Alfred Place Baptist Church

2:25-29 The Spirit Circumcising the Heart

Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a law-breaker. A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.

Romans 2:25-29

In our text there are almost ten references to circumcision. So even numerically it’s clearly important. In fact there is more about circumcision in the New Testament than the Old Testament. The verb and the noun are found in the Old Testament in only eleven different chapters but basically just in four chapters. So we must consider this subject and its significance for the Christian and the Jew. But even in the world today the subject is being discussed. There is, for example, a move in the Danish parliament to make circumcision illegal in Denmark because it is claimed to be an act of violence against baby boys. So we are not talking about a subject of mere historical or theological concern.

The act of circumcising seems to me to be so very typical of the Old Covenant. The command is focused on male babies alone, and there is the physical act with a blade, the consequent pain, the crying of the baby and the bleeding. We consider such an event to be archetypally earthed in that Old Testament dispensation that is now done and gone. Considering the act of physical circumcision we are back considering the Shadowlands of the old dispensation – “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves” (Hebs.10:1). The problem with the Jews was that they were exalting the sign at the expense of what is signified.

  1. CIRCUMCISION’S ORIGIN.

Let’s remind ourselves of its origin. It came from God himself, the decision that this distinguishing bodily mark for all Jewish boys should mark them out as the covenant children of Abraham. Let’s turn to Genesis 17 and read verses 7 through 14; “‘I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.’ Then God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner – those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.’”

So here was a sign that told them and the nations around them that this people believed itself to be in a special relationship with God, a covenant relationship that Jehovah himself had instituted. A covenant was a binding promise usually accompanied by a sign. God had chosen Abraham and his seed as his people, and he was going to bless them in many wonderful ways, but especially in the coming to this people of the Seed, the circumcised Jesus of Nazareth who was going to be the Saviour of the world. So God designed the covenant of grace, and he required circumcision, and the people were to obey God and keep his commandments, and one basic precept was to circumcise their male babies.

Do you remember that strange incident in the life of Moses (my attention was drawn to it by Donald Grey Barnhouse). In the early chapters of Exodus, we read the account of Moses at the burning bush. God appeared to him and he gave him all the promises concerning the struggle with Egypt that was to take place, and the mighty signs of judgment that would occur forcing the hand of Pharaoh. Every objection of Moses was met, and the old patriarch determined to obey God and so return to Egypt from whence he had fled with a price on his head decades earlier and he would help get his enslaved kinfolk out of Pharaoh’s clutches. His belongings, slaves and family were gathered together, and the little band left the home of Jethro, and while they were on their way to Egypt the Lord repeated to Moses the promises of miracles and wonders against Pharaoh.

Then suddenly the narrative judders to a halt. God had just been speaking of slaying the first born of all the Egyptians should they keep stubbornly defying his request to let his people go free. Everything had seemed to be going on nicely, but then in the next verse we meet these shocking words: “At a lodging place on the way, the LORD met Moses and was about to kill him” (Exod.4:24). What’s all this about, God calling and equipping a leader and then seeking to kill him? The explanation is found in the next verse. Moses had married Zipporah the daughter of Jethro, and he hadn’t been scrupulous in the matter of the circumcising his own son. If Moses were to lead God’s people, the leader himself must be most meticulous in leading the nation in observing this sign of the covenant. And because Moses had been disobedient to this command – and it was not a little thing – Jehovah perforated this narrative and this journey to teach him such a lesson that brought him into an encounter with death. Immediately his wife Zipporah acted; she picked up a knife and circumcised their son there and then, and God reprieved Moses. It was a fearful event. Whatever importance a man might – or might not – attach to circumcision, God attached great significance to it – life and death significance (Donald Grey Barnhouse, Romans 1, part 2, p.134). So circumcision for the Jews was not some option that the keener and more religious people might take; it was a divinely required ordinance. There are tribes that practice circumcision today. Numerically the two largest tribes in Kenya are the Kikuyu and the Luo, great rivals. They speak different languages, and one of them practices circumcision; the other does not. Those are optional divergent human traditions, to circumcise or not. There are also medical reasons why some boys may be circumcised. That is human medicine, but in the Old Testament circumcision was a sign of covenant submission to the living God who had granted these people the enormous privilege of being his people. What did it mean?

