ALMIGHTY God, who madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man; Grant us the true Circumcision of the Spirit; that, our hearts, and all our members, being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts, we may in all things obey thy blessed will; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Epistle Romans 4:8-14
Gospel S. Luke 2:15-21
This Collect prayer summarises the doctrine of the Epistle and Gospel readings. It concisely states that the Lord Jesus Christ was obedient to the law, not for his own sake but for man. To put it most simply, he is our only and most vital substitute righteousness. This is essential to our justification before God and provides us with peace and joy from which we can ‘serve the Lord with gladness’ (Psalm 100:2) or with what is known as a circumcised heart.
This ‘heart religion’ is expected both in the BC and AD periods, since the “circumcised heart” expression is used in both Jeremiah 9:26 and Romans 2:29. The heart being circumcised means that it is cut or destroyed by conviction of sin, repentance and faith towards God, so it is changed from a proud heart of stone into a heart of flesh that is meek before Almighty God. It is described also in the Sermon on the Mount as the characteristic of the believer or blessed one as being “poor in spirit” or “pure in heart”.
One’s first reaction to the subject of circumcision in general and to the circumcision of Christ in particular might be one of squeamishness and to wonder what is the practical relevance to anyone. However, we live in a world of great misunderstanding. On the one hand Muslims, who claim to follow Abraham and Christ as prophets, go beyond Abraham and cruelly ‘circumcise’ girls. On the other hand many Christians follow ‘Jewish fables’ (Titus 1:14) and circumcise their boys while missing the relevance of the obedience of Christ.
To better grasp the meaning we need to turn to the institution of circumcision commanded to Abraham.
The command for circumcision given to Abraham was as a “token” or sign of the covenant that God made with him and his offspring (Genesis 17:11). This is something like the giving of a ring in marriage as the ring is merely a sign of the solemn promises. The covenant made is described on various occasions over a number of years between Genesis 12 and 17. This is followed in Genesis 22 with a figure or picture of the new covenant in Christ seen when Abraham is about to sacrifice his son Isaac and God intervenes to provide a ram.
Circumcision was to show that the Hebrews heartily consented to being the people of God. That meant that they had to love God and obey Him. Circumcision itself was only a sign so it was vital that people also had a circumcision or consent to love and obey God from their hearts. This required a “new birth” which was characterised by a righteousness from God that was counted to the believer through faith. This was Abraham's experience (Genesis 15:5). This is what Nicodemus and other Old Testament Jews should have known (John 3). Indeed, that is what the first verse of this Epistle reading states, and that sentiment, “Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin” (Romans 4:8) echoes the experience of the Psalmists and especially Psalm 32:1,2 “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the LORD imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile.”
For forgiveness of our sins we are assured by Christ’s death on the cross, or what theologians call his passive obedience. For assurance of our acceptance into glory and all the promises of God it is this imputed righteousness of Christ to which faith clings, the active obedience of Christ. This justification is confirmed by the resurrection of Christ as in Romans 4:25.
Some Christians may wonder why Christ was circumcised while it is not required of us. After all we are supposed to follow him in ordinances such as baptism and burial as well as in morality. Simply turn to the Epistle to the Galatians for an answer.
Paul warns the Galatian Christians most strongly and even vehemently against being circumcised. “If ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit ye nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is become of no effect unto you ...” (Galatians 5:2-4). In verses 11 and 12 Paul explains that if he preached circumcision he would not be persecuted. Rather the cross is an “offence” or stumbling-block because it smashes the idea that man is able to be righteous by his own efforts or by his status. The cross preaches that man is a vile, guilty, helpless sinner (this is the meaning of the Prayer Book phrase “miserable sinner”) who needs a saviour.
Paul concludes that circumcision is not so much wrong as insignificant (Galatians 6.15). What counts is being born again or being a “new creature”. His concern is not so much that circumcision is wrong but that it is being advocated by ‘judaisers’ who see it as a way of converting gentile Christians to Judaism. However, such a thing destroys Christianity.
Galatians 6 says that the answer to sin in the believer is not to be led astray by putting yourself under the supposed power of men, whether it be by circumcision or any other ritual, but that we should help bear each others burdens in a genuine way.
However if we go back to the institution of circumcision in Genesis we see that it was not intended to make a man a debtor to the whole law in a way that would deprive him of salvation. Abraham “believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:5) but he was also circumcised.
