Study 8:  Ch.2 (background)

The question of circumcision

We have noted that  in  the first two chapters of Galatians   Paul testifies as to how his life and experience demonstrate the reality of walking and living in the Spirit as opposed to a life in the flesh; indeed he tells us in another epistle that he is set forth by God as an example of all those that follow.

Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.

I Tim.1:16

In chapter one we saw that Paul’s conversion  was of the Spirit  and now in chapter two we see Paul  facing up to  the false brethren he mentions in  Gal.2:4 and even other the apostles, who had been taken in!

1. Its origin

Before we look at chapter two we shall consider in more detail that which was giving the early church much grief: circumcision. Originally it was given as a sign to Abraham of the covenant between God and Abraham. Every male descendant had to be circumcised otherwise they were not in the covenant.

This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; every man child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.  And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.


Indeed such was its importance  that God once tried to slay Moses, because he had not circumcised his own children!

And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, surely a bloody husband art thou to me. So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.


Such was the serious nature of this requirement that no one could partake of the passover unless they were circumcised.

And when a stranger shall sojourn with thee, and will keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land: for no uncircumcised person shall eat thereof.


Circumcision was  incorporated formally into the Mosaic (Sinai) law .

Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, if a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall be unclean seven days; according to the days of the separation for her infirmity shall she be unclean. And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.


And we know from the gospels that the Jews thought it so important that they practised it on the Sabbath day! We also  note also that Jesus also stated how zealous they were in seeking converts:

Moses therefore gave unto you circumcision; (not because it is of Moses, but of the fathers;) and ye on the Sabbath day circumcise a man.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.


2. The dissension

It is therefore not surprising that when the church was born, and God began to bring the Gentiles into the NC, the question of circumcision would arise. And coming to Acts 15 we sure have the problem raised big time. The zeal of proselytising was still there and they wanted to have dominion over people, and this is one of the characteristics of false brethren we noted in chapter one.

And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.  When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.  And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren.  And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them.  But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.

 Acts 15:1-5

The main thing here is that the ‘certain men’ (false brethren) were teaching that salvation was dependant on this law of circumcision. Unless the Gentiles were circumcised, they argued, they could not be partakers of God’s promises. These teachers  were bringing over with them that which was from the OC into the new. They would not leave their old ways and life behind, they followed a religious past and wanted it in the new.

And this is one aspect of Galatianism: people who claim to be born again bringing the old baggage with them. They will not let go of the old religious ways they once had; they want to see it added onto the NC, and this is precisely what the epistle denounces as false and opposed to the true gospel. How often do we see people make a confession of salvation and yet do not give up their old religious or secular ways of thinking and doing things, but insist on introducing them to the God's people? Not just religious things either, that’s bad enough, but also the secular reasoning and methods of the world. Real salvation, as we saw in chapter one means a complete separation and cutting off from the old.

Now some may object saying that Paul had Timothy circumcised and therefore contradicts himself (Acts.16:1-3) But this makes the point we are trying to establish. Firstly it happened no too long after the conference of Acts 15 and anyone who things Paul would contradict himself so soon afterwards doesn’t understand what’s going on; secondly the scripture gives us the reason, his father was a  Jew, so it was because of the cultural background and NOT because of any religious duty.

Circumcision goes on in many cultures, and is  performed for many reasons, including medical ones, but  these are not the issues at stake here; the issue is performing such acts as a necessity for salvation or living the Christian life. Salvation is a gift from God; He has done all the work needed for salvation, and no one can add thereto by some ritual or other, whether it is from the Mosaic Law or by some modern man made tradition. By  trying to add on to the simple gospel is Galatianism  and is opposite to the true gospel.

Behold I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised that he is a debtor to the whole law Christ is become of no effect unto you whosoever of you are justified by the law ye are fallen from grace

Gal. 5:4

This passage is revealing for the issue is emphatically stated that if we seek justification by the law then we are fallen from grace: we are either in grace or the law, but not both: it is one or the other. We either walk in the Spirit or the flesh to use the terminology of this epistle. (And those who say a believer can not fall from grace  are   clearly contradicted by the words of Paul here.)

3. The apostles’ answer

Acts 15 despite the clear testimony of Paul and Barnabas to the assembly in Jerusalem there were still these Pharisees (and note how Luke calls them a sect = a body following there own tenants) insisting on the Law of Moses being kept! Yet the whole tenor of Paul’s testimony is that God had brought the Gentiles in without the works of the law. These Pharisees  of the OC wanted to be the Pharisees in the church, they wanted to glory in those whom they compelled to be circumcised (Gal.6:12-13) basically they wanted to be in charge telling others what to do.  But what was the apostles’ response?

And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter.  And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.  And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as He did unto us; and put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.  Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?  But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they……. ….James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me:  Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.  And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up:  That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things.  Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world. Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God:  But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood…….For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things;

Acts 15:6 -20

Gal. 2 reveals to us that some of the apostles were being led astray themselves by the false brethren! And Paul, being led by revelation of God, had to put the record straight. We will see in this chapter then how even leaders can go astray, and some of the principles here of flesh verses Spirit being worked out in practice.

4. The Substance

Whilst not strictly a part of the message of Galatians, it would be good just to briefly mention what relevance the  teaching of circumcision is to us in the NC.

  For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things,


Apart from what Paul tells us about the Mosaic law later on in this epistle, one  purpose of it was to  foreshadow the NC.  And circumcision  has its antitype in new birth.  Just consider the following.

 For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh:  But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.

Rom. 2:28-29

 For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.  And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power:  In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ:  Buried with Him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with Him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.  And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath He quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses;  Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to His cross;  And having spoiled principalities and powers, He made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it.  Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days


For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.


For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.


And once more in the Colossian passage Paul warns about those who seek to bring us into legal bondage.  In the last two references, we see that physical circumcision is of no avail as far as God is concerned, but rather  regeneration in the Holy Ghost is what  matters.  So then with this in mind we will now  consider  Chapter two.