The physical act of circumcision was a sign of the covenant between of God and Israel in which he had chosen them and promised to be their God for all generations (Gen 17:10-11; Acts 7:8). In this act, the foreskin of a male child’s penis was removed (Lev 12:3). More rarely, circumcision was performed on adults. When God made his covenant promises to Abraham, he insisted that they be sealed with the physical reminder that the Israelites were a people set apart. Those who failed to comply with this condition were excluded from covenant community (Gen 17:14; Exod 12:48).
CIRCUMCISION IN THE OLD TESTEAMENT CULTURE
Interestingly, circumcision existed in other cultures in Old Testament times. Most of the surrounding nations, including Egypt, participated in the practice. The significance of circumcision in these other cultures in unclear, although it did not seem to be practice among infants, so perhaps it was a rite of passage during puberty. The Philistines were the only one of Israel’s immediate neighbors who were uncircumcised, and that is why Saul was able to demand that David bring back one hundred foreskins as the bride-price for Michal (1 Sam 18:25). The Old Testament refers to the Philistines and other people as “uncircumcised,” meaning that they were wicked and godless (Gen 34:14; 1 Sam 14:6; 17:36).
Circumcision was a symbol of belonging to the people of God and adherence to covenant regulations, but it was not always practiced in Jewish history. During the wandering in the wilderness it was neglected, perhaps because the nation had broken their covenant with God. When the Israelites entered the Promised Land they circumcised all those who had been born in the wilderness (Josh 5:2-9).
The Hebrew nation took great pride in circumcision and looked down on anyone who was uncircumcised. Instead of reaching out to other nations as God intended, they though of themselves as spiritually superior. Because circumcision was a symbol of being right with God those who were uncircumcised were assumed to be outside the circle of God’s love. Such exclusivity was never God’s intention. The symbol he gave as a reminder of his covenantal love became a cause of sin.
CIRCUMCISION OF THE HEART
Although circumcision is physical sign, its true meaning is spiritual. Moses and the prophets used the term circumcised to refer to purity of heart. It was a symbol of being repentant and eager to obey. The physical act was intended to be an expression of inward obedience, and in those cases where the outward obedience was not matched by inward heart change, a circumcised person was no better off than an uncircumcised person. A good example of this symbolic use of the word is Leviticus 26:41-42: “if they humble their uncircumcised hearts and accept their guilt, I will remember my promise to Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham. I will also remember the land. “Similarly, Jeremiah said of rebellious Israel, “Even though these nations are circumcised, all Israel has uncircumcised hearts” (Jer 9:26).
This symbolic meaning of circumcision cause controversy in the early church. Jewish believers tried to insist that Gentile converts submits to circumcision in order to be admitted to the church (Acts 15). The Jerusalem council settled the matter, stating, “Why are you testing God? You’re putting a burden on the disciples, a burden neither our ancestors nor we can carry.
We certainly believe that the Lord Jesus saves us the same way that he saves them-through his kindness” (vs 10-11). Paul reaffirmed this decision in Romans 4: “Abraham’s faith was the basis of his approval by God while he was still uncircumcised. . . .Therefore, he is the father of every believer who is not circumcised, and their faith, too, is regarded as the basis of their approval by God” (v 11).
Circumcision was of no value apart from a repentant and obedient heart (Rom 2:25-26). The symbol of circumcision points to the truth of salvation through faith alone. It is an old covenant symbol whose failure to ultimately save points to the need for a new covenant. And as is the case with many Old Testament symbols, this physical act of worship is replaced in the new covenant with a spiritual act-circumcision of the body is replaced with circumcision of the heart (Gal 6:15).
But their is also a New Testament sacrament that is an outward symbol like circumcision, an external sign on the body of the internal change that takes place at salvation. That sacrament, of course, is baptism. Colossians 2:11-12 makes this explicit: “In him you were also circumcised. It was not a circumcision performed by human hands. But it was a removal of the corrupt nature in the circumcision performed by Christ. This happened when you were placed in the tomb with Christ through baptism. In baptism you were also brought back to life with Christ through faith in the power of God, who brought him back to life.” Although the importance of circumcision centered on the internal state of the heart toward God, it was still a helpful sign and symbol, and so God provided a new covenant substitute in baptism.