If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Galatians chapter 2, verse 1 through 10:
Then after 14 years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also. 2 I went up according to a revelation and presented to them the gospel I preach among the Gentiles—but privately to those recognized as leaders—so that I might not be running, or have run the race, in vain. 3 But not even Titus who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. 4 This issue arose because of false brothers smuggled in, who came in secretly to spy on the freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, in order to enslave us. 5 But we did not give up and submit to these people for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would be preserved for you.
6 Now from those recognized as important (what they really were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism)—they added nothing to me. 7 On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter was for the circumcised, 8 since the One at work in Peter for an apostleship to the circumcised was also at work in me for the Gentiles. 9 When James, Cephas, and John, recognized as pillars, acknowledged the grace that had been given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to me and Barnabas, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. 10 They asked only that we would remember the poor, which I made every effort to do.
Well, today’s sermon is about why you don’t need to get circumcised and it’s perfectly fine to eat bacon. That’s the upside (or downside) of walking straight through each book of the Bible: You end up hitting on everything. No stone goes unturned.
This is the book of Galatians, which means that some of these sermons are going to be revivalistic and, kind of, “in your face” because Paul’s in “aggressive 1850s revivalist”-mode, and some of these sermons are going to be bizarrely technical, because Paul is diving deep into some of the “technical things” that come along with understanding how the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ fundamentally changes not only who we are, but what we are.
Today is one of those sermons. We’re going to get weirdly technical on a few points in today’s sermon and I pray that you’ll bear with me and don’t “space out.” We’ll get back to sermons where I talk a whole lot about being in a terrible metal band and make self-deprecating jokes about how I’m secretly robot programmed to imitate human behavior and that’s why I always seem confused soon enough, but for today we’ve gotta dig in a little bit and get a handle on why Paul is telling us any of the things that he’s telling us in today’s passage.
Today’s passage begins in “crisis mode,” because Paul tells us that “false brothers” were “smuggled in at Jerusalem in order to enslave us.” Those are pretty harsh words. Paul doesn’t say that there was a “misunderstanding” that took place between himself and some other Christians over some minor doctrinal issues, Paul tells us that “false brothers” were “smuggled in” at Jerusalem who attempted to “enslave them.” False brothers. That’s hardcore.
We’ve talked about this before, but there is a universe of difference between a Christian who is wrong about some stuff and a false brother, right? Like, we are not Presbyterian. There’s a reason that we are not Presbyterian. Presbyterians have a considerably different understanding of what baptism is and what baptism does than we have, and they have a very different understanding of who should be baptized than we do, but that doesn’t mean that they’re “false brothers.”
We believe very firmly that they are wrong about baptism, and they believe very firmly that we are wrong about baptism, but only the farthest, fringe-type extreme Baptists or extreme Presbyterians would ever say that the other is composed of “false brothers.” We would say that they are Christians Who Are Wrong About Some Stuff, and they would say the same about us.
But that is not what’s going on here in Paul’s situation. Paul says that these folks are “false brothers,” and he’s so convinced of it that he doesn’t even give them the benefit of the doubt that you would normally give to someone by assuming the best about their intentions. According to Paul, the folks he’s going head-to-head with here in Galatia showed up in Jerusalem a few years back and when they showed up in Jerusalem they were up to no good – they “wanted to enslave us.”
They didn’t want to correct our theology, they wanted to confuse it. It’s very unlikely that they’re up to anything different now.
We don’t know all the details of the situation, but what we do know is that they were showing up at churches throughout Jerusalem, finding newly converted believers, and presenting arguments that seemed persuasive to them while they were still green enough to be fooled. Ever seen something like that play out?
Specifically, verse 3 suggests that the issue that came up had to do with whether or not Gentiles who repented of their sin and threw themselves on the mercy of Jesus needed to be circumcised. So, exciting theme for today’s passage.
That seems kind of silly today. Right? Today, if someone came up to you at a restaurant, handed you a tract that said, “Are You Right With God,” and you opened up the tract and it said, “Many people think they’re right with God, but haven’t been circumcised. Have you been circumcised? If not, you should rethink that.” Like, if someone was trying to proselytize you, and they told you that you needed to be circumcised in order to be saved, you’d probably laugh them off.
But in Paul’s day, not very many decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus, they didn’t have two thousand years’ worth of church history to lean back on, so it would have seemed very much like a legitimate question to most converts. Like, imagine that you’re a Jewish Christian living in Jerusalem back in the day: When Jesus died on the cross and rose up from the grave, you were four years old, your parents converted when you were 14 years old, now you’re 64 years old, or something like that, and never in your life has it occurred to you that someone wouldn’t get circumsized. Right? There’s a disconnect between the way Paul’s audience would’ve heard these things and the way we hear them today.
