Circumcision was a minor surgical operation carried out on baby boys to remove the foreskin from the penis. It was practised among various ancient Near Eastern peoples and had certain health benefits, but for the Israelites it had, in addition, a special religious significance.

Meaning of circumcision

The first person God commanded to be circumcised was Abraham. God had made a covenant with Abraham to be his God, to give him a multitude of descendants who would be his special people, and to give those people Canaan as their homeland. Circumcision was the sign of that covenant (Gen 17:1-11; see COVENANT). As a permanent mark in the body, circumcision symbolized the permanency of God’s covenant with his people. Because of its significance for personal cleanliness, it symbolized also the purity that the covenant demanded of them. God required that Abraham, his household, and all his descendants throughout future generations be circumcised if they were to be his people according to the covenant (Gen 17:9-13; Acts 7:8). Abraham believed God’s promises and acted upon his commands. His circumcision sealed his faith and demonstrated his obedience (Rom 4:11). The covenant had originated in God’s grace, but the Israelites had to respond with faithful obedience if they were to enjoy the covenant’s blessing. If a man was not circumcised, he and his household were cut off from the covenant (Gen 17:14). Circumcision was usually carried out when the child was eight days old (Gen 17:12; Lev 12:3; Luke 1:59; 2:21; Phil 3:5). But during Israel’s years in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan, the people failed to circumcise their new-born children. They neglected the first requirement of the covenant. Therefore, before they could take possession of the land promised to them in the covenant, they had to circumcise all who had been born during the previous forty years (Josh 5:2-9).

Jewish misunderstandings

If circumcision was a sign of cleanness, uncircumcision was a sign of uncleanness (Exod 6:12; Lev 26:41; Isa 52:1). Israelites prided themselves that, because they were circumcised, they were God’s people. They called themselves ‘the circumcised’ (or ‘the circumcision’; Gal 2:7-8; Eph 2:11; Col 4:11), and despised the Gentiles as ‘the uncircumcised’ (1 Sam 14:6; 17:26; 31:4; Eph 2:11). In their self-satisfaction the Israelites forgot that circumcision was also intended to be a sign of obedience (Gen 17:10). Therefore, circumcised Israelites who were disobedient to God were no better in God’s sight than uncircumcised Gentiles. Though physically circumcised, spiritually they were uncircumcised, that is, unclean in God’s sight (Jer 9:25-26; Acts 7:51; Rom 2:25; cf. Deut 10:16; 30:6). In fact, the uncircumcised who obeyed God was more acceptable to God than the circumcised who disobeyed him (Rom 2:26-27).

Israelites believed also that the only people who were God’s people were those who kept the law of Moses. Since the law commanded circumcision, they believed that a person had to be circumcised to be saved (Lev 12:3; John 7:23; Acts 15:1,5; 21:21; see LAW). But circumcision had never been a requirement for salvation. The law of Moses set out regulations for those who had already become God’s people as a result of the covenant he had made with Abraham. The law was not a means of salvation, and neither was circumcision. Abraham was saved by faith, and that occurred before the law was given and at a time when he was still uncircumcised. He received circumcision later, as an outward sign of the inward faith that he already had (Rom 4:1-2,10-11; Gal 3:17- 18). Abraham may be the physical father of the Israelites, but more importantly he is the spiritual father of all who are saved by faith, whether or not they are Israelites and whether or not they are circumcised (Rom 4:11-12). The true Israelites, the true people of God, are not those who have received circumcision, but those who have received inward cleansing from sin (Rom 2:28-29; Gal 6:15).

No longer necessary

Circumcision was a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham, and that covenant reached its fulfilment in Jesus Christ. Through him, the one descendant of Abraham to whom all the promises pointed, people of all nations can receive the blessings of God’s salvation (Gen 12:1-3; Luke 1:54-55,72-73; Rom 4:16- 17; Gal 3:6-9,16,29). Now that Christ has come, the legal requirements of the former covenant no longer apply (Eph 2:15; Col 2:14-15). More than that, if people try to win God’s favour by keeping those legal requirements, they cannot be saved (Gal 5:2-4). People are saved only through faith in Christ, regardless of whether they are circumcised or uncircumcised (Rom 3:30; 1 Cor 7:19; Gal 5:6). For Christian, ‘circumcision’ is spiritual, not physical. It is the cleansing from sin and uncleanness that comes through Jesus Christ (Col 2:11-12). Those so cleansed are the true people of God, the true ‘circumcision’ (Phil 3:3; cf. Rom 2:28-29).

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