Book 4 - Chapter 8: Of Circumcision - by Herman WitsiusThe Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man by Herman Witsius
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Herman Witsius (1636-1708)
Arguably known for the best work on Covenant Theology in print (at least in the top 5).
Herman Witsius (1636-1708) was Professor of Divinity in the Universities of Franeker, Utrecht, and Leyden. A brilliant and devout student, he was fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew by the age of fifteen, when he entered the University of Utrecht. He was ordained at twenty-one and served in several pastorates, filling both the pulpit and the academic chair over the course of his life.
This, his magnum opus, is a reflection of some of the most fruitful and mature thinking on federal theology during the seventeenth century, and still holds a preeminent place in our own day.
Chapter VIII: Of Circumcision
I. LET us now speak of circumcision; concerning which we shall take notice of the following things. I. The outward ceremony. II. The divine institution. III. The subject of it. IV. The necessity. V. The minister. VI. The time. VII. The spiritual signification. VIII. Its abrogation.
II. The rite of circumcision was, according to God’s appointment, as follows: the extreme cuticle or thin skin of the glans was cut off with a sharp knife. This, from its natural use, was called ערלה by the Hebrews, Gen. 34:14, from the verb ערל to close or stop up. The Greek interpreters of the Old Testament, and the writers of the New, express it by an elegant term ακροβυστία, because πὸ ἀκρον τῆς βαλάνου βυει, it covers the extremity of the glans. Gomarus ad Luc. 2:21, has made many learned remarks on this word. The Latins call it prœputium, a word of uncertain derivation. On account of circumcision, the Jews were, by way of contempt, and in derision, called Apellæ and Recutiti, because they had not that pellicle or skin. But it pleased God, in order to confound all the wisdom of the flesh, and to try the faith and obedience of his people, to give them for a sign of his covenant a rite, so much to be blushed at, and almost ashamed of; just as he also laid the ground-work of all our salvation in what appears no less shameful to flesh, namely, the cross of Christ.
III. The instrument of circumcision was any knife they could procure, made of any matter that was fit to take an edge; namely, of stone, glass, or wood. Yet Buxtorf, in Synagoga Judaica, says that it was generally one of iron, and that very sharp, as surgeon’s instruments usually are; some think that knives of stone were formerly used, because the instrument of circumcision, mentioned Exod. 4:25, is called רוע, which in Ezek. 3:9, denotes a stone; and in Josh. 5:2, the knives of circumcision are called חדבות צורים, swords of stone. But that inference is not so certain. For צור signifies not only a stone, but also an edge; as is manifest from Psa. 89:43, תשיב צור חרבו, “thou hast turned the edge of his sword:” nor formerly did they fight with swords of stone, Hence the Chaldee paraphrast translates Josh. 5:2, sharp knives.
IV. The first institution of circumcision, Gen. 17:11, was in the house and family of Abraham, about the year of the world, two thousand.* Circumcision was not immediately given, to be a public and universal sacrament to the whole church, in those times, but was confined to Abraham’s family. The remnant of the ancient fathers, satisfied with their sacrificial sacraments, could exercise their faith and please God, in uncircumcision, without being obliged to submit to this rite. But, after the expiration of about four centuries, when the visible churches, not of Abraham’s family, gradually apostatised to heathenism, the godly remnant being removed to the heavenly assembly; and when the republic of Israel, in the mean time, wonderfully increased, and the measure of iniquity among the nations being now full, the church was confined to Israel, and the rest of the world was rejected; and all that feared God were bound to join themselves in communion with them, by a participation of the same rites. Well says Maimonides, in Issure Bia, c. 13: “Whenever any Gentile would betake himself to the Israelitish covenant, and put himself under the wings of the divine majesty, and take upon him the yoke of the law, there were required circumcision, baptism, and a voluntary offering.” From that time, circumcision became an universal sacrament of the church. Thus the Lord Jesus distinguishes it, as it was of the fathers, to them it was a family institution, and, as given by Moses, an universal sacrament of the church, that was to be constituted or set up, John 7:22.
