In Galatians 6:15, St. Paul says something that many of his contemporaries considered absolutely heretical. He says:
“For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!”
When Paul said this, male circumcision had been the definitive mark of the covenant between God and his people for more than one thousand years. The Hebrew Bible was the only Bible Paul ever had, and circumcision occupied lots of space in that. It starts in Genesis 17 wherein God tells Abraham that circumcision is to be the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants forever. God then commands Abraham to circumcise every male in his household who is eight days old (or older), whether born in his house, or bought with his money, as a slave. Then comes the kicker, God says, “Any uncircumcised male shall be cut off from his people for he has broken my covenant.”
Obviously, God takes circumcision very seriously. I will give you one more example. You know who Moses was. He was the Lawgiver, the greatest figure in the Bible accepting Jesus himself. Well, after the LORD spoke to Moses at the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed, he sent him back to Egypt to command Pharaoh saying, “Let my people go!” And Moses immediately started for Egypt with his wife Zipporah and their son, Gershom. It was a long journey, and one night, after they had pitched camp, the LORD met Moses and tried to kill him. To save her husband’s life, Zipporah took a flint and circumcised her son and touched his foreskin to the feet of Moses saying, “Now you are a bridegroom of blood to me.” Only then did the Lord let Moses live. Did you get that? According to Exodus 4, God was willing to kill Moses, who would become the Lawgiver, because Moses had not circumcised his son.
Yet in Galatians 6:15 Paul says:
“For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!”
Now, recently, some Concerned Moravians have been saying that when it comes to the Bible there is no such thing as progressive revelation. Well, as you can see, there obviously is. So instead of denying it, we would do well to ask, “What happened between Moses and Paul?”
And some of you would answer, “Well, Jesus happened!” And you would be exactly right.
The death and resurrection of Jesus changed everything. It changed the way of salvation, and it changed the way we worship God. It changed the way of salvation because Jesus “…died for our sins and rose again for our justification” (“to give us a future and a hope” “that we too might walk in newness of life”). We no longer live under the Law; we live under Grace. And it changed the way we worship God, for, as Paul says in Romans 1:16, Jesus was “designated son of God in power, by a Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.” The people of God still worship one God, but now we worship one God who has progressively revealed himself with three faces*: The Face of the Father, The Face of the Son, and The Face of the Holy Spirit! (*By the way, in Latin, “persona” means face.”)
The death and resurrection of Jesus changed everything, but even in the days of his flesh, Jesus demonstrated the progress of revelation over and over again. Let me give just one example. Moses told the people that the penalty for adultery was death. (Exodus 20:10) Now Jesus was absolutely against adultery, but, in John 8, when the Jews brought to him a woman taken in the very act of adultery, and said, “Moses said we should stone such as her, what do you say?” Jesus said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Then he sent the woman away without condemning her, saying that she should go and sin no more. I trust you can see the difference between what Moses said, and what Jesus did, because it is huge. Paul saw it, and he applied it each and every time that they he read his Bible, the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. Paul expected others to apply it, too. It was the new normal. (See: 2nd Corinthians 3:12-18).
Of course, historically, not everyone accepted the progressive nature of revelation.
In the New Testament itself, people who opposed Paul on the importance of circumcision did not accept it. Today, scholars call these people Judaizers. Like Paul, most of the Judaizers were Jews who had become followers of Jesus. However, they still had Jewish friends and family, in the church, and in the synagogues, and they wanted to keep their approval. So, every time a male Gentile became a follower of Jesus, the Judaizers insisted he had to submit not just to baptism, but to circumcision. And every time a new Christian submitted to circumcision, the Judaizers sang a little song, and did a little dance, and celebrated.
Paul saw that the real motivation of the Judaizers was not theological, but personal. They fought the progress because they were afraid to suffer the approbation of their friends for going “all the way” in their move from Moses and the Law to Jesus and Grace. Thus, Paul wrote to the Gentiles in Galatia saying:
(The Judaizers) don’t want to be persecuted for the cross of Christ…even those who receive circumcision do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may glory in your flesh. But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Gal. 6:12-14)
Let me give you one more example, a more recent one. In the mid-twentieth century, the Southern Baptist Convention Churches published “The Baptist Faith and Message” which affirmed their faith in the Bible as the Word of God. However, it added, “the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.” So far, so good. That is quite progressive. Unfortunately, a group of super-conservative Southern Baptists got together and decided to take over the Southern Baptist Convention. By the late 1970s, they had succeeded. These folks still affirmed that the Bible was the word of God, but they dropped the phrase, “the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.” (James, Gordon, “Inerrancy and the Southern Baptist Convention,” Southern Baptist Heritage Press, especially chapter 5, especially page 77). Traditionally, all Baptists had enjoyed the freedom and duty to interpret scripture for themselves. Now, the leaders of the convention were insisting that people had to follow the party line, not just when it came to interpreting the Bible, but in other areas, too. Oh, Baptists always have the freedom to differ, but most were afraid to. This, I think, along with the presidency of Richard Nixon, marks the true beginning of the culture wars. Of course, it was after this takeover that many moderate Baptists began to leave their church, saying, “My church has been stolen from me!”
