Circumcision and Baptism

Welcome, once again to our Bible study program.
Today we are discussing Circumcision and Christian baptism. Our focus is on the validity of the argument that Christian baptism is a continuation or fulfilment of circumcision of the Old Testament.

To start our study, let us have an overall picture of circumcision.
Circumcision is a religious rite prescribed in the Hebrew Bible. It is mentioned nearly one hundred times in the Bible.
For the Jewish people it is an integral part of the Abrahamic covenant.
Circumcision was enjoined upon the Biblical patriarch Abraham, his descendants and their slaves as "a sign of the covenant" between God and him (Genesis 17:11).
Thus it is commonly observed by two Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam.

Circumcision did not distinguish Israelite men from their foreign neighbors.
It was widely practiced in the ancient Near East by the western Semites, including the Ammonites, Moabites, Hebrews, and Edomites. But the method and significance was not always the same. But the people of the east Semitic nations like Mesopotamia, Canaan and Shechem did not practice it.
Some Rabbinical sources indicate that circumcision was practiced in certain nations even before the covenant of Abraham.
Jeremiah 9: 25, 26 contains indications that Israel’s neighbors were circumcised.
Archaeologists have also found that it was practiced in Syria and Phoenicia.
Textual remains indicate that circumcision in Egypt goes back to at least 2200 BC. That means it existed in Egypt even centuries before the Israelites were enslaved there.
Israelite men may have even submitted to Egyptian circumcision while in Egypt. That may the reason why Joshua commanded the men crossing into the Promised Land to be re-circumcised in order to “roll away the reproach of Egypt” (Joshua 5:2, 9).

But there is a major difference between the Jewish rite and the gentile practice.
People in non-Jewish nations associated the rite with puberty or with the approaching marriage.
According to the Halakha or the Jewish law, ritual circumcision of male children is a commandment from God, through their fore father Abraham that Jews are obligated to follow.
It must be done on the male infants only on the eighth day after his birth.
It is only postponed or abrogated in the case of threat to the life or health of the child. 
Jews do not believe that non-Jews are obligated to follow this commandment. The gentiles were to follow only the Seven Laws of Noah.

Circumcision is not a sacrament among the Jews. It does not affect a Jew's Jewish status. A Jew by birth is a Jew, even if not circumcised.
There were uncircumcised Jews on medical or other reasons.
During the Old Testament times and even today, circumcision used to cause hemorrhages, infections and sometimes even death.
So the Jewish religious authorities hesitate to circumcise a baby if two of his previous brothers died from circumcision.
Bible never say that circumcision has any health benefits.

But circumcision became a distinctive indication of Jewish fidelity to the Abrahamic covenant during the days of Jesus. The Greek paganism threatened to swamp Judaism since two centuries before Christ was born.
Jesus' circumcision was recorded as having been performed in accordance with Torah requirements in Luke 2:21.
The Greek Orthodox Church celebrates the Circumcision of Christ on 1 January, while Orthodox churches following the Julian calendar celebrate it on 14 January.

In the early days of the church, it maintained Jewish religious traditions. A controversy arose as the gospel was preached among Gentiles.
Jewish Christians felt that Gentiles should become Jew through circumcision before being able to experience Christ's saving work. They thought that circumcision was a necessary part of salvation and an effective guarantee.
Others repudiated this view of salvation by works, particularly when uncircumcised Gentiles received God's outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44-48).
The prophecies of Ezekiel and Joel that the Lord promised a clean heart and an indwelling of his Holy Spirit (Ezekiel 36:25-27) and that God would pour out his Spirit upon all flesh (Joel 2: 28; Acts 2:17), were now being fulfilled.
The spiritual significance of circumcision had been achieved by divine grace.
So the leaders of the Christian Church at the Council of Jerusalem rejected circumcision as a requirement for Gentile converts. (Acts 15).
This is the first official act of differentiation of early Christianity from its Jewish roots.

Today circumcision is prevalent in the religions of Judaism and Islam. It is also practices by the African churches like the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Eritrean Orthodox Church.

This is an overall view of circumcision. From here let us move forward to study the present topic, “Has Baptism replaced circumcision”?

Abrahamic covenant and circumcision

The first mention of a concept, incident, commandment or word in the Bible is very important. It is called the “law of first mention” and it is a legitimate interpretive principle.
The Bible’s first mention of a concept is the simplest and clearest presentation. The first mention contains the spiritual mystery in it. 

