Episode 16: What is Circumcision? WHY is Circumcision? Should I circumcise my son? (Warning: Rated P.G.!)
After our question yesterday about the Old Testament and the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, a promise was made that we would cover circumcision in a future episode. Well, your long time of waiting has come to an end. Today is the day we tackle the painful issue of circumcision. I’ll go ahead and let you know also that this is not the last time we will discuss this issue, as it will come up again and again in both the Old and New Testament. Allow me to begin, and sum up this and every discussion we have about circumcision with a fairly amusing little ditty that you should remember, “Circumcision of the heart is the heart of the matter in circumcision.” Shout out to my friend and VBC church member Dan Blair, who has often discoursed with me on the subject of the Covenant with Abram, and on the circumcision of the heart.
One of my favorite Bible preachers in the 90’s told the story of Joshua 5 one time in a sermon. If you don’t remember what went down in that passage, let me summarize. Joshua and the military men of Israel have crossed over the Jordan River into the Promised land and are preparing to battle many different tribes and nations for that land. Before any blow is delivered, God tells Joshua to circumcise all of the fighting men of Israel. The way this British preacher tells the story is both poignant and humorous, envisioning Joshua’s telling of all of the soldiers that they would have to be circumcised, and the groans and questions that must have ensued from those thousands of FULLY GROWN AND DEVELOPED MEN. One bloke in particular asks Joshua, “What does God want with me foreskin?!” Now, I’m quite aware that the Israelites don’t have British accents, but every time I think about circumcision, I think of that poor British-Israelite soldier asking that question.
Now, I need to pause and remind you that this episode is slightly P.G. Parental guidance suggested. Mainly because I have to use the ‘p’ word…but only one time. Some of you don’t really know what circumcision is, and therefore the story from Joshua 5 is not all that funny or painful to you. So…what is circumcision, exactly? I’m glad you asked!
Not really, actually. I’m kind of embarrassed to talk about it. But – here it is. I think I’ll read a definition from Medicine Net:
Circumcision: Surgery that removes the foreskin (the loose tissue) covering the rounded part at the end of the penis. Circumcision may be performed for religious, cultural or health reasons. Newborn circumcision diminishes the risk for cancer in that area and lowers the risk for cancer of the cervix in sexual partners. It also decreases the risk of urinary tract infections and lowers the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV. The Latin “circum-” means around (or about). Circumcision is, literally, a cutting around. Circumcision dates back to prehistoric times. It is one of the oldest surgical operations known to have been performed by ancient people.https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=2739
Now – me reading that might get the anti-circumcision crowd after me. Please don’t – Medicinenet may be right or wrong about the benefits of that practice, but that’s not what we’re talking about today, so if you have a beef with them, take it up with them. 🙂
Now that we know the ‘what’ of circumcision, we get to the two most important questions: 1. WHY did God command circumcision, and 2. Should baby boys still be circumcised? Let’s start with question #1
WHY in the world did command THIS strange surgery as the SIGN of the covenant? That is a phenomenally good question. Logos scholar Micheal Heiser has the best (and most succinct) answer to this question that I’ve ever read, so I’m just going to quote him here:
When God told Abraham to be circumcised, he was past the age of bearing children and his wife, Sarah, was incapable of having children (Gen 18:11). Nevertheless, it would be through Sarah’s womb (Gen 17:21; 18:14) that God would fulfill his promise of innumerable offspring to Abraham (Gen 12:1–3). God’s covenant with Abraham could only be realized by miraculous intervention. The miraculous nature of Isaac’s birth is the key to understanding circumcision as the sign of the covenant. After God made His promise to Abraham, every male member of Abraham’s household was required to be circumcised (Gen 17:15–27). Every male—and every woman, since the males were all incapacitated for a time—knew that circumcision was connected to God’s promise. It probably didn’t make any sense, though, until Sarah became pregnant. Everyone in Abraham’s household witnessed the miracle of Isaac’s birth. From that point on, every male understood why they had been circumcised: Their entire race—their very existence—began with a miraculous act of God. Every woman was reminded of this when she had sexual relations with her Israelite husband and when her sons were circumcised. Circumcision was a visible, continuous reminder that Israel owed its existence to Yahweh, who created them out of nothing.https://blog.logos.com/2017/03/whats-deal-circumcision-bible/
That’s a great answer, and a very clear explanation of the value and necessity of circumcision. It was a sign – not visible to everybody, but visible EVERY time a new Israelite was conceived that it was Yahweh Himself that sustained the Israelite people. Hopefully that clears things up for us, but it doesn’t answer our big practical question: Must baby boys and uncircumcised men be circumcised?
