by Darrel Cline (darrelcline biblical-thinking.org)
Chapter # 4 Paragraph # 2 Study # 4 October 18, 2005 Lincolnton, N.C.
(168)Thesis:To what does circumcision really point?
Introduction:In our studies of Romans 4 we have seen that Paul goes to significant lengths to put distance between the issues of "justification" and "circumcision". His argument is that a person can be "justified" without being subject to "circumcision". He makes this argument on the basis of the fact that Abraham was justified for years before he was subjected to circumcision. So, his point is made: justification is not by circumcision.
But, this question naturally arises: what was the real point of circumcision? If a person can be made right with God apart from human performance issues, what is the point of human performance issues? Why did God put forth a "post-justification" covenant that clearly has an element of human performance involved in it? Circumcision was imposed upon Abraham by God. As far as Abraham's family was concerned, circumcision was imposed on every male in it. And, not only so, but circumcision was imposed upon every male born to it. As an imposition, it was not a large matter for those who came to it by physical birth. For adult men, it is a rather significant, though short-term, physical issue of pain. For eight-day-old babies, it is not a big issue: they do not "hurt" for very long, nor does it make any kind of "impression" upon them. And, as they grow up, there are only three ways they will ever even realize that their condition is not the natural condition: when they witness the nakedness of a baby brother and his circumcision on the eighth day; or if they are, for some other reason, in the presence of a naked, uncircumcised male; or if they are "taught" about it by someone. Thus, "circumcision", though in their flesh, has no "significance" brought about by the act itself. All significance comes through "teaching". And, that being the case, why not just "teach" and forego the physical involvement issues? Why did God want Abraham to both experience the painful reality of circumcision himself and then impose it upon his offspring at the eighth day? What is the real point of circumcision?
I. Paul's Answer Involves the Issue of "Signs".
A. "Signs", by definition, are sensory realm realities that have the capacity to point to life-truths that exist in the greater, non-sensory realm.
1. Signs are physical-level illustrations that sponsor understanding of spiritual-level realities (John 3:12).
a. This means that it is impossible to "teach" spiritual-level reality without the use of physical-level illustration.
b. This also means, however, that if the right physical-level illustration is employed, it becomes possible for a person to understand the issue of Life.
1) There is a huge danger here: if a physical-level illustration is wrongly applied to the spiritual realm, misunderstanding will occur and will be imbedded in the developing world-view so that understanding becomes less and less possible the longer the imbedded misunderstanding remains.
2) But there is also a huge benefit here: if the physical realm and the spiritual realm are legitimately "matched", faith cannot be easily shaken because the understanding is imbedded.
c. This is why Paul goes to such meticulous lengths to make sure that the proper physical-level aspects of circumcision are front and center in our thinking as we ponder the relationship between faith and fidelity as it relates to the critical issue of the method of justification.
1) Faith brings on justification: a fact declared by Scripture and the proper facts regarding circumcision (Abraham was justified before he was circumcised).
2) Fidelity brings on circumcision: a fact revealed by Scripture (2 Chronicles 20:1-13 and Isaiah 41:1-9 -- two texts that put Abraham's inheritance of the land into the 'friendship' category; an inheritance that it tied to circumcision) as the outworking of faith as it develops incrementally (infidelity produced lies to two kings as well as Ishmael as faith stumbled on its way to maturity).
3) If we try to turn this on its head and make fidelity produce faith, we will have justification by works -- which is an impossible dream that ends in destruction -- as well as the attempt to determine the presence of faith by the works produced (a grave mistake as Paul clearly implies in 2 Timothy 2:19).
2. The "sign" of circumcision is all about the issues of "fruitfulness" and notatall about the issue of "justification".
a. It is no accident that "circumcision" was imposed upon Abraham in his ninety-ninth year; the year of Sarah's subsequent pregnancy.
b. Circumcision had nothing physically to do with Sarah's conception, but it had much to do with her conception as a "sign" of God's willingness to produce His promised "fruit" of the womb for His "friend".
B. "Signs" are, by their very nature, incapable of bringing the reality to pass; they merely make the reality understandable.
II. Paul's Answer Also Involves "Seals".
A. The "sign" was a "seal".
1. Paul used "seals" in the sense of a "guarantee".
2. But the issue of "seals" was much more than that: it was a divine action of "closing a matter until the right time so that it could be 'released' to accomplish its purpose." Both Daniel and Revelation used "seals" in this manner.
3. Abraham's "circumcision" was a "sign" which spoke of fruitfulness by faithfulness, but it was also a "seal" which kept the "land" from becoming Israel's until the time -- 430 years into the future and, in final terms, more than 4000 years into the future. The "seal" was of the righteousness of the faith: a reality which was not going to be ultimately experienced until the seals of Daniel and Revelation had all been broken open and the resurrection of Abraham finally brought him to the everlasting fulfillment of the promise.
B. The "seal" was a "sign" of certainty.
1. This is Paul's use of "seals" to be used in the human understanding to signal certitude.
2. All that a "seal" needs to release its reality is to be "broken". As long as the seal can be broken, the certainty inherent within it is inevitable.