[This post is a continuation of the series, “How was Christ Administered in the Old Testament?”. The previous post may be accessed HERE.]
The covenant people in the Old Testament were mixed. They were all physical Israelites who were circumcised, but within that national-ethnic group there was a remnant of the true Israel, the true children of God (verse 8). This is the way God designed it to be: he bound himself by covenant to an ethnic people and their descendants; he gave them all the sign of the covenant, circumcision, but he worked within that ethnic group to call out a true people for himself.
The people of the covenant in the Old Testament were made up of Israel according to the flesh—an ethnic, national, religious people containing “children of the flesh” and “children of God.” Therefore it was fitting that circumcision was given to all the children of the flesh. (John Piper, “How do Circumcision and Baptism Correspond?”)
The above sentiment is arguably the largest barrier to Christians’ understanding circumcision as a means of administering the one redemptive work of Christ to the saints of the Old Testament. True, most all would agree that circumcision pointed to Christ in some sense, even marked out the seed line from which He would be born; but because they believe that the sign peculiarly marked out an ethnic, national, physical people, circumcision itself was not “sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation” (Westminster Confession of Faith Ch. 7.5). If, as stated by Piper above, the Sign was a mere marker of “national-ethnic” physical descendants of Abraham, who only happened to contain a spiritual remnant called out by God, then clearly the Covenant Sign of Circumcision was not itself a means of administering the redemptive work of Christ. At best, the Sign merely narrowed the pool (and even that not exclusively).
It is not hard to see the origin of this sentiment; on the face of it, the very institution of the rite in Genesis 17 seems to suggest that all and only those physically circumcised were God’s people and that to be circumcised was to be among the covenant people of God, ipso facto. We read,
This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. …So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (Gen. 17:10-14)
If the words of this institution mean that (1) all who were circumcised were in fact Covenant members, God being their God and they His people, by virtue of bearing the physical sign, and (2) that the threat of being “cut off” was pronounced to all and only those who did not bear the physical sign, then it would seem that John Piper et al are clearly correct.
Another way to state it: if “any uncircumcised male […] has broken my covenant,” means that all who bore the physical sign were in and all who did not bear it were out of the Covenant, then it is plain that this sign signified an ethnic, physical people; it would have been a sign of a Covenant People that were intentionally and by very constitution “mixed”. In fact, circumcision could have theoretically been the sign of a Covenant Community with no believing members at all; and only those who had not the physical sign were outside of this Covenant Community, viz., “cut off”.
But, I would suggest, this is the exact wrong reading of Genesis 17. The significance of “cut off” is bound up with the true significance of circumcision itself. That which circumcision signifies, when absent, renders one “cut off” from the community—that is, lacking the signification of circumcision renders one a covenant breaker, cut off by God, not simply lacking the physical sign.
So the first task is to determine, what indeed is the significance of the sign of circumcision according to the Scripture. This is the task I intend to take up in this post (Part 1). In the next (Part 2), I intend to apply the conclusions of this post toward interpreting the phrase “cut off” in Genesis 17.
Part 1: The Significance of Circumcision for the Old Covenant People
To begin with, we must be clear that circumcision was a sign, a covenant sign (Acts 7:8; Romans 4:11). Signs are quite distinct entities. They contain not only their own meaning as religious, cultural, linguistic, or social entities, but also by convention, institution, or covenant, point beyond themselves to something external. For instance, a gold ring in itself is a created object that has its own meaning and use—conveys beauty or wealth or the like—but can also (by institution) signify that the bearer is a member of the marriage covenant. The normal conventional meaning and use of a gold ring is put in service of signifying something else, a covenantal arrangement.
As a result, we must be careful to make the distinction between the meaning of a sign and its signification in this discussion. A classic example in philosophy of the distinction between meaning and signification is the use of the terms “Morning Star” and “Evening Star”; both point to and signify the same entity, the planet Venus. But the phrases themselves differ in meaning—literally, culturally, and experientially. Or, to use a Biblical example, we can note that the Old Testament Passover, the Atonement, the daily sacrifices, etc., all had different meanings, included different ordinances and prescribed practices, but all nevertheless signified the same thing: the sacrifice of Christ. This is the very nature of signs.
Now, the meaning of circumcision certainly includes a looking forward to the male who would be cut off from His people, that this salvation would come about through natural progeneration, that all men had a natural corruption that must be removed to be prepared for this salvation, etc., and is thus a looking forward to Christ. And this meaning is clearly not disconnected from the signification. This, I believe, we all agree upon.
But, in the following, I will argue that the signification of circumcision, i.e., that which the sign signifies is:
(1) righteousness, which is had only by faith in Christ and is worked in the heart by the Holy Spirit (regeneration), and
(2) a call to and requirement for such righteousness as a Covenant Member.
As such, the Covenant Sign of Circumcision was much more than a mere physical, ethnic, national mark, but was rather a sign and seal of the righteousness had by faith in Christ, and as such was a means of administering His one work of redemption to the Saints of old.
(Exploring “cut off” in the next post will complete this circle.)
