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In the first biblical mention of circumcision, God made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants. God said to Abram, I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.” God then explained his part of the covenant — he would be the God of Abraham’s descendants and give them the land of Canaan (Genesis 17:1-8); God then further explained Abraham’s part of the covenant (verses 10-14). This is…the covenant you are to keep.” Every male was to be circumcised, and this physical rite was to be the sign of the covenant” with God, and it was an everlasting covenant.” Every male in Abraham’s household was to be circumcised immediately, and from then on every new baby boy was to be circumcised on the eighth day. Whether they were Hebrews or whether they were purchased as slaves, the men had to be circumcised. If they were not, they would be cut off; they had broken the covenant. Abraham did what God told him to do (verses 23-27; 21:4). The practice of circumcision became the defining characteristic of the Abraham-Isaac-Jacob clan. Many years later, the sons of Jacob used this custom to get revenge on Shechem (Genesis 34:14-29). As they said, they could cohabitate and intermarry only with people who were circumcised (verse 16).
?The custom was probably continued when the Israelites lived in Goshen.? But Moses, reared in the court of Pharaoh and later a refugee in Sinai, did not circumcise his own son. Zipporah had to do it (Exodus 4:24-25). Under the leadership of Moses, the entire nation of Israel did not circumcise their male infants in the wilderness. Joshua had to reinstitute it (Joshua 5:2-8). ?It is not clear why these lapses under Moses occurred, but it is clear that the omission had to be corrected before the plan of God proceeded.? God could call Moses even when he was a covenant-breaker, but his son had to be circumcised before Moses could do his job. Nor would God allow the Israelites to live in the promised land unless they were faithful to the covenant God had made with Abraham. Since circumcision was already a requirement for the Israelites, it is natural that it was included within the old covenant laws (Leviticus 12:2-3). Also, people had to be circumcised to participate in the Passover (Exodus 12:44, 48). ?Even Gentiles had to be circumcised if they wanted to worship God by means of this festival.? However, circumcision was not merely a physical and external practice. It symbolized something internal. God described idolatry and disobedience as a result of an uncircumcised heart (Leviticus 26:41); he described repentance as a circumcision of the heart (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6). Of course, this spiritual meaning did not eliminate the need for the physical practice; the Israelites were to obey both the letter of the law and its symbolic meaning.
The Israelites apparently faithfully continued the practice of circumcision. Even in the lawless period of the judges, the Israelites were distinguished from others by the fact that they were circumcised (Judges 14:3; 15:18; 1 Samuel 14:6; 17:26, 36; 31:4; 2 Samuel 1:20; 1 Chronicles 10:4). ?When Samson and David called the Philistines uncircumcised,” it was not a mere medical description — it was an ethnic, earthy insult.? It was probably impolite then, just as it is impolite today, to make references someone’s sexual organ. This use of the term illustrates how definitive the practice of circumcision was for Israelite self-identity, and the depth of emotion involved in this ethnic tradition. The prophets used the term uncircumcised” as a synonym for Gentiles (Isaiah 52:1).
When Ezekiel predicted death for the ruler of Tyre and the Pharaoh of Egypt, he said they would die the death of the uncircumcised and be buried among the uncircumcised (Ezekiel 28:10; 31:18). This conveyed not only a Gentile death, but a death in opposition to God; the connotation was that these rulers were ungodly. This was developed further in Ezekiel’s lament for Pharaoh in Ezekiel 32. In verses 19-32, Pharaoh was said to have his fate with other uncircumcised soldiers who are now buried. Throughout, the implication is that they were all enemies of God. Ezekiel criticized those who permitted uncircumcised people into the temple (Ezekiel 44:7). The prophets elaborated on the spirit of circumcision, too. Jeremiah exhorted his people, who presumably were already physically circumcised, to circumcise their hearts (Jeremiah 4:4). ?It was a metaphor for repentance.? Indeed, God said he would punish both Israelites and gentiles who are circumcised in the flesh only and not in the heart (Jeremiah 9:25-26). Physical circumcision was not enough; spiritual circumcision was also necessary. Isaiah emphasized the importance of circumcision in one of his prophecies of God’s glorious rule. He predicted a time when only circumcised people would be allowed to enter the new city of Zion (Isaiah 52:1-2). In Isaiah’s culture and time, that meant people who were physically circumcised. Isaiah may have also meant those who were circumcised in heart as well. This was part of his prophecy of redemption (verse 3) — when good tidings of salvation are preached and God rules (verse 7) when the Lord returns to Zion (verse 8) and reveals salvation throughout the world (verse 10). Ezekiel also prophesied that only people who were circumcised in both the flesh and the heart could worship properly (Ezekiel 44:9).
