I was recently reading Romans and encountered a statement Paul makes about Abraham. He says, “[Abraham] received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Rom. 4:11). Paul makes this pivotal point, that Abraham was credited with righteousness prior to his circumcision, to defend the forgiveness and justification of the Gentiles on the basis of faith and not obedience to the law. But what drew my attention was Paul’s description of circumcision as a sign and seal. I decided to look into this further with the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary and discovered some pretty cool insights.


It’s easy to dig into this further with the Olive Tree Bible App. I wanted to investigate the significance of the word sign, so I long tapped on the word. This highlights it and provides several options for further investigation.

Selecting Lookup browses the resources in your Library for any articles on the word sign. Simply tap on the article you want to read, and it will open in the popup window or in the Parallel tab in the Study Center.

Definition: In Scripture this word generally refers to something addressed to the senses to attest the existence of a divine power.


Let’s look at some insights from the article on sign in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary.

  • Miracles in the OT were often signs (Exod. 4:8; 8:23).
  • God provide several specific things as signs, such as the rainbow (Gen. 9:12–13), some of the feasts (Exod. 13:9), the Sabbath (Exod. 31:13), and circumcision (Rom. 4:11).
  • Often extraordinary events were given as a sign to insure faith or demonstrate authority. When Moses would not believe God, his rod was turned into a serpent and his hand became leprous as signs of God’s divine commission (Exod. 4:1–8).
  • Sometimes future events were signs, as in the case of Isaiah’s prophecy to Ahaz (Isa. 7:14). When Christ was born, the place of his birth and his dress were to be signs of his identity to the shepherds. When the scribes and the Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign, he assured them that no sign was to be given them except the sign of Jonah, whose experience in the fish portrayed Christ’s burial and resurrection. Revelation tells that before Christ returns there will be signs in the heavens, in the stars, moon, and sun.

Summary of Sign

While we wouldn’t immediately understand circumcision as a sign of God’s power, there are clear connections to God’s power in the Abraham narrative. Circumcision was a sign directly related to Abraham’s belief and justification. Just what did Abraham believe? Abraham believed God when He promised that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars (Gen 15:4). And this was before Abraham had any physical descendants. So, God’s power relates to the fulfillment of His gracious promises, both to Abraham’s justification and to how God made him “heir of the world” (Rom. 4:13). Circumcision points to the power of God as He keeps His promises. He gives life to Abraham who “was as good as dead” (Rom. 4:19), life to Jesus when He “raised [Him] from the dead” (Rom. 4:24b) and justifies all those who believe in Jesus (Rom. 4:24a).

How is circumcision a seal of the righteousness Abraham had by faith before he was circumcised? Let’s look again at the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary.


To find the article for seal in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary, just follow the same steps described above.

Definition: A device bearing a design or a name made so that it can impart an impression in relief on a soft substance like clay or wax. When the clay or wax hardens, it permanently bears the impression of the seal.


  • The discovery by archaeologists of thousands of seals reveals that their use goes back to the fourth millennium B.C. They were used throughout the ancient, civilized world and consisted of a variety of hard substances like limestone, metal, and all kinds of precious stones.
  • Seals were used for various purposes: (1) as a mark of authenticity and authority to letters, royal commands, etc. (1 Ki. 21:8; Esth. 3:12); (2) as a mark of the formal ratification of a transaction or covenant (Jer. 32:11–14; Neh. 9:38); (3) as a means of protecting books and other documents so that they would not be tampered with (Jer. 32:14; Rev. 5:2, 5, 9); (4) as a proof of delegated authority and power (Gen. 41:42; Esth. 8:2); (5) as a means of sealing closed doors so as to keep out unauthorized persons (Dan. 6:17; Matt. 27:66; Rev. 20:3); and (6) as an official mark of ownership, as, for example, on jar handles and jar stoppers.
  • Scripture often uses the term seal metaphorically to indicate authentication, confirmation, ownership, evidence, or security. God does not forget sin, but stores it up against the sinner, under a seal (Deut. 32:34; Job 14:17). Prophecies that are intended to be kept secret for a time are bound with a seal (Dan. 12:4, 9; Rev. 5:1–2; 10:4). The word has the sense of authentication in 1 Cor. 9:2, where Paul describes his converts at Corinth as the “seal” placed by Christ on his work—the proof or vindication of his apostleship. The circumcision of Abraham is described as a seal or outward ratification by God of the righteousness of faith that he had already received before he was circumcised (Rom. 4:11). Believers are said to be “marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit” (Eph. 1:13; cf. Eph. 4:30).

Summary of Seal

While the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary describes the seal Abraham received as a metaphorical usage, we could hardly describe circumcision as metaphorical! Moses uses circumcision metaphorically (see Deut. 10:16), but that does not occur in the Abraham narrative. Rather, circumcision seems to bridge both the literal and metaphorical. As a seal, it confirmed the righteousness Abraham had already received through faith when he was uncircumcised. Thus, in Paul’s argument, circumcision does not indicate the exclusion of the Gentiles. Instead, it actually indicates their inclusion on the basis of faith. As Abraham shows us, justification can only come through faith.

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