The Covenant Sign: Circumcision
August 01, 2004 | Andrew Davis
The Covenant-Making God Calls for Holiness
We come this morning to Genesis 17, and the institution of the covenant sign of circumcision. As I come to this Scripture this morning in Genesis 17, I'm brought to another place in Scripture, Matthew 5:17, where our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ said this, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."
Well, that's what Jesus said about the written Word, and that includes here in Genesis 17, a command for circumcision, which in this Scripture seems established to be timeless. And so, those that were inerrantist, those that wanted a literalistic interpretation of the Bible in the first century, were greatly troubled by those who said, "You don't need to circumcise your children." They said, it says, it's timeless, it's an eternal covenant. And so, it brought the early church into the flames of controversy. The Holy Spirit led the church through that, so that we who are Gentiles by birth, are not required to be circumcised in order to go to Heaven. Somebody say amen, praise God for that. How hard would missions be if we were still required to undergo the old covenant ceremonies? Very difficult. There would be some that would be willing just like Abraham was at age 99, but God has not so ordained for us.
So that brings us to another question, doesn't it? Why? Actually, two questions. Why did God establish circumcision in the Old Covenant for Abraham and for all his descendants? What was He doing? What was the purpose? And, secondly, why did he remove the requirement in the new covenant? Those two questions are going to be in the back of your mind, but first I want to just unfold Genesis 17, try to see what's in that text, and then we will come full circle at the end and try to understand those two questions.
Context: The Limitations of Human Flesh Exposed
Now, the context for the giving of this circumcision sign, the sign of this old covenant with Abraham was Genesis 16. Now in Genesis 16, as we looked last week, was Abram and Sarai's attempts in their own flesh to fulfill the promise of God? It was pretty obvious that try as they might again and again, Sarai, her womb barren, the two of them just could not have children physically, it was impossible. And so, they decided to take matters in their own hands, and Sarai said, “Now, here's Hagar, my Egyptian servant. Now you go and marry her and have a son by her, and he will be reckoned as mine.” And so, Abram fit into the cultural norms of the day and did a sinful thing, he did something that God did not intend. We saw the outcome of that last week in Genesis 16.
God Appears to Abram
Now you are in Verse 1, it says, “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.’”
Thirteen Years of Silence
Now, this ends 13 years of biblical silence between God and Abram. We don't know for sure; the Bible doesn't say that there were no words from God during that time, it doesn't say that, but I think the silence is pretty stark here. Thirteen years, God has not revealed anything in Scripture, at least to Abram. After 13 years of silence, He comes and says, I am God almighty, walk before me and be blameless.
God’s Call: Personal Daily Holiness
There is a sense of holiness here, a sense of the righteousness of God and of His purposes as well. Now, I think the reason for the 13 years and for the strong word here is that God wants to reveal His power in human inability. Really, in human impossibility. God loves to say, “With man, this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.” And so, it's clearly established that the arm of flesh can accomplish nothing. And so, He waits for 13 years as Ishmael grows up. He waits to chastise Abram and Sarai, to train them and to teach them one central lesson, said later by the prophet Zechariah. Zechariah 4:6 says, “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord Almighty.” You don't take matters in your own hands in God's kingdom. You don't do it the way you think is best. You wait on the Lord and let Him tell you what He says to do.
And so, the Holy Spirit will lead. It is the spirit that will work, it is God who will get the glory when human inability is so clearly established. The human flesh has its own ways. We have our own ways of doing things. And so, Abram and Sarai took matters into their own hands. God waited to put human strength and schemes at an end. Until it became very obvious that “Abram's body was as good as dead−since he was about a hundred years old−and that Sarai’s womb was also dead.” Romans 4:19. Hebrews 11:12 says, “And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.” So, God is waiting for the dust of their rebellion to settle. And after 13 years, comes this word, this promise, again. And so, God appears to Abram, and we see here, the working of God's grace. God didn't cast off Abram and Sarai, he didn't throw them out because they were sinners or they disobeyed His patterns established from the very beginning concerning marriage, He didn't throw them out. God redeems sinners. God uses sinners.
