In this post we will attempt to apply insights about Abraham and the sign of circumcision from The Christ of the Covenants by O. Palmer Robertson to the Mosaic Covenant. We will also see how circumcision applied in the life of Jesus Christ, and what his circumcision meant for moving God’s plan of salvation forward.
Circumcision wasn’t only about the physical relationship of Israelites to one another. It was a reminder of a relationship between God and Israelites. Even at God was leading the people of Israel into the Promised Land he knew that the relationship would need extra grace.
Only the LORD had a delight in thy fathers to love them, and he chose their seed after them, even you above all people, as it is this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked. (Deut 10:15-16)
Moses tells the people up front that they will break the covenant, so that God will be required to repair it himself by going a step further than a physical circumcision of cleansing. In his final word, Moses addresses the people in a prophecy that God will redeem them once they have utterly broken the covenant of Moses and received its curses.
And the LORD thy God will bring thee into the land which thy fatherspossessed, and thou shalt possess it; and he will do thee good, and multiply thee above thy fathers. And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live. (Deut. 30:6-7)
Robertson writes, “To be heirs of the land which is God’s holy possession, the people must also be holy. This holiness finds its symbolic accomplishment in the nation’s circumcision at Gilgal.” This implies that the symbolic holiness must be translated into real holiness in order for them to retain God’s holy possession. “Circumcision of the heart” seems to be how God intends this to happen, according to Moses and Jeremiah. (Jer. 4:4)
Jesus is first circumcised and then baptized by John “to fulfil all righteousness” even though he was born of the Holy Spirit and knew no sin. He even receives his name, “Yahweh saves” (Luke 2:21) at the time of his circumcision, indicating that he was undergoing these rites for the sake of the sinful people he came to save.
It seems to me to be at the point of circumcision that subsequent covenants find a great deal of overlap. The Mosaic/Sinai and Davidic/Kingdom both assume circumcision of their participants because they find their origin in the Abrahamic Covenant of Promise, to which the sign of the covenant applies.
Because the discussion by Dr. Robertson jumps directly to the New Testament fulfilment, he continues by saying:
“As with all essential elements of Old Testament revelation, the seal of the Abrahamic covenant finds its truth-in-symbol fulfilled in the New Testament…
…Of awesome importance in appreciating the significance of this rite is the fact of the circumcision of Jesus Christ. As the glories of the new covenant are being introduced , the ‘things of the old covenant are not recklessly cast aside.’ … Yet “to fulfill all righteousness,” he underwent the prescribed rites of cleansing (cf. Matt. 3:15). As a sign that he voluntarily was taking on himself the obligations of his people, Jesus submitted first to circumcision and later to the baptism of John.
The fact that Jesus formally received his name in conjunction with the rite of circumcision helps illuminate the significance of the act for Christ. His name is ‘Jesus,’ ‘Jehovah saves’ (Luke 2:21). His cleansing is not for his own sake, but for the sake of the sinful people whom he is saving.” (p. 157)
He goes from here directly to the book Acts to indicate how the symbolic cleansing and covenant initiation of circumcision is fulfilled in the New Testament baptism with the Holy Spirit. We will return to that subject later in this discussion.
Because of the increasing overlap of the covenants it is difficult to give a coherent account of the significance of Jesus’ circumcision without a detour from the order in which Dr. Robertson presents the covenants. It is important to note that Jesus entered into a Jewish nation at a specific time in its history. During that time it was operating under certain provisions of both the Mosaic and Davidic covenants.
If the Apostle Paul is correct in assessment of what circumcision means, entering the covenant at the time Jesus did introduces dire consequences to the participant (Gal. 3:10).
Executive Summary: At this point in its history Israel had already been judged and found wanting. That is why they were in thrall to the Romans. That is why they had been under successive domination by the Chaldean Empire, the Medo-Persian Empire, and the Greek Empires of Alexander, the Ptolemies and the Seleucids prior to the Romans. Entering the covenant via circumcision means entering a community under God’s curse.
More Detailed Explanation: The Mosaic covenant Jesus was entering into had blessings and curses denoted at its inception. Blessings and curses were conditional upon obedience or disobedience. One can get the flavour of how well they were obeying by checking what conditions were occurring in Israel’s life. Comparing Israel’s conditions with the checklist in Deuteronomy 28 yields a pretty accurate insight into whether they have been judged as obedient or disobedient. Let us look at some examples of the more extreme curses.
The LORD shall bring thee, and thy king which thou shalt set over thee, unto a nation which neither thou nor thy fathers have known; and there shalt thou serve other gods, wood and stone. (Deu 28:36)
The LORD shall bring a nation against thee from far, from the end of the earth, as swift as the eagle flieth; a nation whose tongue thou shalt not understand; A nation of fierce countenance, which shall not regard the person of the old, nor shew favour to the young: And he shall eat the fruit of thy cattle, and the fruit of thy land, until thou be destroyed: which also shall not leave thee either corn, wine, or oil, or the increase of thy kine, or flocks of thy sheep, until he have destroyed thee. And he shall besiege thee in all thy gates, until thy high and fenced walls come down, wherein thou trustedst, throughout all thy land: and he shall besiege thee in all thy gates throughout all thy land, which the LORD thy God hath given thee. (Deu 28:49-52)
And thou shalt eat the fruit of thine own body, the flesh of thy sons and of thy daughters, which the LORD thy God hath given thee, in the siege, and in the straitness, wherewith thine enemies shall distress thee: (Deu 28:53)
And it shall come to pass, that as the LORD rejoiced over you to do you good, and to multiply you; so the LORD will rejoice over you to destroy you, and to bring you to nought; and ye shall be plucked from off the land whither thou goest to possess it. And the LORD shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other; and there thou shalt serve other gods, which neither thou nor thy fathers have known, even wood and stone. And among these nations shalt thou find no ease, neither shall the sole of thy foot have rest: but the LORD shall give thee there a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and sorrow of mind: And thy life shall hang in doubt before thee; and thou shalt fear day and night, and shalt have none assurance of thy life: (Deu 28:63-66)
This is only a sample of the curses. The chapter contains 14 verses of blessings and 54 verses of curses. The biblical record shows that every one of the curses has come to pass. Israel and Judah were both conquered by foreign nations from the north and taken into captivity. Ever since then the majority of their people have lived in foreign nations that frequently turn on them with little or no warning. Even when a few of them were resettled in their land under the Persians, their safety was usually in doubt, as recorded in the books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther.
