- The Role of the Old Testament
- Sabbath and Circumcision
- Setting the Scene
- Why would Paul not Circumcise?
- What about “The Law”?
- So, what about Sin?
- Children of Abraham? or of God?
- What if someone was already a Jew?
- Equality before God
- Equipping the Saints
A ‘Judaiser’ is someone who insists that a believer in Christ must join the Covenant of Moses, which was ratified at Mt Sinai around 1300BC. The Apostle Paul was routinely persecuted by Judaisers, who were scandalised that Paul’s non-Jewish (“Gentile”) converts were not being circumcised.
The Judaisers are back.
There is a whole movement now attempting to convince Christians to become associated with the Sinai Covenant. In fact, they seem to care about little else. At it’s core, this movement is related to Jewish anti-missionary teaching, designed to de-convert Christians. For around 1700 years, Judaisers have not featured strongly in the Christian life, at least in the Western Church, so the Church simply doesn’t teach believers about that threat. In fact, the Church doesn’t even teach its teachers about it any more.
The Role of the Old Testament
Firstly, it is vital to recognise that what we call the “Old Testament” (which means, “Old Covenant”), was known to the Apostle Paul, along with some other documents, as “the Scriptures”. Clearly, because Paul had not yet written his letters, most of the New Testament writings did not exist. The Gospels were around, in oral and/or written form, but no other part of what we recognise as “The New Testament” was available.
In understanding what Paul was saying, we must attempt, just for a moment, to move the New Testament out of our minds and focus exclusively on the Old Testament, plus the stories about what Jesus had said and done. This is what Paul was working with.
Sabbath and Circumcision
The Covenant which was ratified by Moses at Sinai was signified by Sabbath observance (Exodus 31:13). Circumcision, however, signified the Covenant between Abraham and God, some 430 years earlier (Genesis 17:11). Circumcision was recognised by Moses (Leviticus 12:2-3), because it was still important. It signified to whom the promises, land and countless progeny, had been made: (Genesis 15:4-7). But, as Jesus points out circumcision is not really a “Moses” thing:
“Moses gave you circumcision (it is, of course, not from Moses, but from the patriarchs)…”
– John 7:22
Promise and Law
Importantly, the first covenant with Abraham was all about a promise. The second, through Moses, was God giving “The Law” to the people.
Setting the Scene
So let’s look at the situation from the perspective of Jesus’ day.
The Jews were circumcising (Luke 1:59; Luke 2:21), and also observing Sabbath and the accompanying laws of Moses, certain that these things would mark them out as the People of God when the expected Messiah came to redeem them (John 9:16).
Jesus found himself frequently in strife over the Sabbath law (Click for examples). He didn’t have much opportunity to cause a fuss with circumcision because he was generally speaking to circumcised Jews. He preached to non-Jews on occasion, and at one time they came to faith en masse (John 4:39-42). As Samaritans these were probably already circumcised, but there is no mention of any teaching about the ongoing practice. We might reasonably assume Jesus Baptised them (given his ministry of Baptism mentioned in Verses 1 and 2 of the same chapter), but he had no teaching about circumcision for them, nor the uncircumcised gentiles he spoke with.
But Paul, on the other hand, was ministering primarily to Gentiles. They had not been circumcised, otherwise they would not be called Gentiles (Ephesians 2:11). When they came to faith, Paul specifically excluded the possibility that they would be circumcised (1 Corinthians 7:18-20), and for that, the Judaisers persecuted him (Galatians 5:11).
Why would Paul not Circumcise?
The reason is Justification, and Covenant.
To be circumcised was to be initiated into the Covenant of Circumcision. For a physical descendant of Abraham, circumcision was a sign of his Abrahamic ancestry. For a Gentile, it was a sign that he was converting to Judaism, by coming into the Covenant which is signified by circumcision. If a man was circumcised, he would then be bound to the Sinai Covenant which includes Sabbath-keeping and all the associated Laws, Sacrifices, Feasts, Tithes, Dietary Restrictions, and so forth, which were established at Sinai (Exodus 12:48). In doing so, a person would be signifying that these are the things by which they will be recognised as “people of God”, when Messiah comes.
But Messiah came…
When Jesus came, he certainly was able clearly to distinguish the People of God because they had, to some extent, at least kept these signifying marks alive (Matthew 15:24). In any case, in the final judgement, Jesus revealed, these are not the marks that will determine who will be vindicated. That justification will be according to their acts of love and care (Matthew 25:31-46), and when He returns He will be seeking “faith” (Luke 18:8). Contrary to their expectation, justification won’t be a question of who can claim Abraham as a physical ancestor at all (John 8:39-59).