Anybody here not a sinner? Anybody willing to come and tell us how to do it? I think everybody I'm looking at here is a sinner and I'm a sinner too. And yet, if I'm a sinner, I'm up here and God can actually use me and God can use you, too. And so, he works through sinful people to accomplish His ends. The grace of God. Sometime later, Genesis 17:1 says, “When Abram was 99 years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.’” He appears to him, and he gets a reaction from Abram. Abram, it says, falls face down. And so would you, if the Lord had appeared to you, wouldn't that be delightful to be just slain by a vision of God this afternoon, could you spend better time this afternoon than that, to fall face down before an appearance of God Almighty? And the terror and the fear of the Lord came over Abram at that moment. And he feared and he fell face down. And then came the call, God's holiness, God's purity, His perfection. Out of the perfection of His nature and His heart, He said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.” This is a call for each one of us today. Be holy because I am holy, says the Lord, it's a call in the old covenant, and it's a call in the new covenant as well. God is a Holy God, He is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. And when it says, “Walk before me,” it means live your everyday life in front of me, Abram.
Let me watch how you live. Job says, “Does He not see my ways and count my every step?” He knows the slightest inclination of my heart, He sees every word before it's on my tongue, He knows it all together completely. He knows everything about us, and so walk before me, he says, live your life on a stage in front of me. Let me watch you. And as I watch you realize, my eyes are too pure to look on evil, I can't tolerate wrong. Walk before me and be blameless. This is a rebuke, I believe, for Genesis 16. Don't do things your way. Don't follow the cultural norms. Find out what it is I want and do it, even if it's costly.
The Covenant Repeated, with New Tokens
Having introduced this, then He refreshes or renews the covenant, this is the grace of God. He comes again with the covenant, and you are going to see in the Covenant as it's renewed with some new tokens here, some new aspects, you are going to see the same two central promises, a multiplicity of descendants and the promised land, you are going to see those same two things reiterated here, but some new tokens. Look at Verses 2 through 8, God says, “I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers. Abram fell face down, and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you. You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.’”
This is the covenant reestablished as it were. Not that it ever went away because God's gifts and His calling are irrevocable. But here He refreshes it, He renews and He gives some new tokens.
Why God Repeated the Covenant
Now, why does God keep refreshing and renewing this covenant? Well, could it be that people are just forgetful? We forget, it's been 13 years after all, and if it's been silence, 13 years of silence and realized, he didn't have the blessing we have, you realize what a blessing this book is? We can read this day after day and refresh and renew our sense of the promises of God. Abram didn't have the written scripture, all he had is the last word that God gave him, the last word to go on, the last vision. And so, he comes and he refreshes and he renews his faith by means of the word. It's the same promise again, faith, can I tell you right now? Faith is a living thing. It's like a plant, it needs fertilizer, it needs water. My wife and I, I'm not trying. . . just me, let's put it on me. We kill all the plants we get; we kill them all. I don't know what it is we haven't killed. I had a cactus once and it took me two years to kill that, and that was tough, but other than that, we can kill anything. Christy is better than I. I don't in any way, want to talk about this later this afternoon, but anyway, definitely. I'm the one that . . . and the fertilizer, the water. That kind of thing. It needs it. Your faith is alive, it's alive and it needs food. You know what food it needs; it needs this, it needs the word. You have got to feed your faith, if you don't feed your faith, it's going to wither, it's going to shrink up. It's going to be fruitless. You have got to feed your faith with the Word. And so, God comes and He gives Abram his faith, a big meal here. He renews the promises and He speaks to him. But he also wants to establish Abram’s pattern of obedience, this could be translated in effect; “I am God Almighty, walk before me and be blameless, so that I may confirm my covenant with you.” In other words, there needs to be a pattern of obedience, Abram, or I cannot confirm my covenant with you.
If Abram had become utterly faithless, if he had not believed the promise, if he had, for example, had no marital relations with his wife, it would have been literally physically impossible for this promise to be fulfilled. He had to obey, he had to act on his faith, Genesis 18, 18 and 19, we're going to see that shortly. But God speaking about Abraham says, “Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just,” listen, “so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what He has promised him.” You see, there's a connection between our faith-filled obedience and the fulfillment of the covenant promise. And so, He says, “Walk before me and be blameless so I will confirm my covenant between me and you…” And then, He gives him this remarkable token, the change of a name. Now, as a preacher here, it was hard for me to change Abraham's name to Abram, but from now on, I have got to go back to what I've always known. This man is Abraham, and so he gave him the new name, Abraham.
