Ephesians 2:11-22, The “Circumcision” and the “Uncircumcision”

Check out the introduction to this series here. For more exegetical treatments, follow this page.

“Therefore…” in verse eleven points the reader to Paul’s message immediately prior in the text. Paul sets the scene for Ephesians 2:11-22 in the first ten verses of the same chapter. After expounding on the unity believers have in Christ in chapter one, he reminds the Gentiles that they were once dead in their trespasses and sins (vs. 1) in accordance with the world and its ruler (vs. 2). From there, he demonstrates how all men, Jews and Gentiles, participated in the same damnable life of sin and rebellion incurring the wrath of the Lord upon themselves (vs. 3). However, due to God’s great love (vs. 4) and Christ’s subsequent death on the cross, those who believe are made alive with Christ (vs. 5), raised up with Him, and seated with Him in heavenly places (vs. 6), so that He might show His all surpassing grace through those who are in Him (vs. 7). This grace is all of God, not of man (vs. 8), or of the works of man, lest any would boast (vs. 9). Rather, the Christian is the workmanship of Christ, created for good works that have been predestined for them (vs. 10). In remembrance of their former state: that they were once dead in their trespasses and sins and that they were saved solely by the work of Christ, Paul’s Gentile readers have a context for what they are about to read.

The “Circumcision” and the “Uncircumcision”

In verse eleven, Paul sheds light on an issue that was becoming all too common in the early church. A situation had arisen in which the Jews and Gentiles found themselves at odds with one another. The enmity was between the Jews who called themselves the “Circumcision” and the Gentiles who were slanderously regarded as the “Uncircumcision.” These designations, as Paul points out, are fleshly and say nothing about the heart condition of those who partake in them. In other words, the Jews were causing division within the church over whether or not men ought to be circumcised in the flesh.

In stark contrast to the racial bigotry of the Jews of Paul’s day, the circumcision that God is concerned with is the circumcision of the heart (Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4). In fact, the sign of circumcision was really nothing more than that: a sign (Rom. 4:11). When a Jewish person was circumcised in the flesh, it was an outward sign of what their parents hoped would become an inward reality. Though the sign was performed outwardly, the reality was manifested inwardly. This is why Paul is able to say, in Romans 2:28-29 (NASB), “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor 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.” Hence, no one can claim a more favorable status in the eyes of God due to any sign made in the flesh, but rather the reality that is manifested in the heart.

Furthermore, those who would hope, by their circumcised flesh, to call themselves by the title “circumcision” are without warrant unless they are truly circumcised of the heart. There is nothing efficacious about the outward symbol in and of itself. To this end, Paul warns the church at Philippi, “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision; for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.” (Phil 3:2-3; NASB) Now, in case anyone would read this and assume that Paul is merely speaking of Jewish believers, his words to the Romans ought to guard against such an interpretation: “So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” (Rom. 2:26; NASB)

The enmity that existed between the Jews and the Gentiles was so profound that the gospel was often hindered from reaching the Gentiles abroad. Paul’s message is primarily about the gospel and how Christ broke through those barriers to reach the Gentiles. He explains these truths by way of a certain set of realities. The gospel, after all, consists of laying out a series of realities. The typical order of expounding on these realities usually follows like so: this was your status before God, God intervened, and this is your new status before God. This, of course, is the case if Christians are discussing the gospel with a believer, or simply meditating on their salvation experience for their own edification. The sharing of the gospel with unbelievers, however, typically looks different, because reality for the unbeliever is different. The unbeliever is still in that former state before God. Thus, the future status of the unbeliever is to be understood and explained as a possible reality.

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