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Circumcision: Change in God’s Law?

circumcision-the-first-administrative-change-in-gods-law

Jewish rabbis perform a modern circumcision on an eight-day-old boy.

A major crisis of the early Church was whether gentiles had to be circumcised. What did this change mean? Part 4 of the “Has God’s Law Been ‘Done Away’?” series.

As the numbers of Christ’s followers grew and spread to new regions and ethnic groups, the apostles soon had to explain God’s approach to aspects of the law as it related to non-Jews.

The issue came to a head when some Pharisees (associating themselves with the Church of God) began teaching that, “It is necessary to circumcise them [gentiles], and to command them to keep the law of Moses” ({verse_11}).

These Pharisees knew the law well. They knew that God had told Abraham, “This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised, and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you” (Genesis 17:10-11).

As descendants of Abraham, they had the obligation to be circumcised, and it seemed to them that any male coming to the true God would also have to be physically circumcised—regardless of their age!

The administrative decision on circumcision

But after much discussion, study and consideration of the evidence of how God was working with gentiles the apostles recognized God’s clear will in the matter. God, they came to understand, had magnified the law of circumcision beyond the mere physical act to its broader spiritual intent.

They recognized that was exactly what Moses meant when he told the Israelites, “Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer” (Deuteronomy 10:16).

James summarized the apostles’ decision: “Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19).

Physical circumcision was not necessary for salvation, but converts were to be reminded of their obligation to have a right heart with their Creator—to have a “circumcised heart” that would willingly obey God’s law.

The early Church understood that circumcision was not done away, but that it had to be administered in a different way.

The apostles knew that God had said, “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jeremiah 31:33). They also recognized the relationship of that prophecy to the scripture that said, “Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart” (Deuteronomy 10:16).

Peter concluded: “So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them [the gentiles] by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. 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” (Acts 15:8-11).

Full spiritual intent

God had accepted uncircumcised gentiles to be among the followers of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit made that possible; and so the administration of circumcision, in its full spiritual intent and meaning, was still necessary. They had to undergo a circumcision of the heart, a requirement of much greater significance because it was not a one-time rite, but a lifelong commitment.

In other words, Christians have God’s law written on their “circumcised” hearts by the Holy Spirit, enabling them to live a life in accordance with God’s way. Physical circumcision could not do that. Physical circumcision could leave an impression and serve as a physical reminder, but it had no ability to help a person actually live differently. So God’s Word tells us, “But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (Romans 8:9).

God declared through the apostles that physical circumcision is not required for salvation, but rather a spiritual circumcision of the heart that can come only through the grace of Christ and lead the Christian to a life of loving obedience and submission to God.

The first change, then, was in the administration of circumcision. It was no longer of the flesh, but of the heart.

In the next post in this series, we will see how God changed the administration of the civil ordinances He gave the nation of Israel.

This is the fourth in a seven part series on God's Law. To read part 3, see “Grace and God's Law” To continue the series, see part 5 “Civil Laws Now Administered Differently.”

About the Author

James F. Guy Sr.

James Guy is a deacon serving the Youngstown, Ohio, congregation of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, with his wife, Carla.

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