V. Moreover, circumcision was not only enjoined upon Abraham and Isaac, but also on all the descendants of Abraham, whether by Sarah, Hagar or Keturah, and even on all his domestics, bought with his money, and strangers, Gen. 17:25–27. For though, even at that time, God had determined to form a peculiar people to himself from the posterity of Isaac alone, not indeed from all of them; nevertheless the time was not yet come, when he would have his church confined to one particular people. Nor are we to doubt but he had his chosen people among the other sons and descendants of Abraham. And nothing is more certain than that, within the compass of these four centuries, circumcision, and with it the visible church, was propagated among all those eastern people who derived their origin from Ishmael, from the sons of Keturah, from Esau, and the proselytes who were circumcised in Abraham’s family. But I would observe by the way, that most of the Jewish rabbins will have it, that Keturah was Hagar herself, while others of them sometimes deny it, and at other times call it in question, as may be seen in Selden, de Synedr. lib. ii. c. 3. Those churches therefore, which, from among Abraham’s posterity, had the sign of circumcision, as well as the uncircumcised churches, from the pious remnant of the other fathers, together with the Israelites, whom God began to claim to himself by a nearer relation, made up the universal church of those times. Nor should they, in the mean time, be accounted strangers from the covenant of God, confirmed with Abraham in Christ, but rather brethren, and fellow-professors of the same religion. To this purpose we may apply Deut. 23:7: “Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite, for he is thy brother.” And as circumcision was at first enjoined even on strangers, in Abraham’s family, this ought afterwards to have put the Israelites in mind of the future calling of the Gentiles.
VI. Meanwhile among the nations that descended from Abraham, the use of circumcision continued much longer than the true religion. For while they revolted by degrees from the God of their fathers, so they polluted themselves with horrible idolatries, and were rejected by God, and banished from his covenant; but still they retained circumcision. Accordingly authors of every kind speak of many circumcised nations besides the Israelites. Grotius has drawn up a catalogue of them, in Notis ad lib. i. de Veritate Relig. Christianæ; and Selden, in a place already quoted, has much to this purpose.
VII. It is, then, certain that other nations, besides the descendants of Abraham, were circumcised; as Herodotus in Euterpe testifies of the Egyptians, the Ethiopians, and the inhabitants of Colchis. Grotius indeed says, that the Ethiopians were descended from the posterity of Keturah; and that the Colchians, and neighbouring people, are the descendants of the ten tribes, which were carried away by Salmanassar. But Bochart, Geograph. Sacr. lib. iv. c. 26 and 31, has made it appear, by cogent arguments, that both the Ethiopians and Colchians owe their origin to the Egyptians. And Diodorous Siculus, whose fidelity on this point Grotius vainly attempts to weaken, relates that the rite of circumcision passed from the Egyptians to their colonies and ancient offspring, as Ammianus, lib. ii. calls the Colchians. The same thing we are to believe concerning the Colchians. What Ambrose, de Patriarcha Abrahamo, lib. 2. c. 11, relates of the Egyptians, is both remarkable and surprising: “The Egyptians,” says he, “circumcise their males at fourteen years, and at the same years, their females; namely, because at those years, the passions of the male begin to rage, and the monthly courses of the females to take their rise.” But Gomarus, ad Luc. 2:21, has justly observed, that we may very well doubt of the truth of that narration (unless he probably speaks of his own time), on account of its disagreement with ancient history. Besides, we can scarcely allow the least doubt, that the Egyptians had learned circumcision from the Israelites, when they dwelt among them, and were, at first, acceptable guests.
VIII. Here it seems proper to say something concerning the circumcision of the Ethiopians, which they still retain, notwithstanding their having embraced Christianity. Zaga Zabo, an Ethiopian bishop, and ambassador from his prince, at the court of Portugal, ascribes the first rise of it to the queen Maqueda. He will have her to be the same whom the sacred writings tell us came to Solomon, being excited thereto by the fame of his wisdom. He says, that being with child by Solomon, she brought forth a son, called Meilech. When he was grown up, she sent him to Jerusalem to his father, to be instructed in the law of God. After Solomon had carefully performed this, he solemnly anointed this his son, before the ark, king of Ethiopia, changing his former name to that of David. After his return to his own country, with a great retinue, among which was Azarias the son of Zadok, (who, preparing himself for the journey, stole out of the ark, and, for the sake of the new king, carried away with him the two tables of the law, and perfidiously placed false ones in their room), the Gynecocracy, or government of women, was entirely abolished, and it was ordained that the male descendants alone, in a right line from this David, should sway the sceptre; that circumcision should be introduced, that of the women being added by the queen Maqueda. But they protest they retain it, not from any religious view, but as an hereditary and political symbol of their nobility.