Abraham’s Name Change
Names are significant in scripture. They could refer to a character trait that could be like Jacob, He who grasped the heel, he's a con-artist, he's a deceiver. There's a sense of name for Esau because he was reddy, a red or a ruddy, with his red hair, he was named Edom or Esau. Many times, in scripture, there is also the sense of the changing of a name. When Jacob went to Israel, he who wrestles with God, there was a change of the name there. Also, for God's people in Isaiah 62:2, it says, “The nations will see your righteousness and all kings your glory; you will be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will bestow.” Isn't that marvelous? And that very same promise is picked up in the Book of Revelation, in Revelation 2:17, listen to this, this is so wonderful. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.” What an incredible blessing that is, and God has the power to change a name. And what was the change? Well, Abram meant exalted Father. Abraham meant the father of many nations.
Past Tense: God Calls Things That Are Not as Though They Were
Notice that God uses the past tense here in Verse 5, he says, “No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.” I have made you a father of many nations? That's exactly right. God speaks and it is even if it isn't yet, you know what I'm saying? It's as good as done because God said it. “Let there be light,” He said, and there was light. God speaks, and it is, or it will be most certainly in his good timing. And so, it says in Romans 4:17, “As it is written: ‘I have made you a father of many nations.’” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed, the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were. And he does it right here in this verse, do you see that? He said, “I've made you a father of many nations,” even though he is the father right now of just Ishmael, “father of many nations.”
And so, Abraham was designated to be the father of many nations, even though his body was as good as dead, and Sarai's womb was also dead, yet God has the power to call things that are not as though they were. And you know what? That's what he does at the moment of salvation, isn't it? He calls into your soul something that wasn't there before, a love for God, an estimation of the weight of the glory of Jesus Christ, the glory of God in the face of Christ. In 2 Corinthians, Chapter 4, He called a light into your soul that didn't exist before. It's called regeneration, being born again. He can do that to anybody. He has the power to speak to dead people as though they were alive and they come alive like Lazarus. And you know what, He's going to do it to you when you're in the grave. All who are in the grave will hear his voice and come out, he has the power to give life to the dead on that great resurrection day. He can do that to whole nations, he can rise a nation up out of the dust and make them a world-conquering empire, and then he can send them back into the dust. God does all these things. He calls things that are not as though they were.
The Covenant Sign Given and Circumcision
First Covenant Requirement
Then, He gives him the covenant sign of circumcision. Look at Verses 9 through 14, this is the first covenant requirement, circumcision. In Verse 10, it says, “Then God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come.’” Verse 10, “This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised.” And so, here is the covenant sign of circumcision. Now, up to this point, the covenant has been one way, God in effect saying, “This is what I will do for you.” But now here is a covenant obligation or responsibility, a covenant command, you must be circumcised and all your males with you. It is a sign, Verse 11, “it will be the sign.” Look at that word in Verse 11, “You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.”
The Sign of the Covenant
Now, a sign is a symbol or something that represents a reality that already is. And so, the covenant had already come, God had already made his covenant in Genesis 15. This is so vital and so important, and Paul picks up on this in a major way in the Book of Romans. The reality was already there, the sign was given later, and so circumcision is a covenant sign. The same word is used in the Hebrew of the sign of the rainbow. For the flood of Noah, in Genesis 9:12-16, God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant.” So, here's another aspect of the sign, the sign causes remembrance. When you look at this and you see the sign, you remember the covenant. And that's the purpose of the covenant of circumcision. It was a sign. The same thing was true of the sign of the blood of the Passover lamb. In Exodus 12:13, “The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.”
