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Some writers have held forth some customs or observances in their own church as a “sign which identifies who are God’s people”. Often, they have done that as a part of an effort to show that their church is the “right” or “true” one. How is it with that matter – is there some sign which shows who have a covenant with God and are his people? What can we learn in regard to this, in the Bible?
The biblical record mentions several covenants which had “signs” attached to them. Some of those things will be considered here, because there was certain symbolism in some of those covenants of old, and in the signs that were connected to them.
Let us first consider the signs of two earlier covenants.
The covenant which the Lord made with Abraham had as its sign the circumcision of males. We read:
Genesis 17:10 This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your seed after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; 11 and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. (VW06)
Romans 4:11 And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal […] (VW06)
Note the words “sign of the covenant” in Genesis 17:11 and “sign” and “seal” in Romans 4:11. Those passages refer to the covenant between the Lord and Abraham, and its sign or seal which was the circumcision of males.
Just as it was with the Abrahamic covenant, also the Sinaitic covenant (the Old Covenant) which came later, had the circumcision of males as its “sign”, “token” or “seal”.
That is why the Jews who had been under the Old Covenant (and who still held on to it even though it had come to its end), are in the New Testament sometimes called “the Circumcision” (Acts 10:45, Acts 11:2, Galatians 2:7–9, Colossians 4:11 and Titus 1:10).
The Old Covenant came on the scene 430 years after the covenant between the Lord and Abraham, and it was to last “until the Offspring would come to whom the Promise had been made”, Galatians 3:19 – that is, until Jesus the prophesied Offspring of Abraham came. When Jesus came and then made his Sacrifice by giving his life in place of others, the New Covenant could be launched. And so, the Old Covenant had served its purpose and was set aside. (The article nca080.htm has more on Galatians 3:17–19 and its context.)
A note: Some people might have problems with the fact that the Old Covenant was a temporary arrangement. This is because many translators have put into certain Old Testament passages wordings which make it seem that it was to be “everlasting”. The article nca130.htm sorts out that matter.
The Abrahamic covenant as well as the Sinaitic one had the fleshly circumcision as their sign. That symbolised things that were to come – that is, that pointed to the sign of the New Covenant which is a spiritual “circumcision”, that of the heart, which is to say, the receiving of the Holy Spirit.
In short: The New Covenant’s “sign”, which shows who really are God’s people, is the receiving of the Holy Spirit. That is what set the saints apart, and showed that they belonged to God and his son Jesus.
The apostle Paul wrote to the saints in Rome:
Romans 2:29 But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God. (NASB95)
Romans 8:9 However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. (NASB95)
Also in Paul’s letter to the saints in Ephesus, we read about the seal (sign) which they had received:
Ephesians 1:13 In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise (NASB95)
Seal, or sign. In the Greek text of that verse, the word in question is the verb sphragizô, related to the noun sphragis which meant “a mark”, “a seal”, “a signet”.
(A side-note, regarding the English words “signet” and “sign”: They come from the old Latin noun signum which meant such things as “mark”, “token”, “indication”, “proof”. The word signum was also used of an image or device on a seal-ring, a “signet” or a “seal”. Seals were often used to verify a contract or a covenant.)
When the disciples received the Holy Spirit, they were joined to Jesus and the New Covenant, and were “sanctified” and became “saints”, which is to say, they became set apart, as a special people for God and his son Jesus.
Among the passages that refer to the saints’ “sanctification” (setting apart), are 2 Thessalonians 2:13 and 1 Peter 1:2.
Clarification: Just as many other “religious” words in the English language, even “sanctify” and “saint” come from Latin, sanctifico, sanctus. In the Greek text of New Testament, the relevant words are hagiazô and hagios. It appears that their idiomatic meaning had to do with “dedicating”, “devoting”. In this context, the practical meaning of those words was that the saints were set apart for God and his son Jesus, as a special people for them. That is what their “sanctification” meant.
It appears that that was also the meaning of the corresponding words qadash and qodesh in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. Regardless what words were used of the making of the Old Covenant by Mount Sinai, what happened was that the Lord separated the ancient Israelites (descendants of the patriarch Jacob) – he set them apart from the other peoples, and made them his own, special nation. The main sign of that covenant-relationship, on the side of the Israelites, was the circumcision of males.
But again, for the saints who were joined to the Lord Jesus under the New Covenant and formed a “spiritual Israel”, the Holy Spirit was the “sign” or “seal” which showed that God had set them apart as a special people. The receiving of the Holy Spirit is the “inwardly” circumcision, “that which is of the heart”, see the earlier quoted Romans 2:29. When God set those people apart (“sanctified” them) and made them a special people for himself and his son Jesus, he gave them the Holy Spirit.
It is the Holy Spirit that is the New Covenant’s “sign” – the Holy Spirit, and not anything else.
(The article nga030.htm has some notes on the words and concepts “saint” and “sainthood”. Even the article nba020.htm considers the subject of sanctification.)
Again, there are those who claim that some customs or observances in their church are “a sign” which shows who are God’s people, or who belong to Jesus. But in reality, it is the receiving of the Holy Spirit that is the New Covenant’s “sign”.
See also the “recommended reading” section, below.
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Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters
An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → nsa090.htm
On Galatians 3:17–19 and what the apostle Paul meant by “added law”. → nca080.htm
Some notes on bible-translations which make it seem that the Old Covenant was to be “everlasting”. On the word olam in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. → nca130.htm
What does the word “saint” mean and refer to, in the Bible? → nga030.htm
What does the Bible say about calling, election and sanctification? → nba020.htm
Hebrews 4:9, the sabbatismos or rest which the saints were to enter – a clarification of its actual nature. → nxa100.htm
The symbolism of the Old Covenant’s weekly day of rest, the Sabbath. → nxa110.htm
Matthew 16:18, “I will build my assembly, and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it”. What and where was the ekklêsia or assembly which Jesus said he would form? Was it an earthly religious organisation as some claim, or something else? → naa010.htm
On the giving of the Holy Spirit. → nba010.htm
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