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Commentary On The Gospel According To Saint John Volumes 1&2

A dissertation upon the circumcision on the eighth day, manifoldly shewing of what it is significant.

HAVING now sufficiently (as I think) and according to the power of my understanding, unfolded the purpose of the sabbath, we will transfer the labour of investigation to circumcision which is akin thereto, resolving from all quarters to hunt out as befits, what is of use. For it were most absurd and not free from the extremest ridicule, that one should not gladly give all toil in exchange for the knowledge of these things. What then was by it also typically expressed to them of old, we considering the subject spiritually will set forth according to the measure of the gift of the God of all Who maketh dark things manifest, and openeth to us hidden and invisible treasures. For they who have already attained unto habit undefective, and have their understanding maturer, may both conceive and utter things far superior to these, but we will set before our hearers what comes into our mind, though it seem to come far short of what is fitting, not sinning against brotherly love by fear of seeming inferior to any, but rather knowing the scripture, Give occasion to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser; teach a just man, and he will receive yet more. The first law then respecting circumcision was ordained, when God said to Abraham, THOU shalt keep My covenant and thy seed after thee in their generations; and this is My covenant, which I will covenant, between you and Me and thy seed after thee in their generations: every man child among you shall be circumcised, and ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin: and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt Me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child. But when He had appointed the law as to this, and had decreed that they should surely circumcise the flesh of their foreskin, He shews that the transgression of the law will not be without harm, shewing that it is the type of a most essential mystery: for He subjoins as follows, And My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant: and the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised on the eighth day that soul shall be cut off from his seed; he hath scattered My covenant. The Divine Paul then affirmed that circumcision had been given to the patriarch as a sign and a seal of the faith which he had in uncircumcision. For it was his aim (it seems) and zealous endeavour to shew that the calling and righteousness which are through faith surpass and are elder than every command of the law. For thus hardly did he shame them of Israel, and persuade them not to esteem the righteousness of faith a transgression of the law, but rather a return to that which was from the beginning and before all law; yet is he, seasonably bringing round the force of his subject to what is immediately profitable and of use for the present time, found to know of another kind of circumcision. For wishing to unteach the Jews their delight in glorying in the flesh, he writes again, For not he is a Jew which is one outwardly, neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh, but he is a Jew which is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit and not in the letter, whose praise is not of men but of God. Does he not hereby persuade them to change at length to other thoughts respecting this, and would not have them look on circumcision, as merely the gift of the seal to our forefather of the faith which he had being yet uncircumcised, but conceive of it as something greater and spiritual?

We must then investigate and examine not remissly what the circumcision in the spirit is, of what that which is accomplished in the flesh is a symbol, and why, not on any day indifferently, as it might happen, but only on the eighth, man is circumcised. It is then obvious to every man, that since our aim is intent to be united to God through Christ the Mediator, therefore it surely befits those who mount up by faith to intimate nearness with the all-holy Lord, to first purify and sanctify themselves in every way. We will take as a most excellent image of this kind of thing, that which was spoken by God to the holy Moses, Go down protest unto the people, and sanctify them to day and to morrow, and let them wash their clothes and be ready against the third day; for the third day the LORD will come down upon the mount Sinai. In that they were to sanctify themselves beforehand, He would have them attend to fitness of habits; in that they were to wash their clothes, Ho points to purity of the body itself. For the body is as it were the garment and array of the soul.

Since then (for I will go up to the first and most necessary beginning of the subject) they who are hastening to an intimate nearness to the holy God must surely first purify themselves, according to what is said by Him, Holy shall ye be, for I am holy, He ordained a symbol of sanctification to them of old through the circumcision in the flesh, and how, we will say. On examining into the nature of things among us, we shall find pleasure taking the lead of all sin: and some hot lust ever preceding in its working, invites us to transgression, and first taking captive the prudence of the understanding, thus at length persuades us to come by a most smooth way unto the attainment of the things desired. And the disciple of Christ shews that what we have said on these matters is true, for thus proclaims he, Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God; for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth He any man, but every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then lust when it hath conceived, bringeth forth sin, and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death. Seest thou then how in lusts toward anything the birth of evil is first formed, and the seed of sin is first conceived in forbidden pleasure? God the Lawgiver then commands the circumcising steel to be applied to that part of the body, wherein and whence is the birth of pleasures, that thou mayest learn, as it were darkly, that it is impossible for us ever to appear pure, unless, by receiving the most sharp working of the Divine Word in our heart, and admitting into our mind the sword of the Spirit, we drive away lusts after all the basest things, never doing after our own wills, even though they pretend to have the sweetest enjoyment, but persuaded only to love and do the Will of God. Seeing that the truer circumcision brings unto us such power, well may it be said to those who are accustomed to glory in the flesh only, Circumcise yourselves to God, and circumcise the hardness of your heart, men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. For he that is circumcised in the flesh, is circumcised to the flesh only, but he that hath received the circumcision in the Spirit, through faith to Christward, is circumcised to God only and truly.

