The Life of Abraham:
The Sign of Circumcision
We have been walking through the life of Abraham. We have seen him face many trials and temptations. He has at times fallen into temptation and sinned while at other times, he has risen to the occasion and shown himself to be a hero of the faith. Last week we read of God changing his name and giving reassuring him of the promise He had made him to be a father of many nations.
All seems to be going great…until this next part. If you listen close enough in the reading, you can almost hear a record scratching. We are floating along enjoying this beautiful tale and suddenly…screeeeeeeech! “You want Abraham to do what?!”
Circumcision is the removal, the cutting away, the amputation of the foreskin of the penis. This sounds like a less than comfortable procedure, even to us women. To think back to this time period when they did not have the antiseptic and analgesic medicines and procedures that we do today, it seems even more horrifying. So why would God ask Abraham to do this? What was the purpose? What does it represent?
The topic of circumcision is quite complex and can be quite controversial. To fully flesh out (pun a little intended) this topic would take much more time than I am willing to put in at this time. It would also be unlikely that many of my readers would be interested in taking a several week jaunt through the doctrine of circumcision. With this post, I hope to just shed a little bit of light on this complicated topic.
One more thing that does come up in the discussion of circumcision is how it relates to us today. Is baptism the New Testament version of circumcision? Should we be circumcising our children today? I will briefly touch on these topics and may share my opinion but I will not spend much time on these two questions. I encourage you to do your own research with much prayer as to how you make these decisions.
The Sign of the Covenant
God said further to Abraham, “Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. (Genesis 17:9-11)
All covenants were sealed with blood. When we covered Genesis 15, we saw God sealing His covenant with Himself using animal sacrifice. In the verse before, as we covered last time, God has promised to be the God to Abraham’s descendants. Now, He is sealing this covenant again with blood. The blood from circumcision is very minimal but it is symbolic.
Sin separates us from fellowship with God. In Genesis 3, God made clothes from animal skin for Adam and Eve. This was representative of the fact that blood must be shed to cover their sin. Every covenant God makes with man points to the ultimate covenant, Jesus Christ.
“As formerly, covenants were not only committed to public records, but were also wont to be engraven in brass, or sculptured on stones, in order that the memory of them might be more fully recorded, and more highly celebrated; so in the present instance, God inscribes his covenant in the flesh of Abraham. For circumcision was as a solemn memorial of that adoption, by which the family of Abraham had been elected to be the peculiar people of God.” ~ John Calvin1
“…you and your descendants after you throughout their generations.”
Abraham had a history of worrying that God would take back His promise or that He had forgotten what He had promised. Ceremonies could be forgotten, altars could be torn down, nothing really showed true permanence until now. Circumcision is a permanent sign. It does not heal over, it cannot be replaced, it is always with the one who bears it. If Abraham ever had any more doubts, he had a daily reminder that God would not forget him.
It is also important to remember that the covenant that God had made with Abraham was not only for biological children and physical land but this promise was also spiritual. God was promising that all true Israel would be considered his children and there is an eternal Promised Land that all Abraham’s children will one day possess.
“… it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.”
The sign of circumcision was showing God’s people that He had chosen them and they were to be different from those around them. They were to be separate from the world. They were to look, act, and think differently from the pagans around them.
The same is to be said of Christians today. We are to behave much differently from the world around us. 1 Peter 2:9-10 says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
“Circumcision indicated to the seed of Abraham that there was a defilement of the flesh in man which must for ever be taken away, or man would remain impure, and out of covenant with God. Now, beloved, there must be, in order to our sanctification to Christ, a giving up, a painful relinquishing of things as dear to us as right eyes and right hands. There must be a denying of the flesh with its affections and lusts. We must mortify our members. There must be self-denial if we are to enter upon the service of God. The Holy Spirit must pass sentence of death and cutting away upon the passions and tendencies of corrupt humanity. Much must perish which nature would cherish, but die it must, because grace abhors it.” ~ Charles Spurgeon4
Charles Spurgeon put it beautifully in that quote above. We have sinned. That sin must be cut away from our heart and left to rot separated from ourselves.
This is spiritual process is called sanctification. It is similar to a refiner’s fire burning away the slag from metal. Just as the burning away of the impurities of metal makes it stronger, so does the process of sanctification make us stronger Christians. It isn’t the painful experience of separating that makes us stronger but the removal of the impurities. However, you must go through the pain, the fire, in order to experience the benefit.
It isn’t the painful experience of separating that makes us stronger but the removal of the impurities. However, you must go through the pain, the fire, in order to experience the benefit. Click To Tweet
And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants. A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.” (Genesis 17:12-14)
“… every male among you…”
This sign was only to be born of the males in this community. This does not mean that woman were exempt from the covenant or the spiritual implications. Men were the head of the women in their lives and responsible for the spiritual leadership of their family.