Like, one time, when I teaching out of Romans, or something, back when I was doing neighborhood ministry, a dude stopped me in mid-sentence and was, “Wait, did you say, ‘circumcised?’” and I was like, “Yes,” and he was, like, “What does, uh . . . ahhhh . . . uhhh . . .” and he couldn’t bring himself to get the sentence out, until finally he was like, “. . . uhhh . . . removing the foreskin from your genitals . . .” and he just kind of froze, and let it hang there, which made things more awkward than if he’d just said it, finally he snapped back out of it, and finished, and he was like, “What does that have to do with the Bible?” And I was like, “Oh, yeah, I should clarify that.”
So if you’re in the pews and you’re wondering, “What on earth does removing your foreskin have to do with the Bible,” lets rewind and get a handle on why this was an issue in the first place.
So, in Genesis chapter 12, we see God calling a man named Abram to leave his native land and go out to a place he’s never been to. God promises to “give him all the land that his eyes can see,” and he says that God will create a people for himself through the bloodline of Abram. He tells Abram that he will bless his people so that we may be a blessing to all the peoples of the Earth. So God creates his people through the bloodline of Abram, and the people that he creates are meant to be, kind of, the tool that God uses to bless all the peoples of the Earth.
That is God creating his Church. That is God creating what, at one time, was the “nation of Israel.”
In Genesis chapter 15, God formalizes his covenant with us through Abram. He reaffirms the promise that he made in Genesis chapter 12, and then tells Abraham to sacrifice some animals to seal their covenant with each other. Now, that sounds kind of strange, but back in that day, when you made a covenant with your neighbor over something, you’d sacrifice the animals and then each person in the covenant would walk between the sacrificed animals, and as you were walking through the sacrificed animals, you would call on everybody present to hold you accountable to your end of the covenant. You would say, “If I don’t keep my covenant with this person, I want you to make me like I made these animals. I want you to slaughter me like I’ve slaughtered these animals if I break my covenant with my neighbor here.”
God and Abraham make a covenant like that. God promises to be faithful to his people, and Abram promises to be obedient to God’s commands. But when the time comes to walk through the slaughtered animals to seal the covenant, Genesis 15 starts to get real weird.
Normally, Abraham would have walked between the sacrificed animals and then God would have walked between them after him, but instead, God puts Abram to sleep so he can’t do anything, and God walks between the sacrificed animals instead of Abram.
That means that God takes on all of Abraham’s obligations. God walks through the sacrificed animals and he vows not only to be faithful to his people, but he also vows to obey the commands that he’ll give them in their place. God walks through the sacrificed animals instead of Abram, which means that he takes on the curse that comes with breaking his commands.
And so as strange is Genesis 15 is, what we’re seeing is God pointing us towards the redemption that he brings us in Jesus Christ. We see God promising to take on our sin in his own flesh to be crucified for our disobedience. We see God vowing to save us by his own good mercy because we cannot save ourselves.
So when you fast forward to Genesis chapter 17, two chapters later, that same God comes to Abram and says, “Abraham, you must be circumcised. Your children must be circumcised. All of the members of your household, no matter how distant and disconnected, must be circumcised as a sign of the covenant that I’ve made with you.”
So that was probably a fun day for Abram, right? Never say the Bible is not exciting. He’s a grown adult man, and he’s gotta make a flint knife and circumcise himself, and then divide up the labor to circumcise everybody else in his household. Because the way God puts it in Genesis 17, he’s not asking. He doesn’t say, “Abraham what do you think about circumcising yourself as a sign of the covenant we’ve made with each other?” What he says is, “Abraham, you must circumcise yourself as a sign of the promises I made to you.”
And so circumcision was a sign of the promise that God has made to us, to save us from our sin and disobedience. Circumcising ourselves might have been unpleasant, but it was a physical symbol of the most pleasant reality imaginable: It was a physical symbol that we were spiritually saved by the mercy of God. And so, in the book of Romans, Paul says that it was a “visible sign” of our promised redemption until the promised redemption could come.
So fast-forward back to Galatians. Paul and Barnabas head toward Jerusalem, and they bring along a Gentile named Titus, he’s one of the men that Paul has been “training up for leadership” in the church – towards the end of the New Testament, there’s a book called Titus, which is a letter that Paul wrote to that same guy.
When they arrive in Jerusalem, the fact that Titus is with them creates a serious problem. Because Titus is a gentile, and as a gentile, he is not circumsized. Now, how they discovered that he isn’t circumcised, I don’t know. I don’t want to know. But let’s just say that over dinner, one of the false brothers who have been smuggled into Jerusalem asked Titus publicly, “So how did your circumcision go, Titus?” Titus might’ve said, “Uh, what, now?”