The concept of circumcision was introduced in the Bible in Genesis 17.
Before we focus on this chapter, let us see the story of Abraham so far.
His early name was Abram and was born in the city of Ur in Mesopotamia, in the present day Iraq. Mesopotamians did not practice circumcision.
His father Terah left their birth place along with Abram, Abram’s wife Sarai and Lot the grandson of Terah.
Though their aim was to reach Canaan, they stayed in the city of Haran.
We do not know why he discontinued the journey to Canaan. He died there at the age of 205 years.

After the death of Terah, God appeared to Abram and gave him the mission to move forward to Canaan and to generate a new nation. Abram was 75 years. Abram had no child, no land and no known special blessings.
But in Genesis 12: 3 God promised to bless him and protect him. “I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you”. This is the way God intends to protect Abram from enemies in strange lands.

Abraham spent much of his life wandering.
From Haran he went to Damascus in present-day Syria, Dan, Shechem and Jerusalem in Canaan. He stayed in Canaan for some time. Then again he went to Egypt because of a famine in the land. Again he returned to Canaan from Egypt rich with silver, gold and cattle.
In Genesis 15 God’s covenant was repeated and affirmed by shedding the blood of animals. God reveals his plan to raise a nation out of Abram. (Genesis 15: 13 - 16).
In Genesis 17, God changes the name Abram to Abraham and Sarai to Sara.
God repeats the covenant. Here God spoke of circumcision for the first time.

Genesis 17:10, 11
10 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;
11 and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.” (NKJV)

This is the first mention of circumcision in the Bible.
And God asked Abraham to circumcise himself, his household and his slaves who were bought with money, as an everlasting covenant in their flesh. Every male child in his generation must be circumcised on the eight day of his birth. (15:12)
This sign of covenant will be in their flesh for an everlasting covenant. (15:13)
Those who were not circumcised were to be 'cut off' from their people.

The covenant between God and Abraham was proclaimed by God in Genesis 12. It was repeated again at several occasions. In Genesis 15, the covenant was sealed with the shedding of blood.
In Genesis 17 God is giving a sign to the covenant, so that Abraham and all his descendants shall be assured of it.
Not only Abraham and his household but his slaves too were circumcised.
But no slave was numbered as inheritors of the covenant. Even Eliezer was excluded from it.
Abraham’s son, Ismael was circumcised, but he had no inheritance to the covenantal blessings. Ismael was blessed because Abraham prayed for him and he too was his son. (15:20; 21:13)
That means the sign of circumcision did not offer any inheritance to the Abrahamic covenant.
The purpose of the sign on the flesh is to remember the covenant.

Genesis 15:6 says that Abraham was counted righteous by faith, not by any work.
“And he believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)
This might have occurred before he became 86 years old, because it is recorded just before Ismael was born to him. (16:16).
Circumcision was given to him at the age of 89, four years later.
That means, circumcision has nothing to do with the righteousness of Abraham. No work is even counted as worthy for righteousness; only faith is accounted for it.

Moses and circumcision

Abraham and his descendants has been preserving the sign of circumcision for generations. But the story of Moses is a different interlude.
There is no evidence in the Bible that Moses was circumcised. His mother “hid him three months” for fear of being killed by the soldiers of Pharaoh.  So there is no chance that he was circumcised according to the Jewish practice.
Still it is possible that he might have been circumcised by the Egyptians because circumcision was practiced in the ancient Egypt.
The traditional rabbinic stories tell that Moses was born circumcised, without the foreskin.
But there is no evidence for the circumcision of Moses in the Bible. Moreover we have ample reasons to assume that Moses did not seriously practiced circumcision.

In the book of Exodus 4: 24-26, we read an interesting story of circumcision.
The story tells us that Moses did not circumcise his sons or at least one of his sons, who were born in Midian.
So God encountered him on his way back to Egypt from Midian and tried to kill him.
Then his Midianite wife, Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at Moses’ feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me, because of circumcision.
Here circumcision becomes a blood sign.
According to ancient Jewish tradition shedding blood was important in the rite of circumcision. So some traditions instruct to squeeze or suck blood out of the wound created by the circumcision.  

The next reference to circumcision in the Bible is in Exodus 12:43-50.
God commands to circumcise all males of the household before they partake in the Passover meal.
Now Passover was a type of the atonement for sin fulfilled in Christ on the cross. Passover is a type for salvation. Salvation requires circumcision.
Here again, not only the descendants of Abraham, but the salves bought for money and strangers could partake in the Passover meal after they were circumcised.
The meaning is simple, the circumcision in connection with the Passover is the type for the circumcision of heart. Later we shall read Moses speaking to the Israelites about the circumcision of heart.

