Many people have a wee bit of misunderstanding about circumcision. I know it might not be "cutting-edge" news, but the apostle Paul did offer some cutting remarks about it:
“Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker. A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God." (Romans 2:25-29 NIV)
But the Bible isn’t my Mom… and surprisingly to many of us, the Bible regularly, and rather bluntly, reveals some things that are otherwise kept where the sun don't shine. Circumcision as a topic is a frequent and important visitor to biblical pages… and yet the modern Christian doesn't care to spend much time on the practice… Perhaps it's too awkard or uncomfortable or embarrassing…
Circumcision was meant to be a dramatic outward, physical indicator that Israel was set apart as people with a unique relationship with God. In Genesis 17, God instructs Abraham (at 99 years old) to undergo circumcision… and to be sure that all of his descendents in perpetuity would be circumcised… as “a sign of the covenant between” God and Abraham. And in God’s instructions to Abraham, any of his male descendents who did not experience the “cut” of circumcision would be “cut” off from God’s people. God intended circumcision as a means by which people could demonstrate visibly and quite-personally their intimate dedication to God. And I’m sure it was meant to serve as a reminder of that dedication too.
Interesting to note, however, that circumcision as a biblical practice automatically cut out 50% of the population. Circumcision was a symbol required of men only (notably, therefore, excluding the brutality of clitoridectomy). Circumcision was not, nor could not, be evidence of salvation because it was intended to be evidenced in only half the population as a sign. Circumcision was not to be worn as an entrance badge or some kind of secret handshake for the club. Circumcision was a practice of "ineradicable nature" that "symbolized the enduring, irrevocable nature of the covenant” (Sarna, JPS Commentary: Genesis, 1989). Circumcision was a permanent mark meant to demonstrate a permanent commitment. Circumcision disallowed a person to go back to the way things used to be and blend into the crowd once more. All excess has been cast off, so to speak, and what’s left is dedicated to God. The intention was that Jewish men would live fully circumcised lives— namely, a covenant relationship with God— namely again, a life lived in a committed, mutual, personal relationship with God.
This “symbol” took on its fulfilled meaning after Jesus’ resurrection. On the day Peter preached to thousands in Jerusalem, Acts 2 says that men were “cut to the heart”. This is another way of saying that men were circumcised spiritually, forever dramatically, visibly altered… and they would never be the same again.
So if you were Jewish, a descendent of Abraham, and if you were male, then Paul indicates that it is within reason for you to be circumcised. However, if you had been circumcised but lived in a way that was not cut-out for following God, then, honestly, if I may put this out there, Paul says, you lost a piece of yourself for nothing (lit. “your circumcision becomes uncircumcision”).
On the other hand, if you were a man who was physically uncircumcised, but you were careful to follow the patterns of God, then you were living as if you were truly circumcised in the tradition of Abraham. In fact, those who are not circumcised and yet kept God’s commands, in effect, proved the unsalvation of those who were circumcised but disobeyed God. The idea was not physical mutilation, but truthful dedication to God, inwardly and outwardly, thoroughly, wholly.
Cut to the matter: Does circumcision garauntee salvation? Not at all— Religious ritual does not save anyone. So, then, is it wrong? Not at all— In it’s best sense, religious ritual is meant to be an outward sign of an inward transformation… a reminder, an indicator, a demonstration of dedication to God. But in the case of circumcision in Paul’s Jewish society, the practice yielded some spiritually infectious and sterilizing side-effects. People began to rely on their ritual(s) as proof of righteousness rather than on righteousness as an outflow of a living relationship with God.
Oh man, how does this apply to us today? I see a plethora of ways, actually—and here are my current top five lessons learned from Paul’s handling of circumcision:
1. There will be no “pat-down” as an entrance requirement at the Pearly Gates. You can’t snip your way into Heaven. You must cut off everything that hinders your relationship with God… just like everyone else… by circumcising your heart to the Lord… by allowing the Holy Spirit to cut to your heart so that God might reform you.
2. Going to church every Sunday morning in a suit with a Bible in your hand does you no good if you are not on mutual terms with God. I am not suggesting that you should go to church un-bathed in ratty jeans with lice in your hair either. But I am saying this: While people look at the outward appearance, God looks at the heart (1 Sam 16:7).
3. Don’t judge the guy who doesn’t follow the “proper” religious rituals… Perhaps that guy follows God’s commands better than you. So don’t bother debating who is saved and who is not saved… because your arrogance and pride, not to mention your reliance on your flesh over your soul, might prove you to be inferior in the eyes of God.
4. The Bible is really actually very interesting, if not a bit embarrassing, to read sometimes. In the ancient languages, the Bible doesn’t tend to hide words like our English translations do. All throughout the Bible, there are phrases that make us cringe (e.g. “You shall circumcise the flesh of your [own] foreskin” in Genesis 17:14).
5. Finally, You either have been or you haven’t been. You can’t pretend in the end. You may fool other people because you don’t show them your hidden condition… but God can see whether you have or have not been cut— He can see even right through all those layers of covering you are wearing. Paul puts it this way in Romans 2:29: “You are a Jew if you are one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God.” It is God who knows… not the moyel.