Here's the thing, this is a covenant sign, this is a representation that causes remembrance, that when you look at it, there is a reality behind it. There is a covenant promise. God had said, I will not destroy any of your first born, if you obey this and paint the blood of the Passover lamb, it's a sign, and that's so important. And yet in a strange way, it's also called a covenant unto itself. Look at Verse 13, “Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant.” Oh boy, now we get into some problems, and we'll get to this in a minute, this word everlasting, but there it is, it's a covenant in the flesh, the covenant of circumcision that is given. I can't go long in Genesis 17 without saying, Paul, tell me what it means, I need to understand. And so, Paul gives us an inspired commentary on this whole thing in Romans Chapter 4. Paul is dealing with the question of justification by faith alone. What does that mean? It's the way a sinner like you and me is able to stand before a holy God, righteous and unafraid on judgment day, and even before that, that today we can be, like Jesus said in John 13, the foot washing, we can be clean because of the word He has spoken to us.
Aren't you hungry for that? Don't you want to be clean before God today? To stand before Him blameless and unafraid. That's justification righteousness, that we can stand before Him. Well, how does it come? Well, how did it come for Abraham? This is what Paul writes in Romans 4:9-12, "Is this blessedness” of forgiveness, of being clean before God, “is this blessedness only for the circumcised or also for the uncircumcised?”
We have been saying that Abraham's faith was credited unto him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised.” That's us as Gentiles. We believe, but we were not ceremoniously or religiously or covenantally circumcised. We were not. He is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness may be credited to them. And, he is also the father of the circumcised,” those are the Jews, “who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that their father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”
The Extent of the Sign
Let me unravel all that very simply, okay, it's really this simple. Genesis 15 comes before Genesis 17. And in Genesis 15, God said, "You're righteous." In Genesis 17, "Oh, by the way, be circumcised." And so, we don't need to be circumcised in order to be righteous. That's the point that Paul makes very simply, and he makes this whole argument on the ordering of the narrative in the Old Testament, that's the way that Paul argues. The circumcision came after the righteousness. Now, what is the extent of the covenant sign? Well, look at Verses 12 and 13, "For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner−those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant."
The Penalty of Disobedience
So first of all, every male among you, any male among you, part of your group, they must all be circumcised, it should be done for a newborn infant eight days old, that's when it's done at eight days, and it's to be done for generations to come, for it's an everlasting covenant. We'll get to that in a minute. Now, is there a penalty for disobedience? Yes, there is, look at Verse 14, "Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant." Now, that is serious. Do you see that as a covenant penalty, if you are not circumcised, you don't circumcise your children, you're cut off from Israel? You are left out of the people of God, very serious. That meant they were no longer a Jew, they were no longer a descendant of Abraham, as it were, because they are not circumcised. That's how serious this is.
Was Circumcision an Everlasting Covenant
Now, let's get to this question. Was this covenant an everlasting covenant, the way it says the word is translated here, everlasting covenant. Well, this Hebrew word “everlasting” is sometimes used to refer to God Himself. It says in Psalm 29:10, "The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord is enthroned as King forever." Is that like forever and ever and ever and ever? Yes, you just can look and see it's eternal. God is King forever. He's eternally the king, or how about this one? Isaiah 40:8, "The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God stands forever." Is that forever and ever? Yes, it's eternal, God's Word is eternal. So, concerning God's throne and concerning His word, the same word means eternally. But we get into problems when it comes to the Old Covenant issues, because the same word is used for things that became temporary when the New Covenant came, and so the word actually can mean until further notice coming from God. And, I know that that's troubling to you, but that's in effect what it is, you must circumcise until I tell you to stop. And we Christians have to accept that, because that's literally what happened. We've got to circumcise. You want to be part of the people of God? You must circumcise until I tell you to stop.
The same was true of the Old Testament sacrificial system, wasn't it? You must do this. You must do it; you must do it until I tell you, it has been fulfilled. Now, here's the thing. Jesus said in the quote that I gave you at the beginning, a Sermon on the Mount, He said, ". . .until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear. . ." until what? "Everything is fulfilled." Well, this has been fulfilled, brother and sisters, this has been fulfilled. The animal sacrificial system has been fulfilled and so has circumcision. So, the word can mean something other than eternally. For example, look at Deuteronomy 15:17, don't turn there, but just listen. Speaking of a servant who wants to become a permanent member of the family, it says, ". . .then take an awl and push it through his ear lobe into the door, and he will become your servant for life."
