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The Circumcision Controversy

19 Mar
from Google Images

from Google Images

Circumcision was a religious ceremony, which was given to Abraham for the purpose of expressing devotion to God. It became the official sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish nation in the time of Moses. Although the rite represented the circumcision of the heart, Paul opposed its requirement for gentile believers, maintaining that all believers are justified before God by faith in Jesus Christ. The rite itself was merely a religious ceremony of Jewish tradition, which had no inherent saving value. What was important was the spiritual meaning of the tradition. Circumcision, which represents our dedication to God, is not a physical matter but spiritual. It is, therefore, a heart issue not something that can be witnessed by one or more of the five senses.

There is little doubt why Paul would take Titus with him to Jerusalem from Antioch (Galatians 2:2-3). If it wasn’t obvious that he was a gentile, Paul would have made it clear that Titus was not circumcised. It was not kosher for a practicing Jew to eat with a gentile. As a matter of etiquette, Paul was bound to inform his brethren that Titus wasn’t circumcised. If the believing Jews among the Jerusalem leadership welcomed and ate with Titus, it would mean they could not logically demand that gentiles in general be circumcised. Moreover, neither could the agitators later claim that the Jewish authorities weren’t told the whole of Paul’s Gospel. If Jerusalem’s Apostles ate with Titus, there could be no misunderstanding, and this is the key point of Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, if Titus was not compelled to be circumcised then neither were they compelled to be circumcised. The agitators were clearly wrong in what they did.

Who were they that Paul claimed wanted to circumcise Titus, and how does Paul view them? According to Luke, they were Pharisees who believed (cp. Acts15:1, 5), and Paul called them false brethren (Galatians 2:4). I don’t believe this means that all believing Pharisees were false brethren, but it does mean that all those responsible for the trouble in the gentile churches were from this group. According to Paul, they sought to undermine the Jesus movement and came into the Church with ulterior motives from the very beginning (cp. Acts 5:11-13). They wanted to bring the entire Church under the authority of the high priest and the Sanhedrin, not just Jews living in the Promised Land.

According to what Luke says about them in Acts 15:5, these false brethren could very well have believed Jesus was the Messiah, and that he would return to save them from their enemies, but such a belief would have nothing to do with a life-changing-experience. Such a belief doesn’t require a born again experience. According to this understanding, Jesus is not Lord of one’s life only of the nation as a whole. This is why these men believed gentiles had to be circumcised to be saved. Jesus, to them was the Jewish King. If one wished to be saved, one needed to become a Jew. This is similar to the idea that the President of the United States is not the president of anyone who is not a U.S. citizen.

The false brethren issue (Galatians 2:4) had become a very serious problem as Galatians 1:6-9 shows (cp. Acts 15:1-3). The Galatians had removed themselves outside of the Christian community by embracing Judaism, a national religion. What was occurring behind the scenes was an organized effort by unbelieving Jews who embraced Jesus as the national Messiah. They were false brethren, intending to undo the work of Paul. Gentile Christians had become a problem in Judaism, and these men wanted to nip it in the bud. They “went out from James” in order to alert the gentile Christian communities of the need of the poor at Jerusalem. The supply reserves were dangerously low at Jerusalem and the predicted famine was taking place. Believing gentile churches needed to release the goods and / or funds, which they had kept for this occasion. However, when the men from James preached circumcision as a necessity for salvation, they overstepped their mission – the reason they were sent by James. They sought to undo the ministry of Paul, but Paul spent all his energy in Christ to keep that from occurring (Galatians 2:5).

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2 Comments

Posted by on March 19, 2015 in Epistle to the Galatians, Paul

 

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2 responses to “The Circumcision Controversy

  1. Return of Benjamin

    March 19, 2015 at 09:57

    Good post. I need to get around to posting on how the correct understanding of just what the Curse of the Law is impacts our understanding of Paul’s point on circumcision, as that will interact well with your post here.

    To sum up briefly, the chief issue of Galatians is that Israel had long ago broken the Sinaic covenant, which Paul refers to as “Law” (as opposed to “the Law,” which is usually the Torah itself–unfortunately, just about no translation bothers to note the difference other than Young’s Literal). Therefore, for a Jew to be circumcised into the Abrahamic covenant (the Promise) and Israel’s Sinaic covenant was a matter of national identity, and moving on into the New Covenant (Grace) of Israel’s King was wholly natural.

    However, for a Gentile whose first relationship with God was through the New Covenant, to circumcise was not only going backwards to the broken covenant, it was tantamount to saying that Christ wasn’t enough to unify one with God or was inferior to Moses! Ergo, why Paul refers to those pushing circumcision as false brethren and peddlers of a false gospel.

    It’s sad, but we still see this sort of thing happen in Messianic Judaism today. A Gentile, or someone whose Jewish blood is a few generations back, is full of love for the Jewish people, and then loses sight of the fact that he is already grafted in to Israel’s family tree (Rom 11) and a full citizen of Israel (Eph 2) and falls prey to anti-missionaries who tell him, “Oh, but if you REALLY want to be part of Israel . . .” and get him to compromise just one small truth of the Gospel at a time until there’s nothing left.

    Shalom

     
    • Eddie

      March 20, 2015 at 08:54

      Rabbi Mike, greetings and thank you for your encouragement and your short commentary on the curse of the Law. I always look forward to reading what you have to say about Paul and gentile / Jewish relationships. Lord bless you in all your work for him.

       

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