O. Palmer Robertson wrote: Converted “Judeans” accused Paul of commanding that their children not be circumcised (Acts 21:21). Did Paul make that demand? What would be the impact if he did? If he did not?
Paul could have told Jewish believers who were scattered among the gentiles not to circumcise their children. This pronouncement from the Apostle would have been consistent with his biblical teaching of salvation by grace through faith and its practical applications and implications.
In my view, the likelihood of Paul commanding believers who were scattered among the gentiles not to circumcise their children seems to be even more probable especially when we consider the bone of contention here. The source of controversy in this verse is not an issue of performing a harmless cultural ritual for children, but it is rather a greater theological concern of whether believing Jews dispersed among the Gentiles should keep the law. The earlier council in Jerusalem had decided that believing Gentiles who repent of sin should not be burdened with keeping the ceremonial law (Acts 15:1-4); but was this also applicable to the Jews who were scattered among the gentiles?
I think the source of these circumcision controversies was hinged in a misunderstanding of the significance of this ritual. The true meaning of circumcision in the Old Testament was a sign of the covenant of grace. Circumcision was a shadow that we see today as pointing to the saving blessings that sinners who belong to Christ actually have in him. Circumcision was, therefore, a sign of being united with the Lord (Genesis 17:7-11), it was a sign of the new birth (Deuteronomy 30:6), a sign of repentance and faith (Deuteronomy 10:16, Jeremiah 4:4) and a sign of justification and forgiveness of sins (Romans 4:11). In Christ, the sins of the flesh are cut off. Circumcision was a shadow of the reality that was to be fulfilled in Christ.
Trust in Christ (Acts 13:38-39) or the purification of the heart by faith in Christ alone as indicated in Acts 15:9 (which is likely a reference to the circumcision of the heart in Deuteronomy 30:6 and Romans 2:29) is God’s means of cleansing the soul and receiving a place among those who are sanctified (Acts 26:18). There is no sanctification or cleansing of sin in circumcision or in other ceremonial rituals of the old covenant!
The problem, however, was that the legalistic Jews who were trying to force Jewish Christians to adhere to Jewish rituals and Old Covenant ceremonies viewed these observances as additional requirements for spiritual fullness. In so doing, they undermined the sufficiency of Christ’s death and resurrection to sanctify.
But Paul tells us in Colossians 1:9 that in Christ dwells the fullness of deity in bodily form. And in view of this supremacy of Christ, Paul considered it to be utter folly to seek fullness other than in Christ alone. It is therefore likely that in order to quench the fire of nursing these false notions of gaining spiritual fullness through their adherence to Jewish traditions and ritual, Paul could have discouraged Jewish believers who were scattered among the gentiles from circumcising their children.
If Paul had not commanded them not to circumcise their children and had let these minority Jewish Christians to continue practicing this religious ritual in the midst of a large majority of Gentile believers, I think this would have communicated a wrong message similar to the message that Paul rebuked Peter for in Galatians 2:11-21 that Peter was trying to communicate when he withdrew from eating with the Gentiles. This in return would have implied that these rituals were a requirement for spiritual fullness. Consequently, this wrong implication would have obscured his teaching in which he had always made it clear that the focus of a Christian should no longer be on the observance of those things which are only a shadow; but on a Christ-centered, Christ-exalting and gospel-driven reality that acknowledges their fullness and ultimate fulfillment in Christ alone.
Converted “Judeans” accused Paul of commanding that their children not be circumcised (Acts 21:21). Did Paul make that demand? What would be the impact if he did? If he did not?
Response by OPR
The impact of Paul’s making this demand would have been massive.
It would have established in the strongest possible way the unity of the new covenant people of God, whether of “Judean” origin or from the various nations of the world. No distinctive mark would have remained to identify the next generation as “Judean” (Jewish) believers in contrast with believing peoples from the various nations of the world. Christian baptism would have totally replaced circumcision so far as the subsequent generations of “Judean” (Jewish) believers is concerned. In addition, once a ban on ritual circumcision had been established, little place would remain for “Messianic Jews” who accept Jesus as the promised Christ while retaining Old Testament ritualistic feast days and dietary laws. If ritual circumcision were forbidden, then presumably participation in certain feast-days along with dietary laws would also be forbidden.
It is true that Paul makes a categorical statement: “Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all” (Gal. 5:2). But a single action by Paul strongly indicates that he actually did not demand that “Judeans” (Jews) cease practicing ritual circumcision under all circumstances. That single action was Paul’s having Timothy circumcised as he began his great second missionary journey (Acts 16:3).
The root issue for Paul was a person’s view on the role of circumcision in his right-standing before God. As he develops his thought to the Galatians, he indicates that a person being circumcised for the purpose of achieving right-standing before God would then be obligated to keep the whole law (Gal. 5:3). Everything for Paul hinges on a person’s faith-intent. If a person receives circumcision as a means of keeping God’s law so that he can achieve righteousness before God, then he has injected his own law-keeping in place of faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ as his means of justification. But in the case of Timothy, Paul was following his own rule of being made “all things for all people” that he by all means might save some (1 Cor. 9:16). Paul did not have Timothy circumcised as a way of establishing Timothy’s personal righteousness. As the book of Acts explains, Paul wanted to take Timothy on his missionary journey, he circumcised him so that a non-circumcised status would interfere with his effectiveness as a witness for Jesus as the Christ (Acts 16:3). His intent in having Timothy circumcised was not to achieve righteousness, but to remove any unnecessary stumbling block associated with Timothy’s ministerial role. The Apostle showed great wisdom both in insisting that circumcision had nothing to do with a person’s justification, while also removing an unnecessary hindrance to the spread of the gospel.