So, when you tell folks that you're going to write about the subject of circumcision, you get some interesting comments. Some asked me to just cut to the chase about it. Another person suggested the title, “A snippet on circumcision.” While the jokes and suggestions just kept going, and while we tend to circumvent the topic of circumcision at every turn…even I would rather write about it than stand before a congregation and talk about it; but as we tend to downplay it, Paul seems to react to a group of Jewish people who are thinking it is of utmost importance. It seems weird to admit this, but the very practice of circumcision itself was a major issue in the growing and expanding church, and for the churches in Rome, Galatia, and Corinth among others…the distinction of circumcision had to be understood in a different way and eventually overcome if we could talk about unity among Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.
Just so we are on the same page. One of the distinctions that separated Greco-Roman “Gentile” men and Jewish men was that as a cultural/religious tradition, Jewish men were circumcised and Greco-Roman men were not circumcised. For the Jews, this was part of the covenant with Abraham where God chose them to be His special people. If we go back to Genesis 17, we read this:
9 Then God said to Abraham, “Your responsibility is to obey the terms of the covenant. You and all your descendants have this continual responsibility. 10 This is the covenant that you and your descendants must keep: Each male among you must be circumcised. 11 You must cut off the flesh of your foreskin as a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 From generation to generation, every male child must be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. This applies not only to members of your family but also to the servants born in your household and the foreign-born servants whom you have purchased. 13 All must be circumcised. Your bodies will bear the mark of my everlasting covenant. 14 Any male who fails to be circumcised will be cut off from the covenant family for breaking the covenant.”
Therefore, generation after generation practiced this, including Jesus as a Jewish boy; we read about his circumcision in Luke 2:21. Circumcision was the sign of the special relationship the Jewish people had with Yahweh God, and to not by circumcised was to be outside of the covenant…enter the Gentiles…who are obviously outside the covenant because they do not practice the sign of circumcision.
So, Paul’s explanation to the church at Rome has to have something to do with the fact that Gentiles are a part of the church, which is now God’s new chosen people through Jesus Christ; but how can they be included when they don’t practice the sign of the covenant? Secondly, perhaps God works in some sort of tier system where Jewish men who are circumcised are more important (1st class citizens) than the Gentile men who are not circumcised (2nd class citizens) although all are welcomed into the church. As Paul might respond, “By No Means!”
So, Paul addresses those who take pride in the practice of circumcision. In Romans 2 he asserts that the practice of circumcision along with the Jewish law has become a hazard for them and obstacles to faith (…and I should let you know that we are going to stay in the letter to Rome although Paul discusses this elsewhere in the New Testament).
25 The Jewish ceremony of circumcision has value only if you obey God’s law. But if you don’t obey God’s law, you are no better off than an uncircumcised Gentile. 26 And if the Gentiles obey God’s law, won’t God declare them to be his own people? 27 In fact, uncircumcised Gentiles who keep God’s law will condemn you Jews who are circumcised and possess God’s law but don’t obey it.
28 For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. 29 No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people.
I think the above statement really points out the problem happening in the hearts of some of the Jews who thought they were special due to their law and practices. Paul says that what makes a person a “true Jew” is a heart that is right with God. That does not happen through keeping the law. That also does not happen in the practice of circumcision. That happens by believing in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and living by faith (Romans 3:21-31).
Paul continues to talk about circumcision in Romans 4 as he addresses why the Jews must be made righteous through Christ by faith just like the Gentiles; moreover, Paul also addresses how the “uncircumcised” can have the same hope in God, same relationship, and same salvation as the “special nation.” Here are Paul’s words:
9 Now, is this blessing only for the Jews, or is it also for uncircumcised Gentiles? Well, we have been saying that Abraham was counted as righteous by God because of his faith. 10 But how did this happen? Was he counted as righteous only after he was circumcised, or was it before he was circumcised? Clearly, God accepted Abraham before he was circumcised!
11 Circumcision was a sign that Abraham already had faith and that God had already accepted him and declared him to be righteous—even before he was circumcised. So Abraham is the spiritual father of those who have faith but have not been circumcised. They are counted as righteous because of their faith. 12 And Abraham is also the spiritual father of those who have been circumcised, but only if they have the same kind of faith Abraham had before he was circumcised.
Now, here Paul does something that would make some Jewish people cringe…Abraham is the father of the uncircumcised? HOW? WHAT? This is a shocking statement, but one that is founded on the notion of FAITH in God and not on the dividing practice of circumcision. We know that when God changed Abraham’s name to “father of many nations,” God had in mind that Abraham wouldn’t be just the father of Israel…but of all people who have FAITH like he did. And that is the notion Paul is bringing forth in the passage above.
In conclusion, circumcision was a practice that divided people…Jew vs Gentile…and gave some the prideful stance that they were more connected, more special than others because of, if we are honest, a decision made for them at the time of birth to remove a flap of skin. This silly idea became a badge of honor for some Jewish groups and led to the inferiority of other nations. Circumcision was never a matter of faith, and that is where Paul found a problem with the attitudes the practice created. Salvation is by FAITH in Christ Jesus, and all people are welcomed to believe. I wonder what it is we put so much pride in…that has nothing to do with faith…everything to do with tradition…and divides us from other peoples? I even wonder why it is that Christians still circumcise little boys given what the New Testament says about it…but these are all just things for us to think about as we try to live by FAITH in Jesus Christ…the universal solution for our universal sin problem!
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.