“And in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands in the removal of the body of flesh by the circumcision of Christ”
Colossians 2:11

Paul gives his readers another action of salvation that God has done on their behalf: “In Him, you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands.” Paul is obviously not talking about physical circumcision here because he describes it as “made without hands.”[1] What is in view is God’s work on behalf of the Christian. The verse brings up  an important theme which weaves its way throughout the story of Scripture: circumcision.

God originally gave the physical act of circumcision to Abraham as a sign of the covenant (Genesis 17:9-14). What did the physical sign of circumcision mean? It means that someone is part of the covenant community: “An uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut from his people; he has broken My covenant” (17:14). Hebrew scholar Peter Gentry also makes the case that circumcision signifies complete devotion to God as a priesthood.[2] I would tie these two significances together, for Israel as a whole was a royal priesthood (Exod. 19:6). Thus, to receive circumcision meant that a Hebrew male was part of the covenant community which was called by God as a royal priesthood.

Circumcision also signified the need for “heart circumcision”: the removal of stubborn obstinacy to God so that a person can truly love God. This second significance of circumcision, however, is not initially clear in the context of the Abrahamic covenant, but gradually emerges across the canon of Scripture. In a sense, however, I would argue that this meaning is present—at least in latent, or “seed” form—even from the beginning of the Abrahamic covenant. Throughout the Genesis narratives, it should be abundantly clear to the observant reader that circumcision did not automatically make someone “godly,” for Abraham still sinned greatly (Genesis 20:1-18). In addition, although someone could receive the physical mark of circumcision, this did not necessarily mean that they would be included in the covenantal blessings made to Abraham. Both Jacob and Esau received circumcision, and yet Jacob was chosen as the line for covenantal blessing, while Esau was excluded (Genesis 19:23-26; cf. Malachi 1:3). In addition, a whole generation of Israel perished in the wilderness due to their sin. Circumcision was not necessarily a shield from God’s wrath (Numbers 14:34). The early narratives in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) demonstrate the insufficiency of merely physical circumcision.

In Deuteronomy, God exhorts the Israelites to “Circumcise your hearts, and stiffen your necks no longer” (10:16). The context demonstrates that the issue at hand is having genuine love for God and obeying His commands (10:12-15). Based upon who God is and what He has done for Israel (10:17-18), Israel should obey Him: she should strip off her stubbornness and love Yahweh. The problem is manifestly clear: Israel is unable to do that (29:4). And the result will be judgment and exile (30:1). But God promises that He will bring them back from exile (30:2-5). Much more, “God will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your descendents, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live” (30:6). God Himself will work in His people to bring love for Himself into their hearts!

Later in the Old Testament, Jeremiah prophesies God’s exhortation to Israel before she goes away into exile: “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord and remove the foreskins of your heart…Or else My wrath will go forth like fire, because of the evil of your deeds.” This verse is amazing because it brings together both strands of the significance of circumcision: 1) devotion to God as priest as part of the covenant community (“Circumcise yourselves to the Lord” meaning something like, “Devote yourself to the Lord”), and 2) the removal of sinful obstinacy upon which God’s wrath burns (“Remove the foreskins of your heart…Or else My wrath will go forth like fire, because of the evil of your deeds”). Renovation of the heart and consecration to God go together.

So how are these things fulfilled in Christ? First, circumcision anticipates the true seed of Abraham, the true descendent to whom all the promises are given (Galatians 3:16). Jesus is the true covenant partner to God because He fully obeyed God’s will in all respects. His circumcision was the last significant and meaningful physical circumcision, for circumcision was pointing forward to Him all along. Second, circumcision also pointed to the need for “heart circumcision,” something which is fulfilled through Christ.

This is where the story of Scripture intersects with Colossians 2:11.

In Christ, believers are circumcised: that is, they are joined to Christ in His death in which their body of sin–or “old man”—is stripped off. It seems most natural to see the “the removal of the body of flesh” as referring to the death of the “old man,” because of phrase it roughly parallel to “body of sin” in Romans 6:6. But how does this removal of the body of flesh work?

Paul says that it occurs “by the circumcision of Christ.” There are two ways to take this phrase. Grammatically, the phrase could be translated either “the circumcision performed by Christ” or “the circumcision done to Christ.” The first possibility focuses on Christ’s action: He is the one doing this “spiritual circumcision” to believers. The second possibility focuses on what was done to Christ, and thus, “the circumcision done to Christ” is a metaphor for violent death. Christ was “cut off” (circumcised). Grammar alone will not settle the question, but lays out the possibilities.

I believe that taking the “circumcision of Christ” to refer to Christ’s death on the cross is slightly preferable. It seems that taking it the other way is slightly redundant, for believers are described as already “in Him you were circumcised.” Thus, Christ’s role in this spiritual circumcision was already spelled out. Rather, taking the phrase to refer to Christ’s death fits the pattern of Paul’s theology well, where believers are buried “in Christ,” have died “in Christ,” and are raised to new life “in Christ” (Romans 6:1-7). By virtue of their union with Christ in His death, a Christian’s “old self” has died. They are now raised to newness of life, “marked” by God as included in the new covenant community (Romans 2:25-29; Philippians 3:3).

Here is a paraphrase of what I think the verse is saying: By virtue of your union with Christ, you were circumcised “in Him.” Let me explain this a little more. This circumcision was done to you by God, it’s not a physical act. This circumcision involved the removal your “old self”—when you were still “in Adam” and under God’s condemnation. Your “old self” was removed by Christ’s own death on the cross. When Christ died, you died. [And as verse 12 teaches, When Christ was raised, you were raised!]


[1] The phrase “made without hands” translates one Greek word which is used in two other places (Matthew 14:58; 2 Corinthians 5:1). The word contrasts things made “with human hands” and the work of God. In this instance, Paul is saying that this circumcision is God’s work. No human can spiritually circumcise themselves.

[2] Peter Gentry and Stepehen Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 272-75.

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