Even their brief period of national sovereignty under the Macabees was characterized by corruption of the priesthood and political unrest that was brutally ended by a Roman invasion.
In other words, the covenant Jesus was entering at circumcision was under a state of curse. Becoming circumcised entitled him to shame among the nations and fear for his life due to persecution from the nations around. It entitled him to potential exile, torture and death at the hands of his national enemies.
As a direct descendant of King David, Jesus was also under greater stress. He also fell under the provisions of the Davidic Covenant. The basic covenant is described in 2 Sam. 7:11-16
Now therefore so shalt thou say unto my servant David, Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I took thee from the sheepcote, from following the sheep, to be ruler over my people, over Israel: And I was with thee whithersoever thou wentest, and have cut off all thine enemies out of thy sight, and have made thee a great name, like unto the name of the great men that are in the earth. Moreover I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in a place of their own, and move no more; neither shall the children of wickedness afflict them any more, as beforetime, And as since the time that I commanded judges to be over my people Israel, and have caused thee to rest from all thine enemies. Also the LORD telleth thee that he will make thee an house.
And when thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers, I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build an house for my name, and I will stablish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son. If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men: But my mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before thee. And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever. (2Sa 7:8-16)
Since it was largely the fault of the Kings of Israel that the Mosaic Covenant was broken, it stands to reason that the “chasten with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men” provisions were in effect as well. By being circumcised, Jesus was being placed under that clause of the Davidic Covenant in addition to curses of the Mosaic Covenant. It was not until I understood this that I made the connection between covenant failure and Jesus being whipped and beaten. Jesus had to endure both beating and whipping to pay the price of the failure of David’s line to keep the covenant.
In an address to David’s son Solomon, God is more specific about the kind of punishment that will occur if the king or his descendants fail to be faithful to their covenant with God.
And if thou wilt walk before me, as David thy father walked, in integrity of heart, and in uprightness, to do according to all that I have commanded thee, and wilt keep my statutes and my judgments: Then I will establish the throne of thy kingdom upon Israel for ever, as I promised to David thy father, saying, There shall not fail thee a man upon the throne of Israel. But if ye shall at all turn from following me, ye or your children, and will not keep my commandments and my statutes which I have set before you, but go and serve other gods, and worship them:
Then will I cut off Israel out of the land which I have given them; and this house, which I have hallowed for my name, will I cast out of my sight; and Israel shall be a proverb and a byword among all people:
And at this house [Solomon’s Temple], which is high, every one that passeth by it shall be astonished, and shall hiss; and they shall say, Why hath the LORD done thus unto this land, and to this house? And they shall answer, Because they forsook the LORD their God, who brought forth their fathers out of the land of Egypt, and have taken hold upon other gods, and have worshipped them, and served them: therefore hath the LORD brought upon them all this evil. (1Ki 9:4-9)
The fact that these things had already happened long before Jesus’ birth suggests that the kingly line seems to have been largely responsible for Israel’s woeful state.
The covenants that Jesus was brought into by virtue of birth and circumcision involved both curses and unconditional promises. On the surface, the condition of Israel made receiving the promise seemingly impossible. On the other hand, something had to happen in order for the unconditional promise to Abraham to be fulfilled or God’s oath would be void. Until that happened, Israel as a whole and Jesus in particular were under the “curse” provisions of their covenant.
This is why Paul states in Gal. 3:10, “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.”
There is no fixing a covenant that is already broken (Heb. 8:6-13). The only thing you can do to bypass the broken covenant is replace it with a new, better covenant. This is what the prophet Jeremiah predicts in Jer. 31:31-34. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews quotes Jeremiah and elaborates on the ancient prophet’s prediction in the following passage, applying it to Jesus.
But now hath he [Jesus] obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah:
Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord.
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away. (Heb 8:6-13)
Notice that verse 8 puts the blame for failure of the covenant directly on the people of Israel. They disobeyed, and are therefore under the curse. Only a new covenant that fulfils all of the requirements of the old can save them now.
The Letter to the Hebrews explains in great detail how the various symbolic elements and of all of the covenants come together in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
By his circumcision Jesus becomes a representative of Israel, as well as a representative of Israel’s royalty. Because he does not ever sin, he has kept in full the covenant. As the Son of God by birth through the Holy Spirit he is also a representative of God. All of these things make him the perfect sacrifice to pay for all of the covenant-breaking of Abraham’s physical descendants.
His beating, whipping and death at the hands of gentile oppressors makes perfect sense in terms of the covenant curses that needed to be applied to him as an Israelite royal seed in order to pay in full the curse of the law. This payment allows followers of Jesus to be free to enter into the new covenant predicted by Jeremiah and other prophets.
Future posts will establish the connection between circumcision as the sign of the Old Covenant and the sign of the New Covenant when we take up this series again, which will likely be shortly after the Passover/Easter season.