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Bible Commentaries

Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae

Genesis 17

 

 

Verse 9-10

DISCOURSE: 27

CIRCUMCISION OF ABRAHAM

Genesis 17:9-10. And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee, in their generations. This is my covenant, which ye shall keep between me and you, and thy seed after thee; Every man-child among you shall be circumcised.

TO a Jewish auditory the subject before us would be so familiar, that it might be treated without any difficulty. But as it is otherwise with us, we shall wave every thing relative to the right of circumcision, and fix our attention upon the ends for which it was instituted. The writings of the New Testament, as well as of the Old, abound with references to this ordinance: and a just knowledge of its original design is necessary to a due understanding of the corresponding ordinance under the Christian dispensation. Let us then state to you,

I. What were the great ends of circumcision—

The importance attached to this rite under the Jewish dispensation clearly shews, that it was not a mere arbitrary imposition, but an ordinance fraught with instruction. It was imposed on Abraham and all his posterity,

1. As a seal of their privileges—

[Abraham had from the first believed the promises which God had given him relative to a numerous posterity, and to “that seed in particular, in whom all the nations of the earth were to be blessed:” and, in consequence of that faith, he was justified before God; or, to use the expressive language of Scripture, “his faith was counted to him for righteousness.” But when five and twenty years had elapsed, and it was more distinctly made known to him that the promised seed was to spring from Sarah, he had some pledges given him that God’s word, however improbable, should be fulfilled. His name was changed from Abram, which means high father; to Abraham, the high father of a multitude. His wife’s name also was changed, from Sarai, my princess, to Sarah, the princess of a multitude [Note::15.]. Now also circumcision was enjoined on him and fill his posterity: and St. Paul expressly says, that it was “a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had being yet uncircumcised [Note: Romans 4:11.].” To Abraham and his believing seed, this seal assured the certain enjoyment of “God as their God” and Portion for ever [Note:, 8.]: but as administered to infants, it assured only that they should participate all the blessings of God’s covenant, as soon as ever they exercised the faith of Abraham, and “walked in his steps [Note: Romans 4:12.].” But towards all, it had the same force as a seal has when annexed to a covenant: it was God’s seal impressed on their flesh [Note: See 3, latter part.], that he would fulfil to them all the promises which he had given.]

2. A memorial of their engagements—

[In the verse following our text, God calls circumcision “a token of the covenant between him and his people.” It was designed by God that his people should be separated from all the world, and that they should be constantly reminded of their engagements to him. When they submitted to that rite, whether it were in infancy or at an adult age, they were no longer to consider themselves as at their own disposal, but as dedicated to the service of their God. St. Paul, in reference to the scars and bruises with which his body had been covered in the service of his Lord, said, “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus [Note: Galatians 6:17.].” The same language might with propriety be used by every Jew in reference to this sacred memorial: for, having in his own person the appointed sign of his relation to God, he must be continually reminded “whose he was, and whom he was bound to serve.”]

3. An emblem of their duties—

[We cannot doubt but that this painful rite was intended to represent the mortification of sin. The Scripture speaks much of the “putting off the whole body of sin;” “the crucifying of the flesh with the affections and lusts;” “the putting off the old man, and putting on the new:” which expressions exactly coincide with the chief intent of this ordinance: they shew, that we bring a corrupt nature into the world with us; and that it must be the labour of our lives to put away sin, both original and actual, both root and branch. Indeed St. Paul explains the ordinance in this way, and calls it “a putting off of the body of the sins of the flesh.” But there are also other expressions of Scripture which shew that this rite imported the highest degrees of sanctification and holiness. Moses repeatedly speaks of “the circumcising of the heart to love the Lord with all our heart and all our soul [Note: Deuteronomy 10:16; Deuteronomy 30:6.].” And the prophet Jeremiah’s language is singularly emphatic: “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and take away the foreskins of your heart, lest my fury come forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it [Note: Jeremiah 4:4.].” From all these passages we learn, that the ordinance was figurative, and designed to instruct the Lord’s people in. the nature and extent of their duties towards him.]

