Tag Archives: circumcision

What Church Taught Me About Jews and the Torah

paul-editedThen after an interval of fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also. It was because of a revelation that I went up; and I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but I did so in private to those who were of reputation, for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain. But not even Titus, who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised.

Galatians 2:1-3 (NASB)

Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. And a disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek, and he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted this man to go with him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.

Acts 16:1-3 (NASB)

I know I’ve written in this before, but during Pastor’s sermon in church this morning (as I write this), I had a small revelation. Pastor was preaching on Acts 16:1-5 and in the course of his preaching, I had plenty of material to take notes on and plenty of points where I know Pastor and I don’t see eye to eye.

But of course, he had to bring up the issue of Paul’s circumcision of Timothy, even though he believes that after the crucifixion of Christ, the Jewish believers were no longer obligated to observe the Torah mitzvot. Fortunately, he contrasted the circumcision of Timothy with the following:

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)

We are pretty sure Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians before the Acts 15 decision of the Jerusalem Council and thus before the events involving Timothy in Acts 16. But comparing these two statements makes Paul seem like a hypocrite, doesn’t it? If circumcision and non-circumcision mean nothing, why did he circumcise Timothy? Because he gave into Jewish peer pressure and was worried about what Jewish people would say of Timothy when he was accompanying Paul? That doesn’t sound like the no-nonsense, no compromises Paul that I know.

Remember, the question in Acts 15:1-2 was whether or not the Gentiles had to be circumcised in order to enter into the Jewish religious community of “the Way” as co-participants and disciples of Jesus. The Council’s final legal decision (Acts 15:19-22) which was recorded in a letter (Acts 15:23-29) that was later transmitted to the various Gentiles in different communities in the diaspora (Acts 15:30-32, Acts 16:4-5). Gentiles were allowed to enter the Messianic congregation without being circumcised.

It’s been said in some Christian commentaries that Paul also encouraged Jews to give up on circumcising their children. He was even accused (falsely) of this by other Jews (Acts 21:21). In trial after trial, Paul defended himself and said he had done nothing against Jewish or Roman law (Acts 25:8, 28:17). In his sermon today, my Pastor even agreed that it was right for Jewish believers to be circumcised as a requirement of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 17:9-14). However, he says that the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants aren’t directly connected and while the Abrahamic covenant was meant to be permanent, the Mosaic was always intended to be temporary.

Except he’s got a few problems.

The first is that in the Tanakh (Old Testament), no where do I read that it was God’s intension to “expire” the Torah upon the entrance of Messiah (or at Messiah’s death). In fact, I get the very clear intension that God took the Torah and Torah observance by Jews quite seriously, and meant for Jewish Torah observance to be continual.

Also, there’s what Paul said in Galatians 5:3:

And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law.

Paul inexorably links circumcision (he was talking about ritual conversion to Judaism, but I’ll also read into it the circumcision of people born Jewish) to obligation to observe all of the Torah mitzvot.

Paul by RembrantIn another blog post, I attempted to establish a continuing Jewish obligation to observe the mitzvot based on the past commands of God in the Torah and the future Messianic prophesies we read in the Tanakh. Dr. Stuart Dauermann, interestingly enough, posted something quite similar on Facebook (which I can’t find at the moment) making the same argument.

The “weakness” of my argument, if you will, was in not being able to locate support in the Apostolic scriptures, especially something written by Paul, that firmly establishes continued Torah observance for Jews during that time frame and extending into our present era…that is, until now. Ironically, I have my Pastor to thank for making the connection, not that he meant to.

In Galatians 5 and in other portions of that letter, Paul firmly links circumcision to Torah observance, warning the Gentiles (and presumably the Jews) in the churches in Galatia, that being ethnically Jewish or a Jewish convert does not justify you before God. Only faith and grace does that (salvation is not contingent upon being circumcised or not being circumcised). He also says that anyone who is circumcised (because they are a Jewish male or are a Gentile male undergoing conversion) is obligated to observe the entire Torah. So far so good.

Next, in Galatians 2, we see Paul deliberately using the Greek man Titus as an example of a Gentile believer who does not require circumcision (conversion to Judaism and obligatory Torah obedience) in order to be saved and be an equal co-participant in the community of “the Way.”

