Some items the Jews held dearly as part of their covenant with God got in the way of a relationship with him. These were entities they came to depend on at the expense of relationship. In so doing, they missed the message of God’s grace.
One focal point was the practice of circumcision, and, though this is not an issue in modern times, the application remains. We can depend on objects or philosophies rather than a grace-based relationship to find acceptance with God.
Knowing our identity is important. Early childhood—and especially the teenage years—witness children trying to establish who they are in and apart from their connection to their parents. The quest to answer, “Who am I?” has led many in desolate directions where they experience the desert of disappointment rather than the oasis of God’s love. Affairs, addictions, rejection of the church, denial of God’s existence, and other forms of immoral living are all expressions of attempting to answer the identity question.
Further questions relating to identity include whether the Jewish people have special privileges others didn’t, if they do now, and where does the modern-day Christian fall in this scheme of Paul’s discussion? The Jews did possess special privileges under the old covenant with God. He presented his law to them, called them as his special people, and according to some may once again delegate a special place to them prior to the end of time.
Paul specifically mentions the practice of circumcision. This aspect of God’s covenant began with Abraham the Hebrew and passed to his descendants (Genesis 17:9-14). After initiating his covenant with them, God instigated the requirement that Abraham and every male of his household undergo circumcision on the eighth day after birth. Agreeing to and participating in this practice proved they accepted God’s covenant offer. The law also applied to servants born into his household as well as foreign servants he purchased. The penalty for refusing the sign involved being cut off from the covenant family.
The practice of circumcision is still observed by many parents at the suggestion of their doctor. While it was a sign of obedience to the old covenant, there were probably other elements involved as well. One surrounds health issues. Many of God’s laws given through Moses may also sound strange to the modern ear, but when we take into consideration the conditions under which they were given, we understand many of them were to protect the health of his children in a time when sanitation was not equal to modern standards.
As previously mentioned, circumcision was also a sign of obedience as well as a sign of belonging to God’s covenant community. Paul puts a spiritual twist on it when he teaches that it was also a sign of the cutting off of the old life. When a true Jew was circumcised, they recognized their separateness from their pagan neighbors as well as their responsibility to them. The term was also a distinguishing factor when differentiating those who followed the one true God from those who didn’t—circumcised versus uncircumcised. The first was complementary while the second was derogatory.
As modern-day believers are tempted to trust in our “rites” for acceptance with God, so the Jewish people did with the practice of circumcision. They wore it as a badge of honor and pride and felt it made them better than Gentiles who were uncircumcised. Some took it a step farther and assumed it brought God’s automatic acceptance regardless of their lifestyles. This is the matter that concerned Paul. Grace is not legalism.
In his continuing apology that all are guilty before God regardless of cultural heritage, Paul must address this rite that was so significant to the Jewish people. In doing so, he defines the spiritual meaning of the physical practice. He certainly angered many by proposing that even an uncircumcised Gentile could be a true Jew or follower of Christ.
The cutting away that accompanied the procedure of circumcision actually referred to a cutting away of some things as it related to the spiritual realm. The deeper matter under consideration was what a person had to do or not do to please God. What does it take to enter God’s family was the question. Paul addressed people who had a deep misunderstanding of salvation and some who wanted to add to the simple gospel message by encumbering interested persons with legalistic rules to follow.
According to Paul, the practice of circumcision only had value if the circumcised person obeyed God’s law. The issue in Paul’s day surrounded those who thought one had to be circumcised to be God’s son or daughter. While this is not an issue presently, there are other things we trust in for God’s acceptance, so this makes Paul’s discussion relevant. Good works, baptism, confirmation as a child, and church membership are common actions some still trust will make them acceptable to God. Paul’s words to those with this misunderstanding would be the same as those he spoke to those who were trusting in circumcision. Nothing has value for salvation apart from a relationship with Christ. Grace stands alone.
Paul’s message will always be relevant, for it is parcel to human nature to think we can be good enough or can do enough for God to accept us on our merit. Admitting our helplessness fights against our inborn sense of pride.
Paul’s terminology of being a true Jew is equivalent to saying belonging to God’s family. This helps the modern believer or unbeliever apply a message that would otherwise appear outdated. One who demonstrates obedience to God’s commands proves they are God’s child regardless of what trophies they have accumulated—trophies that appear to automatically qualify them for inclusion in his family. The Jew who claimed circumcision as a badge of honor but who disobeyed God’s law was no better than an uncircumcised Gentile. But the uncircumcised Gentile who obeyed God’s law was accepted above the circumcised Jew who didn’t.
Judaizers considered Paul’s teaching heretical, but his teaching reemphasized his line of thought: membership in God’s family has nothing to do with external qualities but everything to do with inward righteousness. Inward conformity is essential. When our heart is right with God, we are real Jews and a part of God’s family (Galatians 3:7). God’s requirements of all people—regardless of race or culture—is a heart transplant and obedience to him. It was the same message Jeremiah spoke to the people of his day (Jeremiah 4:4). In fact, grace razes all walls or partition we erect. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free (Galatians 3:27-29).
Paul concludes his argument with specifics. A true Jew is not necessarily one born to Jewish parents who had accepted the rite of circumcision. The acid test had nothing to do with cutting a part of the body but whether a change of heart had transpired. Depending on outward symbols proves we are seeking praise from people rather than God. Undergoing the rite of circumcision doesn’t bring God’s acceptance any more than simply possessing the Law of Moses does. Moses himself had confronted this same attitude with the disobedient people he led and instructed them to circumcise their hearts (Deuteronomy 10:16).
