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Monday, February 19, 2018

A Motion of No Confidence

The origins of the circumcision ritual are deeply buried in human history. The act has come to be associated primarily with Judaism, but there is plenty of evidence it did not begin there.

Infogalactic says, “Circumcision is the world’s oldest planned surgical procedure.” The earliest historical record of the ritual dates from about 2400 B.C. in Egypt, several hundred years before God introduced Abram to it.

The importance of the Genesis account lies not in it being some kind of “first” in human history — it almost surely wasn’t — but rather in the establishment of God’s covenant with Abram and his seed; a covenant of which circumcision is merely a token or symbol.

The Abrahamic Covenant

So God appears to Abram and declares that he intends to make a covenant with him and “multiply you greatly”. Kings and nations will come from him, God tells him. The only thing God requires of Abram is that he, in effect, sign on the dotted line. The necessary demonstration of his acceptance of God’s covenant is his circumcision and that of his descendants:
“This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.”
Voluntary or involuntary, circumcision may be legitimately viewed as an act of surrender, or perhaps a declaration of the victory of another. Infogalactic again: Physician Peter Charles Remondino posited that circumcision began as a less severe form of emasculating a captured enemy that would permanently mark the defeated, but leave him alive to serve as a slave.

There’s an interesting picture, no?

The Downside

But that’s simply one man’s theory, of course. There is no way of telling from the Genesis account if circumcision still carried with it that precise connotation in Abram’s day, or whether Abram was even aware of any cultural implications associated with his act.

What every adult male will confirm, however, is that a recent circumcision puts one in an incredibly vulnerable position, very much dependent on the goodwill of others. Only a few generations after the establishment of the covenant, the sons of Jacob took full advantage of circumcision-related indisposition to murder all the males of a Hivite city and plunder its wealth.

Frankly, I don’t know any man who, even with the advantage of anesthesia, fails to associate circumcision with a certain level of temporary humiliation.

The Upside

In any case, for Abraham and his descendants the act of circumcision now became invested with a greater significance that made all associated pain, inconvenience, humiliation or cultural baggage pale into relative insignificance.

The upside of God’s covenant was a massive one: heavenly protection, earthly fecundity and importance, and the everlasting possession of a national home. Understandably, Abraham and most of his descendants have kept it — outwardly at least — ever since.

Thus Luke can declare that the baby Jesus was circumcised “at the end of eight days” in accordance with a cultural precedent that had two full millennia of weight behind it. And just as his forefather Abraham was given a new name in association with his acceptance of God’s covenant, Jesus too received a God-given name in association with his circumcision.

The Christian and Circumcision

Enough history: this is only a blog post, not a book, so we’ll keep it to an extended summary. But by faith in Jesus Christ, the believer has been brought into a greater covenant and is the recipient of greater associated blessings than Abraham could ever have imagined. Circumcision — at least in the spiritual sense of the act — continues to have an upside for the Christian today. The apostle Paul tells the Philippians:
“For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh —”
That’s a pretty bold statement for a Christian to make, appropriating as it does an act so profoundly associated with national Israel.

But the Christian male, of course, does not have to be literally circumcised, though many have been over the centuries, for good reasons and not-so-good reasons. That requirement was taken off the table in the early post-Pentecostal years of the first century, as detailed in an earlier post here.

Worldly Will, Energy and Wisdom

Anyway, here in Philippians “the flesh” is apostolic shorthand for everything not just the male of the species (for whom the rite of circumcision is of the most immediate concern), but all mankind is capable of producing of its own volition, in its own energy and in its own earthly wisdom. The flesh is not necessarily wicked (though it may certainly manifest itself wickedly), but it is fundamentally natural, earthly and unspiritual. It is everything we bring to the table in our own strength, independence and ingenuity, and its value in God’s economy is not just zero … it’s a negative:
  • Paul himself was circumcised on the eighth day because his parents chose to be religiously compliant. Human wisdom and volition.
  • He was of the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin because two people respected the preferences of their parents or independently elected to be joined in marriage and have children. Human choice and energy.
  • He was considered a Hebrew of Hebrews because of the cultural standards of his day. Human wisdom.
So far none of these features of his life had involved decisions made by Saul, and he could certainly take no credit for them, though he may well have been esteemed among his people prior to his conversion because of them. Further:
  • He was a Pharisee because his family had put him in a position to qualify for a religious education and he had taken advantage of it. Human will, wisdom and energy.
  • He was a persecutor of the church because of his own ornery, ignorant, empty religious preferences. Human will, wisdom and energy.
  • He was blameless according to the law because he believed works, zealously performed, were the way to be justified with God, and so he behaved himself accordingly. Human will, wisdom and energy.
The flesh, all of it.

Out with the Flesh

It should go without saying that God is never pleased by acts performed in reliance on the flesh. Works of the flesh are insufficient to produce righteousness. They could not move Paul an inch closer to being fit for a personal relationship with God.

And the Christian experience requires absolutely none of it, though our natural instinct is always to hold on to our own dignity, autonomy and credentials, as we esteem them. In fact, belonging to God by way of grace through faith demands that we let the flesh go, just as Abram happily parted with the flesh of his foreskin in the face of all the blessing that had been graciously offered to him.

Thus the Christian worships “by the Spirit of God”, not in particular locations or on specified days according to the traditions of men; and we “glory in Christ Jesus”, the crucified Jew, not in the pomp and power of earthly organizations, methods and hierarchies.

Infogalactic one more time:
“A motion of no confidence … is a statement or vote that a person or persons in a position of responsibility … is no longer deemed fit to hold that position.”
That’s precisely how the Christian ought to think about everything he or she brings to the table outside of Christ.

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