I have many friends among the people calling themselves Concerned Moravians. I fear that they have fallen under outside influences. I have read many of the documents they have published. The personal testimonies are moving, but some of their theology is more fundamentalistic than historically Moravian. At least some Concerned Moravians absolutely reject progressive revelation such as we see in Scripture. If I read them aright, their goals are not unlike the Baptists who took over the Southern Baptist Convention. Rightly or wrongly, Concerned Moravians started out, because they wanted to stop same-sex unions. They achieved that. Only two churches have said they will definitely permit same-sex unions. Yet, as some of us feared, the Concerned Moravians have expanded their agenda to include the way that Moravians read and interpret the Bible; and, last October, at least one of them stood up in a public meeting and started telling people how to vote. If a pastor did that, you would fire him or her. I am afraid that, if the Concerned Moravians achieve their goals, many Moravians, like many Southern Baptists before us, are going to be saying, “They stole my church.”
Please don’t let them do it! When a Concerned Moravian tells you that your seminary, and your bishops, and your clergy, are perverting the Bible because they say the Bible should**** be interpreted progressively, just tell them about circumcision according to Moses and circumcision according to Paul and just how much they differ. The difference clearly demonstrates progressive revelation! The Bible is filled with similar instances of progress. God is the same, but it appears he gave things to us in small doses, progressively. As Jesus himself said to his disciples, “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” (John 16:12)
There is more at stake than some may realize. The essence of Christian Apologetics is the defense of scripture “before the bar of human reason.” If we set aside the idea of progressive revelation, then much of the Bible that we love is going to be indefensible before those we hope to gain for Christ. Not only are we going to be stuck denying all science since Copernicus, things like the Big Bang, and Evolution—without knowledge of which the fight against modern viruses becomes virtually impossible, but we are going to be stuck defending all the Old Testament texts that support genocide and stoning people to death for things like adultery or disobeying their parents. And we are going to be stuck defending New Testament text like, “Slaves be obedient to your masters,” and “Women keep silent in the churches.” If we set aside the doctrine of progressive revelation, we will not be able to justify women bishops, clergy, board members, or Sunday school teachers in classes that include both men and women.
By the way, if you forced me to give up my belief in progressive revelation, you would force me to give up performing the remarriage of divorced people. In forty years of ministry, I have performed many second marriages. I continue to perform remarriages for three reasons: 1) We live under grace, not law. 2) Because in Genesis 2:18 the LORD God says, “It is not good for man to be alone.” That has not changed, and it is true of women, too. And 3) because of the progress I see in the New Testament itself. For instance, in Mark, the earliest gospel, Jesus says, No divorce and remarriage, period. He says that if a man or woman divorces his or her spouse and remarries, they commit adultery. In Matthew, which was written after Mark, Jesus says there is to be no divorce and remarriage unless a spouse is unfaithful. Then one can remarry. Interestingly, at one time, Moravian Clergy could remarry only, “the innocent party of a divorce action based on infidelity.” We Moravians finally decided that, in general, there are no innocent parties in a divorce, and there may be other reasons for a divorce. For instance, Paul is against divorce, “unless an unbelieving partner desires to separate,” then” he says the Christian partner “is not bound.” Do you see how things progressed? It is because I see the progress, that I have extended legitimate reasons for divorce to include things like spousal abuse, whether physical or mental, drug addiction, and other things besides. I shall never forget the day a woman came to me with her face black and blue. Her husband was abusing her. Her fundamentalist pastor said she had to stay with him. She asked me what I thought. I told her that if I was her I would not go home, but to the police station to take out a restraining order. Then I would leave him. God never intended anyone to suffer as she had suffered.
If you can’t tell—I am a big proponent of progressive revelation. It is a part of the fabric of the Bible. And it goes hand in hand with the idea that we must read the Bible in light of Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word of God. The use of progressive revelation does not guarantee that you have to accept any single doctrine, like evolution, or the remarriage of divorced people, or same-sex unions. It does guarantee that all Christians can read with the Bible on the one hand, and the daily newspaper on the other, and not have to choose between the two.
