin. Nothing external can save or sanctify us. It is by his inner circumcision that he delivers us. Specifically, we must share in his death to sin and resurrection to new life, so that the power of sin is broken in our lives (Rom. 6:1-6). Our baptism is a sign and seal of this. The burial and raising have nothing to do with the mode of baptism. It is the spiritual meaning and effects of baptism that are being highlighted. Our faith rests not in the external sign of baptism any more than the Jews should have done in the external sign of circumcision. The waters of baptism testify to our cleansing in the death of Jesus Christ. What his death meant for him, it means for us. The waters point us to his blood as our cleansing and our share in his death so that we are cleansed of our sins.

The same is true of his rising from the dead. He rose to testify that sin’s power was broken and his sacrifice accepted. When we are baptized, whatever the timing or mode, the water testifies to our union with him in his resurrection. By his blood once poured out and his sacrifice received by the Father, the dominion of our sin nature has been broken, stripped away. Like Israel passing through the Red Sea and being baptized into Moses, by faith in Jesus Christ, we are delivered from Egypt, no longer slaves, and now on our way to Canaan. The benefits and power of his death and resurrection are received only through faith. This is God’s work—both raising his Son from the dead and raising us up in his Son. All points us to the person and work of Jesus Christ as our deliverer – not our rituals or spiritual rules for holiness. The stripping away of the flesh requires that we believe in him and rest upon his finished work. This is also God’s work, for no one can come to the Son unless the Father draws him (John 6:38,44). Thus, in no part of our salvation can man and his works or worship forms do us any good at all. 

Jesus Christ Subdues the Flesh (vv. 13-15)

Alive with Him and Forgiven All Trespasses

The fullness of Jesus Christ is seen magnificently against the background of our corruption. “Being dead” is our present condition outside of Jesus Christ. We are dead in sin. Sin has killed us. The flesh is not simply in the process of killing us. It killed us. “They who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8). Our deadness is described as “the uncircumcision of our flesh.” Being uncircumcised is not the reason for our deadness. The presence or absence of outward signs of the covenant does not make us alive or dead. This would undermine the present argument that we must have the spiritual reality to which the outward signs point. In this place, we must be circumcised by Jesus Christ. The flesh had killed us. It was not yet stripped away by the circumcising work of Jesus Christ (v. 12). Then, the Father in mercy quickens us with Christ. The Holy Spirit applies to us Christ’s flesh-destroying work on the cross. He enables us to repent and believe, so that we pass by faith from uncircumcised to circumcised, from flesh dominated to flesh delivered. And one glory of this deliverance is that we are forgiven all our trespasses.

A trespass is a deviation from a standard or path. “All trespasses” reminds us that we have broken God’s law in countless ways. He says “No” and “You shall not,” but we jump every holy fence he has erected in his law. Like sheep, “we have all gone astray” (Isa. 53:6). We must be convicted of the evil of our rebellion, or we shall never come to Jesus Christ. He made intercession for us. His killing the “body of the sins of the flesh” purchased our full forgiveness. Forgiveness here is a word meaning “to show oneself gracious, to treat someone graciously.” Forgiveness is wholly undeserved. Even one sin merits infinite wrath from an infinitely good, holy, and loving God, and our lives are one giant breaking of God’s word, for we do not love him with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. But by faith in Jesus Christ, we are pardoned. Now, by faith we lay our hands upon his hand, like the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement, confess our trespasses, and believe in him as the Lamb of God.

