Does the Bible say Christians boys should be Circumcised? A discussion about God’s covenants.

I have heard this question come up a good deal in my life as a Christian. The topic usually comes into question when Christians who desire to follow God’s Word find out they are having a child, as it did for me. I was asked about why I was not planning to circumcise my son since I was a Christian. I think the first thought for many Christians is that since the Bible talks about how the men (or boys) were circumcised in the Old Testament, we are still expected to do so now. However, the answer is clearly spelled out in several places in Scripture.

Why is the idea that Christian’s should circumcise their male children such a popular belief today in Christianity? I believe it stems from a lack of awareness or teaching on the intentional design God set in place that explains many of the differences between the Old and New Testament practices. I certainly didn’t have a full answer when I was asked.

This question is actually relevant to all Christians, male or female, with or without children! Understanding when circumcision was done and why are absolutely key to understanding this practice that is recorded in the Bible and whether it applies to us now. The answer is an important part of understanding the big picture of the Bible and applies to far more topics than just circumcision. There is a beautiful, overarching plan for mankind in God’s Word and circumcision is an important piece of God’s beautiful scheme of redemption through His covenants with His people that I would like to share with you.

So let’s flesh this out…(see what I did there).

Let’s get straight to the point! Here’s the answer…

We are simply going to start with the Scripture that asks our exact same question: Are Christian boys expected to be circumcised? The people of Galatia were wrestling with this very question and here is Paul’s answer (inspired by the Holy Spirit):

“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 ‭5:2-6 ‭

Sounds pretty harsh, huh? If this passage is difficult to understand, don’t worry. There is a lot we need to break down to understand why Paul answers this question so strongly with many warnings about how wrong it is to insist that circumcision is required.

Paul is making very clear that, “No! Circumcision is not required for Christians!” Paul goes even further to say that it is wrong to claim that circumcision is needed to become a Christian and the idea that circumcision is needed actually puts them in danger of being cut off from Christ! There are actually at least 3 more passages that state the same answer to different audiences (Acts 15, Galatians 5-6, Colossians 2-3). But why? It certainly used to be required…why has that changed?

These are the questions I hope to equip you to answer for yourself and others because they are foundational to understanding God’s overarching plan for mankind. Any Old Testament/Covenant practice needs to be understood in light of the outline we are going to use here.

Circumcision was first established with a Covenant:

To fully understand circumcision in the Bible, it is important to understand that it was not established right away…for example, Noah didn’t have this requirement. The practice of circumcision is first introduced during the time of Abraham, which is about 1500 years after the Creation. Although we read about it very early in the writings of the Bible (Gen 12-19), there is actually quite a bit of time that has passed before God established this practice.

God made a covenant with Abraham because of his faith. Circumcision was established by God as a sign of this covenant. A covenant is similar to a promise but that may be a bit too informal of a word. It is an official commitment, similar to a contract or a will (which is the example used in the book of Hebrews), though it does not have to be written down. God has made many different covenants with His people over time, but we are going to focus on what the Bible calls the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.

Though it’s a long read, listen to God as He reaffirms this covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17:

“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be blameless. And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and I will multiply you exceedingly.”

Then Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying, “As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, And you shall be a father of many nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the father of many nations.

I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.” Genesis 17:1-9

The covenant was passed down in Abraham’s family but only through his promised son, Issac and then only to his son, Jacob (who God renamed Israel) and all of Jacob’s descendants–called Israelites. The Scriptures often reference the “God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob” to remind the Israelites of this covenant with them. They are considered the forefathers of the nation of Israel.

God promised Abraham many blessings as a part of this covenant that God chose to make with him. If you are part of the covenant with Abraham, then you are also part of the promises of the covenant! Let’s take a moment to outline what those promises were from the Scriptures above:

1. A great nation. Many descendants.

2. A special land: Canaan.

3. Blessings for Abraham and his descendants and curses for those who curse them.

4. An everlasting Covenant (Gen 17) or phrased another way “All nations will be blessed by Abraham’s seed” (Gen 12)

When God confirm the covenant with Abraham, He instructed Abraham to circumcise every male in his household, even the servants. In addition, all children born of the covenant would be circumcised on the 8th day. Circumcision was the physical sign that you were a part of the Covenant between God and the forefathers, by lineage.

Listen to God speak to Abraham about the significance of circumcision in this covenant with Abraham:

“And God said 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, anyone 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.” Gen 17:9-14

The warning at the end of the reading from Genesis makes very clear that if you do not get circumcised, then you have broken the covenant and will be cut off from God’s people.

God keeps His promises!

Of course, God fulfilled all of the promises He made to Abraham and the Israelites. God was working out a far bigger plan that simply to stop there. I’ve outlined these completed promises below:

Promise #1 – A great nation: While the Israelites were in Egypt, they became a great nation. (Exodus 1:7) Unfortunately, they also became slaves to Pharaoh.

