Wednesday, May 3, 2017
The Real Circumcision Debate-Rom. 2:25-29
It is amazing what you can potentially learn about people from what they post on social media, plaster on the bumper of their car, or tattoo on their bodies. Such mediums provide a canvas upon which men and women paint a picture of themselves that they hope the world will see and use to judge them—their relationship status, their political leanings, causes to which they belong, how many honors students they have, favorite Bible verses, etc. However, perception does not always match reality.
This was true of many that Paul addressed in Romans 2:25-29. In this passage, Paul cuts through the façade that many had constructed in order to reveal a very hard but necessary truth that we can all stand to be challenged by today. Last week we learned that words are not enough and today we confirm the same about appearances.
1) The Value of Circumcision-2:25
To further indict the Jews that Paul called out in Romans 2:17-24, he brings up another distinguishing characteristic of their faith and practice—circumcision. Remember, the Jews were proud for at least two reasons. First, they had a law that no one else had. However, they believed that they were equally special because of rituals/practices like circumcision (and no other ritual/sign/distinguishing feature was more personal than that). Paul says, “For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the law,…” (2:25a).
To understand the force of what Paul is saying, one must first understand the meaning of circumcision itself. To do this, we have to travel back in time to Genesis 17:9ff.
Genesis 17:9ff-"God said further to Abraham, 'Now as for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. THis is My covenant, which you shall keep between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants. A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant."
To punctuate the covenant God cut with Abraham and his future nation, God demanded a symbol that was personal and permanent. Male circumcision was such a sign that could not be undone. Also, in His command to circumcise, God desired a sign with special significance. To “sanctify” that member of a man’s body no doubt is connected to what is connected to what it is capable of—i.e. producing offspring. Furthermore, circumcision set in motion a tradition that was celebrated on the 8th day of a young boy’s life. Many scholars believe the number 8 symbolizes new beginnings. If this is true, applied here, each new boy represented a new and fresh era of God’s work on the earth.
Though these elements were involved in the genesis and praxis of circumcision, what is of primary concern to Paul here is another implication of this symbol. In addition to what has already been shared, circumcision was intended to imply death to the flesh—a setting apart to God and death to the world and carnal self. The physical mark was, in other words, a symbol of sanctification—other-ness. That said, this otherness was not demonstrable to the outside world. Instead, one had to join this private sign with public adherence to the other sanctifying agent God provided—the Law. To put it more simply, people cannot tell (on the surface), if someone is circumcised, but they can see whether or not someone is obeying the Law of God.
Therefore, Paul says, “circumcision is of value if you obey the Law” (2:25a). In other words, belonging to God in one way (circumcision) is only effective if you belong to God in every way (obeying His Law). The sign symbolizes the action and the action confirms the sign.
On the flipside, Paul says, “if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision” (2:25b). What was supposed to be an irreversible sign can be reversed and/or rendered ineffective if one does not satisfy the sign with correct action.
Paul holds no punches in the way that he characterizes the Jewish transgressor. In fact, he compares lawless Jews with the uncircumcised—“your circumcision has become uncircumcision” (2:25b). Though circumcision was practiced by other people groups in the ancient Near East (Semites, including the Ammonites, Moabites, Hebrews, and Edomites), only the Hebrews performed circumcision for spiritual reasons connected to a covenant with God. This was God’s stipulation for the Jewish people—that is ethnic Jews and those intimate connected to them (notice “you and your descendants in verse 10 and “in your house” in Gen. 17:13). That said, those people groups that the Jews most disdained on both a historical and personal level—including the Canaanites and the Philistines—rejected circumcision. In fact, often the Old Testament goes out of its way to describe Israel’s enemies as “uncircumcised.” Therefore, when Paul says here—“but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision,…”—he is comparing the people of God with some of the most hated people around. If God’s own people were going to behave lawlessly, they might as well not be circumcised and rendered no different than God’s enemies!
In describing the value of circumcision, Paul says that it is only as valuable as one’s obedience to God’s law. If people weren’t going to be obedient, they might as well not be circumcised.