  1. CIRCUMCISION’S SPIRITUAL SIGNIFICANCE.

i] Circumcision certainly had a national significance distinguishing Israel from the other uncircumcised nations surrounding them. The Philistines could be dismissed by the Jews as ‘uncircumcised dogs’! Of the people of Israel alone God could say, “You only have I known of all the peoples of the world” and they were a circumcised nation.

ii] Circumcision pointed forward also to regeneration by the Holy Spirit, to the removal of the old heart and its being replaced by a new heart. In other words, more was at stake than Jewish national identity. For example in this letter to the Romans, in chapter 4 and verse 11 Paul writes of Abraham that he, “received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” You understand? Paul doesn’t say that Abraham was circumcised because he was a member of the Jewish nation. Paul says that circumcision was a seal – a confirmation – of the righteousness that God had already imputed to him through his trusting in God. Circumcision confirmed the great crisis that had occurred in Abraham’s life when he heard the command of God, and he had to respond or reject it. Immediately Abraham believed God, he acted upon God’s command and his promise. God told him to leave Ur of the Chaldees and go to the place God had prepared for him hundreds of miles away, and so off went Abraham with his possessions and family and servants! God also said to him, “Be circumcised” and he was. He trusted what God said, and was declared righteous by God for believing his promises, and Abraham’s circumcision was a sign upon his body that declared from then on with his body and mind and strength and energy he was going to be doing everything God said. Submitting to circumcision – I suppose the patriarch circumcised himself  –  was a sign that Abraham had a new heart that put God first. What God said to him he did.

Now the prophets of the Old Testament saw that such an example of submission to God was an attitude that every Jew should have. The prophets of the Lord weren’t content that the people bore the outward sign of a circumcised foreskin. What was going on in their hearts? Did they have circumcised hearts? They preached to the people and demanded from them the circumcision of the heart and we find that exhortation throughout the Old Testament. Deuteronomy chapter 10 and verse 16 is an instructive example. It says, “Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.” That’s a call for obedience as the next verse addresses “the Lord your God, for he is God of gods, and Lord of Lords, a great God, a mighty and a terrible” (v. 17). Then there’s the promise that Moses makes to a repentant people in Deuteronomy chapter 30 and verse 6. It is also important, “The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.” So it is through the circumcision of the heart that a man is enabled to love the Lord his God and give obedience to him. Again Jeremiah chapter 4 and verse 4 is notable: it is a warning about ignoring your heart and just being confident that you’ve been bodily circumcised; “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, circumcise your hearts, you men of Judah and people of Jerusalem, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done – burn with no-one to quench it.” Jeremiah is preaching a sermon on repentance and he is using the figure of circumcising the heart.

So you see how this fits in exactly with what Paul says in our text; “a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God” (v.29). Paul is standing in solidarity with the Old Testament prophets and here he is reminding his fellow countrymen of that message. Do you remember how he wrote to the Philippians saying to them, “For we are the circumcision which worship God in the Spirit and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3: 3), in other words, those who are justified by faith alone, and doing what God says, they place no confidence in the fact that they’d been circumcised on the eighth day. They’re rejoicing in the fact that they have been born again, regenerated through the grace of God, rejoicing in the Messiah Jesus through having circumcised hearts. So, I am saying to you that while circumcision as a rite does indeed refer to the national sign of Israel – the one nation in the world that God knows and loves – more importantly than that it refers to the necessity of the circumcision of people’s hearts, and therefore it cannot be exclusively a natural, national and statist statement.

