Circumcision, the Sign of the Covenant

We are continuing to meditate on the life of Abraham. The people of Israel were required by God to have a sign in their flesh that would remind them of their commitment to the covenant that they had entered into with God. Much as a wedding ring is an outward sign that a person had entered into a covenant with another, so a Hebrew man had a sign on his flesh that was forever with him to remind him of his commitment to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

9Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant (Genesis 17:9-13).

Commentator R. Kent Hughes says this of the mark of circumcision:

“Significantly, circumcision involved Abraham’s powers of procreation—the area of life in which he had resorted to fleshly expediency—and had so failed. Man’s best plans and strength of will would never bring about the promise. For Abraham circumcision was an act of repentance and a sign of dependence upon God for the promise.”[1]

Abraham had tried to bring about God’s will and purpose through doing what he could do (as in the matter of Sarai’s servant girl, Hagar, giving birth to Ishmael), and had miserably failed. God was now showing that He alone could satisfy their every need and fulfill the vision that He had given them. Only He was God Almighty, the great El Shaddai. Abraham had listened to Sarai and tried to bring about the vision by their own means, but now it was time to listen to the Lord and do things His way. He was finally at rest and waiting for God to fulfill His Word and His promises, by doing things His way and in His timing.

Circumcision is a sign upon the flesh saying that the Jewish people are committed to following God’s way in God’s timing. Later on, in the New Testament, we see that circumcision became a matter of great controversy among believers in the early church. When non-Jews became believers, some argued that they should be circumcised as well. Paul argued that this was no longer necessary. His argument followed the reasoning that believers should be circumcised at the heart level, and not focus on that which is physical.

28A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God (Romans 2:28-29).

This is the Sabbath rest of faith. No more do we have to please God by signs on the outward skin of our commitment to keeping the way of the Lord. Now it is a matter of the inward heart. The Spirit leading and guiding us from within, not by a written code of trying to please God by the works of the flesh, but realizing that God has come down from heaven and satisfied all the demands of the Law. We please God from the heart, not from the flesh.  Paul’s teaching at this time was radical. Many who listened to him were offended. After all, had God not given the ritual of circumcision as a sign to them? In this case, the symbol had become all-important. Paul wanted them to see that it was a symbol of the truth that these new believers were already circumcised in their hearts, set apart though faith in Christ.

Thank God that we now have a new covenant, which has been sealed with Messiah’s blood.  He has given us what we need to be perfect and complete. When Christ died for our sanctification, circumcision was no longer required, as He is our sanctification (1 Corinthians 1:30). Paul explained it well when he wrote: “For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Jesus Christ, and who put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3). Keith Thomas

[1] R. Kent Hughes, Genesis, Beginning and Blessing. Published by Crossway, Page 248.

The Patience Test

We are continuing to think on the testing of Abraham’s faith, and how it relates to all believers being tested in similar ways. In the time of waiting God takes us through a patience test. This test happens to a man or woman of God when their expectations in God are not fulfilled “on schedule.” (Of course, we think in terms of our schedule, not God’s!) Patience is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 6:2). This word comes from a Latin word which means, “to suffer.” To pass the patience test a person has to yield to the Lord for His will to be accomplished His way and in His timing. Men and women of God down through the centuries have been given visions of what God wants them to do, but almost always they have had to wait for God to act. Why is this? God does not want His people to short circuit the process by jumping in and trying to fulfill the vision with their own strength and natural talents. He uses talents and abilities, which He has given to us, but it must be in God’s timing and not ours. Waiting on God’s timing is the hard part.

The testing time is different and unique to each of God’s servants. After all, The Lord knows each one of His children intimately. He knows what we need to experience in order for our character to be shaped so that we are ready for the task. For instance, Joseph was given a vision of his brother’s sheaves bowing down to him (Genesis 37:7). The interpretation was that his brothers would literally bow down before him, but the fulfilling of the vision would be many years in the future. In the waiting period, Joseph’s character had to be changed and made ready for his future as the vice president of the nation of Egypt. He had to endure years as a slave in Potiphar’s house, before being falsely accused and thrown into prison. While in prison, the dreams of two men of pharaoh’s staff were correctly interpreted, but Joseph short-circuited God’s work by pleading with the cupbearer to get him out of jail. God made him wait another two years before Pharaoh’s cupbearer remembered Joseph’s unique talent of dream interpretation to Pharaoh (Genesis 40:23 and 41:1). Sometimes God deliberately makes a man or woman of God wait until things are humanly impossible before He moves in our situation. This is what He did to Abram and Sarai. Fourteen years had gone by and it was now many years since it had ever been naturally possible for Sarai to conceive and bear a child.

