It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be on no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. . . . For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love (Gal. 5:1–6).
One part of the Abrahamic covenant that most dispensationalists seem to pass over is the everlasting nature of the covenant of circumcision. Like the guarantee of national existence and the land promises which are said to be everlasting covenants, the covenant of circumcision is also said to be “everlasting” (Gen. 17:13). J. Dwight Pentecost tries to separate circumcision from the other covenant promises by claiming that “the ultimate fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant and possession of the land by the seed is not hinged, however, on faithfulness in the matter of circumcision. In fact, the promises of the land were given before the rite was introduced.” ((J. Dwight Pentecost, Thy Kingdom Come: Tracing God’s Kingdom Program and Covenant Promises Throughout History (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1990), 61.)) This is irrelevant since circumcision, like the covenant in general, is said to be everlasting: “But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant” (Gen. 17:14).
There is nothing in the Abrahamic covenant that suggests a spiritual fulfillment for circumcision, and yet that’s exactly how the Bible transfers this physical observance into a spiritual redemptive reality (Lev. 26:41; Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 6:10). Stephen confirms the way circumcision is to be understood in a New Covenant redemptive context: “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as our fathers did” (Acts 7:51).
The same wording that’s used to describe the eternality of the covenant in general is used for physical circumcision in particular: “And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you” (Gen. 17:7; cf. v. 19). Lewis Sperry Chafer states that “the Abrahamic Covenant, unlike the Mosaic Covenant which followed, was declared to be an everlasting covenant and will continue to be observed in time and eternity (vv. 7, 13, 19; 1 Chron. 16:16–17; Ps. 105:10).” ((Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, John F. Walvoord, ed., 2 vols. abridged ed. (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1988), 2:213.)) Notice Chafer’s words: “in time and eternity.”
The note on Genesis 17:9–14 in the dispensational-oriented Believer’s Study Bible, edited by the late W. A. Criswell, avoids the problem of physical circumcision’s permanence but does allude to circumcision of the heart by referencing Old and New Testament passages (Deut. 10:16; Jer. 4:4; Rom. 2:26; Col. 2:11–12). ((W. A. Criswell, ed., The Believer’s Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 31.)) Ryrie comments in the study Bible that carries his name that “For a Hebrew to refuse circumcision was to excise himself from the covenant community, Gen. 17:14.” ((Charles Caldwell Ryrie, The Ryrie Study Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1978), 31.)) Is this forever? Do the New Testament writers insist on physical circumcision for children of Jewish believers? Ryrie does not say.
Because the covenant of circumcision is said to be everlasting, this means that Jews born during the millennium must be circumcised because any “uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant” (Gen. 17:14). The literal interpretation of Bible prophecy and the everlasting nature of the Abrahamic covenant as proclaimed by dispensationalists demand the perpetual validity and practice of physical circumcision. Given that the land covenant is everlasting and still requires a future fulfillment, the everlasting nature of the covenant of circumcision must also require a future fulfillment if we follow dispensational interpretive assumptions.
The comment on Genesis 17:8 in the dispensational oriented Nelson Study Bible addresses the people and land aspects of the everlasting covenant but says nothing about circumcision:
The promise clearly included the Israelite people and the land (Canaan). The two are linked in the language of the covenant in ch. 15. Even though God removed Israel more than once from the land, He promised them ultimate possession of Canaan. It is an everlasting possession. The same word used of God’s covenant (v. 7) is used of the land. ((Earl D. Radmacher, gen. ed., The Nelson Study Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997), 36.))
The Old Testament note on Genesis 17:14, overseen by Old Testament editor Ronald B. Allen, professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, suggests that circumcision changes from a required physical procedure to an internal spiritual transformation when we reach the New Covenant: “Circumcision—an outward sign—stood for a thorough commitment to God—an inward reality. Hence the apostle Paul demands that the heart be circumcised to God (Rom. 2:25–29).” Dispensationalists have avoided this type of physical to spiritual transference when it comes to Israel and the land promises. Is it possible that circumcision is the key to understanding how the Abrahamic covenant can be unconditional, everlasting, and literal but not eternally physical?
In preparing this article, I wanted to be sure about the dispensational understanding of the everlasting covenant of circumcision, so I checked all the standard dispensational books I have in my library. It was difficult to find anyone who addressed the subject. So as not to misrepresent dispensationalism, I contacted dispensational scholars and asked the following question: “Since the physical land promise is an everlasting covenant, why isn’t the same true for the covenant of physical circumcision since both are said to be ‘everlasting’” (Gen 17:8, 13)? Paul Benware argues that since some of the Abrahamic covenant promises already have been fulfilled in a literal way then “all the promises will have a literal fulfillment.” ((Paul N. Benware, Understanding End Times Prophecy: A Comprehensive Approach, rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody Publishes, 2007), 34.)) If this is true, then physical circumcision is an everlasting rite. In response to my question, I received the following answer from H. Wayne House, a former Dallas Theological Seminary professor, the only one to respond:
I haven’t really thought about the issue of circumcision before in the light you have constructed your question, but my initial response is that it is part of the everlasting covenant. The thing is after the millennial period and the fact that there will be no new children born, there would be no more need to have the practice for new boys born. Those Jews already circumcised will not need to be circumcised but will not lose their circumcision in their resurrected bodies.
