God promised to be not only Abraham’s god, but also the god of his children:
And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God (Genesis 17.7, 8).
While the covenant made (or renewed?) in Genesis 17 had new aspects (like circumcision) it was, in substance, a reiteration of the covenant promise recorded in Genesis 15, a promise that included a stay in Egypt:
Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace (Genesis 15.13-15).
God reiterated this promise to Abraham’s grandson, Jacob. And the inspired text gives particular reference to providing for his “little ones.”
So Israel took his journey with all that he had and came to Beersheba, and offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here am I.” Then he said, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.” Then Jacob set out from Beersheba. The sons of Israel carried Jacob their father, their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons that Pharaoh had sent to carry him. They also took their livestock and their goods, which they had gained in the land of Canaan, and came into Egypt, Jacob and all his offspring with him, his sons, and his sons’ sons with him, his daughters, and his sons’ daughters. All his offspring he brought with him into Egypt (Genesis 46.1-7).
The reason for going to Egypt was food. The world was starving and God had provided a new source of bread for the world and especially for his people Israel. God had raised up one of Abraham’s children to feed the rest, even the little ones.
When they came out of Egypt, God made it clear that he wanted to give his people rest, as opposed to the slavery they had suffered under Pharaoh, and that he wanted to include their children.
Before saying more about the Exodus, however, lets remember that this is all standard Reformed theology. It is all extremely relevant to how we understand the church and the Faith, and the children of believers, today. Consider the excellent work by Joel Beeke and Ray B. Lanning of Puritan Reformed Seminary (download the full document here).
“For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” – Acts 2:39
These words of the apostle Peter were spoken at a critical time in redemptive history. The old dispensation, the time of the “shadow of good things to come” (Heb. 10:1), things promised when “God . . . spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets” (Heb. 1:1), was passing away. A new dispensation, “these last days” (Heb. 1:2), the day of the fulfillment of those promises in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, was dawning. Peter himself heralds the new day, saying, “This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we are all witnesses. Therefore, being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed for this, which ye now see and hear” (Acts 2:32-33).
Great changes were in store for the church of God in this new era of redemptive history. Significantly, these words of Peter declare that certain things had not changed and would not change in the new era. The pattern of God’s dealings with believers and their children, as old as creation itself, would continue as a constitutional principle of the visible church. As the Westminster Confession of Faith says:
The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. (Chapter XXV, Paragraph II.)
It follows that baptism, as “a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ . . . for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church” (Confession, XXVIII.I), should be duly administered to believers and to their children. “For the promise is unto you, and to your children” (Acts 2:39a).
Beeke and Lansing write that the Bible gives four contexts for understanding the proper way to treat the children of believers. The first one they mention is “Creation, and the Unity of the Human Race.” It is virtually all quotable, but to connect with what I have already written above about Abraham, they point out that this unity is seen in households. They write that:
turning to Christ was not simply the act of individuals but of households. We read of the conversion of Cornelius (Acts 10:1,2,33,44), Lydia (Acts 16:14-15), the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:31-33), Crispus (Acts 18:8), and Stephanus (1 Cor. 1:16, 16:15). In each case, the households are received into the visible church together with the heads of those households. Significantly, we are told that the households of Cornelius, Lydia, the Philippian jailer, and Stephanus were baptized. Similarly, children of believing parents are addressed as members of churches at Ephesus (Eph. 6:1-4) and Colossae (Col. 3:20). These children were also baptized, as Paul affirms in Colossians 2:11-12, where he calls baptism “the circumcision of Christ.”
Later they point out the continuity between Abraham’s calling and our own:
So then, why do we baptize children? Because God’s covenant, the framework in which He operates, has not been changed. There has been no explicit instruction which says that God has altered His modus operandi, His way of operating, with regard to the inclusion of infants participating in the covenant sign and seal, as John Murray has pointed out.1 The promise which says, “I will be your God and you will be my people,” given to Abraham to embrace not just Abraham but his family, still stands; and it is still, in the words of Peter, “for you and for your children.” Children would therefore naturally be regarded as subjects of baptism just as they were of circumcision in the Old Testament.2 As Pierre Marcel concludes, “The covenant, together with its promises, constitutes the objective and legal basis of infant baptism. Infant baptism is the sign, seal, and pledge of all that these promises imply.”3
1Christian Baptism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1974), pp. 52-53.
2 C.G. Kirkby, Signs and Seals of the Covenant (Worcester: n.p., 1988), pp. 66, 78.
3The Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism: Sacrament of the Covenant of Grace (London: James Clarke, 1953), p. 198.
So, if God has not changed “the framework in which He operates,” if there “has been no explicit instruction which says that God has altered his modus operandi, His way of operating, with regard to the inclusion of infants participating in the covenant sign and seal,” then let us include them.