Promise #2 – A special land: Caanan: God rescued His people, the Israelites, from slavery in Egypt and planned to bring them into the land of Canaan.

Once God freed His people from Egypt, He established the Law. God gave Moses the Law (on tablets) and the Israelites were supposed to follow them. These laws incorporated the civil requirements of the Covenant with Abraham (sanctuary cities, the method of justice, etc), but also included a significant amount of ceremonial law regarding the construction and use of the Tabernacle and sacrifices to God.

The Israelites added the detour of wandering in the wilderness for 40 years because of their disobedience, but they eventually received the promised land (Joshua 21:43,45).

“For he remembered his sacred promise to his servant Abraham. So he brought his people out of Egypt with joy, his chosen ones with rejoicing. He gave his people the lands of pagan nations, and they harvested crops that others had planted.” Psalm 105:42-44

Promise #3 – Blessings and Cursings: God was with the nation of Israel and protected them during this time. God enabled them to win their battles against anyone they fought so long as they were following God. Their allies were often blessed by God due to their association with Israel. Those who tried to thwart the Israelites, were usually cursed or killed. The story of Balaam in Numbers 22-24 is a good example. An enemy King asked Balaam to curse Israel and God instead had Balaam bless Israel and curse the King.

Promise #4 – The everlasting Covenant: This is obviously a continuing promise rather than an item you can check off, but it also alludes to the idea that more nations than just the Israelites would be blessed (Gen 12). It is quite clear that the Israelites did not fully understand how this Covenant would evolve to accomplish the blessings of all nations, but they were called to be a light to the world through their example, so in some sense, the nations were considered blessed if they were on good terms with Israel.

Before he dies, Joshua confirms that all the promises have been fulfilled within about 600 years of the initial Covenant being established. Joshua also reminds them of what will happen if they don’t keep the Covenant with God.

“Now I am about to go the way of all the earth. You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed. But just as all the good things the Lord your God has promised you have come to you, so he will bring on you all the evil things he has threatened, until the Lord your God has destroyed you from this good land he has given you. If you violate the covenant of the Lord your God, which he commanded you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them, the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and you will quickly perish from the good land he has given you.” Joshua 23:14-16

We can see how significant circumcision and the covenant were to God and to His people, the Israelites during this time. Anyone who was an Israelite (descendant of Jacob and circumcised) was expected to follow God’s law and by doing so would be a light to the other nations. However, it didn’t take the Israelites very long to lose most of the good things God had blessed them with. Their disobedience most of this time resulted in their nickname as a “rebellious and stiff-necked people”. Instead of being the light God had purposed them to be, God’s name was blasphemed because of them (Romans 2:24).

Generally, the Bible later refers to this covenant with Abraham as the “Old Covenant” and the laws given to the people of the covenant about 500 years later as the “Old Law” or simply “the Law”. Those who were part of the Old Covenant were later called Jew/Jewish. Anyone outside of the covenant was considered a Gentile.

So there is a significant historical precedent from God that required circumcision. What changed?

The Time of Christ

About 2000 years after the Covenant with Abraham was established and ~1500 years after the law was given to the Israelites, Christ came! It is worth noting that the practices of the Israelites during this time had changed quite a bit and the Law they followed didn’t look very much like God had laid out for them in the beginning. They had been in captivity and lost the scrolls of the Law for entire generations and their religious leaders had become intertwined with the government and its power…a sure way to fall astray.

The eternal covenant God references in the 4th promise to Abraham is the path that God used to bring Christ. It is no coincidence that God used this phrase to Abraham when making the covenant with him. He knew that He would be bringing Jesus through that lineage.

“Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus” Hebrews 13:20

Christians obviously recognize many of the significant changes that took place when Christ came, but there is much more depth to this conversation as it relates to God’s covenants. Jesus was the next (and most important) part of God’s overarching plan! Jesus is the culmination of God’s plan to bless all nations, the 4th promise to Abraham and He ushered in a New Covenant (Hebrews 9:15) that was always intended to replace the Old one.

The prophet Jeremiah spoke of God’s plan to replace the Old Covenant in the Old Testament.

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Jeremiah 31:31-34

The Church – Christians (Jew & Gentile!)

By the time of Jesus, the Israelites (Jews) had become very segregated from Gentiles (non-Jews), partly justified by the law and partly of their own making. Jews were expected to avoid the Gentiles and (in the case of entering the promised land) destroy them completely (which they often did not do) because they often led them astray into idol worship. In the beginning, the Gospel was preached only to the Jews.