IX. But who does not see that these are foolish and trifling stories? Not to mention other things, the absurdity and gross falsehood of which lie open to the view of every one. They arrogantly brag that it was their queen who went to Solomon, when it can be easily proved, that it was the queen of Arabia Felix. 1st. She is called in Scripture, the queen of Sheba, 1 Kings 10:1. But Philostorgius says, that this was the name which the Greeks gave to Arabia, the Great and Happy. It is otherwise called Homeritis, from an Arabic word. The Nubian Geographer relates that this queen reigned there, whom he calls Belkis, and the wife of Solomon. 2dly. Christ calls her the queen of the south. But Sheba, or Arabia Felix, is not only south of the land of Israel, but is also in Arabic called אלימן Aljeman, that is the southward, as Drusius, ad Matt. 12:42, has observed from Judæus Salmanticensis and Aben Ezra. And Benjamin, in his Itinerary, p. 73, says שבא היא אלימן Sheba is Aljeman. When Christ therefore called her queen of the south, which, in Syriac, is מלבתא דתמנא queen of Timena, he spoke after the vulgar, so that he might easily be understood by any one. 3dly. Christ adds, that this queen came from the uttermost parts of the earth, which much better agrees to the Sabeans than to the Ethiopians; for the most extensive countries lie beyond Meroe, the metropolis of Ethiopia; whereas the Sabeans occupy, on the ocean, the utmost parts of Arabia towards the sea, consequently the ends of the earth. 4thly. There is much greater plenty of gold and spices, with which this queen is said to have loaded her camels (1 Kings 10:2), in Arabia, than in the country of the Ethiopians, and therefore called by the Greeks, Αροματοφορος, spice-yielding. 5thly. What Josephus says, Antiq. lib. 8. c. 2, concerning the queen of the Ethiopians, and her royal city, formerly called Saba, afterwards Meroe, is not only uncertain, but also bewrays very great ignorance in history, as Bochart, who may be consulted on this head, has invincibly shown, Geograph. Sac. lib. ii. c. 24. As therefore the queen of the south is not the queen of the Ethiopians, the modern Ethiopians vainly boast, that they received circumcision, and therewith Judaism, on occasion of that queen. It is much more probable, they received it long before that time, from the Egyptians, whose descendants they are: but it is more likely, the Sabeans, who according to Philostorigus, were circumcised the eighth day, were taught it by their queen, who visited Solomon.
X. It is intolerable, by whomsoever introduced, that some should have attempted, out of a human device, to obtrude a kind of circumcision, or something analogous thereto, on women; as we just heard concerning Maqueda, that fictitious queen of the Ethiopians, and the Egyptians. For, God enjoined circumcision expressly to the males only: women are accounted in the men, and in and with them reckoned to be in covenant. Nor was this without its mystery. 1st. Thus they were taught, that salvation depends not on circumcision. 2dly. It signified the imperfection of that economy, which was afterwards to give place to one more perfect, in which persons were to be initiated by a more easy and common sacrament, of which women themselves were also to partake.
XI. But in all other nations, who were strangers to the true worship of God, circumcision was nothing but a mere superstitious practice, and a wretched imitation of a sacrament given by God to his covenant people. But he would have those in covenant with himself, strictly to be bound by this tie, Gen. 17:14: “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.” I am not now inclined to transcribe what the learned have long ago observed on כרת, or “the cutting off a soul from his people”. Among many others may be seen Fagius ad Exod. 12:15; Amama in Antibarbaro, lib. iii. towards the end; Seldenus de Synedriis, lib. i. c. vi; and de jure Nat. lib. vii. c. ix. L’Empereur in notis ad Bertramum de Republ. Hebr. lib. i. c. ii. and Hen. Ainsworth ad Num. 15:30, 31; Hottingerus ad juris Hebr. præceptum, 227; Owen in proleg. ad Hebr. p. 289; and very lately, John a Mark, Exer. Juv. Disp. 1 and 2. I do not think it improbable, that the cutting off a soul from the people signified a seclusion or separation, from the church, and from the solemnities and prerogatives of the people of God, to which is opposed “בא כקהל יהוה, to enter into the congregation, (or church) of Jehovah,” Deut. 23:2. To this purpose is Exod. 12:19: “Even that soul shall be cut off מערת ישדאל, from the congregation of Israel,” that is, shall be removed from the fellowship of the saints. Ezek. 13:9: “they not be בסוד עמי, in the council”, or mystical assembly, “of my people, neither shall they be written in the writing of the house of Israel:” namely, he who “הפיד, has broken” my covenant, which “כדתי, I made” with him, “יברת, shall be cut off” from among this covenant-people, and shall not partake of their privileges. Besides this ecclesiastical death, there sometimes was added to it death by the sentence of the judge, Lev. 20:6, compared with ver. 27, sometimes by the immediate hand of God, and other grievous calamities inflicted by him: see Exod. 4:24, 25; sometimes a being childless, Lev. 18:29, compared with Lev. 20:20, 21; and at last, unless the sinner repented, the eternal destruction of his soul. Abarbanel does not speak amiss, as his words are quoted by L’Empereur: “The soul shall be cut off from that supreme bundle of life, and shall not obtain the splendour of the divinity, that is, the pleasure and reward of a soul.” And why may we not include all these in this general expression? But by this threatening, God would guard the command of circumcision, lest a sacrament, in other respects full of shame and pain, should be either slighted or neglected. It was his will, that his covenant should be in such esteem, that its yoke, though hard, might be cheerfully submitted to. Aben Ezra has observed, that, in the whole sacred Scripture, he finds twenty-three places, where God threatens כרת extermination, to those who transgress the negative precepts; but with respect to the positive he only found כרת with regard to the precepts of circumcision, and the due solemnizing the passover. From which it is evident, it was the will of God to bind his people to these sacraments by the strictest tie.
