Circumcision is not something you’ll find most Christians talking about around the dinner table–and that’s understandable. In addition to the societal awkwardness involved with speaking about cutting away the flesh from the male reproductive organ, there are several reasons why circumcision does not enter into many of our theological conversations. The first is the fact that it has been replaced with baptism as the sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace. In the Old Testament, the Covenant people were commanded to bear the sign of circumcision. In the New, they are to receive the sign of baptism. There is an evident replacement of the sign of the covenant (see Col. 2:11-12). The second reason why circumcision does not enter into our theological discussions is that in most of the contexts in which it is spoken of in the New Testament, it is spoken of in negative terms. The apostles were constantly refuting a Jewish legalism that was built on the insistence that circumcision and law-keeping were necessary for salvation (Acts 15:1, 5, Galatians 2; 6:11-15, etc). The unbelieving Jews trusted in their covenantal status, as well as their own efforts to keep the law, for salvation. In Acts 15:1 the Judaizers were telling the Gentile Christians, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Salvation–in the fullest sense of the word–(which was always, and only, by faith in Christ) was said to be on account of being Jewish and keeping the law (Acts 15:5). According to the Judaizers, Circumcision was the first of many laws one must keep in order to be saved (Galatians 5:3). Other reasons include a lack of a knowledge of the Old Testament, a devaluation of typology, a failure to understand the internal/external administration of the covenant, and the lack of a biblical theology that finds the realization of all preparatory ceremonies in Jesus Christ.
Bearing the sign of circumcision meant induction into the covenant community during the period of OT revelation. Because the Apostle Paul made it abundantly clear that circumcision was meaningless in the New Covenant, many New Testament believers never make any effort to understand the theological significance of it. The distinctive Jewishness of the covenantal sign has served to make it an object of misinterpretation and misuse. It was never meant to be a sign that taught that you had to be Jewish and to keep the law to be saved. In fact, the bloody nature of it showed that blood had to be shed for law-breakers. So, what was the theological significance of circumcision?
When God entered into covenant with Abraham, He gave him a sign of the covenant that would go on the flesh of all the male children of Israel (Gen. 17). It was, in a very real sense, a Divine tattoo. There was a permanency about it that would serve as a constant reminder of the covenantal promises of God. But, it was a sign. It pointed away from itself to something else. What it signified can be seen in three things: 1) Where the sign was applied, 2) the day on which it was applied, 3) the “cutting away” represented by the sign, and 4) the bloody nature of the sign.
The sign of circumcision was applied on the male reproductive organ–the place from which the corruption of the human nature was passed, generation by generation. While corruption did not only come from the male, the federal (representative) nature of the covenant was shown in the male headship that began with the federal headship of Adam in the Garden. Until the second Adam came, as the representative of the elect, the male representation marked the Covenant of Grace in redemptive history. Every time a male Israelite saw the mark of the covenant in the flesh he was to be reminded of the promise of God to take away the corruption of our sin due to the fallen sin nature.
The Lord commanded that the sign be put on the male children on the eighth day–a day of ceremonial and symbolic significance. On a seven-day week structure (instituted by God) the eighth day is one and same as the first day of the week. The first day represents “beginnings” or “creation,” and the eighth day represents the new creation. This is signified by the eight day Sabbaths found throughout the Old Covenant feasts and festivals. It prefigures the joy and rest that we enjoy in the new creation through the finished work of Christ. It was for this reason that Jesus rose from the dead on the eighth day of the week (i.e. the first day of the week). He appeared to His disciples every eight days, signifying the significance of the first/eighth day resurrection, which secured that the presence of God would be with His people. The fact that circumcision was to be performed on the eighth day of the week linked the rite to the things that it signified, the new heart that God promised to bring about through the cutting away of the filth of the flesh.
The act of cutting away the filth of the flesh also represented the dual promissory nature of the covenant. In the covenant God promised blessings and cursing. The removal of the corruption of the sin nature was the blessing promised. The cutting off from the people of God from the presence of God was the promised curse. If the demands of the covenant were not met the circumcised man would be cut off. Throughout the history of redemption the curse was reiterated in temporal and typical forms. Just as Adam and Eve were cut off from paradise, God promised to cut off the covenant people for disobedience (Num. 15:30–31). The sign of the covenant showed forth both the merciful act of cutting away the filth of the heart, as well as the justice of God in the cutting off of the covenant breaker. Jesus was “cut off from the land of the living” because of the transgressions of His people. In His bloody death, He underwent the ultimate circumcision. He underwent everything that circumcision represented. He was cut off so that we might have our hearts circumcised. The covenant is broken by each and every descendant of Adam. It is only by the cutting off of the second Adam that the blessings of the covenant might be applied to the elect. The apostle Paul, in Colossians 2:11-13, speaks of the “circumcision of Christ.” This is often understood to be referring to the circumcision of our hearts by Christ, but it is more nuanced than that. In context, the apostle is speaking of the union that believers have with Jesus in His death, burial and resurrection. When he died, they died. When He was buried, they were buried. When He rose, they rose. When Paul comes to speak of the reality of the believers union with Christ, he does it in light of what the covenant signs signified: “In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses…” Notice that the language of being “circumcised” in Christ fits into the progression from death to burial to resurrection. Circumcised (death), baptized (burial), leading to spiritual resurrection. Here, the death of Jesus is called “circumcision” and the burial of Jesus, “baptism. These terms denote the same reality for the believer in the Old and New Covenant. When Old Covenant believers had the substance of circumcision, they had union with the Christ to come. When New Covenant believers are baptized in the Spirit, they have union with the Christ who died, was buried and rose again. Circumcision and Baptism both pointed to what Christ would do in the hearts of His people, but the first pointed to what would happen to Him in His bloody death. His death was circumcision in that the filth of the sin of the flesh was cut away by the bloody cutting apart of His flesh. His death is baptism (Mark 10:38-39) in that the filth of the sins of His people are washed away in His bloody death.
