The Sign and the Covenant – Romans 2:25-29

 
There is nothing harder than trying to get an really religious man to admit to his need of God’s saving grace. The man who goes to church, and who gave-up a handful of vices like smoking and cursing… The man who was immoral before his marriage, but who has been faithful to his wife ever since…. The man who is extremely generous and kind toward his neighbors and co-workers… The man who says that he believes in Jesus and believes the Bible… The man who has strong moral principles, but who refuses to force those opinions down throats of others… This kind of man is extremely difficult to knock off his self-righteous feet and to convince that he is in need of God’s salvation. He doesn’t need forgiveness of sin because he convinces himself that he either doesn’t have any sin to be forgiven, or else that he can wash up his own filth by himself.

This is the kind of person whom Paul is addressing in this chapter. He is an hypocrite – judging and condemning everyone but himself. So Paul says, “Thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things. And thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God?”

“Escape the judgment of God? Escape the judgment of God???? Of course, I will escape the judgment of God, because I am a member of the covenant nation – Israel. I bear in the my body proof that I am a Jew, and therefore I am a friend of God. The rules that condemn others don’t apply to me.” “But that is not true,” says Paul; “you have been horribly misinformed.” “For there is no respect of persons with God. For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law.”

In verse 25 Paul introduces different terminology which needlessly confuses some people. I don’t know that I’ll clear up that confusion this morning, but I’m going to try. We’ll get to the history in just a moment, but at this point let me make just a couple of comments: The word “circumcision” can be thought of in three different ways in this case: It could refer to nothing more than the quick but painful medical procedure which has been performed on millions of baby boys down through the centuries. Although we could read this scripture thinking of nothing more than that, this is not specifically what Paul is talking about here. That procedure began as a sign between Jehovah and Abraham; the Lord ordered and ordained it. So we could read this scripture, thinking about the Lord’s covenant. We could actually substitute “covenant” for “circumcision” and be a little nearer to what Paul meant. Also, over time, the people with whom God made that covenant began to describe themselves by the sign. After that it was just a small step before they called everyone outside the covenant as “uncircumcised.” The “circumcised” were Israel, or in Jesus’ day “the Jews,” and the “uncircumcised” were “Gentiles.”

Let’s re-read this scripture making those substitutions – just for the sake of clarity. “For to be a JEW verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy JEWISHNESS is rendered null and void – just like being a GENTILE. But if the GENTILES keep the righteousness of the law, shall they not be considered like ISRAEL? And shall not the GENTILE which is by nature, if he fulfil the law, judge thee, who by the letter and your HEBREW HERITAGE transgress the law? For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is he an ISRAELITE which is outward in the flesh: But he is a JEW, which is one inwardly; and to be of ISRAEL is a matter of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.” Does that help us to understand what Paul was saying? If it doesn’t, let’s read it a third time reaching back just a little farther. “For God’s COVENANT verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, the COVENANT is rendered void. And if the man outside God’s COVENANT keeps the righteousness of the law, shall he not be considered as under that COVENANT? And shall not the OUTSIDER by nature, if he fulfil the law, judge thee, who by the letter and the sign of circumcision transgresses the law? For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is he who carries the SIGN OF THE COVENANT outwardly in his flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and who bears the covenant in his heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.”

Let’s consider the Covenant.

Actually, the Old Testament describes several covenants which God made with man. And a covenant is basically an agreement made between two parties, and it can take many forms. But once the form is established it become more or less binding, depending on the terms.

The first covenant that God made with man is generally called “THE NOAHIC COVENANT.” It was quite simple and quite wonderful – being totally unconditional. After the flood which destroyed life on earth, except for Noah and his family, “God spake unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying, And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you; And I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth. And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, This is the token of the covenant, which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.” There will never be another world-wide flood, because that is the promise of the omnipotent Flood-Maker. And there was a sign given by God to “remind” both parties of that promise.major covenant between God and men, is often called the “NEW COVENANT.” It was originally made with faithful and believing Israel, but was broadened to include believers of every tribe and nation. And it can be summarized by God’s promise to give those believing sinners, new hearts – the new birth. Through Christ Jesus, the Lord promised to save them and to bless them eternally. Jeremiah spoke about this covenant and Ezekiel and others added to it. Then Paul came along years later and explained it more fully in the Book of Hebrews. “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more. In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which DECAYETH AND WAXETH OLD is ready to vanish away.” A few verses after this Paul adds that Jesus Christ is the Mediator of this new covenant. I suppose that we could say that the crucifixion is the sign of the New Covenant.

Between the Noahic covenant and the New Covenant, there are others, one of which “decayeth and waxeth old.” In Genesis 17, when Abraham was 99 years old, and about 25 years after “he believed the Lord, and God counted it to him for righteousness,” the Lord visited Abraham and promised him children and nations descending from those children. He also promised that his children would possess the Land of Canaan for ever. Genesis 17:6 – “And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.” One of the differences in form between this covenant and the one with Noah, was that in this case it was Abraham that had to create the sign of the covenant. “And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised.”

As you should know, Abraham had two children, Ishmael and Isaac, both of whom were circumcised along with all the servants in Abraham’s house. Eventually Isaac was married and had two sons – Esau and Jacob – both of whom were circumcised. Jacob’s name was eventually changed to Israel, and to him were sons born, all of whom were circumcised. But it is important to notice that there were sons of both Abraham and Isaac, who were not of Israel, yet who were circumcised and who taught their children to be circumcised. Today, it is not just Israel who practices this rite as a religious duty. Much of the Arabian world, from Africa to Iran and Russia, circumcise their children. But despite their maintenance of the sign, the actual covenant was not extended to them. Their circumcision means nothing as far as Jehovah is concerned.