XII. But yet we are, on no account, so to understand these things, as if all infants, dying uncircumcised after the eighth day, were consigned to condemnation; which, after some popish writers, I wonder that Chamierus should have adopted, lib. iii. de Sacram. c. ii: “But the meaning is, (as Perkins has well observed, Tract. de Sacram. Baptismi,) whoever has not been circumcised in his infancy, and being come to years of discretion and knowledge, shall then refuse circumcision, his soul shall be cut off from his people.” And therefore this is said of adults, not of infants, who cannot break the covenant. There are the following reasons for this explication: 1st, Because the words of the original text are active, “אשר לא ימל בשד, he who shall not have circumcised the flesh of his foreskin.” Where את, the sign of the accusative, shows, that the word ימול is not here of the form niphal, from מול, but of the form kal, from נמל. Whence I conclude, these words are not addressed to him, who, in the act of his circumcision, unknowingly suffers any thing; but to him who can procure his own circumcision, and yet deliberately neglects it. 2dly, Because it is added, “he hath broken my covenant, אח בריתי הפר.” In which words he is charged with a culpable action, who only before could be charged with a culpable deficiency. But an infant, who is without circumcision, not through his own default, does not thereby render the covenant of God of no effect. 3dly, The occasion and end of this sanction lead to this; namely, circumcision was enjoined to Abraham, when 99 years old, to his servants and domestics, when grown up, to Ismael, a lad 13 years old. But as it would have been difficult to persuade grown persons to that act of cutting away, or of mutilation, conjoined with so much shame and pain; for this reason that threatening was added, that, for fear of a greater evil, they might obsequiously submit to the command. As this could only be seriously considered by grown up persons, so it regards them only. 4thly, We may add this inconvenience; if infants dying uncircumcised after the eighth day, are, on that account, consigned to condemnation, as covenant breakers, there can be no reason, why the same thing may not be said concerning the infants of Christians, who die before baptism; because baptism, ho less than circumcision, is a sign of the covenant. And that this was also the constant opinion of the Jews, see in Selden de Synedriis, lib. i. c. vi.
XIII. The minister of circumcision was every master of a family, Gen. 17:23, or any other person, qualified for that office, and substituted in the master’s place. Nor does it appear that Zacharias, though a priest, circumcised his son John with his own hands, Luke 1:59. At least, it appears not, that God confined the administration of this ordinance to any particular order of men. But yet, that women were not called to do it, may be gathered from the example of Zippora, Exod. 4:24, 25. Because amidst the confusion, arising from a present danger, neither she nor Moses seem sufficiently to have attended, by whom circumcision was to be administered, if it was only done. And it is plain, that God really approved that circumcision; but it does not appear, that he approved the manner of it.
XIV. The day appointed for circumcision was the eighth from the birth. Though the principal reason of this is, the will of him who commands; yet other reasons are likewise probably added. 1st, That thus a regard might be had to the tender state of infants, who, before the eighth day, are scarce able to bear the pains of circumcision, under which grown persons themselves almost sink, Gen. 34:25. 2dly, Because infants just born, are with their mother, accounted unclean till the eighth day. This reason R. Simeon, the son of Jachi, gives in Pesikta, fol. 16. col. 3.: “Why has the law appointed circumcision on the eighth day? Circumcision is put off, till the woman in child-bed be cleansed from her uncleanness,” Light-foot ad Luc. 2:21. And this reason seems to be grounded on Lev. 12:2, 3. Certainly the infant was initiated by circumcision, and offered up as it were to God by the shedding of his blood. And it was after the seventh day, before God admitted of any sacrifices from among brute animals, Exod. 21:30, Lev. 23:27. 3dly, This was so appointed, that we might not imagine salvation depended on an external sign; for otherwise, a good and gracious God would not have deferred it till the eighth day, before which time many must needs have died. Upon this account also Abraham himself was justified in uncircumcision, Rom. 4:10.
XV. I will not say with some (who yet, I own, can defend themselves by the authority of Cyprian and sixty-six bishops assembled by him in council. See Cyprian’s Epistles, lib. iii. epist. viii., which in Pamel’s edition is the 59th), that this mystery prefigured the day of Christ’s resurrection, which in the order of the days is the eighth, and on which the true circumcision and our salvation, were entirely completed and perfected. 1st, Because Christ is nowhere said to have risen on the eighth day, but either on the third from his death, or on the first day of the week. But this day, with respect to circumcision, is no more the eighth than any other day. Nor is it usually called the eighth from the first day of the preceding week, as the week is closed with the seventh day; from which the first of the new week is reckoned. 2dly, Because circumcision was not a type so much of the resurrection, as of the sufferings and death of Christ, as we shall directly show. 3dly, Neither does it seem an accurate way of speaking, to say that the true circumcision and our salvation, were entirely completed and perfected on the day of Christ’s resurrection. For, as to the impetration or purchase of our salvation, that indeed was perfected by the death of Christ. The complete application of the purchased salvation, not only requires the resurrection of Christ from the dead, but his ascension into heaven, and waits for his return to the general judgment. There is therefore no reason why these days ought not, as much as the day of his resurrection, to be prefigured. We are carefully to be on our guard, not to run into extremes in allegorizing.
