The main Old Covenant sacraments are circumcision and passover, called sacraments because they signify and seal the covenant. Other “symbols” in the Old Testament signify, but these sacraments have a special “sealing” function. How do we know they are more than symbols?
Circumcision carries a sanction, a real judgment, with it. A self-maledictory curse was applied to the one who either was not circumcised, and should be, or the one who broke the covenant of circumcision. In either case, the person would be “cut off” (Gen. 17:11). Remember, the “self-maledictory” oath is a pledge of faithfulness, the punishment being the curse of the covenant. It is called self-maledictory because the individual takes the curse (malediction) on himself. Circumcision is the judicial phase of the covenant, as we saw in the Abrahamic Covenant, ratifying the covenant by the direct application of the sanctions.
Passover is also more than a symbol. A real transfer of inheritance takes place through this meal. Passover, including all other “food” sacraments (manna, sacrifices, etc.), is the legitimacy section, establishing continuity and discontinuity between the true and false heirs. Like circumcision, Passover “cut off” the false heirs (Gen. 17:14). No “leaven” could be eaten at this meal. The Israelites were to “cut it off” (Ex. 12:8). So these “rites” are more than mere ritual. They are covenantal exercises that affect the destiny of each family and individual involved.
My purpose for studying the sacraments at this point is simple. The sacraments can be analyzed separately, since they are the visible manifestation of the five points of covenantalism. My purpose, however, is to take each sacrament as it fits into the overall covenantal structure. Circumcision demonstrates the judicial phase, and Passover the legitimacy aspect of the covenant. I intend to show that these sacraments form a transition into the New Covenant. Each has its fulfillment in Christ. Furthermore, since Passover in particular closes on the disinheritance of the “bastards” of the covenant, we will be set up for the ministry of Christ. John the Baptist, Christ, and His disciples encountered “sons” of the covenant who were being disinherited and new “sons” who were being included. As we shall see,
Jesus re-created the world through the five points of covenantalism. We begin with circumcision.
Circumcision (Boundary Sacrament)
Circumcision is the primary symbol of boundary, representing a “line” that is crossed to get into the covenant. Where do we see the idea of boundary? First, the Flood was a form of circumcision, being called the “cutting” off of the world (Gen. 9:11; 17:14). It is further significant that God gave a “rainbow” as a symbol that He would never do this again. The “rainbow” formed a circle of water around the earth, much like circumcision cuts a line around the organ of procreation.
Second, when Israel marched into the Promised Land, the parting of the Jordan river, a boundary, is called a “cutting” (Josh. 3:13). Again, the same Hebrew word is used to describe the “cutting” of circumcision. Then, after Israel had entered the land, God commanded the people to circumcise themselves (Josh. 5:2-9). This circumcision is followed by the “circling” of Jericho. There seems to be a theological connection. The boundary performed on the land at the Jordan river and the people at Gilgal (“wheel”) is finally placed around the unbeliever. So circumcision was a boundary applied to the “flesh.”
Circumcision was applied to the ”flesh of the foreskin” (Gen. 17:11). Encircling the “flesh” with a bloody cut symbolized a new boundary, the boundary of the covenant. Why the emphasis on “flesh”? The Old Covenant was made with the “flesh.” Adam, who was created flesh – actually from the “dust” of the ground (Gen. 2:7) – was the covenantal representative. When Adam fell, the “flesh” became a term of derision, meaning the Old Covenant itself had fallen into disrepute. Shortly after the Fall, man was referred to as “flesh” in a negative sense. God describes the pre-Noahic situation: “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh” (Gen. 6:3). The war between “Spirit” and “flesh” had begun. The battle would not be definitively won until the Spirit was poured out in all His fullness in the New Covenant. Even then, however, the conflict would still be between them progressively (Gal. 5:16ff.).
During the Old Covenant, God continued to provide new “Adams” and bring man back into the covenant, each time attempting to overcome the “flesh” because the covenant had been originally made with the “flesh.” Circumcision was a means of doing this by actually placing the covenant in the flesh.
The purpose was to “kill” the flesh so that it might be “resurrected.” But, we should remember that there are dual sanctions: cursing and blessing. Circumcision brought automatic results but not automatic salvation. The ritual demanded faithfulness, and by itself it could not save. If the recipient did not persevere, he was cut off. H is circumcision became a sign of judgment unto death. But, if he continued in faith, circumcision became a judgment unto life. The “cut” brought the sanction of “blessing” (Gen. 17:16). Through this judgment ordeal would come life or death, depending on the faithfulness, or lack thereof, in the person being circumcised. Three legal realities, however, were accomplished.
Circumcision brought about a judicial form of new life, adoption. The skin removed was called the “flesh.” We have already seen the theological importance of this term. It represented man’s sinful “dead” condition. By “killing” the “flesh,” new life could begin.
