And God said to Abraham: As for you you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant. He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money must be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant. (Genesis 17:9-14, NKJ, emphasis added)
A covenant is a special, two-way agreement. But a covenant made by God with any mere flesh son of Adam will never stand, because a mere man will always break his part of the agreement, and thus obligate God to bring a curse upon him. Therefore, God the Father made a covenant with God the Son — one descendant (seed) of Abraham. In other words, God made a covenant with himself. In essence God told Abraham, “If you want to partake of the blessings of the covenant I have made with myself, there is one requirement: Circumcision!” That requirement has not been done away with. While the natural act of circumcision performed on the flesh to inherit the promises of God has been done away with, the SPIRITUAL act of circumcision has not.
Spiritual things are much more powerful than natural carnal things because God is Spirit (John 4:24). Carnal things like circumcision foreshadowed better things to come. There is a pattern in the bible of God doing first in the natural, in the flesh, what he intends to do ultimately in the spirit, which helps us understand his plan. God instructed Abraham to cut the flesh off the only part of his body that could impart life. Yet a man can only give temporary life. My earthly father and mother gave me a body that will probably live less than 100 years. True, eternal life comes not from the body of flesh, but from the spirit.
A FATHER’S JOB
When God said, “As for you…” to Abraham, we hear the first mention of circumcision in the Bible. However, the Hebrews were not the only people to practice circumcision. Scholars tell us that it was common among the Egyptian and even among some Canaanite cultures. But there was one major difference in its practice by the Hebrews: Only the Hebrews circumcised babies; everyone else performed the rite at the beginning of puberty, around 12 years of age, as a sort of initiation ceremony into manhood.
In Israel’s early history, a father circumcised his son eight days after his birth. Later on in Jewish history, the job was taken over by specialist. But God never made provision, in his covenant with himself in which Abraham took part, or in the law of Moses, for the job to be done by a specialist. God’s original intent was for the father to circumcise all those born in his house or bought with his money. To follow to the letter God’s instructions to circumcise at eight days old, it would obviously be impossible to circumcise yourself.
PURPOSE OF CIRCUMCISION
“…[I]t shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you” (Genesis 17:11, NKJ).
God told Abraham that circumcision would be a sign or a token. The Hebrew word used in this verse means a “mark.” Vine’s Expository Dictionary says, “…this word represents something by which a person or group is characteristically marked.” As I’m sure you’ve noticed, people of African descent characteristically have dark skin and curly hair. People of Asian descent characteristically have slanted eyes and straight black hair. Their characteristics mark who they are. So, God gave Abraham a sign that would be characteristic of all his descendants, but think about this: Who would see this sign?
The only people who would really know for sure that you had rights to the covenant God made with himself would be those most intimate with you — your parents, your wife, and your God. The only way your parents could be sure you were included in the covenant would be to circumcise you at birth. Anyone could say, “I am circumcised and so I have rights to the covenant blessings,” but their word would have to be enough unless they proved it by dropping their pants. The law of Moses clearly states that it is shameful for anyone but those most intimate with you to see your nakedness. So, what man with any sense of decency would expose his genitals to prove he has covenant rights?
Therefore, we can conclude that the sign of the covenant with God is a very private and personal matter — as private and personal as are the activities of husband and wife in the bedroom. Only God knows for sure if your spiritual rights to the covenant blessings are valid because God sees your nakedness. If God doesn’t see the sign of his covenant in you, you don’t have a right to the covenant’s blessings. But God is a Spirit, and he’s not looking at what’s in your pants, he’s looking for the sign he requires in your heart.
AN EVERLASTING COVENANT
“He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money must be circumcised and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant” (Genesis. 17: 13-14, NKJ, emphasis added).
The word “everlasting” used in this verse means “lasting or enduring through all time, eternal.” For all eternity anyone not circumcised will be “cut off” from God’s people because he has broken God’s covenant. A major debate about this verse raged in the early church for many years. The debate centered mainly around two things, circumcision and food.