I was surprised that he had never thought of the circumcision question since it is part of the everlasting covenant that dispensationalists use to make their case that there is a covenantal distinction between Israel and the church. In a second email, I asked if circumcision would be reinstituted during the millennium since it’s during this time that the land promises are finally fulfilled given dispensational presuppositions:
Again, this is preliminary thinking on this topic for me, but I guess I would say yes to your question. I am not sure what issues of consistency, and what implications come from this view.
The implications are dramatic, and if followed consistently would overturn the New Testament teaching which states, “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God” (Rom. 2:28–29). For the dispensationalist, a covenantal Jew is someone who must be marked outwardly in the flesh given the demands of the Abrahamic covenant.
Not only does dispensationalism require circumcision for Jews during the millennium but for Gentiles who want to enter the supposed fourth ((1. Solomon’s temple. 2. Post-exile temple. 3. Rebuilt temple during the seven-year tribulation period. 4. Millennial temple.)) physical temple (Ezek. 40–46). In Tim LaHaye’s Prophecy Study Bible we read what dispensationalists claim will take place during the thousand-year period of Revelation 20: “No foreigner who is uncircumcised in heart and flesh may enter [the temple], neither will any descendants of the Levites conduct services, other than the godly descendants of Zadok.” ((Tim LaHaye, gen. ed., LaHaye Prophecy Study Bible (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2000), 886, comments on Ezekiel 44:5–15.)) Circumcision of the heart was an Old Covenant requirement (Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4). While circumcision of the heart is still required under the New Covenant (Rom. 2:28–29), physical circumcision is not. Those in Christ are the “true circumcision” (Phil 3:2–3), none of whom were physically circumcised (Acts 16:1–5: The exception that proves the rule.))
In addition to the reinstitution of circumcision, dispensationalism requires that animal sacrifices for atonement must also be reinstituted. John C. Whitcomb, in his article on “The Millennial Temple” in LaHaye’s Prophecy Study Bible, writes that “five different offerings in Ezekiel (43:13–46:15), four of them with bloodletting, will serve God’s purposes. These offerings are not voluntary but obligatory; God will ‘accept’ people on the basis of these animal sacrifices (43:27), which make reconciliation [atonement] for the house of Israel (45:17, cf. 45:15).” ((John C. Whitcomb, “The Millennial Temple, Prophecy Study Bible, 883.))
Whitcomb attempts to mollify the problems associated with this unbiblical view by claiming that “the offerings will not take away sin (see Heb. 10:4), but they will be effective in sanctifying Israelites ceremonially because of His infinitely holy presence in their midst.” ((Whitcomb, “The Millennial Temple,” 883.))
In the original Scofield Reference Bible (1909), a note on the nature of these blood sacrifices described in Ezekiel seeks to obscure the problem related to blood sacrifices during the thousand years of Revelation 20 by claiming that “these offerings will be memorial, looking back to the cross, as the offerings under the old covenant were anticipatory, looking forward to the cross.” I wonder why the Judaizers didn’t think of this argument.
