SYNOPSIS – If circumcision is no longer required, there has been a fundamental change in how membership in the covenant community is determined.
Circumcision is an obstacle to any claim that followers of Jesus must conform to the requirements of the Torah, a rite that was fundamental in the Abrahamic covenant for the identity of the covenant community, and mandatory in the Mosaic legislation for all male members. 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 are not required to undergo circumcision. In the book of Genesis, God had 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.” – (Genesis 17:7-14).
Circumcision became the “sign” of the covenant between Yahweh and Abraham. By definition, an uncircumcised male was 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 12:43-48, Leviticus 12:1-3, John 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 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. Undergoing circumcision was a basic requirement for a male Gentile to become a Jewish proselyte – (Acts 10:45, 11:2-3, Romans 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 others began to speak in tongues, just as Jewish believers had done on the Day of Pentecost – Uncircumcised Gentiles had received the very same gift. The Jewish companions of Peter 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 believers at the house of Cornelius to get circumcised and become Jewish proselytes, 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 immediately 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.”
A council was assembled in Jerusalem to address the controversy. It concluded that circumcision was no longer required. Jewish believers who were “troubling” Gentiles were to cease and desist – Gentile believers were not required to be 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” – (Acts 15:27-29).
The issue came to a head once more when certain Jewish believers arrived in the churches of Galatia and claimed 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, 3:10-11, 5:2–4).
Circumcision no longer could be the defining criterion for 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.” The old categories no longer applied or defined right-standing before God.
Likewise, in his letters to the Colossians and Corinthians, the Apostle 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” 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 stressed that the Torah required 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 declared:
- (Deuteronomy 27:26) – “Accursed is every one 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 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.”
- (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.”
This background creates a quandary for proponents of Christians keeping the Torah. Either the early church was mistaken in its decision about circumcision, or a major reassessment of the Torah was, and still is, necessary – Under the Mosaic Law, circumcision 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 or, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it, “rendered obsolete.”
With the coming of Jesus and the outpouring of the promised Spirit, the Old Order has come to an end, a new era has dawned, and the New Covenant has been inaugurated.