8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. 9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:8-15)
It has been said as a biblical truth again and again that God changes people. This is a well supported truth from the Bible. The change that God is involved in is change that relates to the heart. God is intense about heart change. When I say heart change, I mean change that pierces into the core of who we are as people, as individuals. It is a change that begins in the inner man and begins to move outward, affecting what we do.
God is so about change, change that He does in the lives of people. He wants us to know of this and has graciously given to us pictures that help us understand the reality of change that He brings. Things can happen inside of us that may not be easily seen outwardly, at least not right away. You get sick, go to the doctor, maybe the doctor gives you antibiotics for an infection. You take the pills, the pills go into your body and immediately go to work. Are you well five minutes later? No, not that fast. Is the medicine working, doing something in your body? Sure. What is it doing? How are you different immediately after taking the medicine? If we answered those questions according to how we feel five minutes later, the answer would be that the medicine is doing nothing. If we answer from a scientific perspective we can understand that it is doing something, things that we cannot see yet, but it is actively affecting your body. Change is taking place, though we might not recognize it right away nor understand how exactly it is working.
It is like going into surgery and getting something repaired, maybe a knee. You come out and feel awful, worse than you even did before. And the doctor tells you what he did, and how great it all worked out. How do you know he did all that, really? You don’t at that moment, but hopefully over time you feel the change.
God actively works in us and around us. We don’t always feel or understand how He works, so He tells us of the work He does, He describes His work to us in His Word, and He even gives us pictures of His work to explain to us what He is doing. Why? To help us understand. He gives us metaphors and examples and comparisons and pictures of realities so that we can understand spiritual truth and how He works.
For example, marriage. Marriage is a picture of a spiritual truth. As pleased as God was to create marriage, and as wonderful as it can be for couples and families and for society, and as intense as God is on how marriage is to be lived out on this earth, and how it is not to be trifled with regarding the breaking up of marriage, as great as it is on earth and even in God’s view, it is still meant as a picture of something that is infinitely greater.
Marriage is a picture of our union with Christ. We cannot, with our eyes, see our union with Christ. We certainly experience effects of it, we enjoy even now the benefits of it, but it is not seen with our eyes, this union is not. We read of its reality and can understand it better because God has given us Scripture relating it to things we can see, know, and experience. We know what marriage is and ought to be, and that helps us to understand our union with Christ. A picture pointing to a greater spiritual reality.
22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5:22-33)
We see this incredible intertwining of what we know as marriage and of what we are trying to know and understand regarding our new relationship with Christ. One is familiar (marriage), the other is mysterious (our union with Christ). The one helps us to understand the other. This is not to say that all marriages represent well the picture of our relationship with Christ, only that a godly one ought to better show us what our spiritual reality is like.
So a picture that helps point us to a greater spiritual reality. An understood concept that unfolds for us a more complicated one. And so it is with our passage this morning from Colossians 2:11-12. We see in our passage two examples of what our salvation is like. Two examples of how we have really been changed. It is mysterious and unlike what we may be used to and what we know generally, but we can understand better by understanding examples that God has given to us. The first has to do with circumcision and the second with baptism.
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ (Colossians 2:11)
Circumcision was an Old Testament sign that was given to God’s chosen nation Israel.
10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant. (Genesis 17:10-14)
This command given by God to Israel was a serious one, and one that He expected them to follow. But let’s be clear, circumcision did not save anyone. It was a sign given to portray a spiritual truth. Circumcision was a graphic sign that demonstrated a need for change, and it was in fact real change. Physically it changed the body, permanently so. Change occurred, lasting change. But it did not change the heart. It was to represent a change, however.
We can understand this from Abraham’s life. We see in Romans 4 that salvation came to him prior to circumcision, and that circumcision, then, was a sign of what he had already received.
He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. (Romans 4:11)
It is the heart that must be circumcised by God.
But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. (Romans 2:29)
The cut that needs to happen, the change that we need, the transformation that is lasting and genuine is one of the heart. It is not the outward form that makes us new, it is the inward reality of spiritual change. Physical circumcision was simply the sign of something greater.
We needed the circumcision of Christ, the removal of the body of the flesh, as Paul indicates here. This simply means a getting rid of the sinful fallen nature that once dominated everyone, but that no longer dominates the Christian. In other words, through Christ we have been released from the bondage to our sinful nature. We still sin, but we are not enslaved to it, not if circumcision of the heart has happened.
