Do we need to practice circumcision in the 21st century?

If you google circumcision, you will see that there is a debate in the medical community over circumcision. Should it be allowed or prohibited? Should it be encouraged or discouraged? Complicating the issue is the fact that some people practice circumcision for religious reasons. What does the Bible say about circumcision? What are the religious implications? Is it something we should practice today?

Circumcision is mentioned over 80 times in the Bible. It is first mentioned in Genesis 17 in connection with a covenant between God and Abram. (A covenant was a legal agreement between two parties.) Let’s look at the terms of this covenant and how circumcision is connected to it, and then we will consider if it is something we need to do today.

What do the following verses tell us about the terms of the covenant?

Gen. 17:1 ¶ Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; Walk before Me, and be blameless.

Gen. 17:2 “I will establish My covenant between Me and you, And I will multiply you exceedingly.”

Gen. 17:3 Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying,

Gen. 17:4 “As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, And you will be the father of a multitude of nations.

Gen. 17:5 “No longer shall your name be called Abram, But your name shall be Abraham; For I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.

Gen. 17:6 “I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings will come forth from you.

Gen. 17:7 “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.

Gen. 17:8 “I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”

As part of the covenant, God made three promises:

  1. Abram would have a multitude of descendants.
  2. Yahweh would be the God of Abram’s descendants.
  3. Abram’s descendants would possess the land of Canaan.

Next, God told Abram about Abram’s responsibility under this covenant. Notice the words “circumcision” and “sign”.

Gen. 17:9 ¶ God said further to Abraham, “Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations.

Gen. 17:10 “This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised.

Gen. 17:11 “And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.

Gen. 17:12 “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.

Gen. 17:13 “A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.

Gen. 17:14 “But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.”

Chart of Abram's lifeAbram and all his male descendants were required to be circumcised. Circumcision would identify them as being part of God’s covenant. Notice that anyone who was not a descendant of Abram was not required to practice circumcision.

God also told Abram that the covenant would be established with Isaac.

Gen. 17:15 ¶ Then God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.

Gen. 17:16 “I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her. Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”

Gen. 17:17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, “Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

Gen. 17:18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before You!”

Gen. 17:19 But God said, “No, but Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.

Gen. 17:20 “As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him, and will make him fruitful and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.

Gen. 17:21 “But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this season next year.”

Abram and Isaac lived approximately 2000 BC. Between 2000 BC and 1500 BC, Abram’s descendants became the Israelites. Around 1500 BC, the Israelites escaped slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses, and the Mosaic Law was established as the law of the nation of Israel. The Mosaic Law required all Israelite men to be circumcised. 1,500 years later, Jesus Christ entered the world and established the church. The church was comprised of both Jews and Gentiles. There was a debate in the early church over whether or not Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised. This debate is described in Acts 15.

Acts 15:1 ¶ Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

Acts 15:2 And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.

Acts 15 tells us about the meeting in Jerusalem, and then the conclusion is recorded in verse 22-29.

Acts 15:22 ¶ Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas — Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren,

Acts 15:23 and they sent this letter by them, “The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings.

Acts 15:24 “Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls,

Acts 15:25 it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,

Acts 15:26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Acts 15:27 “Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth.

Acts 15:28 “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials:

Acts 15:29 that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.”

Circumcision was not included in the essentials listed in verse 29; thus, the conclusion was that Gentile Christians did not need to be circumcised. The Apostle Paul echoed this conclusion in some of his writings.

1Cor. 7:18-20 Was any man called when he was already circumcised? He is not to become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? He is not to be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God. Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called.

Gal. 2:3 But not even Titus, who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised.

The conclusion for us is that the Bible does not require us to practice circumcision. When we are faced with decisions regarding circumcision, we can make those decisions without any Biblical constraints.

Further Reading

Do we need to follow the Mosaic Law?

Which Biblical commands apply today?


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“Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.”