Circumcision

With the new era inaugurated by Jesus, circumcision is no longer the required sign of membership in the covenant community.

Circumcision is an obstacle to any claim that disciples of Jesus are required to keep the regulations of the Mosaic Law. In the Book of Genesis, circumcision was the entrance rite of the covenant with Abraham, the identifying sign of the covenant. Moreover, it is mandatory under the Law given through Moses at Mount Sinai. Therefore, if circumcision is no longer required for membership in the covenant, then the jurisdiction of the Law has changed.

Circumcision was fundamental to the identity of the nation of Israel, the “sign” that separated the people of God from other nations.  Yet the New Testament declares that circumcision is not required of the followers of Jesus. In Genesis, God declared:

Cutting Edge - Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash
[Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash]

  • I will establish my covenant between me and you (Abraham) and your seed after you for an everlasting covenant…. This is my covenant which you will keep between me and you and your seed after you; every male among you shall be circumcised.” – (Genesis 17:7-14).

Circumcision was the “sign” of God’s covenant with Abraham. An uncircumcised male was, by definition, outside the covenant and “cut off from his people since he has broken my covenant.” Likewise, the legislation given at Sinai required all males to be circumcised on the “eighth day” - (Exodus 12:43-48, Leviticus 12:1-3, John 7:22-23. Compare Acts 7:8).

In contrast to the ancient legislation, the Apostle Paul wrote:

  • (Galatians 5:2-4) - “If you get circumcised Christ will profit you nothing. Yea, I bear witness again to every man who gets circumcised that he is indebted to do the whole law. You have been set aside from Christ, you who are justified from the law; you have fallen out of his grace.”

By the first century, circumcision was so fundamental to the self-identity of Jews that it was common to categorize the Jewish people as “the Circumcision,” and the Gentiles as the “Un-Circumcision.”

An uncircumcised Jew was a contradiction in terms. To be Jewish and male was to be circumcised. It was the most basic requirement for male Gentiles when they converted to the Jewish religion - (Acts 10:45, 11:2-3, Romans 4:9-10).

In the tenth chapter of the Book of Acts, Peter preached to Gentiles for the first time in the City of Caesarea. Before he finished speaking, the Holy Spirit fell on his audience, and they began to speak in tongues, just as Jewish believers had done on the Day of Pentecost.

Thus, uncircumcised Gentiles received the same gift as circumcised Jewish believers, and in the same manner. Peter’s companions were amazed, not that Gentiles spoke in tongues, but “because on uncircumcised Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Spirit” - (Acts 2:1-4, 10:44-48).

Rather than require his Gentile converts to get circumcised, Peter baptized them in water, “in the name of Jesus Christ,” and this was despite their uncircumcised status. Upon his return to Jerusalem, certain Jews confronted Peter:

  • (Acts 11:1-3) – “Now the Apostles and the brethren who were throughout Judaea heard that the Gentiles also had welcomed the word of God. And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, they of the circumcision began to find fault with him, saying, he went in unto men uncircumcised and ate with them.

The Gift of the Spirit was the definitive proof that God had accepted uncircumcised Gentiles as Gentiles into the Assembly. Moreover, since He had accepted Gentiles WITHOUT circumcision, how could Peter or the other Apostles require it of Gentile converts or anyone else?

The controversy did not immediately cease, and circumcision remained fundamental to Jewish self-identity.  Later, certain Jewish followers of Jesus stirred up the congregation in Antioch by claiming, “Except you get circumcised after the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

THE CONTINUING DEBATE


To address the dispute in Antioch, a council was assembled in Jerusalem. It concluded that circumcision was no longer required, at least, not for Gentiles. The Jewish believers who were “troubling” Gentiles were to cease their efforts to compel non-Jewish believers to undergo circumcision.

Believers must not be required to become circumcised or come under the jurisdiction of the Torah, only they must “abstain from things sacrificed to idols, from blood, from things strangled and from fornication” so as not to offend the sensibilities of Jewish believers in Jesus - (Acts 15:27-29).

The issue arose once more when certain “men from Jerusalem” arrived in Galatia, claiming that Gentiles must be circumcised to “complete” their faith.  Paul’s response was swift and unequivocal - If a believer is circumcised, “Christ will profit him nothing.”

Anyone who “receives circumcision becomes a debtor to do the whole law” and places himself under its “curse.” He or she becomes “severed from Christ… fallen from grace” - (Galatians 3:3, 3:10-11, 5:2-4).

Circumcision is no longer a dividing line or a sign for determining who is a member of the people of God - “In Christ Jesus, neither circumcision avails anything nor uncircumcision, but rather faith working through love.” The old categories no longer apply. Likewise, in his letters to the Colossian and Corinthian congregations, Paul wrote:

  • There is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision” – (Colossians 3:11).
  • Is any man called being circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision? Let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing” - (1 Corinthians 7:18-19).

Circumcision, the removal of the foreskin, is not inherently evil or good. As to a man’s standing before God, it is a matter of indifference.

The “true circumcision” consists of those men and women who “worship God in the spirit and rejoice in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh.” They are “circumcised with the circumcision made without hands” - (Philippians 3:3, Colossians 2:11).

Paul stressed that the Torah required those under its jurisdiction to keep all its regulations. The Mosaic Legislation was not a pick-and-choose menu, but an all-or-nothing proposition. Obligating someone to become circumcised also obligated him to keep the entire body of statutes and regulations contained in the Law. As the Torah itself declared:

  • (Deuteronomy 27:26) - “Accursed is everyone that continues not in all things written in the book of the law, to do them.
  • (Galatians 3:10) – “For as many as are of works of the law are under a curse, for it is written: Accursed is everyone who continues not in all things written in the Book of the Law to do them.

This historical and scriptural background creates a dilemma for anyone who teaches that the followers of Jesus must conform to the requirements of the Mosaic Law, or that doing so is mandatory for right standing before God.

Either the early church was mistaken in its decision about circumcision, or a major reassessment of the Torah was, and perhaps still is, necessary. Under the Law, circumcision is mandatory and foundational for membership in the covenant community.

But if uncircumcised Gentiles now receive the Spirit of God, then the old system has been changed, and fundamentally so. Their possession of the Spirit demonstrates that Gentiles are accepted by God without circumcision.

If circumcision is no longer required, there has been a fundamental if not radical change in the status of the Law of Moses, and the identification of the people of God.



RELATED POSTS:
  • Christ is Risen! - (Paul anchored all that God has done in the resurrection of Jesus, which also inaugurated the Messianic Age - Galatians 1:1-5)
  • Justified From His Faith - (Paul presents the points of agreement and disagreement with his opponents in the assemblies of Galatia – Galatians 2:15-21)
  • The Sign of the Covenant - (The Gift of the Spirit demonstrates beyond question who belongs to the covenant community of Jesus, and who does not)

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