Word, Spirit, Gospel and Mission (Part 3)

From the perspective of the early Christians at the Jerusalem Council, it is understandable that many of them would think that Gentiles should be circumcised before being admitted to the Church. If we erase from our Bibles everything after Acts chapter 14, the scriptural case for circumcision becomes very strong. Here are some arguments in favor of circumcision.

First, circumcision of males was the definitive sign of being counted among God’s people. Hebrews who refused to be circumcised were no longer Hebrew (Gen 17:4). And throughout the Old Testament, the term “uncircumcised” is used as a synonym for ungodly (see, for example, 1Sa 17:16). Uncircumcised men could not enter the temple, nor could they eat the Passover (Ex 12:48). The Passover depicts salvation and deliverance. The fact that the Passover lamb – a powerful symbol of the crucified Jesus – could not be eaten by uncircumcised men suggests that circumcision may still be applicable under the New Covenant.

Now some of you might be saying, “Circumcision is just a ceremony and an outward symbol; what God really wants is for people to circumcise their hearts.” Yes, that is true; the physical sign of circumcision should point to an inner reality. But the fact that circumcision has a deeper meaning does not mean that the physical sign should be abandoned. (The fact that baptism and the Lord’s Supper have deeper meaning does not mean that they are useless or unnecessary. On the contrary, it is precisely because these signs are deeply meaningful that Christians have practiced them from the beginning.) Although the Old Testament repeatedly mentions circumcision of the heart, the physical sign is still always present. For example, in Ezekiel 44:9, God commands, “No foreigner uncircumcised in heart and flesh is to enter my sanctuary.”

Others may say, “Christians are not bound by the law, because Jesus has fulfilled the law.” Perhaps. But let’s put aside the writings of Paul, because his letters had not yet been written at the time of the Jerusalem Council. (Galatians could have been written about that time. But even if it was, it would not yet have been accepted as authoritative, because the purpose of that Council was to decide whether Paul’s view of circumcision was correct.) What did Jesus say? Did Jesus overturn the law? In Matthew 5:17, he said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Does the fact that we live under a gospel of grace mean that we should ignore the law? Many Christians would say that we are bound to keep the Ten Commandments. The context of Matthew 5:17 is the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus actually strengthens the requirements of the law, holding Christians to an even higher standard.

In certain cases, Jesus did overturn laws. He nullified the dietary laws, declaring that all foods are clean (Mk 7:19). He modified our understanding of the Sabbath by declaring, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27-28). But he didn’t say anything against circumcision. Even if we claim that Jesus overturned the whole law of Moses, that would still not settle the matter, because circumcision predates Moses by about 500 years.

And we cannot ignore the most obvious piece of evidence: Jesus was circumcised! His parents circumcised him in accordance with the law (Lk 2:21). If Jesus submitted himself to this requirement, shouldn’t his disciples follow his example?

The stance that some Christians adopt toward the Bible is reflected in the saying: “God says it, I believe it, that settles it!” They think it is best to approach the Bible without thinking too hard, without getting too complicated or too intellectual. If we read the text plainly and literally, just as it is, then shouldn’t the meaning and implications be obvious? If only it were that simple! The Bible is the inspired word of God, and it has an amazing capacity to speak to people of all ages and backgrounds. One does not need a Ph.D. in theology to receive understanding from the Bible and be transformed by it. But there is a flipside to that reality. If one does happen to have formal education, a background in theology, or a long history of personal experience and interaction with the Bible, then a plain, simple, uncomplicated reading of Scripture may not settle the matter at all; it may only raise deeper questions that should not be ignored, because they are the very questions that the Holy Spirit wants us to consider. The simple understanding that inspires and empowers early in our spiritual journey may be woefully inadequate later in life. That principle applies both to individuals and to communities. It is the very reason why we have to keep going back to the Bible, not just to reinforce what we already have learned, but to question it, to refresh and deepen our understanding and wrestle with the fundamental issues of faith.