It may be salient to note that the Sabbath-keeping and Circumcision, and all the other distinctives of Judaism, had more to do with the People of God identifying their Saviour than the other way around (Galatians 3:23-24). Indeed, to a significant extent those measures were instituted so that the People of God could identify themselves as being distinct from the world (Leviticus 20:26).
Jesus established a “new covenant” (Luke 22:20), which was to be different from the earlier one (Jeremiah 31:31-32). This covenant includes a promise, not of “land”, like the Abrahamic covenant, but the Holy Spirit (John 7:39; John 14:17; John 20:22; Acts 1:8). Entry into it is by Baptism into his name, as Peter describes at Pentecost:
… this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…”
– Acts 2:16-17
Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear.
– Acts 2:33
Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.’
– Acts 2:38-39
Stop Press (added after publishing):
Without wanting to copy/paste the whole Bible here, it is worthwhile including Paul’s explicit teaching about “covenants” here:
Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise.
Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother.
– Galatians 4:21-26
What this does is establish beyond any doubt that what Paul is discussing is the Sinai Covenant. There are many who try to suggest that Paul was talking about extra-Biblical traditions, but this passage is absolutely crystal clear: Believers are not entering the Sinai Covenant.
What about “The Law”?
The Law is Good
Because he was so brutally persecuted, Paul found himself often explaining that the Law given at Mt Sinai was not some kind of evil thing that he was saving people from! The problem was not that the law was “bad”. The problem was that the people were bad, and the Law, which is rigid, was the undoing of the people.
What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead.
So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.
Did what is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.
– Romans 7:7-8, 10-13
It is put very clearly in the Epistle to the Hebrews:
if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need to look for a second one. But God finds fault with them [the people].
– Hebrews 8:7-8
The Sinai Covenant does not demarcate who is acceptable before God
In fact, Paul recognises that even people who have never heard of the Sinai Covenant are able, and are responsible, to live up to the principles of the Law (Romans 2:14-16). When they do, it is to the shame of the circumcised Jews who should know better because they have the Law (Romans 2:27).
In this way, circumcision proves nothing with respect to the law. If someone is circumcised and disobeys the law, they might as well be uncircumcised. If someone uncircumcised upholds the principles of the law, they are as pious and respectable as someone who is circumcised.
Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So, if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?
– Romans 2:25-26
How can an uncircumcised Gentile be considered Righteous?
In a detailed and careful argument, most of which is lost on the modern church because it relates to theological concerns which are not commonly touched upon in the modern context, Paul outlines how it is that a believer can be “righteous” (which means, “properly in covenant relationship”), without circumcision, and without entering the Sinai Covenant at all. This mostly happens in Romans Chapter 4, and Galatians Chapter 3 is a helpful additional reference.
Essentially the logic is this:
Abraham is the Elect one, to whom the promises were made, and Abraham’s descendants are the heirs of that promise (Romans 4:13).
This is vitally important. It means that only Abraham’s descendants are heirs! Circumcision had been originally designed to mark those descendants (Genesis 17:10-14).
But in chapters 2 and 3, Paul has just explained that the people have broken the covenant. Their circumcision is therefore worthless in terms of justifying them. The Gentiles are no better. What that means is that God is seeking the one true “offspring”, (literally, “seed”) of Abraham, to whom the promise applies. God provided this “One”, in Jesus Christ, God’s own son (Galatians 3:16).
So then, Jesus Christ is both the archetypal “Son of Abraham”, and also the only true Son of God.
Now, Abraham is “righteous”, but Paul makes an astute observation:
We say, ‘Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.’
How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.
– Romans 4:9-10
What’s the big deal with this? Well, it means that “circumcision” is not equal to “righteousness”. Abraham was righteous before he was circumcised! That’s a scandalous thing to realise, for a 1st Century Jew who is used to seeing circumcision as the demarcation between the righteous and the unrighteous.
But there’s more! Paul goes on to conclude that the way by which Abraham was counted righteous is actually the norm. It is not by circumcision, but by living out the same faith as Abraham, that a person becomes a “son of Abraham”:
He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he was circumcised.
– Romans 4:11-12
Paul drives this point home, adding that this is actually important in terms of comprehending God’s grace:
For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’)
– Romans 4:16-17
He leaves us in no doubt. This principle applies also to us:
his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him’, were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.