Abraham’s case is a clear example. Sarah’s womb was dead. He was unable to procreate. Also, all men, even babies, are born dead in sin. David said he was “conceived in sin in his mother’s womb” (Ps. 51:5). The reality of man’s sin was that babies were born sinful, further meaning that there was no way that a child could become the “child of the covenant” through any natural process. Remember, mere birth in the home did not make the child a member of the covenant. He was born covenantally dead. How did he become a member of God’s family? A legal process of adoption had to occur. Since circumcision performed the function of bringing someone into the covenant who was not “naturally” related to God, it amounted to legal adoption.
No child “naturally” belongs to God, not if we take seriously the statements about being born in sin. There is no such thing as an “age of accountability.” The Bible nowhere teaches such a make-believe doctrine. Paul says specifically that Esau was hated by God in his mother’s womb, before he had done good or evil (Rom. 9:11,13). Age had nothing to do with Esau’s judicial accountability before God. He was a son of Adam; Adam had already been judged guilty. What is astounding is not that Esau was judged guilty, but that Jacob was judged not guilty in the womb. That is God’s grace in action.
Further, notice that dedication of the child was not enough. Dedication would have been just the dedication of a “dead” baby. Remember, God looks at life covenantally. That baby may have been the healthiest child on earth, but until covenantally claimed by God, it remained forever separated from Him. This cleavage was covenantal death, not cessation of existence. So if a child was to be part of the
covenant, he had to come through adoption, or legal life.
What about daughters? Obviously they could not be circumcised. Daughters came into the covenant by way of representation. The male covenantally represented the whole family. Remember, the woman symbolized the bride. The bride could not save herself. She needed a “groom,” symbolizing Christ, to come and save her. Through the death of His flesh, the Bride is therefore adopted. But circumcision could only kill the “flesh.” After Christ’s circumcision death, not just the “fleshly foreskin” is removed: the whole body, the Church, dies with Him (Rom. 6:1ff.). His circumcision went beyond Old Covenant circumcision, becoming a baptism that applied to male and female. Both received the sign and were adopted into the new house.
Even though circumcision was applied to children in the Old Covenant, however, the child was required to continue in the faith. There was the possibility that he could fall away, like the ones in the wilderness (I Cor. 10:5ff.). Circumcision brought a dual sanction, not automatic salvation. The child was legally adopted, but could still be disowned, precisely what God did to Israel when He adopted the gentiles.
Second, circumcision symbolized the whole sacrificial system, or salvation. How? It removed shame, performing a function that the “bloody sacrifice” accomplished. After Joshua had the Israelites circumcised at Gilgal, before they entered the Promised Land, the Lord said, “Today I have rolled back the reproach of Egypt from you”
(Josh. 5:9). This “reproach” is literally shame, like Adam’s and Eve’s shame, experienced when the forbidden fruit was eaten. How was this shame covered? Through a bloody sacrifice. Circumcision, therefore, stripped away the old fleshly clothing through a bloody ordeal, providing new clothing. What became of the “clothing”? I think we have to see this ultimately as Christ Himself. His death was simultaneously the circumcision and baptism of the world (Col. 2:11-13). To be baptized in Christ is to put on His clothing (Gal. 3:27). So until Christ came, Israel was still in a state of nakedness, being circumcised, but in need of clothing to cover what was removed.
Three, circumcision judgment represented a final judgment. God told Abraham that an uncircumcised person would be “cut off” (Gen. 17:14). The idea is that God would cut off the organ of reproduction, symbolically killing, if the foreskin was not removed. Immediately after God promised destruction to Egypt’s firstborn, we read:
Now it came about at the lodging place on the way that the Lord met him [Moses] and sought to put him to death. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and threw it at Moses’ feet, and she said, “You are indeed a bridegroom of blood to me.” So He [Angel of Death] let him alone. At that time she said, “You are a bridegroom of blood” – because of the circumcision (Ex. 4:24-26).
God was willing to kill Moses, even after He had called him out to lead His people out of Egypt. Why? Remember, dominion is by covenant. Just as we saw the need for Israel to be circumcised before the Promised Land could be conquered, so Moses’ son had to be circumcised before he could conquer the Egyptians. God wants His people to live in covenant faithfulness, and He promises that He will go before them and destroy any and every enemy.
God’s people must meet judgment up front. Circumcision represented a real judgment. But it provided a covenantal umbrella that avoided the great final judgment of sin. It was simple: a man received the symbolic judgment of final death, and as long as the recipient persevered in faithfulness to God, eternal death would not come. The promise to Israel was that as long as they were faithful to their circumcision, they would not be “cut off.” In the end, they fell away, and God did cut them off. But they didn’t have to perish. Jesus’ death was the substitutionary circumcision of the world. Paul says,
And in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions (Col. 2:11-13).
