The Doctrine of Circumcision. Genesis 17:2-14
Genesis 17:2, "And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly." This is God speaking, His first speech, and He is reaffirming the covenant that He has already made with Abraham back in chapter fifteen. It doesn't change; He is not adding anything to it. He may be developing it but is not contradicting anything that He has already said.
Genesis 12:1-3 promises a land, descendants, and a worldwide and universal blessing to Abraham. Genesis 12:7 reiterated the land promise. Genesis 13:5 expanded on it and said to Abraham that he could have all the land that he was seeing. In Genesis 15:8 that is expanded and specific borders are given, from the river of Egypt to the river Euphrates. In Genesis 17:8 it is further defined as the whole land of Canaan. See how there is progressive revelation regarding the land promise.
Then there is the promise of a seed or descendants. The descendants are said to be a great nation in 12:2. In 13:16 they are described as being as numerous as the dust of the earth. In Genesis 15:5 God says they will be like the stars in the sky. In Genesis 16 they are said to be innumerable. In Genesis 17 this will be expanded even more to refer to a multitude of nations, not just Israel.
The third element is God's blessing on Abraham and his descendants. This is expressed in terms of divine protection. Genesis 12:2, God promises to curse those who treat Abraham lightly. In Genesis 15 He warns that his descendants will be taken into slavery for 400 years, but they will be delivered and will return to this land that God has promised. In Genesis 17:7 there is an eternal promise, the land is theirs in perpetuity and God will protect them in perpetuity and will, always be their God.
One point of application from this is that if God went back on this promise to the Jews, and if because of their rejection of the Messiah they are no longer to be the literal heirs of this promise, then there is no security for Israel in God's promise. If there is no security for Israel in God's promise then there is no security for us in God's promise of eternal salvation. What happens in other theological systems such as Covenant theology and progressive dispensationalism, even though they affirm eternal security at times, they have a system that at its very core has a God who goes back on His promises because of human disobedience. The Abrahamic covenant is a unilateral covenant, i.e. it is God who establishes the covenant with Abraham and it is not based on who Abraham is or what he does. The experience of the blessings is dependent on covenant obedience, but that refers to the experiential aspect. The title deed to the land, the reality of the covenant, is eternal and can never be lost. God has not yet fulfilled the Abrahamic covenant and therefore it must be fulfilled in the future. This means that God has a plan for Israel as a nation in the future.
Genesis 17:3, Abraham's response. He falls on his face, and God speaks to him a second time. Verse 4, "As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations." This is the expansion of the seed promise. There will be many nations that come from Abraham. Furthermore, God is going to establish this by changing Abraham's name. A name change in the ancient world always indicated a change of position, a change of blessing, a change of priorities. So Abraham is being put in a new position by this name change. Verse 5, "Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee." Abram means exalted father. That word probably refers to Abraham's own father, Terah, signifying that this child that Terah names is exalted with respect to his father. The father is naming the child in such a way that it reflects the father's prestige. This would indicates that along with Abraham's wealth and other factors that Abraham was born into an aristocratic lineage and he has an extremely wealthy family and background. So Abram has more to do with his background and his father than it does with God's plan for Abraham. Abraham means the father of many nations. So this, again, reconfirms God's promise to Abraham that He will do all that He has said He will do. To give a name expresses God's sovereignty over the individual and it reflects a change of circumstance now for Abraham, and it reflects a new position in God's plan.
Genesis 17:6, God goes on to promise other things to Abraham. "And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee." From Abraham will come nations who are descendants from Ishmael, nations who are descendants through Esau, nations who are descendants through other progeny that are not in the line of the seed. The line of the seed is through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the only three with whom God confirmed the covenant. A person is only a Jew if they have that physical descent from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Even though Israel is out of the land they still have a title to the land. That is theirs by divine gift and its foundation is Abraham. That is why the Abrahamic covenant is so crucial. The Abrahamic covenant really gives us the lens to understand all of history. It is that framework for being able to interpret everything that goes on in the Middle East down through the ages for the last 4000 years.
Genesis 17:7, 8, "And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God." The future tense indicates that God will not only be their God now but He will be in the future. So that even if they go through a period of time when they reject Him as their God there is an implicit promise here that God will be their God in the future and they will have an eternal possession of the land. The Jews have never controlled all of the land that was promised by God we know that it must yet be future, and so there will be a time in the future when they will return to the land as a political entity and control all of that land that God promised. That won't happen until Jesus Christ returns as the Messiah, the greater son of David, and establishes His kingdom, and establishes the throne of David at that particular time.
The core or heart of the chapter is verses 9-14. God speaks for the third time. Genesis 17:9, "And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations." So the keeping of the covenant is an obligation. Even though the covenant is a free gift, even though the covenant is irreversible, even though the covenant is unilateral, even though there is nothing they can do to destroy the covenant, there is an inherent obligation to morally follow the stipulations of the covenant and to walk in obedience to God. The same thing is true of the Christian life. We have salvation which is a free gift. Nevertheless, with that salvation, with the privilege and position that we have as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, there comes an obligation to walk in obedience. That is why we have these mandates throughout the New Testament to walk in a manner worthy of God's love. There is an inherent obligation to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ as a result of what God has given us, as an expression of gratitude.