But it seems, during their journey through the desert, Moses neglected to administer the rite of circumcision.
However in Leviticus 12: 3, we read God commanding Moses that, 'And on the eighth day the flesh of his (a male child) foreskin shall be circumcised.”
But the Children of Israel abandoned circumcision during Moses' leadership.
In Joshua 5: 2, we read God asking Joshua to "Make flint knives for yourself, and circumcise the sons of Israel again the second time."
And this is the reason why Joshua circumcised them: “For all the people who came out had been circumcised, but all the people born in the wilderness, on the way as they came out of Egypt, had not been circumcised.” (5:5)
That means, children born in the desert were not circumcised on the eighth day.
Then the LORD said to Joshua, "This day I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you." Therefore the name of the place is called Gilgal to this day. (5:9)
After that they kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the month at twilight on the plains of Jericho. (5:10)

This suggests two things: Moses did not practice circumcision, and the custom was abandoned under his leadership. Still none of them lost their identity as the descendants of Abraham.
But from the time of the first Passover, circumcision is a pre requisite for Passover, which is a type for salvation.

The meaning of circumcision

Now let us move to the meaning and significance of circumcision.
Abrahamic covenant was inherited by his descendants by physical birth. None born in the genealogy of Abraham, whether he is circumcised or not, was ever denied the status of a Jew.
Circumcision was the sign of a covenant that had a physical means of entrance.
One’s spiritual life was not connected to the sign of circumcision. Every male was circumcised, whether he showed any devotion to God or not.

The Abrahamic covenant was a two layer covenant. It was physical and spiritual.
Abraham was promised descendants, blessings and land. It was physical descendants, physical blessings and physical land. Abraham and his descendants physically inherited it.
Also in the Abrahamic covenant, there is spiritual descendants, spiritual blessings and spiritual land. Abraham was aware of the spiritual promises. That is why he lived “in the land of promise as in a foreign country, … for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” (Hebrews 11: 9, 10)

But even in the Old Testament there is recognition that circumcision and being a member of the nation of Israel was not enough for justification. 
God spoke through Moses in the book of Deuteronomy some 700 years after the institution of physical circumcision to Abraham and his seed as a mark of their covenant relationship with God.
In Deuteronomy 10:16, God spoke through Moses, "Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer.”
Moses again says in Deuteronomy 30: 6, that when they would come into the Promise Land, "And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”
Moses is asking to circumcise the heart of Israelites who has been already circumcised in the flesh. Circumcision in flesh stand apart from circumcision of the heart. One does not replace the other.
God gave physical circumcision to the seed of Abraham as a sign and seal of his covenant with Abraham. It did not equate with spiritual circumcision.
In addition to bearing the physical mark of covenant membership, they should also have spiritual qualities of commitment and obedience to the Lord's will. That is represented by the circumcision of the heart.

This revelation of circumcision is ascertained by the prophet Jeremiah also.
Jeremiah 4 starts with God asking Israelites to return to Him. In verse 4, God asks to, “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, And take away the foreskins of your hearts, You men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, Lest My fury come forth like fire, And burn so that no one can quench it, Because of the evil of your doings."
He is using the same language as Moses did some 800 years earlier, asking Israelites to circumcise their hearts and to repent and dedicate themselves.

Jeremiah 9: 25, 26 is another passage that ascertain the difference between both circumcisions.

Jeremiah 9: 25, 26
25 "Behold, the days are coming," says the LORD, "that I will punish all who are circumcised with the uncircumcised-
26 "Egypt, Judah, Edom, the people of Ammon, Moab, and all who are in the farthest corners, who dwell in the wilderness. For all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart."

Here Judah is counted among the uncircumcised nations like Egypt, Edom, Ammon and Moab.
And the prophet clearly says that, “all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart”.
That means the physical circumcision is not equivalent to spiritual circumcision of heart. Even those who are circumcised in flesh must receive the spiritual circumcision.
Spiritual circumcision in the Old Testament is repentance from their disobedience to God. That is the meaning of Jeremiah 6: 10, “Indeed their ear is uncircumcised, And they cannot give heed.”