In Acts 15 and confirmed in Acts 21:25, we see a binding legal decision rendered by the authorities of the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem that the Gentiles do not have to be circumcised (convert) and obey the Law of Moses in order to be justified before God and to be co-equal community members.

And in Acts 16 Paul circumcises Timothy because he has a Jewish mother and, if we believe Paul in Galatians 5, then the act of circumcision (which is a covenant requirement for all Jewish males) must also confirm that Timothy is (and probably always was since he’s considered Jewish) obligated to keep all of the Torah.

We don’t know the reasons he wasn’t circumcised on the eighth day. Timothy’s mother married a Gentile. Perhaps his Greek father forbade it. Perhaps Timothy’s mother was an “assimilated” Jewish person, living in the Diaspora (was this a problem for many Jews living in the Diaspora in those days?), having fallen away from Jewish practices (which seems odd, even to me, because she was such a faithful believer and Jewish faith in Messiah at that point in history was a very Jewish way of life). We probably won’t know the answer to these questions this side of Messiah’s return, but we do know that Paul circumcised Timothy because his mother was Jewish and everyone knew Timothy’s mother was Jewish.

And this isn’t the only example of a Jewish man being circumcised “late in the game,” so to speak.

Now it came about at the lodging place on the way that the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and threw it at Moses’ feet, and she said, “You are indeed a bridegroom of blood to me.” So He let him alone. At that time she said, “You are a bridegroom of blood”—because of the circumcision.

Exodus 4:24-26 (NASB)

Moses too was living apart from his people. He married Zipporah, a Midianite woman, fathered a son by her, lived among Midianites, was a shepherd in Midian for forty years…

…and in all those years, he never circumcised his son. Even Zipporah knew better, at least in time to prevent a disaster.

So I’ll suggest that we can’t say Timothy not being circumcised on the eighth day was incredibly unusual, especially for Jewish people living away from the Jewish community (and according to some news articles, this is a problem among the Jewish people today).

I know, my Pastor isn’t likely to accept my arguments, but I think they’re good ones. I think they should be taken seriously. I think we can establish from the Biblical record, in Torah, in the Prophets, and in the Apostolic Scriptures, that the Torah was founded by God for the ancient Israelites and for all their descendants:

Now not with you alone am I making this covenant and this oath, but both with those who stand here with us today in the presence of the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here today…

Deuteronomy 29:14-15 (NASB)

Rolling the Torah ScrollVirtually all reliable commentators agree that the ones with whom the covenant was made, yet who were not there at Sinai, were all the future generations of Israel, the Jewish people, projected forward in time.

The Torah speaks of the expectation of Israel to observe the Torah of Moses from the point it was given at Sinai and into the future. The Prophets speak of the future Messianic Age, where Torah will be observed as it was in days of old, and Messiah, the Prince, will offer sacrifices at the Temple. And Paul says that anyone circumcised, which is definitely any convert to Judaism and any Jewish male under the covenant obligation to be circumcised, is also obligated to observe the entire Torah. James and the Council made a legally binding ruling that only the Gentiles in the Jewish movement of Messiah were exempt from circumcision and full Torah obligation.

It really doesn’t get more plain than that. We have witnesses in the ancient past at Sinai, in the day of Paul, and prophetic witnesses that speak to the future, all of them, every single one, telling us that those obligated to be circumcised because of Abraham, the Jewish people, must all perform the Torah mitzvot because of covenant requirements.

All of the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have a covenant obligation to be circumcised. The descendants of Jacob stood at Sinai and received the Mosaic covenant obligation. The later covenant adds to the earlier one. Paul understood that one leads to another. The Church must catch up with this understanding.

It’s all in the Bible. All you have to do is look.

Vayeira: Those Whom God Has Blessed

abrahams visitorsThe Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot.

Genesis 18:1 (JPS Tanakh)

The Lord took note of Sarah as He had promised, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had spoken. Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken. Abraham gave his newborn son, whom Sarah had borne him, the name of Isaac. And when his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God had commanded him.

