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Circumcision of Christ stained glassMay I wish all my readers a very happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.

Given our present circumstances in the West, we have much for which to pray in 2021, particularly health and prosperity.

For centuries, January 1 was known in the established denominations of the Church as the Circumcision of Jesus, the Circumcision of Christ or the Feast of the Circumcision of our Lord:

New Year’s Day: the Circumcision — and Naming — of Christ Jesus

The stained glass depicting this religious rite came from Cologne, Germany. It was made in the 15th century for a religious order known as the Crutched Friars. It now hangs in the Cloisters Museum in Manhattan:

New Year’s greetings — and the Feast of the Circumcision (2017, details on circumcision stained glass window)

Luke’s Gospel is the only one that mentions this ceremony, more about which below in the context of the life of Christ.

The readings for the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus are in the next post:

Readings for New Year’s Day — the Holy Name of Jesus (all Lectionary years)

The Gospel is largely the same reading from Christmas Day, apart from the addition of verse 21 (emphases mine):

Luke 2:15-21

2:15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

2:16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

2:17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;

2:18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.

2:19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

2:20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

2:21 After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

The shepherds went to see the Christ Child not once, but twice.

They were no ordinary shepherds, but rather shepherds who tended the animals destined for sacrifice at the temple. They were located at Migdal Eder, mentioned twice in the Old Testament. Micah 4:8 contains the prophecy of the Messiah; it would be the place where His presence would be declared first:

Migdal Eder: the shepherds provide a biblical key to unlocking the Christmas story

John MacArthur doesn’t mention Migdal Eder, but he has this to say about the shepherds’ return visit:

Hey, did you know that when you become a Christian and you’ve had the greatest imaginable transformation and you heard the revelation from God, you believed it and you’ve embraced Christ and you’ve begun to witness, when all of that has happened and you begin to think deeply about the profound realities of who God is, who Christ is and what the saving purpose of God is unfolding in the world. When you’ve come to that point you still have to go back to work. Life goes on, doesn’t it? Life goes on. And that’s analogous to what happens. You go back. Only you go back with a different attitude. You go back glorifying and praising God. That’s what they did. They went back glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen just as have been told them. It was exactly the way they were told by the angel, every detail was exactly accurate. And they went back with a whole new attitude.

I don’t know what their attitude was like before they had this incredible encounter with the revelation of God. But it certainly wasn’t like it is now. They may have been hopeful. They may have been worried and wondered and doubted and questioned and been wearied and all of that, but not anymore. They went back glorifying and praising God. And that too is analogous to what happens when a conversion takes place. There’s a revelation. We hear the revelation of God, we believe it, we go and we embrace Christ. There’s witness that follows. There’s a deep pondering about great divine truth as we deepen our knowledge of the Word of God. And there is also a life attitude of praise and worship to God that marks a believer.

Now by the time they got the whole story put together with the additional elements that Joseph and Mary would bring to bear on it, they were so filled with praise and thanks they were literally overwhelmed by it all. And they just went back glorifying and praising God for the whole thing. That’s the attitude that Christians should have

They knew that this child would be the Savior, the Christ, the Lord, fulfill the Davidic promise, Abrahamic promise and the promise of the New Covenant. They couldn’t restrain themselves. Their lives were just filled with praise.

In many nations where Christmas is observed as a public holiday, it lasts for 24 hours. For this reason, I am grateful we have Boxing Day. Now that my far better half and I are largely retired, we can celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas right up to Epiphany, January 6. It certainly deepens the Christmas religious experience.

With regard to circumcision, the mohel — the man who performs it — has a very sharp, small knife. It has to be very sharp so that the infant boy feels no pain. Just in case, tradition dictates that a drop of wine is placed on the child’s tongue to relax him.

If you’ve ever cut yourself with a really sharp knife, you don’t notice the wound until you see the blood. A blunt knife hurts. A really sharp one does not.

Luke’s Gospel shows us that Mary and Joseph obeyed Mosaic law, not only with this, but also with their visit to the temple once Mary had been purified through a ritual bath 40 days later. That is when Simeon and Anna appeared. See Luke 2:22-32 and Luke 2:33-40.

Where Jesus was concerned, circumcision was a foretaste of what would happen later in His earthly life: the Crucifixion as the ultimate sacrifice and expiation for sin, despite the fact that He never sinned.

Matthew Henry’s commentary explains:

Though it supposed him a stranger, that was by that ceremony to be admitted into covenant with God, whereas he had always been his beloved Son; nay, though it supposed him a sinner, that needed to have his filthiness taken away, whereas he had no impurity or superfluity of naughtiness to be cut off, yet he submitted to it; nay, therefore he submitted to it, because he would be made in the likeness, not only of flesh, but of sinful flesh, Romans 8:3. 3. Though thereby he made himself a debtor to the whole law (Galatians 5:3), yet he submitted to it; nay, therefore he submitted to it, because he would take upon him the form of a servant, though he was free-born. Christ was circumcised, (1.) That he might own himself of the seed of Abraham, and of that nation of whom, as concerning the flesh, Christ came, and who was to take on him the seed of Abraham, Hebrews 2:16. (2.) That he might own himself a surety for our sins, and an undertaker for our safety. Circumcision (saith Dr. Goodwin) was our bond, whereby we acknowledged ourselves debtors to the law; and Christ, by being circumcised, did as it were set his hand to it, being made sin for us. The ceremonial law consisted much in sacrifices; Christ hereby obliged himself to offer, not the blood of bulls or goats, but his own blood, which none that ever were circumcised before could oblige themselves to. (3.) That he might justify, and put an honour upon, the dedication of the infant seed of the church to God, by that ordinance which is the instituted seal of the covenant, and of the righteousness which is by faith, as circumcision was (Romans 4:11), and baptism is. And certainly his being circumcised at eight days old doth make much more for the dedicating of the seed of the faithful by baptism in their infancy than his being baptized at thirty years old doth for the deferring of it till they are grown up. The change of the ceremony alters not the substance.

MacArthur says:

Why was Jesus circumcised? Somebody might wonder about that. Well, because He would obey the law of God. He would fulfill all righteousness. He would be a man in every sense and so He would fulfill all those prescriptions that are human and in Israel this was required by the law of God on all male children, and so it was done. That’s again another remarkable indication of Jesus fulfilling all righteousness. Even before He could consciously do it God made sure that all Old Testament requirements were fulfilled in His life, and as He grew in wisdom, and favor, and stature…wisdom, and stature, and favor with God and man, He personally fulfilled the law of God in its completion.

And again I remind you that He lived a perfect life. Even from His circumcision He fulfilled every aspect of God’s law so that His perfect life could be credited to your account. That’s what justification does. It puts your sin on Him and takes His perfect life and puts it on you.

MacArthur points out Mary and Joseph’s obedience to the law:

Their devotion to obey the will of God is clear. They wanted to do what God had revealed for them to do and they did it with joy and faithfulness. The whole passage really features their dedication, it features their obedience. And as I said, in Luke’s continuing effort to mold the reader’s understanding of who Christ is, he shapes his narrative around the testimony of these uniquely righteous people. And, first of all, Jesus’ earthly family lead out in giving testimony.

MacArthur discusses the biblical origin of circumcision, necessary for centuries in terms of hygiene but also as a reminder of sin:

Now we all understand that the eighth-day circumcision was what was prescribed by Mosaic law. It is clearly recorded that this is to be done. Leviticus chapter 12 verse 3says on the eighth day the child is to be circumcised. Every male child born into Israel was to be circumcised on the eighth day. The circumcision was introduced by God to Abraham. In Genesis 17:1 to 14, Abraham was circumcised, he, however, was circumcised as an adult when God identified him as the father of the race. He was circumcised as an adult. And then every male that came from him and from those who came from him throughout all of the Hebrew people, every male child was to be circumcised on the eighth day. That was the sign and symbol of God’s covenant. Back in chapter 1 verse 59 regarding John, the prophet born to Zacharias and Elizabeth, “It came about on the eighth day they came to circumcise him.” That was just standard operating procedure on the eighth day.

Circumcision, just to give you a brief recap, circumcision was a sign of God’s covenant. It was a sign of God’s covenant. It identified a Jew. But God was saying something in circumcision. In the cutting away of that skin, God, first of all, was…was doing something physical, He was protecting the Jewish man from passing on infections and bacteria to his wife. That’s why in ancient times, not today because we have so much hygiene, but in ancient times Jewish women had the lowest rate of cervical cancer in the world and it was better when men and women came together circumcised in terms of cleanliness and protection than not. And therefore God preserved His people that way. He was definitely committed to preserving His people since they are the center of redemptive history clear to the end of the world. And so God protected them and that was one way physically that God protected them from illness. He also protected them, of course, by giving them monogamous laws and calling for their purity and sanctifying one man-one woman for life so that they were not subject to the devastating plagues of venereal disease which destroyed whole peoples.

But circumcision was more than a physical protection. It was a symbol of a need for spiritual cleansing. And that’s why the Bible talks about circumcise your hearts. God was showing them through this symbol that they needed to be cleansed because they not only passed on sin potentially physically they passed on sin heart to heart, soul to soul. When they had a child they got a sinner because they were sinners. They needed a cleansing at a deep, deep level of their souls. That’s why God said circumcise your heart, circumcise your heart. Every circumcised male child then, every time that operation took place, it was a symbol of how deeply sinful people were and how greatly they needed a heart cleansing.

If you look at Judaism, just look at Judaism, the message that God was sending to His people was about their sin. You could take the law of God and all the law of God did was, break them and crush them. The law of God laid out before for the Jew rendered him a sinner … So the Sabbath then became a contemplation point for violation of the law of God

On top of that, life was a bloody mess because all those violations called for sacrifice. That’s why we’ve said that priests were nothing but butchers. They were, you know, chin deep in blood slaughtering animals, because sin just kept coming and coming and with it came sacrifice and sacrifice. And the whole of Judaism, the whole of Judaism was one massive effort on God’s part to call those people to a recognition of how sinful they were. Every time a baby was born into the world, circumcision on the eighth day was a reminder of the depth of sin, that they were so deep in sin they needed a cleansing at the deepest level.

Again, Jesus personally did not require cleansing, but His circumcision was done for us. Furthermore, as an adult, He continued to be obedient to His Father and asked John the Baptist to baptise Him. He did not need to do that either, but He did:

Jesus was born under the law and Jesus was going to obey every aspect of God’s law whether He obeyed it as a baby passively or whether He obeyed as an adult actively when He went to the river Jordan and He said to John, “You need to baptize Me.” And John said, “I don’t need to baptize You, You’ve got to be kidding me. You need to baptize me.” And John was saying, You don’t need cleansing so why the symbol? And Jesus responded in Matthew 3:15 and said, “I must fulfill all righteousness. Whatever the law requires, I do that. I do that.”

Whatever Jesus did on this mortal coil, He did for us:

Why did He have to do that? So that perfect life could be credited to your account. You see, in the doctrine of substitution, on the cross God treats Jesus as if He lived your life so He could treat you as if you lived His. And there has to be a perfect life to be put to your account, and His is it. That’s why He was circumcised and everything else.

As millions of us across the world are shut up at home on what is normally a day of celebration, we have time on New Year’s Day 2021 to contemplate the meaning of Christ’s obedience throughout His earthly life. Everything He did, He did for us.

Bible croppedThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur (as cited below).

Romans 4:6-12

just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:

7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
    and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

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Last week’s post focussed on Romans 3, including these important verses:

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

In Romans 4, Paul looks at the justification of Abraham, who was also circumcised — albeit some years later after God chose him to be the father of nations.

Paul’s objective was to convince the Jews that circumcision did not confer salvation or righteousness.

That means that Gentiles could also be justified via faith through grace.

Here are the first five verses of Romans 4:

Abraham Justified by Faith

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in[a] him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,

Matthew Henry explains (emphases mine):

St. Paul observes in this paragraph when and why Abraham was thus justified; for he has several things to remark upon that. It was before he was circumcised, and before the giving of the law; and there was a reason for both.

I. It was before he was circumcised, Romans 4:10. His faith was counted to him for righteousness while he was in uncircumcision. It was imputed, Genesis 15:6, and he was not circumcised till Genesis 17:1-27. Abraham is expressly said to be justified by faith fourteen years, some say twenty-five years, before he was circumcised. Now this the apostle takes notice of in answer to the question (Romans 4:9), Cometh this blessedness then on the circumcision only, or on the uncircumcision also? Abraham was pardoned and accepted in uncircumcision, a circumstance which, as it might silence the fears of the poor uncircumcised Gentiles, so it might lower the pride and conceitedness of the Jews, who gloried in their circumcision, as if they had the monopoly of all happiness.

John MacArthur has more:

Paul has told us how to be right with God and he said a man is right with God not by what he does but by what he believes, by believing in Jesus Christ and His perfect work. And now it is very important that Abraham be his illustration because this that he has just taught would be unacceptable to the Jewish mind. And so he selects Abraham to make his point.

Let me give you some reasons why. First, Abraham would show the eternal truth of righteousness by grace through faith since Abraham was an Old Testament character. In other words, by using Abraham, Paul is saying this is nothing new, this is something very old. Abraham even preceded Moses. Abraham even preceded the identity of the nation Israel. Abraham really belongs in the patriarchal period, the very primitive time. He appears early on in the book of Genesis. And if Paul can establish that a man in the book of Genesis was saved by grace through faith and not of works, then he has given to us a timeless truth and nothing new at all.

Secondly, he selects Abraham because Abraham is also the supreme example of faith. Nobody in the Old Testament exercised as much or more faith than Abraham. And the New Testament even tells us that Abraham — the book of Galatians tells us — is the father of all who believe. In a very real sense, all who come to God by faith are children of Abraham, who sort of set the standard for faith by believing God in a most incredible way.

Abraham obeyed God without question. He left his extended family to go to a new land. He believed that his wife Sarah would bear a son, even when she had been barren and long past child-bearing age. He was willing to sacrifice his only son for God, although God relented in that test of faith.

Here is a bit more about Abram/Abraham from MacArthur:

Abram was his name first. It means “exalted father.” God changed his name to Abraham which means “the father of many nations,” for He had given him that promise. And it was twofold. Physically from the loins of Abraham would come multitudes of people, millions of people. The Semitic world, Arab and Jew alike, descended from Abraham. Genesis 17, the first 8 verses, talk about how God said Abraham will produce generations of people. In fact, it is said that they would be as the sand of the sea, or the stars of the heavens. He was the father of many, but not only physically, spiritually as well; for he is the father of all those who are of faith. He is the pattern established, and all others who put their faith in God follow the pattern of their father, Abraham.

Galatians makes this abundantly clear. Paul, writing in chapter 3 verse 6, says: “Even as Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness, know ye therefore that they who are of faith, the same are the sons of Abraham, and the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham saying, in thee shall all nations be blessed, so then they who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham.”

So, not only did Abraham in a sense produce physical seed, but as well set the standard for spiritual production. And so, as millions follow his directive of faith, they occupy a place uniquely identified in the Scripture as children of Abraham. And that is because he is the example of justification by faith. And Paul makes that point in Romans and as I noted, he makes it in Galatians because it is so very important.

The Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion have liturgical prayers that mention Abraham as being ‘our father in faith’.

In verses 6 – 8, Paul mentions David in his discourse by citing Psalm 32:1-2. It is further proof that we are justified by faith, not works. None of our works can ever measure up to righteousness, because we are always imperfect, always prone to sin. We need God’s infinite grace at all times.

MacArthur provides the background to David’s life in the context of Psalm 32. David had committed adultery by the time he wrote it:

Now, basically you have in verse 7 a sinner characterized by iniquity and sin, you have in verse 8 a sinner characterized by sin, and in both cases the Lord forgives and does not hold that sin against the person. So, we know that that didn’t happen by works because both verses define the individual as a what? As a sinner. So how can you say a sinner is blessed? Well, you can only say that if he’s been forgiven, or if the Lord does not put his sin to his account, and that is exactly the case. And it doesn’t come by works, it comes by faith. You see, the truly blessed man is the one who is forgiven of his sin. And by the way, this is a quote from Psalm 32 verses 1 and 2. And believe me, at that juncture of David’s life, he knew guilt. He had been involved in an adultery. He had been involved in what amounts to murder. He had desecrated his throne and the sanctity of his own virtue. He was a vile wretched sinner. In Psalm 51, he went through such agony and such pain. He felt as if God had abandoned him. He was under the horrible experience of guilt. He says in Psalm 32 that his life juices dried up, and that’s what happens when guilt occurs. Saliva, one of the life juices, dries up. Anxiety creates pressure in the head that restricts the flow of the blood, another of the life juices. And the lymphatic system is affected and the nervous system is affected and he began to be old before his time and he began to ache in his joints and he began to be sick. Guilt does that.

And then in the midst of all of that he experienced the goodness of God. No wonder he said twice, “Blessed is the man.” “Blessed is the man whose sins the Lord forgives.” “Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute sin.” That’s the truly blessed man. He knows forgiveness. And so David supports Paul’s point. And it’s helpful for us to know that Abraham was a pre-Mosaic figure, David was a Mosaic figure. Abraham predates the clear definition of the Mosaic covenant and so we see that God redeems people pre-Mosaic by faith. David shows us that God redeems people in the Mosaic era by faith. And the New Testament carries it into our own era. Always at all times redemption is a matter of faith resulting in imputed righteousness.

Paul then asks the Jews if imputed righteousness is only for the circumcised, then, how was Abraham included when he was not circumcised yet God found him to be righteous (verses 9, 10)?

Paul answers his question by saying that Abraham’s circumcision was the ‘seal’ of his righteousness before God. Furthermore, as he was righteous in God’s eyes before his circumcision, then, He would consider other uncircumcised men to also be righteous (verse 11).

Therefore, Abraham became not only the father of the circumcised, but also of the uncircumcised who walk in his same journey of obedience in faith through grace (verse 12).

Henry says that sacraments are the seals of the covenant that has been agreed between God and man, thanks to the blood that Jesus shed on our behalf:

The tenour of the covenants must first be settled before the seal can be annexed. Sealing supposes a previous bargain, which is confirmed and ratified by that ceremony. After Abraham’s justification by faith had continued several years only a grant by parole, for the confirmation of Abraham’s faith God was pleased to appoint a sealing ordinance, and Abraham received it; though it was a bloody ordinance, yet he submitted to it, and even received it as a special favour, the sign of circumcision, &c. Now we may hence observe, (1.) The nature of sacraments in general: they are signs and seals–signs to represent and instruct, seals to ratify and confirm. They are signs of absolute grace and favour; they are seals of the conditional promises; nay, they are mutual seals: God does in the sacraments seal to us to be to us a God, and we do therein seal to him to be to him a people. (2.) The nature of circumcision in particular: it was the initiating sacrament of the Old Testament; and it is here said to be, [1.] A sign–a sign of that original corruption which we are all born with, and which is cut off by spiritual circumcision,–a commemorating sign of God’s covenant with Abraham,–a distinguishing sign between Jews and Gentiles,–a sign of admission into the visible church,–a sign prefiguring baptism, which comes in the room of circumcision, now under the gospel, when (the blood of Christ being shed) all bloody ordinances are abolished; it was an outward and sensible sign of an inward and spiritual grace signified thereby. [2.] A seal of the righteousness of the faith. In general, it was a seal of the covenant of grace, particularly of justification by faith–the covenant of grace, called the righteousness which is of faith (Romans 10:6), and it refers to an Old-Testament promise, Deuteronomy 30:12.

What does this mean in a Christian context? The grace God confers on us in the Sacraments enables us to live a holy life, which we are obliged to do in faith.

This is Henry’s caveat about the Jews of Paul’s day and ourselves as Christians:

See here who are the genuine children and lawful successors of those that were the church’s fathers: not those that sit in their chairs, and bear their names, but those that tread in their steps; this is the line of succession, which holds, notwithstanding interruptions. It seems, then, those were most loud and forward to call Abraham father that had least title to the honours and privileges of his children. Thus those have most reason to call Christ Father, not that bear his name in being Christians in profession, but that tread in his steps.

The sacraments and holy ordinances impart grace, although they are not salvific in and of themselves, as MacArthur explains:

Listen very carefully. Many people today are basing their salvation from eternal hellfire on some infant baptism, or some confirmation, or some adult baptism, or some communion involvement, or some religious rite and ceremony. There are many people who call themselves Christians in our society who even would call themselves evangelical, who actually believe that their children are secured eternally for the covenant by infant baptism. And many are hoping in their religious rites, and though they be not circumcision they be basically the same perspective. They parallel …

So, Paul is dealing with a bigger picture than at first we might understand. And he’s dealing with the issue that religious rites and ceremonies do not justify, and when saying that he talks to our time.

Ultimately:

We are saved by grace through what? Faith. These symbols are only symbols and signs. You say, “Well, can I get to heaven if I haven’t been baptized?” Yes. You say, “Then I don’t have to be baptized!” No. “Why?” Because baptism is an act of… You say it: obedience. And if you have confessed Jesus as Lord you will what? Obey Him, and it becomes the point of your testimonyAnd that’s what Paul is teaching us.

Obedience to God characterised Abraham’s life. Jesus was — and is — fully obedient to His Father.

Let us, therefore, obey Him, too.

Next time — Romans 5:20-21

Bible ancient-futurenetThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Romans 2:25-29

25 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded[a] as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically[b] uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code[c] and circumcision but break the law. 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.

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Last week’s post discussed Paul’s criticism of the hypocrisy of the Jews of his era. They preached the law but did not obey it themselves.

Romans 2:24 says:

24 For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

Harsh words. We can also apply Paul’s criticisms to ourselves as Christians substituting ‘atheists’ or ‘agnostics’ for ‘Gentiles’.

Paul ends with a few verses on circumcision, which, for Jewish males, is as important as baptism is for Christians. Paul points out that a Gentile, uncircumcised, who obeys natural law can be a better person in God’s eyes than a circumcised Jew who flouts the law of God.

Therefore, circumcision, Paul says, is worth something only if the circumcised man obeys God’s precepts; otherwise, it is worth nothing at all and becomes uncircumcision (verse 25).

At that time, some Gentiles worshipped in synagogues and obeyed some of the Mosaic laws, not necessarily circumcision (verse 26). These Gentiles rejected paganism and loved God. They are called ‘God-fearing’ in Scripture. Cornelius, the first Gentile to convert to Christianity thanks to Peter, was one of them.

Matthew Henry reminds us about Acts 10 (emphases mine):

The case of Cornelius will clear it. Though he was a Gentile, and uncircumcised, yet, being a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house (Acts 10:2), he was accepted, Acts 10:4. Doubtless, there were many such instances: and they were the uncircumcision, that kept the righteousness of the law; and of such he says, (1.) That they were accepted with God, as if they had been circumcised. Their uncircumcision was counted for circumcision. Circumcision was indeed to the Jews a commanded duty, but it was not to all the world a necessary condition of justification and salvation.

Paul says that uncircumcised Gentiles who keep God’s law and worship in synagogues are better than Jews who received the law as their birthright, were circumcised yet disobey the law. Through their conduct, those Gentiles ‘condemn’ the Jews (verse 27).

Henry explains that many Jews of that era did not think they needed to obey God’s law. Having it was sufficient. They were wrong:

That their obedience was a great aggravation of the disobedience of the Jews, who had the letter of the law, Romans 2:27. Judge thee, that is, help to add to thy condemnation, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress. Observe, To carnal professors the law is but the letter; they read it as a bare writing, but are not ruled by it as a law. They did transgress, not only notwithstanding the letter and circumcision, but by it, that is, they thereby hardened themselves in sin. External privileges, if they do not do us good, do us hurt. The obedience of those that enjoy less means, and make a less profession, will help to condemn those that enjoy greater means, and make a greater profession, but do not live up to it.

Paul takes his argument further, saying that Jewishness depends not on outward signs, such as circumcision, but upon what is in one’s heart and displayed in one’s conduct (verse 28). If one is truly a Jew, then one is circumcised in the heart and ruled by the Spirit. Furthermore, such a Jew seeks God’s favour, not man’s (verse 29).

Displaying outward signs of Jewishness was not enough, Paul said. One had to have the law written on one’s heart and in one’s mind.

Henry offers this analysis:

(1.) It is not that which is outward in the flesh and in the letter. This is not to drive us off from the observance of external institutions (they are good in their place), but from trusting to them and resting in them as sufficient to bring us to heaven, taking up with a name to live, without being alive indeed. He is not a Jew, that is, shall not be accepted of God as the seed of believing Abraham, nor owned as having answered the intention of the law. To be Abraham’s children is to do the works of Abraham, John 8:39,40. (2.) It is that which is inward, of the heart, and in the spirit. It is the heart that God looks at, the circumcising of the heart that renders us acceptable to him. See Deuteronomy 30:6. This is the circumcision that is not made with hands, Colossians 2:11,12. Casting away the body of sin. So it is in the spirit, in our spirit as the subject, and wrought by God’s Spirit as the author of it. (3.) The praise thereof, though it be not of men, who judge according to outward appearance, yet it is of God, that is, God himself will own and accept and crown this sincerity; for he seeth not as man seeth. Fair pretences and a plausible profession may deceive men: but God cannot be so deceived; he sees through shows to realities. This is alike true of Christianity. He is not a Christian that is one outwardly, nor is that baptism which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Christian that is one inwardly, and baptism is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter, whose praise is not of men but of God.

John MacArthur has a similar perspective. Obeying God’s law is what counts:

the Jew thought, just because I’m circumcised, I’m okay. It’s a perfect parallel to baptism … And the Jew felt, because I have the mark of the covenant, I’m okay. And here Paul says, if you don’t keep it, it doesn’t mean anything

It was the sign of God’s promise. It was the sign of God’s blessing. It was the sign of God’s protection and care and love, but it didn’t mean a thing if he didn’t keep the law. That message is also repeated in the fifth chapter of Galatians. He says, “I testify to every man that is circumcised that he’s a debtor to keep the law.” If you’re circumcised, it doesn’t mean you’re free from the law. It just means you’re in the covenant and you’ve got to keep it all. You want to know the truth of it? And this is the most interesting thought, I don’t know if you ever thought of it, circumcision was a symbol of the fact that men were condemned, not that they were saved. Because if you were circumcised it said you were in the covenant and the covenant was that you had to keep the law. So it was a sign of your lostness, not your redemption. It was a constant reminder that you had to keep God’s law, you were in the covenant. You had to keep God’s law. And you couldn’t keep God’s law so you were lost. But to them, just being circumcised was their security.

In fact, the rabbis said. I’ll quote some of the rabbis. “No circumcised man will see hell.” Rabbi Joel Kut Rabin said, “Circumcision saves us from hell.” In the midrash, it says, “God swore to Abraham that no one who was circumcised would be sent to hell. Abraham sits before the gate of hell and never allows any circumcised Israelite to enter.” Now they believed they were saved by that. All that was was a constant reminder that they were responsible to the covenant. It was an outward sign of an inward responsibility. It was an outward sign of an inward obligation and duty before God.

In Jeremiah 6:9 it says, “Thus saith the Lord of hosts, They shall thoroughly glean the remnant of Israel as a vine. Turn back thine hand. Like a grape, gather into the baskets. To whom shall I speak and give warning that they may hear? Behold, their ear is uncircumcised and they cannot hearken.” Circumcised became then the concept of a spiritual reality, or the symbol of a spiritual reality. God wanted ears that were circumcised, that is, obedient to the covenant. Later on in chapter 9 he talks about circumcising the heart. God wanted an obedient ear to hear the truth of God and God wanted an obedient heart to respond to the truth of God.

Now look at verse 26. And he looks at the same issue from an opposite angle. “Therefore if the uncircumcision — that’s the Gentiles, the ones that aren’t circumcised — keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision?” In other words, a Gentile who keeps the law of God is going to be included in the covenant blessing even if he isn’t circumcised. And he’s only reinforcing verse 25, circumcision doesn’t mean anything. If you break the law, it isn’t going to help you. And if you keep the law, it isn’t necessary. The point being, circumcision is not necessary. Everything depends on whether you keep the law. Everything depends on obedience.

You go back to chapter 2, verse 6. God will render to every man according to his circumcision. Is that what it says? “According to (his what?) his deeds,” his works. So circumcision, mark this, has no inherent value. It has no efficacy. It has no power to redeem. It is only a symbol. And not a symbol that everything is okay, but a symbol that everything is not okay because it reminds me that I’m obligated to keep the whole law. There is no security in that symbol. There is only insecurity, because man can’t keep the law whether he’s circumcised or not. And in chapter 4 we’ll get into this in more detail when he shows how Abraham was righteous before he was ever circumcised, so that his circumcision had nothing to do with whether or not he was righteous.

Now a fatal shot in verse 27. And here is the last verse that deals with their security, the fatal shot. “And shall not uncircumcision — that’s the Gentile by nature, Gentiles by nature — if it fulfill the law, judge thee, who by the letter in circumcision dost transgress the law?” You know what that says? An obedient Gentile will be the judge of a disobedient, a disobedient Jew. Oh that is… They don’t want to hear that. The Gentile will not really assume the role of a judge. That’s not the idea here. God is the judge. But the Gentile will assume the role of a witness for the prosecution. Why? Listen to this. If a Jew comes into the court and says, “Hey, I mean, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.” All God has to say is, “You see this uncircumcised Gentile, he did what was right and he didn’t know what you knew, therefore he is living testimony of your guilt.” You see? It’s an interesting argument on Paul’s part.

The obedience of an uncircumcised Gentile is proof of the responsibility of a circumcised Jew. They held on to circumcision like people do to infant baptism

Baptism does not confer automatic salvation in and of itself. We must obey God’s precepts through the help of Jesus, our only Mediator and Advocate with the Father.

Next time — Romans 3:1-22a

This eight-minute video from Michael Knowles of The Daily Wire is an excellent exploration of the future reconstruction of Notre-Dame Cathedral, Holy Week and Jesus:

For such a young man, Knowles posits observations well beyond his years.

His video is based around Rolling Stone‘s article from Holy Week, after the Notre-Dame fire, saying that the cathedral should be reconstructed to move away from ‘a deeply flawed institution’ — the Catholic Church.

Knowles says that it’s not only the Catholic Church that has flaws. Every Christian denomination has them, because of mankind’s own flaws.

He says that, following on logically from Rolling Stone‘s assertion, the further we pull away from our traditional institutions — even secular ones — the more our society becomes ‘lonely’ and ‘isolated’. He says that we have seen this happen in Western countries over the past few decades to the point that even our basic structure of the family unit is fracturing.

Knowles goes on to quote Edmund Burke, who said, essentially, that liberating oneself from everything constricting results in a life without meaning.

Knowles ends by saying there is something to be said for ‘an exalted freedom’, which actually requires ‘some subservience’ and ‘obedience’. He says this is best exemplified in Jesus, in the last days before His death and resurrection — the events we remember during Holy Week and Easter.

Knowles says that Jesus did not come to us as a ‘fully liberated hippie guy’ but as a ‘servant’. He submitted His will to that of His Father for the benefit of mankind.

Knowles should pursue the ministry. He makes much more sense than most present-day clerics.

More on Notre-Dame to follow this week.

Bible readingThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 10:1-8

Peter and Cornelius

10 At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. 3 About the ninth hour of the day[a] he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.” And he stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter. He is lodging with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.” When the angel who spoke to him had departed, he called two of his servants and a devout soldier from among those who attended him, and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.

—————————————————————————————————-

We are entering another exciting chapter in Acts. This book is a tremendous documentation of the explosive expansion of the early Church.

The previous chapters recounted the countless number of Jewish converts to Christianity. We also read about the growth of the Church among the Samaritans, who were half Jew, half Gentile because they intermarried with Assyrians. St Luke, the author of Acts, then documented the conversion of the Gentiles, the first of whom is Cornelius.

Cornelius was a Roman centurion of the Italian cohort — regiment, literally ‘band’ — who was stationed in Caesarea (verse 1). John MacArthur tells us:

Josephus, I think it is, tells us that there were five cohorts stationed in Caesarea, so they had a lotta Roman soldiers in that place…Make it a little study. It’s interesting. Sometime study centurions in the New Testament. You’ll find that they always appear to be good men. In fact, Jesus had some most interesting conversations with centurions.

Matthew Henry gives us more information (emphases mine below):

We are here told that he was a great man and a good man–two characters that seldom meet, but here they did; and where they do meet they put a lustre upon each other: goodness makes greatness truly valuable, and greatness makes goodness much more serviceable. 1. Cornelius was an officer of the army, Acts 10:1. He was at present quartered in Cesarea, a strong city, lately re-edified and fortified by Herod the Great, and called Cesarea in honour of Augustus Cæsar. It lay upon the sea-shore, very convenient for the keeping up of a correspondence between Rome and its conquests in those parts. The Roman governor or proconsul ordinarily resided here, Acts 23:23,24,25:6. Here there was a band, or cohort, or regiment, of the Roman army, which probably was the governor’s life-guard, and is here called the Italian band, because, that they might be the more sure of their fidelity, they were all native Romans, or Italians. Cornelius had a command in this part of the army. His name, Cornelius was much used among the Romans, among some of the most ancient and noble families. He was an officer of considerable rank and figure, a centurion. We read of one of that rank in our Saviour’s time, of whom he gave a great commendation, Matthew 8:10.

It is also interesting that the Lord chose a centurion rather than a philosopher or, as in the case of some of the Apostles, a fisherman.

Matthew Henry explains. The first sentence is well worth remembering. The last sentence is particularly important to note, as it would appear this was a sort of judgement on the Jews for rejecting Christ:

Fishermen, unlearned and ignorant men, were the first of the Jewish converts, but not so of the Gentiles; for the world shall know that the gospel has that in it which may recommend it to men of polite learning and a liberal education, as we have reason to think this centurion was. Let not soldiers and officers of the army plead that their employment frees them from the restraints which some others are under, and, giving them an opportunity of living more at large, may excuse them if they be not religious; for here was an officer of the army that embraced Christianity, and yet was neither turned out of his place nor turned himself out. And, lastly, it was a mortification to the Jews that not only the Gentiles were taken into the church, but that the first who was taken in was an officer of the Roman army, which was to them the abomination of desolation.

Verse 2 tells us that Cornelius was a ‘devout’ man. He and his household ‘feared God’. He gave alms generously and prayed ‘continually’. He was a Gentile following Jewish beliefs and customs, although not circumcision, in his case. No doubt he followed the Jewish laws about charity and adhered to their frequent prayer schedule.

MacArthur describes the three different types of Gentiles, some of whom believed in the God of Israel. It is no accident that the words ‘feared God’ are in verse 2, because the God-fearer was one of these three types:

Now, the term feared God became a technical term for Gentiles. There were three kinds of Gentiles in the mind of a Jew. One kind was just the plain, old, run-of-the-mill Gentile. The other kind, and this is getting better on the scale, the other kind was a God-fearer quote. This was a Gentile who had been sick of his own religion, the immoralities and the idolatries of his own faith, and he was sick of the whole polytheistic thing, and he had come to the conclusion in his mind that the God of Israel was the true God. He actually began to pray to that God. He perhaps become involved in the worship in certain synagogues or temple, or the temple itself. Much like, you remember, the eunuch, chapter 8, whom Philip met. But he was…he was involved in the Jewish ethic. He believed in the ethics of the Old Testament, but he had never been circumcised. He was not then a full proselyte. He was what they called a God-fearer.

The third level of Gentile would be the proselyte who had come all the way to Judaism, actually gone through the act of circumcision, and fully identified himself with Israel and was considered to be a Jew in a spiritual sense. Now you have all three. Well, Cornelius is the guy in the middle. He’s the God-fearer. He is not a full Jew, so he is to be considered a Gentile…but he did fear God. He was sick of the immorality and the emptiness of his own religion. He had attached himself to the Jewish religion. He didn’t accept the ceremonial laws, perhaps, and the circumcision, etc., but he often attended worship, no doubt. He believed in one God and in the ethics of the Old Testament.

At the ‘ninth hour of the day’, Cornelius received a vision from an angel of the Lord (verse 3). The ninth hour of the day was three o’clock in the afternoon. It is significant, because that was the time of the ritual sacrifice in the temple. Devout Jews prayed at that time of day, and, in Acts 10:30, Cornelius said that is what he was doing.

The angel addressed Cornelius by name. Henry explains:

he called him by his name, Cornelius, to intimate the particular notice God took of him.

Not surprisingly, Cornelius was terrified and asked what the matter was (verse 4). No doubt he thought the Lord was going to reprimand him in some way. Henry tells us:

The wisest and best men have been struck with fear upon the appearance of any extra-ordinary messenger from heaven; and justly, for sinful man knows that he has no reason to expect any good tidings thence. And therefore Cornelius cries, “What is it, Lord? What is the matter?” This he speaks as one afraid of something amiss, and longing to be eased of that fear, by knowing the truth; or as one desirous to know the mind of God, and ready to comply with it, as Joshua: What saith my Lord unto his servant? And Samuel: Speak, for thy servant heareth.

The angel reassures Cornelius that his prayers and alms have ascended to God. That is from the Old Testament and one of the reasons that incense was used, the fragrant smoke being a visible symbol of prayers and sacrifices rising to God.

Henry cites Leviticus:

Cornelius prayed, and gave alms, not as the Pharisees, to be seen of men, but in sincerity, as unto God; and he is here told that they were come up for a memorial before God. They were upon record in heaven, in the book of remembrance that is written there for all that fear God, and shall be remembered to his advantage: “Thy prayers shall be answered, and thine alms recompensed.” The sacrifices under the law are said to be for a memorial. See Leviticus 2:9,16,5:12,6:15. And prayers and alms are our spiritual offerings, which God is pleased to take cognizance of, and have regard to.

Some people consider themselves Christians, yet they do not pray daily. Prayer is worship. Prayer is our active acknowledgement of God the Father and God the Son. It’s essential to the Christian life. Furthermore, God hears our prayers and blesses us accordingly.

MacArthur points out:

You know, it seems to me that as I study the Bible, great things always happen when people are in prayer. God moved on Cornelius when he was in prayer. You’re gonna see in a minute that it was Peter, when he was praying, that God moved on, as well. Prayer’s a great place to be, on your knees before God, for God to speak, and here it happens.

God moves in response to prayer. You say, “What was Cornelius praying about?” I don’t know what he was praying about, but I can take a good guess. I think he was saying, “God, I wanna know more about You. I want the fullness.” He was searching for more light and God was about to invade him with light, and here came the angel, the angelic appearance.

The angel told Cornelius to send men to Joppa and to bring Peter to his house (verse 5). Note that the angel did not tell Cornelius to go himself, but to send his men instead.

Two things are striking about this verse. The first is that there was an action to be performed in obedience to the Lord. The second is that Cornelius was not to meet Peter himself in Joppa.

MacArthur takes this further. This is really important:

God not only chooses the receiver and responds to the searching heart of the receiver and prepares the receiver, but God gives the receiver the opportunity to respond actively. Now God could’ve said through this angel, “Cornelius, all you have to do is these steps. Do you know that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life or whatever?” And he could’ve gone through the Gospel, see. He could’ve simply gone right to the Gospel, said, “Cornelius, do you believe.” ________ “I believe.” “It’s over, Cornelius, great.” But, no, He didn’t do that.

No, you see, Paul said that we were sent to the world for the obedience of faith, Romans 1. You see, God always wants to tie with faith an act of obedience, because that’s what the Christian life is all about. You might as well learn it at the beginning. That’s why the Bible says, “If you believe in your heartRomans 10:9 and 10, and do what else?...confess with your mouth, the Lord Jesus Christ, you’ll be saved.” God wants some kind of act of obedience tied in with that salvation. So He gives to…to Cornelius the opportunity to be obedient; and isn’t it interesting that if I were Cornelius, here would’ve been my reaction. “Uh, can I go myself? Why do I have to send guys? That means they’ll go there, and they’ll get him, and he’ll have to come here, and that’s a lot of time. I wanna get there.”

I don’t read that in the text. Praise the Lord, he was obedient. He was believing God, and he was obedient. You say, “Well, why would God take this time?” I think there’s two reasons. No. 1, I think was the fact that God wanted Peter also to act on faith, ’cause Peter was gonna have to pack up and head for Cornelius’ house strictly on faith. I mean to have a bunch of Roman soldiers arrive at his door and say, “Come on, we’re taking you to a man who wants to see ya.” That’s a little scary. Roman soldiers.

Secondly, I think, in order to break the barriers down, that the Lord wanted Peter to lead Cornelius to Christ in Cornelius’ own house, which no Jew would ever enter, and so God had the plan laid out, and Cornelius didn’t hassle God. He believed and obeyed.

The angel told Cornelius that Peter was lodging at Simon the tanner’s house by the sea in Joppa (verse 6).

Last week’s entry explained the Jewish opprobrium towards tanners. Their profession was unclean, therefore, they, too were unclean. Tanning also smells, even today. Yet, Peter stayed with Simon for a long time, probably two years. From this, we see the inclusivity of Christianity, which the Apostle himself displayed.

MacArthur tells us why tanners lived by the sea:

Tanners had their house by the seaside, because they needed the salt water for the tanning processes.

After the angel left him, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier (verse 7). He explained the vision to them and sent them to Joppa (verse 8). Last week’s entry also discussed Joppa, more about which can be found at BiblePlaces.com.

MacArthur ties this vision and obedience together for us:

Cornelius is getting prepared. What have we seen in the preparation of the receiver over here? We’ve seen 1) God chose him. 2) God responded to his open heart. 3) God prepared the soil with the proper information and instruction. 4) God promises more light. “He shall tell thee what thou oughtest to do.” 5) God asks for the obedience of faith. Meanwhile, He prepares the messenger, Peter, down in Joppa.

Peter’s preparation — also a vision — is the subject of next week’s post. Peter learned another great lesson in his life which further aided his powerful ministry.

Next time — Acts 10:9-16

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