XVI. The spiritual signification of circumcision is as excellent, as the sign itself seems mean and almost shameful. In general it was a “sign of the covenant of God with Abraham,” Gen. 17:11. And therefore, by a sacramental phrase, it is called the covenant itself, ver. 10, 13. Nay it was not only a sign, but also a seal; for not only Paul has declared this, Rom. 4:11, but also the Jewish masters, Light-foot ad Matt. 28:19. Whose words, from the Jerusalem Talmud, Tract. Berachot, are as follows: “Blessed be he, who sanctified the beloved from the womb, and put a sign in his flesh, and sealed his sons with the sign of the holy covenant.” God promised to give the Messiah, and with him all manner of blessings, earthly, spiritual, heavenly, to Abraham and his seed, and that all these should come from his seed. God required of Abraham by covenant, that he should walk before him. Circumcision was the sign and seal of this covenant; so that all, who duly submit to this, according to God’s prescription, were solemnly declared by God himself to be partakers of the promises made to Abraham; and, at the same time openly avowed, that, by a lively faith, they received the promised Messiah, and expected from him blessings of every kind. And thus circumcision became to them a seal of the righteousness of faith, Rom. 4:11. And the circumcised person was said “to enter, and to have a safe station, under the wings of the divine majesty”. And by the same act, they also bound themselves to the sincere observance of the whose of religion, and consequently of all the precepts of God, as became those in covenant with the Supreme Being. It is not to be doubted, but the prayer, which the Jews, at this day, still use in the circumcision of their young infants, is from the remains of ancient piety, Buxtorf. Synag. Jud. c. ii.: “As thou hast made this young child to enter, or hast received him into the covenant of Abraham our father; so make him enter into the law of Moses, into the state of matrimony, הופה, (which Selden de Jure Nat. lib. i. c. ii., renders, into protection or safe-guard), and into good works.”
XVII. More especially these three principal heads of the whole of our religion are held forth by the figure of circumcision; namely, our misery, our redemption, and our returns of gratitude.
XVIII. Man’s misery consists partly in sin, partly in the punishment of sin. Both these are signified by circumcision. For the foreskin, that is, the extreme pellicle of the generative member, which was to be cut off by circumcision, denotes that viciousness or corruption of the whole man, inherent in him from his very first origin, and frequently in scripture is called the foreskin of the heart, or an uncircumcised heart, Deut. 10:16. Jer. 4:4; Lev. 26:41; Jer. 9:26. And the painful cutting away of that fleshly part signified, that the whole man deserved to be separated for ever from the communion of God and all his saints, with exquisite and intolerable torments both of soul and body.
XIX. Here the Redeemer and the redemption of men are no less clearly discovered. For, this sacrament signified and sealed, 1st, That from Abraham, now circumcised, was to arise Isaac, Gen. 17:16, the Father of that blessed seed or of the Messiah, who was to take upon himself, and to expiate, all our sin and all our guilt. 2dly, That this Messiah was to shed his blood for men, without which the covenant of grace could never be sealed, and to commence his sufferings from the very beginning of his life. 3dly, That he was to partake of the same flesh and blood with us, Heb. 2:14; to be cut off from the land of the living, Isa. 53:8, in order to the preservation of his body, the church, Eph. 5:23; as in the carnal circumcision a part of the body was to be cut away, that the whole man might not be cut off from his people. 4thly, That he would freely enable us to cut away and to put off the sins of the flesh, by regeneration and sanctification, which are perfected in glory, Col. 2:11. This, I imagine, was the meaning of the ancient Jewish doctors, when they said, that, whenever one becomes a proselyte, he is like a new-born child. This being so very common in the mouths of their masters, Christ justly replied to Nicodemus, when he so impertinently inquired about being born again, “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?” John 3:10. They taught that a new soul, which came under the wings of the Divine majesty, and was received into the embraces of the supreme Being, dropped down from some heavenly palace on him who was circumcised. By such dark and mysterious expressions it is probable the ancient Jewish doctors described spiritual regeneration, which, not being understood by the more modern, was by them changed into mere empty sound. see Selden, de jure nat., lib. ii. c. 11.
