Circumcision (Genesis 17:9-27)

Let it be said of every one of us when we stand before God that we lived “as God told” us. 

You can’t read the Bible for very long and not come across the topic of circumcision.  It is a most serious issue in the Scriptures

  • God commanded that every male born in Israel be circumcised on the 8th day.  God was so serious about it that He was “on His way” to kill Moses because he was forgetting to circumcise his son (Ex 4:24). 
  • God said that circumcision was not just outward, but inward as well, meaning a heart that was right with God and obeyed Him
  • The Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 was held specifically to settle the matter of whether Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised according to the Law of Moses in order to be saved.  The Apostles and elders of Jerusalem said “No” and rebuked the Pharisees among them.
  • Paul said in Romans 2 that a Jew is not merely someone who is Jewish outwardly, meaning they are a physical descendent of Abraham and are circumcised.  Paul said a true Jew was indeed a circumcised physical descendent of Abraham AND was inwardly circumcised, something done to the heart by the Spirit of God (Rom 2:28-29). 
  • In Galatians and Philippians Paul abandoned a kind “tone” towards legalists who tried to force Christians to obey the Law of Moses and get circumcised.  He said in Galatians 5 he wished the legalists would “go the whole way” with their own cutting and “emasculate” themselves.  He said in Philippians 3 that the “true circumcision” were Christians and that those who were only circumcised in the flesh were “dogs.”  Anyone who is a slave to winsomeness needs to reread Paul’s letters.  

We’re not doing a full report on the Biblical teaching of circumcision.  Rather today we are looking at Genesis 17 to see the origins of circumcision in God’s redemptive plans.  No doubt – circumcision was practiced before Abraham and in other places besides Israel.  But it is a ritual God incorporated into His arrangement with His people as a requirement.  


God gave Abraham promises, then He made a covenant with him in chapter 15, and now He is giving Abraham a “sign” for that covenant.  That sign is circumcision, as verse 11 says, “You are to undergo circumcision and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.”  

Notice the shift in the way God talks in this section.  In verse 4 God said, “As for Me….” and then God went on to describe everything He was going to do for Abraham.  Verses 4-8 are full of God saying “I will” and “I have” and “I will” and so on.  

Then in verse 9 God shifts and says, “As for you…”  Now the focus is on Abraham and God was now going to explain to Abraham what his obligation was in all this. 

 He had one and only one obligation:  circumcision.  Every male in Abraham’s household who was 8 days old and all of Abraham’s descendants after him who were 8 days old were to be circumcised.  It would be an everlasting covenant between God and Abraham and God and Abraham’s descendents.  How serious was God?  Verse 14 says anyone who wasn’t circumcised was to be cut off from his people.  In other words:  cut your flesh or you will be cut off.  How serious was God about circumcision?  Well in Exodus 4:24-26 God was about to kill Moses for not circumcising his son.  

APPLICATION:  The promises of God are motivation to obey God.  Abraham’s obedience to follow circumcision was his acknowledgement of God’s promises to him.  Think about it:  Abaham did not negotiate with God.  He did not say, “I’ll tell you what God, I’m willing to do the whole cutting off my flesh thing once I see a baby in Sarah’s arms.”  That’s not what he did.  He got circumcised before Sarah was pregnant.  That is an act of faith.

Circumcision was a sign of faith.  A sign points to something.  They are meant to direct your attention to something beyond themselves. The miracles Moses did for the Jews were signs.  The miracles of the Prophets were signs to Israel.  The miracles of Jesus were signs.  The miracles of the Apostles were signs.  Abraham was given a sign:  the sign of circumcision.  Circumcision was a reminder to Abraham of God’s covenant with him.  It was a mark in his flesh to show that he was the one God chose to make a covenant with and to bless him.  

QUESTION:  Why circumcision?  Why is this specifically required?  There is no answer in Scripture explaining it directly but we can infer some things.  

  • First, the very part of the body that was being cut was also the part of the body that the many descendents would come from.  God’s promises to Abraham – many descendants, many nations, many kings, etc – would all come through that part of his body.

