Nov 15, 2023

How Was Circumcision a Sign of the Covenant?

5 Min Read

Early on in my pastoral ministry, I decided to preach a sermon series through Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Throughout the series, I dealt with the passages that referenced the old covenant sign of circumcision. After addressing the subject of circumcision several Sundays in a row, I was approached by a congregant who wanted to express his disapproval of me preaching “something of such a sensitive nature as circumcision” since young children were present. In response, I asked if he believed that I should faithfully preach God’s Word. He said, “Of course!” I then asked if he believed that I should faithfully preach from every part of God’s Word (i.e., Law, Wisdom, Prophets, Gospels, Epistles, and apocalyptic literature). “Absolutely,” he replied. Recognizing that he didn’t understand the prevalence of circumcision throughout Scripture or that God gave it as a sign of the covenant promise in the old covenant era of redemptive history, I explained that one would have to refrain from preaching a large portion of the Bible if he could not talk about the meaning of circumcision.

Misunderstandings about circumcision should come as no surprise to us. After all, even many in old covenant Israel failed to rightly understand the nature of the covenant sign of circumcision. Instead of trusting in the Christ to whom it pointed, they trusted in it as a badge of ethnic superiority. Instead of seeing it as the divinely appointed gospel sign of God’s covenant, they viewed it as a fleshly mark of merit. Several factors contribute to this ongoing misunderstanding of the nature of circumcision as a covenant sign in our day.

The first thing that contributes to misunderstandings about circumcision is that the Apostles largely spoke of it in negative terms when they referenced it in their preaching or included it in their epistles. This was necessary since the Judaizers (as well as other groups of Jewish false teachers) were spreading a false gospel among the members of the fledgling churches, insisting that circumcision was necessary for salvation (see Acts 15:1, 5; Gal. 2; 5:3; 6:11–15). To deal decisively with these errors, the Apostles spoke strongly against the need for circumcision. The Judaizers were telling the gentile Christians, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (see Acts 15:1). The Apostles made clear that this was a false gospel. As a notable exception, the Apostles also speak about the blessing of regeneration for elect Jews and gentiles using the term circumcision (see Col. 2:11–13).

The second contributing factor is that many people today have never been taught the typological function of circumcision in redemptive history. After giving Abraham exceedingly great and precious promises, the Lord commanded him to give the covenant sign of circumcision to all the males in his household on the eighth day (see Gen. 17:11–14). Closely related to the covenant promise itself, the Lord calls the sign of circumcision “My covenant” (Gen. 17:10). God commanded Abraham to apply the sign of circumcision to the male reproductive organ since, in procreation, spiritual corruption passes from generation to generation. This corruption started with Adam and spread to all his posterity—Christ alone excluded. Since all have received a sin nature from Adam, God promised that He would deal with that corruption and bring renewal by means of a bloody judgment. In this way, circumcision was typifying the covenant promises of the gospel.

Christ became a curse for us so that we might become the recipients of the covenant blessings by faith in Him.

The typological nature of circumcision as a gospel sign is understood by the two-fold way in which it conveys a promise. Though it was the first of the laws given to Israel, circumcision resurfaced in the Mosaic covenant in relation to the law of God with its promised blessings and curses. Circumcision, then, represented God’s covenant promise of curse and blessing. First, circumcision carried the promise of judgment for those who broke covenant with God. If someone rejected the covenant sign, he was rejecting the covenant Lord of the sign. If someone rejected the covenant Lord, he or she would incur the judgment of God. The act of “cutting” formed the signatory element of circumcision. The cutting away of the foreskin of the flesh denoted God’s promise to cut off covenant breakers from His presence, His people, and His blessing.

Simultaneously, the sign of circumcision represented the cutting away of the filth of the fallen, sinful human nature. This was the promise of covenant blessing in the gospel. If the demands of the covenant were met, God would fulfill His promise to cut off the sin of His people. The promise of spiritual renewal was also intimately bound to the promise typified in the sign of circumcision. The fact that God commanded it to be applied to all the male offspring on the eighth day represented this sign aspect of the new creation. In a seven-day week, the first and the eighth day are the same. As the first day represents the day of creation in Scripture, the eighth day in the old covenant often represented the new creation. John Calvin suggested: “It is probable and consonant with reason, that the number seven designated the course of the present life. Therefore the eighth day might seem to be fixed upon by the Lord, to prefigure the beginning of a new life.”1

Circumcision, like the Passover, also served as a blood sign of the gospel. Blood had to be shed if God was going to justly cut away the corruption of fallen human nature. This points to the blood of Christ as the fulfillment of that which circumcision typified in the old covenant. Circumcision pointed to the need for the bloodshed of Jesus. Significantly, Jesus first shed blood when He was circumcised on the eighth day (see Luke 2:21). This was part of the redemptive-historical nature of the covenant sign of circumcision. It signified that for which Christ had come into the world. As John Owen explained, “Every act almost of Christ’s obedience, from the blood of his circumcision to the blood of his cross, was attended with suffering,—so that his whole life might, in that regard, be called a death.”2 Jonathan Edwards also suggested that “in his circumcision, what [Christ] suffered . . . had the nature of satisfaction, the blood that was shed in his circumcision was propitiatory blood; but as it was a conformity to the law of Moses it was part of his meritorious righteousness.”3

On the cross, Jesus fulfilled the promise of God to die for the sins of His people (see Col. 2:11–14). The sins of the elect were imputed to Him, and the floodwaters of God’s wrath were poured out on Him as the object of God’s covenant curses. Jesus was “cut off from the land of the living” (Isa. 53:8). The promise of covenant curse, typified in the “cutting off” element of circumcision, was enacted against Jesus at Calvary. By His sacrifice, Jesus “cuts off” the filth of our sin. Christ became a curse for us so that we might become the recipients of the covenant blessings by faith in Him (see Gal. 3:10–14).

This article is part of the Signs of the Covenant collection.

  1. John Calvin, Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, trans. John King, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 455.
  2. John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 161–162.
  3. Jonathan Edwards, “Sermon Fifteen,” in A History of the Work of Redemption, ed. John F. Wilson and John E. Smith, vol. 9, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1989), 307–308.