Let us summarize our observations about circumcision in the Old Testament.
Circumcision in flesh was a sign given to Abraham and his physical descendants for inheriting the physical promises; and circumcision of the heart was necessary to inherit the spiritual blessings.
In the Old Testament, circumcision was applied to Jews and the slaves of Jews only. Apart from that, circumcision never applied to people outside the Jewish faith.
Circumcision in flesh is a sign of the Abrahamic covenant. The Abrahamic covenant was with Israelites and not with other nations.
Even while the Old Testament Israelites were circumcised in flesh, God commanded them to circumcise their heart.
Circumcision in flesh started with Abraham and ends with his physical descendants, Israelites.
But the circumcision of heart is seen in the New Testament also.
That means, circumcision in flesh and circumcision of heart are not Old Testament spiritual mysteries that have a progressive revelation in the New Testament. They remain the same with the same ritual and same purpose in the New Testament also.
Something that is not a progressive revelation cannot be fulfilled or realized in the New Testament.

With these understanding let us proceed to the New Testament revelations about circumcision and baptism.  

The New Testament

The New Testament Christians are no longer under the Old Testament Law concerning the physical promises of Abraham. And so circumcision is no longer required.
This is the first theological doctrine that church ascertained in the Council of Jerusalem dated around 50 AD. The council was held to debate whether the gentile Christians should observe circumcision in flesh.
It was occasioned by the insistence of certain Judaic Christians from Jerusalem that Gentile Christians from Antioch in Syria, should obey the circumcision in flesh.
A delegation, led by the Apostle Paul and his companion Barnabas, was appointed to confer with the elders of the church in Jerusalem.
At the Council of Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15, they discussed this issue under the leadership of apostles James, Peter and Paul.
Apostle Peter spoke of salvation being by the grace of Jesus and not based on the sign of circumcision. James spoke of God's invitation to Gentiles and saw no need to require them to be circumcised.
Ultimately, the council wrote a letter to the churches. The letter contained the following decision.

Acts 15: 28, 29
28  For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things:
29 that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell. (NKJV)

Thus the first Council at Jerusalem proclaimed that circumcision in flesh is purely Jewish sign of Abrahamic covenant and gentile Christians need not follow it.
They did not say that circumcision in flesh is fulfilled or realized in Christian baptism.
Even after the council of Jerusalem, circumcision in flesh was practiced by Jewish Christians. At the same time, all Christians, Jewish and gentile, practiced Christian baptism also.

Pauline theology

Let us now consider briefly Paul’s view of circumcision.
The question of circumcision was crucial throughout the ministry of Apostle Paul.
Paul speaks of himself “as I am an apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13).
And he never advocated circumcision in flesh.
In Romans 2: 28, 29 he says,

28  For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh;
29  but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.”

Here Paul distinguishes between physical and spiritual circumcision. Let us read some more verses.

1 Corinthians 7:19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters.”

Galatians 5: 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.

Galatians 6: 15 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation.

In the above verses, Paul says that circumcision is not much important. He places “keeping the commandments”, “faith working through love” and “new creation” above circumcision.
In Ephesians 2:8, we read, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God,”
That means, salvation came to Christians by grace and faith, not works. For the believer, circumcision or the lack of it is a matter of total indifference. What really counted was the faith and obedience that have always characterized covenants between God and humankind.

We are delivered from our sins as the result of faith in Christ that Christ’s finished work on the cross saves and not the observance of an external rite.
Even the Law acknowledged that circumcision in flesh alone was insufficient to please God.
Moses himself asked the Israelites to “circumcise your hearts” (Deuteronomy 10:16)
In salvation, the works of the flesh accomplish nothing (Galatians 2:16).
In Galatians 1: 6 Paul calls, ‘salvation by works’ as someone who preach “a different gospel”.

Paul’s theology on circumcision centers on the inner as opposed to outer. It is the disjunction between the outer rite and the inner reality. Paul never deviates from this theology in any matter.

Now let us see what Paul thought about Christian baptism.
Christian Baptism is totally different from circumcision in meaning and structure. Baptism is a progressive revelation.
Baptism existed among the Israelites even when circumcision was practiced. At more than one occasions, Israelites had the command of God to wash themselves in order to wash away the unholiness from them.
Hebrews 9:10 refers to the Old Testament “various washings”. Here Paul uses the Greek word “baptismos” which is the same word used for Christian baptism.
In the Jewish tradition, baptism was prescribed to all those who convert to the Jewish faith.
That means, baptism was not something new to the Jews when John the Baptist came baptizing. But by the ministry of John the Baptist, washing of body became “a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” (Mark 1: 4)
Jesus accepted baptism from John the Baptist. But He never preached baptism and He did not baptize anybody. (John 4:2)
But Jesus, after His resurrection and before He went to heaven, commanded His disciples to baptize all those who believe and make them disciples. He did not give any further interpretation to baptism.
That means, the disciples, at that time, understood the teaching of John as the meaning and purpose of baptism.
But later Apostle Paul reveals the mystical meaning of Christian baptism.
According to Apostle Paul, Christian baptism unites us to Christ in his death and resurrection.