But we receive the circumcision in the Spirit which bringeth us up to an intimate nearness to God, on the eighth day, that is the day of the resurrection of the Saviour, taking this as a sign that the circumcision of the Spirit is the giver of Life, and agreeing in some sort through the thing itself, that we shall live with Christ, according to what is said by Paul, For ye died, and your life hath been hidden with Christ in God: when Christ shall appear, your life, then shall YE also appear with Him in glory. For will not one say (and that with truth) that one dies to the world, by refusing the world’s pleasures for God’s sake? Such an one did the Divine Paul too manifest himself to us, saying, God forbid that I should glory, save in the Cross of Christ, by Whom the world hath been crucified unto me, and I unto the world: for made partakers of Him through the Spirit, which circumciseth without hands all the impurity that is in us, we become dead to the world, and live a most excellent life to God. Therefore circumcision is on the eighth day by reason of the resurrection of Christ, and not before the eighth; for not before the Resurrection was the gift of the Spirit, but after it, or at the very time of the resurrection, when He breathed on His disciples also, saying, Receive ye the Holy Ghost. To the Jews then the circumcision by the knife was more fitting, for they were yet slaves and under the avenging law (and the iron is the symbol of punishment), but to us as free and spiritual belongs the purification through the Spirit, banishing all pollution from our souls, and bringing in perfection in the brightness of godliness through faith.

For that through the truer and spiritual circumcision, is accomplished the boast of perfection in godliness, we shall perceive, by considering what is written respecting the Patriarch Abraham. It is written then of our forefather Abraham, that his years were ninety and nine in number, and then did God serviceably ordain him circumcision, making this too as it were an evident sign, that circumcision is as it were a vestibule and approach to perfection in virtue, or rather clearly signifying that no one will ever arrive at this, who has not the purification which is shadowed forth by circumcision. For the number 100 is the symbol of perfection. Circumcision then precedes perfection. For it when it precedes easily brings us to that. But not to these things are limited the benefits of circumcision, I mean of circumcision in the Spirit, but we shall find that it too belongs to those only who are free in Christ. But wholly free (I think) in Christ, is the man who hath shaken off the bondage of the devil and the yoke of sin, and hath broken asunder their bonds, as it is written, and hath bound upon him the glorious and untyrannical boast of righteousness, I mean the righteousness which is in faith of Christ.

But that we shall find circumcision on the eighth day befitting the free, but by no means those who are slaves, we on traversing the holy and Divine Scripture, shall in nowise doubt. Ishmael then, the son born to the patriarch of the handmaid Hagar, was circumcised, but not on the eighth day, but rather in his thirteenth year: for so is it written, that Abraham circumcised Ishmael his son at thirteen years old, in order that the Divine word may shew us that the son of Jerusalem which is in bondage, that is Israel, hath fallen both from the eighth and from the twelfth. For it falleth from the eighth, as not choosing to receive the saving preaching of the Resurrection, which took place on the eighth day, that is the Gospel of Christ, whereby there is no doubt that we aided unto faith, are circumcised in spirit. But it falleth again from the twelfth too, as it were in figure thrusting away by their unbelief the holy choir of the Apostles, and desiring to abide entirely without taste and experience of their doctrine. Herein then is the servant, but Isaac the free son of the free is circumcised on the eighth day. For the free children of the free, I mean Jerusalem which is above, are enriched receiving the eighth, that is the Resurrection of Christ, and the circumcision in spirit which freeth them from all sin, and releaseth them from death, because from sin too, whence and on account whereof is death, and transbringeth them unto the Life of Christ.