This rite however being dropped, it will be proper to shew,

II. How those ends are attained under the Christian dispensation—

The rite of circumcision has been superseded by the rite of baptism, just as the passover has given way to the supper of our Lord. The dispensations being changed, a change was made of the two great ordinances which were adapted to Judaism; and others were introduced more immediately suited to Christianity. St. Paul, in reference to the ordinances which we are now comparing, distinctly draws the parallel; and shews that, though different in their nature, they were of precisely the same import: “In Christ,” says he, “ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead [Note: Colossians 2:11-12.].”

Now in Baptism we have,

1. A seal of our privileges—

[When Christianity was first preached, the ordinance was principally administered to adults, because they alone were capable of that instruction which the Apostles were sent to convey. To them the baptismal rite was administered after they had believed in Christ, and after “their faith had been imputed to them for righteousness:” and to them it was, precisely what circumcision had been to Abraham, “a seal of the righteousness which they had being yet unbaptized.” It assured them, that they were “accepted in the Beloved;” that, “they had redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins;” that “grace and glory should be given them;” and that while the inheritance of heaven was kept for them, they also should by the mighty power of God be preserved for it [Note: 1 Peter 1:4-5.]. But to their infant offspring the ordinance of baptism assured nothing more than an external right to these blessings, and a certainty of possessing them as soon as they believed. It was of the unbelieving and impenitent Jews that St. Paul said, “Theirs is the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises [Note: Romans 9:4].” This therefore must be understood of the title to these things which they enjoyed by means of their admission into covenant with God. The actual enjoyment of these things they could not have, till they became obedient to the commands of God. It is exactly in the same manner that our Church instructs children to say, that in their baptism they were made “members of Christ, children of God, and heirs of the kingdom of heaven.” They have a title to these privileges, as a woman has to the estate of her deceased husband, which yet she cannot legally possess, till she take out administration: so these cannot attain the actual enjoyment of their privileges, till they sue them out by believing.]

2. A memorial of our engagements—

[The effects of the baptismal water are not indeed long visible upon the body; but the name given to us at our baptism (emphatically called our Christian name) continues with us until death: and the name of the society into which we are introduced (that of Christians) is an indelible badge of our profession, and of the solemn engagements that we have entered into. It is worthy of observation that, when the sacred historian says, “They were called Christians first at Antioch,” he uses a word, which, with one only exception, always implies a divine appointment [Note: It is used nine times in the New Testament;Matthew 2:12; Matthew 2:22; Luke 2:26; Acts 10:22; Acts 11:26; Hebrews 8:5; Hebrews 11:7; Hebrews 12:25. See also Romans 11:4.]: and in the passage that we except, it may very properly be so interpreted [Note: Romans 7:3. If it be considered that our Lord abolished the polygamy which obtained by divine connivance, and in some cases, as it should seem, by divine appointment, the excepted case will perhaps be thought no exception at all.]. Now, in this view of the subject, the divine appointment of the name Christian, to those who had before no right or title to it, is exactly equivalent to the change of Abram’s and of Sarai’s names: and in thus being brought to “name the name of Christ, we are taught to depart from all iniquity.” We can never recollect to what society we belong, or hear ourselves addressed by our Christian name, but we have a striking memorial, that “we are not our own; and that, having been bought with a price, we are bound to glorify God with our body and our spirit which are his [Note: 1 Corinthians 6:19-20.].”]