XX. Lastly, By the use of this sacrament, they were put in mind of the duties of a becoming gratitude. 1st, That they were to apply themselves to internal, secret, and spiritual piety, just as circumcision was performed on a secret member of the body, which is to be veiled, Rom. 2:28, 29. 2dly, To mortify their members, which are upon the earth, Col. 3:5, that is, to renounce their lusts, even those that formerly were most dear to them, and beloved by them. 3dly, To have no longer any intimate friendship with the world which lieth in wickedness, as the descendants of Abraham were separated by circumcision from other nations, and renounced their friendship, as appears from the open declaration of the sons of Jacob, Gen. 34:14, 15. Though indeed they spoke this from an evil intention, yet what they said was right: compare Acts 10:28. A circumcised person, say the Jews, has withdrawn himself from the whole body of the nations. And indeed, circumcision was a great part, and as it were, the foundation of the middle wall of partition. 4thly, They were cheerfully and willingly, at the command of God, and for his glory, to submit to every thing however difficult, grievous, and painful, and however improper, foolish, and ridiculous, in the eyes of the world; not to account their reputation, nor even their life dear in comparison thereof.
XXI. God has determined the duration of circumcision in these words, Gen. 17:13: “And my covenant shall be in your flesh לברית עולם for an everlasting covenant.” This is not to be understood of a perpetual duration even to the end of the world. The distinction is well known of עולם הזח, of this age, as they spoke formerly, which comprised the whole economy of the Old Testament, and of עולם חבא, of the age to come; which by the apostle, Heb. 2:5, is called ὁ μέλλῶν αἰὼν the age to come, or ἡ οἱκουμένη μέλλουσα, the world to come, to which age belong the days of the Messiah. But the prophecies constantly say that what was instituted for the covenant of the former age must not be extended to the latter age, whose face or state and economy were to be quite different.
XXII. Moreover, that circumcision was to be abrogated in the days of the more joyful dispensation of the covenant may thus appear. 1st, Because it is a part of those shadows, which, because they prefigured the body that was to come, ought now to give place to it, since it is come, Col. 2:17. 2dly, Because it was a great part of that middle wall of partition which separated the Jews from the Gentiles, and whose inclosure was to be broken down by the death of Christ, “having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments, contained in ordinances; for to make in himself, of twain, one new man, so making peace,” Eph. 2:15. It was certainly foretold of old time, that the Gentiles were to be fellow-heirs, and of the same body with Israel, and partakers of the same promise, Eph. 3:6: see Deut. 32:43. Isa. 19:24, 25. and Isa. 60:3, &c. But this concorporation, or being of the same body, was not to be brought about by enclosing the Gentiles with Israel, within the same inclosure of rites and ceremonies (for that inclosure was appointed to establish a separation and enmity) but by destroying the same: “For in Jesus Christ, neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but faith, which worketh by love,” Gal. 5:6. “They which are of faith”, whether circumcised or not, the same are the children of Abraham”, Gal. 3:7. 3dly, Because circumcision plainly showed, that the blood of the New Testament was not yet shed, that the Messiah was not yet born of the seed of Abraham, or at least not yet cut off for the salvation of his mystical body. But when the world was made to know, by the preaching of the Gospel, that these things were done, it was necessary, that what testified they were not yet done should be abrogated; least any institution of God should be found to bear witness against the truth. To this purpose is that of Paul, Gal. 5:2, 3, 4, “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 do the whole law.” The meaning is, whoever submits to circumcision, as a necessary part of God’s instituted worship, or as a mean of justification thereby renounces Christ. 1st, Because he would have that sign to be still necessary, which testifieth, that every thing is not yet accomplished by Christ. 2dly, Because, as circumcision cannot be separated from the rest of the ceremonial law, to which it was as the porch, so he who submits to circumcision, thereby binds himself to the observance of the whole ceremonial law. But that is in effect to deny the coming of Christ, and the time of reformation and liberty. 3dly, Because, as the righteousness of man before God, must either depend wholly on his own works, or wholly upon Christ, and these two cannot be conjoined, Gal. 2:21, and Gal. 3:12, 18; whoever seeks for righteousness in circumcision, as his own work, is fallen from the righteousness of Christ; and so, if he would obtain salvation, it is necessary, that he keep the whole law: which being impossible for him to do, he knows, he is cut off from all hopes of salvation.
