The Debate on Circumcision Rages
“You have to be circumcised.”
“No you don’t. If you do, you’ve fallen from grace and rejected Jesus!”
Back and forth the argument goes and has gone for nearly 2,000 years. And the REASON it has is because amateur theologians use SOUND BITES instead of SOUND DOCTRINES to make their case.
In this study, we will NOT be considering verses out of the greater context of Scripture and orthopraxy, but rather we will consider the “proof verses” on both sides of the fence and try to form a comprehensive understanding that brings ALL of Scripture into harmony.
The Origin of Circumcision
Circumcision (the removal of the foreskin from the penis) is first mentioned (which does NOT necessarily mean first practiced!) in the Bible when the commandment was given from YHWH to Abraham as a sign of a covenant between them.
Gen. 17:10 “This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 “And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. 12 “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. 13 “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. 14 “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.”
Let’s see what we can take away from this passage:
- This covenant is between YHWH and Abraham as well as all the seed of Abraham.
- This covenant extends to people who are not natural-born seed of Abraham, but join themselves to His people (YHWH’s chosen people).
- This covenant is everlasting – not temporary.
- Uncircumcised males will ultimately be cut off from among the people of YHWH.
Okay, at this point, Scripture seems clear, right? But once we get into the New Testament, we’re going to hear several excerpts from Paul which taken at face value seem to be saying the EXACT OPPOSITE of the above. So don’t walk away just yet. Be wise. Hear the whole matter out before forming your own conclusion.
Old Testament Observance
Now, we think we understand the commandment of circumcision. But just to be on the safe side, let’s look at what the seed of Abraham and foreigners who wanted to be joined to the seed of Abraham believed and practiced. This will tell us whether THEIR understanding of the commandment was the same as OUR understanding of it.
Gen. 34:14 They said to them, “We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one who is uncircumcised, for that would be a disgrace to us. 15 Only on this condition will we consent to you: if you will become like us, in that every male of you be circumcised, 16 then we will give our daughters to you, and we will take your daughters for ourselves, and we will live with you and become one people. 17 But if you will not listen to us to be circumcised, then we will take our daughter and go.”
That’s our example of obedience, and it tells a story congruent to the commandment. Now let’s take a look at a case of disobedience as well to round out the picture.
Ex. 4:24 Now it came about at the lodging place on the way that YHWH met him (Moses) and sought to put him to death. 25 Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and threw it at Moses’ feet, and she said, “You are indeed a bridegroom of blood to me.” 26 So He let him alone. At that time she said, “You are a bridegroom of blood” — because of the circumcision.
So, from what we read here, I would say, yes: what we took away from reading the commandment seems to be what was actually practiced in the days PRIOR to Messiah. But this was never really of any controversy. The real question is what was done AFTER Messiah, and that will be our focus for the remainder of the study now that we have a foundation from which to build.
How Messiah (Yahshua) Himself Walked
Luke 2:21 And when eight days had passed, before his circumcision, his name was then called Yahshua, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.
Yahshua himself was circumcised on the eighth day according to the commandment. And, we knew that already, but it is worth mentioning here that Messiah was our perfect example. We were later instructed to “walk even as he walked” referring to Messiah.
1John 2:6 The one who says he abides in him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.
The Debate Between Paul and Barnabas
Now I do apologize for the huge passage I’m about to drop on you, but there’s just no other way to really understand what’s going on than to take in some context, so let’s do it.
Acts 15:1 Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. 3 Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren. 4 When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that YHWH had done with them. 5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”
Acts 15:6 The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. 7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days YHWH made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And YHWH, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; 9 and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore why do you put YHWH to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Master, Yahshua, in the same way as they also are.”
Acts 15:12 All the people kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders YHWH had done through them among the Gentiles. 13 After they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how YHWH first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name.
15 “With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, 16 ‘After these things I will return, and I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen, and I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, 17 so that the rest of mankind may seek YHWH, and all the Gentiles who are called by My name,’ 18 says YHWH, who makes these things known from long ago.
Acts 15:19 Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to YHWH from among the Gentiles, 20 but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. 21 “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
So let’s break this down important piece by important piece and then we’ll try to fit it into the greater context of Scripture.
- In verse 1, we see the purpose of this WHOLE chapter: a FALSE DOCTRINE that goes directly AGAINST TORAH (the Law of Moses). This false doctrine says that, “unless you are circumcised, you cannot be saved.”
Now, let’s analyze this. Abraham was called out of Babylon, blessed, entered into covenant with YHWH and walked with Him for DECADES before he was circumcised! What does that tell you about circumcision being a PRECURSOR to salvation?
Gen. 17:23 Then Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all the servants who were born in his house and all who were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s household, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the very same day, as Elohim had said to him. 24 Now Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 25 And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 26 In the very same day Abraham was circumcised, and Ishmael his son. 27 All the men of his household, who were born in the house or bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.
- In verse 5, some former Pharisees (followers of Yahshua now) stood up and made a case for obedience: “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”
- In verse 10, Peter APPEARS to disagree with Gentiles being required to obey the Law of Moses, nut verse 11 explains otherwise. What Peter is explaining is that we are not SAVED by obeying the Law of Moses. There is a difference between “being saved by something” and “something being required.” Abraham was not SAVED BY circumcision, but it was REQUIRED of him all the same.
- So what was the conclusion of the Council of Jerusalem? In verses 19-20 they identified parts of the Law that would be given to Gentiles from the very beginning of their walk, and in verse 21, it was explained that they would be exposed to the rest of the Law of Moses gradually – over time (as Abraham was) when they went to synagogue every Sabbath to hear and learn the Law.
So does this “proof text” against circumcision / the Law actually say that Gentiles would be somehow exempt from circumcision or obedience to the rest of Moses? A close reading reveals that, no, this is not the case.
