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14 October 2018

Circumcision – A Cutting Issue

Paul in Antioch

Circumcision is an obstacle to claims that followers of Jesus must conform to the rituals and requirements of Torah, the Law given by Moses at Sinai. Circumcision was required in BOTH the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic legislation. It was mandatory, not optional; the sign of who was under Yahweh’s covenant and a member of His people, serving to separate Israel from Gentile nations. Yet the New Testament declares explicitly that believers are not required to be circumcised.
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; by definition, any uncircumcised male was outside of the covenant and “cut off from his people, for he has broken my covenant” (verse 14. Also Acts 7:8). Likewise, the later legislation at Sinai required all males to be circumcised on the eighth day (Exodus 12:43-48, Leviticus 12:1-3, John 7:22-23).
(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 Israel’s identity that it was common to categorize Jews as “the Circumcision” and Gentiles as the “Un-circumcision” (e.g., Acts 10:45, 11:2-3, Romans 4:9-10, Ephesians 2:11, Colossians 4:11, Titus 1:10). An uncircumcised Jew was a contradiction in terms; to be Jewish and male was to be circumcised. Circumcision was mandatory for Gentiles who wished to become Jewish proselytes.
Peter preached to Gentiles for the first time in Acts 10:1-48. Before he finished doing so the Holy Spirit fell on his Gentile audience. Cornelius and others began to speak in tongues just as Jewish believers had on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4); 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,” a promise was given by God to Israel (Joel 2:28; Ezekiel 36:26).
Rather than require Gentile believers to be circumcised and become Jewish proselytes, Peter baptized them in the water “in the name of Jesus Christ” regardless of their uncircumcised state.
Upon his return to Jerusalem, certain Jews confronted Peter because “he went into men uncircumcised and ate with them” (Acts 11:3). In his defense, Peter recounted how “as I began to speak the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as on us at the beginning…If then God gave to them the like gift as he did also to us, who was I that I could withstand God?”
Those in attendance “glorified God” because “to the Gentiles also God had granted repentance unto life.” The gift of the Spirit was 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?
The issue did not immediately die out; circumcision remained fundamental to Jewish identity among many Jewish believers. Some stirred-up the congregation at Antioch, claiming, “Except you get circumcised after the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
A council assembled in Jerusalem addressed the controversy and concluded that circumcision was no longer required. Jewish believers who had been “troubling” Gentiles were to cease and desist. Gentiles were not required to be circumcised or otherwise come under the jurisdiction of the Torah, only they must “abstain from things sacrificed to idols, from blood, from things strangled and from fornication” (Acts 15:27-29).
The issue came to a head again when certain Jewish believers arrived among the churches of Galatia to teach Gentiles that they must get circumcised to “complete” their faith (Galatians 3:3).
Paul’s response was swift and unequivocal; if a believer is circumcised “Christ will profit you nothing” (5:2). Anyone who “receives circumcision becomes a debtor to do the whole law” and places himself under its “curse” (3:10-11, 5:3); they become “severed from Christ…fallen from grace” (5:4).
Circumcision was no longer the defining factor of who was and was not a member of God’s people; “in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision avails anything nor uncircumcision; but rather faith working through love.”
In Colossians 3:11, Paul wrote that in Christ “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor un-circumcision”; the old categories no longer apply or define 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 7:18-19a]).
The “true circumcision” consists of those who “worship God in the spirit and rejoice in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3); they are “circumcised with the circumcision made without hands” (Colossians 2:11).
Paul emphasizes that the Torah requires those under it to keep the whole law, which itself declares, “Accursed is everyone that continues not in all things written in the book of the law, to do them” (Galatians 3:10, Deuteronomy 27:26).
Every man who is being circumcised is a debtor to do the whole law” (Galatians 5:3). The Mosaic Legislation is not a pick-and-choose menu but an all-or-nothing proposition.
This creates a quandary for today’s Christian proponents of Torah-keeping. Either the early church was mistaken, or a major reassessment of the Torah was and is necessary.
Under either the Abrahamic covenant or the Mosaic Law circumcision is mandatory. If uncircumcised Gentiles are members of the covenant community and Spirit-filled without undergoing circumcision (and other requirements of the Law), then the old system has been fundamentally changed, if not replaced.
Proponents who claim that followers of Jesus must lead Torah-compliant lives but do not require circumcision, do not handle the Law of Moses correctly or 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 (Romans 10:4)– “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believes.”

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