What is circumcision? What is its significance, and is it important? Most people not of Jewish decent only become aware of this issue when they have a baby boy and the nurse asks what they want to do. Circumcision, however, has ancient Biblical roots, and was God’s command to the Hebrew people as a physical declaration of their identity as the people of God.
“Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh—who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands.” (Ephesians 2:11)
These days we categorize people according to their race, national origin, religious affiliation, or some other determinant, but in Biblical times the Jews divided all of humanity into two categories: the Circumcision—the people of God—and the Uncircumcision—everyone else. This was based on God’s command to Abraham in the Old Testament:
“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless. And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.’ Then Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying: ‘As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but you name shall be Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make national of you, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you. Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.’ And God said to Abraham: ‘As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant. He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money must be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people, he has broken My covenant.’” (Genesis 17:1-14)
Because physical circumcision was such an obvious means of identification, it was a permanent reminder of identity as one of the people of God. But what of today—are we, as Christians, required to be circumcised?
This is a topic which has been debated since New Testament times. A certain group, called the Judaizers, felt that believers in Christ had to also be circumcised and follow the Old Testament law. The letter to the Galatian Christians was actually written to clarify this exact issue:
“Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing. And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision not uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love. You ran well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion does not come from Him who calls you.” (Galatians 5:1-8)
Paul explained that as Christians, we rely not on works for salvation, but on the finished work of Christ. It isn’t whether we’re circumcised or uncircumcised that matters, but “faith working through love.” It is our hearts which ought to be “circumcised,” as Romans 2:28-29 explains: “For he is not a Jew [of the people of God] who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which isoutward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.”
Real circumcision is a circumcision of the heart which earns praise from God, not people. But what exactly does this mean? To answer that, we must get a bigger picture of God’s relationship with mankind.
In the beginning, God dealt with individual people. Beginning with Abraham, however, He chose to use his descendants, the nation of Israel, as an example to the rest of the world of a people ruled by God Himself. Thus, in Old Testament times being an Israelite was synonymous with being one of God’s people—you had the express divine revelation of God, the Mosaic Law. The purpose of the Law, incidentally, was to show us our sinfulness—to reveal our desperate need for a Divine Solution—not to save us:
“What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed [Christ] should come…For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.” (Galatians 3:19-25)
Since the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins, however, access to God has been made available to everyone, including both the Circumcision (the Jews) who accept Christ as Messiah, and the Uncircumcision (the Gentiles, those not Jewish by birth) who accept Christ as Messiah. Even though many Jews came to believe salvation was through the keeping of the Mosaic law, the example of Abraham (“And he believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.” Genesis 15:6) shows us that salvation has, and always will be, through faith alone:
“For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen. But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children [of God] because they are the seed [the physical descendants] of Abraham…That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed [the real children of God]…[The] Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. As it is written: ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and a rock of offense [Christ], and whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.’” (Romans 3-33)
Those of us who are not of Jewish ancestry are brought into the family of God when we become Christians. Yet some of Israel stumbled because of Christ and were rejected:
“And if some of the branches were broken off [Jews who refused to accept Christ as Messiah], and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them [non-Jews who accept Christ as Messiah], and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree [become a child of God through faith in Christ], do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, ‘Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in.’ Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.” (Romans 11:17-23)
God’s plan was to make the two—the Circumcision and the Uncircumcision—one in Christ. Yet, not all will be saved. Which brings us back to the original question. What is true circumcision?
True circumcision is genuine salvation. It is a submission to the authority of God in Christ and reliance on His Holy Spirit. According to the angel who appeared to Joseph prior to Jesus’ birth,“…He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21b) The purpose of Jesus being born a human being and dying on the cross was to save us from our sins. The problem we typically have these days is that what we long for is not holiness—an absence of sin in our lives—but to avoid the punishment for the sins we actually want to do. In other words, we want heaven, not because we long for God’s presence, but because it is the alternative to hell. What a backward attitude! It certainly doesn’t make sense, and furthermore, it will not work because we can’t fool God—He knows whether our hearts are truly circumcised or not.
1 Peter 1:14-17 warns us, “…as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance [when you didn’t know any better]; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy.’ And if you call onthe Father, who without partiality [God is completely fair] judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear.” God requires holy living, an active turning away from the sin in our lives. We must take our obedience seriously because He does.
Paul, one of the greatest of the apostles, tells us, “Therefore I run thus; not with uncertainty. Thus I fight; not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:26-27) If Paul is concerned about the possibility of becoming disqualified, what of the rest of us? Salvation is through faith in Christ, but true faith responds with obedience. If Paul has to actively disciplining his body and bring it into subjection, do not we also have to do the same?
Furthermore, In Philippians 3:8-14 he says, “Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected, but I press on, that I may law hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” If Paul is concerned about attaining to the resurrection from the dead, what of the rest of us? True faith responds with a subsequent life of pressing toward the goal, for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ.
Jesus Himself taught about the great value of true circumcision—about how important it is to be part of the kingdom of God:
“…the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:44-46)
We do salvation–true circumcision–injustice when we present it as something it is not—easy. These verses do not speak of something that is either effortlessly guaranteed or easy, or of something extra we can just add onto the lives we already have. They speak of something so valuable we are willing to give up everything to get. How valuable is being part of God’s kingdom to you?
We think we see; You say we are blind. We think we are rich and have need of nothing; You say we are poor. Circumcise our hearts; help us see what having You is—of what incredible, indescribable value it is. Help us to be willing to give up whatever is necessary to get You. In Jesus’ name, Amen.