A Question I Was Asked:

Is Circumcision an Eternal Covenant?

The Question:

Is the covenant of circumcision really an eternal covenant? In asking this question, I am comparing Genesis 17:9-14 with Galatians 3 and 4 and also giving thought to Romans 4:9-12 and Romans 2:28-29. Thank you for your anticipated answer.

UK Apologetics Reply:

Under the Abrahamic covenant circumcision was commanded for all boys who would descend from Abraham; later, under the old covenant, it was commanded for all the male children of Isaac: no question about it. However, a very careful checking of the Hebrew in Genesis 17 reveals that this was not 'an eternal covenant' as we would now view that term. Notice verse 14:

"Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant." (Genesis 17:14. NIV throughout, with one exception).

Notice at once that this is about flesh, a nation and a covenant (the Abrahamic, and later, the old covenant). When Christ went to the cross, both the Abrahamic and old covenants came to an end (symbolised by the tearing of the curtain leading to the Holy of Holies in the temple. See Matthew 27:51), being superceded by something far greater. Later, Paul the Apostle only taught 'circumcision of the heart.' In New Testament times only troublemakers taught circumcision for all believers.

A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person's praise is not from other people, but from God. (Romans 2:28-29).

We need to say just a little more about that torn curtain:

It was apparently torn in two from top to bottom the moment Christ died; the curtain had formed a separation between the two main rooms in the temple. The room with the greatest significance was the Most Holy Place, sometimes called the Holy of Holies. This room was regarded as the very dwelling place of the true and living God in all of His holiness. We may read in 1 Kings 8 how the glory of God filled the original temple at the time of its dedication. It was a sign that God was dwelling among His people. On the other side of the curtain was the somewhat larger space which was known as the Holy Place. This was the room, along with the Court of the Priests outside the temple, where the priests carried out their priestly functions. The priests were the go-betweens between mankind and God. The men of the family would bring an animal for sacrifice to the Court of the Priests. There the priests would lay their hands on the animal symbolically transferring the family's sins to the animal, which was then sacrificed. As the Lord had instructed, His priests would then bless the people who stood forgiven before Him. This whole temple system and priesthood concluded when Christ expired upon the cross. Why? Because Christ Himself became the perfect and complete sacrifice for all sin.

Christians today are freed from the Law, including circumcision (Acts 15:1-20). It was described as an almost unbearable yoke on the neck (Acts 15:10). The yoke, of course, was a sign of slavery and Christians were told not to again become entangled with 'a yoke of bondage' (Galatians 5:1-2). Acts 15 also shows that circumcision what not to be carried forward as and when the Gospel was preached to Gentiles. Moreover, Paul the Apostle condemned certain people whom he described as false believers (Galatians 2:4). One of the strongest traits of these people was their pressuring of Christians to become circumcised. Paul was so incensed by this that - at one point - he actually stated:

I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves! (Galatians 5:12, New RSV).

In our day some Christian leaders - usually from the charismatic movement - have sometimes stated (unwisely in my opinion) that circumcision is still a good practice, even though no longer commanded for Christians. There is a real problem with this reasoning; it seems to suggest that God made some mistake in the human creation process and that a 'factory recall' was probably needed. But there is no error in the creation of either men or women; circumcision was simply a national and covenantal faith and obedience rite for the people of one physical nation, Israel. Today, through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, an offer of salvation is made to people of every race, tongue and tribe; those accepting this magnificent offer come under the New Covenant, which supercedes all others. Holy Spirit-led circumcision of the heart is now freely offered, and all such believers form the New Israel.

Robin A. Brace. January 5th, 2014.