Eve was the first to sin in the Garden of Eden but the blame was placed on Adam (Romans 5:12, 1 Corinthians 5:12). God created man to bear the burden of responsibility of his home. As Adam bore the responsibility of sin entering the world, all men bear responsibility of leading his family in sin or righteousness. This does not negate an individual’s responsibility of their own sin, but the spiritual leadership of his family is an added burden that man must bear.
As man is the head of his family, so Christ is the Head of the church. On Him has been laid all the sins of those of His Bride. The man taking on the sign of circumcision points to Jesus taking on the sign of circumcision of all sin from His Bride.
“…who is eight days old…”
There is some debate on the timing of this circumcision in children. Some point to the biological reasoning that infants clotting abilities are fully functioning by the eighth day after birth. Others point to a possible spiritual representation meaning that full circumcision or sanctification will not occur until after all time has been completed, in other words until the Lord returns and the New Heaven and New Earth have been established. I agree with Calvin1 when he says since there is no clear explanation in Scripture, we should be careful in this kind of speculation. What we can agree on is that it represents the cutting off of our old sin nature.
“But because such a reason is never given in Scripture, I dare affirm nothing. Wherefore, let it suffice to maintain what is certain and solid; namely, that God, in this symbol, has so represented the destruction of the old man, as yet to show that he restores men to life.” ~ John Calvin1
“… a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants.”
Circumcision was something, for many years, looked at as representing that God had chosen only Israel, only the Jews. Then in the New Testament, we read that God welcomes Gentiles into His family. While God did choose Abraham’s descendants as His chosen nation, we see that even in this first giving of circumcision, God welcomed non-Jews into His family.
God had promised Abraham that many nations would come from him, not “a nation” but many. God never kept it a secret that He welcomes all people into His family, not just the Jews.
“We know that formerly slaves were scarcely reckoned among the number of men. But God, out of regard to his servant Abraham, adopts them as his own sons: to this mercy nothing whatever can be added. The pride also of the flesh is cast down; because God, without respect of persons, gathers together both freemen and slaves.” ~ John Calvin1
It wasn’t just Abraham’s family that were to be circumcised but all within his household, including his servants.
“A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised;”
God commanded Abraham to do this to everyone in his household. It wasn’t an option to be offered but a command to be obeyed. Calvin1 goes on in his commentary on this passage to point out that there is something we can take from this and apply to our lives today. He mentions that those who follow God should lead their family in obedience to God. Anyone living in your home, children, visitors, extended family, should be expected to attend church and family worship, whether they are regenerate or not.
“For every family of the pious ought to be a church. Therefore, it we desire to prove our piety, we must labor that every one of us may have his house ordered in obedience to God.” ~ John Calvin1
“But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.”
As we see time and again throughout the Bible, God takes sin seriously. Sin cuts us off from fellowship with God and His people. Eventually, a life of unrepentant sin leads to eternally being cut off from God’s people and eternity in hell.
God expects obedience from His children. Obedience is a sign of a changed heart. If someone claims to be a Christian but rejects God’s Word and does not obey Him, this is a sign that the person has not truly experienced circumcision of the heart.
This passage is essentially saying the same thing as James 2.
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?…Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. (James 2:14, 17)
A true believer is not justified before God by his works, however, he is justified before man. To claim to be a Christian without works proving the claim of faith, is to be made a liar before the world. This is a false profession of faith. The true believer is not sinless or perfect in every action, however, to show no outward change proves there has been no inward change. If there is no inward change, there is no hope.
Circumcision of the Heart
In the New Testament, we learn that this process of circumcision was a physical sign pointing to a spiritual truth, circumcision of the heart.
Upon regeneration, the Holy Spirit puts within a person a new heart and that person becomes a new creation. The old nature has been circumcised from the sinner and he is adopted as a child of God.
Upon regeneration, the Holy Spirit puts within a person a new heart and that person becomes a new creation. The old nature has been circumcised from the sinner and he is adopted as a child of God. Click To Tweet
In Romans 2, Paul talks about how believing Gentiles are now part of true Israel. He also points out that some born of Israel, some of those who had been circumcised on the eighth day, are not of true Israel because true Israel are those who have undergone circumcision of the heart.
For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God. (Romans 2:28-29)
Jesus pointed out this fact about the Pharisees in Matthew 23. The whole chapter points out how the Pharisees were presenting themselves as one thing but, inwardly, were quite another. They were fussing about the minute details of some law but missing the whole point.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:27-28)
But this idea of circumcision of the heart is not just a New Testament idea. It is clear that it has always been the true intention of circumcision of the flesh to point to circumcision of the heart.
