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14 October 2018

Circumcision – A Cutting Issue Then and Now

SYNOPSIS:  If circumcision is no longer required, then there has been a fundamental change in how membership in the covenant community is determined.

Photo by Richard Iwaki on Unsplash
Richard Iwaki on Unsplash
Circumcision is an obstacle to any claim that followers of Jesus must conform to the requirements of Torah, a rite that was fundamental in the Abrahamic covenant to the identity of the covenant community and mandatory in the Mosaic legislation. Thus, if circumcision is no longer required, then the jurisdiction of the Law has changed.

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

In Genesis 17:7-14, 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 shall keep between me and you and your seed after you: every male among you shall be circumcised.”

Circumcision became the “sign” of Yahweh’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants. An uncircumcised male was outside the covenant and, therefore, “cut off from his people, for he has broken my covenant.” Likewise, the later legislation at 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).

Yet, in contrast to the past 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 Torah. You have been set aside from Christ, you who are justified from the Torah; you have fallen out of his grace.”

By the first century, circumcision was so integral to the self-identity of Jews that it was common to categorize them as “the Circumcision” and Gentiles as the “Un-circumcision.” An uncircumcised Jew was a contradiction in terms; to be Jewish and male was to be circumcised. Undergoing circumcision was a basic requirement for a Gentile male in order to become a Jewish proselyte (Acts 10:4511:2-3Romans 4:9-10).

Peter preached to Gentiles for the first time at the house of Cornelius in the city of Caesarea. Before he finished speaking, the Holy Spirit fell on his Gentile audience. Cornelius and the other Gentiles who were present began to speak in tongues, just as Jewish believers had done on the Day of Pentecost. Thus, Gentiles had received the same gift. Peter’s Jewish companions were amazed, not because Gentiles had spoken in tongues but, “because on uncircumcised Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:1-410:44-48).
Rather than require these new believers to get circumcised and, thereby, become Jewish proselytes, immediately, 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 Peter:

(Acts 11:1-3) – “Now the Apostles and the brethren who were throughout Judaea heard that, the nations also had welcomed the word of God. And when Peter came up unto Jerusalem, they of the circumcision began to find fault with him, Saying—he went in unto men uncircumcised, and did eat with them.” – (The Emphasized Bible).

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 require it of them?

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

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A council was assembled in Jerusalem to address the controversy. It concluded that circumcision was no longer required. Jewish believers who had been “troubling” Gentiles were to cease and desist; they were not required to be circumcised or, otherwise, 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” (Acts15:27-29).

The issue came to a head once more when certain Jewish believers arrived in the churches of Galatia and taught that Gentiles must be circumcised to “complete” their faith.  Paul’s response 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”; they become “severed from Christ…fallen from grace” (Galatians 3:3, 3:10-115:2-4).

Circumcision no longer could be the “sign” and the defining criterion of who was and was not a member of the covenant people - “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision avails anything nor uncircumcision, but rather faith working through love.”

In Colossians 3:11, Paul wrote, in Christ, “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor un-circumcision”; the old categories no longer applied or defined right-standing before God. “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) – “After being circumcised, was any called? let him not become uncircumcised; in uncircumcision, hath any been called? let him not be circumcised: The circumcision is nothing, and the uncircumcision is nothing—but keeping the commandments of God.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
The “true circumcision” consists 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 emphasized the Torah demanded that those under its jurisdiction must keep all its stipulations. As the Law itself declared, “Accursed is every one that continues not in all things written in the book of the law, to do them.” “Every man who is being circumcised is a debtor to do the whole law.” The Mosaic Legislation is not a pick-and-choose menu; instead, it is an all-or-nothing proposition:

(Galatians 3:10) – “For as many as are of works of law are under a curse—for it is written—Accursed is everyone that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them.” - (The Emphasized Bible).
(Galatians 5:1-3) – “With her freedom Christ hath made you free. Stand fast, therefore, and do not, again, with a yoke of servitude be held fast! See! I, Paul, say unto you—if ye be getting circumcised Christ will profit you nothing. Yea, I bear solemn witness again unto every man getting circumcised—that he is a debtor to do the whole law.” - (The Emphasized Bible).

This background creates a quandary for proponents of Torah-keeping. Either the early church was mistaken in its decision about circumcision, or a major reassessment of the Torah was and, apparently, still is necessary. Again, under the Mosaic Law circumcision was and is mandatory for membership in the covenant community.

If uncircumcised Gentiles are members of the covenant community and receive the Spirit of God without circumcision, then the old system has been fundamentally changed, if not replaced.

Proponents who claim that followers of Jesus must lead Torah-compliant lives but who, then, do not also require circumcision, are not handling the Law of Moses, the Torah, honestly. With the coming of Jesus and the outpouring of the promised Spirit, the Old Order has come to an end and a new era has dawned.

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