Friday, November 27, 2015

The Circumcision controversy in early Church

After the death and resurrection of Jesus Part 15

 By Terry Cropper

We can know from the Old Testament and from Jewish history that physical circumcision was a very important part of Jewish life. There are numerous references in the Hebrew Bible to the obligation of circumcision. For example, Leviticus 12:3 says: On the eighth day a boy is to be circumcised. And the uncircumcised are to be cut off from the covenant in Genesis 17:14.

In the first biblical mention of circumcision, God made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants. God said to Abram, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.” God then explained his part of the covenant — he would be the God of Abraham’s descendants and give them the land of Canaan (Genesis 17:1-8); God then further explained Abraham’s part of the covenant (verses 10-14). “This is…the covenant you are to keep.” Every male was to be circumcised, and this physical rite was to be “the sign of the covenant” with God, and it was “an everlasting covenant.”

Every male in Abraham’s household was to be circumcised immediately, and from then on every new baby boy was to be circumcised on the eighth day. Whether they were Hebrews or whether they were purchased as slaves, the males had to be circumcised. If they were not, they would be cut off; they had broken the covenant.

Abraham did what God told him to do (verses 23-27; 21:4). The practice of circumcision became the defining characteristic of the Abraham-Isaac-Jacob clan. Many years later, the sons of Jacob used this custom to get revenge on Shechem (Genesis 34:14-29). They said they could cohabitate and intermarry only with people who were circumcised verse 16.

Circumcision was a requirement for the Israelites, it is natural that it was included within the old covenant laws (Leviticus 12:2-3). People had to be circumcised to participate in the Passover (Exodus 12:44, 48). Even Gentiles had to be circumcised if they wanted to worship God by means of this festival. Circumcision was "a token of the covenant".

John the Baptist and Jesus were circumcised (Luke 1:59; 2:21). Jesus’ only comment about circumcision was favorable: It was part of “the law of Moses,” and the Jews were willing to circumcise children on the Sabbath. Since it was a religious rite, it could be done on the Sabbath (John 7:22-23), just as priests could “desecrate” the Sabbath to perform sacrifices (Matthew 12:5).
In the earliest days of the Christian church, the church was comprised predominately of Jews for the first ten years. Keep in mind: the new entity here, is ten years or so old. It started with a virtually all-Jewish congregation on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 in Jerusalem.

So, at that point in time, all the men in this new church had been circumcised according to Jewish law. These people were having considerable difficulty reconciling the place of Gentiles in this new entity, the church. Previously, if you wanted to become a Jew, and enter into a covenant with God you had to undergo the rite of circumcision.

So, it was understandable that many in the church in Jerusalem were still convinced that this would be a necessary ritual for those wanting to become part of the church as well, even if you were a Gentile. In their minds, accepting Jesus as Savior included accepting Judaism as a foundation for one's faith. They viewed Christianity as a layer built upon Judaism.

Then we see a reality that really complicates this discussion in Acts 15:5 But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. Please understand, these Gentiles were likely ignorant on everything Jewish and never even heard of the Ten Commandments.

Right there in the church of Jerusalem were Pharisees who had gotten saved, but retained their affiliation as Pharisees. They were particularly adamant about the fact that salvation required circumcision as well. Not only so, but add to that the observance of all the Mosaic law to these new Gentile converts.

So, the first Jerusalem Council is called to order to discuss the question of reasonable requirements for these new Gentile Believers. Do we require them to be circumcised? Do we require them to keep the rituals of the Law of Moses to which they have never been exposed before?

The year is around 49 A.D., Of course, Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to participate in this discussion. After all, they had been responsible for preaching to countless Gentiles who subsequently had gotten saved.

Peter was there also; he had won the first Gentile converts after Pentecost when he went to the household of Cornelius in Acts 10. Peter makes a great speech with an excellent point in Acts 15:10-11 Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.”

Then in verse 12 it was time for Paul and Barnabas to report to them about all the Gentiles who had gotten saved along with the accompanying validating miracles. Finally, James stands up to pull it all together. He refers to Peter's presentation of the Gospel to the Gentiles back in Acts 15:13-17 And after they had become silent, James answered, saying, “Men and brethren, listen to me: Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written: ‘After this I will return And will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down; I will rebuild its ruins, And I will set it up; So that the rest of mankind may seek the LORD, Even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, Says the LORD who does all these things.’

James makes his strongest case by quoting Amos 9:11-12 regarding the prophecy that Gentiles would be included in the Davidic Kingdom. Then James recommends a course of action in verses 19-20, Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood.

He suggests the reasoning for such a decree in verse 21, For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”

In other words, it was necessary to write to the Gentiles what was strictly necessary to be observed by them, relative to these points, it was not necessary to the converted Jews; for they had Moses, that is, the law, preached to them on these points which they agree to formalize and publish.

Paul explains that Abraham was counted as righteous even while he was uncircumcised (Romans 4:9-10). Even though he later received a physical sign or seal of his righteousness, his righteous status before God did not depend on circumcision (verse 11). He is the father of all who faithfully live as he did before he was circumcised (verse 12). That was an exemplary faith, since Abraham packed up and moved without knowing where he was going.

To the Corinthians, Paul made it clear that if a person was called while uncircumcised, he should not attempt to change his anatomy (1 Corinthians 7:18). His reason is surprising: “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts” (verse 19).

This is a surprise conclusion since circumcision had been one of God’s commands, and yet it doesn’t count. The law of circumcision was a religious rite that had nothing to do with their moral responsibilities to their neighbors.

Paul explained circumcision in greatest detail in his letter to the Galatians. They were being misled by a heresy that demanded that Gentile believers follow up their faith with physical compliance of circumcision with old covenant commands. But Paul explained that it is wrong to view physical circumcision as necessary, because that would imply that faith alone in Christ was not enough. “If you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all” (Galatians 5:2).
Many Jewish were deeply troubled by the conclusion that circumcision was not required. This is another stumbling stone they did not get over in one night.

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