iii] Circumcision pointed forward to baptism. The most important verses that bring together baptism and circumcision are found in Colossians chapter 2 and verses 9 through 12; “For in Christ all the fulness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fulness in Christ, who is the Head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”  Paul writes in these verses of the circumcision done by Christ, and that probably is a reference to the death of Christ, that he was cut off from the fellowship of the living. We were joined to him when he died, so that in that Golgotha circumcision we also through faith were dead, buried and then on the third day raised with him by God’s power. What a wonderful circumcision we have all known as Christians today, both men and women, much better than the Judaizers’ message that every Gentile who became a Christian needed to be circumcised. No knife held in human hands was applied to our bodies. In Jesus Christ’s willing sacrifice and circumcision-death we were also put to death and the benefits of his salvation became ours when we by faith were joined to him. This dying and rising in Christ was all powerfully symbolised in our water baptism when we were pictured as entering the grave with Christ and rising with him in newness of life.

A proud man might brush aside your evangelistic words and assure you that he’s all right with God, that he doesn’t need your witnessing to him because he has ‘asked Jesus into his heart’ and more than that, he’s been baptised. But you can tell that something is wrong with his testimony, and you begin to probe gently, to ask about his Christian life; “Do you attend church on Sundays? Do you read the Bible? Are you ready always to give a reason for your hope in Jesus? Do you pray every day? Are you careful what you watch on the web? Do you give to the work of the gospel? On what are you basing your hopes of going to heaven?” and so on.  His profession with his lips, and the baptism of his body in water are of little value at all if nothing is flowing out of a circumcised heart that declares that it is a new heart of flesh, not stone, and he is a new creation.

iv] Circumcision points forward to the mortification of remaining sin. I am almost persuaded to believe that this is the most significant typology of circumcision. When we are regenerated and given a birth from above, and made new creations, and given a heart of flesh – all those expressions of the radical cleavage with what once we were – then God doesn’t remove all our sin from us at that time. He removes its lordship; he kills our independence from God. It no longer rules our lives, but sin still exists in every Christian’s life and our task is to be constantly killing it day by day. Give it no tit-bits; feed it no scraps. Don’t look at that porn, don’t fantasise about possessions and places that can never be yours, don’t get over friendly with flatterers who oppose the gospel. Remember what Paul says in the greatest chapter in the Bible, Romans 8, “if by the Spirit you put to death (you cut off and circumcise) the misdeeds of the body, you will live,” (Roms.8:13) and again in Colossians chapter 3 and verse 5, “Put to death, therefore,(circumcise) whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed.” Circumcise the misdeeds of the body; separate them, cut them off from you, and let them die. Never stop doing it. Circumcise whatever belongs to your earthly nature. That is what mortification does; it is the spiritual fulfilment of circumcision.

Now that is how the image of circumcision is used in the Old Testament as a mortifying act. For example, Jeremiah the prophet preaches to the people and he passes this judgment on the people, “Behold, their ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot hearken; behold the word of God is unto them a reproach and they have no delight in it” (Jer. 6:10 A.V.). You are growing weary in hearing the gospel preached. You are neglecting the study of the Bible. Your taste for the word of God is jaded. The reason is that your ears are full of the wax of the excitements and pleasure of the world. You are deafened to God’s voice. “Circumcise my ears, Lord!” you must pray, that is take away the forces that are stopping me growing and maturing in my love for the Bible. Jesus met that problem and he cried to his congregation, “He that hath ears to hear let him hear.” Or to the seven churches, “Let him that has an ear hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” Mortify everything that stops you hearing the word of God.

Or again there is the possibility of us having uncircumcised lips. Moses was conscious that he often blurted out words and arguments that were carnal. He protested his unfittedness to speak as the mouthpiece of God; “Behold the children of Israel have not hearkened unto me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips?” (Ex. 6:12 AV). And later from his heart he cried, “Behold I am of uncircumcised lips, and how shall Pharaoh hearken unto me” (Ex. 6:30 AV). So let’s watch our lips and our words, being slow to speak, slow to get angry, asking God for wisdom. Mortify you sinful speech. Circumcise your lips and larynx and tongue. So circumcision point forward to mortifying remaining sin.