But, the death of Jesus was not the only circumcision He underwent. Jesus was physically circumcised eight days after His birth. The significance of this, coupled with the fact that He received the name “Jesus” at the same time, is full of theological meaning. Jesus was marked with the sign of the covenant that was to go on all those who needed their hearts cleansed. He had no sin, but just as His baptism intimated, He had come to the representative of His people–the sin-bearer and Savior. Jesus would receive the curses of the covenant, and would be “cut off” on the cross, even though He was the only One who kept the law of God. The Covenant keeper was treated as the Covenant breakers, so that Covenant breakers might have the blessings of the Covenant by faith in Him. The name Jesus means “Jehovah saves.” It is of no small importance, then, that He receives the sign of salvation and the name of Savior at the same time. The bloody sign showed what work He had come to do. Jesus shed blood at His birth and blood at His death. The blood that He shed at His birth was the blood of the sign that prefigured what He would do in His death.
Jonathan Edwards noted the representative nature of Christ’s circumcision when he wrote:
[Jesus] obeyed all those laws that he was subject to as he was a Jew. Thus he was subject to ceremonial law and was conformed to it. He was conformed to it in his being circumcised the eighth day. And he strictly obeyed it in going up to Jerusalem to the temple three times in the year, at least after he was come to the age of twelve years, which seems to have been the age when the males began to go up to the temple. And so Christ constantly attended the service of the temple and of the synagogues.1
John Owen spoke of the significance of the blood that Jesus shed in His circumcision in the following manner:
First, By the obedience of the life of Christ you see what is intended, his willing submission unto, and perfect, complete fulfilling of, every law of God, that any of the saints of God were obliged unto. It is true, every act almost of Christ’s obedience, from the blood of his circumcision to the blood of his cross, was attended with suffering, so that his whole life might, in that regard, be called a death; but yet, looking upon his willingness and obedience in it, it is distinguished from his sufferings peculiarly so called, and termed his active righteousness. This is, then, I say, as was showed, that complete, absolutely perfect accomplishment of the whole law of God by Christ, our mediator; whereby he not only did no sin, neither was there guile fold in his mouth, but also most perfectly fulfilled all righteousness, as he affirmed it became him to do. Secondly, That this obedience was performed by Christ not for himself, but for us, and in our stead.1
Edwards again noted:
It was by the same things that Christ both satisfied God’s justice and also purchased eternal happiness; this satisfaction and purchase of Christ were not only both carried on through the whole time of Christ’s humiliation, but they were both carried on by the same things. He did not make satisfaction by some things that he did, and then work out righteousness by other different things; but in the same acts by which he wrought out righteousness he also made satisfaction, but only taken with a different relation. One and the same act of Christ, considered with respect to the obedience there was in it, was part of his righteousness and purchased heaven; but considered with respect to the self-denial, and difficulty, and humiliation with which he performed it, it had the nature of righteousness and merited happiness for us. Thus his going about doing good, preaching the gospel, and teaching disciples, was part of righteousness and purchase of heaven as it was done in obedience to the Father; and the same was part of his satisfaction as he did it with great labor, trouble, and weariness, and under great large labor, exposing himself thereby to reproach and contempt. So his laying down his life had the nature of satisfaction to God’s offended justice considered as his bearing our punishment in our stead; but considered as an act of obedience to God who had given him this command that he should lay down his life for sinners it was part of his righteous purchase of heaven, and as much the principal part of his righteousness as it was the principal part of his satisfaction. And so to instance in his circumcision, what he suffered in that had the nature of satisfaction, the blood that was shed in his circumcision was propitiatory blood; but as it was a conformity to the law of Moses it was part of his meritorious righteousness. Though it was not properly the act of his human nature, he being an infant, yet it being what the human nature was the subject of, and was the act of that person, it was accepted as an act of his obedience as our mediator. And so even his being born in such a low condition, it had the nature of satisfaction by reason of the humiliation that was in it; and also of righteousness, as it was the act of his person in obedience to the Father and what the human nature was the subject of and what the will of the human nature did acquiesce in, though there was no act of the will of the human nature prior to it.3
1. Edwards, Jonathan A History of the Work of Redemption (WJE Online Vol. 9) , ed. John F. Wilson (New Haven: Yale University Press).
2. Owen, John. Works, vol 3 (Carlisle, Banner of Truth Trust: 1992) pp.Â 204-205.
3. Edwards, Ibid.