“Miss!” asks the inquisitive Sunday School-er, “What’s circumcision?” Miss turns the colour of an Englishman on Bondi Beach. “Don’t worry about that,” she flusters. “That’s for grown-ups.”
But it’s not. According to Genesis 17, circumcision is for 8-day-olds. It was a “sign of the covenant” given to Abraham and his seed. So from the earliest time, Israelite boys were to have the LORD’s covenant “in their flesh.” (Genesis 17:13)
There are two repeated words in the chapter that tell us the meaning of the ritual. The first is the word “cut”.
When the Hebrews spoke of making a covenant, they wouldn’t say “make”, they’d say “cut”. You “cut” a covenant. Yesterday we saw why. The LORD pronounces His covenant vows while passing between the cut animals. His promises were blood-oaths grounded in His own future cutting off.
So naturally the “sign of the covenant” would be a “cutting” sign. In fact the word for circumcision is the word “cutting off.” And for those who wouldn’t own the sign of circumcision – they would be “cut off” from the community (Genesis 17:14).
Why? Well that brings us to the other prominent word in this chapter: “seed”.
In fact it occurs 7 times in Genesis 17. Abraham is reminded again and again that the promises of God are for his seed.
Well then, if the promises are to Abraham’s seed, doesn’t it seem a little dangerous to be cutting off the flesh… down there? Aren’t the Israelites doing something perilously close to cutting off the seed??
Indeed they are. But that’s the point. The sign of the covenant will be a bloody pre-enactment of the cutting off of The Seed – Jesus Christ. Abrahamites will wear in their bodies a symbol of the cross – the true cutting off. For when the LORD Christ is cut off we are spared the same.
Therefore circumcision is, as Paul says, a sign of righteousness by faith (Romans 4:11). Those who cut the sign of the covenant into their flesh were expressing faith in the true cutting-off. And by that cutting off on the cross we are all justified.
Circumcision was never meant to be a badge of pride. It’s not something you could show off! It was never meant to be a human work to please God. Actually it was a sign of God’s covenant love given to His people. It was a sign and seal for God’s people and their households – a gracious gift to unworthy people. Even to unresponsive people (8 day olds!).
Today, we do not put a bloody sign of the covenant onto our bodies. That would be inappropriate now that the Seed has been cut off. Instead we have a water-sign – baptism (Colossians 2:11-12). Yet both signs are gracious gifts from God – seals of His covenant love. And the people of God are meant to grow up under these signs and, as they grow, to own the realities to which they point. Consider these words from the French Reformed baptism service. They capture beautifully what it means to grow up under the sign of the covenant. May these promises surround you today:
“Little child, for you Jesus Christ came into the world, laboured and suffered. For you, he went through the agony of Gethsemane and the darkness of Calvary. For you, he cried: « It is finished! ». For you, he died and for you he triumphed over death. Yes, for you, little child, the declaration holds true, We love God, because he first loved us. Amen!”
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