Circumcision - A Cutting Issue

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

Blade - Photo by Richard Iwaki on Unsplash
Circumcision is an obstacle to claims that disciples must keep the laws and regulations of the Mosaic Law, the entrance rite of the Abrahamic covenant, the identifying “
sign” of the covenant, and a mandatory requirement of the later Mosaic Law. If circumcision is no longer required, then the jurisdiction and function of the Law have been changed - [Blade - Photo by Richard Iwaki on Unsplash].

Circumcision was fundamental to the identity of Israel, the “sign” that separated the chosen people from all other nations.  Yet the New Testament explicitly declares that believers in Jesus are not required to undergo circumcision.

ORIGINAL COVENANT

In the book of Genesis, God declared:
  • 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).

From the start, 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, for he has broken my covenant.”

Likewise, the later legislation given at Mount Sinai required all males to be circumcised on the “eighth day” - (Exodus 12:43-48Leviticus 12:1-3John 7:22-23. Compare Acts 7:8).

But in contrast to the ancient Mosaic 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 had become so integral 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. And circumcision was the most basic requirement of male Gentiles when they became Jewish proselytes - (Acts 10:4511:2-3Romans 4:9-10).

GENTILES RECEIVE THE GOSPEL

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

Thus, uncircumcised Gentiles had received the very same gift as circumcised Jewish believers.

Peter’s companions were amazed, not that Gentiles had spoken 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 the new Gentile believers to get circumcised, Peter baptized them in water “in the name of Jesus Christ,” and this despite their uncircumcised state. Upon his return to Jerusalem, certain Jews confronted him:
  • (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. Since God had accepted Gentiles WITHOUT circumcision, how could Peter or the other apostles now require it of them?

The issue did not immediately die out. Circumcision remained fundamental to Jewish self-identity.  Later, other Jews stirred up the congregation at Antioch by claiming, “Except you get circumcised after the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

CONTINUING CONTROVERSY

To address the controversy, 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 and desist.

Believers must not be required to get circumcised or to 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 upset the sensibilities of Jewish believers in Jesus - (Acts 15:27-29).

The issue came to a head once more when certain “men from Jerusalem” arrived in Galatia, claiming that Gentiles must be circumcised to “complete” their faith.  The response of Paul was swift and unequivocal - If a believer is circumcised, “Christ will profit you 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, 3:10-115:2-4).

IN CHRIST

No longer could circumcision be the dividing line for who was or was not 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 applied, nor did they establish anyone’s standing before God. Likewise, in his letters to the Colossians and Corinthians, Paul wrote:
  • There is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor un-circumcision” – (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).

The “true circumcision” is comprised of those 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 stresses that the Torah requires those under its jurisdiction to keep all its regulations. The Mosaic Legislation is not a pick-and-choose menu, but an all-or-nothing proposition. As the Torah itself declares:
  • (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 that continues not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them.

This background creates a dilemma for anyone who teaches that Christians must conform to the requirements of the Mosaic law. 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 for membership in the covenant community – it is foundational to the Abrahamic Covenant.

However, if uncircumcised Gentiles now receive the Spirit of God, then the old system has been changed, and fundamentally so.

As the letter to the Hebrews puts it, the old covenant has been “rendered obsolete.” Not only so, but with the death and resurrection of Jesus, the promised “new covenant” has been inaugurated wherein all shall know the Lord, and His law shall be inscribed on their “hearts of flesh.”



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