But then I ask “Why does cutting of that part of the body have to happen?  That is invasive, painful, and messy.  Why that?!”  

I think the answer lies in the fact that circumcision was far more than just something done in the flesh.  “Circumcise your hearts” God said in Deuteronomy 10:16.  Or in Jeremiah 4:4 He warned, “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, circumcise your hearts…”  In Jeremiah 9:26 same thing

God was introducing circumcision here, but circumcision in the Bible has far larger meaning than just cutting some flesh off.  “A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly,” Romans 2:28 says, “nor is circumcision merely outward and physical.”   In reading through the rest of the Bible you learn there is a spiritual circumcision.  Physical circumcision was introduced first, but it really seems to be so that a spiritual circumcision could be understood when God taught it later on.  

Think for instance of the concept of being “born again.”  Nicodemus was confused when Jesus said his in John 3, “Hey Jesus, how am I supposed to go back and fit into my mother’s womb to be born again now that I’m a grown man?”  You don’t get it Nicodemus:  Jesus was teaching a spiritual birth likening it to a physical birth.  Physical birth was analogous to spiritual birth.  

In the same way, physical circumcision is analogous to spiritual circumcision.  Something is being “cut off” or “cut away.” 

  • In Deuteronomy 10:16 God tells Israel, “Circumcise your hearts therefore and do not be stiff-necked any longer.”  “Cut out” all that “stiff-necked” behavior.  I wonder if this is where we get our phrase:  “Hey, cut it out!” when we want someone to stop something.
  • God complained in Jeremiah 9:26, “even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.” 
  • Stephen the first Church martyr in his epic sermon declared to the Jewish leaders, “You stiff-necked people!  Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised!” (Acts 7:51)

All these are a different type of circumcision – a spiritual circumcision.  Notice too that it is a circumcision that God expects people to do themselves:  remove their rebellious and stubborn hearts and turn humbly to the Lord in obedience.  That is what it means to circumcise your heart.  

But that’s not all.  In the NT we see another circumcision, one done by God:  

  • Romans 2:29 says regarding ethnic Jews who are Christians, “A person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, BY THE SPIRIT.”
  • Colossians 2:11 says about Christians in general, “In Christ you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands.  Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised BY CHRIST.”  This is in reference to your sinful nature.    

Circumcision – spiritually speaking – relates to sin and guilt.  Think of how our “guilt” has been “cut away” from us too now that we are Christians.  We were guilty for sin and God saw us as guilty, but now God has circumcised us in his sight and removed that guilt from us.  This is what Galatians 6:15 asserts, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation.”  And this was Paul’s boast in Philippians 3:3 when he said, “Watch out for those dogs, those mutilators of the flesh, for it is we who are the circumcision.”  Meaning we who have been spiritually circumcised by the Holy Spirit in that our guilt is removed.


Here I want us to see how God doesn’t budge on his plans and restates again that his covenant will pass to Isaac, not Ishmael.  Ishmael at this point is 13 years old, Sarah is 89 and Abraham is 99.  

It starts with God changing Sarai’s name to Sarah.  Her name means “princess” or “noblewoman.”   He changes her name because the promise He made to Abraham is a promise He’s making to her as well:  numerous nations and numerous kings will come from her body.  She who is barren will be bountiful.    

Then Abraham laughs in disbelief and says, “Lord this is too much to believe, just go ahead and bless Ishmael with this covenant.”  God says “No” and reiterates that the son he has with Sarah is the covenant son.  But God promises to bless Ishmael in response to Abraham’s request.  

QUESTION:  Is Abraham’s response one of unbelief?  Is he doubting God’s ability or willingness to come through?  Is he “wavering” in his faith?  I would say No.  I would say he is stunned by the promise, not skeptical.  There are those who arrogantly laugh at God’s words out of scoffing sinful unbelief.  

This isn’t Abraham.  You can see him down on his face, shaking his head laughing more out of amazement than doubt.  It was such a ‘long shot’ and the ‘odds’ were stacked so much against him.  It was like David going up against Goliath, the Israelites  Its like God just said something that is so fantastic, so unnatural – supernatural actually – that he couldn’t get his head wrapped around it.  

