9 Circumcision: Token of the Covenant
by Hubert F. Sturges, www.everlastingcovenant.com , December 2013
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. And ye shall circumcise the
flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt
me and you. Genesis 17:10, 11.
Circumcision has always been a
significant ritual for the Israelite nation. It was, possibly, the most
notable token of membership among the chosen people. The significance of
circumcision has always been a matter of discussion. One aspect of its
significance was to keep the nation pure that there might be a people
through whom the Messiah could come. After the Messiah came and provided
the true sacrifice for sin, circumcision was no longer meaningful.
Another aspect of its significance is that God wanted them to see
circumcision as a symbol of entire obedience and holiness in the life.
God has always been disappointed when people depended on circumcision
alone as a qualification for belonging to Him.1
Abraham and his descendants had a strong self-identity as
God’s chosen covenant people.2
God chose Abraham to receive the
covenant, a legacy to his descendants throughout time, reinforced by the
detailed system of laws given at Sinai. The Sabbath became a sign of the
close relationship between God and His people, tangibly demonstrating
their belief in His being a loving and approachable God who desires
their fellowship (Exod. 31:13; Ezek. 20:12, 20). Yet, circumcision was
to be the physical token of the covenant, identifying Abraham’s
descendants as followers of the living God.
It was in giving the
covenant that God changed Abram’s name to Abraham (Gen. 17:5), meaning
“to be populous, the father of a multitude.” In this same setting, God
provided the token of circumcision. When Abraham understood the will of
God, his obedience was prompt. On the same day that God explained the
meaning of circumcision, Abraham circumcised every male in his household
In Jewish tradition, circumcision is the primary
symbol of male membership within the Jewish people and the sign of entry
into the covenant made with Abraham. The Jews performed the rite of
circumcision (brit milah) on the eighth day. Creation took place in six
days; the seventh day was the Sabbath; our first parents began their
work together on the eighth day. The Hebrew child also received his name
on the eighth day. When God rejected the nation of Israel as His chosen
people, circumcision no longer had value, and it would have no religious
significance for the Christian church.3
Is circumcision itself a
“covenant?” There is no punctuation in the original manuscripts, hiding
the division in thought in Genesis 17:10. The first part of the verse,
“This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you, and thy
seed after thee” (Gen. 17:10), is a summary of the covenant previously
described (Gen. 17:2-9). The second part of the verse, “Every man child
among you shall be circumcised,” introduces how circumcision was to be
practiced (Gen. 17:11-14). Verse 11 clarifies the relation between
circumcision and the covenant, declaring that God gave circumcision as
“a token of the covenant,” not as a covenant in itself.
7:8, we find, in several translations, the problematic phrase “the
covenant of circumcision.” However, the Amplified version clarifies that
circumcision is the “seal” of the covenant, and the New Century Version
calls it the “sign” of the covenant.4
In other words, “the covenant of
circumcision” means the covenant that includes circumcision as its sign.
In no passage does the Bible specifically say that circumcision is the
covenant itself. Moreover, the rite of circumcision lost its
significance at the cross.5
The commonwealth of Israel required
non-Jews to be circumcised to become members of the community and
receive the benefits of the covenant.6
At the time of the Passover in
Egypt, non-Jews could partake of the Passover only if circumcised and,
in effect, became Jews. “He that is born in thy house, and he that is
bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall
be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant” (Gen. 17:13).
Jews also spoke of circumcision
in a figurative sense. The Philistines
were called “the uncircumcised” (Judges 14:3). This was literally true,
but the term came to be practically equivalent to the word “heathen” or
“Gentile.” Jeremiah referred to Israel as being “uncircumcised in the
heart” (Jer. 9:26), and “their ear is uncircumcised” (Jer. 6:10). To
have uncircumcised ears and heart is to be unwilling to heed divine
instructions.To Preserve the Family
God gave the
everlasting covenant to Abraham with the promise and prophecy, “in thy
seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). The
promise is fulfilled in Christ, through whom Abraham’s descendants would
teach all peoples holiness and faith in the true and living God (Gal.
3:14, 16). In response to these promises, Abraham “believed in the Lord;
and he counted it to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3).
Because of his faith, Abraham commanded his household after him, walked
as if in the presence of God, and accepted circumcision as a sign of the
covenant (Gen. 17:23 27; 18:19).7
Considering that circumcision
was a rite symbolizing the dedication to God of man’s reproductive and
family life to preserve Abraham’s heredity in preparation for the coming
Messiah, one can see why this rite would come to an end once the Messiah
had come. This is exactly what happened (Acts 15:1, 5, 19-21; Rom.
2:21-29; 1 Cor. 7:19). The council at Jerusalem upheld the law but ruled
that Gentiles who come to God are not required to keep any part of the
law of Moses except for four things: “abstain from meats offered to
idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication”
Circumcision was also a symbol of purity. Once a
person had chosen his mate with care, no one was to come between a man
and his wife or break the circle of their
home. Their heredity was to be
closely guarded. They were to follow the laws of healthful living. Homes
were to be happy, a foretaste of heaven. Children were to learn a useful
trade and to value work. The education and the example of the home life
were to be preserved from generation to generation. To be circumcised
meant to dedicate one’s lifestyle to God, to prepare a people to receive
the Messiah.Covenant Complete
Just before He died while
hanging upon the cross of Calvary, Jesus cried with a loud voice, “It is
finished” (John 19:30). He had paid the price for humankind’s
redemption. Without retaliation, He had met the demands of the broken
law. He had taken the worst that Satan could give Him. He could say,
“The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me” (John 14:30).
The battle was now over, and Jesus Christ was the victor!9
the veil of the Temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and
the earth did quake, and the rocks rent” (Matt. 27:51).
fulfilled the moral law by living a sinless life and becoming an example
to all His followers. He fulfilled the ceremonial law by His willing
sacrifice on the cross.10
Jesus’ victory on the cross provides grace for
every Christian to live a victorious life. The “hour” for people to
worship God “in spirit and in truth” had come (John 4:23, 24). The
Temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed, and the ceremonies, rituals, and
sacrifices no longer had significance. Among these was circumcision,
though it continued to be an issue in the New Testament church (see Acts
Circumcision was never to be a physical sign only.
Dedication of the heart and mind were of even greater importance, even
from the first. Moses had said, “And the Lord thy God will circumcise
thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the Lord thy God with
all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live” (Deut.
30:6, emphasis supplied).11
God has always
wanted circumcision to be more than “skin deep,” as the following
examples demonstrate. “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart,
and be no more stiffnecked” (Deut. 10:16, emphasis supplied). “And the
Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to
love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that
thou mayest live” (Deut. 30:6, emphasis supplied). “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” (Jer. 4:4, emphasis supplied). “But he is a Jew, which is one
inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not
in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God” (Rom. 2:29,
Through Abraham, Israel was the “chosen
people of God.” In the language of the covenant given to Abraham, God
declared that He would “be a God unto thee [Abraham], and to thy seed
after thee” (Gen. 17:7). Long before this, Adam and Eve had a close
relationship with God. God took a personal interest in Adam’s creation
and acted openly in a number of the events of his life (Gen. 2). When
sin increased in the world, Noah stood out as “a just man and perfect in
his generations” (Gen. 6:9). These verses emphasize that God has always
had a “chosen people” and that Israel would become that people (Deut.
7:6; 14:2; 1 Chron. 16:12, 13; Ps. 33:12; 89:3, 4; 105:6; 135:4; Eph.
1:4, 5; 1 Peter 2:9; Rev. 17:14).3
. Circumcision was a token of
the covenant, not the covenant itself. The Bible uses “everlasting
covenant” sixteen times but never in reference to circumcision. In
Genesis 17:11, God declared circumcision to be a “token” of the
everlasting covenant. As some have said, circumcision is a sign of the
everlasting covenant, not the everlasting sign of the covenant!
Similarly, the rainbow was said to be the “token” of God’s covenant
with humanity following the flood (Gen. 9:12, 13, 17). The Hebrew word
for “token” is also translated “sign.” The Sabbath is called the sign of
sanctification of the relationship between God and His people (Exod.
31:13, 17; Ezek. 20:12, 20).5.
Baptism became the sign of the
church (Col. 2:11, 12; cf. Gen. 17:11; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 3:21).
Non-Jews were accepted and allowed to participate in Israel’s
festivals (and could marry into their families) if their males were
circumcised (Gen. 17:10-13, 23; 34:14-17; Exod. 12:43-48). For more on
circumcision, see Ronald L. Eisenberg, The JPS Guide to Jewish
Traditions (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2004), pp.
