We have all probably wrestled with this question: of all the signs and symbols that God could have chosen, why on earth did he have to choose circumcision (Genesis 17)? What is with all the seemingly unnecessary pain? Baptism makes sense (symbolizes cleansing), the rainbow makes sense (symbolizes peace), and the Lord’s Supper makes sense (symbolizes body and blood). But, does circumcision make sense? I can just picture Abraham’s face after God told him to cut off his foreskin. “Umm... you want me to... what?”
Phoenix Seminary Professor Dr. John Meade recently wrote a chapter titled “Circumcision of the Flesh to Circumcision of the Heart: The Typology of the Sign of the Abrahamic Covenant” which appears in the book “Progressive Covenentalism” and is published by B&H Academic. Below I will summarize some of the points that he makes in that chapter. I will give some background to the ways in which Abraham’s neighbors viewed circumcision, then I will demonstrate the different ways in which it carried meaning in the Old Testament, and finally, I will demonstrate its connection to the New Testament and the church today. Ultimately, I want you to clearly see that circumcision is about devotion to God.
Abraham spent time in Egypt, which archaeologists and historians have found to have practiced circumcision well before Abraham. With the vast majority of the symbols in scripture, God does not simply create them out of nothing, but rather he reinterprets and repackages the symbols of the surrounding culture(s) to make significant points in his people. In Egypt, the clearest evidence we find indicates that circumcision was a rite that was reserved and obligatory for the king and those serving in his court (i.e. the priests and family members). For those who underwent circumcision, it was viewed as an initiation sign for those were devoted to service of the “god”. Circumcision identified the royalty and clergy as ones who belonged to and were devoted to the service of their deity.
In God’s providence and wisdom, he chose to reveal the special relationship Abraham and his family would have with him through the already familiar cultural and religious category of Egyptian circumcision of royalty and priesthood. The sign of circumcision intended to mark out Abraham and his family as devoted to the service of Yahweh and his kingdom. Such a sign was perfect for this covenant people whom God would use to extend his blessing to the nations (Genesis 12:1-3). The external sign of inward devotion to God was not enough, however: their hearts were still stubborn and wicked (Jer 7:24) and their hearts were not circumcised (Jeremiah 9:25)! So God spoke of a True and Greater circumcision—an inward one: circumcision of the heart. Deuteronomy spoke of a people who were to love God with all their hearts (6:5); and then speaks twice of a future reality in which God will heal their hearts through “circumcision” (10:16, 30:6). Even within the Old Testament, circumcision of the flesh was a picture of the greater future reality: being devoted to God at the heart level.
Some would argue that we should make a connection between circumcision (Old Testament) and baptism (New Testament), but this misses the symbolic progression of Old Testament itself. The New Testament texts that speak to this issue reinforce that heart circumcision is a reality tied to the coming of the Spirit and union with Christ (Rom. 2:29; Phil. 3:3; Col. 2:11). In this the New Testament is in complete continuity with the Old Testament development of circumcision that Yahweh would circumcise the hearts of the people (Deut. 30:6), would write the law on their hearts (Jer. 31:31-34) and replace their stony hearts with fleshly hearts (Ezek. 36:22-36) with the result that the people of God would be loyal to him and obey him. This is fundamentally what it means to be Born Again (John 3:1-21) and converted: to be circumcised and sealed by the Holy Spirit in the heart.
If you are in Christ, “you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands” (Col 3:11) and the center of your being is now devoted to serving the Lord.
Are you devoted to the Lord? Would anything be able to shake that devotion? If you are circumcised in the heart, this cannot be the case! I pray that we as a people would live in light of the beautiful covenant that God has made with us by the blood of Jesus Christ!
Seth Troutt is a graduate of Phoenix Seminary (MDiv), a doctoral student at Covenant Seminary, and a pastor at Redemption Gateway in Mesa, AZ.