Fortunately for us, the matter of circumcision was decided in Acts chapter 15 and was thoroughly explained by the apostle Paul, and those writings are now part of the Scripture record. At the Jerusalem Council, the widespread understanding of the Bible was overturned by the witness of the Spirit. The Apostle Peter stood up and recalled how, several years earlier, the Holy Spirit led him to Cornelius, a God-fearing uncircumcised Gentile. Against all of his Jewish sensibilities, he entered the home of Cornelius and explained the gospel. The Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and his household, and they began to speak in tongues. Peter ordered that they be baptized, and Peter stayed with them for several days, eating Gentile food which was decidedly unclean (Acts 10:1-48). Peter’s mind was changed when he saw the undeniable work of the Holy Spirit among the uncircumcised. When Peter finished speaking, Paul and Barnabas told of “signs and wonders,” further evidence of the working of the Spirit among the uncircumcised (Acts 15:12). The decision was sealed when James, the brother of Jesus and highly respected leader of the church in Jerusalem, lent his support, drawing upon the prophetic words of Amos 9:11-12.

The Jerusalem Council is the high-water mark, the theological crescendo of the book of Acts. If the apostles’ decision had gone the opposite way, Christianity would never have broken out of the Jewish mold; it would have remained a sect of Judaism and could not have spread across the globe.

In a comment on Part 2 of this series, Henoch wondered if these situations still arise today. We now have the writings of Paul and the other apostles; the New Testament is complete, and the canon of Scripture is closed. Given what we now see in the whole Bible, is it still possible for the witness of the Holy Spirit to overturn the prevailing understanding of what Scripture means?

The answer to this clearly yes. The creative ministry of the Holy Spirit continues to breathe fresh understanding into the Church, sometimes contradicting the assumptions of the past. A great example of this is human slavery. For eighteen centuries, Christians persisted in believing that slavery was acceptable, or at least allowable. A plain reading of Scripture can easily support that view. Through the prophetic witness of William Wilberforce (1759-1833) and many others, the church finally came to believe that slavery is fundamentally incompatible with the gospel of Christ and the God-given dignity of human beings.

I am not arguing that we should throw away our Bibles and assume that whatever pops into our heads, or whatever seems to be happening in the church today, is a movement of the Holy Spirit. That is not what I mean, not by a long shot. We should never throw away our Bibles. What we should throw away is the notion that understanding and interpreting the Bible is easy. What we desperately need today is deeper, more thoughtful Bible study combined with greater sensitivity to the witness of the Spirit. We need this not merely as individuals, but as a community. Scripture was given to the Church as a whole, and the Holy Spirit was given to the Church as a whole. Interpreting the Bible and discerning the work of the Spirit are tasks to be undertaken by the Christian community. And that Christian community is not static. It expands and changes over time as the kingdom of God grows and spreads.

Which brings me to my next point. The early Christians would never have had to deal with circumcision if Paul and Barnabas had not obeyed the calling of the Holy Spirit to carry the gospel to the nations. It was not until the Church engaged in cross-cultural witness that it had to consider these fundamental issues of how the gospel relates to law. If Christians remain in isolated in sectarian, monocultural ghettos, they are easily lulled into thinking that they already know everything, and that their present understanding of the Bible is ultimate truth. But when they leave their ghettos and get out in the world – when they enter into relationships with sincere believers who look, act, speak and behave very differently from them – then the work of the Holy Spirit that they encounter begins to challenge their assumptions and their theology. When they encounter converts whose doctrines seem questionable, and whose lifestyles appear to be worldly, compromised, unholy, and wrong, and yet see that these people really love Jesus, the encounter can be deeply unsettling. It may lead to a Wall, a crisis of faith. But out of that crisis something beautiful can grow.

It is at the treacherous three-way intersection of hermeneutics, pneumatology and missiology — Word, Spirit and Mission — that the gospel really comes alive. This is where we begin to see how outrageous and scandalous are the teachings of Jesus, and how shocking are the implications of the gospel, both for the unconverted world and for the Church. This is why I think it is exciting to be in UBF today. The problems and tensions that we are experiencing should, in light of Acts chapter 15, be a prelude to exciting developments in our ministry and in the greater Body of Christ. But to allow those developments to come, we will need to carefully watch and listen to the witness of the Spirit. We must be openminded enough to see how the Spirit is working among young converts and disciples, the next generation whose experiences and perspectives are very different from the first.

In case you are wondering, I am not just making this stuff up in my head. This series of articles on Word, Spirit, Gospel and Mission is loosely based the insights of the missiologist Lesslie Newbigin, especially those in his book The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission.