7-13; and Francis D. Nichol, ed., Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary
(Washington, D.C., Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1953), vol.
1, pp. 322, 323.7.
Dr. Ralph F. Wilson has written an excellent
article that covers important aspects of circumcision at
http://www.jesuswalk. com/abraham/6_circumcision.htm, accessed 7/20/12.
One must understand that circumcision was not the sum total of the
covenant but was rather the “sign” or “token” of the covenant (Gen.
17:11), an important part of the covenant, nevertheless.8.
Gentiles were called “strangers” in Leviticus. The four requirements for
Gentiles in Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25 parallel the four requirements for
“strangers” in Leviticus 17:10, 12, 15, 18:26; 19:3, 4.9.
victory that overcomes the world is faith in our Lord, Jesus Christ (1
Cor. 15:57; 1 John 5:4, 5; Rev. 12:11).10.
Whenever I use the
term “ceremonial law,” I am referring to the ceremonial requirements of
the law aside from the moral code of the Decalogue, as recorded in the
“book of the law of Moses,” sometimes called “the law of Moses” or
merely “the law” (Josh. 8:31; 23:6; 2 Kings 23:25; 2 Chron. 30:16; Dan.
9:13; Luke 2:22; Heb. 7:5).
The term “ceremonial law” has been commonly
used by writers of different backgrounds in describing the ceremonial
requirements of the law. Search on “ceremonial law” in Google Books and
you will find older and more recent uses of the term. See, for example:
William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (2001);
Albert Barnes, Notes,
Explanatory and Practical on the Gospels (1836), vol. 1;
Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (1951);
F. F. Bruce, The Epistle
to the Hebrews (1990);
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion
Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New
John Edmund Cox, Protestantism Contrasted with
Romanism by the Teaching of Each (1852), v. 1;
Familiar Letters to a Gentleman (1835);
M. G. Easton, Illustrated Bible
Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, A.M.
John Flavel, Whole Works of the Rev. Mr. John Flavel (1799);
Norman Geisler, Christian Ethics:
Contemporary Issues and Options
John Gill, A Collection of Sermons and Tracts (1773);
Henry, The Comprehensive Commentary on the Holy Bible (1839);
Hodge, Systematic Theology (n.d.), vol. 2;
Walter C. Kaiser, The
Promise-Plan of God:
A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments
James L. Kugel, Early Biblical Interpretation (1986);
Lightfoot, The Works of the Reverend and Learned John Lightfoot (1684);
Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians, Luther (2002);
The MacArthur Bible Commentary (2005);
John Milton, A Treatise on
Christian Doctrine (1825);
A. W. Pink, Studies in the Scriptures (2001),
Matthew Poole, Annotations upon the Holy Bible (1700);
Ridgley, A Body of Divinity (1815);
Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology
Thomas Scott, The Holy Bible, with Explanatory Notes (1822);
John Wesley, Sermons on Several Occasions (1825);
and Henry A. Virkler,
Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation
Though the term does not appear in the biblical text, Moses
did divide the law into various categories. First were the Ten
Commandments (literally “the ten words”), also called the “testimony,”
which were inscribed in stone and deposited in the ark. Then there were
also the statutes, judgments, and laws (Lev. 26:15; Deut. 5:31; 6:1;
7:11; 8:11; 11:1; 26:17; 30:16), which Moses wrote in a book (Lev.
26:45, 46). Nehemiah acknowledged these categories in describing what
God gave on Sinai: “Thou camest down also upon
mount Sinai, and spakest with them from heaven, and gavest them right
judgments, and true laws, good statutes and commandments” (Neh. 9:13,
Other references on circumcision of the
heart (and ear) include Leviticus 26:41; Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6;
Jeremiah 4:4; 6:10 (ear); 9:26; Ezekiel 44:7, 9; Acts 7:51; Romans 2:28,
29. References on the inapplicability of circumcision for Gentiles
include Acts 15:5-29; Galatians 2:3-5 (Titus, a Gentile, was not
circumcised); Acts 16:1-3 (Timothy, whose mother was a Jewess, was
circumcised, Luke says, “because of the Jews”); Galatians 5:6; 6:15; and
1 Corinthians 7:19.