When Christ was born, the Jews had almost been cut off. The Jews were given opportunity after opportunity to trust in Christ’s circumcision. They didn’t. But when the New Testament begins,
Israel is living in an uncircumcised condition. Judgment is all around. The land has turned to a “desert” – Mark’s description of Israel (Mark l:1ff.). Mark goes on to structure his book according to thirteen individual healings (1:21; 1:29; 1:40; 2:1; 3:1; 5:1; 5:21; 5:25; 7:24; 7:31; 8:22; 9:14; 12:46). Only one has to do with a Gentile, symbolizing that the Gentiles would be raised up after the Jews. The rest are Jews who have physical conditions like blindness, lameness, and dumbness, that represent the curses of the covenant (Isa. 35). Israel had apostatized and faced the judicial judgment that circumcision represented.
The Old Covenant closes on the note of being “cut off.” The world needed to be truly circumcised. The sanction was working into disinheritance. This brings us to the second sacrament and the legitimacy section of the covenant, the segment in which the meal of inheritance normally fell.
Passover (Food Sacrament)
Passover was actually another form of circumcision. The continuity between them is expressed in the following passage.
Now it came about when they had finished circumcising all the nation, that they remained in their places in the camp until they were healed [revived]. Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” So the name of that place is called Gilgal [“wheel”] to this day. While the sons of Israel camped at Gilgal, they observed the Passover on the evening of the fourteenth day of the month on the desert plains of Jericho. And on the day after the Passover, on that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. And the manna ceased on the day after they had eaten some of the produce of the land, so that the sons of Israel no longer had manna, but they ate some of the yield of the land of Canaan during that year (Josh. 5:8-12).
The relationship between the two Old Testament sacraments is twofold. First, the continuity between the two sacraments can be seen in the phrase, “rolled away the reproach of Egypt” (v. 9). Passover and circumcision were bloody rites. As already mentioned, “removal of shame” took place in the Garden of Eden by means of a sacrifice. At the first Passover, the blood of the sacrificial lamb was placed on the door that the Angel of Death would pass over. Then the sacrificial lamb was eaten. This sacrifice averted death the same way the first animal sacrifice pushed away the death of Adam and Eve. So both passover sacrifice and circumcision removed “shame.”
Second, the Joshua passage shows that circumcision led to Passover. Circumcision had to come first. One could not eat of the Passover unless he was circumcised. The “stranger in the land,” for example, could live in the midst of God’s people if he kept the civil law. But until circumcision, he could not eat the Passover meal.
So, there is a relationship between the two sacraments. Both were part of a covenant in the flesh, or a “rolling away of shame.” The two are similar yet have their own distinct emphasis. Circumcision established covenantal union, while Passover and the other sacramental meals preserved this union through communion. At this point, we turn to Passover as another place where the covenant is legitimated.
Legitimate heirs received inheritance and continuity in terms of obedience to God’s Passover requirement. The illegitimate heirs, the bastards, were disinherited through the Passover and all other sacramental meals. The original Passover account reads,
It is the Lord’s Passover. For I will go through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments – I am the Lord. And blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live; and when I see the blood I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. Now this day will be a memorial to you, and you shall celebrate it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations you are to celebrate it as a permanent ordinance….
Sanctify to Me every first-born, the first offspring of every womb among the sons of Israel, both of man and beast; it belongs to Me Remember this day . . . and nothing unleavened shall be eaten Now it shall come about when the Lord brings you to the land of the Canaanite, as He swore to you and to your fathers, and gives it to you, that you shall devote to the Lord the first offspring of every womb . . . And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for he had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, “God shall surely take care of you; and you shall carry my bones from here with you” (Ex. 12:11-14; 13:1-19).
All of the issues of continuity and discontinuity are found in this passage.
Passover created continuity and discontinuity between the first-born of God and the first-born of the Egyptians. The first-born sons of Egypt could keep inheritance only on the basis of obedience to God. When they refused to obey, their inheritance was lost because of death. Also, the Israelites’ journey was financed with the first-born inheritance of Egypt. The people left and were able to take all the gold of Egypt they could carry.
The Israelites were never to forget that their inheritance came by covenant, not by natural succession. First-born status was based on obedience to the Lord. The text above says that the reason for unleavened bread was a “firstfruits” commitment that Israel would dedicate everything to the Lord when the land was reached. This bread symbolized that Israel was in compliance with the Passover and the commandments of God. Once the land was reached, this symbol of ethical separation was the primary requirement for remaining in the land and keeping the inheritance.
