While teaching a class recently in a different context than my regular courses at RPTS, at one point I referenced Abraham. Though somewhat tangential to the lesson at hand, I explained briefly the reason for circumcison being the sign of the Old Testament covenant. I was about to return to the main idea when a middle-aged student suddenly exclaimed, "That's the reason God used circumcision? I never knew that before!"
This incident reminded me of other times I have had that reaction. Indeed, in Bible studies with college students, I have discovered they did not even know what circumcision was! (Are parents and teachers too embarassed or modest to tell them?) With this seal of the covenant having major theological importance, the first council of the church dealing directly with its practice, and the fact one runs across this concept over a hundred times in both the Old and New Testament, I thought a primer on circumcision could be helpful.
So let me offer this biological yet also Biblical definition below. Then consider three chief reasons why God Himself chose this crass act to represent beautiful truths of the gospel.
God commanded Abraham and his descendants to practice circumcision, that bloody, painful removal of the foreskin of the male reproductive organ, in order to signify and seal the promise of salvation to the nations of the earth that would come through his seed.
By God calling Abraham (Gem 12:1-3), promising that in him the nations of the earth would be blessed and number as the stars in heaven (Gen.15:1-6), and then sealing this promise with circumcison(Gen. 17:1-11), we should readily see the following.
Circumcision signified that filthy sin needs to be removed. With the removal of this portion of the male anatomy often associated with uncleanness, by this act God was showing to Abraham and those who would be blessed through him that sin needed to be removed in order for salvation to occur. The prophet Jeremiah spoke God's Word to Judah using this imagery when he told them to "circumcise yourselves to the Lord and remove the foreskins of your hearts" by repenting of their sins (Jer. 4:4). That this work of sin removal was ultimately one of a spiritual nature of the Lord's doing is seen in these words: "Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul, so that you may live" (Deut. 30:6).
Circumcision signified that this salvation would come through blood and pain. Just as the other sacrifices and rituals of the sacrifical system of the Old Testament taught that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin, so did circumcision. Certainly it was bloody. When Moses' wife Zipporah was forced to circumcise their son, she threw the remains at Moses' feet and called him "a bridegroom of blood" (Ex. 4:25-26). Certainly it was painful. Jacob's sons tricked the men of Shechem to circumcise themselves, then attacked them "on the third day, when they were in pain" (Gen. 34:25).
Circumcision signified that a seed of Abraham would bring this deliverance. At the time of the fall, God promised that the seed of the woman - a descendant of Eve - would destroy the devil and his works. With the choosing of Abraham, the Lord showed by promise and sign that this seed would come through his lineage. For as the Lord told him upon his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, only for God to stay his hand and promise to provide, "in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen. 22:18). By placing this sign on the male reproductive organ of Abraham and his descendants, the Lord was without doubt telling Israel and the world the Savior would come as a son of Abraham.
Clearly these reasons for circumcision find their culmination in Christ Jesus. He came to remove our sin by becoming sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21). He purchased us with his own blood and suffered Calvary's agonies for us (Acts 20:28; Eph. 1:7; 1 Pet. 2:24). He was the singular seed of Abraham through whom all the promises came (Matt. 1:1; Gal. 3:16). Anyone in any nation who believes the same gospel preached to Abraham (Gal. 3:8), seen through Abraham's circumcison, will be justified by faith just like he was and become one of his true children (Gal. 3:6-7).
When one considers our glorious Savior, thoughts of something as inglorious as circumcision almost seem inappropriate. We can understand why some would not be knowledgeablle of these truths or perhaps not want to think upon them. Yet, with every person in need of "the circumcison of Christ" (Col. 2:11), we must learn of the One who became a circumcison for us so that we, in turn, could become a child of God.