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External religion

Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders by birth. You were called “the uncircumcised ones” by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. — Ephesians 2:11

Things aren’t always what they appear to be. We used to say, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” but we now know that, through modern technology, a picture may not be worth the film on which it was exposed. For example, when one television network broadcasting the New Year’s celebration in Times Square at the end of 1999 realized that the picture being broadcast included the massive logo of a competitor, they simply erased the logo from the screen and superimposed their own. Millions “saw” the new logo on their screens, even though it was not really there.

The ability to project what is palpably false has been developed into a fine art—and not just in the realm of advertising. It has been going on in religion for thousands of years. For instance, the classic definition of a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” What appears is intended to convey what is actual. But historically, this has always been a problem. One example was in ancient Jewish culture.

The ancient Jewish people were rightly proud of their special place in God’s plan. He had established a covenant of love with them, initiated unique lines of communication with them, and had determined that through them all the nations of the world would be blessed (see Genesis 12:1-3Romans 3:1-2). They were given special promises, they received special mandates, they were granted special privileges.

They were special, they knew it, and they did not hesitate to let other people know!

In some instances, their pride got the better of them. They demeaned others in order to exalt themselves. This was nowhere more apparent than in their attitude toward non-Jews, whom they called “the uncircumcised ones” (Ephesians 2:11). Circumcision is hardly a topic of conversation for polite company, but they were referring to the fact that circumcision was both a sign and a seal of their special relationship with God. It was a sign that “signified” that they had “cut off” all that was displeasing to God. It was a seal that reminded them of God’s covenant promises and instilled confidence and assurance. It was an outward sign of an inward grace.

And therein lay the problem, for things were not always as they appeared—that is, the inward grace was not always present. Paul told the Ephesians that the Jews were “proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts” (2:11).

The believer is called to practice the externals of Christian faith as a symbol of the internal realities of faith in Christ. Signs signify, and symbols symbolize. Signs that signify nothing and symbols that symbolize a fiction are contradictions. Congruence is required between the symbol and the reality. The alternative is hypocrisy.

For further study: Ephesians 2:11-18

Content taken from The One Year Book of Devotions for Men by Stuart Briscoe. Copyright ©2000. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.