Now, is that a different forever than God's throne? Well, yeah, I mean, servant until he dies, so at least that much is the case, not eternal. Or how about this? Exodus 29:9, "You shall gird Aaron and his sons with sashes and bind caps on them. And the priesthood shall be theirs by a statute forever," or is that an eternal priesthood? Aaron's priesthood, an eternal? No, the Book of Hebrews said it was temporary. How about dietary regulations? Leviticus 3:17, "It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations, and in all your dwelling places, that you eat neither fat nor blood." Jesus declared all foods clean.
Or the atonement sacrifice. Leviticus 16:34, "This will be a statute forever," these are all the same Hebrew words for you, "that atonement may be made for people of Israel once a year because of their sins," blood atonement, animal sacrificial system. And Moses did as the Lord commanded him. These old covenant regulations were called eternal or everlasting, even though the New Covenant came and overturned them or ended them, fulfilled them really. And so, the basic meaning here is that this is established as a covenant until I come and tell you otherwise. And that's exactly what happened in the New Covenant.
The Covenant Child Designated: Sarah’s Son Isaac
Well, God goes beyond that in Verses 15 through 22, He designates the covenant child. He makes it very clear. Now, apparently Abram, Abram, you did not know. Let's call him Abraham now. See, I have to learn. See Abraham picked it right up. He knew he was Abraham that same day. But for me, it takes a little while to go back and forth−so Abraham.
Sarah’s Name Change: Meaning = Princess
You apparently are confused concerning who the woman is through whom you are going to have the promised child. Well, let's make that very clear right here, and right now, Genesis 17, "God said also to Abraham, 'As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.’ Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, ‘Will a son be born to a man 100 years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?’ And Abraham said to God, 'If only Ishmael might live under Your blessing!' Then God said, ‘Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.'" Verse 22, "When He had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him." It's very clear after that, through whom the child, the promise is coming, it's coming through your wife, Sarah.
God Exalts Marriage: It is through Sarah the Seed Will Come
So, God exalts marriage the way he originally established, one man, one woman, one flesh for life. This is your wife, and it's through her that the child is going to come. Now, Sarai’s name change, the new name means princess, is fitting for a mother of kings; the previous name Sarai, the meaning is unclear. But in effect, this is a new start for Sarai, she is going to be Sarah from now on, and she is going to be the mother of kings, it's not going to be some rabble or some hoard, it's going to be an organized people with kings one after the other. And so, it's an exalted name for her and a new start and a promise of fruitfulness and blessing. Verse 16, "I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations. . ." only with God's direct, supernatural blessing will this ever come. Sarai's womb had been barren, Sarah's womb would be fruitful one time, she would have a son, and his name would be Isaac.
Abraham’s Joy and Concern
Well, at this point, Abraham falls face down and laughs. Now, you could think this is the laugh of unbelief, and in Genesis 18, that's what it was for Sarah, she couldn't believe it and laughed through unbelief, but this is not the laugh of unbelief, this is the laugh of joy. This is what God does to you. He blesses you so that you laugh with joy or maybe you cry with joy, but God is into filling your heart with His blessings, and so he just falls on the ground and laughs. How do we know that he believed the Lord at this moment? Well, it says so in Romans. See, Romans is the commentary. You say, "Well, what commentaries do you use? I like to use Romans 4:19-21 to comment on Abraham's life. I think it's a great commentary, and so it says right there in the commentary, it says, "Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead−since he was about a hundred years old−and that Sarah's womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised."
Isn't that marvelous? And so, he was strengthened in his faith, and as I was going over this text this morning, God showed me an indicator right in the text that he believed the Lord right there. Look what it says, "He falls on the ground." And what does he say? "Will a son be born to a man 100 years old." And what does he say next? "Will Sarah bear a child at age 90?" He didn't say Sarai.
I mean, the news about Sarai to Sarah, that was just a few seconds old, he picks it up by faith, and the woman that he had known for all those decades as his wife, the wife of his youth, he had known her all her life as Sarai, he instantly changes her name in his mind to Sarah because God said so. And if God says so, that settles it to him, he's a man of faith, and so he changes her name in his own mind to Sarah, he believes the Lord. He also has a concern, and his concern is for Ishmael, like a good father, like Job who offered sacrifices for his sons and daughters thinking they might have cursed God in their hearts. If you are a good father, you will pray for your children, if you are a good father, you will be concerned about the spiritual welfare of your children.
