As for me, this is My covenant with you: You will be the father of a multitude of nations. – Genesis 17:4 (NET)
The person speaking is God, and the person being spoken to is the man whose name was here being changed from “Abram” to “Abraham.” It is useful to look at Abraham, and to look at these times in which God speaks to Abraham in the context of His covenant with Abraham, especially if we understand ourselves, as Christians, to be the sons and daughters of Abraham by the gift of faith. The basis for Abraham being brought into covenant with God was faith. As the Apostle Paul writes, in quoting from Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3b). Of course, Abraham believed God because God specifically chose Abraham for the receipt and exercise of the operational faith that would serve as the basis for the belief. The idea of that being credited to him as righteousness is probably best understood by saying that the belief in the word and command of God was what brought Abraham to an understanding and experience of God’s covenant faithfulness. We experience God’s covenant faithfulness in the same way, that being the gift of faith for the purpose of believing that Jesus Christ is Lord, and that He is presently reigning in the inaugurated but not yet consummated kingdom of heaven that God has established, and is establishing and extending, right here on this earth. When we agree with and make that proclamation, because such is only possible by the faith that is gifted and put into operation by the Holy Spirit, we are also credited with righteousness, in that we are enjoying and expressing that which represents the ultimate fruition of God’s covenant faithfulness to Abraham.
God informed Abraham that His covenant faithfulness would be expressed in him becoming the “father of a multitude of nations” (17:4b & 17:5b), in being made “extremely fruitful” (17:6b), in “making nations” (17:6c) of him, and making it so that “kings will descend from” (17:6d) him. As he continues to listen, Abraham goes on to hear God say, “I will confirm My covenant as a perpetual covenant between Me and you” (17:7a). Because the omnipotent, providential, and Creator God is the maker and the confirmer and the perpetuator of the covenant, Abraham is assured that the covenant “will extend to your descendants after you throughout their generations” (17:7b). In that extension, which those of us of the household of faith find extended to all of us that are chosen in the same way that Abraham was chosen, which is that God reached out and took us for Himself and gifted us with the faith to trust Him and the message of the Gospel, God tells Abraham, “I will be your God and the God of your descendants after you” (17:7c). In all of this, we clearly find that God is the Actor and the Mover in this area of covenant. He made Himself Abraham’s God and He does the same for us.
God put a requirement upon Abraham as a symbol of the covenant---a symbol that He would graciously allow His chosen people to bear as a mark of God’s covenant faithfulness. God said, “As for you, you must keep the covenantal requirement I am imposing on you and your descendants after you throughout your generations. This is My requirement that you and your descendants after you must keep: Every male among you must be circumcised” (17:9-10). Abraham quickly acceded to this requirement, and it would be faithfully carried out through successive generations. That is, until we meet up with the descendants of Abraham, that being the nation of Israel, after their deliverance from the exilic bondage of their sojourn in Egypt. We find out in the book of Joshua that Israel failed to keep this covenantal requirement during their years in the wilderness. Should we not find this to be quite odd? This was God’s covenantal requirement, and Israel clearly saw their covenant God acting on their behalf, fulfilling His age-old promises, in both their deliverance and their time in the wilderness before re-entering their Promised Land. Yet they failed to exercise this requirement. Perhaps they were waiting to see if the God that rained down plagues on the Egyptians, led them in pillars of cloud and fire, parted the Red Sea, delivered manna daily, and made water flow from rocks, could actually bring them into the place that He had for them? If He managed that, then they could trust Him, and then, they would do Him a favor by re-engaging in this covenant requirement, showing God that they were willing to once again trust Him and accept His covenant.
It seems as if there might very well have been an underlying attitude that they were doing God a favor by fulfilling and then continuing the practice of circumcision as a sign of covenant. That attitude is well reflected in the fact that, rather than look to the requirement as a sign and symbol of God’s mercy and God’s faithfulness to them as children of Abraham, it became a source of pride and a basis for exclusion from the blessings associated with the covenant. God had told Abraham that through him, and then through his descendants as well, all nations would be blessed; and part of Israel’s charge was to be a light to the nations. Israel, however, held up the very thing that symbolized a covenant that was designed to extend His blessings to all peoples, and pointed to it as the sign of God’s favor on them and them alone. Israel, not unlike we find through the history of Christendom through this very day, took a gift of God and used it to build walls of separation, so as to keep God’s blessing all to themselves (as if the covenant God was ever going to bless Israel---or anyone else for that matter---in its maintaining of exclusionary practices). The sign of the covenant became a tradition that basically served to indicate that they were graciously choosing to be God’s people, and by extension, that God owed them His blessings.
Circumcision, the symbol of God’s covenant faithfulness, was meant to consistently remind God’s people of their responsibilities in accordance with that covenant. If the responsibilities were forsaken, then the symbol itself was pointless. The one that has been brought into the covenant, and then proceeds to shrink back from the covenantal duties, fulfilled through the exercise of faith, to be the light that extends God’s blessings, instead throwing up walls and barriers and exclusionary principles, might as well not even bear the marks of covenant. God said to Abraham that “Any uncircumcised male…will be cut off from his people---he has failed to carry out My requirement” (17:14). Making the application, if we find ourselves falling into patterns of separation that keep us from being covenantal people in line with God’s covenantal purposes, which is the continued extension of Christ’s kingdom through the preaching of the Gospel that goes forth with Resurrection power for eternal life (here and now) for all who believe; but instead, find ourselves withdrawing into the walls of our churches in a supposed fostering of holiness as we await the “end times,” or making and keeping Christianity a private and eminently personal matter between us and God that is almost entirely concerned with getting and staying saved so that we can simply escape earth and spend eternity in heaven, or encouraging a mentality of “us against the world,” God sees that as nothing less than a failure to carry out what He requires from His chosen people. God’s warning to us is that such a person is not part of His covenant people---they are cut off.