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".
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.
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.
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.
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
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.