20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness…22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. (Romans 6:20, 22)
You may say, “Well I don’t know, I sometimes feel enslaved to my sin. I too often give into the temptation to sin. I feel, in my inner being, the struggle against sin. Does this mean I have not truly been changed?” I would say that these struggles may, instead of indicating a lack of change, they may indicate that change has in fact happened. If there is a struggle, if you desire to fight off the sin, if you long to be free of the sin because you love the Savior, then I would count that as a good thing. If this is you, then you are in good company.
Remember the transparent words of the apostle Paul regarding his struggle with sin? The great apostle, the primary writer of the New Testament, the missionary and pastor, Paul. He had been regenerated, his heart had been circumcised by his Savior, and this is why he went to battle against sinful desires. Listen to his personal honesty from Romans 7…
15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:15-25)
We don’t have time this morning to take these words apart and look more closely at them, but for now let’s just recognize the struggle of which he speaks. It is because he had been genuinely changed that he feels and is engaged in this intense fight; not because he had not been changed at all. Before he was saved his battle was against those who opposed him, those who stood in his way. Back then his battle was not for righteousness out of a love for Christ, it was for himself. It is because of the change that he is now at war with his flesh, that is the point. Real change had taken place, and this real change also brought a reshuffling of the battle before him.
Are you at war with your sinful fleshly desires? Do you want to kill the sin that is present in your life? Do you want to live a life that is pleasing to your Savior because you love Him and are grateful toward Him? Do you long to be with Christ in heaven? Do you want others to see His glory and even reflect His glory to them? If so, then these may all be fruit of a heart, your heart, that has been changed by God through Christ, a circumcision of the heart.
made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ (Colossians 2:11b)
We were created to love and live for Christ.
and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Corinthians 5:15)
We were created for that, but we will not live this way nor have desires to live this way if we have not first been spiritually changed.
Circumcision does not save, it never saved, but it is a picture of salvation, of a heart radically altered, permanently so by God.
Paul goes on to show another picture of change that we see in baptism. Unfortunately, there are some who see this outward sign as actually a pathway to salvation rather than a picture of salvation. Like circumcision, it is a picture of something great. It is a picture of a spiritual change.
having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Colossians 2:12)
The picture here is a dramatic one of death and resurrection – “buried with him in baptism.” It is a picture of death. What kind of death? Of death to our old self, that old self that was headed to hell. Water baptism is a picture of death, and also of new life.
raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Colossians 2:12b)
Raised with Him how? By faith. It is by grace we are saved through faith. Not through a ritual, an outward sign. We are raised to newness of life. That is the picture. To believe that physical circumcision or water baptism brings salvation is to become one who believes that works can save a person, that we can go out and do something to be saved rather than exercise faith in Christ’s work for us. Works do not save.
If we could go out and do things and be saved, then surely those in Matthew 7:22 and 23 would have been saved.
22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:22-23)
If an outward sign could bring us spiritual life, then surely those who were out there prophesying in God’s name and casting out demons in God’s name and doing many might works in God’s name, surely if works could bring us to salvation and to God, then these would be saved. And yet, they were not saved.
We mustn’t confuse pictures of salvation with salvation itself. We mustn’t confuse outward works with inward realities. It is the heart that God goes after. Where is your heart? Now in saying this, let’s not forget that inward change does and should cause outward manifestation of belief. That is true. James said that faith without works is dead. Faith ought to, does lead us to do works in Christ’s name. But the works do not save. Don’t just pursue the works, pursue the person of Jesus Christ, and He will lead you to the works He has for you to do.
Paul is so adamant in this. He is so persistent with his words. He seems to desperately want us and all believers to realize this inward change of Christianity. Last week, what we read from Colossians 2:8 was a warning and command not to be taken captive by philosophy and empty deceit, but notice what he does both before and after those warnings and instruction. He on and on again reminds us of who we are in Christ. Isn’t that they key? Focus on who we are in Christ. So for today, we are changed people. Circumcised in the heart, buried with Him in baptism, putting to death that old flesh and raised to new life. We are new creatures; the old has passed, new has come. We, if we are Christians, we belong to Him and in Him. We have been raised to newness.
Today, if you are here and you know that you have not really been changed by God, if your desires have not been renewed, if you don’t have a love for God and long to know Him more and be with Him forever, then I want to encourage you to cry out to Him and ask Him to renew your heart, to bring salvation to you, to repent of your sins and turn toward Him. If you are working hard to earn His favor, if you are exhausting yourself trying to gain His love, then just stop and cry out to Him, admitting your weakness, your sin, and your need for Him. Call upon Him. Be changed by Him, and join with the many others who have also been changed.
11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Colossians 2:11-12)