Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day after His birth. A Christian author I recently read wrote that Jewish circumcision in this case was a “cultural preference,” as was the practice among Jews in New Testament times (in contrast to the Old Testament). When was the practice done away with? Was it always a preference, or was it a command among Jews?
Galatians 4:4 states, “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law [emphasis mine].” Mary and Joseph, being devout Jews, faithful observed the commandments of the law. Having Jesus circumcised wasn’t a cultural preference. Their observance was more than a mere ritual, however. They loved and believed God. Unfortunately, so many Jews down through time observed various laws and rituals without faith. Certainly the apostle Paul’s words in Galatians 6:15, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything,” reflect upon the important principle that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6).
Among Jews, the practice of circumcision was never “done away with.” Even today the Jews practice circumcision as a religious rite. I read a very interesting article some time ago on their current practice, how they perform the rite, and so forth.
God gave the command of circumcision to Abram (later named Abraham) as a token of the covenant He made with him concerning a great nation made up of his descendants (see Genesis 15 and 17). When God gave Moses the law, circumcision became a formal command for the people to follow (Leviticus 12). It was not something they might do.
The practice of circumcision was not confined to Jewish people, however. There is evidence of circumcision being practiced by Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, Egyptians, and perhaps “heathen” religions of Bible times. In more recent centuries, the practice has been discovered through studying various African tribes, American Indians, and other groups. And, of course, the practice even among non-Jews in such advanced societies as the United States is widespread due to the belief that circumcision has health benefits.
The Jewish potential for influence upon the early Christian church was inevitable, since so many Jews were involved—the apostles, the first church being located in Jerusalem, and so on. Sometimes this brought problems to the early church, and the apostle Paul had to withstand Peter to his face over a tendency Peter and Christian Jews in general had in asserting their practices upon Gentile believers. Paul’s letter to the Galatians gives this background. In a way, we can understand why it would be hard for the Jewish believers to suddenly regard important parts of their former practices to be unnecessary and contrary to Paul’s teachings. But the issue was that Christ came to fulfill the law’s demands—which He did. His work on the Cross made unnecessary the rituals and ceremonies pointing to His sacrifice (Romans 8:2–11).
So far we have been noting physical circumcision, an act or ritual that set a people apart from others. Paul stressed a spiritual circumcision among true believers in Christ as what is truly important.
True believers are circumcised in Christ. This means that our innermost beings are ready to hear and obey God (Romans 2:25–29); we are “circumcised” in our hearts. Christian circumcision is the removal of not a part of a physical body but the whole “body of the flesh.” We have been set aside for the Lord, and we are complete in Him (Colossians 2:10–13). This same passage shows us the truth that spiritual circumcision happens when a person experiences the new birth, called the baptism of the Holy Spirit (v. 12; see also Romans 6:3 and 4 and 1 Corinthians 12:13).
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