The Passover meal established continuity and discontinuity within Israel. While Moses was on the mountain receiving the commandments, the Israelites ate an idolatrous communion meal, which in effect became a false passover. They committed idolatry and adultery at the same time. Remember, these two commandments parallel each other in the Ten Commandments Covenant, the second and seventh falling in the hierarchical category. We can see how the Passover meal that had been eaten became an ordeal of jealousy type of meal. What happened?
The Israelites became impatient. They took their new inheritance from Egypt and made an idol, fashioned after a sacrificial animal, the ox. They offered false sacrifices and worshipped it. As Paul says, “The people sat down to eat and drink [false passover], and stood up to play” (I Cor. 10:7). This idolatry made God jealous. To the second commandment on idolatry is attached the statement, “I, the Lord thy God am a jealous God” (Ex. 20:5). God sent Moses down the mountain. When he arrived, he “threw the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. And he took the calf which they had made and burned it with fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it over the surface of the water, and made the sons of Israel drink it” (Ex. 32 :19-20).
This procedure is the ordeal of jealousy described in Numbers 5 regarding a woman suspected of adultery. This is a process of disinheritance. All of the meals in the wilderness became part of a “spiritual food and drink” category (I Cor. 10:3-4). In an extension of the true Passover, the Israelites drank a mixture of their sin, plus its judgment (the commandments), and its purification (the water). It seems from what follows that this was to reveal those who were unrepentant. After drinking the solution, Moses used the Levites to execute judgment. Going among the Israelites, approximately 3,000 were put to death. How did the Levites know whom to kill? They probably had a “swollen stomach” like the guilty woman in the ordeal of jealousy (Nu. 5:27). As a result of this judgment, the true heirs were established through continuity.
Passover created continuity with the future. Exodus 12 says, “This day [Passover day] will be a memorial to you, and you shall celebrate it as a permanent ordinance” (Ex. 12:14). Passover restored the family. As the children participated in the Passover, they were told the meaning of the meal. The father said in effect, “You get to eat because of what the Lord did for me” (Ex. 13:8). To cut off the children would not make sense because this would be a complete denial of what the Passover was all about: a future inheritance for the covenant people. The future was in the covenant child. No children meant no future: no land or anything else. If the children were not pulled up into the covenant, or if they turned away from the Lord, they would die and the land would be taken away. The Passover meal extended covenantal continuity.
The false passover meal at the foot of Mt. Sinai during Moses’ absence had destroyed the families of the participants. As the death penalty was about to be carried out on the apostates, Moses said, “Dedicate yourselves today to the Lord – for every man has been against his son and against his brother – in order that He may bestow a blessing upon you today” (Ex. 32:29). The “blessing” was the transfer of inheritance. So, as Israel had lost its family continuity through an idolatrous meal, it would receive it back through faithful communion.
The covenant was legitimated in terms of a meal. As we have seen in previous covenants, at the end of the covenant, the death of the covenantal head seals the disinheritance of the old heirs and the inheritance of the new heirs. When Israel left Egypt, the “bones of joseph” were taken. Remember, Israel had lived in the Promised Land once before. When joseph died outside of the land, he needed to be returned to establish continuity. Joseph, in other words, had to be connected with Joshua. The same thing happened in the New Testament. John the Baptist died, representing the Old Covenant. Jesus Christ created continuity with the final Old Covenant Head. He died and was buried outside of Jerusalem, outside the land. After the Resurrection, He returned to the land, just as joseph returned with Joshua. He established continuity with His new army.
When Christ was born, Israel was eating meals with the “golden calf” again. Israel had become like a “new” Egypt. Everywhere Jesus went, He encountered people cursed with plagues like sickness, demon-possession, and lameness. Jesus said their father was the devil (John 8:44). When they ate the Passover, or any sacramental meal, they were eating and drinking judgment to themselves. They would die just as their forefathers had. Christ told them who He was time and again. Like Moses, He went through the camp offering a time of repentance. They refused, and by His own birth, death, and resurrection, He removed the “flesh” (Col. 2:11-13). For those on the Lord’s side, the ones who turned and trusted in Christ, His death and resurrection definitively accomplished salvation. Seventy A.D. was the progressive outworking of the destruction of the Old Covenant, which had become flesh, on those who wanted to remain in the wilderness of rebellion. But Christ did all of this not by the sword, but by His own covenantal death. Dominion over the apostates was through the application of the covenant.
Here is the end of the Old Covenant. We have called this chapter the “Covenant in the Flesh.” Circumcision and Passover were designed to restore Israel, but they could not. They went the way of all the Old Covenant, the way of the flesh. Christ’s appearance in history encounters a nation and world that had been consumed by the flesh. His circumcision/death was the only thing that truly changed the world.