John the Baptist and Jesus were circumcised (Luke 1:59; 2:21). Jesus’ only comment about circumcision was favorable: It was part of the law of Moses,” and the Jews were willing to circumcise children on the Sabbath. Since it was a religious rite, it could be done on the Sabbath, just as priests could desecrate” the Sabbath to perform sacrifices (Matthew 12:5). Stephen mentioned the covenant of circumcision that God had given Abraham (Acts 7:8), but he criticized the Sanhedrin for having uncircumcised hearts and ears (verse 51). They were physically circumcised, but not obedient to what God had told them through Jesus. Physical circumcision should have been followed by a circumcision of the heart, through receiving Christ as Lord and Savior.
The biggest controversy about circumcision came when the gospel began going to Gentiles. Circumcised believers (i.e., Jews) were astonished when the Holy Spirit was given to Cornelius (Acts 10:45). Circumcised believers criticized Peter for going to the house of an uncircumcised person and even eating with gentiles (Acts 11:2-3). The problem surfaced again when more and more Gentiles began responding to the gospel by believing in the Lord Jesus (verses 20-21). Later, some Jewish believers came to Antioch and taught that the Gentiles had to be circumcised or else they could not be saved (Acts 15:1). They also said that the Gentiles should obey the entire law of Moses (verse 5).
Circumcision has value if you observe the law,” Paul writes (Romans 2:25), but he does not explain what that value is. After all, if a person observes the law he is counted as circumcised (i.e., in Abraham’s covenant) whether or not he is actually circumcised (verse 26). A Gentile who obeys is better than a Jew who disobeys (verse 27); mere circumcision cannot guarantee salvation. If a person is Jewish only externally, in physical circumcision, but not in the heart, such a person is not one of God’s people, since real circumcision is not merely” physical (verse 28). Paul’s comments so far would be agreeable to a person who advocated that both physical and spiritual circumcision were necessary. But Paul’s next comment would be too sweeping: A man is one of God’s people if he is inwardly circumcised, since the real circumcision is a spiritual matter, of the heart, not by the written code” (verse 29). What value is there in being circumcised? Or, in synonymous terms, what advantage is there in being a Jew? Much, replies Paul (Romans 3:1-2). He does not extol any health benefits, but he mentions that circumcised people have in their community the words of God (verse 3). That is a great value, but it is all for naught if they do not obey — and that brings Paul to the crux of the problem. There is none righteous, no not one. No one keeps the law perfectly; we all fall short. How then can we be saved? By faith. There is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith” (verse 30). Justification by faith is the central reason that the physical rite of circumcision is no longer necessary but is not discouraged.
Paul examines the example of Abraham again, and notes that Abraham was accounted righteous even while he was uncircumcised (Romans 4:9-10). Even though he later received a physical sign or seal of his righteousness, his righteous status before God did not depend on circumcision, but the circumcision did represent a covenant between God and Abraham and was necessary (verse 11). He is the father of all who faithfully live as he did before he was circumcised (verse 12) — and that was an exemplary faith, since Abraham packed up and moved without knowing where he was going. To the Corinthians, Paul made it clear that if a person was called while uncircumcised, he should not attempt to change his anatomy (1 Corinthians 7:18). And his reason is surprising: Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts” (verse 19). The surprise is that circumcision had been one of God’s commands, and yet it doesn’t count. The law of circumcision was a religious rite that had nothing to do with our moral responsibilities to our neighbors. Paul explained circumcision in greatest detail in his letter to the Galatians. They were being misled by other Jews that demanded that Gentile believers follow up their faith with physical compliance with old covenant commands. But Paul explained that it is wrong to view physical circumcision as necessary because that would imply that faith in Christ was not enough. If you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all” (Galatians 5:2).
