It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.
-Galatians 5:1-6 (NASB)
On the surface, it seems as if Paul is speaking against circumcision, which is commanded by God to the Jewish people, that all their males will be circumcised on the eighth day of life. Did Paul just cancel God’s commandment to the Jews?
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.”
-Genesis 17:9-14 (NASB)
On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.
-Leviticus 12:3 (NASB)
I don’t see how Paul could be addressing Jewish people in the above-quoted scripture from Galatians and telling them not to circumcise. To do so would be in direct contradiction to God, and I don’t see Paul doing that. Neither does Ariel Berkowitz as he states in his article A Torah-Positive Summary of Sha’ul’s Letter to the Galatians:
We come now to another commonly misinterpreted passage in Galatians. This is the section about circumcision. Any reader of this letter written by Sha’ul who does not pick up the context of the Letter to the Galatians by now has one final opportunity to observe the context.
In verses 2 and 3, it appears at first sight that Sha’ul is teaching against circumcision. In turn, by doing so, he would appear to be teaching against following the teachings of Moses. On the one hand, Sha’ul is teaching against circumcision – and against Moses – if people follow those practices in order to earn, merit, or keep their salvation. Sha’ul, the staunch defender of justification by faith, seems almost at a loss for words in his determination to convince his students to abandon any effort to use God’s Torah, or any teaching, in order to achieve their justification by doing the works of that teaching.
The context for understanding why Sha’ul is against circumcision (and the Torah) for legalistic purposes is found in Galatians 5:4, which states, “You who are trying to be justified by Torah have been alienated from Messiah; you have fallen away from grace.” Here, the writer clearly states the problem he was having with their practicing circumcision: They were “trying to be justified by Torah.” This is in perfect keeping with the theme of the letter, which we saw in chapter two.
On the other hand, Sha’ul had absolutely no problem with circumcision (or living the Torah) — as long as it is done with the proper motives and for the right reasons. There are two reasons why we say this. First, we have already seen that his was a life of consistent Torah observance. Second, he had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:1–3). One may debate about the reasons why Timothy was circumcised, but one cannot deny the fact that it was done and that Sha’ul was behind it. For these two reasons alone, we can see clearly that Sha’ul was not against circumcision per se, and consequently, not against proper Torah practice. But he was very much against it all if someone attempted to earn, merit, or keep his/her justification by performing it.
This explanation is in keeping with other portions of Berkowitz’s commentary, but here, he seems to indicate that both Jewish and Gentile believers should be circumcised in accordance to the commandments. That’s sort of understandable if we rely just on Genesis 17, but once we also involve Leviticus 12:3, we see circumcision as specifically a sign God gave for the Jewish males, not all males, such as Gentiles who are grafted in by faith in Messiah.
According to D. Thomas Lancaster in his book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians, in “Sermon Twenty-Three: Circumcision and Uncircumcision” (pg 231):
Paul warns Gentiles about relying on Jewish status for salvation and declares circumcision irrelevant with regard to salvation.
Berkowitz and Lancaster have similar perspectives regarding Paul’s intent, but Lancaster states that in this section of his letter, Paul is specifically addressing Gentiles. Based on the above quoted passages from Genesis 17 and Leviticus 12, it was an enduring commandment for the Jews to circumcise their males eight days after birth. Of course, Paul also said (1 Corinthians 7:19), “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God.”
That’s even more confusing because then we have to decide if Paul meant keeping all the commandments of God except the commandment to circumcise. However, in a larger context, Paul tells us:
Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And so I direct in all the churches. Was any man called when he was already circumcised? He is not to become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? He is not to be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God. Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called.
Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. Brethren, each one is to remain with God in that condition in which he was called.
-1 Corinthians 7:17-24 (NASB)
That’s rather similar to the following:
For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.
-Galatians 3:27-29 (NASB)
Put together, we seem to read that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matters, just as there is neither Jew nor Greek. It appears as if we are all “one new man” (Ephesians 2:15) in Christ with no distinctions whatsoever. This argument has been used to justify both the complete rejection of observing the Torah mitzvot for any believing Jew or Gentile, and the complete acceptance of observing all the Torah mitzvot for every believing Jew or Gentile. It gets confusing.
Of course, when Paul says “neither male nor female,” he wasn’t obliterating physical distinctions between men and women. Another way to interpret Paul on this matter is to say that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision or being Jewish or Gentile matters as far as access to salvation and justification by faith in God through Messiah.
This preserves the commandment of circumcision for the Jews and still allows Paul’s statements to be consistent with God’s commandments.
I know there are some folks out there who will say that Abraham had faith and it was his seed (singular), the Messiah, that allows Gentiles to enter into a covenant relationship with God. And Abraham was commanded to be circumcised and to circumcise his male children and all the males in his household. Doesn’t that mean we Gentile believers need to be circumcised too?