But that in addition to what we have already said, both undoing of death and the overthrow of corruption, are found through the circumcision in the spirit, we shall easily see, by studying the book called Exodus. For the blessed Moses was sent by divine command to Pharaoh the tyrant of the Egyptians, to tell him that it behoved him to let Israel go from that great bondage. And indeed he was setting out, to meet with those things we spoke of, but it came to pass (it says) by the way in the inn, that the angel met him and sought to kill him: and Zipporah took a sharp stone and circumcised the foreskin of her son, and said, The blood of the circumcision of my son hath stayed, and he departed from him, because she said, The blood of the circumcision of my son hath stayed. Here listen to me carefully. The so-called angel seeks to lay hands upon and to slay Moses, but hardly withdraws from him and departs, shamed by the circumcision of the child, which Zipporah performing with a stone, says that she has accomplished what is necessary. For scaring away the destroyer of Moses, she cries out, The blood of the circumcision of my son hath stayed. But unless some mystical meaning were hidden in these words, what mind (tell me) would be assured, that the hierophant Moses was saved by the circumcision of his son, and that the destroyer making an onset like a wild beast desisted from his onslaught at the appearance of blood, and drew back and turned away? Then (for I will come to this point first) the benefit or glory of his own circumcision did not suffice the blessed Moses unto salvation. For I think I ought rather to speak thus. The might of the circumcision which is after the law, will not overthrow death which cometh indifferently to every one, evil and good. But the circumcision in the Spirit of the new people, that is, of those who have believed in Christ, most excellently performed by Zipporah, that is the Church, both scares it against its will, and puts it to flight when raging.

How then, may some one with great reason say, is Israel too preserved in the spiritual circumcision of the new people, though he hath no share of it? To this we say, that as far as concerns Israel’s not choosing to receive the Resurrection of our Saviour Christ, death would have reigned even for ever; but since they which believed received it, the grace of the Resurrection on their accounts passed into the whole nature, extended in some sort to the whole through the circumcision in the Spirit, even though a considerable difference of resurrection be seen in the one and the other. For they who thrust from them belief in Christ, and by their unbelief insult the Giver of life, will gain power from the Resurrection merely to live again (for they will live again unto doom, not having loved Christ who justifieth), but they who are admirers of the Resurrection of the Saviour, and true keepers of the commandments, shall go forth of that land wherein they are, unto the resurrection of life, as it is written. The people then which is circumcised in spirit will transmit his own good even unto the unbelieving. For his of right is the grace of the Resurrection, but he will transmit it unto the rest also, God desiring of His skill to preserve the whole nature. For as Paul saith, as WE in times past disbelieved the mercy of Israel, that through their obedience we may gain the grace through Christ, so they too have now disbelieved our mercy that they too again may obtain mercy, our Saviour Christ transmitting to them also through our faith the benefit of the Resurrection. For the things which are due to them that believe, are more suitably given to the whole nature. Therefore the Divine Apostle Paul also revealing to us the mystery concerning the Resurrection that shall be says that Christ will rise the First fruits, for verily He also was first raised from the dead, but afterwards (he says) that they are Christ’s at His coming. For he says that they who were intimately connected with Him by faith must be raised before all the rest, shewing that the resurrection is strictly and properly due to them above all, even though it have reached the whole nature, God being pleased of His Goodness (that is) and Loving-kindness wholly to abolish death.

But observe how not with iron does Zipporah circumcise the child (for the iron is an avenger, and beseems them that are under the law which punisheth) but with a stone, as it is written, understood as a type of Christ. For the indestructibility and stability in all respects of the Nature of the Only-Begotten is hereby signified. Wherefore God the Father in the holy Prophets called Christ an adamant too, saying, Behold, I am setting an adamant in the midst of My people Israel. The adamant signifies to us as in a figure, that the Divine and Ineffable Nature of the Word can never yield to those which oppose it. Thus the Divine Joshua too after Moses’ leadership and death being called to the command, purified the children of Israel with a Divinely appointed stone, and since he was to withstand the hand of the enemy, right well was he commanded to arm them first in some sort by circumcision, knowing that no otherwise would they who were on the very verge of fighting be above falling and superior to death.

