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Commentary on "The Unity of the Gospel"



Day 3: Monday, October 10, 2011 - Circumcision and the False Brothers



This day goes a little deeper into the issues at stake that prompted Paul's private conversation with the leaders at Jerusalem. The lesson attempts to deal with the changing meaning of circumcision within Judaism, from a symbol of distrust in self and trust in God to a sign of national pride, culminating in becoming a passport for salvation. The author thinks Paul doesn't have problems with circumcision itself, but with the idea that gentiles need to perform the ritual, and the fact that salvation was seen as being earned through obedience. 



While the author shoots toward the target, he still misses it. The party that advocated circumcision was a Christian party, people who believed in Christ for salvation. This fact is what was creating internal dispute in the Church. They didn't see circumcision as an alternative to faith in Christ alone; they believed that Christ saves, and He saves alone. Rather, they believed there is a preceding condition that makes Christ's work efficient for the believer. They didn't question Christ's sufficiency; rather they saw His work as becoming efficient and practical only in the context of the covenant established with the Jews.

And they certainly had a point, because all the covenants, both the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic covenant, were made with Israel, and any non-Israelite who wanted to have access to the blessings attached to these covenants had to enter into the covenant community and into covenant relationship with Yahweh through circumcision. The circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, but it was retained in the Mosaic covenant because this second covenant was intended to function in tandem with the Abrahamic covenant. It was added to the Abrahamic covenant, not in order to change the arrangements, but in order to enhance them. From this point of view, the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants functioned as a single unit, a single covenant, not as separate treaties. They were both national covenants, made with the physical seed of Abraham, ethnic Israelites. And how can you enter into the covenants in other way other than by performing the initiatory rite, circumcision? 

Even the apostle Paul makes clear that the covenants belong to Israel (Romans 9:4). God promised salvation; Jesus fulfilled the promise, but the promise is as good as nothing for those outside of the covenant with Abraham. Clearly those who asked for gentile circumcision had a solid rationale behind their request. They didn't think that Jesus' work is not sufficient, they thought that it's not efficient for those who are outside the covenants which belonged to Israel, and into which people enter through circumcision.

Perhaps at this moment these explanations sound speculative, but there is a certain degree of likeness in reconstructing what those who promoted circumcision thought. Paul had a long argument which covers a lot of ground, but in the end, his goal is to show how the gentiles become God’s people, members of the covenant with Abraham, by being united with Jesus Christ. In Christ they become Abraham's offspring, heirs of salvation (Galatians 3:29; 4:7). Jesus Christ's work is not only sufficient in accomplishing salvation, but His work changes the way in which salvation becomes efficient by modifying the method through which Gentiles enter into the covenants made with Israel. 

Time and space doesn't allow a thorough commentary on the subject; unfortunately the author of the lesson doesn't grasp the problem nor Paul's solution. Paul has a problem with circumcision, not because it was perverted, but because historically its role was past. Jesus' work effectively exploded the way in which the Gentiles related to the covenants given to Israel.



  1. Paul’s problem was not with circumcision per se.
  2. While circumcision was the way people entered God’s covenant community before Christ, the Lord Jesus Himself replaced circumcision as the way gentiles could become part of the covenant community of God.




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