  1. CIRCUMCISION’S EVIDENCE SEEN IN OBEYING GOD’S LAW.

Paul would never say that circumcision was a valueless rite. What he does say is . . .

i] You may not detach it from all the other requirements of the will of God. Imagine a man dying of an incurable disease who yet boasts that there’s one part of his body which is healthy. He says, “I have such good hearing,” or he says, “My big toe works fine!” What good is that if cancer has spread to all the rest of his body? So you may have been circumcised absolutely brilliantly, and by the top rabbi in Jerusalem thirty years ago, but what of your daily life under heaven? Is your chief end to glorify and enjoy God? Paul lays down the law of God, that “Circumcision has value if you observe the law” (v.25). Do you love God and love your neighbour? If not, what good is any past ritual doing for you today? Here is a husband and the one thing he does in his family is wash the dishes. He’s no companion to his wife. He ignores the children. He refuses to find a job. He lets the garden turn into a jungle. He is a spendthrift and a gambler. When you talk to him about any of his deficiencies he has one response, “Oh, I wash the dishes.” Or again, here is a preacher who is eloquent in what he says. He has a voice like the voice of Dylan Thomas, but he ignores everybody, and he never prays, and he won’t reach out to speak to anyone about the gospel, and he never studies the Bible or books about the Christian faith – what good is his eloquence and fine voice if he neglects every other aspect of the Christian ministry? The Jews at our Lord’s time had absolutized circumcision; “We have Abraham for our father and we’re circumcised just like him.” But did they believe in God and obey God’s word as Abraham had done? There is value in circumcision if you also live by trusting and obeying God. Abraham did. He lived by doing the word of God.

The act of circumcision can’t be extracted from the framework in which it is found in the Old Testament. It would be like removing the smile of the Mona Lisa from her famous portrait. It can only be appreciated in the whole context of the face and the background. Today we’re meeting in the presence of the living God who has intervened in our lives and brought us here. He has made great promises to us. He has saved us by his grace, and he encourages growth in grace, and the killing of remaining sin in us and in all his people. Our personal circumcision of remaining sin is earthed in all of that. So Paul lays down some basic principles. This is what he says . . .

ii] If you’re circumcised, and yet live a life of defiance towards the law of God, then it’s as if you’d never been circumcised at all (v.25). Paul tells these people, who were so proud that God loved them and that they’d become his chosen people, that if they defied God’s law then they’d be no different whatsoever from the uncircumcised Philistines. Can you picture the fight? On the one hand a Philistine named Goliath, uncircumcised, and against him young David, circumcised, and we’re all cheering for David, “Kill him David! Cut his head off!” And yet twenty years later, the circumcised David has accumulated a quiver full of wives, and dissatisfied with them he gets a certain man’s wife pregnant, and then he arranges the murder of that brave man, Uriah, so that he can have another wife to add to his collection. It’s as if David had never been circumcised, to behave like that. Some Philistine kings were more moral than the king of the Jews. And when God breaks his heart David never protests to God, “But I’m OK. I’m circumcised.” Of course he doesn’t say that. He says this to Jehovah, “You don’t delight in sacrifice, or I’d bring it; you don’t take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psa. 51:16&17). All he can bring to God – all we inconsistent Christians can bring to God is a circumcised heart. God doesn’t despise circumcised hearts. Then another principle Paul lays down . . .

iii] If those Gentiles who’ve never been circumcised yet keep the requirements of the law of God then they’ll be regarded as though they were actually circumcised. Think of Doctor Luke, the beloved physician, a Gentile who writes his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. Think of his life; he has no other gods but the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He hates idols and idol worship. He never takes God’s name in vain. Each week he has a day in which he gives himself to worship and to works of medical necessity. He honours his parents. He does no violence to anyone; he is not guilty of any sexual misdemeanor; he does not steal or lie or covet. All the twelve apostles and Jewish Christians in every church in Judea, Asia Minor, Greece and Rome never think of him in any way other than he is their circumcised brother – though he is not, but his godly and loving character have won the admiration of them all. “Luke our uncircumcised and yet circumcised Gentile brother” because they have learned to appreciate that what counted was not the knife cutting away the foreskin, but a heart that’s been circumcised. Paul is saying this (summarizes John Stott), “Circumcision minus obedience equals uncircumcision. Uncircumcision plus obedience equals circumcision.”