A note in the New Scofield Reference Bible (1967) acknowledges that “a problem is posed” by the atoning nature of these sacrifices “since the N.T. clearly teaches that animal sacrifices do not in themselves cleanse away sin (Heb. 10:4) and that the one sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ that was made at Calvary completely provides for such expiation (cp. Heb. 9:12, 26, 28; 10:10, 14).” How do the editors solve the problem given their literal hermeneutic?: First by suggesting that the blood sacrifices “will be memorial in character,” ((Charles Feinberg follows the memorial approach when it comes to explaining why there will be animal sacrifices during the millennium. “The Church has had for some 1900 years a memorial of that sacrifice of Christ in the Lord’s Supper; Israel as such has had none. [Animal sacrifices] will be that memorial for them primarily.” Jesus stated that “this cup [filled with wine] is the new covenant in My blood” (Luke 22:20; cf. 1 Cor. 11:25). Remembrance of Jesus’ shed blood is done through wine not the blood of animals. Since Jesus will be physically present, won’t the nail marks in His hands and feet and the spear mark in His side be enough to remind us of His redemptive ordeal? By the way, the Lord’s Supper was inaugurated with Jews. Feinberg reasons this way to justify blood sacrifices during the millennium: “[I]f no sacrifices are needed where Christ is present, why were they permitted of God all through the earthly ministry of Christ?” The simple and obvious reason is that Jesus had not yet shed His blood. Feinberg hopes to defend his view by asking this question: “And, thirdly, greater wonder still, why, after He had assuredly perfected our salvation forever on the cross, did God allow those sacrifices to go on until 70 A.D. when the temple was destroyed?” The fact that God called for the destruction of the temple in AD 70 is clear testimony that Feinberg’s arguments are inadequate. (Charles L. Feinberg, Premillennialism or Amillennialism?: The Premillennial and Amillennial Systems of Biblical Interpretation Analyzed and Compared, 2nd ed. [Wheaton, IL: Van Kampen Press, 1954], 336–337).)) and second, “the references to sacrifices is not to be taken literally.” Ryrie takes a similar position: “If the great festivals of Passover and Tabernacles are to be observed during the Millennium, there is no reason why sacrifices would not also be offered. Then, of course, they will be memorials of the finished sacrifice of Christ.” ((Ryrie, Ryrie Study Bible, 1299. Note that Ezekiel doesn’t say anything about a “millennium.” The only place in the Bible where a “thousand years” is used to describe the reign of Christ is in Revelation 20. You will notice, however, that Revelation 20 does not say that Jesus reigns on the earth, a temple will be built, and animals will be sacrificed.)) Where Jesus says, “It is finished” (John 19:30), dispensationalists claim that bloodletting and blood sacrifices will continue for a future thousand years with the slain, resurrected, and glorified Jesus sitting on David’s throne from Jerusalem. With His nail prints and sliced side in plain view, the people will still be sacrificing animals!
Ezekiel does not say that these sacrifices “will be memorials.” The Bible clearly states that they are for “for atonement” (Ezek. 45:17, 20). This means that Ezekiel’s visionary temple was either part of the Old Covenant renewal of the sacrificial system that arose during the post-exile restoration period or the fulfillment came by way of the once-for-all redemptive work of Jesus (Luke 24:25–27, 44–45). Jesus is the fulfillment of the temple writ large.
If the sacrifices are “memorial in character,” as Scofield and Ryrie claim, or are “not to be taken literally,” which Whitcomb contends, then such conclusions violate dispensationalism’s insistence that since “fulfilled promises have been fulfilled in a literal way,” then “that leads to the conclusion that all the promises will have a literal fulfillment.” ((Benware, Understanding End Times Prophecy, 34.))
This is an impossible interpretation for at least four reasons. First, these sacrifices are said to be “for atonement” (reconciliation) (Ezek. 45:15, 17) not, as Whitcomb claims, “as effective vehicles of divine instruction for Israel and the nations during the Millennial Kingdom.” ((Whitcomb, “The Millennial Temple,” 883.)) Second, Jesus is the once for all sacrifice whose blood cleanses us from sin (Heb. 7:26–27; 8:13; 9:11–15; 10:5–22; 1 Peter 3:18). Third, sanctification comes by “the washing of water with the word” (Eph. 5:26) not by the washing of blood from animal sacrifices. Fourth, Revelation 20 does not say anything about animal sacrifices. There is no mention of a physical temple. Nothing is said about Jesus reigning on the earth during the thousand years.
What about these passages?
- Isaiah 56:7: Describes events post-exile when the temple was rebuilt.
- Isaiah 66:20–23: Describes events post-exile when the temple was rebuilt.
- Jeremiah 33:18: Jesus is the true David. He is prophet, priest, and king. See the book of Hebrews.
- Zechariah 14:16–21: The Feast of Booths was fulfilled by Jesus. At Pentecost, there were Jews living in Jerusalem “from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). Notice the list of nations (2:9–11). See Luke 24:27, 44. Are we really to expect that the nations of the world—eight billion people—will go up to Jerusalem to live in booths “from year to year”? Is this what God is saying through Zechariah? Jesus became the incarnational tabernacle (John 1:14) that the people were to gather around. The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on the first day of the seven-day feast riding on a donkey (Zech. 9:9) confirms that the Feast of Booths had been fulfilled (John 12:13; Mark 11:10). The people took palm branches, which were used to cover their tabernacles (booths, tents) and waived them at Jesus. At the time the people, including Jesus’ disciples, did not understand the fulfillment sequence that He was fulfilling (John 12:16). Jesus explains to the Samaritan woman that physical Israel would not be the place where true worship would take place.
- Malachi 3:3–4: Once again, this was fulfilled in the redemptive work of Jesus. See Malachi 3:1, a reference to John the Baptizer that establishes the context, not an event in the distant future: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?,” John asks. (Matt. 3:7; 1 Thess. 1:13–16) Jesus was the refiner’s fire. Those who trusted in Jesus (including priests) were refined like silver (Acts 6:7), and those that were not were judged when the temple was destroyed in AD 70 that included the Levitical priesthood that continued to offer animal sacrifices in direct opposition to “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” and any records that could identify a Levite today.