Circumcision

Twin tornado (Steven Spielberg).

Why did God require it?

Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised.  – GENESIS 17:9-10

Why did God require circumcision? (1) As a sign of obedience to him in all matters.  (2) As a sign of belonging to his covenant people.  Once circumcised, there was no turning back.  the man would be identified as a Jew for ever.  (3) As a symbol of “cutting off” the old life of sin, purifying one’s heart, and dedicating oneself to God.  (4) Possibly as a health measure.

Circumcision more than any other practice separated God’s people from their pagan neighbours. In Abraham’s day, this was essential to develop the pure worship of the one true God.

At that time the LORD said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites again.” So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the Israelites at Gibeath Haaraloth.  – JOSHUA 5:2-3

The rite of circumcision marked Israel’s position as God’s covenant people. When God made the original covenant with Abraham, he required that each male be circumcised as a sign of cutting off the old life and beginning a new life with God (Genesis 17:13).  Other cultures at that time used circumcision as a sign of entry into adulthood, but only Israel used it as a sign of following God.  A man would only be circumcised once.  “Again” here refers to the fact that many of the young men were uncircumcised at this time (see 5:5).

 

Why hadn’t Moses circumcised his son?

At a lodging place on the way, the LORD met Moses and was about to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it.  “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said.  So the LORD let him alone.  (At that time she said “bridegroom of blood”, referring to circumcision.)  – EXODUS 4:24-26

God was about to kill Moses because Moses had not circumcised his son. Why hadn’t Moses done this?  Remember that Moses had spent half his life in Pharaoh’s palace and half his life in the Midianite desert.  He might not have been too familiar with God’s laws, especially since all the requirements of God’s covenant with Israel (Genesis 17) had not been actively carried out for over 400 years.  In addition, Moses’ wife, due to her Midianite background, may have opposed circumcision.  But Moses could not effectively serve as deliverer of God’s people until he had fulfilled the conditions of God’s covenant, and one of those conditions was circumcision.  Before they could go any further, Moses and his family had to follow God’s commands completely.  Under Old Testament law, failing to circumcise your son was to remove yourself and your family from God’s blessings.  Moses learned that disobeying God was even more dangerous than tangling with an Egyptian pharaoh.

 

Why did Moses’ wife perform the circumcision?

But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said.  So the LORD let him alone.  (At that time she said “bridegroom of blood”, referring to circumcision.)  –  EXODUS 4:25-26

Why did Zipporah perform the circumcision? It may have been Zipporah who, as a Midianite unfamiliar with circumcision requirement, had persuaded Moses not to circumcise their son.  If she prevented the action, now she would have to perform it.  It is also possible that Moses became ill as a result of permitting disobedience, and so Zipporah had to perform the circumcision herself to save both her husband and son.  This would not have made her happy – hence, her unflattering comment to Moses.

 

Explanation of the ceremony of:

Then he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him eight days after his birth.  Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs.  – ACTS 7:8

Circumcision was a sign of the promise of covenant made between God, Abraham, and the entire nation of Israel (Genesis 17:9-13). Because Stephen’s speech summarised Israel’s history, he summarised how this covenant fared during that time.  Stephen pointed out that God had always kept his side of the promise, but Israel had failed again and again to uphold its end.  Although the Jews in Stephen’s day still circumcised their baby boys, they failed to obey God.  The people’s hearts were far from God.  Their lack of faith and lack of obedience meant that they had failed to keep their part of the covenant.

 

What it symbolised:

On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.

When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons”.  – LUKE 2:21-24

Jewish families went through several ceremonies soon after a baby’s birth: (1) Circumcision.  Every boy was circumcised and named on the eighth day after birth (Leviticus 12:3; Luke 1:59, 60).  Circumcision symbolised the Jews’ separation from Gentiles and their unique relationship with God (see the note on 1:59).  (2) Redemption of the firstborn.  A firstborn son was presented to God one month after birth (Exodus 13:2, 11-16; Numbers 18:15, 16).  The ceremony included buying back – “redeeming” – the child from God through an offering.  Thus the parents acknowledged that the child belonged to God, who alone has the power to give life.  (3) Purification of the mother.  For 40 days after the birth of a son and 80 days after the birth of a daughter, the mother was ceremonially unclean and could not enter the temple.  At the end of her time of separation, the parents were to bring a lamb for a burnt offering and a dove or pigeon for a sin offering.  The priest would sacrifice these animals and declare her to be clean.  If a lamb was too expensive, the parents could bring a second dove or pigeon instead.  This is what Mary and Joseph did.

Jesus was God’s Son, but his family carried out these ceremonies according to God’s law. Jesus was not born above the law; instead, he fulfilled it perfectly.

 

Debated at Jerusalem council:

Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”ACTS 15:1ff

The delegates to the council at Jerusalem came from the churches in Jerusalem and Antioch. The conversation of Gentiles was raising an urgent question for the early church – do the Gentiles have to adhere to the laws of Moses and other Jewish traditions to be saved?  One group of Jewish Christians insisted that following the law, including submitting to the rite of circumcision, was necessary for salvation.  The Gentiles, however, did not think they needed to become Jewish first in order to become Christians.  So Paul and Barnabas discussed this problem with the leaders of the church.  The council upheld the convictions expressed by Paul and Barnabas that following the Jewish laws, including being circumcised was not essential for salvation.

 

Why Paul had Timothy circumcised:

The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.  – ACTS 16:2-3

Timothy and his mother, Eunice, were from Lystra, Eunice had probably heard Paul’s preaching when he was there during his first missionary journey (14:6-18). Timothy was the son of a Jewish mother and Greek father – to the Jews, a half-breed like a Samaritan.  So Paul asked Timothy to be circumcised to remove some of the stigma he may have had with Jewish believers.  Timothy was not required to be circumcised (the Jerusalem council had decided that – chapter 15), but he voluntarily did this to overcome any barriers to his witness for Christ.  Sometimes we need to go beyond the minimum in order to help our audience receive our testimony.

 

Why Paul didn’t circumcise Titus:

Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves.  We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.  – GALATIANS 2:3-5

When Paul took Titus, a Greek Christian, to Jerusalem, the Judaisers (false brothers) said that Titus should be circumcised. Paul adamantly refused to give in to their demands.  The apostles agreed that circumcision was an unnecessary rite for Gentile converts.  Several years later, Paul circumcised Timothy, another Greek Christian (Acts 16:3).  Unlike Titus, however, Timothy was half Jewish.  Paul did not deny Jews the right to be circumcised; he was simply saying that Gentiles should not be asked to become Jews before becoming Christians.

 

©Kingsway International Church 1973.

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