For thus says the Lord to the men of Judah and to Jerusalem,
“Break up your fallow ground,
And do not sow among thorns.
“Circumcise yourselves to the Lord
And remove the foreskins of your heart,
Men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem,
Or else My wrath will go forth like fire
And burn with none to quench it,
Because of the evil of your deeds.” (Jeremiah 4:3-4)
Is circumcision for today?
The Jews had become very prideful in their circumcision. They felt that this proved their righteousness. God gave this as a sign to the Jews to prove He would fulfill His promises but the Jews had turned it into a badge of honor to brag of their own self-righteousness. Outwardly, they claimed to be the chosen of God while inwardly they were those who were cast out from the people. The only true Jews are those who have a circumcised the heart.
Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision; for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh, (Philippians 3:28-29)
When it became evident to the Jewish Christians that Gentiles were being saved, many of the Jews insisted that these Gentiles be circumcised. They were adding works to salvation. They had fallen back into legalism by saying that the Gentiles would not be saved if they did not become circumcised. The Bible makes it very clear that this is a false teaching.
Then after an interval of fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also. It was because of a revelation that I went up; and I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but I did so in private to those who were of reputation, for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain. But not even Titus, who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage. But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would remain with you. (Galatians 2:1-5)
Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love. (Galatians 5:2-6)
Those who desire to make a good showing in the flesh try to compel you to be circumcised, simply so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For those who are circumcised do not even keep the Law themselves, but they desire to have you circumcised so that they may boast in your flesh. But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. (Galatians 6:12-15)
Returning to our passage in Genesis, it is very important to note the timing in which this command was given to Abraham.
If we look back at Genesis 15, we see that God credited righteousness to Abram. This was approximately fourteen years prior to the giving of the sign of circumcision. To look a little further in the future, the Law was not given to the Israel until four hundred and thirty years after the death of Abraham. This doesn’t seem that significant on a first reading but think about the implications of this. The Jews put all their faith in their circumcision and keeping the Law. But, when we look back, God had justified Abram before circumcision and before the Law. This proves that God justifies a person, not on their works, but by His grace alone.
We can also look at this as a picture of a person’s walk with the Lord. We are sinners lost and wandering and God chooses to show grace and mercy and justify His chosen ones. He gives us a new identity (He renamed Abram to Abraham), He circumcises our heart (circumcision), and then we begin to walk in obedience (gives the Law).
I believe the Bible is clear that circumcision is not something required today. Whether a person decides to circumcise their son or not is a personal choice, however, I believe it is quite clear in Scripture that it is not to be required or implied that it is of any spiritual significance today.
Again, if you are faced with the decision as to whether or not you should circumcise your son, I would encourage you to do your own research and pray with your husband about the decision. But, do not feel like you are under any sort of spiritual burden one way or another.
Has baptism replaced circumcision?
This is a complex question with many good and logical arguments on both sides of the debate. I will not get into this debate here today.
While this is an area where we may have denominational splits, this is not an essential doctrine in which we separate the sheep from the goats. There are many theologically sound and solid teachers of the Bible that fall on each side of this debate.
What we can all agree on is that circumcision of the heart is what eternally matters and baptism is a sacrament that Christians are called to participate in but salvation is not dependent upon it.
I like what Charles Spurgeon says below on this topic.
“Baptism sets forth far more than circumcision. Circumcision is putting away of the filth of the flesh, but baptism is the burial of the flesh altogether. Baptism does not say, ‘Here is something to be taken away,’ but everything is dead, and must be buried with Christ in his tomb, and the man must rise anew with Christ. Baptism teaches us that by death we pass into the new life.” ~ Charles Spurgeon4
Circumcision was a permanent sign that God would fulfill the promises He made to Abraham. It is a sign that points to the necessity of the circumcision of the heart and putting away of our sinful flesh. While circumcision is not required today, circumcision of the heart is an act that God performs on those whom He has chosen to adopt.
“Abraham was in God’s covenant and under His grace long before he was circumcised, whereas Ishmael, although circumcised, was never in the covenant. Circumcision became a mark of the covenant relationship between God and His people, but the covenant was not established on the basis of circumcision.” ~ John MacArthur3
1. Calvin, J. Commentary on Genesis – Volume 1. Ccel.org. Retrieved 13 March 2018, from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom01.xxiii.i.html
2. Counting Faith as Righteousness. Ligonier Ministries. Retrieved 13 March 2018, from https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/counting-faith-righteousness/
3. MacArthur, J. (2017). How Is Abraham the Father of Us All?. Grace to You. Retrieved 13 March 2018, from https://www.gty.org/library/bibleqnas-library/QA0303/how-is-abraham-the-father-of-us-all