Editor's note: The following article contains descriptions of a medical process.
Circumcision is mentioned frequently in the Bible. It was at the heart of the covenant God established with Abraham and his descendants. And it is at the center of one of the first controversies of the new church in the New Testament.
This article will take a look at what circumcision meant to the Jews in the Old Testament, and to the challenge it presented to Christians in the New Testament.
What Is Circumcision?
Circumcision is a minor medical procedure performed on males, often as infants, but sometimes as teens or older. Medically speaking, circumcision involves removing the foreskin of the penis. It is controversial in the western world today but has been practiced by many peoples throughout history and around the world.
The reasons for the practice vary. Sometimes it is viewed as a rite of passage, a coming of age. Other times it may be done for medical reasons, although that is somewhat controversial today. And, for some, it has religious significance.
A Covenant Established with Abraham
For the Jews, circumcision was more than a rite of passage. For them it was a sign of their covenant with God. Circumcision marked them as the chosen people – God’s special treasure. Others in their time practiced circumcision, particularly in Egypt. But it seems that only for Israel did it have the significance of marking a covenant relationship with their national deity.
Shortly before Isaac was born, God directed Abraham to circumcise all the males of his household, including himself, Ishmael, and his servants (Gen. 17:1-14). This was to be an ongoing practice. Every male born into his family was to be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth.
During their stay in Egypt, the Jews became deeply immersed in Egyptian culture and religious practice (Jos. 24:14). And along with that, the practice of circumcision likely fell by the wayside. But the practice was renewed on the banks of the Jordan shortly after Israel crossed the river – but before beginning the conquest of Canaan (Jos. 5:2-9).
Throughout the remainder of the Old Testament you will frequently see the division between the circumcised and the uncircumcised. This is essentially the division between the covenant people and outsiders. Or between Jew and Gentile.
During the intertestamental time Greek culture dominated the eastern Mediterranean. The Greeks were opposed to circumcision and during the time when Israel was dominated by Greek kingdoms, circumcision was outlawed and punishable by death. This played into their ultimate rebellion under the Maccabees and a period of freedom before the Romans came. And I suspect it may have impacted the ferocity with which some Jewish Christians defended the practice during the formation of the church.
Controversy within the New Covenant
The earliest Christians were all Jews. And even as believers in the Lord Jesus, they still considered themselves Jews under a covenant relationship with God – a covenant relationship that involved circumcision. So, it was only natural that they would expect all believers to follow the Old Testament covenant requirements. And that was OK until the church began to reach beyond a Jewish audience and into the Gentile world. And then, requiring Gentile converts to become circumcised became a point of contention.
It would seem most of the early work done among the Gentiles did not advocate circumcision for them. Acts 11:19-21 is the first recorded intentional outreach to the Gentiles, taking place in Antioch. Nothing in that passage is said about circumcision. But in Acts 15:1 some Jewish believers from Judea come to Antioch and attempt to push circumcision as a requirement for salvation. That this created an uproar in the church at Antioch would indicate that this church had never required it, at least for the Gentile believers.
Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem, representing the church at Antioch as well as the greater Gentile mission. They meet with the apostles and elders there to settle this question. Must the Gentiles be circumcised in order to be saved? And the answer coming from this first church council was that no, the Gentiles did not have to be circumcised. They were essentially free from the old covenant obligations.
I believe this marked a major milestone for the new church. No longer were they a sect of Judaism, even though the church still contained thousands of practicing Jews. Instead they were a multi-ethnic body of believers. And circumcision was no longer a sign of their covenant relationship with God. While circumcision remained a contentious issue for many Jewish believers, the church, as a whole, no longer recognized it as a distinctive, or requirement, of the faith.
Circumcision of the Heart
In the Bible, circumcision almost always refers to a physical act. And this is true of Paul’s writings as well. But in at least three passages he alludes to a circumcision of the heart, a spiritual circumcision. In Romans 2:28-29, Philippians 3:3 and Colossians 2:11 he discusses this spiritual circumcision. This circumcision, rather than cutting off a small part of the flesh, is a cutting off of the fleshly nature.
Colossians 2:11 especially illustrates this circumcision. “In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ.” This circumcision is not done by human hands but by Christ. And it is not just males. All believers have experienced this circumcision of the heart by Christ.
Circumcision means different things to different peoples. To some it was, and still is, a rite of passage into adulthood. To others it is merely a simple medical procedure. But to the Jews it was, and still remains, a sign of God’s covenant with them.
Yet to Christians, physical circumcision has no spiritual or religious value. For us, the closest comparable thing we have to physical circumcision would be baptism. And some do view baptism in exactly that way, as a sign of our covenant relationship with God.
Photo credit: Unsplash/Ben White
Ed Jarrett is a long-time follower of Jesus and a member of Sylvan Way Baptist Church. He has been a Bible teacher for over 40 years and regularly blogs at A Clay Jar. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Ed is married, the father of two, and grandfather of three. He is retired and currently enjoys his gardens and backpacking.