And they would’ve said, “Since you put your faith in Jesus, you want to be included in the covenant that he made with Abraham, and according to Genesis chapter 17, if you or anyone wants to be included in the Covenant God made with Abraham, you must be circumcised.” So they started a “CIRCUMCISE TITUS” campaign all over social media, or something.
But Paul says that he and Barnabas “refused to give up and submit” to the “false brothers” so that “the truth of the Gospel would be preserved.” They weren’t just trying to save Titus the profound discomfort of getting circumcised as an adult man – although that’s probably also there. The way they see it, the gospel was at stake. If Titus is compelled to be circumcised at the behest of these false teachers, then the gospel has been trampled on. As far as Paul is concerned, this is one of the issues where there is a genuine “dividing line.”
And so, according to verse 6, he claps back against the false brothers by reiterating the gospel that he’s been spreading among the Gentiles.
So Paul would’ve shared something like Ephesians chapter 2 verses 1 through 10, where Paul says that “we were dead in our trespasses and sins,” that we were “children under wrath,” but that “because of his great love for us,” God who is “rich in mercy” made us “alive with Christ,” that we’ve been “saved by grace” through a faith that is “not from ourselves” but a “gift from God” – “not by works,” so that “none of us can boast” about our goodness, but that we were “newly created” in Christ Jesus.
And verse 6 says that the recognized leaders in the churches in Jerusalem had nothing to add when Paul shared this gospel with them.
Paul walked them through something like what we call the “Roman Road”: That Romans chapter 1, verses 20 and 21, God created everything, that we are bound to his purposes for us, but that each of us has rebelled against that created purpose, that all of us have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God, Romans 3:23, but that God takes zero pleasure in punishing us for our sin, that God has zero interest in discarding us and banishing us from his presence; but instead, Romans 5:8, that God demonstrates his love towards us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us;
That Christ didn’t just die to send us some kind of message – he didn’t just die to “show us what his love looks like” – but that he died because “death was our inheritance” – Romans 6:23, that the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our lord. Jesus pays the debt of death that we’d earned through our rebellion; and that, Romans 10:9, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Paul presented something like that to the recognized leaders of the churches in Jerusalem, and they had nothing to add. Because in Christ Jesus, we have the redemption that circumcision was a sign of. We have the redemption that God promised to Abraham in Genesis 15 when he walked through the sacrificed animals instead of him. We have the redemption that Genesis 12 looks forward to when God says that he is creating his people in us, and that we will be a people through whom God blesses the entire world around us.
And if circumcision was a visible sign of the redemption God promised to us back in the days of Abraham, we have no reason to keep branding ourselves with that sign now that the promise has been fulfilled. And so Titus has been “made clean” by Jesus, and when you’ve been “made clean” through the “death and resurrection” of God’s son, you don’t need to be circumcised. When you have received what God promised in the covenant through Jesus Christ there is no reason to become circumcised. It’s unnecessary. But Paul goes further than that and says not only that it’s unnecessary to require people to be circumcised now that Jesus has redeemed us, it’s blasphemous.
Because if Jesus has redeemed us from the Fall, if Jesus has “made us clean again” in a way that the rituals that God gave us in the old Covenant couldn’t and weren’t supposed to, then lapsing back into those rituals and compelling ourselves and others to submit to them isn’t just redundant, it’s heretical. Trying to “clean ourselves up” by “carrying out the works of the law,” like circumcision, like the dietary restrictions in Leviticus – anything – amounts to “rejecting the Gospel of Jesus Christ” and trying to work our way into God’s good graces. But that was never what the Law was meant to do, and since it’s not what it was meant to do, it’s not something the Law can do. You will not justify yourself by carrying out the works of the Law that are listed in the Old Testament. That’s like trying to put a band-aid on cancer.
So listen to me: You will not get into God’s good graces by your works. You can’t “circumcise yourself into God’s good graces,” although I doubt you were trying to. You can follow the rituals in those first five books of the Bible down to the letter, and it will not make you holy, it’ll just make you weird.
It would not un-defile you. It would not make you “fit for the Garden” again. What you need is for the God who rightly banished you from the garden to banish himself in your place on the cross.
What you need is to be “put to death with Jesus” and then “raised up out of the grave” again, as a “new creation,” to quote Ephesians chapter 2, no longer “dead in your trespasses” but instead “made alive with Christ.” That will un-defile you.
That will make you a “citizen of God’s kingdom” again. That will “make you clean,” absolutely nothing else will. What you need is the redemption that was promised to us in Genesis chapter 12, in Genesis chapter 15, in Genesis chapter 17. What you need is to submit to the redemption that God has already poured out onto us in Jesus Christ. You need to submit to the redemption that God promised to us in the Law and has given to us in the Cross.