God had promised to bring all Abraham’s children from Egypt, and promised Jacob to take care of them in Egypt. The text explicitly shows us that the little ones of the covenant household are included in this promise. Pharaoh, however, at one point agreed to let the Israelites go worship God on the condition that they disrupt this covenantal unity. As we find in Exodus 10:
Then Pharaoh’s servants said to him, “How long shall this man be a snare to us? Let the men go, that they may serve the Lord their God. Do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?” So Moses and Aaron were brought back to Pharaoh. And he said to them, “Go, serve the Lord your God. But which ones are to go?” Moses said, “We will go with our young and our old. We will go with our sons and daughters and with our flocks and herds, for we must hold a feast to the Lord.” But he said to them, “The LORD be with you, if ever I let you and your little ones go! Look, you have some evil purpose in mind. No! Go, the men among you, and serve the LORD, for that is what you are asking.” And they were driven out from Pharaoh’s presence.
God was not happy with this offer for an adults-only feast. He plagued Pharaoh some more to get him to agree to let the intact households go, even to the point of ripping apart Egyptian households by killing the firstborn sons. In so doing, the LORD established a covenant meal for households: the Passover. From Exodus 12:
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household. And if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbor shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.
“Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.
“This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall remove leaven out of your houses, for if anyone eats what is leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. On the first day you shall hold a holy assembly, and on the seventh day a holy assembly. No work shall be done on those days. But what everyone needs to eat, that alone may be prepared by you. And you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt. Therefore you shall observe this day, throughout your generations, as a statute forever. In the first month, from the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. For seven days no leaven is to be found in your houses. If anyone eats what is leavened, that person will be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a sojourner or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwelling places you shall eat unleavened bread.”
Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go and select lambs for yourselves according to your clans, and kill the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. None of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning. For the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you. You shall observe this rite as a statute for you and for your sons forever. And when you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” And the people bowed their heads and worshiped.
Household circumcision leads to household salvation and a household memorial meal. There is nothing in the text to attenuate the fact that God is dealing with households and with a household meal that would include the young children as well as the adults. Later, God will feed the whole congregation manna, including the young children, and the Apostle Paul makes a point that this was spiritual food like the Lord’s Supper.
For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ (1 Corinthians 10.1-4).
And when they are established in Israel, God makes it clear that children are invited to all the feasts of the LORD. As we read in Deuteronomy 16:
“You shall count seven weeks. Begin to count the seven weeks from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Then you shall keep the Feast of Weeks to the Lord your God with the tribute of a freewill offering from your hand, which you shall give as the Lord your God blesses you. And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite who is within your towns, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are among you, at the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell there. You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt; and you shall be careful to observe these statutes.
“You shall keep the Feast of Booths seven days, when you have gathered in the produce from your threshing floor and your winepress. You shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are within your towns. For seven days you shall keep the feast to the Lord your God at the place that the Lord will choose, because the Lord your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful.
This is the same household principle that goes back to Abraham and circumcision. As we read in Deuteronomy 12,
But you shall seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there. There you shall go, and there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, your vow offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock. And there you shall eat before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your households, in all that you undertake, in which the Lord your God has blessed you.
And again, Deuteronomy 15:
All the firstborn males that are born of your herd and flock you shall dedicate to the Lord your God. You shall do no work with the firstborn of your herd, nor shear the firstborn of your flock. You shall eat it, you and your household, before the LORD your God year by year at the place that the LORD will choose.
Again, Paul in 1 Corinthians 10, establishes that these were sacramental meals that correspond to our own Lord’s Supper:
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar?
So this household participation cannot be nullifed when we come to God’s feast. And lets be clear: it is not as if God is shy about telling us when people might not be permitted to eat of his feasts or approach his presence. As one example among many, consider the rules for priests. They had closer privileges to eat from God’s table that other Israelites were not permitted. And yet here again the priest’s household is permitted. Leviticus 22 gives us details:
A lay person shall not eat of a holy thing; no foreign guest of the priest or hired servant shall eat of a holy thing, but if a priest buys a slave as his property for money, the slave may eat of it, and anyone born in his house may eat of his food. If a priest’s daughter marries a layman, she shall not eat of the contribution of the holy things. But if a priest’s daughter is widowed or divorced and has no child and returns to her father’s house, as in her youth, she may eat of her father’s food; yet no lay person shall eat of it.
Nothing is ever said about an age requirement or a developmental requirement. What matters is household. God is a God to us and our children.
When Jesus came to Israel, he found people were being Pharaoh, denying table fellowship and Sabbath rest to his people and daring to do so in the name of God.
He didn’t like it.