Symbols are only significant when they carry a sense of reality. A contract requiring us to perform a specific job for someone is only good if we actually do the work. It is similar to writing a check. If there’s no money in the account, the act is futile and even deceptive. For the Jewish people, holding onto circumcision while disobeying God violated the entire meaning of the ceremony. We commit the same error when we hold on to symbols associated with our faith yet disobey the very things they represent. Baptism is important. It symbolizes death to our old way of life and walking in obedience with Christ. But if our attitudes and actions don’t change, we are negating the significance of the ceremony.
So how does a true Jew live up to their name? The same way a Christian does. Abraham was a Hebrew, but the name Jew comes from one of his ancestors, Judah (one of the twelve sons of Jacob who was later renamed Israel). The name is associated with the verb praise. So a Jew, or any true believer, lives up to the name “to praise God” by understanding faith, not outward symbols, makes them acceptable to God.
To better understand Paul’s argument, we can substitute rituals for the word circumcision. Then we take it a step farther and replace circumcision with the particular ritual. Reading the verses this way gives a clearer meaning of Paul’s connotation. For example, we can make verse 25 read as follows: “The ceremony of church membership is worth something only if you obey God’s law.”
The Religionist’s Response to Paul’s Conclusions (3:1-8)
Paul has gone to great lengths to establish all people’s guilt before God—Jew and Gentile alike. He now imagines the response he will receive from those who trust in things other than God’s grace, such as obedience to the Law or the practice of circumcision.
If the Jewish advantage of being God’s chosen people, along with the rites associated with that position, had no bearing on God’s acceptance, then what was the advantage of being a Jew? As previously mentioned, the Jewish people did have advantages over non-Jews by way of their interaction with God. He gave them his laws, they were the race through whom the Messiah came, and they received benefits by virtue of being his covenant people. But none of the above—or anything else they might appeal to—automatically made them acceptable to God. If anything, these privileges made them more responsible since they had more light than the pagans.
The arguments Paul imagines the Judaizers and religionists making are threefold: what is the purpose of going through religious motions, does unbelief void God’s promises, and is God just when he takes vengeance on unbelievers? Paul realizes our human tendency to rationalize rather than repent.
Religious motions are important—in this case, possessing the Word of God. Having God’s law had at least a twofold advantage for the Jewish people. They knew what God expected but also saw by observing their daily life patterns how far they fell short of God’s expectations. It is also a wonderful privilege for a child to be born into a Christian family and nation where they are reared to understand they can have a relationship with the living God and hear his requirements. But moving from experiencing the privilege to thinking one is privileged is a different scenario.
The second imagined response involves unbelief. Does unbelief by some void the promises God made to Abraham? It doesn’t. But if God is going to be faithful regardless of whether we are, what is the point of our faithfulness? Does the fact that some will misconstrue, misunderstand, or even misapply God’s promises mean his promises are null and void? No. God will follow through on his promise to reward faith regardless of the fact that some will try coming another way.
God is never unfaithful nor does he ever contradict or break his word. Those who depend on outward signs but reject the way of grace will be condemned by their failure to believe, not God’s desire to unjustly punish them. This is not unfair because what God requires is not outward show but inward change. Jesus himself said not all who called him Lord would be welcomed into heaven (Matthew 7:21). The problem arises when we try to come our way as opposed to God’s designated way of grace.
Paul concludes this section by imagining a hypothetical argument that somehow states it is in God’s best interest that we sin. The more we sin—so the line of reasoning goes—the more opportunities God is given to demonstrate his grace. Why would he, in turn, want to punish sinners?
While God’s forgiveness does magnify his grace, the above argument is not justification to indulge in sin. Additionally, God is just when he punishes sin. Those who suppose otherwise have a distorted view of God or sin or perhaps both. God is holy other, and as such cannot tolerate sin. Nor can he have interaction with humans who are given to willful disobedience. This violates his nature. Grace loves the sinner but doesn’t overlook the sin.
Some have the mistaken notion it is God’s job to forgive and to love so much he will overlook punishment. Or that sin is not as bad as he says or that it is our responsibility to stay in touch with our culture. They then proceed to live their lives from that philosophy. God becomes a grandfatherly type who may threaten but will never carry out his threats. Believing God cannot exercise vengeance on sin because he is love distorts the Bible’s portrayal of God as well as the concept of “just love.” The cross was the perfect exhibition of God’s justice and love, and we will be judged based on our response to God’s most extreme demonstration of grace.
Martin Wiles is an author, teacher, and freelance editor currently residing in Greenwood, South Carolina. He and his wife Michelle are founders and editors of Love Lines from God (www.lovelinesfromgod.com). Wiles has authored Grits & Grace & God and Grits, Gumbo, and Going to Church (Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas), Morning By Morning,Morning Serenity, Grace Greater Than Sin (America Star Books), Authentic Christianity (Smashwords) and is a contributing author in Penned from the Heart (Son-Rise Publications), and Rise (Chaplain Publishing). He has served as Regional Correspondent and Sunday school lesson writer for the Baptist Courier and also written for LifeWay’s Bible Studies for Life curriculum. He has also been published in Open Windows, Proclaim, The Secret Place, Upper Room, Light from the Word, Reach Out Columbia, Mustard Seed Ministries, Journey Christian Newspaper,Common Ground Herald, The Quiet Hour, and Power for Living. He is a regular contributor to Christian Devotions, and PCC Daily Devotions, and is a regular contributor for the Dorchester County Eagle Record, the Orangeburg County Times and Democrat, and the Greenwood County Index Journal. Wiles also serves as the Managing Editor for Christian Devotions and as an assistant Editor for Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolina. You can follow him @linesfromgod.