The Surprising Sign
When God said to Abraham (in Genesis 17:10), “Every male among you shall be circumcised,” I assume that there was something in that aged man that wanted to scream out, “God, you can’t be serious about this! You are not really going to have me cut off the foreskin of my penis as a sign by which people will know that I belong to You, are You?” The covenant of circumcision makes me think that God has a sick sense of humor, or God is weird, or there is something here that I need to look at more closely.
Genesis 17:11 refer to circumcision as “a sign of the covenant.” A “sign” is a marker that points people to something or that spells out the significance of something. What does circumcision point to? What meaning does it communicate?
Circumcision points our attention to two dynamics of our relationship with God: intimacy and cost.
Intimacy: In his book The Rest of God, Mark Buchanan points out, “To be circumcised is to be wounded in a place of intimacy and vulnerability. It is to permit, even invite an act of violence—a sharp knife, a painful cut, a bloody removal—in that part of a man he otherwise most guards and hides. It is also the part he most intimately joins with a woman. Circumcision is being scarred in a place of deep identity, where a man understands himself to be a man. It is being wounded at the only source where a man can create life. Many parts of a man’s anatomy are useful: with his mind he imagines, with his hands he devises, with his feet he deploys. A man can create many things, but only in this one place can he create life. It is here the knife is applied. The scar, the wound, sets this man apart: it says that here, even here, especially here, he is a marked man. He is one who belongs to God.” (P. 96)
In the website “The Thirsty Theologian,” David Kjos adds, “I believe circumcision demonstrates the depth of intimacy God wants to have with his people. He wants such an intimate connection with us that he put the physical mark of his covenant with us in the most intimate possible place. Furthermore, the removal of the foreskin represents the uncovering of our most hidden parts. Think about it: even when a man is entirely naked, his most private part is still covered by his foreskin. Only under the most intimate of circumstances is he entirely exposed, and then only to the one with whom the intimacy is shared. God wants that degree of intimacy with us.”
The reality of our faith is that God invites us into a deep, vulnerable, and intimate relationship with Him. Circumcision points our attention to this fact.
Cost: In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defines a “Christian” as “One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor; one who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.” Bierce captures the popular thinking: The Christian faith is to be embraced whenever it makes us happy but placed on a shelf whenever it becomes uncomfortable to us.
But Mark Labberton remarks, “Seeking a call that evades suffering is a decision neither to follow Jesus nor to live in the real world. How can we read the Gospels and hear Jesus say, ‘Take up [your] cross and follow me’ (Matthew 16:24), and believe that isn’t for us? Suffering is not the goal of following Jesus. It will, however, be a consequence, because it’s a call to love the real and suffering world. The ‘cross’ we take up isn’t an accident of circumstances but a willful choice to imitate the love of Jesus, who took up his cross out of love and calls us to do likewise.” (Called, p. 126)
Circumcision points us to the fact that faith is not always comfortable to us. Circumcision points us to the fact that faith is costly at its core.
Interestingly, circumcision was a sign that was not easily seen or noticed by others. Though James Michener includes a moving scene in his book The Source about a handsome ancient Jewish lad who fell in love with Greek culture and endured the pain of a reversed circumcision to fit in with the Greek athletes. When the athletes paraded through the city naked, the boy’s rabbi father saw that his son had cast aside the mark of the covenant, and it broke the father’s heart.
The apostle Paul tells us that since the time of Jesus, we are given a different mark to identify us as God’s people. In Ephesians 1:13b-14, Paul writes, “Having believed, you were marked in Him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of His glory.”
Though the Spirit of God is invisible, the Spirit’s presence in our lives is meant to be seen. In Matthew 5:14-16, Jesus states, “You are the light of the world…. Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” And in John 13:35 Jesus stresses, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
The mark we have received is the Holy Spirit, and this mark is to be seen not through a change to our physical appearance but through a change in our heart. This mark is to be seen and recognized through our love for others.