The Ritual of Circumcision

The Mark of Abraham’s Family

God called Abram from modern day Iraq (Ur of the Chaldeas) into a land called Canaan. He promised him a personal blessing, a national blessing and a universal blessing (Gen. 12:1-3). God’s promised blessings were tied to a special land. That land stretched from Egypt on the south to the Tigress Euphrates River on the north. This land today includes a part of Egypt, modern day Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan.

God began to unfold this promise to Abram by the miraculous birth of one child, Isaac. God rejected Abraham’s fleshly methods to produce the promised heir, but God brought Isaac to life. God then gave to Abraham and to his people a physical sign that was to remind them of exactly how God’s promise of Isaac came to be.  God gave them the sign of circumcision.

The Ritual of Circumcision

“Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; Walk before Me, and be blameless. I will establish My covenant between Me and you, And I will multiply you exceedingly. Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying,  ‘As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations.’” (Genesis 17:1-4)

Just before God gave Abraham the sign of circumcision, He changed his name!

“No longer shall your name be called Abram, But your name shall be Abraham; For I will make you the father of a multitude of nations.” (Gen. 17:5)

  • No longer shall your name be called Abram

The Hebrew name “Avram” means “father of the high place.”  The high place was the name of the pyramid in Ur of the Chaldeas. This is where the moon god of Ur was worshipped.  It was the name that his father Terah, who was a moon god worshipper, had given him. Abraham had grown up as a pagan.

  • But your name shall be Abraham

Abraham means “father of multitudes.” From the father of the high place to the father of many nations was a miracle wrought by God.

  • For I have made you a father of many nations

Abraham would be a father of many different nationalities!

  • I will make you exceedingly fruitful

Notice the continuance of the little phrase, “I will.”  Everything that happened to Abraham was to be carried out by God alone.  God does not say, “Abraham if you will be faithful to me or if you do this or that, then I will do this.” The fulfillment of this promise depended solely upon God. Remember the meaning of the blood covenant of Genesis 15:7-19.

  • “I will” make nations from you

Abraham’s physical descendants would be the source of these nations.  Abraham would have one special physical descendant, the Lord Jesus Christ. Through Him all the nations of the earth will be blessed.

“To be God to you and your descendants after you. Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession and I will be their God.”

This is a momentous occasion. It is extremely important! In the founding of the race of the Jews, a permanent training aid was established for all future generations.

  • As for you, you shall keep My covenant,

“Keep” means to guard something of extreme value.

  • You and your descendants after you throughout their generations.

God is instructing Abraham and his future family to guard this covenant promise.  The covenant promise was to be number one on their scale of values.  God then repeated Himself.  When God repeats, we must pay close attention.

  • This is My covenant which you shall keep between Me (Jehovah; party of the first part) and you (Abraham; party of the second part) and your descendants after you, Every male child among you shall be circumcised

Male is the Hebrew word zakar. It is taken from the verb zaker, which means “to remember.” Every male child was going to a memorial child. This was to become a means to stimulate their memory. What was the memorial child to cause the people to remember?  In a broad sense, they were to remember the Abrahamic covenant. But in a more detailed sense, it was to remind the Jews that Abraham had failed to produce an heir acceptable to God by means of his flesh. This resulted in Ishmael, who became the source of perpetual conflict. God then allowed Abraham to grow very old and incapable of physically producing a child.  At that point, Abraham separated himself from his fleshly attempt and zeroed in on the source of His blessing, God.  He walked by faith alone before God.  At that point, God gave him a miracle heir, Isaac.

  • And you (plural; you and your descendants) shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins

Abram and the males in his house and all the male children in his future family were to cut away the dead flesh from that which perpetuates the flesh to remember that Abraham did not succeed by his flesh.

  • And it shall be a sign

Sign is the Hebrew word, oth. It means a sign of memory. A sign is something that could be seen in order to reveal the unseen (something in the spiritual realm).  Circumcision was to be a sign to stimulate the memory of Abraham’s failure and faith.  What was the spiritual truth to bring into the memory of those in the future?

  • Of the covenant between Me (God) and you (Abraham).

Abraham was to remember that it was God alone who walked between the sacrifices (Gen. 15:12-15).  God alone was going to keep His promise to Abraham. It was this truth and not the symbol that was to be remembered.

In a detailed sense, it was to remind the Jews for thousands of years to obey God by faith and that faith alone would bring the fulfillment of the promise from God.  Circumcision became an ongoing memorial sign to the Jews that the power of God is greater than any power on earth. God alone can give life to the dead. With God nothing shall be impossible. When God makes a promise, He keeps it!

Remembered the Ritual, Forgot the Reason

Israel remembered to perform the ritual act, but they forgot the spiritual reason behind it.

“Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your hearts.” (Jer. 4:4)

Notice what Jeremiah meant by his use of the word “circumcision.  God was asking them to open up the eyes of their minds. Their minds needed circumcising!  It was the method that God used to call the Jews to obedience.

It was not the ritual that God intended that the Jews remember, but the reality behind the ritual. Circumcision was to remind the Jews to walk before God by faith, like their forefather Abraham. But they soon forgot the faith part of the ritual of circumcision. Circumcision became just a ceremony that caused the Jew to become arrogant and proud. It became a religious symbol that separated them, in their own eyes, from the pagan Gentiles that lived around them. The mark of circumcision made them proud, and they flaunted it.

The first deacon, Stephen, described the Jewish nation during Christ’s day:

“You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears.  You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you.” (Acts 7:51)

The Jews had rejected God’s Messiah sent to them.  They would not even listen to God.

The Reality of Circumcision

Is there a real meaning behind the physical symbol that is meant for us? Yes, there is!

“For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in (have confidence in) Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.” (Phil. 3:3)

Believers today are living out the true meaning of circumcision.  How? When we believe in Christ, we are baptized into Him.  Now notice how our baptism into Christ fulfills the Abrahamic covenant to us!

“And you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power.  In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.” (Col. 2:10-11)

Literally the Greek says, “in Him you have been made complete.” I assume complete means complete, lacking nothing.  Principality is rule; power is authority. Upon being placed into union with Christ, we become identified with His death and His resurrection. At that point we were freed from the authority of sin.

“In Christ” God separated us from the authority of our flesh. That is the reality of the symbol of circumcision. Sin no longer has authority over us at all.

The circumcision in Genesis 17:11 was a sign for the birth of a new race and meant that this race would always exist. The baptism of the Spirit at Pentecost also marks the beginning of a new race – the body of Jesus Christ.

“Buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way (that is the curse imposed by the law) having nailed it to the cross.” (Col. 2:12-14)

Christ cancelled out the debt of sin that we owe. Circumcision for believers today is a spiritual truth, not a physical experience.  Our spiritual position in Christ has separated us from the authority of the flesh (Rom. 6). We are to make this truth a reality in our lives by yielding to the Lord and not to the authority of the flesh.


New American Standard Bible

Brown, Driver, and Briggs Hebrew Definitions

Robert B. Thieme, Jr.

Bible Knowledge Commentary; Old Testament

A. T. Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament