Thursday, March 22, 2012

Baptism, Exodus & A New Humanity (part 1 of 2)

Having been buried with Him through your faith in the power of God who raised Him from the dead. – Colossians 2:12  (NET)

With verse twelve of the second chapter of Colossians, as we operate with the realization that baptism is not unique to the experience of the Christian faith, we find Paul adapting exodus language on behalf of Gentiles as he writes “Having been buried with Him in baptism, you also have been raised with Him through your faith in the power of God who raised Him from the dead” (2:12).  Just as Paul allows Gentiles to participate in the exodus-related identity of Israel whenever he uses words like “redemption,” he here does the same.  Functionally, “being buried with Him in baptism” is the equivalent of exile, while being “raised with Him” is the equivalent of exodus, with these two concepts very much part and parcel of the story of Israel. 

This way of thinking and use of language is not unique to Colossians, as we are able to glimpse this way of thinking here demonstrated by Paul in his first letter to Corinth.  There, in the tenth chapter we read: “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (10:1-2).  Without delving into an exegesis of what is here being said in the address to the Corinthian church(es), we here see Paul intertwining the Egyptian exile and exodus experience (which was so crucial for Israel’s self-understanding, it’s comprehension of its covenant God, and its understanding of its relationship with that God) with the concept of baptism.  For Gentiles, as far as Paul is concerned, as he folds all peoples into the story of Israel that he believes has reached its climax in the story of Jesus, this baptism with Christ becomes something akin to Israel’s experience.  In some respects, for those that are bent towards the need for some outward sign of covenant status, baptism, whatever form it takes, stands in place of circumcision. 

This allows Paul to confidently declare “And even though you were dead in your transgressions and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, He nevertheless made you alive with Him, having forgiven all your transgressions” (2:13).  We can quickly visit the first chapter of Colossians, reminding ourselves of the exodus-related redemption and “forgiveness of sins” (1:14b) there mentioned.  We see that this is another deployment of exodus language.  Building from that thought, what we realize this to be is yet another statement employed to generate an important equivocation between Jews and Gentiles.  Effectively, this is what God would say to Israel, if and when they violated their covenant obligations.  God would speak of Israel’s transgressions that was bringing or had brought them death and judgment, as they behaved like the uncircumcised people by which they were surrounded, adopting their idolatrous ways.  The end of this judgment would be some form of exile (domination by a foreign power, whether inside or outside of the land). 

When Israel would begin to respond appropriately, re-adopting the marks of their covenant, just as Gentiles responded appropriately to the Creator God by adopting the covenant marker of belief in Jesus as Messiah and King, God would revive Israel and grant them exodus.  This exodus, marked by Israel shaking itself free (always presented as the work of the their faithful, covenant God) from foreign oppression, was looked upon as the evidence of the forgiveness of their transgressions against their God and His covenant.  Here then, Gentiles are enabled to enjoy the same type of relationship with the Creator God as has been enjoyed by Israel lo these many years.  Undoubtedly, it is a privilege that portends a significant responsibility. 

Paul then takes another step.  He, a Jew---a Hebrew of Hebrews, as he describes himself elsewhere---speaks through his letter in such a way that he takes up with the Gentiles.  His inclusive language expands, as he identifies himself with the Gentiles (a radical step indeed for someone that had been zealously steeped in the Jew-delineating, over and against all other nations, covenant markers that defined Judaism and served to fence off God’s elect people and His covenant blessings) by insisting that “He has destroyed what was against us” (2:14a).  Elaborating on what has been destroyed, he writes of “a certificate of indebtedness expressed in decrees opposed to us” (2:14b).  Surely, the Gentiles that Paul is addressing are heartened by this language that he has adopted.  He has now enhanced and moved beyond the comforting “all” that he employs in the earlier part of the letter, now standing in solidarity with Gentile believers, and declaring that the decrees that had been opposed to “us,” which are quite possibly the covenant markers that Gentiles had been forced to adopt if they wanted to participate in the blessings of God’s covenant people, have been removed.  Indeed, Paul says that Jesus “has taken it away by nailing it to the cross” (2:14c), leaving only a loyal, believing trust in Him as all that is necessary to join up with the Israel of God. 

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