2) The Application of Circumcision-2:26-27
If the Jews listening in to this presentation hadn’t fallen off of their pew yet, Paul was sure to get them even more uncomfortable with the following hypothetical application of circumcision espoused in 2:26-27. He starts this by saying, “so if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the law,…” (2:26a). I imagine those listening would have responded by saying “what do you mean ‘what if an uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the law? They can’t! They aren’t one of us!” In spite of such protestations, Paul is asking the Jews to consider, for the sake of the argument, a gentile who is, for whatever reason, keeping the law.
He continues and asks “will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” The paraphrased version of this is “will not this uncircumcised gentile be more set apart than you if he keeps the law and you don’t?” As outrageous as this hypothetical scenario sounded to those listening, Paul’s point is valid. Is not action and obedience more weighty than ritual and symbol? In God’s economy, is it not obedience that he cares about more than symbolism? Who is more set apart, those who have the right appearance or those who endorse the right activities? Paul’s answer is clear—even if one is not physically circumcised, he can be set apart through obedience to God’s law.
However, Paul does not stop there. He continues and says “And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the law…” (2:27a). Here, Paul props up the same hypothetical individual to make an additionally biting point.
“will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law?” (2:27b). Consider what Paul is telling these proud religious types. Earlier Paul spoke of the Jews as having the presumed moral authority over the Gentiles when he said the following: “but if you bear the name ‘Jew’ and rely upon the Law, and boast in God and know His will and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law, and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth,” (2:18-20). However, now Paul is saying that if Gentiles are doing a better job than the Jews at obeying God’s law and, by proxy, being set apart, will not the Gentiles be the ones with the moral authority to judge the Jews?
Again, as shocking as this must have been (for the gentiles to have some kind of moral authority over the Jews) none can escape Paul’s logic. Sure the Jews have circumcision, but if the gentiles are living out what circumcision represents better than those who have it, are not they the ones who have the moral high ground?
3) The True Nature of Real Circumcision-2:28-29
Ultimately, Paul’s major point in this passage becomes clear when he begins to elucidate the third element of circumcision discussed in this passage—the true nature of real circumcision. This is how he puts it in verse 28—“for he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh,…” (2:28). Labels, signs, rights, and traditions matter very little to God in the grand scheme of things. Sure, God had required Jews to be circumcised in their flesh. However, this was merely an outward sign of what was supposed to be true spiritually. In fact, according to Paul, it is quite possible to be “Jewish” (having received the Law and having been circumcised) and yet not be set apart to God.
This was surely a difficult pill to swallow. After all, so many Jews in Paul’s day believed that the Law and the rituals were more than enough to enjoy special status before God. Paul says this is not the case.
Instead Paul reveals “he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter,…” (2:29a). A circumcision of an entirely different kind, a spiritual kind, was necessary in order to be considered one of God’s people. This kind of circumcision is not performed on the flesh, but by the Spirit; it is not outward, but inward; it is not according to the letter of the law, but by a transformation of the heart. Those who have this kind of circumcision are those who prove it by doing it, not by bearing some kind of physical marking!
True circumcision results in praise from God and not from men—“and his praise is not from men, but from God” (2:29b). Many Jews in Paul’s day had the former, but not the latter. In taking the praise of God for granted, they were satisfied with chasing the praise of men exclusively. Unfortunately, though many believed that they were ok with God (they had their law and had been circumcised), their failure to obey God’s law meant that they were far from him. They may have received that accolades of their peers, but they had no such things from who matters most.
Instead, it was those who were circumcised in their hearts, those who proved they were transformed through their obedience, those who may or may not even be Jewish, that were praised by God.
Ultimately, the three elements of circumcision discussed in this passage—the value, application, and true nature—coalesce and teach the following lesson: the only thing that God judges by appearance is the heart. Rituals, Rites, symbols, and traditions are mere symbols, what counts is what is inside, and this is judged based on one’s obedience to the Word of God. Those who obey it reveal in their obeying that their heart has been transformed. Those who disobey it consistently reveal by their persistent disobedience that they are far from God.
This is especially applicable for the “religious” today. Last week we learned that it is not enough to talk the talk, one must walk the walk. Today we learn that it is not even enough to look the part, one must be inwardly transformed. Both of these realities—walking the walk and inward transformation—only happen through a relationship with Jesus Christ who walked out of an empty tomb and transformed the world.