– Romans 4:22-25
All this, to say that believers in Christ are part of the Elect of God without being circumcised, and therefore without entering the Sinai Covenant. After all, as Paul points out in Galatians, the Sinai Covenant didn’t happen until 430 years after Abraham was declared righteous “by faith” (Galatians 3:17-18). Therefore it can’t possibly be the standard by which God’s people are ultimately judged!
So, what about Sin?
The Jews had long held the view that their Law kept them from a state of chaos and dissipation called, “lawlessness”. So then, what does Paul say to the charge that removing the Law would cause this sinfulness, chaos and rebellion? He poses that as a rhetorical question and emphatically answers it:
What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!
– Romans 6:15
Of course, Paul’s logic is sound. After all, Abraham never required the Sinai Covenant, nor did the other patriarchs, nor did Enoch, nor Abel, for example. Because rules don’t stop moral decay, as he reflects in Colossians:
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.
– Colossians 2:20-23
But in Romans, Paul is saying more than “the Law doesn’t solve anything”. He is saying that we are better equipped than those under the Law. We are “led by the Spirit”! The first half of Chapter 8 explores the ways in which this is better than relying on the Law, and is summarised in verses 12-13:
So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
– Romans 8:12-14
Children of Abraham? or of God?
Notice the shift between Chapter 4, in which Paul is pointing to faith as the mark of those who are children of Abraham, and Chapter 8 in which believers are children of God. Is there a difference? Yes… and no.
How do we become “sons of Abraham”?
By repeating the example of faith set by Abraham.
How do we do that?
We believe what God has promised (that’s what Abraham did).
What has God promised?
Eternal life in His Son.
How does one come to be “in His Son”?
So then, whereas “child of Abraham” is not the same thing as “child of God”, the two concepts become coterminous in Christ. To become one is to become the other.
You see, we skipped over Chapter 6. The key message of Chapter 6 is that by Baptism, we are “in Christ”.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
– Romans 6:3-5
Some time, I’ll post more detail about this language of “in” Christ. It relates to the question of ancestry. What is important to note is that we are Baptised “into” Christ Jesus. Because Jesus is the Son of God, that means believers are also children of God, just as we would be if we were descended from Jesus Himself.
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
– Romans 8:14-17
What if someone was already a Jew?
If someone was already a Jew, they were already in the Sinai Covenant. That covenant had reached its purpose. It’s purpose was to bear Christ, and to identify Him for the faithful (As I say above, it was because of this covenant that Jesus was able to identify the Israelites). It was no longer required:
Christ is the end (defining purpose) of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
– Romans 10:4
In speaking of ‘a new covenant’, he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.
– Hebrews 8:13
Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made
– Galatians 3:19
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.
– Galatians 3:23-26
How to Exit the Sinai Covenant
But the Covenant into which the Jews had been circumcised was a lifetime commitment. There was no “honourable discharge” from it. What were Jews to do when they came to faith?
Paul explains, starting in Chapter 6, that Baptism is an inclusion in the death of Christ (Romans 6:3). Because of that death, the Jewish believer has completed their “lifetime commitment”…
Do you not know, brothers and sisters—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only during that person’s lifetime? Thus a married woman is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies, she is discharged from the law concerning the husband. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man, she is not an adulteress.
In the same way, my friends, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God.
– Romans 7:1-4
Equality before God
Because the Jews were released from their commitment to the Sinai Covenant, and the Gentiles were not required to enter it, both Jew and Gentile were equal before God. This was vitally important, in a setting in which Jews were living in a class-system in which the Jews were considered God’s chosen, and the Gentiles were, for ritual purposes, “unclean”, and “foreign”. Gentiles were considered, “far off” from God.
The Gospel, therefore, was equality between Jews and Gentiles – a radical revolution in thought! Again, references to this startling reality are largely lost on the modern audience. They are, however, central to Paul’s thinking:
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.
– Ephesians 2:11-20
Equipping the Saints
I trust this little commentary will provide Christians with information and clarity concerning the Sinai Covenant, when they are accused of “lawlessness” by modern-day Judaisers. To indicate how important the subject was to Paul, consider this, from his letter to the Galatians (I could as easily copy/paste the whole letter, but this part is the most focussed…):
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.
You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth? Such persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. I am confident about you in the Lord that you will not think otherwise. But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty. But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offence of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!
– Galatians 5:1-12
The graphic in this article appears to belong to “Ernie”, who also used it in discussing Judaisers on his blog.