3. An emblem of our duties—

[In our Catechism we are told that baptism is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace: “nor are we at any loss to declare what that grace is which it was intended to represent: the symbol is clear enough of itself; but it is explained by God himself; who informs us, that it is “not the putting off of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience towards God [Note: 1 Peter 3:21.].” In this, of course, the cleansing of ourselves from outward pollutions is intended: but there is also much more implied, even a life of entire devotedness to God: for thus it is said in another place; “We are buried with Christ by baptism into death; that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life [Note: Romans 6:4.].” While our blessed Lord sojourned upon earth, he set us a perfect example of the divine life: but in his resurrection and ascension to heaven he left us, if I may so speak, a visible exhibition of our duty: he shewed us that it consists in “a death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness;” and in having “our conversation henceforth, as much as possible, in heaven.”]

The instruction which we would further suggest as arising from this subject, is comprised in two things. We learn from it,

1. Why infants ought to be baptized—

[The great argument for not baptizing infants is, that they are incapable of performing the duties of the Christian covenant, and therefore they ought not to have the seal of that covenant applied to them. Now if children had never been admitted into covenant with God at all, this argument would have had some weight. But under the Jewish dispensation they were admitted into covenant with God at eight days old; and the seal of that covenant was applied to them. Moreover, this was done by the absolute command of God; who ordered, that a contemner of this ordinance should be cut off from his people. This objection therefore can be of no validity under the Christian dispensation. It is further objected, that God does not particularly order children to be baptized. True, he does not; nor was it necessary that he should: for there was no change of the persons who were to be admitted into covenant with him, but only of the rite by which they were to be admitted. If there was to be a change of the persons as well as of the rite, we might well expect that he should have revealed his will to us respecting it. But there is not one syllable in the whole New Testament that will admit of any such construction: and if God has not deprived children of the honour and privilege of being admitted into covenant with him, who are We, that we should take it away from them? By thus robbing them of their privileges, we represent Jesus Christ as less merciful to children now, than he was to the children of Jewish parents: and we put an almost insurmountable obstacle in the way of the Jews; who, though convinced of the truth of Christianity, might justly keep back from embracing it, on account of their children; seeing that, while they remain Jews, their children are partakers of the covenant; but, when they become Christians, their children are cut off from all interest in it.

Some indeed are superstitiously anxious about the early administration of this ordinance to their children, as if their salvation entirely depended upon it. That it should not be needlessly delayed we grant: but the command to circumcise the children on the eighth day sufficiently shews, that the children who died under that age, did not perish for the mere want of that ordinance: and Christian parents may be equally assured, that, if their infants die before they have been initiated into the Christian covenant by baptism, the want of that ordinance will not at all affect their eternal welfare. It is the avowed contempt of the ordinance, and not the providential seclusion from it, that makes us objects of God’s displeasure.]

2. How baptized persons ought to live—

[Though this idea has been in part anticipated, it may very properly be repeated in our practical application of the subject. The persons whom we address, have all been devoted to God in their infancy. But have all remembered the obligations which their baptism entailed upon them? Have all experienced “the washing of regeneration, and the renewing of the Holy Ghost [Note: Titus 3:5.] ?” Are all walking worthy of Him into whose sacred name they have been baptized? Are not many at this hour still “uncircumcised in heart and ears?” If we be not conformed to the death and resurrection of Christ, to what purpose are we called Christians? We are told by St. Paul, that “he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God [Note: Romans 2:28-29.].” All this is true in reference to those who have been baptized. Our baptism is, in fact, no baptism [Note: Romans 2:25.], if we be not washed from our “filthmess, both of flesh and spirit.” “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is any thing; but the keeping of the commandments of God [Note: 1 Corinthians 7:19 and Galatians 5:6.].” St. Paul, in holy contempt and indignation, calls the ungodly Jews, “the concision,” as being unworthy of the name by which the more pious among them were designated [Note: Philippians 3:2.]. Let us know then, that even the heathen themselves are in a better state than we, if we “walk not worthy of our high vocation [Note: Ephesians 4:1.]:” and that, if we would be Christians indeed, we must answer to the character given of them by the apostle; we must “worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh [Note: Philippians 3:3.].”]

 


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Bibliography Information
Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Genesis 17:4". Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/shh/genesis-17.html. 1832.

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