Circumcision in the Pauline Letters
The most natural place to start, and where we have the clearest statement of the signification of Covenant Circumcision, is Romans 4:
Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. (Rom. 4:9-12)
The Jews were wont to think of themselves as a national and ethnic covenant people who were righteous before God and free from God’s justice because of the their natural status and circumcision. Paul has argued prior to this passage that the wrath of God is being poured out on all mankind (Rom. 1), that those who call themselves Jews are no exception and will be judged impartially as well (Rom. 2), and that all men are guilty and without excuse before God, yet God can justly save them by Christ through faith in Him (Rom. 3). In chapter 4, Paul is arguing that the Jews’ great and righteous Patriarch had his righteousness not by Law or circumcision, but by faith. Abraham was indeed justified and righteous before God. But how was he declared righteous? By receiving the sign of circumcision? Manifestly no, because God gave him the sign after he was declared righteous. Thus, Abraham is the father of all believers, physically circumcised or not.
Now this is a point that I think is often missed when discussing this passage: God gave Abraham the Covenant Sign of Circumcision as a seal of the righteousness he had by faith; not as a sign and seal of his faith. So circumcision was a sign and seal of righteousness; and that had by faith. Next, we see that Abraham received this sign after being declared righteous not just so that he could be the father of uncircumcised believing Gentiles, but also that he would be the father of the circumcised who are not just “merely circumcised”. Therefore we must see that those among his physical offspring who were “merely” circumcised had not the righteousness sealed by the Sign of Circumcision; they merely had the sign, not the signified. This all makes little sense unless (1) circumcision signifies righteousness (had only by faith) and (2) not having the signified rendered the “mere” sign of no value, even though the Covenant of Circumcision was expressly made with Abraham and his offspring.
The point can be plainly fleshed out if we go back a couple chapters in Romans to this magnificent argument:
For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Rom. 2:25-29)
First a contextual note: Paul is debating the Jew as Jew in this context, not as a New Covenant member who happens to be a Jew: “But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law,” etc. What he is telling the Jews is that their physical circumcision is of no value without Heart Circumcision, even to the extent that if one is indeed righteous, viz., keeps the law, without having the sign, he is considered circumcised. Now, how could one be considered circumcised who was physically not circumcised, unless the physical was a sign of the spiritual and was always intended to point to and signify this Heart Circumcision? How could the Jew, who was physically circumcised, be considered uncircumcised because of his lack of righteousness, unless circumcision had always been a sign of Heart Circumcision? Literally, the argument makes zero sense otherwise. If circumcision were only an ethnic-national physical sign, then it would be enough that the Jew had an ethnic-national physical heart; that is, he would only have to be a literal physical descendant of Abraham by nature to be considered “truly” circumcised, even if he had not the sign. If Piper et al were correct, the exact opposite of Paul’s point would be the conclusion.
And so Paul concludes, “a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter,” such that merely having the sign of righteousness, without having the righteousness signified, makes one uncircumcised. In like manner, the following:
For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh. (Phil. 3:3)
And the following Pauline triumvirate, though circumstantial, is quite telling as well:
For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. (1 Cor. 7:19)
Galatians 5: 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. (Gal. 5:6)
For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. (Gal. 6:15)
“Keeping the commandments of God” parallels “faith working through love” parallels “a new creation”—all as that which is the import of physical circumcision.
Circumcision in the Prophets
This is by no means a new Pauline doctrine. As pointed out above, Paul is debating the Jews and their claim to privilege in these passages. And more striking, Paul’s argument in Romans 2 closely parallels Jeremiah 9:23-26 (nearly point for point), which concludes with the following:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh— Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab, and all who dwell in the desert who cut the corners of their hair, for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart.” (Jer. 9:25-26)
Jeremiah, after upbraiding the Jews for their misplaced boasting, makes plain to the Jews that they will not be protected from judgement by having the physical sign of circumcision; rather, they will be caught up in the judgement of the uncircumcised, for they are “merely” circumcised in flesh! God will show no partiality to the physically circumcised if they do not have that which is signified. As Jeremiah had told them earlier,
Circumcise yourselves to the LORD; remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; lest my wrath go forth like fire, and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds. (Jer. 4:4)
Ezekiel says much the same about approaching God:
And say to the rebellious house, to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: O house of Israel, enough of all your abominations, in admitting foreigners, uncircumcised in heart and flesh, to be in my sanctuary, profaning my temple, when you offer to me my food, the fat and the blood. You have broken my covenant, in addition to all your abominations. And you have not kept charge of my holy things, but you have set others to keep my charge for you in my sanctuary. “Thus says the Lord GOD: No foreigner, uncircumcised in heart and flesh, of all the foreigners who are among the people of Israel, shall enter my sanctuary. (Ez. 44:6-9)
Circumcision in the Law
Now is this just some figurative extension of the meaning of circumcision by the prophets? Of course not; Moses himself explicates Heart Circumcision, viz., righteousness and true love for God and neighbor, as the intended signification of physical circumcision:
“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. (Deut. 10:12-16)
Here we see the physical Sign applied to its bearers as a requirement for Heart Circumcision. In the following (also from Moses), we see this Heart Circumcision as not only a requirement of the Covenant People of God, but also as a promise of the Covenant—even extending to the offspring, just as at the original institution of the Covenant Sign in Genesis 17:
And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. (Deut. 30:6)
All of these passages, and literally every passage wherein circumcision is either discussed or even mentioned, are consonant with the claim that the Covenant Sign of Circumcision had always signified for the Old Testament People of God (1) righteousness, which is had only by faith and is worked in the heart by the Holy Spirit (regeneration), and (2) a call to and requirement for such righteousness as a Covenant member. Together with the forthcoming discussion of “cut off” in Part 2, I am confident it will become perfectly clear that circumcision was emphatically not merely a physical sign of a physical people, but was a spiritual sign of a spiritual people, and was as such a fit sacramental means of administering Christ to the saints of the Old Testament.