Circumcision - Cutting Issue
With the new era inaugurated by Jesus, circumcision is no longer a sign of membership in the covenant community.
Circumcision is an obstacle to claims that disciples must keep the Mosaic Law. In Genesis, it is the entrance rite of the Abrahamic covenant and the identifying sign of the covenant. And it is mandatory under the law given through Moses at Mount Sinai.
Thus, if circumcision is no longer required, then the jurisdiction of the Law has changed. It is fundamental to the identity of the nation of Israel, the “sign” that separates the chosen people from all other nations.
Yet the New Testament explicitly declares that followers of Jesus are not required to undergo circumcision. In Genesis, God declares:
- “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 since he has broken my covenant.”
Likewise, the legislation given at Sinai requires 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).
Yet, 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 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 for male Gentiles when they became Jewish proselytes - (Acts 10:45, 11:2-3, Romans 4:9-10).
GENTILES RECEIVE THE GOSPEL
In Acts chapter 10, Peter preaches to Gentiles for the first time in Caesarea. Before he finishes speaking, the Holy Spirit falls on his Gentile audience, and they begin to speak in tongues, just as Jewish believers did on the Day of Pentecost.
Thus, uncircumcised Gentiles receive the very same gift as circumcised Jewish believers. 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 the Gentile converts to get circumcised, Peter baptizes them in water “in the name of Jesus Christ,” and this is despite their uncircumcised state. And 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 is the definitive proof that God has accepted uncircumcised Gentiles as Gentiles. And since He has accepted Gentiles WITHOUT circumcision, how can Peter or the other apostles now require it of Gentiles or anyone else?
The issue did not immediately die out, and 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.”
To address the controversy 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 and desist.
Believers must not be required to get 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 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. 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.” 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 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.”
Thus, the old categories no longer apply, nor do they establish anyone’s standing before God. Likewise, in his letters to the Colossians and Corinthians, Paul writes:
- “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 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.
And if circumcision is no longer required, then there has been a fundamental if not a radical change in the status and function of the law of Moses.