XXIII. But the abrogation of this rite of circumcision had its several degrees. It was first in a languishing state, then it was dead, and at last became pernicious. 1st, It began to languish at the circumcision of Christ, who by submitting himself to the law for the elect, and solemnly testifying that subjection by taking upon him the symbol of circumcision, made it appear, that he was that singular seed of Abraham, whose future nativity circumcision was originally appointed to prefigure. From the time therefore, that he appeared, circumcision, which signified that he was to come, lost a great part of its signification. 2dly, It was further weakened, after Christ had, in the thirtieth year of his age, manifested himself to Israel, and was pointed out by John, as the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world, and was publicly owned by the Father as his beloved Son, to whom all were to hear and obey. For then the Gospel of liberty and of the kingdom began to be preached, and baptism, a sign opposed to circumcision, was used, as a sacrament of initiation into a better covenant, whereby circumcision came to lose much of its dignity. 3dly, It began to die at the death of Christ. For when he was cut off from among his people, for the salvation of the whole mystical body, and had sealed the New Testament by his blood, every thing relating to the future Messiah, which circumcision prefigured, and to which Christ by his own circumcision bound himself, was fulfilled. And thus the hand-writing, which was against Christ the surety, and against believers, was torn asunder in his cross, Col. 2:14. 4thly, It came to be quite dead, after Christ, by his resurrection from the dead, had received from the Father a discharge, in witness that the fullest payment was made, and exhibited it to the view, as it were, of the whole world. Yet believers had so little knowledge of the liberty purchased for, and offered to them, that Peter himself wanted to be taught it by a heavenly vision, Acts 10:28, 34, 35, 47. 5thly, It was not yet destructive, but so long as the church was not sufficiently instructed in her liberty, it might at times, to avoid giving offence to the weak, be prudently, yet lawfully used, not from a principle of conscience, but from the dictates of charity and prudence, lest the Jews, who were too tenacious of their peculiar and paternal rites, should be alienated from the Christian religion: just as Timothy was circumcised, being the son of a Jewess, Acts 16:1, 3. 6thly, But after the nation of the Jews, on rejecting the Gospel, were cast off by God, and continued obstinately to insist on circumcision, as a necessary part of religion, nay, of righteousness, and the church was sufficiently instructed in her own liberty, circumcision came to be destructive, as being a character of superstition and a badge of Jewish infidelity, and a renunciation of Christian liberty, as we have shown from Gal. 5:2, 3.
XXIV. It is not now difficult to determine that question; namely, whether the nation of the Jews, when they shall in the last times be fully converted to Christ, will religiously retain the circumcision of infants? Without any hesitation, I think, we are to answer this question in the negative, for the reasons just given. As they are such, as evince that not only the Gentiles but also the Jews were made free, under the liberty of the New Testament, from circumcision, which is the band of the whole yoke. And in every respect the reason of both ought to be altogether the same. Though the pre-eminence of the Jew was formerly great, yet now he has none at all. None under Christ has wherein to glory: Paul accounted it as loss and dung, Phil. 3:7, 8. In Christ there is no difference of Jew and Greek, of circumcision and uncircumcision: but Christ himself is all in all, Col. 3:11; all pre-eminence, of whatever nation, being totally removed. “Henceforth”, saith the apostle, 2 Cor. 5:16. “know we no man after the flesh,” that is, we have no greater esteem for him on account of his pedigree from the Holy Fathers; “yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh,” that is, though we have looked upon our carnal relation to Christ as any prerogative: “Yet now henceforth know we him no more;” we now place all our happiness [not in that, but] in our spiritual union with him by faith. And since God is now in no sense “a respecter of persons,” Acts 10:34, we can never be allowed “to have the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ the Lord of glory, with respect of persons,” Jam. 2:1; or, in the kingdom of Christ, to put a greater value on the descendants of Abraham, as such, than on Barbarians or Scythians, “who have obtained like precious faith with us,” 2 Pet. 1:1. In a word, the circumcision of the believing Israelites, in the last times, would be either a future privilege, or a burden and yoke. But can be neither: not the latter, because that would be repugnant to the liberty purchased by Christ, which, as is meet, should be exceeding glorious in that happy period: not the former, because the Gospel of the kingdom hath removed all pre-eminence of one above another, “hath made both one”, Eph. 2:14.
XXV. Yet I have heard of two arguments against this, which have the appearance of strength, and but the appearance only. The one is taken from the New Testament, the other from the Old. From the New, that speech of James and the elders to Paul, Acts 21:21, has been proposed to my consideration by a learned person: “And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews, which are among the Gentiles, saying, that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs.” But when this made a great commotion among those who were zealous of the law, and yet believed in Christ, James authorised Paul to do such things, from which all might know, “that those things, whereof they were informed concerning him, were nothing, but that Paul himself also walked orderly, and kept the law,” ver. 24. Paul complied with this advice. From this it might be concluded, that the true sense of Paul’s doctrine was, that though the Gentiles were not indeed bound to circumcision and the other ceremomies, yet the Jews, even after they embraced the faith of Christ, were to circumcise their children, and to walk after the customs; because Paul, at the persuasion of James, by this compliance removes from himself the suspicion of his teaching a contrary doctrine.