How do we explain this? Do Paul and Abraham contradict each other? Our Epistle reading in Romans 4 makes it absolutely clear that Abraham is the father of those with faith, whether they are circumcised or not. The problem however that Paul has with the Galatians is not simply that they are considering circumcision but they are missing the purpose and meaning of the Gospel and losing the salvation of Christ. What have they missed by misunderstanding and abusing the ordinance of circumcision?
To solve this riddle we need to go back to Abraham and see that when God made the covenant with him it was not merely about circumcision. It was primarily, as we stated above, a decree or treaty about certain people becoming the people of God and therefore living for God in love and obedience. In making this covenant God made certain promises to Abraham and for his descendants (literally seed). These start in Genesis 12 following the command to “get out”. The promises include being made a great nation, being blessed, being made a great name and being made a blessing to all the families of the earth (verses 2 &3). Verse 7 includes the promise of a land for Abraham’s ‘seed’. This should remind us of another promised seed in Genesis 3:15 that will bruise the serpent’s (the devil’s) head.
Genesis 15:18 reads, “the Lord made the covenant with Abram saying ...”. It is clear that the covenant is not merely the blood of the animals (Gen15:9,10) which signifies the oath of God or the circumcision which is the “token” or sign of it, but promises from God.
What the Galatians missed and what so many miss today is that it is in Christ that these promises are fulfilled, and so he makes a new covenant in his blood; what Hebrews 8:6 calls a better covenant than that given to Moses. This is often misconstrued as being an anti-Semitic view but it is really a Christian view. In Genesis 22 Abraham received Isaac “in a figure” (Hebrews 11:19) and that means as a figure of Christ who would be raised up from the dead. So also the patriarchs looked not so much for Canaan but for a country that is “an heavenly” (Hebrews 11:16). Now it is Christ who opens the kingdom of heaven to all believers whether circumcised or not. The promises were fulfilled in Christ and so the whole thing looked ahead to is here, “the Kingdom of heaven is among you”. Jesus promised not to leave his followers comfortless but sent another Comforter, the blessed Holy Ghost and will never leave nor forsake his people.
The New Covenant is in Christ’s blood, rather than in the blood of heifers and goats. These could never themselves take away sin but merely point to the Saviour to come, as Abraham’s offering of Isaac was a figure of Christ coming to save. Yet while the New Covenant is new it is not new in the sense of being foreign or a complete change. It is new in the sense of being a clearer restatement and based on not only the promises of God but also on the fulfilment of those promises in the person and work of Christ. We must not forget that Abraham himself was justified by faith in the same way as St Paul and all Christians. Abraham also knew circumcision of the heart rather than mere outward profession. Abraham was converted!
The covenant sign of being the people of God is now seen not in the national ritual of circumcision but in baptism. Like circumcision, baptism by water cannot save a soul but only the answer of a good conscience (1 Peter 3:21).
Jesus Christ was the last ever person who really needed to be circumcised. Some might wonder why he was circumcised at all but it was part of his obedience as our substitute that was even unto death. He fulfilled that old covenant of works in which Adam failed. He also took to himself the covenant sign of circumcision that showed him to be a man under the law. He himself instituted the new covenant in his own precious blood that replaced the temple sacrifices and the ordinances of the Jewish religion and theocracy.
Except on such occasions as when St Paul did not want to cause offence to the Jews as in Acts 16:3 when he circumcised the half-Jewish-half-Greek convert Timothy, there is no need for circumcision today. We must remember that as a unique apostle “born out of due time” (1 Corinthians 15:8) Paul did not marry, took a Nazarite vow and chose not to be paid for preaching. Generally Paul tells us to follow him as he follows Christ but in some of these unusual circumstances we either need not or should not.
That Jesus was the last one circumcised under the law signifies that he was the fulfilment of both the law and the promises that was to come through the Jewish line. No more are the Jews to be marked out separately as the people of God but now the church is made up of both converted Jews and converted Gentiles, the circumcised and the uncircumcised.
Conclusion. The Collect prayer is a good summary of the biblical doctrine of circumcision and takes us from the perfect obedience to the law by Christ who provides for us a righteousness to fit us for glory. The practical application is that though our heart will not save us, the desire of the thankful heart is that it should be dedicated to God, not to earn salvation in any way but purely to live to his glory as fully as possible. That is nicely summed up by the expression, the circumcised heart. In these days of apathy let us pray that God will give us such hearts.