Paul himself did not forbid circumcision; he circumcised Timothy because he was Jewish, and whose mother was Jewish. But he explains that Titus, a Gentile, was not circumcised (Galatians 2:3). It was not a requirement for salvation, nor a requirement for leadership within the Church. ?Circumcision is permissible as a voluntary practice, but it should not be taught as a requirement. It does not enhance anyone’s standing before God. It should not be done as a commitment to old covenant laws, which was the issue in Acts 15 and Galatians 5:2-3.? Paul had to state that he was not preaching circumcision (verse 11). Why was this necessary? Probably because some people were making the claim that Paul was actually in favor of circumcision. Like other Jewish preachers seeking proselytes, Paul taught morals and virtues. Once people had accepted the morals, some claimed, Paul would add circumcision as the capstone requirement. Not so, said Paul. He was not going to add requirements to what he had already taught the Galatian believers. He was so vehement about the Judaistic agitators that he exclaimed, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (verse 12). Moreover, if the Galatians submitted to this work of the law, as if it were required, they could not be saved (verse 2)! Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation” (verse 15). If we are born anew in Christ, if we have faith that works itself out in love, then we are acceptable to God. We do not have to observe this ancient rite in order to be saved.
Because the Gentiles were uncircumcised, they were once considered excluded from the covenants of promise and cut off from God. But now, through the blood of Christ, they have been brought near to God (Ephesians 2:11-13). In Jesus’ own flesh, by his own obedience to old covenant rules, he has abolished the commandments and regulations that had separated Jews from Gentiles (verse 14-15). He gave all ethnic groups access to God and made them fellow citizens with each other; it is in Christ that we are being built together as a spiritual temple for God (verse 19-22). Paul also warned the Philippians about the circumcision advocates. Watch out for those dogs,” he said, using Jewish slang for gentiles in reference to the Judaizers (Philippians 3:2). They are evil men, mutilators of the flesh” — a Greek view of the rite of circumcision. But the Spirit wars against the flesh; Paul emphasizes that the physical rite, at least to the Greek mind, takes away from its spiritual meaning. It is believers who are the true circumcision — all who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh” (verse 3). Paul himself was circumcised (verse 5), but he counted it as loss for the sake of Christ (verse 7-8). His righteousness did not come from the law, but from faith in Christ (verse 9). Justification by faith has rendered the rite of circumcision obsolete. The principle of salvation by faith, which Abraham received before his circumcision, gave Paul the logical foundation for saying that obedience to a clear command of Scripture was not necessary for salvation. A physical requirement cannot supersede a promise of God given though faith.
Paul told his Gentile converts in Colosse that they were circumcised in Christ (Colossians 2:11). Since he is our righteousness, and we are in him, we have been given fullness in him (verse 10). We can be accounted righteous because he himself is righteous. Therefore we are as good as circumcised if we are putting off our sinful nature — if we have repented and have begun to live holy lives. Our circumcision is therefore not done by humans, but by Christ himself. How so? Through His saving us, when Christ comes into our heart and is seated on the throne He cuts away the sin. Baptism a kind of symbolic circumcision: it is how we express publicly that we have faith in Jesus as our Savior, that our old life is ended, that we — now circumcised in the heart — intend to live from then on in his service and that we have faith that we will live again with him. When we were separated from God in our sinful nature, we were spiritually uncircumcised. But God has now made us alive again with Christ (verse 13). He forgave our sins, canceling our spiritual debts (incurred through transgressing the written code that was against us), including the regulations that concerned the symbolic forgiveness of sins (verse 14). He likewise canceled the regulation of circumcision, which symbolized repentance and sanctification. Since the fullness of those regulations has come, the symbol is no longer required. Christ has given us the fulfillment. Through His circumcision of the heart.


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