God commanded Abraham to be circumcised. God also commanded eight-day old baby boys to be circumcised. Circumcision was a command of God so the Jews rightly took it seriously, as they do with all of God’s commandments. We Jews do not believe that the Law has come to an end in Messiah.
Circumcision was a hot topic in the 1st century of Isra'el. By Paul’s day, it had lost its simple “surgical” meaning and had taken on a sociological meaning. Instead of being a sign of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 17:9-14; Lev. 12:3), it had become code word for conversion to Judaism. It was being misused by the Judaisms of Paul’s day to seal the deal for Gentile proselytes wishing to be counted as legally recognized Jews in the Jewish communities. This was quite upsetting to Paul because the Torah (Law) prescribed NO such ceremony. Proselyte conversion was entirely a man-made rubric—and an unnecessary one at that. Paul taught that believing Gentiles and Jews were both genuine covenant members. And both were covenant-bound to follow Torah.
Why did God have Abraham remove the foreskin in the first place? Why the male sex organ?
Messianic Jewish author Tim Hegg notes: "Coming on the heels of God’s renewed promise to Abraham regarding his progeny and his installation as a father of a multitude of nations, the sign of circumcision upon the organ of procreation must be interpreted within the narrative flow as relating to the method by which the complication (absence of children and age of both Abraham and Sarah) would be resolved. The promise would come, not by the strength of the flesh (which the “Hagar plan” represented) but rather by above-human means."
Abraham did not hesitate to circumcise both himself as well as the males of his household. Looking forward at its effect in the biblical narratives, we learn that it was to become a unique marker, outwardly identifying those males of the offspring of Abraham, as inheritors of the magnificent promises that God was making with this man. It did not, nor does it now serve to secure those promises through personal effort.
What is more, the sign of circumcision was to be an indicator that all subsequent male covenant participants were adopting the same faith that Abraham possessed! Obviously it was incumbent upon the faithful father to pass this sign onto his son; 8-day old baby boys do not circumcise themselves. The promises were of faith (read Romans chapter 4 carefully). To be 100% sure, the Torah (Law) says that the promises were given to him before he was circumcised (4:10, 11)! This is why, after God promised that his seed would be as numerous as the stars (15:5, 6), Abraham was credited with being righteous—because he believed the unbelievable!
With this foundational Genesis teaching in our arsenal, we are now poised to turn our attention directly to Paul’s continuing application of circumcision in the life of a 1st century covenant member—be he Jewish or Gentile. Paul does not indicate in Galatians that circumcision was being relaxed now that the prophesied Messiah has come and gone. What Paul does teach is that circumcision must be properly understood and applied on a community level if each Torah-true covenant member was to remain in right standing with God.
Put another way, to misunderstand the meaning of circumcision as a 1st century Jew or Gentile was to risk “falling from grace,” a warning Paul will reiterate directly in chapter five of his letter to this community.
Surely the Galatian Jews and Gentiles were entertaining notions of implementing community circumcision based on their [mis]understanding of the social benefits it provided as a people group of God. However, given the views we have just examined, we in the 21st century Christian communities have no reason now to continue misunderstanding and misapplying this important covenant sign as well.
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