“Circumcision has value if you observe the law.” (Romans 2:25)
“Circumcision is nothing and un-circumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what is what counts.” (I Corinthians 7:19)
What?! Romans 2 and First Corinthians 7 seem on the surface to be contradictory!
Romans 11 affirms the continued calling of the Jewish people, even that their acceptance in the Gospel will lead to life from the dead, the resurrection itself (11:15). The text is a ringing affirmation of the continuing role of the Jewish people including the fact that Jewish followers of Yeshua are still part of their people and constitute the saved remnant of Israel. The redemption of the world is tied to the destiny of the Jewish people.
In this light, the statement in I Corinthians 7:19 is strange. Circumcision is nothing? How can this be since circumcision is the act that enters sons (and hence future families) into God’s covenant with the Jewish people? Indeed, circumcision is a commandment of God, so how can it be contrasted with keeping the commandments of God? And as we noted, Romans 2:25 says that circumcision is of value (present tense) if one keeps the law.
To reconcile the two verses, we can therefore understand I Corinthians 7 as asserting that we should in general remain in the ethnic context we were in at the time we came to Yeshua. It looks as though Paul is asserting that within the One Body of the Messiah, in the Ephesians 2 “One New Man” or “Humanity”, there are still legitimate distinctions of ethnicity and calling. But then how can Paul contrast circumcision with the commandments of God since it is a commandment of God given to Abraham?
First of all, I believe that Paul’s emphasis goes back to the teaching of Yeshua. After reproving the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23, Yeshua speaks about tithing mint, dill, and cumin, but having neglected the weightier matters of the Law, justice, mercy and faithfulness. Indeed, Yeshua’s teaching was always much more about universal Torah or the weightier matters of the Torah (Matthew 5-7).
Therefore we understand Paul to say, “Circumcision and un-circumcision are states that are comparatively unimportant in comparison to keeping the universal commandments of God which must be the center for both Jew and Gentile” (my paraphrase). In Romans 2, Paul’s critique of the Jewish people for Torah violation also stresses the universal dimensions of Torah.
The Radical Change: Who Constitutes the People of God?
Some passages seem to downplay the importance of the markers of Jewish identity such as the feasts and purity laws (Colossians 2:16,17, Romans 14:15-23). These are in the context of emphasizing the universal Torah that applies to all people and the importance of the unity of God’s people in the Body. This emphasis on the universal is part of the enormous change that has come though the Gospel. It is the expansion of the Kingdom of God to the gentiles. It is a change of the boundaries of who constitutes God’s Holy People (Saints).
Previously, to be part of God’s Holy People, males had to be circumcised, join Israel and embrace the markers of Jewish identity. Albeit the prophets had glimpses of the nations coming to the knowledge of God and some special people from the nations living in Israel and being chosen as priests (Isaiah 66:21). However we were not prepared for the enormity of Gentiles entering the Kingdom through the Gospel and constituting a Holy Priesthood though faith in Yeshua! They enter into an equality of status alongside the Messianic Jews, and are joined to the Messianic Jews, as God’s Holy People. They are raised with him to heavenly places, at the very throne of Yeshua (Ephesians 2:6). This is the highest status one can conceive.
Yet if Jewish calling and identity remain important, then the markers of Jewish identity remain important, including our language, land and culture (based in Torah and first developed for life in the Land). The importance of Jewish identity and the markers of Jewish identity become qualified by our joint identity in the Messiah and our joined-together status as raised with Him and seated with Him in heavenly places. And of course, Gentiles are not called to embrace a covenant responsibility for the markers of Jewish identity, living in the Land of Israel, circumcision and the pattern of Jewish life.
Israel and the Church: Right Alignment and the Redemption of the World
It has been very hard for both Christians and Messianic Jews to get this right. On the one hand to emphasize our equality in the Messiah, our One New Man-ness, and our shared status in Him; while at the same time affirming the importance of the Jewish people and the identity of the Church as including the people from all nations who have become connected to Israel and her destiny. Getting this right is a key to the alignment of the whole Church in the last days and for our fully sufficient participation in those events that will usher in the return of Yeshua.
This article originally appeared in Israel’s Restoration Newsletter, December 27, 2015.