His Cross Answers All Our Charges

How can a just God forgive sins? His justice is not circumstantially determined or politically motivated. His justice is the righteousness of his holiness that avenges deviations from his will. He is perfectly just in himself, perfectly righteous in all his ways. Toward his creatures, he has revealed his will for our life. We have broken it at every turn. We are violators of his holiness and criminally guilty before his justice. These are elementary truths but easily forgotten and twisted to suit theological, political, and personal agendas of unrighteousness. Our righteous God cannot leave the guilty unpunished (Ex. 34:7). Verse 14 reveals the way of forgiveness. The Lord Jesus answered all the charges against us. The “handwriting of ordinances” has broad reference to the whole law of God, moral and especially ceremonial (2:16-17). Gentile deadness kept them from obeying God’s moral law, although it was written upon their hearts. Exclusion from the “commonwealth of Israel” prevented the Gentiles from drawing near to God for cleansing. They had no part in God’s covenant, and therefore no nearness to God and no hope (Eph. 2:12).

As such, there was not even a way we could provide any payment for our sins, but our Lord Jesus Christ answered all the charges against us. They were nailed to his cross. He became sin and took our criminal guilt upon himself. He paid our charges in full by becoming sin for us and laying down his life for us, the just for the unjust. Our Father is now just to forgive and to cleanse us from all our filth (1 John 1:9). The charge-answering work of Jesus Christ has obtained our full pardon and peace with God (Eph. 2:14). We are reconciled and forgiven on the basis not of our feeling close to God but of his drawing near to receive us based on the once-for-all death of his beloved Son. He nailed our charges to his cross, answered them by his sufferings, and washed away our guilt by his blood. Believe and adore! Believe and be forgiven! Believe and seek his grace unto holiness!


Triumphant over All Spiritual Wickedness

We easily lose a sense of the wonder of the person and work of Christ – and of his fullness and our completion in him. Already in the days of the apostles, it was necessary to keep his glory constantly before the eyes of the faithful. This is the reason for this section’s closing with another reminder of Jesus Christ’s exaltation over the angelic order. We easily fall into superstitious regard and fear of unknown, unseen forces. Our Lord has triumphed over them. “Triumphed” is the same word translated “putting off” in verse 11 – both fundamentally imply a stripping away, an unclothing. Here, our Lord is said to have stripped away the power of “principalities and powers,” the rebellious, cursed, malevolent empire of Satan and his thugs. Our Lord has stripped away their authority and their cloak of deception. Hence, they have no power over us, and we need not fear them. They harass us as the Lord uses them to test our faith and lead us to depend upon his sufficient grace. The devil and evil spirits or fallen angels also “work in the children of disobedience,” deceiving, stirring them up to greater wickedness, and to persecute Christ’s followers (Eph. 2:2; 2 Tim. 2:26). But Jesus Christ has publicly triumphed over them, made a spectacle of them, of which public triumph Peter likely wrote (1 Pet. 3:19-21). This parade of glorious victory our Lord made when he ascended to the right hand of his Father and “led captivity captive.” No one who believes upon the name of the glorious Son of God can fail to be forgiven, have the power of the flesh broken, and receive strength to fight against the flesh.

Jesus Christ Breaks Sin’s Dominion

Not Man’s Rules and Ceremonies – Powerless without Jesus Christ

Where shall we go for strength to fight against the sins that so easily entangle us? How shall we learn to speak kindly to others, forgive as we have been forgiven, receive rebuke without becoming contentious, and love God’s people? How can we escape Satan’s traps of division and despair, hate and fear? Where is strength to be like our Father and to love our enemies and do them good? It is in the circumcising work of Jesus Christ alone. Man’s rules and ceremonies will not help you. Mutilating the flesh and beating yourself up are of no value against Satan’s tricks and the flesh’s cravings. We must have Jesus Christ perform heart circumcision on us. All the arteries of holiness and purity and contentedness are completely blocked by sin. We cannot even come to Jesus Christ with a believing heart until he quickens us to new life and applies his death and resurrection to us. Jesus Christ claims for himself alone the office and ability to purify sinners.