Why The Wait?

We know that God was teaching Abram and Sarai valuable lessons in this waiting period. Why did it go on so long? Do we have a part to play and can we delay God’s promise by obedience or disobedience? It is impossible for us to know how long Abram and Sarai would have waited if they had never taken matters into their own hands and used Hagar to bring forth Ishmael. The “waiting time” is also a time of testing. We need to be alert and aware of the part we play in the waiting time.

The Lord shows up after a fourteen year wait, twenty-three years from the initial promise, and tells Abram that from now on he shall no longer be called Abram, which means exalted father, but his name from now is changed to Abraham, which means father of a multitude. The interesting thing about God’s word to Abraham was that the Lord spoke in the present tense and not the future tense. He said, “I have made you a father of many nations (Genesis 17:5). Abraham was asked to believe God’s Word about himself before it became a reality. Imagine what that was like going over to Mamre to see his friends, Eshcol and Aner, his allies in the war against the kings of the north (Genesis 14:13). How does a man tell his friends that his name has changed at ninety-nine years of age into father of a multitude? Do you think that Abraham corrected people every time they called him Abram? I wonder. Don’t you think that Eshcol and Aner would have laughed at him along with many others of his friends? Today we would consider a person like Abraham to be eccentric, but the Bible calls him the Friend of God (James 2:23). My prayer is for you and me to be a Friend of God. Keith Thomas

Sarai and Abram’s Shortcut

1Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; 2so she said to Abram, “The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” Abram agreed to what Sarai said. 3So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. 4He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress (Genesis 16:1-4).

Have you ever been tempted to take a shortcut to what you believe to be God’s will? Abraham had been promised by the Lord that he would be the father of a multitude, but there was a problem, Sarah (at this point she is still called Sarai) was way past the age of having children. But how does one get to have many descendants if his wife cannot bear children? It was now impossible for it to happen through Abraham’s wife, Sarah. Sometimes we get desperate and look for a logical way around a situation. Sarah thought about her handmaid—Abraham could have a child through Hagar, their maid, and it could be called Sarah’s. The shortcut was at the initiation of Sarai. Maybe God’s way was for their family to be built around Hagar, their servant girl, who had been added to their household while in Egypt.

Sarai’s motive was probably a good one, but a good motive does not make a bad decision right. Sarai loved her husband and trusted him implicitly and was willing to sacrifice even their special intimacy with one another for the sake of his vision and dream to be fulfilled. This says a lot for Sarai’s commitment and character that she would do this for Abram, but there was no evidence that Abram and Sarai stopped to think about the consequences of what they were about to do. This was a life-changing decision and one wonders if they stopped to ask God about it. Certainly there is nothing in scripture that tells us that they did. This seems to be a low point in Abram’s faith walk. For him to go ahead with this shortcut even when he knew in his heart that this was not God’s way was resorting to man’s way of doing things.

Abram is not a picture of a godly husband at this time, ready to protect the intimacy of his marriage. His first response to Sarai’s idea should have been a courageous, “absolutely not!” There was also no seeking after permission of Hagar’s father in Egypt, that we are told about.  We are not even told if Hagar herself had any say in the matter. I’m sure she was asked, but she would have thought to herself that if she didn’t go ahead, it would have meant her job, and another of the slave girls would have been chosen over her. Hagar became a second wife to Abram and, as far as we know, God was not brought into the picture (Verse 3). Of course, God had already revealed His will that a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). The Lord had not changed His mind and allowed for a threesome!

Things are about to get complicated for Abram and Sarai. It does not take a lot of imagination to see how this could have affected their relationship, their home life, and even their faith. Culture and traditions may change, but there are at least two things that do not, the Word of God, and basic human nature. When we try to do short cuts to our faith walk, it never works out. It honors the worldly way of doing things rather than the ways of honoring the Lord and walking by faith. There are no short cuts to faith and walking in the ways of the Lord. Live your life by being completely devoted to God and His ways, not the ways of this world. Keith Thomas

Step by Step Vision

We are continuing to think on the life and call of Abraham. When God originally spoke of the step of faith that He was requiring of Abram, He gave large brush strokes on the canvas of the vision. The initial call in Ur of the Chaldeans was to get up and leave the area that is now in South East Iraq. They travelled northwest following the Euphrates river until they came to Harran, a city in Northwest Mesopotamia, now Iraq. The distance to Haran was about 2000 miles. We don’t know how long they stopped in Haran but this was where Abram’s father Terah, died. Abram was seventy-five years old when God spoke to him to leave Harran and go the 800 miles further to the land He would show him. Imagine being seventy-five years old and God speaking to you to leave the comfort of Haran to go to Canaan. Most of us just want the comforts of home at that age.