iv] Uncircumcised Gentiles – like Luke – who obey the law will actually condemn you circumcised Jews who are law-breakers.  What a scene! Those proud Jews, boasting in their special relationship with God, and conscious that they’re so superior to the poor uncircumcised Gentiles, are in for a rude awakening. The Day of Judgment is going to find ranks of circumcised Jews standing in the midst of Gentile goats, hearing Jehovah Jesus saying to them all, “Depart from me ye cursed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” And the Amens at their condemnation will come from the hosts of Gentile sheep who have loved and followed the Saviour, Jesus of Nazareth and those Jews also who by the spirit have been given circumcised hearts.

They had been circumcised according to the flesh, but that outward act alone could not make them what their disobedience proved they were not. Here is a crab apple tree with apples as bitter as gall and as hard as pebbles. You can buy a sack of the best New Zealand Gala apples and tie each one on every branch of the crab apple tree. The tree looks delicious and smells delicious, but what is it? It is still a crab apple tree. Men may lay hands on you, and pour oil and perfume all over you, and clothe you in white garments, and wash you in what they call ‘holy water,’ but you will still be a rebel with a heart of stone in the sight of God. Paul says you can give your body to be burned, and give everything you possess to the poor but still be a stranger to God’s grace. The circumcised are as much exposed to the judgment of God as are the Gentiles. Make yourself a circumcised heart.

  1. CIRCUMCISION AND THE TRUE JEW.

Paul says this in the last two verses; “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God” (vv.28&29). I was once in Jerusalem at the Garden Tomb and I went into the shop there and there was a Jewish man talking to the Englishman volunteering for a few months to work there. The Jews said to him, “Are you a Jew?” and the Englishman replied by quoting these words of Paul “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.” It was a brilliant reply which opened up the conversation to explain what real Christianity is all about.

What is God looking for? It is this, heart circumcision that from now on completely replaces the knife and the bleeding and the cry of pain. He is not asking for both – for the two, in other words heart circumcision plus bodily circumcision. Circumcision is part of the badger skin and the tent poles and shittim wood and the altar and the feasts in Jerusalem. Their time is over and gone. Good bye for ever to all of that. The written code that spelled out these ceremonial requirements has ended. Now there is the work in men’s hearts, by the Spirit of God, and all through the rest of this letter Paul returns again and again to that theme.

I have been reading the life of that fascinating Christian man Robert Hicks in Thank God for King James (Day One). He came from a terrible violent home, but had been reading and memorizing the Bible. One day as a teenager he discovered the Jiggins Lane Gospel Hall nearby to where he lived in the Midlands. He went there joining the dozen people and at the end of the service talked with a Mr. Barnwell who was quite perplexed by his knowledge of the Bible but it was accompanied by a personal ignorance of redemption, finally asked him, “Are you born again Robert? Have you received the Lord Jesus as your Saviour?” and though he did not understand what the terms meant then, they stuck in his mind and a month or so later they were still there and he knelt in his bedroom and called upon Jesus to come into his life and forgive him his sins. In that ugly evil place of abuse and beatings he became a child of heaven with a new loving Father by entrusting himself to the Lord Jesus.

So Paul sums up all he has to say to us in these four truths

I] The essence of being a truly religious man is not found in something outward but what is inward and invisible.

II] True circumcision is of the heart not the flesh.

III] True circumcision is effected by the Spirit, not the law.

IV] True circumcision is what wins the approval of God, not the approval of a nation or of men.

April 6th 2014   GEOFF THOMAS