What does circumcised and uncircumcised mean in the Bible?
The words circumcised, uncircumcised, circumcision, and uncircumcision can be found over one hundred times in the Bible. These terms are used in the Bible in four different ways. These terms will be explained below.
Circumcision for Men
The concept of circumcision occurs for the first time in the Bible in Genesis 17:10. In this verse, God tells Abraham that he and his descendants were to be circumcised. The Hebrew word for circumcised is mul. The literal meaning of the word is “to cut-off” and “in front of.” But the word is normally translated as “to circumcise.” It refers to the removal of the foreskin on the male penis.
Today, circumcision is typically performed by medical personnel in the hospital when a male baby is newborn. The foreskin is loose skin at the tip of the penis that can be cutoff. Circumcision is sometimes performed on teenage and adult males, but it is more painful and results in greater bleeding.
The Mosaic Law was required circumcision on the eighth day after birth (Leviticus 12:3; Philippians 3:5). Luke 2:21 tells us that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day after His birth in the temple in Jerusalem. In Jesus’ day, circumcision of males was performed on the Sabbath according to John 7:22-23.
Meaning of the “Covenant of Circumcision”
In Genesis 12:1-3 God established a covenant with Abraham that promised him 1) the land of Palestine (called the Promised Land in Scripture), 2) a great nation, and 3) blessing upon those who blessed him and a curse on those who cursed him. It is called the Abrahamic Covenant. The covenant was reaffirmed in Genesis 15:12-18.
Then in Genesis 17:9-12 God gave Abraham and his descendants another covenant. It is called the Sign of the Covenant (Genesis 17:11; Romans 4:11) or the Covenant of Circumcision (Acts 7:8). The Sign of the Covenant is circumcision. The sign was that the foreskin of the penis of Abraham, his descendants, and any servant born in Abraham’s home was to be cut off, if the male was older than eight days. Here is Genesis 17:9-12.
God said further to Abraham, “Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants.”
Genesis 17:9-12 (NASB)
Abraham was to keep this covenant. It was between him, his descendants and God. Genesis 17:23 says Ishmael was the first descendant of Abraham who was circumcised. All of Abraham’s servants were circumcised next and verse 24 says that Abraham was circumcised last at the age of ninety-nine years.
The Sign of Circumcision was symbolic of the cutting away of sin or cleansing from sin. That is, circumcision symbolically represented cleansing from the depravity of sin as the result of faith in God (Romans 4:11). Later in Deuteronomy 10:16, Moses told the Israelites that God wanted them to circumcise their hearts and to no longer be stiff necked. Notice the symbolic meaning of circumcision in this verse.
So circumcise your heart, and stiffen your neck no longer. Deuteronomy 10:16 (NASB)
In Deuteronomy 30:6, Moses said God would circumcise their hearts when they entered the Promised Land. Once again, notice the symbolic use of the word circumcise.
Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live. Deuteronomy 30:6
In short, God symbolically connected circumcision with a new, changed heart. In Jeremiah 4:4, circumcision or the removal of the foreskin from a penis is once again symbolically connected with a pure heart.
Circumcise yourselves to the LORD
And remove the foreskins of your heart . . .
Jeremiah 4:4 (NASB)
Finally in the New Testament, circumcision of the heart is a symbolic sign of new, spiritual life. Conversion of the heart is the result of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit regenerates and gives new life.
For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God. Romans 2:28-29 (NASB)
Symbolically, the Spirit circumcises our evil hearts and gives us new life. So, circumcision symbolically represented cleansing from the depravity of sin. It is interesting to note that a recent medical study reports that circumcision significantly reduces the risk of cancer of the penis.
The lack of circumcision is a well-accepted risk factor for penile cancer. In fact, it provides a virtually absolute protection against the disease when performed in the neonatal period.
The protective effect of early circumcision against penile cancer has long been recognized and has been cited as a major medical rationale for recommending universal newborn circumcision.
So, God used a medical truth to illustrate a spiritual reality.
Meaning of “The Circumcision”
The expression “The Circumcision” was a technical term that referred to the Jewish population. For the Jews, it was a sign of honor. It separated them from non-Jews or Gentiles (Galatians 2:8-9). Galatians 2:12-13 is one the clearest examples of this expression. We have added the italics for emphasis.
For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy . . . Galatians 2:12-13 (NASB)
There are other passages that connect the term “The Circumcision” with the Jews (Romans 4:12; 15:8; Colossians 4:11; Titus 1:10).
Meaning of the “True Circumcision”
In sharp contrast to “The Circumcision,” God teaches through the apostle Paul that the “True Circumcision” are Christians, that is, those who have believed in Jesus Christ. They are the ones who have humbly acknowledged their sins, believed that only Jesus can forgive our sins, and have given their lives to God to change them to be godly men and women (Roman 10:9). For in Philippians 3:2-3 the apostle Paul, who was himself a Jew, said,
Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision; for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh . . . Philippians 3:2-3 (NASB)
While the NASB added the word “true” to the verse, that is the correct understanding of Paul’s statement.
Christians are the true circumcision, because our hearts have been transformed, or we can say symbolically circumcised. Other passages dealing with circumcision teach the same principle (Romans 2:28-29). In truth, the physical cutting of the flesh is not important to God (Galatians 6:15). What is important is a transformed heart that responds to the convicting and guiding work of the Holy Spirit.
So, it does not matter to God if a male has a circumcised or uncircumcised penis. The true circumcision is faith in God (Romans 4:11) resulting in righteousness — a transformed heart and life.
. . . and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith . . . Romans 4:11 (NASB)
Because Abraham had previously believed in the Lord in Genesis 15:6, the Sign of the Covenant (Genesis 17:11) was a testimony of his faith in God. Have you been circumcised in your heart by the Holy Spirit as the result of faith in Jesus Christ? If not, please read Searching for God, and discover how to become a Christian and have eternal life.
1. Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 2007. 6th ed. vol. 1, p. 1017.
2. Circumcision. WebMD.
3. Schoen EJ. Neonatal circumcision and penile cancer. Evidence that circumcision is protective is overwhelming. Bmj 1996;313:46-author reply 47. [Crossref] [PubMed] 4. Schoen et al. The Highly Protective Effect of Newborn Circumcision Against Invasive Penile Cancer. Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. .
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