It is natural for us to want to know the details of the vision before we take the first step, but that is not the way God leads. If God would show you the end at the beginning, you may not be ready for it, or it may scare you, causing you to drift along the path rather than being propelled by faith. God gives us just enough vision to propel us forward. A boat can never be steered when it is drifting. It is only as it is going through the water that it can be easily steered by a small rudder. Begin to step out in faith and allow God to operate the steering mechanism of your life. Remember Psalm 119:

Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path (Psalm 119:105).

Where does the Lord shine His light? He shines the light of revelation, His Word, on where the next step is, at the feet. We don’t see far ahead, just the next step. You just have to trust Him for the next step.

Only when Abram arrives in Canaan does God give more specifics concerning the future (Genesis 12:7), specifically that to his offspring God would give the land that Abram was walking on. He was told that God would make a great nation from his seed and that He would bless him and make his name great, and that those who bless him and his descendants, will be blessed in return. We are also told that those who curse his descendants will themselves be cursed of God. We should be careful about our attitude towards the Jewish people for the Lord says that He, “has sent me against the nations that have plundered you—for whoever touches you touches the apple of his eye” (Zechariah 2:8). We might not agree with all the policies of the government of Israel, but the people of Israel and the seed of Abraham are precious to God. His Word is eternal, and He still stands by it. We are called to bless those whom God is blessing and the faith of Abraham is what we Gentiles have been rooted into: do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you (Romans 11:18).

Can you look back and see that God has grown your faith step by step? I’ll bet that there are things you are doing now which you never dreamed of doing in your younger years.

Keith Thomas

This Man Welcomes Sinners

1Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1-2).

The way the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were mouthing these words was with much venom and disgust. They muttered together about him. The Greek word diagongyzō is used, a stronger word than the simple Greek word gongyzō, which is used more often in scripture, and it meant to complain or grumble (aloud). They were voicing their disdain so much that those that He was seeking could hear them.  I’m sure Christ’s heart went out to the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ that he was seeking to reach, that they might know God’s heart towards them is one of love and mercy extended.

The Jews saw tax collectors as being turncoats. They were making money hand over fist working for the Romans in taxing their Jewish brothers and sisters. They were sometimes ranked with prostitutes (Matthew 21:32), being thought of as the lowest of the low. The religious elite uses the word ‘Sinners’ to describe those who were held in bondage to a sinful lifestyle. The Greek word translated is harmartolos. It speaks of one not careful at all about the observance of ceremonial duties, an irreligious person. The term was used of either an immoral person or a person whose occupation was not ceremonially clean.

There were many of the population that had given up on trying to keep all the rules and regulations that the Oral Law, the traditions of the elders, had imposed on the general populous. It is the same today in many countries—it is just different religions these days. The rules were so numerous and nonsensical that it became a heavy burden to the people. Many felt alienated and far away from God. When Jesus came preaching about God’s love for lost and unloved sinners, they were drawn to Him like flies to rotting fish. We don’t know what Jesus looked like, but his personality was and is attractive, He is altogether lovely (Song of Solomon 5:16). When those who were caught in their sin looked at the Scribes and Pharisees, their scowls showed no godliness or grace at all. There was no accepting attitude. They did not see God’s love in the religious leaders. People know when they are loved. When they looked at Christ, He had an inviting heart and welcomed sinners eagerly. The orthodox Jews had written off the tax collectors and sinners as worthy of the fires of hell, but God is gracious and extends kindness to men. He takes the initiative in seeking those that are alienated from Him.

But God does not take away life; instead, he devises ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from him (2 Samuel 14:14).

What a beautiful truth the above passage communicates. The creator of the Universe has devised ways of reaching out to each of us.  I believe that God has arranged situations in your life and mine so that through the painful trials we undergo, God reveals Himself to us. The trials you are experiencing are used by God to shake you out of spiritual lethargy, forcing you to wake up to the reality of a God who is seeking to draw you closer to Himself. How far will you go before you turn to the One who welcomes sinners?

Keith Thomas