(Col 2:11-14 ESV) In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
In this passage, many commentators believe that Paul compares Christian baptism to the Jewish practice of circumcision. Circumcision goes back to the covenant God made with Abraham (Gen 17:9-14). The requirement to be circumcised was renewed in the Law of Moses (Lev 12:3). Circumcision therefore held a very high place in Jewish thought.
Perhaps Christian baptism is properly administered to infants, just as circumcision was. Perhaps baptism is just as essential as circumcision was. Not so.
In Paul’s vocabulary, “a circumcision made without hands … by the circumcision of Christ” can only refer to the Holy Spirit. After all, we use our hands to baptize converts! Recall the similar passage,
(Rom 2:25-29 ESV) For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
Paul is referring to God’s promise to circumcise the hearts of the Jews made in Deu 30:6, which the prophets interpreted to refer to the Holy Spirit, promised to be outpoured at the coming of the Kingdom.
(Deu 30:6 ESV) And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
(Eze 36:26-27 NIV) I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
The point of the reference to baptism in Col 2:12 is not that baptism is like circumcision, but that baptism is when the Spirit is received, and therefore when the heart is circumcised by the Spirit as Paul describes in Rom 2:29 and Moses prophesied in Deu 30:6. Therefore, I’d understand the passage along these lines:
(Col 2:11-14 ESV) In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands [by God through the Spirit], by putting off the body of the flesh [our unregenerated, sinful natures compared to the foreskin, which is cut off and thrown away], by the circumcision of Christ [the circumcision of our hearts by the Spirit], 12 having been buried with him in baptism [which is when you received the Spirit and so when you received the circumcision of the heart], in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh [before being baptized, receiving the Spirit, and having your hearts circumcised], God made alive [fulfilling the promise of Deu 30:6 “that you may live” when your hearts are circumcised] together with him [Jesus], having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
Now, understood that way, in light of Paul’s understanding of the work of the Spirit to circumcise our hearts, obviously Paul is not saying that baptism replaces circumcision. After all, Paul argues in Rom 4 and Gal 3 that circumcision is not necessary for our salvation, but here the circumcision he is speaking of, results in our forgiveness. This is because Paul is referring to the receipt of the Spirit at baptism, not baptism itself.
Of course, this only changes the question. Rather than asking, “If baptism replaces circumcision, why isn’t it as essential for Christians as circumcision was for Jews?” we should ask, “If the Spirit is received at baptism, and if the Spirit is God’s means of circumcising our hearts and forgiving us, how can baptism be less essential than the Spirit?”
And that’s an interesting question to which we’ll return.