After Jesus died and was resurrected, Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah became followers of Christ, Christians. Those Jews who did not believe that, continued according to the Old Covenant as if the Messiah had not yet come, with some of them continuing to attack those preaching about Jesus as blasphemers. Paul (an eventual Apostle) was one of them.

Ephesians tells us that God’s plan to bring Christ was established before the foundation of the world (1:4)! The Jews may not have understood that the Messiah would be God in the flesh and He would save them from sin, but they were most certainly looking for the promised Messiah that was promised throughout the Old Testament who God promised would restore their kingdom.

God’s eternal purpose was to prove His wisdom to the heavenly places through the Church (Christians) (3:12)! And one of the parts that wasn’t revealed until the 1st century, but always part of the plan, was that Gentiles (non-Jews) were intended to be brought together in one body all along (3:6)!

“This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” Ephesians 3:6

Peter‘s dream (Acts 10:9-16) and Paul’s commission to preach to the Gentiles (Acts 9-28) were the first confirmations of God’s purpose to include the Gentiles being revealed to the people. Thinking back to that 4th promise of the Old Covenant, it makes sense that the promise was hinting at including all nations through Christ. Christ was a descendant of Abraham, his seed. Christ is the culmination of God’s scheme of redemption that God planned to bless all nations by dying to remove our sins.

While the Jews thought that the Old Covenant was all about them, they didn’t realize it was only a stepping stone to God’s greater purpose. While the Old Covenant was only for the descendants of Abraham but promised a future blessing for all nations, the New Covenant is the blessing of Christ and it is available for anyone, regardless of lineage. We are all God’s special people now that Christ has come (See my blog on this topic here). We shouldn’t be surprised that it was part of God’s plan all along: to restore us all as His people if we will follow Him.

“Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” Ephesians 2:12

“For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” Romans 15:8

When Christians accepted God’s clear expectation that Jesus made a relationship with God accessible for all people, and not just the Jews, they began to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, but they still didn’t really understand how the Gentiles would join the Covenant yet.

Welcoming Gentiles into Christianity produced a lot of questions about what Christians were supposed to follow. It was also very difficult for everyone to get along since they mostly hated each other. The Apostles and disciples worked through these answers and problems guided by the Holy Spirit and they are recorded in many of the New Testament letters beginning in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, which outlines the start of the Church!

This difficult transition to becoming unified in Christ is the underpinning of the entire New Testament, frankly. It was confusing for everyone in the time of the early Church because they were learning that Jesus’s coming and His death signified a change in almost everything about their religion. (See my blog about Letting go of religion to become wholly Christian).

Since God required circumcision as a sign of being part of the Old Covenant between God and Abraham, some Jewish Christians understandably expected that Gentiles would need to get circumcised to become Christians. After all, if Gentiles were originally intended by God to be brought into the Covenant through the promise to bless all nations, then they would need to be circumcised to be a part of it, right? They thought that since it was required for them in the covenant to Abraham, that it would continue to be necessary to follow Christ also.

Can we still follow the commands of the Old Covenant?

This principle applies to far more than just the command about circumcision, things like: eating unclean meats, Jewish festivals, sacrifices and the Temple, and the whole Old Law. Are Christians bound by the commands/laws of the Old Law given to Moses? Or put even more broadly “What laws in the Bible are still required today?”

I began this post with the Scripture in which the Apostle Paul responds to those in Galatia that circumcision is not required and if someone imposes the requirements of the Old Law, they are “under obligation to keep the whole Law” and “seeking to be justified by Law” (Gal 5:3, 4).

Remember that “the Law” is referring to the Old Law (also called the Law of Moses), which was given to all the Israelites to follow as part of their Covenant with God. They had the sign of the covenant (circumcision) in the same way that we would be expected to sign our name to a contract today, which commits us to follow all aspects of the contract. Galatians 5 says, if we attempt to keep one part of the Old Law, then we have to keep the whole law.

The Old Law had many purposes. It exposed sin and made us aware of our need to be justified (Romans 7:7). In fact, the Old Law was mostly about recognizing sin and outlining the punishment for sins (Heb 10:28). But it did not remove their sin. At best, it reminded them of sin and covered it up. The Old Law couldn’t save us (Hebrews 10:4) and was never intended to. We are not justified by the Law (as Galatians 5 emphasizes) but by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

In Matthew 5:17, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

God already told the people that a New Covenant was coming (see Jeremiah 31:31 above). They were expected to leave the Old Covenant behind because it had been replaced. We are freed from the old law by Christ’s fulfillment of it and must now completely switch over to the New Covenant. The Old Covenant is obselete (Hebrews 8:13).

So why is it such a big deal to clarify that circumcision isn’t required for Christians? Because it reverts back to the Old Law (or the old contract) before Christ which can’t save us. It ignores the purpose of the Old Covenant which pointed to Christ! We would not continue to uphold an older version of a contract that has been updated. Once a contract has been modified, it supersedes the old one and the old one is pointless.