And thus it is written concerning him, And the Lord said unto Joshua, Make thee knives of rock, of the sharp rock, and sit down, circumcise the children of Israel. And Joshua made him knives of flints, and circumcised the children of Israel. For herein the name rock signifies to us as it were the fixed and indestructible Word of God, the expression sharp points out the power of subtilely penetrating into all things, and its keenest energy, since Paul too, who was nourished up in the holy and Divine writings, calls the Divine Word quick and powerful and sharper than any two edged sword, and says that it pierces even to the parting of soul and spirit. But the Word so subtle and piercing entering our hearts through His own Spirit frees them from all uncleanness, and circumcising in an expressible manner the things in respect whereof we are full of the deepest abominations, it renders us both holy and undefiled. For see herein most translucent the image of the truth. For Jesus is he who circumciseth, and they who undergo it of him, are every fresh young child, as it is written, who this day knoweth not good or evil. For they who came forth out of Egypt had the Divine wrath as the wages of their unbelief, and manifold punishment overtook them in the desert, it having been with reason determined by the all-holy God that He would not bring them into the land which He sware to their fathers. But they who came after them being free from the charges of unbelief, fulfilled the type of the new people, so as even to receive the circumcision in the spirit through Christ, the old and first people, that is, Israel, having gone to perdition, as we have just said. Nevertheless the noble and new people are circumcised, under the command of Joshua, the other side Jordan, as it is written. For the considerations that spring from the truth are thus; we shall never receive the circumcision through the Spirit in the heart, as long as we have not yet been brought over the mystic Jordan, but are still on you side of the holy waters. But when all the people were circumcised by command of Joshua, straightway the Lawgiver makes known the utility of the thing, and says to the holy Joshua, This day have I rolled away the reproach of Egypt from off you. Wherein then shall we grant that Israel received benefit from circumcision or what reproach do we say was rolled away? Their bondage, their exposure from weakness to be tyrannized over, and yet more their hard labours, in clay and brick. Seest thou from how great evils the might of the circumcision in spirit delivers? For it delivers the soul of man out of the hand of the devil, renders it free and let go from the sin which tyrannizes in us, and maketh it superior to all the arrogance of wicked devils. Yea it frees from both clay and brick, for no longer does it suffer one defiled with the pleasures of the flesh, nor that he be intermingled with the toils of earth, but frees both from death and corruption: nor are these all the benefits which arise from circumcision, but it also renders us partakers of the Divine Nature through the participation of our Saviour Christ.

For the compiler of the book adds to what has been said, And the children of Israel kept the passover on the fourteenth day of the month and did eat of the corn of the land bread unleavened and new. For no otherwise may one partake of the Very Lamb That taketh away the sin of the world, nor yet find the unleavened and new food of the Gospel preachings, unless one have first passed the mystic Jordan, received the circumcision from the Living Word, and rubbed off after some sort, as it were a spot on the soul, the reproach of Egypt, in the manner we have just expounded.

For that God loatheth, as full of reproach and all uncleanness, him that is not yet circumcised, not as holding in abomination the flesh which He disdained not to create, but [as hating] him that is yet (so to say) in full vigour and complete, as respects pleasures in evil, by reason of his having lost nothing, we shall know when we find Him saying to holy Moses and Aaron, This is the ordinance of the Passover: There shall no stranger eat thereof, but every man’s servant that is bought for money, thou shalt circumcise him, and then shall he eat thereof. For He wholly excludes the stranger, thereby signifying him who is not yet joined to Christ through faith: but him that is in bondage to sin, and is in some sort sold to the devil, He very seasonably commands to be first circumcised, and purified, and then to taste the most holy Flesh. For we being pure purely shall we partake of Christ, according to that which is orderly proclaimed in our churches, Holy things to the holy. For in truth it were just and meet, since our Saviour Christ died for us, and cleansed us not with the purifications of the Law but with His Own Blood, that we too should offer to Him our own life and as a just debt pay that we live no more to ourselves, but repay as it were the complete consecration unto holiness of our own souls. For that the Precious Blood and Death of Christ Who died for all, both saved us from all evil, and was the Giver of the spiritual circumcision, whereby we gain that we are joined to God Who is over all, in this too shall we see. For thus it is written in respect of him who was captain after Moses, I mean Joshua the son of Nun, And it came to pass after these things, that Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died, being an hundred and ten years old. And they buried him in the border of his inheritance: there they buried with him in the sepulchre wherein they buried him, the knives of flints wherewith he circumcised the children of Israel. For the blessed Joshua died and was buried, and profitably were the knives affixed to the sepulchre, which ministered to the type of circumcision, that WE again might understand by this that the grace of circumcision in spirit the wooer for us of all heavenly goods, is bound up in the death of our Saviour Christ.

We will then understand that the circumcision on the eighth day, taking it in no Jewish sense, is the purification through the Spirit, in faith and the Resurrection of Christ, the casting away of all sin, the destruction of death and corruption, the bestower of holiness and ownness with Christ, the image of freedom, the way and door to close friendship with God.