Romans 6: 3-5
3    Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?
4    Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
5    For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, (NKJV)

So according to Apostle Paul, Christian baptism is an identification with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection in order that we might live “in newness of life”. It is symbolic of our union with Christ.
For Paul and the early Christians salvation and baptism were held together. All converts to Christianity were baptized as soon as possible. Salvation and baptism was not two separate events that took place at a long time of interval.
So Apostles in their epistles talked about salvation and baptism as one and the same event.
But Christian baptism is not a part of salvation; it is a public declaration of what happened to us when we are saved. Baptism does not save a person, yet serves as a public testimony that a person has believed in Jesus as God's risen Son and Savior.
Through baptism, we picture the fact that we are dead to sins and raised to live a new life.
Baptism is an outward testimony of an inward change that is already happened. No physical change takes place during baptism.
Baptism is not the means to enter into the New Covenant. Salvation that happens due to the circumcision of heart is the means to the New Covenant.
Christian Baptism is not a physical or spiritual sign of a believer; but circumcision of heart is the spiritual sign of a born again person. The sign is in the heart not in the flesh.

Colossians 2: 11, 12

Now let us discuss a Bible verse that is usually cited by the supporters of infant baptism. Their main argument is that circumcision in flesh is realized or replaced by the Christian baptism.
We have already seen that circumcision in flesh and circumcision of the heart are two different things commanded by God in the Old Testament itself.
They are not progressive revelations and hence cannot be realized in the New Testament. Both circumcisions are seen in the same structure and meaning in the New Testament also.

The verses used for their argument are as follows:

Colossians 2:11, 12
11 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,
12 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. (NKJV)

The last reference to baptism in the Bible, if Colossians was written after Hebrews, is Colossians 2:12. One of the last reference to circumcision is in Colossians 2:11.
This is the only place in the Bible that mentions both circumcision and baptism in a single verse.
A careful reading of the verse reveals the fact that Paul is not talking about circumcision in flesh as practiced in the Old Testament.
Paul is not talking about Abrahamic circumcision, because that circumcision was made with hands. Paul is talking about a “circumcision made without hands”, which put off the sins of the flesh.
So the plain meaning of the verse is that, since we have put off the sins of the flesh, we have received in Christ a circumcision made without hands.
This circumcision is spiritual and is a pre requisite for Christian baptism.

In Philippians 3:2 and 3, Paul makes this statement more clear:

Philippians 3: 2, 3
2    Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation!
3    For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh, (NKJV)


I am concluding this study. Before that let me bring to your notice one or two things more.
Christ’s Great Command before He went to heaven was to preach the gospel, baptize those who believed and teach to discipleship. He did not say anything about circumcision in flesh.
The New Covenant affirmed by Christ has a spiritual means of entrance: one must believe and be saved (Acts 16:31).
The circumcision in flesh started with Abraham and ends with the physically covenant people, the Jews.
The New Covenant requires a spiritual circumcision of the heart.
But the circumcision of the heart and Christian baptism do not signify precisely the same realities.
Baptism includes spiritual circumcision but also signifies more, namely, burial and resurrection.

According to Romans 2: 29, “circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.”
Circumcision of heart is a spiritual process done by the Holy Spirit.
In other words, a Christian enters a covenant relationship with God not based on a physical ritual but by what the Holy Spirit has done in the heart.
That means, no physical act, including baptism, merit for salvation.

Finally, there are proof in Bible that circumcision in flesh and Christian baptism existed among the first century Jewish Christians.
The first council of Jerusalem proclaimed that circumcision in flesh is not necessary for gentile Christians.
But soon after that, Paul circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3).
Timothy's mother was Jewish and father was Greek; so Timothy was Jewish by Jewish law.
Paul circumcised him so that he would not be a hindrance as they sought to reach out to unsaved Jews.
However, Paul absolutely refused to circumcise Titus, though he was a Greek. (Galatians 2:3)

There was no controversy in the first century church whether circumcision in flesh is replaced by baptism or not. The controversy was about circumcision in flesh and salvation.
We have discussed in detail, Paul’s answers to this controversy, already. So I am not repeating it.

Let me cut short. Hope this study has been a blessing to you all.
May God bless you all abundantly!

Watch more videos in English and Malayalam @
Listen to the audio message @
Read study notes in English at our official web:
Read study notes in Malayalam @

No comments:

Post a Comment