Not so fast!
Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.
-Genesis 15:6 (NASB)
This is the establishment of faith as the primary linkage for anyone to enter into a covenant relationship with God. But the linkage for the blessings to the nations through Messiah comes earlier:
And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.
-Genesis 12:3 (NASB)
Between the two above verses, we have the complete set of requirements that allows Gentiles to enter into covenant relationship with God through faith in Messiah (you can find a more complete description in my blog post The Jesus Covenant Part 8: Abraham, Jews, and Christians).
However, much later on, when Abraham was ninety-nine years old, something new happened. God made a covenant with Abraham that included a physical offspring, the Land of Israel, and circumcision. These, in my opinion, were conditions of God’s relationship with Abraham that took a different trajectory. Certainly the requirement of faith was carried down from the previous encounters with God, but God identified a specific population that were to be included relative to the Genesis 17 promises: Abraham’s physical descendents and members of his household were included in the circumcision requirement.
Does that mean Isaac, Ishmael, Eliezer, and all other males in Abraham’s household at this moment became Hebrews? No, because there’s more. Circumcision certainly created a linkage to Abraham but not all circumcised people become Hebrews, Israelites, or Jews.
Now Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore to him Zimran and Jokshan and Medan and Midian and Ishbak and Shuah. Jokshan became the father of Sheba and Dedan. And the sons of Dedan were Asshurim and Letushim and Leummim. The sons of Midian were Ephah and Epher and Hanoch and Abida and Eldaah. All these were the sons of Keturah. Now Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac; but to the sons of his concubines, Abraham gave gifts while he was still living, and sent them away from his son Isaac eastward, to the land of the east.
-Genesis 25:1-6 (NASB)
After Sarah died, Abraham married other wives and had other children. But before Abraham died, he sent away all of his other offspring, giving them gifts, and then singled out Isaac, the Child promised to him by God to fulfill the Genesis 17 covenant involving Abraham’s offspring, circumcision, and the Land of Israel. Of course, Abraham had circumcised Ishmael and all of his other sons as well as Isaac, but Isaac was the only beneficiary of the covenant relationship involving what would eventually become the Jewish people. Even his other sons, let alone the other non-relative males (servants, slaves, herdsmen) in his household who had been circumcised, were not inheritors of the covenant that led to possession of the Land of Israel and the conditions specified for the descendents of Isaac and Jacob, the Children of Israel, the Jewish people…the Torah of Moses.
If, as a Christian male, you believe you have an obligation to be circumcised and to circumcise your sons, no one is going to stop you, but being circumcised, even with the belief that it is required of the spiritual offspring of Abraham, does not create any sort of linkage between you and Abraham’s physical descendants. It doesn’t give you the Land of Israel, and it doesn’t obligate you to observing the Torah mitzvot in the manner of the Jews.
By Paul’s day, circumcision of males became a sort of shorthand way of saying “conversion to Judaism.” Paul was right in saying that circumcision (converting to Judaism) does not justify anyone before God, just as performing all of the mitzvot (for Jew or Gentile) does not justify.
Hopefully, at some point, I’ll be able to write on why Abraham was commanded to circumcise physical offspring who would not inherit Israel or non-relative males who also would not inherit, but for now, I will say that Paul did not believe that circumcision was a guarantee of salvation for Jew or Gentile, however I understand that he believed circumcision was still a requirement for the Jews, as were the other mitzvot of Torah. If he was teaching Jews not to circumcise their sons, then he was lying here:
After Paul arrived, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many and serious charges against him which they could not prove, while Paul said in his own defense, “I have committed no offense either against the Law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar.”
-Acts 25:7-8 (NASB)
Acts 21:20-26 contains more complete text testifying to the fact that Paul never taught the diaspora Jews to fail to circumcise their sons. If he was lying here, then we can have no confidence in anything Paul wrote which would leave the majority of the New Testament in a shambles, along with our Christian faith.
If you, a Christian, feel you must be circumcised and you must circumcise your sons, remember that it does not justify you before God, it does not put you in the line of succession of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Jacob’s twelve sons, and of the twelve tribes, and the Torah of Moses, and give you possession of the Land of Israel. At best, you may be aligned with the non-physical relative members of Abraham’s household, but then, we are still searching for what they and their circumcision mean.
Yes, Timothy was circumcised by Paul, but Titus the Gentile believer specifically was not. Neither was Cornelius the Roman and his entire household. Neither do we have a record of any other Gentile believers who were required to be circumcised as a condition of faith in Messiah. Think of this as you will.
For more on this topic, please read If Paul Had Circumcised Gentiles.