In the next installments of this series, we will travel (virtually, of course) to India and to Africa and see what the triumphs and mistakes of western missionaries reveals about the nature of the gospel. Stay tuned…


  1. david bychkov

    not sure if it is not offtopic, but this reading first time made feel that   my activity in this site is not just   something fun, but   it coould be the part of God plan and mission for me.

  2. Hi Joe, thank you for the wonderful series of blogs. This is very relevant topic to our ministry and the church in general.”Again and again it had to be said that election is for responsibility, not for privilege” (Open Secret: Lesslie Newbigin) As you said in your blog, it must have been extremely difficult for the Jewish Christians not to undergo circumcision since this came from none other than God himself through Abraham. But to Paul faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection is non-negotiable/essential. Many other things can be non-essential. Jews were given much privilege as God’s chosen people with purpose; that is to bring the gospel to the end of the world. Privileges were not given just to enjoy them and to be proud. Laws are holy and good and necessary. But it has limitation. From a clinician’s point of view, law is good in diagnostic, but it has severe limitation in treatment/cure. God’s promise was given so that we can accept his amazing grace by faith. When we break the law, we fall into self-condemnation because this points to what I have done for God. When we successfully keep many kinds of laws and rules, we become proud with same reason. On the other hand, when we fail to hold on God’s grace, we can repent and think about what God has done for us again and again. This points to Jesus and makes us humble before God. Jesus summed up Ten Commandments into “Love God with all your heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself”. This is extremely high standard if you think about these commandments honestly. I admit I fail to love my neighbor as myself everyday. But I do not condemn myself. When I fail, the grace of Jesus becomes greater. I come to Jesus again and again. I am so thankful to his abundant grace.

    • Hi Dr. James,

      Thanks for being perhaps the only Elder who reads and comments on UBFriends.org. Joe’s next article (part 4) speaks about Newbigin’s observation and comments  of the 2 different ways Westerners have evangelized India, which perhaps is quite pertinent to how our UBF missionaries have evangelized 80 nations so far.

      When you get a chance to read it, see if you might consider my proposal to being the gracious older Korean missionary to promote an honest open transparent  (HOT) dialogue between missionaries and indigenous people, perhaps starting in the U.S.: http://www.ubfriends.org/2011/02/word-spirit-gospel-and-mission-part-4/comment-page-1/#comment-2677

  3. Joshua Yoon

    The open dialogue and serious discussion at Jerusalem Council was initiated by the apostle and elders in reponse to the traditional Jewish believers’ insisting on the manadate of circumcision for the Gentiles. Their courage to talk about the elephant in the room is praiseworthy. It was the first step of their obedience to the work of the Holy Spirit. Thankfully we have this web space where we talk about what is on our mind. This is a new work of the Holy  Spirit. Hopefully we will be able to have an open dialogue  face to face as well and obey the Spirit collectively as members of the body of Christ.

  4. Yes, Joshua, UBFriends.org is perhaps like “the wind blowing wherever it pleases” (John 3:8).
    Perhaps, some bold soul may courageously take the initiative to suggest removal of the label on this website that says, “UBFriends was launched by people who happen to be members of UBF but it is not an official activity of the UBF organization.” “Not an official activity” implies that UBF does not endorse or agree or support what members of UBF comment on here. Is there anything we are doing or saying on this website that is unbiblical or dishonoring to God? Incidentally, this suggestion is not from the admin.

    • Perhaps someday a forum of this type will be officially supported by the organization. That would be nice. A few years ago I was working on such an official effort. No one in ubf opposed it. However, because it had never been tried before, no one was sure how it would work out, what kind of oversight would be required, etc. As UBFriends continues to grow and mature and bear fruit, I  imagine it could be supported someday. But the same disclaimers would have to apply: that views expressed on UBFriends belong to the individuals who make them.

    • Joshua Yoon

      Ben, you raised a good question about “the characteristics of UBFriends.” If our exchange of communication through this virtual meetin place is an unofficial activity of UBF organization, then what are official activities of UBF? There can be much more than conference reports, annual reports, marriage and birth annoucements. People have hunger and thirst for dialogue, genuine friendship, close relationship. Some articles have over 1100 views in a few months. Whether this virtual meeting place is official or unofficial, people question, think and write about issues and matters not usually  touched elsewhere. I trust that the Holy Spirit who began his good work through this place  will continue  it and bear  good fruit.