One of the strangest modern trends is the gentile adoption of an ancient semitic practice, circumcision. For much of history Europeans, and even European Christians looked on circumcision as an abhorrent practice, a peculiarity of semitic peoples.
The Bible is very pro-circumcision and very anti-circumcision, depending on the context and the Testament. In this message I explained why circumcision is not for Gentiles.
The Circumcision Party – We start with the circumcision party. Now if you are coming in cold to this sermon right about here online, this might seem like the most horrifying kind of party you could imagine. “Let’s all go to a circumcision party” are words you never want to hear in your life, especially if you are a man. You might think Christians were even stranger than you thought. But thankfully the context of our passage gives a different spin on these words, “10 For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. 11 They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach.” Who is this circumcision party that Paul is talking about? They are Judaizers, Jews who were seeking to place the early church under the law of circumcision and Moses.
We read about some of these fellows in Acts 15, “1 But some men came from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. 3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. 5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
These Judaizers were a constant thorn in the flesh of Paul and the other Apostle’s. They were determined to seek to make law practitioners of the new Gentile Christians. The question I want to ask is why? Why were these Jesus confessing Pharisees so determined to place the Gentiles under their traditions?
Was it because they liked the idea of a circumcision party? Probably not, but Paul does call them mutilators of the flesh, “2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh” (Phil. 3:2).
Paul indicates here that these Judaizers had an undue obsession with circumcision.
But I think when you preach on circumcision, it is important to be sharp and to the point. So why were they so fixated on this?
Because God commanded the seal of circumcision as a condition of inclusion into the people of Israel. The Old Testament is unequivocal about this, Leviticus 12:1-3 – “1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If a woman conceives and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days. As at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. 3 And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”
A lot of passages show God took this very seriously, here is a clear example, “24 At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. 25 Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin and touched Moses' feet with it and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26 So he let him alone. It was then that she said, “A bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision” (Ex. 4:24-26).
So, these Judaizers were seeking to be biblical. The Old Testament is not unclear about circumcision. But this is not the only reason they wanted to make Greeks Christians get circumcised. The Jews knew the Greeks did not circumcise. They were not bothered by Greeks being Greeks, so why were they so agitated by Greek Christians not being circumcised?
Because Paul and the Apostles were telling the early Church that Gentiles could join the people of God, Israel, without being circumcised, and without following the law. This is what angered them. Many early Jews had no problem with Jesus being the Messiah, or salvation being through Jesus, his resurrection and the power the Apostle’s had won some of them over. But they despised the idea of Gentiles being able to join God's people without becoming Jews. Let me demonstrate this, Paul never stopped preaching the hope of Israel, that was always his message, the whole New Testament is about this: the hope of Israel is found in Jesus, and Gentiles can now join without the restriction of the law, let’s see what Paul says: Acts 26:12-23 – “12 “In this connection I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13 At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me. 14 And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ 15 And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, 17 delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ 19 “Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20 but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance. 21 For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. 22 To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: 23 that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”
Paul was abundantly clear that he was only and always preaching about the hope of the Israelites, Acts 23:6 – “6 Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.”
The resurrection of the dead, that Jesus offers, was the hope of the Pharisees. This is why we read of Pharisees converting to Christianity. They had little problem with a Jewish Messiah who could defeat death and the grave, this was cool. This was what they were looking forward to.
But to include the Gentiles, without making them become Jews first, was anathema, which is why Paul can talk all the theology he wants, but when he mentions including the Gentiles this happened, Acts 22:17-22 – “17 “When I had returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance 18 and saw him saying to me, ‘Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ 19 And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves know that in one synagogue after another I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. 20 And when the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him.’ 21 And he said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” 22 Up to this word they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.”
“Up to this word they listened to him.” What word? Gentiles. When he said that he needed to take the message of God to the Gentiles, they went Middle Eastern on him. They wanted him strung up, probably crucified, at least stoned. To them such a wicked man did not deserve to live? But why? Because they hated Gentiles?
Well to a large degree, yes. The Jews did in some measure hate the Greeks, because a Greek King, Antiochus Epiphanies, had committed the abomination of desolation by sacrificing a pig on the altar. The Seleucid Greek kings had also viscously persecuted the Jews while they were under their rule.
The Greeks were determined to make the Jews Greeks, they even banned circumcision. The Jews were determined to remain Jews. This ended in war. A big war, the Jews eventually won it.
The Greeks were able to easily identify the Jews via their circumcision. The Jews had not only stuck to their national traditions, in large measure, they had stuck to their distinctive identifying mark.
This was not an easy thing for them to let go. To be part of God’s people, to have a right to participate in the Passover you were supposed to be circumcised. To partake of the Passover was the right only of Israelites, Exodus 12:47-49 – “47 All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. 48 If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it. 49 There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.”
But what Paul, Peter and the other Apostles were doing, was telling people that Jesus is the true Passover lamb, and to partake of him all you had to do was come to him with empty hands and trust in him. 1 Corinthians 5:7, “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.”
Paul, Peter and the other Apostle’s were telling Gentiles, they could become part of the people of God, Israel, without getting circumcised, all they needed was faith. They could take part in communion, without being circumcised, they could be accounted as full citizens of the “commonwealth of Israel” (Eph 2:12), without being circumcised.
You can understand why the Jews found this hard to deal with. This upturned their whole way of thinking about the people of God.
Many Jews could not accept that there was only one people of God, and you could just join it by trusting in Christ. To this day, many Christians have been led astray by false teachings which say there are two different peoples of God. Israel and the Church. If Paul had been saying this, the Pharisees never would have cared, they already had such a system: Jews and Gentile God-fearers, which were Gentiles believed in God but who chose not to be circumcised. Paul went further, he added the Gentiles to Israel.
This is why the Jews hated him so much.
Paul’s view of these trouble-makers was that they should be silenced, “10 For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. 11 They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach.”
We don’t have to guess at all about what was going on here. Because the book of Acts and a lot of Paul’s letters gives us a lot of information about how these Judaizers were causing him problems.
This was true across the first century and beyond as Jewish converts and false teachers sought to upend the early Christian church.
Paul’s response to this was to make sure all the churches he was influencing had the right teachings and the right kind of leaders. He didn’t always get it right, some of the leaders he chose turned on him. But he worked hard to establish the right teachers in the churches, to protect them from disturbances.
But he also challenged the false teachers
This is an excerpt from a sermon titled ‘Beware The Judaizers’, which you can listen to here.