You'll intercede for them, and that's what he does for Ishmael here, "If only Ishmael might live under Your blessing," he knew in the providence of God and the sovereign will of God, Ishmael was not the child of promise, God's plans were going to go another way, but he said, "What about Ishmael?" He said, "I have heard you: I will surely bless him.” “But my covenant I will establish with Isaac.” God is very clear about that.
The Covenant Obeyed
Immediate Obedience: To Delay is to Disobey
Well, in Verses 23-27, we see Abraham's faith in action. He obeys Him. To delay is to disobey, isn't it? You don't wait. If God tells you to do something, you do it. If He wants you to be in the intensive evangelism workshop, for example, maybe. To delay is to disobey. Alright, if God is calling on you to do something, you have to do it. And Verse 23 tells us, "On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and he circumcised them, as God told him."
True Faith Always Results in Obedience
Now, I doubt that God has asked you to do anything that difficult in the last year. This is a 99-year-old man, a 13-year-old son, every male that is with them, he had a large entourage with him, he led his family in obedience, and it was costly obedience. It was painful obedience. It was humbling obedience, and he did it, and he did it promptly, and he did it completely. True faith always results in complete and total obedience.
The Promise and Purpose of Circumcision: Fulfilled in Christ
Now we get back to our questions, I said at the end we would come full circle, what are the two key questions? Well, why did God command circumcision for the Jews? And why does He not command it for us?
Circumcision Was Required for Jews
Now, that's the question in front of us. First of all, was circumcision commanded for the Jews? Absolutely. We've seen it right here in the text. And you remember later in Exodus 4, when Moses had neglected to circumcise his own children, his wife, Zipporah, circumcises them and then basically chews him out saying, "Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me. . .” because you've not obeyed in this matter of circumcision." And it says right in that text, ". . .the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him” because he did not obey concerning circumcision. So yes, this was absolutely required for the Jews, no doubt about it.
Circumcision Not Required for Christians
Is circumcision required for Christians? No, it isn't. And why? Well, they had a big meeting in Acts 15, it was the mother of all church conferences there, and they all met and everybody came and they discussed things out, and you think you've had some hard church conferences. Well, this was very hot because you had some folks that read out of Genesis 17, now this is meant to be an everlasting covenant, it's meant to be an eternal covenant. And so, unless the Gentiles are circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses, they cannot be saved.
Paul and Barnabas come into sharp dispute and debate with them that they have got to meet to settle it, and so they do. And in Acts 15, we see a marvelous thing as both Paul and Peter stand up for what God wanted done. And that was a gospel of grace, a gospel of no longer being under the ceremonial law. And so, they wrote a letter to the Council of Jerusalem and refused to require Gentiles to be circumcised. Acts 15:28 says, "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements." It then gives a list of four things that help them not to offend their Jewish neighbors, but there is no sense of obligation or requirement to be circumcised in order to go to Heaven. And so, they resolved it. Meanwhile, the Apostle Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, wrote a whole book about it, the Book of Galatians, in which he takes on the circumcision party and says very plainly, we have freedom from the ceremonial law. You are begun by the Spirit; you are not completed by the flesh.
Now that you have been born again by the power of the Spirit of God, you don't then go back under a bunch of rules and regulations that neither we nor our fathers were ever able to keep. And so, it's an epistle of freedom. Martin Luther called it his Katie Von Bora, that's his wife's name. He loved Galatians because it freed him up from the legalistic system of Roman Catholicism which is so much like that circumcision group, freed up, and Paul establishes it very plainly. As I've said in Romans 4, Abraham was justified by faith alone just by hearing the word long before he was circumcised. And so, we do not need to be circumcised physically. But the New Testament also gives us a new way of understanding circumcision, not just a physical circumcision, a cutting off of the flesh physically, but rather a new circumcision inwardly, by the Spirit.