XXVI. But we are here to consider distinctly three things. 1st, The true doctrine of Paul. 2dly, The calumny invidiously fixed upon him. 3dly, The prudential advice suggested to him by James and the elders. Indeed Paul, who was an excellent preacher of Christian liberty, set both Jews and Gentiles, who had submitted to the Gospel, at liberty from the necessity of submitting to circumcision and the other ceremonies: for he proclaimed to all, that “circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God,” 1 Cor. 7:19. And he compares the law to a tutor, under whose tuition the Old Testament church was placed, being then in a state of bondage; but now the kingdom of heaven being set up in the world; he declares that the same church was come to age, which no longer standing in need of a tutor, was not again to be given up to bondage under those first elements of the world, Gal. 4:1. Which certainly comprised both Jews and Gentiles. He every where published this privilege of the New Testament freely and openly. Nevertheless he was not against making some allowances for the Jewish brethren, in the exercise of that liberty; in case there were not a spirit of contention, nor an opinion of necessity and righteousness in standing up for the practice of the ceremonies. Calumny put a quite different construction on this conduct: as if he acted thus to the reproach of the law, and taught apostasy from Moses, and did not agree, in this doctrinal point who with others, who maintained the Christian faith. But the case was certainly the reverse; for it is no reproach put upon the law, to teach that Christ made satisfaction to it; any more than it is a reproach put upon a hand-writing, that, on payment being made, it is cancelled. Nor is it any apostasy from Moses, to preach that Christ is the bestower of liberty, since Moses himself commanded him to be heard; nor did Paul disagree from the other apostles; because they also taught, according to the decree of the Synod of Jerusalem, an immunity from that yoke; and Paul, in the exercise of that liberty, by no means disowned, that charity and prudence were to be regarded. Nevertheless the calumny gained ground, and many of the brethren, who were not truly informed of the apostle’s doctrine, entertained groundless suspicions of him. Hence arose the advice, that he himself should openly perform some certain ceremonies, not in order to create any prejudice to that Christian right and liberty which he had preached, but to show publicly that he had done nothing inconsiderately which could give rise to any just indignation: that it was a vile calumny, by which he was defamed, as entertaining less reverend thoughts of Moses, and teaching the Jews a contempt of the law. With this advice the apostle complies, not that he approved the violence of those zealots, but to wipe off a calumny, and to suit himself prudently and friendly to the weak. Thus, “Unto the Jews he became as a Jew, that he might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that he might gain them that are under the law,” 1 Cor. 9:20. These things being duly considered, it is evident nothing can be concluded from this passage for the continuance of circumcision among the converted Israelites.
XXVII. From the Old Testament is objected, Ezek. 44:9, where the Lord, describing the state of the church after the conversion of Israel, thus goes on: “No stranger, uncircumcised in heart, nor uncircumcised in flesh, shall enter into my sanctuary.” By which words, all who have a right to enter into the sanctuary, are required to have the circumcision both of flesh and heart. If the question was about uncircumcision in general, we might very plainly explain it of the depraved disposition of the unregenerate heart. Nay, if the uncircumcision of the flesh were expressly mentioned, nothing could hinder us from taking a prophetic expression, borrowed from the rites of the Old Testament, in a spiritual sense. But when the uncircumcision both of flesh and heart is distinctly mentioned, it seems altogether necessary we should certainly understand the one spiritually, but the other literally.
XXVIII. In answer to this reasoning, I offer the following considerations. 1st. That the whole context of Ezekiel concerning the building of a new temple is mystical and allegorical, and is expressed by similitudes borrowed from the Old Testament, all which, as is suitable to the state of the New Testament, are to be explained spiritually. 2dly. That though the uncircumcision of flesh and heart are distinct, yet they are both mystical. Surely uncircumcision mystically signifies any depraved disiposition of man. Hence we read of uncircumcised lips, Exod. 6:12; and ears, Jer. 6:10, Acts 7:51. Nay, any impurity even of those fruits, which God had forbid to be eaten, is called uncircumcision, Lev. 19:23*. The uncircumcision therefore of the heart, in the mystical language of Ezekiel, signifies the impurity of the heart and inward affections; the uncircumcision of the flesh, the impurity of the outward actions, performed by the body, according to the distinction of Paul, 2 Cor. 7:1. Both kinds of impurity are to be laid aside by him, who would be reckoned to belong to the communion of the people of God. “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Jehovah? And who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands and a pure heart,” Psa. 24:3, 4. But we are especially to take notice, that the discourse here is not concerning the Israelites, but concerning the strangers, who were to be admitted into the sanctuary. They certainly, shall have their proper place in this new temple, Isa. 56:6, 7, and not have reason to complain; “Jehovah hath utterly separated me from his people,” ver. 3. But to impose upon them, in the latter days, the necessity of circumcision, from which they were free all the intermediate time, is, as has been shown, diametrically opposite to the doctrine of the apostles.