So far this month, we have been focusing on how various elements of personal piety found throughout the Old Testament are fulfilled and expanded upon in the New. In a similar fashion, we will now examine two essential elements of corporate piety found in Scripture — the sign of circumcision and the covenant meal.
Genesis 17:1–14 records the institution of circumcision, which was the initiatory rite of the old covenant. Importantly, we see that this sign was first given to Abraham. Many people are accustomed to seeing the covenant with Abraham as wholly unconditional, as if there is nothing required of men and women to enjoy its benefits. Of course, the Abrahamic covenant is unconditional in an important respect — God swears by Himself that He will do whatever it takes to redeem a people for Himself (Gen. 15; Heb. 6:13–20). Yet belonging to this redeemed people depends on the condition of personal faith, a faith that is living and active — a faith that reveals itself through the good works of confessing belief in the Lord and a desire and attempt to obey His commands (James 2:14–26). Elsewhere this condition is called “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Deeds of love do not make us righteous in God’s eyes, but they do show that we trust Him alone for salvation.
Under the terms of the old covenant, circumcision was instituted as one of the deeds that showed Israel’s hope in its covenant Lord. The sign itself availed nothing; it had to be accompanied by a walk that was “blameless” (Gen. 17:1), which was not perfection but the orientation of one’s whole life to the promise, presence, and demands of God. In other words, the sign was only effectual for salvation if accompanied by faith, the demonstration of which was seen in being blameless.
The Almighty initiated the covenant, so circumcision, as one commentator put it, was God’s “brand,” His visible mark of ownership. Involving the male reproductive organ, it reminded the Israelites that the Lord had promised to increase their offspring and that their children were part of the covenant also (vv. 4–13). As a cutting, circumcision also reminded Israel that God had cut them out from the world to be His special possession (Ex. 19:1–6) and that they would therefore be cut off from His blessing if they unrepentantly broke covenant with God (Gen. 17:14).