APPLICATION:  Do you know the strength of your God or not?  Its not a matter of “IF” God CAN, it is a matter if “IF” God WILL!  Do we believe he is able to do far more than anything we could ask or imagine (Eph 3:20)?   Believe God is able! 

But here we get to the two sons of Abraham:  Isaac and Ishmael.  Which of these two sons is God’s covenant going to pass to?  Which of these two sons is going to inherit the covenant God made with Abraham?  Ishmael or Isaac?  Ishmael is 13 years old in this passage and Isaac isn’t even born yet – he will be born in a year.  Ishmael is Abraham’s son through Hagar, Sarah’s servant.  Isaac will be Abraham’s son born to Sarah.  God speaks specifically to the destinies of both sons. 

First, God says it is not Ishmael who will be the covenant son, but a son yet to be born.  That son’s name is chosen by God:  Isaac.  Isaac means “he laughs,” which wasn’t because Isaac was going to be a jovial sort of boy.  God chose that name because Abraham laughed when God said he would have a son with Sarah at 100 years old.  I guess it was a permanent reminder to Abraham, “Hey remember when you laughed when I told you I was going to do something awesome for you?”  That son, Isaac is the covenant son.  God confirmed this to Isaac in Genesis 26:2-4….turn there with me….

Then regarding Ishmael, while he will not be the covenant son, God promises to bless him.  God promises to make him into a great nation where 12 rulers will come from him.  God does this because of Abraham:  he is Abraham’s son, and because Abraham asked God to bless Ishmael.  

God seems to enjoy blessing those who are around Abraham.  He blesses Hagar, He blesses Ishmael, He blesses Lot.  Later in Deuteronomy 2 God reminded the Israelites about their 40 years of wanderings and how he gave them victory in battle over several nations in the wilderness – Sihon and Og.  But, God reminded them that He did not allow them to step foot on any property belonging to the Edomites, the Moabites or the Ammonites.  He warned them to leave them alone.  Who are these 3 nations?  The Edomites are the descendents of Abraham’s grandson Esau (Jacob’s brother); the Ammonites and Moabites are the descendents of Lot’s two sons – Lot is the beloved nephew of Abraham.  So you see God is blessing Abraham by blessing those around him.   

Did you see what God did here?  Abraham, stunned with amazement at the thought of having a son with Sarah at 100 years old, shakes his head and says, “No, this is too fantastic, LORD, lets just go ahead with Ishmael, let your blessing be on him.”  And God doesn’t rebuke him.  God says, “Sure, I’ll bless him.  But he won’t be the covenant son.”  Abraham asked God to let Ishmael be the covenant son, God said “No,” but God still blessed Ishmael based on Abraham’s request, even though Abraham’s request was not really from faith.  

APPLICATION:  Do you know that God blesses those around you?  I think this principle is seen throughout Scripture:  God doesn’t only bless those who belong to Him, but, He blesses those around those who belong to Him.  Laban was blessed by God because of Jacob (30:30).  Potiphar was blessed by God because of Joseph (30:5).  

I think this principle is seen in some way in the NT too:  people around believers are blessed.  For instance when a Christian spouse was married to an unbeliever it says “For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband.”  God blesses the spouses of believers and the children of believers.

APPLICATION:  Is God blessing your home because of you even if you are married to an unbeliever?  Is God blessing the company you work for because you are there?  Is God blessing your neighbors because you live there?  

There is a need for obedience for this to happen.  Abraham obeyed God and walked by faith.  Jacob believed God, Joseph was a man of impeccable integrity, the believing spouse stayed married to the unbelieving spouse and lived a godly life.  Obedience to God will bring blessing to those around you.  

Which leads to the final point…


The key phrase is in verse 23, “…as God told him…”  Let it be said of every one of us when we stand before God that we lived “as God told” us.  This is why Abraham is so revered:  He lived his life as God told him to.  What God said, Abraham obeyed.

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