Genesis 21:1-4 (JPS Tanakh)

In this week’s Torah portion, Avraham is recovering from Bris Mila. Later, Isaac is born and has a Bris Mila. So, I thought to share a few insights on … Bris Mila!

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayeira
Aish.com

The vast majority of people in the Church don’t imagine that baby boys born into Christian families must receive a ritual circumcision, called a Bris or Brit Milah, on the eighth day of life. It’s one of those things that we think of as uniquely “Jewish.”

But if we who are in the body of Christ are called the spiritual Sons of Abraham (Romans 9:8), and if we are “one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all,” (Ephesians 4:4-6), then why are we too not obligated to be circumcised?

Then after an interval of fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also. It was because of a revelation that I went up; and I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but I did so in private to those who were of reputation, for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain. But not even Titus, who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage.

Galatians 2:1-4 (NASB)

Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. And a disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek, and he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted this man to go with him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.

Acts 16:1-3 (NASB)

A great deal has been made about why Paul did not have Titus circumcised but he did so for Timothy. The only obvious difference between them in scripture is that Timothy’s mother was Jewish but both parents of Titus were Greek (presumably, since Luke refers to Titus as “a Greek” in Acts 16).

Brit_MilahToday, it is common in the various streams of Judaism to consider anyone Jewish who was born of a Jewish mother, regardless of whether or not the father was Jewish. In the days of Paul, this may not have necessarily been the case, but if Timothy wasn’t Jewish, we are at a loss as to why Paul made such a distinction between he and Titus.

But getting back to what I was saying before, should any distinction be made between Jews and Gentiles in the body of Christ. Aren’t we all one in Messiah with ethnic differences swept away by the hand of God as a scorching sirocco sweeps over the desert sands?

But wait a second.

The Almighty commanded Abraham, “… My covenant you shall keep — you and your descendants after you for all generations. This is my covenant which you shall keep between Me and you and your descendants after you — circumcise all males. And you shall circumcise the flesh of the foreskin and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And at eight days old every male shall be circumcised throughout all of your generations … My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant” (Genesis 17:9-13).

-Rabbi Packouz

This is the “ethnic” part of God’s covenant with Abraham and his physical descendants through Isaac, Jacob, the Children of Israel, and beyond. I previously said that in this portion of the covenant ratified by God with Abraham…

God promises to make Abraham a father of many nations and of many descendants and the land of Canaan as well as other parts of Middle East will go to his descendants. God declares that circumcision is to be the sign of the covenant for Abraham and all his male descendants and that this will be an eternal covenant.

But the blessings of the earlier portion of the Abrahamic covenant God makes with Abram are significant because that portion can be applied outside the ethnic, genetic, biological stream of Abraham and his offspring.

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)

We have to access Paul’s midrash on Abraham to make better sense of this.

Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ. What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.

Galatians 3:16-17 (NASB)

infant-jesus-templeThe “seed” is Messiah, Christ. He is the blessing, and this promise and blessing was established before the covenant was ratified and God required circumcision of Abraham and his offspring through Isaac, and through Jacob, and through all of Jacob’s offspring, and so on across the ethnic linkage that ultimately becomes the Jewish people.

In his letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul is strongly discouraging the Gentile disciples from being circumcised because, by that point in history, circumcision was the “shorthand” expression for ritual conversion to Judaism. If the Gentiles, through the blessings of Abraham’s seed (singular) and faith in Messiah, were already justified before God, and received the one Spirit, just as the Jews received that same Spirit, then for the purposes of justification, nothing else is required of the Gentile disciples.

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:1-6 (NASB)

One body, one Spirit, one justification, one salvation, a unity of Spirit still doesn’t have to mean a uniformity of identity.

There’s a saying that goes, “everyone’s unique but no one is special,” but I don’t know if I can buy into that. I’m all for equal access to job opportunities and equal pay for equal work, but God did some really unique things. He chose the ethnic Jewish people, that is, those who were physically descended from Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Jacob’s sons, and the children of Jacob’s sons, who were all of the people led by Moses to Mount Horeb in the Sinai to receive the covenant and ultimately all of the promises, including the Land of Israel.

