DIG: Why do you think God chose circumcision to ratify his covenant with Abraham? What does circumcision demonstrate (15:6, 17:1 see Romans 4:9-12)?
REFLECT: If circumcision is no longer required of God’s people, what is required of us today (see Galatians 5:6)? Circumcision then did not confer salvation any more than baptism does today, yet that truth is often missed in both Jewish and Christian circles. Why? What does circumcision of the heart mean to you?
Then God said to Abraham His servant: As for you, you must keep My covenant. This is the loving response to the seven I wills in 17:1-8. God is not saying His promises are conditional; they are not, but the principle is that unconditional promises of God demand a response from us. It is the same principle as our salvation. We are saved unconditionally. We are saved by grace through faith, and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9). In response to God’s love for us we should keep His commandments. Jesus said: Whoever has My commandments and obeys them, he is the one who loves Me (John 14:21); whether we obey them or not, our salvation is secure (John 6:37-40, 10:27:30), but God still expects us to act in loving response to His gift of salvation (James 2:18-26), and that is the principle that is at work here.
The recipients of the covenant would be Abraham and his descendants for the generations to come (17:9). His new name pointed ahead to his descendants. As long as Jewish history continued, this would a practice that must be performed. God had pledged to do His part in the covenant. Now He gave Abraham a means by which he and his descendants would keep their part of the covenant.289 God said: This is My covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep; every male among you shall be circumcised (17:10).
You are to undergo circumcision, or cutting around, and it will be the sign of the covenant between Me and you (17:11). This was a permanent decision. There was no going back. Like God’s covenant with Noah, God’s covenant with Abraham would have a sign. In God’s covenant with Noah the sign was the rainbow, and in God’s covenant with Abraham the sign is circumcision. This sign would require the shedding of blood. This would be a perpetual reminder to walk in His ways, it being, as it were, the master’s seal on his servant. There would be a constant reminder that it is a blood covenant (15:7-21). The rabbis teach that the angels take this blood and store it in a special place. When God is angry with Israel, He looks at this blood and has mercy upon them. Circumcision was not particularly unique in the ancient world no more than it is particularly unique in the present world. There is something else that makes it unique.
What makes Jewish circumcision unique is the timing. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised even if it is on the Sabbath (17:12a). The rabbis teach that God swore to Abraham that all of his descendants who were circumcised would not be sent into hell. They teach that Abraham stands before God guarding the way so that none of his descendants, bearing the mark of circumcision, would enter the place of divine punishment. However, if a Jew dies without repentance, special angels come and attach his foreskin. He is therefore uncircumcised and can go into hell. Abraham does not help him because he is uncircumcised.
God told Abraham that every Jew was to be circumcised, including those servants born in your household or slaves bought with money from a foreigner after they were born – those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised (17:12b-13a).
Circumcision was practiced elsewhere in the ancient Near East, but here it achieved a new meaning: My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant (17:13b). Prominent Jews in the New Testament like John the Baptist (Luke 1:59-60), Jesus (Luke 2:21), Paul (Philippians 3:5) and Timothy were all circumcised (Acts 16:1-3).
If anyone did not identify himself or his children with that physical sign, he would be cut off from God’s covenant.290 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant (17:14). The phrase, cut off, signifies a premature death. There is a play on words here and it goes like this: If the foreskin is not cut off, he will be cut off. An example of this would be where God struck Moses with a deadly illness of plague because he had failed to circumcise his second son. Only when his wife Zipporah intervenes and has her son circumcised is the life of Moses spared (Exodus 4:24-26). So the failure of circumcision required a cutting off.
On the other hand, circumcision of the flesh did not and cannot guarantee salvation. For in Christ neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love (Galatians 5:6). People in the Old Testament were saved exactly like people today are saved, by faith. Important as it was, circumcision was only an outward symbol for the Jews. It was not proof of salvation. The Jerusalem Counsel ended all debate by removing circumcision as a requirement for Gentile believers (Acts 15:1-29). Therefore, circumcision is circumcision of the heart (Romans 2:28-29). The true mark of a child of God is not an outward symbol, such as circumcision, but the condition of the heart.291
Abraham and all those of his household did not circumcise themselves to become members of the blood covenant. They did it because they already were members of the blood covenant. Circumcision for them represented the same thing that good works represent for us today. Good works are not necessary for salvation; they are a result of salvation (James 2:14-26). Therefore, both Gentiles who believe without being circumcised, as well as those Jews who are circumcised both physically and spiritually, may claim Abraham as their father in the faith (Romans 4:9-12, 16-17).