In whom also you are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands…
There are two tendencies ever at work to corrupt religion. One is of the intellect, the temptation of the cultured few, which turns religion into theological speculation; the other of the senses, that of the vulgar many, which turns religion into a theatrical spectacle. But opposite as these are they were united at Colossae. To the teaching of the necessity of circumcision —
I. The apostle opposes the position that ALL CHRISTIAN MEN BY VIRTUE OF THEIR UNION WITH CHRIST HAVE RECEIVED THE TRUE CIRCUMCISION, of which the outward rite was the shadow, and therefore now obsolete.
1. The language points to a definite past time. When they became Christians a change passed over them parabled by circumcision,
(1) It is not made with hands, i.e., it is not a rite but a reality, not transacted in the flesh but in the Spirit, not a removal of ceremonial impurity, but a cleansing of the heart (Deuteronomy 30:6).
(2) It consists in the putting off of the body of the flesh "the sins of" is an interpolation — a complete stripping off from oneself, as of clothes, in contrast with a removal of a small part of the body. It is true that Christian men, alas! realize this by slow degrees; but on the Divine side it is complete. Christ gives perfect emancipation, and if it is only partial it is because we have not taken the things that are freely given. The foe may keep up a guerilla warfare after he is substantially defeated, but his entire subjugation is certain if we keep hold of the strength of Christ.
(3) It is of Christ; not that He submitted to it, but instituted it.
2. What is the bearing of this statement on the apostle's purpose? That circumcision is an anachronism, "as if a flower should shut, and be a bud again."(1) The true centre of gravity, of Christianity, then, is in moral transformation. Surely Christ who gives men a new life by union with Himself by faith has delivered man from the "yoke of bondage," if He has done anything at all. How far away from Paul's conception, then, are those which busy themselves with punctilios of observance! But the hatred of forms may be as completely a form as the most elaborate ritual. We need to have our eyes turned away to the far higher thing, the service of the transformed nature.
(2) The conquest of the animal nature is the certain outcome of union with Christ and that alone. Paul did not regard matter as evil, as the Colossian teachers did, nor the body as the source of all sin. But he knew that the fiercest temptations came from it, and that the foulest stains upon the conscience were splashed from the mud which it threw. It is a matter of life and death to find some means of taming the animal that is in us all. We all know of wrecked lives which have been driven on the rocks by the wild passions of the flesh; and when we come to add its weaknesses, limitations, and needs, and remember how high purposes are frustrated by its shrinking from toil, and how often mists born from its undrained swamps darken the vision of truth and God, we do not need to be Gnosties to believe that goodness requires the flesh to be subdued. But no asceticisms or resolves will do what we want. Much repression may be affected by force of will, but it is like a man holding a wolf by the jaws. The arms begin to ache and the grip to grow slack, and he feels his strength ebbing, and knows that as soon as he lets go the brute will be at his throat. Nothing tames the wild beast in us but Christ. He binds it in a silken lash, and that gentle constraint is strong because the fierceness is gone. Christianity would be easy were it a round of observances. Anybody can fast or wear a hair shirt, but the putting off of the body of the flesh is a harder thing. Emotion, theology, ceremonial, may have their value, but a religion that includes them all and leaves out the subjugation of the flesh is worthless. If we are in Christ we shall not live in the flesh.
II. Paul meets the false teaching by a reference to CHRISTIAN BAPTISM AS BEING THE CHRISTIAN SIGN OF THE INWARD CHANGE.
1. The form of expression in the Greek implies that the circumcision and burial with Christ in baptism are contemporaneous. You have been baptized — does not that express all that circumcision meant and more?
(1) This reference is quite consistent with the subordinate importance of ritual. Some forms are necessary to a visible Church, and Christ has given us two: one symbolizing the initial spiritual act of Christian life, and the other the constantly repeated process of Christian nourishment.
(2) The form here presupposed is immersion.
(3) There are but two theories: the one is that baptism effects the change, and elevates it into more than the importance of which Paul sought to deprive circumcision, confuses the distinction between the Church and the world, lulls men into a false security, obscures the central truth of Christianity that faith makes a Christian, gives the basis for a portentous sacer-dotalism, and is shivered to pieces against the plain facts of daily life. But it is conclusively disposed of by the words, "through faith in the operation," etc. What remains, then, but that baptism is associated with the change, because in the Divine order it is meant to be its outward symbol?
2. Note the thoroughness of the change. It is more than a circumcision; it is burial and resurrection.
(1) We partake of Christ's death inasmuch as —
(a) we ally ourselves to it by our faith as the sacrifice for our sins;
(b) by the power of His Cross we are drawn to slay our old nature, dying to the habits, desires, etc., in which we lived.
(2) If we are thus made conformable to His death, we shall know the power of His resurrection.
(a) It will be a guarantee of our own.
(b) The seal of His perfect work on the Cross, and shall know it as a token of God's acceptance;
(c) the type of our spiritual resurrection now.
(A. Maclaren, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: