and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; Colossians 2:11 NASB
Without hands – Circumcision was a big issue in the Messianic community of the first century. My guess is that Paul thought he put that issue to rest with his letters to the mixed congregations of Jews and Gentiles. But apparently his words of wisdom didn’t take, because here we are two thousand years later still arguing over the place of circumcision. This particular verse is often used as a proof text by those who wish to assert that Torah no longer applies to Christian believers. They point to the fact that Paul says the only real circumcision that matters is the one made without hands, that is, the circumcision of the heart accomplished by Yeshua in the renewal of His followers. Clearly Paul uses this metaphorical expression. But what does he mean? Does he really intend to say that Torah no longer matters? If he does, then a lot of the claims and the behaviors of his post-Damascus life just don’t add up. If Torah doesn’t count, then why does Paul say he is a Pharisee of the Pharisees, why does he complete the vow payment and why does he tell us that he has never deviated from the commandments or the traditions of the Jews? It seems to me that we must understand this statement to the Colossians within the context of the rest of Paul’s life. Maybe then we can make sense of the whole picture.
Let’s start with the context of this particular verse. Verse 6 tells us that Paul expects the Colossian believers to “walk in” the ways of Yeshua. That, of course, is a good Hebrew idiom for following the pathway of YHWH, a pathway that Yeshua Himself followed. In the first century rabbinic world, “walking” is a metaphor for strict obedience to the commandments. The culture defines the meaning of the word, and unless we can show that Paul attached a completely different meaning to this familiar Hebrew idiom, we must accept that he uses it as any other rabbi would.
Next we notice that Paul expands on the idea of “walking” with the phrase “just as you were instructed” (v. 7). How were the Colossians instructed? According to the determination of the Jerusalem council (which endorsed Paul’s practices), converts to Messianic Judaism were instructed in Moses. That can only mean one thing. They were given Torah instruction in the synagogues every Shabbat. Do you have any indication anywhere in Paul’s letters that he no longer ascribed to this teaching? No. If he has broken ranks with the counsel’s approval, wouldn’t we have some indication of that separation? But we have none. In fact, we have Paul’s own confirmation of the priority of Torah when he pays for the vows at the request of James and Peter.
The next verse (v. 8 ) shows us why Paul makes this metaphorical remark about circumcision. Colossae was a busy port city on the Lycus River in the Roman province that is now part of Turkey. Its pagan population was influenced by Greek philosophy, pagan mythology, religious practices from ancient Babylon and a multi-ethnic population. Paul addresses these influences by calling them “empty deceptions,” and the “traditions of men.” Then he supplies us with a key phrase – “the elementary principles of the world.” Explanations of the world in terms of basic elements (earth, air, water, fire) were popular in the pagan culture. But Paul knows, as his converts must have surely known, that YHWH is the author and creator of all that is. Any other explanation is outside the Tanakh.
Why does Paul mention this pagan view? Because Paul wants his readers to see that there is no need to look for explanation and purpose beyond the revelation already communicated in Scripture and made visible in Yeshua. Were these people searching for scientific theories about the origin of the world? Of course not. They were searching for answers about how to live. We are the ones who look to science to answer the “how” question. But people of the first century looked for answers to the “why” question, and given the cultural influence of the ancient near-East, they sought those answers in order not to offend the gods. Their lives were ruled by fear of the divine. Paul assures them that all they need to know is found in the fullness of Yeshua. He has all authority. They don’t need to fear other “gods.” They have been “made complete” in Him.
If this is so, then why the comment about circumcision? Now we can answer. If circumcision is nothing more than an outward sign, it is no different than any other pagan religious practice. As an outward sign, it accomplishes nothing. Circumcision alone does not make a man acceptable. This is not news to Jews. The Tanakh clearly teaches that outward circumcision without inward transformation is useless. But for a Gentile audience, this is an important point because most pagan religions include outward rites and rituals that have efficacy with the gods. Therefore, it would be possible for a Gentile convert to assume that circumcision guaranteed acceptability. Paul is quick to point out that this is not the case. Effective circumcision is of the heart, not the hands. Effective circumcision has been accomplished through the work of Yeshua. As followers, we are called to enter into this inner circumcision. The symbolic renewal found in baptism is a statement that the old ways of living are dead and we have entered into a new way of life. In other words, Paul is putting to rest the idea that circumcision of the flesh guarantees entrance to the Kingdom. Circumcision does not bring salvation.
If this is so, does circumcision matter at all? Well, Moses is taught every week. And Moses tells us that Abraham was counted righteous before he was circumcised but he was circumcised anyway. In fact, God commanded him to be circumcised even though he was already considered righteous. Isn’t that precisely the same situation Paul faces? Isn’t that exactly where we find ourselves today? Clearly circumcision is not a ritual of acceptance. After all, females are also citizens of the Kingdom. The correct ritual of acceptance is God’s act in Yeshua, not our cutting the flesh. But that act in Yeshua opens the door for us to be guiltlessly obedient – and circumcision is one of the acts of obedience. As Paul says, Yeshua cancelled the consequences of our disobedience and removed the obstacles to obedience. What is left is acceptance of His gift and voluntary obedience.
Topical Index: circumcision, Colossians 2:11