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1 Corinthians 7:18-20 says,
18 Was any man called already circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? Let him not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God. 20 Let each man remain in that condition in which he was called.
After telling us that believers should not seek to separate from unbelieving spouses, the issue apparently reminded Paul of his earlier days, when he was known as Saul, a rabbinical student in Jerusalem. Circumcision was an absolute requirement to be under the covenant. It was linked to a man’s faith. But Paul had come to a new revelation as a student of the New Covenant.
Paul asks in verse 18, “Was any man called already circumcised?” He was referring to Jews who had come to believe in Jesus. He asks again, “Has anyone been called in uncircumcision?” He was referring to those outside of Judaism who had been converted to Christ.
Abraham himself had been called in uncircumcision, as he says also in Rom. 4:9-11,
9 Is this blessing then upon the circumcised, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say, “Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.” 10 How then was it reckoned? While he was circumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; 11 and he received the sign of circum-cision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be reckoned to them.
Paul was pointing out that long before Abraham was circumcised, righteousness had been reckoned to him as early as in Gen. 15:6,
6 Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Decades later, when Abraham was 99 years old (Gen. 17:1), he was circumcised. Gen. 17:10 says,
10 This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you; every male among you shall be circumcised.
Paul’s point is to show that God called Abraham while he was yet uncircumcised. In other words, the New Covenant was established before the Old Covenant. Hence, the first covenant takes precedence over the second covenant. The second, or “old” Covenant, Paul says in Gal. 3:17, cannot nullify the previous Covenant. The second Covenant under Moses was temporary, for it was given to prove man’s inability to keep his vow of obedience.
Circumcision is a sign of that broken covenant which failed to bring righteousness to Israel.
“Circumcision is nothing,” Paul says. In other words, it has no merit toward God under the New Covenant. Physical circumcision was the sign of the Old Covenant; heart circumcision is the sign of the New Covenant. Those who give merit to physical circumcision are bound by a covenant that they cannot keep, nor is that covenant even in force. It was made obsolete by men’s disobedience.
Gal. 5:6 comments again on this, saying,
6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircum-cision means anything, but faith working through love.
Hence, Jewish converts did not have to undo their circumcision (if this were possible), nor did Greeks have to be circumcised. Either way, the abolition of the Old Covenant made circumcision a non-issue. It only became an issue when men took pride in their own circumcision or if they insisted that others submit to it as a mark of the New Covenant. In such cases, Paul says again in Gal. 5:2-4,
2 Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3 And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. 4 You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.
Again he says in Gal. 6:12, 13,
12 Those who desire to make a good showing in the flesh try to compel you to be circumcised, simply that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 For those who are circumcised do not even keep the law themselves, but they desire to have you circumcised, that they may boast in your flesh.
So Paul reminded the Corinthian believers, as well as the Galatians, that Greeks did not need circumcision to be under the New Covenant. What is left unsaid is that it is likely that some followers of Peter did not have the same understanding that Paul did about circumcision. Peter was a minister to the circumcision (i.e., Jews), and so he often tried too hard to accommodate their old ways in Judaism. Paul himself had to confront him on this issue (Gal. 2:11-13).
As a mark of the Old Covenant, physical circumcision (as a religious rite) testifies that a man has confidence in the Old Covenant and its method of justification before God. Hence, it obligates a man to fulfill the vow of Israel in Exodus 19:8, “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do!” But a man’s vow is only as good as his ability to keep it. Circumcision means that a man places his faith in his own ability to keep his vow of obedience. Therefore, the first time he sins after obligating himself to fulfill such a vow, he falls from grace.
The only covenant that actually works is the New Covenant, for this covenant obligates God, rather than man. God is fully capable of keeping His vows, oaths, promises, and covenants. Jesus is the only Mediator of the New Covenant, and the sign of that covenant is heart circumcision—something that only God can do.
Paul says in 1 Cor. 7:19, “what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God.”
Paul was not contradicting himself when he speaks of keeping the law. The law is the same, whether we are under the Old or New Covenant. The difference is this: Under the Old Covenant, keeping the law is an “obligation” (Gal. 5:3) that each person has put upon himself, and righteousness is the reward of success in being obedient. But under the New Covenant, God obligated Himself to make us righteous by His works, not by our own works.
Not only did He call Abraham while he was yet uncircumcised, but He also covenanted with Abraham by putting him to sleep (Gen. 15:12), to show that Abraham did not obligate himself while God covenanted with him. That way, if and when Abraham fell short of the glory of God, his failure could not void the covenant (promise) of God.
Thereafter, whenever God vowed to do something, He referred back to His promise to Abraham, showing its New Covenant character and foundation. This is seen in God’s second covenant to Israel (Deut. 29:1), when He took an oath to “establish you today as His people and that He may be your God, just as He spoke to you and as He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Deut. 29:13).
Any covenant made according to the pattern of the one made with Abraham is another paragraph of the New Covenant—God’s vow to man. The obligation is upon God, not man, and if the terms of that covenant should fail, God would be proven incapable of fulfilling His word.
Most believers today do not think that God is capable of making all men “His people,” especially once they have died. They think that if people die as unbelievers that God’s promise no longer applies to them. Death is the great deadline, they insist. But we know that this is not so. In the end, as Paul tells us later, God will indeed be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).
So when Paul says that what matters is keeping the commandments of God, he was talking within the context of the New Covenant. The law was not to be set aside but kept. However, it is accomplished by the Holy Spirit working within us, training us to be obedient by the leading of His Spirit. God sent the Spirit to the church to lead them into all truth and to conform them to the image of God. Those who remain in violation of the law show that the Spirit of God has not yet changed their heart. Outward righteousness—that is, keeping the law—is the outward evidence of the Holy Spirit working within a person. This, in fact, was the message in the book of James as well as in all of Paul’s writings.