Listen to this. Romans 2:28-29 says, "A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God." You must be circumcised, but not in the old way, you must be transformed by the Spirit, you must be given a whole new nature in Christ, you must be born again by the Spirit because neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. What counts is a new creation, it says in Galatians 6:15. Also, in Colossians 2:11, it says "In him you are also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ." Now, why then did God command the Jews to do it if we don't have to do it? Well, I was reading a book recently by Jay Wile called Reasonable Faith: The Scientific Case for Christianity. This man is a good speaker and I really enjoy the things he writes. He says that circumcision was done for hygienic purposes. Have you heard this before? Dr. Wile shows how the rules regarding circumcision are based on medical knowledge that has only recently been uncovered over the last 30 years, showing that Jewish women have an amazingly lower clinical occurrence of cervical cancer than do non-Jewish women, and they trace it to the issue of circumcision. Well, that's probably true, but I don't think it was God's main thought. Okay. And why was it probably not God's main thought? Well, you know, I'm kind of offended that God would be so concerned for the Jews physically and not care about me as a Gentile. Doesn't He care about my wife? You see what I'm saying? Why would he take it off in the New Covenant, if that was His reason, hygiene? Same thing is true of the dietary regulations, they say it's because of pork. There wasn't refrigeration and all that. Have you heard this before? I'm thinking, “What? He doesn't love us.” If the reason was hygiene, He should have kept it on. Right, it wasn't hygiene. That's not why He did it. Why then? Why the rule for circumcision? Well, I believe that God put the ceremonial laws in there to carve out a people unto Himself, calling them Jews, a barrier as it were, a wall around the Jews that kept them Jewish until Christ was born.
And once Christ was born, once the Seed came, there was no longer any need for the ceremonial regulations. Let me read to you. That's what it says. Galatians 3:19, "What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come." Who's the Seed? It's Christ. Once Christ was born of a virgin, once He was born, you did not need animal sacrifice, you did not need circumcision, the dietary regulations, all that's done, because Jesus was born a Jew, and once the salvation is from the Jews, once the Jewish Savior was born in a Jewish nation, God changed what He wanted done with that barrier, that dividing wall. There was a barrier, dividing wall−Jew, Gentile−He tore it down. He took it down, and you know why? Because in the New Covenant, He wants one new person.
Listen to this, this is Ephesians 2:14-16, speaking of Christ, "For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one, [Jew, Gentile] and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in His flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which He put to death their hostility." Jesus at the cross tore down the barrier between Jew and Gentile, and so there wasn't any need for circumcision as a ceremonial regulation, and from then on it really is hygienic, it's not ceremonial, there's no purpose, ceremonially, there's no advantage and no disadvantage in your spiritual relationship with God concerning circumcision, and therefore decisions, if you have a boy baby, they really are hygienic, it really has nothing to do with religion, and frankly, it must not, because we're in a New Covenant now and the barrier has been torn down.
Now, what application can we take from this. Well, first of all, just marvel at God’s ways. I mean, only God could think up something like this. Circumcision, it's not an easy sermon to preach, this is the expository kind of approach, and it's like the kind you want to skip, you know. But at any rate, in Genesis 17, I want to understand, why did He do it? I want to put my mind under His, because as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are His ways higher than ours. So, let's marvel at God's higher ways, at the fact that He wanted to carve out a Jewish nation. And once Jesus was born, there was no need for the barrier any longer.
Secondly, understand the purposes and limitations of those ceremonial laws, like I just said, they are finished. You don't ever need to go back to that legalism again, you must not. We have freedom from all of those regulations, but we do not have freedom from the law of Christ. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and we are still to love our neighbor as ourselves. Above all things, trust in God's higher promise in Christ. You know, circumcision, uncircumcision, none of that means anything. What counts is being born again. If you're sitting and listening to me today, it doesn't matter how much regulations, how many of the rules you keep and all that, you'll never go to heaven that way, it's only by believing in Jesus Christ, the promised Seed, who was to come that you have eternal life, trust in Him today. Trust in Him, follow Him, love Him. And just like Abraham did, walk before Him and be blameless, and I'm speaking now to all of you who are born again, who call yourselves Christians, in effect, the Lord comes in the same way today as He did to Abram, Abraham, and He comes and says, "I am the Lord Almighty, walk before Me today and be blameless."