God didn’t command a light and easy thing. Circumcision for a grown man – especially one who is ninety-nine years old, is not a light and easy thing. This task involves physical pain – pain in the flesh.
Sometimes we might ask why God would have Abraham do such a thing. Was this necessary?
Some people will read how circumcision in the ancient world represented a mark of belonging. If you were circumcised – or if you had a specific mark on your body – you belonged to someone. Abraham now belonged to God.
But there is much more to this strange command by God than this. We ought to read this text with eyes of faith – and with the mind of a Christian – if we want to understand it fully, and if we want to hear what God may want to say to us.
This painful act of obedience by Abraham took place in his flesh. God told Abraham to mark his very flesh – to cut some small piece of it away.
It is fitting God would do such a thing. We are people of flesh. We are driven by the desires of our flesh – by our desires for food and drink and sex and sleep. These things govern us.
The first sin gives us a clue. When Eve saw the fruit, she saw it was pleasing to the eye and good for food (Genesis 3:6). Sin enters into our body through our flesh. It corrupts our desires. No longer do we desire God. Instead, we desire things of the flesh. We desire only things of this world.
As Christians, we know that to live solely in the flesh is not good.
The apostle Paul wrote, “I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (Romans 7:14). The apostle John added that the things of the flesh are worldly and contrary to the way of God: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world – the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life – is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 John 2:15-16).
Our flesh has the sting of sin about it. And God told Abraham to mark his flesh – to remove part of it.
This is the first command of the covenant God made with Abraham and his offspring. And it was directed at the very part of Abraham’s body that would be so instrumental in fulfilling God’s original command to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). It also is the part of the body that would make it possible for Abraham’s “very own son” to become his heir (15:4).
And Abraham obeyed. And we know this must have been painful for Abraham. When we cut away sinful flesh, it hurts.
We must keep a couple of things in mind. Abraham was justified by faith. He believed in the promises of God, and it was credited to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). Abraham’s good standing with God did not come through circumcision. Abraham already was right with God before he took up the knife. We must understand this clearly if we are to understand the gospel at all. God’s grace comes first, and it is received by faith.
But obedience to God – as Christians, we call it sanctification – remains a vital part of the picture. It was impossible to be part of the people of God without obedience. In Abraham’s day, that meant circumcision. A male member of Abraham’s family – even with the biological connection – could not be part of the people of God without circumcision.
Obedience is crucial to our walk with God. Abraham believed God and was righteous. Next, he obeyed God. He cut away the flesh and walked in God’s covenant. God said, “I am God Almighty, walk before me, and be blameless” (Genesis 17:1).
God expects his people to trust him and to obey him. Many years later, Moses would tell the people of Israel, “You shall walk in the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may life, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess” (Deuteronomy 5:33).
For the people of Israel, obedience brought life. And it started with circumcision.
But the people of Israel were not able to “walk before” God. They weren’t able to “walk in the way that the Lord” had commanded them. They were circumcised, but that was it. Their obedience came to a faltering halt. Their sin, their flesh, was too much.
We aren’t able to walk before God in that way, either. We aren’t able to follow his commands. Circumcision for us, like for Israel, is about as far as we can get. We remain people of the flesh, “sold under sin,” as the apostle Paul said (Romans 7:14).
This is why Jesus Christ came. He came to free us from our flesh. His death on the cross was the ultimate circumcision – the firstborn of all creation, cut off from life.
I believe this picture of circumcision, of Abraham’s obedience, is designed by God so that it will remain with us. I believe God wants us to keep this in our minds.
We believe in Christ, and it is credited to us as righteousness. And then we are circumcised. And this circumcision we receive is not of a tiny part of our bodies. Rather, it is of our whole selves – our entire flesh.
The apostle Paul wrote, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (Romans 2:28-29).
Our hearts are circumcised by the Holy Spirit. The entirety of our lives of flesh is cut away. The seat of our desires is reformed.
Jesus died on the cross for our sins, justifying those who believe in him. The Holy Spirit circumcises our hearts and enables us to walk before the Lord. And we walk with the Lord: “Faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26).
And so the good works we do in this world are the sign of our faith. Just as any Jew can be identified by his circumcision – if you cared to look closely enough – so every Christian can be identified by his or her circumcision of the heart, which is borne out in righteous action.
The apostle Paul, in fact, said the physical circumcision of a tiny bit of flesh was overwhelmed by the actions of Christ on the cross and the work of the Holy Spirit within us. Paul said, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).
And now, like Abraham, we walk in the covenant. That is, we walk by the Spirit. Read Galatians 5:13-26 when you have a moment.
This leaves me still with a question. Is our circumcision painful, like Abraham’s surely was? When our hearts become circumcised, when the flesh is cut away, does that hurt?
I think surely it must. The cutting away of a small piece of flesh from our human body must be nothing compared to the Spirit’s surgical circumcision of our hearts. This circumcision is enlivened by the Word of God. “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:11-13).
And so yes, I think the circumcision of our hearts is a painful thing. When the Spirit cuts sin out of our lives, when the flesh of sin is removed, it can hurt.
The Spirit is unrelenting in riding our hearts about forgiving an enemy, and it hurts to take action. The Spirit will talk to us about our lack of patience, and we sit in anguish as we wait. The Spirit will speak to us of our pride and our arrogance, and we must listen in humility. The Spirit reminds us of other shortcomings, and the pangs of regret and repentance well up within us.
And all of this hurts. The cutting away of our sinfulness hurts. Sanctification can be painful. It is a ruthless process that God has under way in our lives right now, cutting out the sin and death and making us fit for eternal life.
But it is worth it. This is how we keep in step with the Spirit. This is how we move forward toward God’s Sabbath rest after our circumcision. We respond to the Spirit’s promptings, despite the pain.
Jesus was clear about it: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better than you lose one of your members than your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30).
The circumcision of our hearts can be painful.
I feel like I should write something hopeful here. We don’t like painful things. We want our walk with God to be light and easy. And if we’ve walked very long with God, we know we have a lot of sin built up in us, and God is meticulously working on it.
Perhaps the most hopeful thing to remember is we are not alone. Christ lives in us. The Spirit’s circumcision replaces our sinfulness with Christ himself. The apostle Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).