Abundance then of spiritual considerations then having been now contributed by us from all parts to these things, and the two chapters divided as was meet, and we having concluded for each the discussion suiting it: it remains and is due to say, why the spiritual circumcision prevails over even the honour of the sabbath. For circumcision is to be received even on the sabbath day, unheeding the Law of not working thereon. Since then the rest on the seventh day signifies freedom and rest from all wickedness, and cessation from sin, and circumcision in spirit means nothing different from these, as it were in another way (for I think that the being freed from superfluous lusts, and overmuch pleasure, clearly results in rest from evil), we shall find not only that circumcision in no way breaks the law respecting the sabbath, but even aids it and all but coincides in one and the same language with it, openly proclaiming that one ought to rest and to desist from evil: so that they both are the same, I mean both circumcision and the rest of the sabbath (as one will most rightly deem), according to the concurrence of both in one aim. For we will not adhere to the gross type of the history, but will rather spiritually go to the oracles of the Spirit. Unblameably therefore will the profit of circumcision on the sabbath too be brought in, since as the Saviour saith, The priests in the temple profane the sabbath by ministering thereon and not ceasing from their ordinary occupations, and are blameless, as the Judge Himself hath testified to them, with greatest reason. For what time is there wherein we ought to desist from works of holiness, and those wherein the Deity delighteth? at what time is it not hurtful to slacken zeal in piety? The rest then on the sabbath day hath a most praise-worthy ceasing and staying from wickedness only and from abominable sin, but by no means hinders us from taking pleasure in holy deeds, and whatsoever any one supposes will be of profit to his own soul, this too it enjoins him unblamed to take all pains rightly to perform. This same profitableness you may see introduced also in the force of circumcision. For in cutting away pleasure in the direction of evil, is perceived a birth of resting from sin, and a beginning of worship in spirit and most holy conversation; and the difference between them is slight, nevertheless a needful one. For in that He does not command both to be observed on the seventh day, nor yet on the eighth; the plan of each gives us to understand that there is a distinction. And this too has a meaning, and no inelegant one, as seems to me. For resting from wickedness is not yet the utter casting off also of wickedness. For ofttimes our passions are quiet within us, yet are not wholly cast out of our mind, but are by sober reasoning, as it were with a bridle, forcibly brought to the rest which is uncongenial to them, yea and give way even against their will to the toils of discipline also. But shaking off one’s passions, as far as a man can do, is I suppose a wholly different thing and far greater than resting from passion.

Having thus arranged our arguments on these matters, we must finally consider, that we shall not attain unto the casting away of our passions or stumblings arising from pleasure, which is the meaning of circumcision, unless we first cease from sin which goes forth into action, and hold as it were in rest the motions of our mind which run unto transgression. For by using some step of this kind, we shall easily attain what is yet greater and higher, I mean the total casting off of our passions. But the rest from passion, seems to lie in some degree in our own power (for we shall cease from evil, by giving the force of our wills to what is better), but to be released from our passions is surely not in our own power, but is verily the fitting work of Christ who suffered for us, that He might remodel all to newness of life. Therefore meetly did circumcision obtain the eighth day, introducing the renewing (so to say) time of the Resurrection, while the rest had the seventh day, its neighbour and a little behind. For rest for a season and at will, falls and comes a little short of the entire cutting off of the passions.

CHAPTERS IN BOOK V

1.              That human affairs are not, according to the unlearned surmises of the Greeks, subject as of necessity to the Hours, but that of our own choice we advance both to good and to the contrary, and that we are directed by the will of God; on the words, They were seeking to take Him but no man laid hands on Him because His Hour was not yet come.

2.              That after the Saviour’s Cross at His rising again from the dead the Holy Ghost took up His Abode in us permanently; on the] words, For the Holy Ghost was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

3.              That no work of Jewish might was the Suffering on the Cross, nor did Christ die from the tyranny of any one, but Himself of His Own Will suffered this for us, that He might save all; on the words, These words spake Jesus in the treasury as He taught in the Temple, and no man laid hands on Him, for His Hour was not yet come.

4.              That the Son is by Nature GOD, wholly remote from likeness to the creature, as regards essence; on the words, YE are of this world, I am not of this world.

5.              That not inferior in might and wisdom to God the Father is the Son, yea rather His Very Wisdom and Might; on the words, Of Myself I do nothing, but as the Father taught Me, I speak these things.








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