If you try to impose one part of the contract, you are essentially arguing that the whole contract is still in force. This is the same thing that Jews who rejected the Messiah were doing…continuing on as if the Messiah had not yet come because they refused to believe that Jesus is Him. We, as Christians, cannot be a part of the Old Covenant and still proclaim Christ!

Attempting to enforce parts of the Old Law requires you keep all of it and that would be like pretending that Christ hadn’t come yet! It begins to make sense why not reverting back to the “Old Law” is treated so seriously. It is equivalent to rejecting Jesus! Hebrews 8-10 and Romans 6-7 reaffirm this same message that we cannot apply the Old Law anymore.

Understanding this foundation of the transition between the covenants helps us to understand not only circumcision, but why we are not under any of the laws associated with the Old Covenant and the Old Law. We need to transition to the New Covenant and not revert back! That is true whether you are talking about the old ways of the Temple, animal sacrifices and many others.

Back to the Promises…

Since the Old Covenant is done away with, do we still have the same promises? Yes, but with some important updates based on the New Covenant, a spiritual Kingdom with Christ as our King!

Promise #1 – A great nation: We are God’s chosen people (1 Peter 2:9) and our numbers will continue to grow for all who choose to follow Christ! A great nation indeed!

“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” Revelation 7:9

Promise #2 – A promised land: The Kingdom of Heaven! Hebrews 3-4 compares the Israelites entering the promised land (a place of rest) to our ability as Christians to enter a final place of rest…Heaven! This promised land is spiritual! We need to remember that the New Covenant is a spiritual Kingdom and the physical land of Canaan is no longer intended. The Temple and the Promised Land have a fulfilled meaning in the new Covenant and we shouldn’t attempt to associate it to the physical place any longer.

Promise #3 – Blessings and Cursings: The true nation of Israel in the New Covenant now includes all children of God, Jew and Gentile (Romans 9:6, Ephesians 3:6)! The blessings and cursing of the spiritual Kingdom aren’t associated with the Jews lineage anymore. They are intended for Christians. God will bless those in Christ!

Promise #4 – The everlasting Covenant: All nations truly are blessed by the grace of God to bring Jesus for salvation. This everlasting Covenant, in the fullness that God planned from the beginning, will always be available for all who choose.

So is there a sign for the New Covenant?

Paul explains that just like the Old Covenant had a sign (circumcision), so does the New Covenant…

and in Him [Christ] you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” -Colossians‬ ‭2:11-14‬

Baptism is the sign of the New Covenant!

The seal of the New Covenant is baptism. As circumcision signified the Israelites’ covenant with God, if we desire to signify that we follow the New Covenant, we should be baptized. The Bible doesn’t say that we need to be circumcised to be God’s people anymore, but it does say that we need to be baptized.

Most every conversion to Christianity after Jesus’s death (Jew or Gentile) discusses that they were immediately baptized (see Acts).

So instead of asking if Christians will circumcise their children, maybe we should reconsider our question and ask ourselves, am I a part of the New Covenant with Christ? We remember what God said about those who did not have the sign of the Old Covenant…they had broken it.

A few asides:

What if I already circumcised my child?

As Paul said in his letter to Galatia, circumcision doesn’t mean anything so it isn’t a problem to be circumcised, but it is also not necessary. You can now assess any future determinations of circumcision based on your preference without reason to be concerned that you are doing something wrong according to your religion! Help spread the word about the New Covenant and not holding to any aspects of the Old Law to future parents and anyone else who wants to understand why we don’t hold to the Old Testament ways anymore!

What about the example of Timothy?

Let’s talk about one more passage where the Bible discusses circumcision because it almost seems contradictory to what I just outlined and is worth analyzing. Paul, the same author of the letter to Galatia you read above, allows the circumcision of Timothy. Doesn’t this contradict the idea that Christians shouldn’t be circumcised?

Well, no. Timothy had a Jewish mother and a Greek father, and though he was considered a Jew by birth, he had never been circumcised. His Jewish mother should have required him to be circumcised because of her lineage, but Timothy had failed to obey until that point . As our text in Genesis 17 points out, if you do not receive circumcision, you have broken the covenant. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him and Paul was teaching about Jesus to the Jews in the synagogues. It is presumed that Paul had him circumcised to accomplish a couple of goals: to fulfill the initial requirement that Timothy was born into as part of the Old Covenant, and to avoid issues with Timothy entering the synagogue from those who knew he was uncircumcised. This is a generation of transition between the two covenants. However, it is abundantly clear that it had nothing to do with becoming a Christian and Paul and Timothy both knew that (Acts 16:1-3).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s