Genesis 17:10, "This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised." This is the sign of the Abrahamic covenant. It is an indication that they are set apart to God.
Summary of verses 9-13
1) God says, You and all your descendants shall keep my covenant. That is a command, v.9. It is not a condition for making the covenant but it is an obligation that God puts on those who have been given the covenant.
2) The covenant to be kept is that every male child shall be circumcised. According to the Jews this is a separate covenant and is called the covenant of circumcision.
3) Circumcision is the sign of the Abrahamic covenant. Not every covenant has a sign but several do. The sign of the Noahic covenant is the rainbow. The sign of the Mosaic covenant is the Sabbath. The sign of the Abrahamic covenant is circumcision, a sign that a person as a Jew has been set apart by God. That is a key word to understand here, it sets the nation apart through this physical symbol. Circumcision is a physical rite that pictures a spiritual reality.
4) It is to be performed on the eighth day.
5) Circumcision is for any physical Jew or for any foreign slave living in the household, because this is the nation. The picture here is that the nation is being set apart to God. The flesh of the foreskin is removed. The flesh is a picture of the sin nature. The picture of positional truth is that we are set apart positionally from sin. The picture here is that the Jews are being set apart from the flesh, set apart for the service of God.
6) It is a perpetual covenant. It was tied to the Abrahamic covenant so it is still in effect. It was not to be rendered obsolete by the replacement of another covenant for a Jew.
7) The penalty for the uncircumcised was to be removed from the people, indicating that they weren't participating in the positional blessings of the covenant. Verse 14, "And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant."
8) Circumcision, thus, is a physical ritual that represents the descendants of Abraham as set apart to God. They are set apart for the service of God for a distinct plan and distinct purpose.
The doctrine of circumcision
1) The first mention in Scripture of circumcision is here in Genesis 17.
2) We have to recognize that historically the surgical removal of the foreskin was practiced in the ancient Near East before Abraham, but in Egypt and other cultures it was a rite performed at puberty. What made it distinct for the Jews was that it was performed at birth. There is a reason it was done on the eighth day and that was probably to give the blood time to develop its properties to properly coagulate.
3) Why males only? Only males were involved because it was through the male that the sin nature was passed down. The symbolism here represents being set apart from sin.
4) God revealed to Abraham that this act of shedding blood was to be a sign of the unilateral covenant between God and Abraham.
5) The act at birth signifies the spiritual truth that at regeneration the believer is positionally separated from the flesh, i.e. the sin nature—not the presence of sin but the power of sin. Deuteronomy 10:16 recognizes this principle in the Old Testament, "Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked." In that passage the issue was that God was commanding them to be set apart to Him in reality, not just in ritual. Deuteronomy 30:6, "And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your seed, to love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, that you may live." This is post-salvation experiential growth.
6) Under legalism in Israel the significance became the symbol or the ritual itself, not the spiritual reality that it signified. This is something that was challenged by the latter prophets in the Old Testament.
7) The patter prophets condemned Israel for this superficial legalism. Jeremiah 4:4, "Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart, ye men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem: lest my fury come forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings." Also Jeremiah 9:25, 26 which indicates that just because one was a Jew and circumcised didn't mean they were a part of the covenant. Regeneration has to be; there has to be that circumcision of the heart. "Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will punish all them which are circumcised with the uncircumcised; Egypt, and Judah, and Edom, and the children of Ammon, and Moab, and all that are in the utmost corners, that dwell in the wilderness: for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart."
8) In Deuteronomy 30:6 there is a suggestion that there is both a positional and an experiential element to the symbolism. The believer is positionally separated from the flesh at the instant of salvation and he is experientially separated through spiritual growth.
9) Therefore true circumcision was a spiritual reality, not physical surgery. The point wasn't the physical surgery, the point was that it was to represent a spiritual reality.
10) Circumcision is a sign of the Abrahamic covenant and has no spiritual value other than symbolic. It doesn't mean that a person is saved or not saved, it doesn't mean that a person is more spiritual or less spiritual. And it has no relevance to the church age believer.
11) In the early church those who did not understand the distinction between Israel and the church insisted that Gentiles be circumcised in order to be saved. Cf. Acts 15:1; Galatians 5:2, 3.
12) For the church age believer, therefore, the reality is the spiritual significance, not the physical act. There is a spiritual circumcision today that is for every believer—Colossians 2:11, "In whom also you are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ." Thus in the church age the spiritual circumcision represents retroactive positional truth. What happened at the instant of salvation is you are identified with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ on the cross—Romans 6:1-7. Because of that the power of the sin nature is broken at the instant of salvation. When we come to Abraham and the Abrahamic covenant we realize that this is a picture of Israel's positional sanctification in the Old Testament, something that can never be lost. They have a position is Abraham. That doesn't mean every Jew is saved, it means the nation has a position in Abraham that can never be lost. Those promises given to Abraham will be fulfilled at some point in the future.