Circumcision became an issue because some believed Christians had to be circumcised in the flesh to gain a right to the covenant blessings. Food was an issue because, according to the law of Moses, refraining from eating certain kinds of food determined if you were holy or not. A small piece of skin and food caused Jewish Christians in the early church to resist allowing Gentiles into the church and created a debate that raged for years because the sign of the covenant is everlasting, and only the holy will see God.
THE GREAT DEBATE
“When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am? So they said, Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. He said to them, But who do you say that I am? Simon Peter answered and said, You are the Christ the Son of the living God. Jesus answered and said to him, blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven…” (Matthew 16:13-19, NKJ)
As we discuss this great debate, remember the word Caesarea because it will prove a key to understanding how Jesus gives US “keys.”
Jesus asked his disciple’s an interesting question because his question contained the answer. When he said to his disciples, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am,” Jesus identified himself as “the Son of Man” then Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do men say I am.”
Men in general believed Jesus to be a prophet. But Jesus wasn’t satisfied with this answer so it make it personal, asking, “Who do you say I am?” The obvious answer would have been the one Jesus just gave them: “the Son of Man”. Peter contradicted Jesus when he said “you are the Son of the living God”.
Did Jesus get upset with Peter’s response and say, “Wrong, Peter! Don’t you listen to anything I say? I just said I’m the Son of Man; my answer was in my question.” To the contrary, Jesus said with a hint of pleasure, “Blessed are you Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” Then Jesus revealed that in God’s kingdom, to him that has will more be given and promised Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven.
Now let’s fast forward to the day of Pentecost. Only people who were circumcised Jews and daughters of Israel received the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. But after God later saved a Jewish man named Saul, destined to become Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles, he immediately began to deal with Peter, to whom he’d promised to give the keys of the kingdom.
The story of God’s dealings with Peter is recorded in Acts Chapter 10. Cornelius, an Italian officer stationed in Caesarea, was also a praying, God-fearing man who gave generously to the poor. You’ll recall that I told you above to remember Caesarea. The Caesarea mentioned here wasn’t the same one where Peter made his famous declaration, but we’ll soon see that the fact that Cornelius was in a place called Caesarea is significant.
Uncircumcised Cornelius didn’t know about Jesus, but he did fear God. One day while worshiping God, an angel appeared to Cornelius and said:
“…Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa, and send for Simon whose surname is Peter. He is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea” (Acts 10:4-6, NKJ).
That Peter was lodging with a “tanner” is evidence that Peter believed the law of Moses had lost some of its significance after Jesus’ resurrection. A tanner was a worker in leather who killed animals and prepared their skins to be used in making shields, helmets, shoes, etc.. And the law of Moses considered being a tanner an undesirable job for a “good Jew”:
“By these you shall become unclean; whoever touches the carcass of any of them shall be unclean until evening; whoever carries part of the carcass of any of them shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening; The carcass of any animal which divides the foot but is not cloven-hoofed or does not chew the cud, is unclean to you. Everyone who touches it shall be unclean. And whatever goes on its paws among all kinds of animals that go on all fours those are unclean to you. Whoever touches any such carcass shall be unclean until evening. Whoever carries any such carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening. It is unclean to you” (Lev. 11:24-28, NKJ emphasis added).
“And if any animal which you may eat dies, he who touches its carcass shall be unclean until evening. He who eats of its carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening. He also who carries it carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening” (Lev. 11:39-40, NKJ emphasis added).
In those brief seven verses, the law of Moses connects the concept of “unclean” to living and dead animals 12 times. So what was Peter, a good Jew, doing in the midst of all this uncleanness? If Simon the tanner was now such an intimate of Peter that Peter was living in Simon’s house I don’t think it would be unreasonable to conclude that Simon the tanner had been baptized in the Holy Spirit in a similar manner to that which had taken place on the day of Pentecost. Simon and Peter were Spirit filled Jews doing unclean things according to the law given to Moses.