Paul Says that Circumcision IS of Value
Rom. 2:25 For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26 So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law? 28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. 29 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 YHWH.
Let me paraphrase this and put it into more succinct, easily digested terms:
- Circumcision is of value if you are obedient to YHWH in everything else.
- Circumcision is MEANINGLESS if you disobey YHWH in other things.
- Having circumcised skin but NOT a circumcised heart does not make a person righteous.
Does that make a little more sense? Circumcision is a SIGN of a covenant with YHWH. But displaying the sign and breaking the covenant does NOT entitle you to the rewards promised. KEEPING the covenant is what entitles you to the benefits of participation – not displaying the hollow sign alone!
Circumcision of the Heart
There is a very popular doctrine that say, “In the Old Testament, people had to circumcise their flesh, but in the New Testament we have to circumcise our hearts instead.” Now, let’s look at this doctrine from two perspectives and see if we can’t shine a little contextual light on this (rather erroneous) sound bite.
The first thing we need to understand is this: circumcision of the heart is NOT something NEW in the New Testament. Actually, circumcision of the heart and the greater importance thereof goes all the way back to the Books of Moses! In other words, it’s a commandment under the Law of Moses.
Deut. 10:16 Let your circumcision be of the heart, and put away your pride.
Deut. 30:6 And YHWH your god will give to you and to your seed a circumcision of the heart, so that, loving him with all your heart and all your soul, you may have life.
So circumcision of the heart didn’t just appear out of nowhere, and likewise, circumcision of the flesh did not go away. We saw in an earlier section of this study that Paul said that it is still “of value.” Granted – it doesn’t SAVE a person and never did, but it IS still a requirement. In fact, Paul enumerated various “strikes” Gentiles at Colossi had against them before they came into covenant with Messiah, and one of those strikes was – uncircumcision.
Col. 2:8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Messiah. 9 For in him all the fullness of godliness dwells in bodily form, 10 and in him you have been made complete, and he is the head over all rule and authority; 11 and in him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Messiah; 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with him through faith in the working of YHWH, who raised him from the dead. 13 When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, he made you alive together with him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, 14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and he has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the stake. 15 When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him.
Did you see it? In verse 11, these Gentiles were given their “circumcision of the heart.” But what we REALLY want to notice here is verse 13. Do you see how Paul mentions in PAST TENSE how these Gentiles WERE “dead in their transgressions and the uncircumcision of their flesh?” So circumcision of the heart didn’t just appear, and circumcision of the flesh didn’t go away.
Circumcision = Rejection of Messiah and a Fall from Grace
If there was ever a Book that people who teach against Law LOVE to quote from, it’s Galatians. It’s no wonder Peter warned believers centuries ago that unlearned, unstable people twisted Paul’s words to lead others into the error of lawlessness. Like Peter well said – Paul’s writings are “hard to be understood!”
2Pet. 3:15 Regard the patience of our Master as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, 16 as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things HARD TO UNDERSTAND, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. 17 You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of lawlessness and fall from your own steadfastness.
Now, having been duly warned, and having been appropriately taught what the Law and the Scriptures say, let’s look at one of Paul’s “hard to understand” writings and see if we can’t make sense of it:
Gal. 5:2 Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Messiah will be of no benefit to you. 3 And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. 4 You have been severed from Messiah, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.
Severed from Messiah? Fallen from grace?! These sound absolutely HORRIBLE!!!!!! But what if I told you that these things are actually… necessary steps of maturity as we grow in our walk and service of YHWH?
For additional context, let’s take a look at another passage from Paul which frames Messiah and grace NICELY in their application to our lives. Then, we’ll be able to return to this snippet of Galatians and make perfect sense of it.
Heb. 10:26 For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a terrifying expectation of judgment…
When Adam and Eve sinned, they did not die immediately. Instead, they had some TIME to come to repentance. This is called grace. When we come to Messiah, we are not perfect from day 1. Rather, we BEGIN a journey along which we learn and grow and change. We are perfected over time.
A child circumcised on the eighth day is taught the Law from near infancy. By the time he reaches the age of accountability, he KNOWS right from wrong intrinsically. This is not the case, however, for Gentiles – those of us who were not originally “of the circumcision.”
So we, like Abraham who was ALSO A GENTILE need to learn to walk in the covenant before we manifest the SIGN of the covenant – namely, circumcision. And this is what Paul is teaching us. Let me paraphrase the passage from Galatians in my own words, and see if it makes more sense to you after:
“Once you get circumcised, you are taking the training wheels off the bike, and you are now on your own – an adult! Messiah’s grace no longer covers your mistakes. You are now a full-fledged citizen of the Kingdom and will be held accountable for crimes you commit. You are getting circumcised before you are ready thinking that this action justifies you, but you are wrong. All it does is puts you out on your own before you are ready and sets you up for failure.”
Now read the Galatians passage again. Are you seeing it? Did the light bulb come on?
The Word of YHWH is not temporary. It was never meant to be changed or replaced down the road. His commandments are eternal and endure forever.
That being said, not every commandment applies to us from day 1. We have a grace period from the time we decide to become one of His until the time we learn it “all,” and are ready to stand upright as an adult.
When you first decide to serve YHWH, you don’t know much. You’ve repented. You’ve said, “I don’t want to break your laws (sin) anymore.” And you are now “saved” by your faith and very much under grace because, without knowing it, you’re probably sinning daily! But you’re also LEARNING daily, and as you do, you continue to repent and change and obey the Word (will) of YHWH.
But we DON’T drink milk forever! Eventually, we are weaned from the milk and start eating meat that we’ve hunted ourselves. When we are ready to uphold the covenant, then and only then should we also display the SIGN of covenant as a worthy and full-fledged participant.