A Jewish circumcision service (Brit Milah)
In Genesis 17:10-14, God announced to Abraham the covenant of circumcision. In this passage of scripture we learn that the covenant applied to every male and that the covenant was eternal in its nature. Should a person not accept circumcision, that person would be cut off from Israel.
The fact that the covenant of circumcision is eternal, and that it will always apply to Israel is significant. It is also significant that the word “circumcision” is mentioned over fifty times in the New Testament. It is obviously important to Christians as well as to Jews. Let us summarize the things we know about this ancient rite.
CIRCUMCISION DEALS WITH THE FLESH
The covenant rite of circumcision was first of all an eternal identifying mark in the flesh of the Jewish people. Even today, when a man becomes a part of the Jewish faith, he must
However, even in the Hebrew scriptures (Tanakh), the Lord makes it plain that there is much more involved in circumcision than just the cutting away of flesh. Circumcision was intended to involve the heart. In Deuteronomy 10:16, the Lord instructs Israel: “Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.” In Deuteronomy 30:6, we realize that true circumcision makes it possible for us to love God fully. This scripture says: “The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.” Circumcision not only has to do with hearts, but also with ears (Jer. 6:10); and with lips (Exo. 6:12,30). Thus, we realize that circumcision is not just an outward thing but that the Lord means it to go deep into a person’s being.
It seems clear from scripture that circumcision is a picture of the inner work God desires to do on each of us. God wants to rid us of fleshly ways and fleshly thinking. In order for us to see this picture developed, we should refer to several New Testament passages. We learn in Colossians 2:11, that we are circumcised through Christ by putting off the sins of the flesh. In Philippians 3:3, we see that circumcision in its deepest sense is to “…put no confidence in the flesh—.” In Romans 2:28, we learn that the truest circumcision is not outward but inward, in the heart and in the spirit. This is the same message we saw earlier in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
Now why is God so intent upon getting rid of our flesh? Didn’t he create us to be flesh in the first place? Truly, flesh and blood is our natural condition, but since the fall, our flesh and blood have come to represent our fallen and sinful state. The acts that comprise a fleshly manner of life are spelled out in many places in scripture. In Galatians 5:19-21, several of these fleshly traits are enumerated. Paul says, “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like….” In 1 Corinthians 15:50, we learn “…that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit
So, in answer to our original question in the title, we can now give a resounding “Yes/No!” Christians should be circumcised – that is, in the spiritual sense. We must also say quite clearly and emphatically that circumcision in the physical sense is not required of Gentile Christians and should certainly not be encouraged (cf. Acts 15:1-21; Gal. 5:2-4).
It is significant that circumcision is the cutting away of the foreskin of the flesh from the human reproductive organ. God wants us to stop reproducing in the flesh and begin to reproduce in the Spirit. In Galatians 6:8 (NKJV) we are told, “For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life.”
GOD WANTS US DEAD TO THE FLESH
We saw earlier, that flesh and blood cannot inherit God’s kingdom. We also know from the word that, “Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.” (Rom. 8:8). Also in John 6:63, we learn that “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing….” God wants the flesh offered up. There are many pictures of this in Israel’s ancient sacrificial system. Before one could possibly approach God at the Tabernacle or Temple, that person had to first face the brazen altar. That altar flamed and smoked constantly with the flesh of offered animals. The picture was always plain – flesh had to die in order for one to approach God.
The New Testament uses many pictures of this death, and all are closely related to circumcision. Let us first look at the New Testament idea of crucifixion. Jesus said to his followers: “…If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Lk. 9:23). Jesus Himself went to the cross and offered up his flesh eternally for the life of mankind. Later, the Apostle Paul could say of himself in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Also, in Colossians 2:11-15, crucifixion and circumcision are
In Romans 6:4, The New Testament also uses baptism as a picture of death to the flesh. It is also quite clear that being filled with God’s Spirit and walking in his Spirit are other pictures of dying to the flesh (Gal. 5:16). In Acts 6:8 – 7:60, Stephen was accused and brought to trial by a sect of Jews, and he dared call them “uncircumcised.” How did Stephen arrive at this conclusion? It was simple. They were resisting God’s Holy Spirit. What they were doing was in the flesh, and what God was doing was in the Spirit. They could not comprehend, and were thus called “uncircumcised.”
In a very real sense, when Christ died on the cross, our flesh was crucified with him (Rom. 6:6). The big problem in the Christian life is to accept and appropriate this as fact, and to believe that God’s work is, and always was, a finished work. In light of this finished work of Christ on the cross, we are to reckon ourselves as dead to the flesh (Rom. 6:11). Then as in Colossians 3:5, we are told to “…Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which
In Exodus 4:24-26, we read that God sought to “kill” Moses. The problem was that Moses had still not instituted the covenant of circumcision in his family. Obviously, God got the job of “killing Moses” accomplished. Later, Moses could speak with God face to face, when the scripture clearly says that no man could see God and live (Ex. 33:20; Deut. 34:10). Israel besought Moses to go near and hear the voice of God for they were terrified. Moses could do so because in one sense he was already dead. Once Moses had been “… powerful in speech and action” (Acts 7:22). However, when God was finally finished with him in the wilderness, Moses needed Aaron to go along and speak for him. God had completely destroyed his fleshly and natural man. In the scripture we are challenged on many occasions to seek God’s face (Psa. 27:8; 105:4). We should be made fully aware that to do so is a death sentence. It will surely bring about the death of our fleshly man.
There is much flesh in the church today. It seems that a good half the books in our Christian bookstores deal with fleshly matters of worldly goods, money, success, etc. Yet in the spiritual realm we are probably standing once more at Gilgal, the entrance to Canaan (Josh. 5:2-9). God is giving each of us an opportunity to fully enter the land of promise. But before we do, he has some sharp flint knives ready and waiting for us. The flinty stone knives are no doubt a picture of the word of God, which is like a rock, but also like a sharp two-edged sword. In Hebrew, “Gilgal” means “to roll.” God is ready for his people to roll, but first he must roll off from us the reproach of Egypt, and the flesh that so hinders us. He will do the cutting with his word and his Holy Spirit.
GOD DESIRES NOT ONLY DEATH BUT REBIRTH
We must die in order to live. Through repentance, we turn our back forever on the flesh. We accept Jesus as our Savior and Redeemer. We accept his new birth. Then we allow ourselves to be buried with him in baptism. This, as we said, is a beautiful picture of
Once Jesus spoke to an important Jewish leader by the name of Nicodemus. This man was a trained theologian and no doubt knew much about the Bible. Yet Jesus said to him: “… I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (Jn. 3:3). The new birth Jesus spoke of is a birth of water and of the Spirit. It is an opening up, or coming alive to the spiritual realm. This had not happened to Nicodemus, so his spiritual vision was lacking and therefore he could not understand the words of Jesus.
The new birth is from God and from the realm of the Spirit. It is accomplished through the saving and redeeming work of Jesus alone. It is also a birth from the word of God as we see in 1 Peter 1:23: “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” The new birth therefore has nothing to do with flesh or fleshly reproduction. It is only possible as our flesh is cut away, and as we begin to experience the inward circumcision.
– Jim Gerrish
This updated article is presented courtesy of Bridges For Peace, Jerusalem.
Picture credit, Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation License, vers. 1.2.
A Brit Milah or Jewish circumcision ceremony.