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Clear Words

Clear Words – Symbols versus substance (Romans 4:3,9-12)

Today’s Reading: Romans 4-7

Today’s Reflection:  Romans 4:3,9-12

3) For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 9) Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10) How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11) He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12) and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

Paul makes a clear and important declaration in Romans 4 about the nature of man’s righteousness.  It doesn’t come by works; it is a gift of God given to those who have faith in Him and live by that faith.  He uses Abraham as the example, then makes an interesting detour into the subject of circumcision—the practice of removing the foreskin of male infants.  God instituted this with Abraham as a symbol of the covenant promises God had made with Abraham and his descendants, who would ultimately become the children of Israel.

So it is clear that circumcision is a sign of righteousness by faith.  But Paul asks the critical question: was righteousness by faith counted to Abraham before or after he received the covenant practice of circumcision.  Another way to think of it is this: did Abraham receive circumcision to become righteous in God’s sight, or because he already was righteous in God’s sight?  Paul’s answer is clear.  Abraham was righteous in the sight of God and circumcision was a symbolic representation of that righteousness.

Why is this distinction important?  Well it’s clear that many of our religious traditions think that symbols in and of themselves have power.  I was raised to believe that Christians ‘received the Holy Spirit’ when they were baptized.  Before being dunked in the water=no Holy Spirit; after being dunked in the water=Holy Spirit.  Some religious traditions teach that we actually receive Christ by taking the emblems of the Lord’s Supper (which Catholics call the Eucharist and Protestants call Communion), so without regularly consuming these emblems we fail to have Jesus’ presence with us.

The truth is these symbols are just signs—emblems that signify the invisible work of God within us and through our lives.  We see this as Peter prophesied to Cornelius and other Gentiles for the first time.

Acts 10:44-48 – 44) While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45) And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46) For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47) “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48) And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.

This makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is received before baptism, not after.  Similarily, other symbols, from those of ancient times like the Ark of the Covenant and the sanctuary, to those of Christianity are only symbols.  And trying to make more of them runs the risk of making the symbol an object of worship rather than focusing on the meaning of the symbol.  Why do we do this?

1)      As humans it is much easier to focus on visible and tangible things than on the invisible workings of God.

2)      It is easier to perform an external ritual than allow God to work in us to make the internal changes leading to true righteousness.

3)      External rituals can be used as instruments of control.  In most religions only certain people can perform rites and rituals, elevating them to a position of power and authority over others.  Power which can be abused and which people go to great lengths to maintain.

Symbols can be abused, controlled and manipulated, but our connection with God never can be.  Don’s allow symbols become a distraction that can draw you away from God, instead search out their true substance and meaning and let the symbols God has instituted perform the function He made them for—to draw you closer to Him.

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