We can discuss the “mixed multitude” who eventually assimilated into the tribes after several generations and disappeared from the face of history, a process that cannot be anachronistically applied to modern times or even the time of James, Peter, and Paul. We can discuss ritual conversion to Judaism which existed in the time of James, Peter, and Paul and which exists today. I agree that you can’t “convert” to a tribal affiliation (which is why the ancient “gerim” in Torah were not converts). Judaism has long allowed for a few, select outsiders to join them, not because of ancestry, but by choice. But then, one choses to go “all the way,” so to speak, not retaining Gentile identity while living as a Jew. If we accept that God granted the Jewish community the authority to establish legally binding customs since antiquity, then we can accept Jewish converts.

But according to Paul and ultimately the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), circumcision (conversion) is not required of the Gentile disciples of Messiah. We are one in Spirit and “co-inhabit” the body of Messiah. The body of Messiah is like the human body, which has different organs and structures, all of which are required for a healthy living person, and just like the body of Messiah, actually requires different parts.

abraham1All of this was set into motion thousands of years ago with Abraham and it is a blessing that the whole world isn’t required to convert to Judaism in order to be reconciled to God. No stream of Judaism I’m aware of requires conversion and circumcision in order to be right with God. The Bible and God have always presupposed a world made up of Jews and Gentiles who are reconciled before our Creator. Messianic Judaism is the living example of a Judaism that recognizes the spiritual equality of Jews and Gentiles in Messiah without compelling circumcision and full Torah observance upon the Gentiles in the body (not that we can’t take on board more of the mitzvot voluntarily).

I know this won’t satisfy the Hebrew Roots Gentiles who believe in uniformity in the Messianic body, nor the traditional Christians who also require uniformity. But those alternatives either rob the uniqueness God gave to the Jewish people through circumcision, the Torah, and Israel by having Gentiles say “it belongs to us too,” or strips that uniqueness away, defying God’s will by Christians telling Jewish people they must cease their ethnic and religious uniqueness and performance of the mitzvot if they wish to worship Moshiach, requiring that Jewish believers live like the Gentiles in the Church.

Why has this mitzvah survived in strength while so many other mitzvot have fallen to the wayside by otherwise minimally observant Jews? Perhaps the answer is found in the 2,000 year old words of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, “Every mitzvah that they (the Jewish people) accepted upon themselves with joy … they still perform with joy.” (Talmud, Shabbos 130a). Deep in our collective psyche we know that the Jewish people is eternal, that we have a mission to be a “Light Unto the Nations” and to perfect the world, that the Almighty loves us and watches over us — and that it is our great joy and privilege to be a part of that Covenant!

-Rabbi Packouz

However you choose to view this in terms of being Gentile members of the body of Christ, the creation of “the Church” didn’t eliminate the promises God made to Israel. Paul said (Galatians 3:17) that “the law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise.” So too the work of Messiah did not annul the covenants previously established by God, but rather, Messiah was and is the crystallization of prophesy, the perfect expression of all of the covenants, the doorway allowing both people who are uniquely Jewish and those of us who are uniquely Gentile, to enter into relationship with God, co-inhabitants in a body that does require the heart, liver, lungs, spleen, stomach and many other organs, as opposed to being a single body, with a single organ, and a single identity, and a single function. A human being with only a stomach and no other parts couldn’t possibly live, so demanding absolute uniformity and canceling diversity within the body of Messiah kills the body.

Rabbi Packouz says the Jewish people are eternal. Circumcision is one of the signs of that eternal and unique existence before God. Opposing this is opposing God’s will. We can only be one in Messiah and possess the One Spirit of God by living in accordance with that One Spirit and that One God.

Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.

John 5:19 (NASB)

I’ve often heard that we should imitate our Master, but I don’t think in this case it means so much what we eat or what we wear, but rather, how we treat those who God has uniquely blessed. If we bless the Jewish people, we too are blessed by Israel and by Messiah. Of course, there is the converse.

Good Shabbos.

Abraham, Paul, Circumcision, and Galatians

Apostle-Paul-PreachesIt 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.

Galatians by D.T. LancasterThis 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)

communityPut 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)

abrahams-servantAfter 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)

PaulActs 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.