Clearly, Peter was beginning to understand how grace complements law. Peter had already learned that anyone circumcised, even someone engaging in such an “unclean” occupation as tanning, could have God’s blessings whether or not he or she kept every law of Moses or not. But are animals of more worth to God than men? Did Jesus die to make unclean animals clean? Peter was moving from faith to faith, one step at a time. Jesus had made a promise to Peter in Caesarea Philippi, and in Caesarea that promise would be kept.
Here’s one “key to the kingdom” Peter was given: you do not have to keep every law that was given to Moses in order to be saved. That doesn’t seem to be an issue in our day, but it was a serious issue in the days of the apostles. Yes, Peter must have thought as he walked among unclean animals, Jesus’ sacrificial death has certainly made it easier for every “circumcised Jew” — even a tanner – to be included in the kingdom of God. It hadn’t yet entered the minds of even good Jewish Christians like Peter that everyone, Jew or Gentile, could be regarded as acceptable and even holy unto God.
Now let’s look more closely at Peter’s part of Acts Chapter 10. He was on the housetop praying and meditating, maybe remembering how Jesus preached to half-breed Samaritans and how Philip went down to Samaria and saw them all baptized in the Holy Spirit. But, after all, the Samaritans did have some Jewish blood. Suddenly, a sheet full of unclean animals descended in a vision and God told him to eat one of them. Peter refused. He had never tarnished his holiness by eating an unclean animal. God told him not to call unclean what God had cleansed.
The arrival Cornelius’s messengers in the midst of Peter’s vision lead Peter to another key. By the time Peter arrived at Cornelius’ house he had discerned the “good, acceptable and perfect will of God”:
“ … In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him. The word which God sent to the children of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ He is Lord of all…” (Acts 10:4-36,NKJ).
Peter learned that people do not need the blood of Abraham in their veins for Jesus to be their Lord — Jesus is Lord of all, Jew or Gentile. And not only is he Lord of all, he shows no partiality for anyone from any nation that fears him and works righteousness is accepted by Him. As Jesus promised, he gave Peter a key that would open the door of the kingdom to all men. If Peter has any doubts about the truth he’d just spoken, God settled them before Peter finished his sermon:
“While Peter was still speaking these words the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God” (Acts 10:44-46, NKJ).
The circumcised Jews are astonished — stricken with sudden or unusual great wonder or surprise! Pray tell, what’s happened that’s so caught them by surprise? I’ll tell you, to the Jewish mind, saying you are circumcised is the same as saying, “I have a right to the blessing of God’s covenant.” To say someone is uncircumcised is the same as saying, “You don’t have any rights to God’s blessings.” In the Apostles’ day, the term “uncircumcised” was a racial slur, similar to the using of the word “nigger” in our day. To call a man “uncircumcised” was to call that man inferior.
The Jews took great pride in their circumcision, for they regarded it as the mark of their spiritual superiority, the sign that God loved them more than others, because they were marked for blessings others would not get. God had come to them, delivered them with mighty miracles from Egypt’s power, made them guardians of his laws. God loved them so much; he brought them to himself “on eagle’s wings.” “Look at all God has done for us,” Jews could say. “We are the circumcision, marked for special treatment.”
Yes! These circumcised Jews at Cornelius’ house were astonished, surprised and afraid. God’s actions struck at the very root of human pride and selfishness. They’d just witnessed God pour his Holy Spirit into what they regarded as unholy vessels that had no right to God or his blessings. These were Gentiles, contaminated by the unholy food they’d eaten, unacceptable because they had not removed a small piece of skin from their body. They had no right to God’s blessings!
The Jews were shaken because they weren’t “in control.” Of course, they never really “had control” of God, because God does whatever he pleases. But until now God had always seemed to be exclusively theirs. What was God doing here, giving his love to these filthy Gentiles who were not marked for special treatment?
