Circumcision - What does the Bible say? How should Christians view circumcision?

The practice of circumcision was instituted by God as a means of setting apart His people. Genesis 17 records God's covenant with Abraham (formerly Abram). After making His covenantal promises, God said, "This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant" (Genesis 17:10-14). Understandably, circumcision became a significant marker to the Jews.

However, in the New Testament, we see the rescinding of the necessity of physical circumcision. At the Council of Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15, several of the leading believers discussed the issue of circumcision. There were those who preached that circumcision was necessary for salvation and others who disagreed. Peter (one of the twelve apostles) spoke of salvation being by the grace of Jesus and not based on the sign of circumcision. James spoke of God's invitation to Gentiles and saw no need to require them to be circumcised. Ultimately, the council wrote a letter to the churches. In part, it said, "For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well" (Acts 15:28-29). Paul confirms this teaching multiple times in later letters (see 1 Corinthians 7:17-20; Galatians 2:1-3; 5:1-11; 6:11-16; Colossians 2:8-12; Philippians 3:1-3).

Many of the New Testament references to circumcision have to do with being circumcised in heart. Colossians 2:9-12, for example, says, "For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead." The covenant has been fulfilled in Christ, and circumcision now refers to a spiritual marker rather than to a physical marker. Interestingly, God also spoke of the circumcision of heart in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 30:6, for example, says "And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live."

While physical circumcision is not required for believers, we also do not see that it is condemned. Shortly after the Council of Jerusalem, Paul circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3). Timothy was going to travel with Paul, and, "because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his [Timothy's] father was a Greek," Paul thought circumcising Timothy would be best. Paul gives an explanation for similar actions in Romans 14:5-8 and 1 Corinthians 8:9-13.These passages discuss exercising Christian freedom wisely and allowing for differences in practice. In essence, Paul circumcised Timothy not because Timothy needed to be, but so as to avoid any hindrance Timothy's lack of circumcision may have been to those to whom he was witnessing.

Physical circumcision, then, is a sign of the Abrahamic Covenant that may or may not be followed by Christians today. While some parents or men may choose circumcision as a reminder of the Old Testament covenant, others often make the decision based on health. Certain doctors believe circumcision to be healthy whereas others say it is not. Ultimately, the decision is between the believer and God.


Related Truth:

Covenant Theology - What is it?

What are the different covenants in the Bible?

What is replacement theology?

What is dispensationalism?

Why does Christian doctrine cause so much division?


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