If Paul Had Circumcised Gentiles

under-law-torahWe are Torah Submissive, meaning that we try to obey to the divine instructions revealed in the Pentateuch. We recommend Torah observance for Christians (= believers in Messiah Yeshua) as the proper way of sanctification of their lifestyle. We do not believe however that eternal salvation is merited or gained by performing specific commandments. In other words, we are not legalists.

-from the Doctrinal Position page
at Messianic613’s Weblog

I once read a comment written by the author of the above-quoted statement on someone else’s blog saying that a “One Law” position seemed the most likely consequence of the requirement to integrate Gentiles into the first century Jewish movement called “the Way.” This was based on that author’s personal understanding of the New Testament record and the Bible as a whole.

I wish I could find the original comment but it’s lost in the vast wasteland of the blogosphere and I wouldn’t know how to retrieve it. Still, I hate not being able to adequately cite my source when crafting a response. (I also want to say at this point, that although I don’t agree with all of said-author’s opinions, I find this person to be intelligent and reasonable in all comments and rebuttals.)

Given all that, I found myself wondering this morning what was the easiest thing for Paul to do as Christ’s (Messiah’s) chosen emissary to the Gentiles. In the Book of Acts, Luke records in the first six or seven chapters how “the Way” was being established in Jerusalem and Judea. The Spirit was given to the Apostles in Acts 2:1-4 and afterward, Peter spoke boldly for the Messiah. Many Jews in Jerusalem, both native and visiting from the diaspora for Shavuot, became disciples (Acts 2:37-42). Peter began teaching at Solomon’s Portico (starting at Acts 3:11), the early Messianic community among the Jews was formed (starting at Acts 4:32), and in spite of persecution from the ruling Jewish authorities, the Messianic disciples did not cease in their work (Acts 5:41-42).

Acts 8 shows us how the gospel message of the Messiah began to spread out from Jerusalem and Judea, extending into other parts of Israel and into Samaria. Philip encounters the Ethiopian Eunuch (a study unto itself) which results in that message being taken south, at least to the descendants of those Jews who journeyed to that land in the time of Solomon. But God had further plans for the good news of Messiah than to have it shared only with Jews and Samaritans.

The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

Acts 9:11-16 (NRSV)

Saul (Paul), the persecutor of Jewish disciples of “the Way” was chosen specifically by Messiah as his instrument to take the name of Messiah before the Gentiles as well as before kings and the people of Israel.

But what did it mean to take the name of Messiah before the Gentiles?

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves (emph. mine).

Matthew 23:15 (NRSV)

When the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who spoke to them and urged them to continue in the grace of God (emph. mine).

Acts 13:43 (NRSV)

These two, quick quotes tell us that it wasn’t particularly unusual for non-Jews to convert to sects of Judaism. We also know from Acts 10:1-2 and Acts 13:16 that Gentiles who were called “God-fearers” also attended synagogue and were devout but not necessarily on a “track” to convert, and God-fearing Gentiles, although they likely shared some religious and lifestyle practices with the Jewish people, were not considered Jewish or members of the covenants as were born Jews or the “devout converts to Judaism.”

Paul was specifically selected to fulfill the following mandate:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

Matthew 28:19-20 (NRSV)

Apostle-Paul-PreachesBut how was he supposed to do that, exactly? I know, based on your understanding of the Bible and the last two-thousand years of Christian and Jewish history, you think the answer is obvious (although that answer isn’t the same for everyone), but it wasn’t actually that clear-cut back in the day.

Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders.

Acts 15:1-2 (NRSV)

There seemed to be a disagreement, even among the Jewish disciples within the Way, as to just how to integrate the Gentiles. As we can see here, there were some Jewish people who advocated for the Gentiles to become devout converts to Judaism. Paul and Barnabas disagreed with that opinion. It took a decision by James and the Council of Apostles in Jerusalem to settle the matter, but even then, it wasn’t really settled (It was before God but not, apparently, before men).

When they heard it, they praised God. Then they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law. They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. So do what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow. Join these men, go through the rite of purification with them, and pay for the shaving of their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself observe and guard the law. But as for the Gentiles who have become believers, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.”