But back to Israel: Jacob had twelve sons and those sons formed the twelve tribes of Israel. More or less, they continued to believe that God would keep his covenant with their father Abraham. And although it dwindled over the centuries, they believed that they would return to Canaan some day. And many of those people maintained the sign of that covenant.

And then came the long awaited day – deliverance – exodus. It began with the call and commission of Moses, who had already been circumcised by his parents. And then there were the twelve plagues – culminating in the death of the first born in Egypt. In preparation for the last plague, the children of Israel were to observe the Passover. And according to Exodus 12 no man could eat of the Passover unless he had been circumcised. Then after the Passover, Israel crossed the Red Sea and encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai, where God gave to them the laws and ceremonies that they were to keep for the rest of their days. Now listen to Exodus 19:3-6 – “And Moses went up unto God, and the LORD called unto him out of the mountain, saying, Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel; Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.” At this point another covenant was being established between Jehovah and Israel. In the next chapter, Exodus 20, we have the Ten Commandments. Then follow almost 200 pages of rules and regulations laid upon Israel. In the Mosaic covenant God basically said, “If you obey me, I will bless you.” And both before they were given and then at their conclusion, Israel promised to keep that covenant. “And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the LORD commanded him. And all the people answered together, and said, All that the LORD hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people unto the LORD.”

Incorporated throughout those laws was the restatement and reestablishment of circumcision. The sign of the covenant with Abraham became the sign of the covenant with Israel through Moses. “And God said, Behold, I make a covenant: before all thy people I will do marvels, such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation: and all the people among which thou art shall see the work of the LORD: for it is a terrible thing that I will do with thee. Observe thou that which I command thee this day. And the LORD said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel. And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.”

But the history of Israel shows us that before the ink was dry on the page, or the dust had been blown from the engraving on the tablets, Israel began breaking that covenant. For the next 40 years she would become a vagabond in the desert, barely able to eke out an existence. Just about every member of that exodus generation died, and virtually none of them kept their part of the covenant or the sign of the covenant. And when the Lord brought Israel up to the land that He had covenanted to their father Abraham, their commander, Joshua, had to order the nation to once again apply the sign of the covenant. On the banks of the Jordan, on the Promised Land side, Israel was circumcised. They called the place “Gilgal” – which means “rolling away” – the reproach of Egypt was rolled away. The covenant was reestablished, and circumcision was applied. Unfortunately, despite basically maintaining the sign of the covenant for the rest of their history, Israel hasn’t maintained their side of the actual covenant.

That was the situation in the days of the Lord Jesus and Paul, and it is still the condition of Israel today. They maintain the sign, but not the covenant. And when the Covenanter – Christ Jesus – came on the scene they rejected Him as their King. It is interesting to note that before Paul was the Apostle, he was Saul the Jew – an Hebrew of Hebrews. In Romans 2, he could have been talking about himself – he was describing himself. And one of the things which God used to turn the heart of that hypocrite was the preaching of a Christian man named Stephen. My message this morning in some ways is an echo of Stephen’s – describing the history of Israel. As Stephen was reaching his climax, that martyr of the first Baptist church called his listeners a term which they only applied to outsiders. “Ye stiffnecked and UNCIRCUMCISED in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.”

Now, how important is that sign?

If I got a ladder and leaned it up against the front of our building… If I painted across the sign on our church the words: “Post Falls’ GREATEST Church,” I might get some arguments from the religious community around us. If I painted across our sign the words: “Post Falls’ LARGEST Congregation” the city would merely laugh. Signs mean nothing without the reality within.

This was Paul’s message to Israel in his letter written 2,000 years ago. It was the same message he heard Stephen preach a few years before that, for which he killed that man. It is still a message which needs to be repeated again and again today. But you may be thinking that it’s not a message which YOU need to hear, because you are not a Jew. With fear and hesitation, let me shift gears and change directions for a couple of minutes.

It is a foolish Protestant doctrine, borrowed from the Catholics that baptism is the replacement of circumcision. True Baptists are not Protestants, and this is not our idea, but it is a common theme throughout Christendom. There isn’t a shred of New Testament evidence to support this opinion, but it prevails anyway. And it isn’t theologically logical, but still it persists. There are so many difference between circumcision and baptism that the idea should never, ever arise. But it surrounds us never-the-less. So it’s with reluctance that I address this, but I think that I have to.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that it is true: baptism is the new circumcision. Paul’s theme still applies. If someone wants to say that baptism is the sign of some covenant with God, that sign doesn’t guarantee anything. It’s not baptism that washes away our sins; it is the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s not baptism which opens the door of Heaven, it is the grace of the Almighty. The angels aren’t going to check to see if our heads are wet before we are invited into the celestial city. Hearts, hearts, hearts – that’s what it’s all about. We are now in the era of the New Covenant which talks about New Hearts – soft hearts – regenerated hearts. The question is not: “Have you been baptized?” – the question is: “Have you been born again?” The sign of the New Covenant is not circumcision or baptism, the sign is the blood-stained cross of the Lord Jesus Christ – and I’m not talking about a crucifix. God forbid that anyone should boast in their circumcision. God forbid that we should boast in anything save in “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.”

He is not a Christian, or a child of God, who is one outwardly, or in the flesh. He or she are saints of God, who have been born again by the grace of God. The signs of our spiritual condition are not circumcision or baptism, but repentance and faith. These are what we should be looking for.

Are you living in humble repentance before the Law of the Lord? Are you trusting Jesus Christ and His sacrifice on the cross, or are you looking at your personal righteousness and religious rites and signs to take you to Heaven? This is folly and absolute spiritual suicide.