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PAUL'S ANSWER TO CIRCUMCISION

A Brief Survey of the Book of Galatians

In the Book of Galatians, Paul answers the question: "Is it necessary to be circumcised in order to be saved?" (Acts 15:1). Why did Paul feel compelled to answer this question? Simply because this question was of primary importance to believers of the early church, both Jewish and Gentile (Gal 2:1-5).

Paul's letter is addressed to the churches of Galatia (Gal. 1:2) where there were both Jewish and Gentile believers. Some of the Jewish believers incorrectly taught the Gentile believers that they must be circumcised:

Gal. 6:12-13: "As many as desire to make a good showing in the flesh, these try to compel you to be circumcised, only that they may not suffer persecution for the cross of Christ. For not even those who are circumcised keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may glory in your flesh."

Apparently, these Jewish believers did not keep the whole law, but still believed that circumcision was necessary. Such was the importance of circumcision in the mind of some Jewish believers.

A similar problem had occurred in Antioch, and we read of this in Acts 15. The Jerusalem conference was called to settle this question of circumcision. A letter was written to the Gentile believers, to be delivered by Paul and Barnabas, accompanied by Judas and Silas. It is interesting to note verse 24:

Acts 15:24: "... we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, 'You must be circumcised and keep the law' -- to whom we gave no such commandment ..."

We see, then, that it was not the apostles at Jerusalem who had sent these men to tell the Gentiles at Antioch that they must be circumcised. Rather, these men from Judea had taken it upon themselves to do this. The same was the case in the churches of Galatia. Certain ones had taken it upon themselves to spread this wrong teaching regarding circumcision.

With this background information in mind, let us consider what are Paul's main points in defence of the true teaching regarding circumcision.

1. Neither Circumcision nor Uncircumcision

Paul emphasises the superiority of faith, love, and the new creation. By comparison, neither the rite of circumcision nor uncircumcision holds any benefit for the believer:

Gal. 5:6: "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love."

Gal. 6:15: "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation."

Paul considers this so important, that he restates it in his letter to the Colossians:

Col 3:9-11: "Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all."

We here learn of a connection between the new creation of Gal. 6:15 and the new man of Col. 3:10 -- in both cases neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any importance whatsoever.

2. Abraham's Seed

Related to this discussion of circumcision is the significance of Abraham's Seed, for it was to Abraham that the covenant of circumcision was given (Gen. 17:10; Rom. 4:11-12).

Gal. 3:26-29: "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise."

Once a believer has received the Holy Spirit and is thus "in Christ", there is no longer any importance attached to race, social status, or sex. In Christ, all believers are sons of God and heirs of promise. This is revolutionary teaching indeed!

We also notice above Paul's reference to Abraham's seed. This is full of significance:

Gal. 3:16: "Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, 'And to seeds', as of many, but as of one, 'And to your Seed,' who is Christ."

A believer must be "in Christ" to be considered of the seed of Abraham. Paul emphasizes this teaching:

Gal. 3:7: "Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham."

The true sons of Abraham are the faithful "in Christ". Considerations based on fleshly descent have been superseded. It is now necessary for even the Jew to believe in Jesus Christ to be saved:

Gal. 2:15-16: "We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, ... even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law" ...

3. The True Israel

Also related to Paul's discussion regarding circumcision is the discovery of the identity of the Israel of God, for it was commanded that every male Israelite be circumcised, or he would be "cut off from his people" (Gen. 17:10,14).

Gal. 6:15-16: "For what counts is neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, it is the new creation. On all who will be guided by this rule, may peace and mercy rest, even upon the Israel of God." [Moffatt]

In other words, Paul says that those who are among the true Israel are those who walk by this rule -- that what really counts is the new creation. For fleshly Israel, circumcision means everything; but for spiritual Israel, the new creation is the important thing. There is a connection here with Paul's mention of the Jerusalem above:

"but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. ... So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free."

The Jerusalem above is called the "mother of us all" -- that is, the mother of all believers. Who is the mother of all believers? I understand this to be a reference to the church. We would then see this analogy: God is the Father, Christ is the Son, and the Church is the Mother. In what sense is the church a mother? The church nourishes her children (believers) since she is "the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). We also see the church depicted, in symbol, as a mother who gives birth to a male Child who will "rule all nations with a rod of iron" (Rev. 12:1-5). Christ is presented as the "firstborn among many brethren" (Rom. 8:29).

4. Righteousness by Faith

Paul also teaches righteousness by faith, rather than by works of the law:

Gal. 3:24: "Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith."

Gal. 5:5: "For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith."

Gal. 5:22-23: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self- control. Against such there is no law."

Conclusion

In the Book of Galatians, Paul settles the question regarding circumcision -- the rite of circumcision is not required for salvation, since "in Christ" all are justified by faith. This faith is imparted by the indwelling Holy Spirit.

Along with his dicussion of the true circumcision, Paul explains that all who are "in Christ" are members of the true Israel of God and are counted as the true sons of Abraham. That is, in Christ, circumcision, Israel, and the seed of Abraham take on a new, spiritual meaning.

For both Jewish and Gentile believers, "real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal" (Rom. 2:29, RSV). This whole argument of the book of Galatians can best be summarized in one verse from the book of Philippians:

Phil 3:3: "For we are the true circumcision, who worship God in spirit, and glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh." (RSV)

[All scriptural quotations are taken from the NKJV unless marked otherwise.]

© Copyright 1996 by Deborah Cox

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