(This is where I stopped on Sunday the 4th of July. WNG)
Now how can I tie this sermon on circumcision and progress to July the 4th and our American Independence? Well, I can tell you with some authority that the democracy we enjoy in the United States has come in stages, progressively. For instance, The Declaration of Independence which was signed on July the 4th 1776 declares that:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
These words are among the finest ever penned by human beings. Yet, in two points the text is overly optimistic.
First, it says that that “all men” are created equal. Some of those who signed the Declaration would have argued that the generic “men” included “women”, but others would have argued that women were indeed inferior to men. Eventually, we fixed and are fixing this politically. Universal women’s suffrage was finally guaranteed by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which was passed on August 18, 1920. Today, women seem to have achieved political if not economic parity. They have served in the courts, including the Supreme Court, and in both houses of Congress, and as vice-president. In 2016, a woman ran for president, and won the popular vote, though not the electoral vote. Women are also coming into their own in other fields, too, fields like medicine and business. In 2014 Mary Bara became the first woman CEO of General Motors. When she did, she was identified as “a car guy,” meaning she was more engineer than bean counter. She wanted that new Vette! In 2020 Jennifer Doudna won the Nobel Prize for her work on gene editing, which opens endless possibilities for the future of the human race. She is one of many female scientists working to improve our world.
Second, it says that “all men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” On July the 4th 1776, more than 500,000 residents of America were slaves. And that number would increase to almost four-and-one-half-million. The issue of slavery could not be decided politically. However, war is an extension of politics, and it took a Civil war to settle the issue of slavery. More than 600,000 Americans died in the struggle for, and against, the end of slavery. Of course, when it comes to relations between the races, the Civil War didn’t really settle anything, the struggle continues. Some people think that the decedents of former slaves finally achieved parity with the presidency of Barak Obama. I don’t think so.
Race continues to be a big difficulty for most people, red and yellow, black and white. Race is only skin deep, but when we meet someone, the skin is the first thing we see, and it colors everything! What a shame! And how wonderful it is when we see beyond the skin and glimpse the true person. For instance, I shall never forget riding the 7th Avenue Subway in New York up to the Museum of Natural History. This, in the summer of 1982. Elayne and I were the only white people in our crowded subway car, and we were hanging on to the straps that led down the middle of it. Across from us sat a 250 pound, tall, heavily muscled black man in the uniform of the New York Sanitation Service. He looked up at me with a serious face, and said, “Sir, would you mind if I offered your wife my seat?” “No, Not-at-all, thank you.” I have never forgotten his kindness. I often think of him when I go out of my way to extend kindness to people I meet who are outwardly different from me, especially when they are obviously in an unfamiliar situation.
As an American, I believe in laws and legislation—without them, some injustices will never be set right. Without the Declaration of Independence, where would we be? However, I know, too, that real change must take place at a personal level. I believe that the only way this change can be affected is when we set aside our differences, whether over theology, or the color of our skin, and become a part of the New Creation that God began in Jesus, and in his body, the Church. In 2nd Corinthians 5:17 St. Paul says: “If anyone is in Christ, he or she is a new creation, the old has passed away, the new has come.” And in Galatians 6:15 he says, “the new creation is everything!” Yes, it is, and it is not easy to be a part of it. Oswald Chambers was exactly right when he said, “It is easier to be true to our convictions than to Jesus Christ.” The church is a community of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of prophecy; thus, the church is a prophetic community, and the Spirit guides us into the truth that Jesus wants us to know. (John 16:12-16) Jesus Christ does not call upon his prophetic community to support all our convictions and traditions, he calls upon us to live from the future that is coming to us in him.
Is this hard? It is for me, a lot harder than just standing up for things that sound nice and support me in the comfortable continuation of things as I wish they were. Oh, well, Reinhold Niebuhr was right, “We come to church to be disturbed by the Word of God.” Or, as the writer to the Hebrews has said:
12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do.
A Note from the Pastor
First, I apologize to the parents who had to go home after the sermon on Sunday and explain to their younger children what circumcision means. I did not expect we would have so many. We had no children the week before.
Secondly, I have added to the sermon I preached on Sunday, because I imagine some few people from outside our church may read it, and I wanted to be perfectly clear. This is not an essay. It remains a sermon, and except for the fact that, for the sake of time, I stopped short of the end when I preached it at Fries, it is essentially the same sermon I preached.
**** In a post-publication edit I changed “must” to “should” for I would still give a place at the table to those who reject progressive revelation. My concern is those who accept progressive revelation as a principal being driven from the table by those who do not.