Let’s start with a key verse from yesterday that helped guide us to the answer of our biggest question yet: Must Christians obey the Old Testament commands? Romans 7:66 But now we have been released from the law, since we have died to what held us, so that we may serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old letter of the law.
Clearly, the Old Testament COMMANDED circumcision for the Jews – in no uncertain terms. However, because we are released from the law – according to Romans 7, our big question now is: what does the New Testament say?
Galatians 1:6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.
Galatians 3:10 For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, because it is written: Everyone who does not continue doing everything written in the book of the law is cursed.
HOW were they trying to pervert the Gospel?
Gal 5:2-12 2 Take note! I, Paul, tell you that if you get yourselves circumcised, Christ will not benefit you at all. 3 Again I testify to every man who gets himself circumcised that he is obligated to keep the entire law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by the law are alienated from Christ; you have fallen from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision accomplishes anything; what matters is faith working through love….12 I wish those who are disturbing you might also get themselves castrated!Galatians 5:2-12 (selections)
1 Corinthians 7 is even more clear: Let each one live his life in the situation the Lord assigned when God called him. This is what I command in all the churches. 18 Was anyone already circumcised when he was called? He should not undo his circumcision. Was anyone called while uncircumcised? He should not get circumcised. 19 Circumcision does not matter and uncircumcision does not matter. Keeping God’s commands is what matters.1 Corinthians 7:17-19
This question for Paul gets to the very heart of the good news, which explains why he wished that the circumcision-demanding false teachers would go ahead and castrate themselves. Was the Gospel/Good News of Jesus Faith PLUS Works (circumcision is a work!) or was it Faith alone? Is salvation synergistic (our effort PLUS God’s effort=salvation) or is it monergistic (God’s effort alone = salvation)? And the crystal clear answer in the New Testament, over and over again, is that salvation is by FAITH ALONE, THROUGH GRACE ALONE, and NOT BY WORKS. Salvation is monergistic, not synergistic. It is God who saves, and we who are saved – we do not contribute to our salvation. And thus, circumcision is NOT salvific – it does not help bring about salvation, and neither does any other thing, such as baptism, etc.
Even in the Old Testament, it became clear that the inward reality of the heart would be more important than the outward reality of the sign of circumcision. For instance, we see in Deuteronomy:
14 The heavens, indeed the highest heavens, belong to the Lord your God, as does the earth and everything in it. 15 Yet the Lord had his heart set on your fathers and loved them. He chose their descendants after them—he chose you out of all the peoples, as it is today. 16 Therefore, circumcise your hearts and don’t be stiff-necked any longer. 17 For the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty, and awe-inspiring God,Deuteronomy 10:14-17
Paul expands on this powerful idea in the second chapter of Romans (again, shout out to my friend Dan!)
25 Circumcision benefits you if you observe the law, but if you are a lawbreaker, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26 So if an uncircumcised man keeps the law’s requirements, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision? 27 A man who is physically uncircumcised, but who keeps the law, will judge you who are a lawbreaker in spite of having the letter of the law and circumcision. 28 For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, and true circumcision is not something visible in the flesh. 29 On the contrary, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart—by the Spirit, not the letter. That person’s praise is not from people but from God.Romans 2:25-29
Final question: Is it a sin for me to be circumcised, or a sin for us to circumcise our son? And the answer is: Not at all, unless you are relying on circumcision to somehow secure salvation for yourself or your child. In other words, if you believe (for whatever reason) that you or your child should be circumcised, then Romans 14 absolutely gives you the freedom to go in that direction. Make a wise and well informed decision, and don’t trust in circumcision to save you – but know that you have liberty in this matter.
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