Circumcision: cutting around. This rite, practised before, as some think, by
divers races, was appointed by God to be the special badge of
his chosen people, an abiding sign of their consecration to him.
It was established as a national ordinance (Gen. 17:10, 11). In
compliance with the divine command, Abraham, though ninety-nine
years of age, was circumcised on the same day with Ishmael, who
was thirteen years old (17:24-27). Slaves, whether home-born or
purchased, were circumcised (17:12, 13); and all foreigners must
have their males circumcised before they could enjoy the
privileges of Jewish citizenship (Ex. 12:48). During the journey
through the wilderness, the practice of circumcision fell into
disuse, but was resumed by the command of Joshua before they
entered the Promised Land (Josh. 5:2-9). It was observed always
afterwards among the tribes of israel, although it is not
expressly mentioned from the time of the settlement in Canaan
till the time of Christ, about 1,450 years. The Jews prided
themselves in the possession of this covenant distinction (Judg.
14:3; 15:18; 1 Sam. 14:6; 17:26; 2 Sam. 1:20; Ezek. 31:18).
As a rite of the church it ceased when the New Testament times
began (Gal. 6:15; Col. 3:11). Some Jewish Christians sought to
impose it, however, on the Gentile converts; but this the
apostles resolutely resisted (Acts 15:1; Gal. 6:12). Our Lord
was circumcised, for it "became him to fulfil all
righteousness," as of the seed of Abraham, according to the
flesh; and Paul "took and circumcised" Timothy (Acts 16:3), to
avoid giving offence to the Jews. It would render Timothy's
labors more acceptable to the Jews. But Paul would by no means
consent to the demand that Titus should be circumcised (Gal.
2:3-5). The great point for which he contended was the free
admission of uncircumcised Gentiles into the church. He
contended successfully in behalf of Titus, even in Jerusalem.
In the Old Testament a spiritual idea is attached to
circumcision. It was the symbol of purity (Isa. 52:1). We read
of uncircumcised lips (Ex. 6:12, 30), ears (Jer. 6:10), hearts
(Lev. 26:41). The fruit of a tree that is unclean is spoken of
as uncircumcised (Lev. 19:23).
It was a sign and seal of the covenant of grace as well as of
the national covenant between God and the Hebrews. (1.) It
sealed the promises made to Abraham, which related to the
commonwealth of Israel, national promises. (2.) But the promises
made to Abraham included the promise of redemption (Gal. 3:14),
a promise which has come upon us. The covenant with Abraham was
a dispensation or a specific form of the covenant of grace, and
circumcision was a sign and seal of that covenant. It had a
spiritual meaning. It signified purification of the heart,
inward circumcision effected by the Spirit (Deut. 10:16; 30:6;
Ezek. 44:7; Acts 7:51; Rom. 2:28; Col. 2:11). Circumcision as a
symbol shadowing forth sanctification by the Holy Spirit has now
given way to the symbol of baptism (q.v.). But the truth
embodied in both ordinances is ever the same, the removal of
sin, the sanctifying effects of grace in the heart.
Under the Jewish dispensation, church and state were
identical. No one could be a member of the one without also
being a member of the other. Circumcision was a sign and seal of
membership in both. Every circumcised person bore thereby
evidence that he was one of the chosen people, a member of the
church of God as it then existed, and consequently also a member
of the Jewish commonwealth.