Acts 21:20-25 (NRSV)

“After I had returned to Jerusalem and while I was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance and saw Jesus saying to me, ‘Hurry and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. And while the blood of your witness Stephen was shed, I myself was standing by, approving and keeping the coats of those who killed him.’ Then he said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’”

Up to this point they listened to him, but then they shouted, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.”

Acts 22:17-22 (NRSV)

up_to_jerusalemAs we can see, even after the declaration by the Council about the status of Gentiles in the Jewish Yeshua (Jesus) movement, it appeared to be very confusing to even thousands of Jewish believers, all zealous for the Torah, just exactly what Paul was teaching to the Jewish and Gentile disciples in the diaspora. Was he teaching Jews to abandon Torah? Was he teaching uncircumcised Gentiles to observe Torah like the Jews? Paul appears to deny both allegations. Jews didn’t have a problem with what Paul taught about the Torah and Messiah. They only had a problem with the Gentiles being included without being circumcised and made to convert to Judaism!

It seems that the easiest thing for Paul to have done and the least dangerous way for him to fulfill his mission, was to enact the Matthew 28:19-20 mandate by converting Gentile disciples to Judaism! It would have solved all or at least most of his problems among the Jewish people. It would have been completely consistent with the practices of other branches of Judaism in his day. No one would have batted an eye.

So why didn’t he do that?

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

Acts 10:44-48 (NRSV)

If Peter thought that Cornelius and his Gentile household should be made to convert in order to enter into the Messianic movement, between the Gentiles receiving the Spirit and baptism by water, the males should have been circumcised. But he didn’t order this to be done. We have no record in the Bible that this was ever done to Cornelius, the males in his household, or any of the male Gentile disciples of the Messiah (you may disagree based on Timothy, but remember that Titus was a specific example of a Gentile not being circumcised, see Galatians 2:3).

Peter presented his experiences with Cornelius as legal testimony in the Acts 15 proceedings.

The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

Acts 15:6-11 (NRSV)

Peter saw first hand how Gentiles had their hearts cleansed by faith and received the Holy Spirit, even as the Jews did, but were not required to be circumcised and take on the full weight of the Torah in the manner of the Jews (for my opinion on the full implications of the Acts 15 decision on the Gentile disciples, see my multi-part Return to Jerusalem series).

john-the-naziriteMost Christians believe that what Paul did was to abandon the Torah and teach other Jews to do so, as well as teaching the Gentiles that grace replaced the Law. Paul denied this during multiple legal hearings and I don’t believe he was lying. Some people believe that Paul obligated the Gentile disciples to the full weight of the Torah mitzvot in the manner of the Jews without requiring them to convert, but my understanding of the NT record makes this unlikely as well (For more on this, see The Evidence of Luke and The Evidence of Acts 15).

It is also apparent, although it would have been the easiest option for Paul to use, that he did not require the Gentiles to convert to Judaism in order to become members of “the Way.” If that were his tactic, then I seriously believe very few Gentiles would have gone that route, which would have severely inhibited if not stopped cold dead the spread of the good news of the Jewish Messiah among the Gentiles.

Go to Acts 15:30-31 to find the statement supporting how the Gentiles felt about not having to be circumcised and not being obligated to take on the full weight of the Law which, as Peter said, was “a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear.” To force the full yoke of Torah upon the Gentile disciples, Peter said, would be “putting God to the test.” which, as we’ve already learned, is a “no-no.”

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Luke 4:12 (Deut. 6:16)

It might have been easier on Paul and easier on the Jewish people involved in “the Way” to have accepted a message of the good news that included Gentiles actually converting to Judaism, but I don’t think that’s what God wanted. From what I can tell, it would have severely inhibited mass Gentile adoption of faith in Messiah, if circumcision of the males and full adherence to the Law were necessary. It’s interesting to note that if those were indeed requirements, we probably wouldn’t have anything called “Christianity” today and we might even have (although this is debatable) a branch of Judaism that continued to worship a first century Rabbi/Prophet as Moshiach. If that were the case, Gentiles would be welcome to join that faith only if they were willing to convert, but otherwise, they would not be considered full members.

Given how few Gentiles convert to Judaism in the world today, how would the whole world be taught the good news of Messiah, come to faith, and believe? How would the Matthew 28:19-20 mandate be fulfilled?