Paul wrote to professing Christians, but what if you are not yet one of Christ’s? Has he circumcised your heart and delivered you from the dominion of sin? You may honestly be thinking that your sins rule over you just as much as ever – and this may be as a church member. There are two things to keep in mind. First, take these thoughts seriously, for the Lord commands us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). Make certain that Jesus Christ has circumcised your heart so that you no longer love sin but weep over it and continue coming to him for cleansing. We will, secondly, struggle constantly against sin, have you renounced and denounced yourself before him with an honest, broken heart over your sins? Have you then committed yourself into the hands of Jesus Christ to save you? This is different from trusting one’s own decisions and feelings.

To cast yourself upon Jesus Christ means that you give up any thought that what you do, know, or feel is of any help before him. You must have him, and you come to him with this honest urgency – and continue coming to him like this, until he reveals himself to your heart and you are able to rest in him. And then, even while you wait, you fall before him and confess, “My Lord and God.” I only want you to rule over me – over my inmost thoughts, attitudes toward others, respect and reverence for my parents and all in authority over me. Lord Jesus Christ, I give up trying to save myself or have my own way. This is part of my wickedness, and I cast myself upon you and yield to you – and I do not trust my words in saying this. I am looking at you – like the thief on the cross. Help me, Lord, Remember me, Lord. Without you, I can do nothing. This is the heart that is savingly convicted that it can do nothing without the sin-delivering work of Jesus Christ and is resting upon him.

By Faith in his Person and Work – Exercise Yourself upon Christ

Our need of our Lord’s circumcising work and its power in our lives does not diminish at any time in our Christian walk. Areas of struggle and fleshly resurgence plague every child of God. The fight is so intense that we doubt our Christian profession. The point of these verses is that we need union with Christ in his circumcising work to fight sin and resist temptation. Godly lives do not come from following man-made rules, saints’ days, or afflicting our bodies. These are not the kingdom of God (Rom. 14:17). We must continue coming to him and seeking from him the promised grace. We must come as he has revealed himself. Not: “Hey, Lord, if you are out there, can you give me a little help here?” Such a plea is prompted not by faith but frustration. Too many Christians put the Lord to the test, make bargains with him, and treat him cheaply. Little do we think that he went to the cross to deliver us from the flesh not only so that we could go to heaven but also so that our earthly lives would be marked by holiness. Think about something like covetousness, a basic sin that takes many forms. Unbelief and discontent are its roots, as well as a greedy, demanding spirit that refuses to be happy and peaceable with God and others until I have what I want. What we want may be good, considered in itself, but the Lord has not been pleased to give it to us. Covetousness makes us itch a little when others receive what we want – material possessions, better work, godlier children – and we do not get it.

Each day and hour of our lives we must learn to draw holiness from Jesus Christ. His circumcising work reaches the heart and strips away the flesh so that we can walk in the newness of life. This new life grows in us as we learn to bring all our struggles to our Savior, confess our sinfulness to him, and ask him to help us. Then, we turn to his word, for it is the helmet of hope upon our heads, the sword of the Spirit in our hands, and the shield of faith that turns back Satan’s fiery darts. Continue coming to Jesus, being renewed in our minds, and set all our affections upon him. Some of you are young and have not yet learned to come to Jesus Christ to be delivered from your lusts and to seek help from him to take up your cross. Some who are old may be struggling with fear and anxiety about the future or feel besieged by a sad spirit because we cannot do the things we once did. How we squirm when the Lord puts us on the shelf for a while, as he did Elijah for two years! Our Lord Jesus has fullness of grace and truth for each of these – for the struggling mother who is at her wits’ ends, the stressed husband who works hard and wants to please his wife but must also lead his family, or for the lonely sister in Christ who wants to please the Lord but wonders what her future will be. Believe in Jesus Christ. He is the circumciser, the one who replaces our love of sinning or despair over sinning with his joy and peace in doing his Father’s will (John 15:9-11). Come to him and seek new life from him. He is praying now at the Father’s right hand. He holds up the gates of heaven to all who will enter in and believe upon his name. By his death and resurrection, he will work the grace of the new life in us. He is invincible. He has all fullness. Let us seek all our life in him and live unto him by the power of the Holy Spirit.

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