After the Holy Spirit fell upon the Gentiles in Cornelius’ house, Peter came up to Jerusalem to learn news travels fast and his Christian brethren were not very happy:
“…those of the circumcision contended with him saying You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!” (Acts 11:2,NKJ)
Let me paraphrase what they were really saying to Peter: “And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those who were marked as God’s people contended with him, saying, ‘You went into the house of a man who has no right to the blessings of the covenant and did an unholy thing. Peter, how dare you sit at the lunch counter with a nigger! How dare you eat with him and make yourself unclean!’”
Hold it! This is the church? Yes, but it’s an infant church still in diapers, still sucking on a bottle filled with law. To the Jews all this was very serious business because the law had been broken and they were angry that their icon who had traveled with Jesus the Son of God had sinned.
Peter patiently explained everything that had happened, beginning with his vision at Simon the tanner’s house. He concluded:
“ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning. Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit. If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God? When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life” (Acts 11:15-18).
A sign that no one could see, circumcision, had marked these Jews to be God’s people and made them arrogant. But God punched a hole in their pride, by including the Gentiles, with a sign everyone could see and hear. When he did, these “good Christians” became silent, and they stopped glorying in what they could do and began to glory in what God can do! The Apostle Paul later wrote:
“For Jews request a sign [circumcision], and the Greeks seek after wisdom; But we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness…that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God – and righteousness and sanctification and redemption – That as it is written, ‘He who glories, let him glory in the Lord’” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23, 29-31).
The Jewish Christians were learning humility. They learned that God is not limited to the things a man can do, like cutting skin off of bodies and eating the right foods. These things will not give you rights in God’s kingdom; only Jesus can give you rights. So let us glory in what he has done, not the things we have done!
Unfortunately, Peter’s experience at the house of Cornelius wasn’t enough to settle the issue about whether circumcision was a requirement to receive God’s blessings. The debate continued to rage for another ten years, and finally came to an impasse at a Gentile church in Antioch of Syria.
The Antioch church was Paul’s home church. He had just completed his first missionary journey. The Spirit had confirmed his message time and again with signs and wonders. Multitudes had been saved, healed and baptized in the Holy Spirit. Paul just so happened to be in the congregation the day some Jewish Christians came from Judea and taught that to be saved the Gentile Christians had to be circumcised after the manner of Moses (or the law). Hearing this, Paul got into a major doctrinal argument with these Christian brethren.
The heart of the argument was an important one to all involved in the dispute: What confirms that I have a right to the blessings of God’s covenant with Abraham? What makes me acceptable to God? Must I cut a piece of skin off my body to have a right to the blessings? Must I eat certain foods and observe certain “days” to be holy? Look at what transpired:
“Therefore when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question” (Acts 15:2, NKJ).
Much disputing went on before Peter at last stood up and again related how, a long while ago (about ten years before this) he was present when God, who knows the heart, acknowledged the Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he had the Jews, therefore making no distinction between the Jew and the Gentiles. Then Peter asked the assembly a question they couldn’t dispute over:
“Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they” (Acts 15:10-11, NKJ).
Peter simply pointed out, “Why should we require the Gentiles to obey laws that our fathers nor we obeyed? Circumcision didn’t give us the strength to obey the law. Eating ‘holy’ foods didn’t give us strength to obey the law. Why should we put a yoke on Gentile believers’ necks that neither we nor our fathers were able to bear?”
Then, after Peter had given his word of wisdom, they listened to Barnabas and Paul declare how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles. Even though Paul and Barnabas spoke so clearly, they didn’t have the “key” to settling the issue. James (Jesus’ half-brother and the author of the Book of James) spoke next:
“Men and brethren, listen to me; Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree” (Acts 15:13-15, NKJ emphasis added).
Did you catch that? James didn’t refer to anything Paul and Barnabas had said. James said, “Simon (or Peter) preached to the Gentiles, and the word of God agrees with his experience. Peter had the “key” that opened the door of the kingdom to all men, because Jesus had promised to give Peter the keys to the kingdom.