The Letter to the Romans



8. The Spirit circumcises

Romans 2:25-29


Paul has been specifically addressing the Jews and their arrogance at having and teaching the law while simultaneously breaking it. He then addresses their symbol of ethnic pride: circumcision. "Circumcision has value if you observe the law," he writes, "but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised." (v. 25) In other words, if a circumcised Jew, an acknowledged member of the community, breaks the law, the circumcision has no more meaning. He is, in spiritual reality, no longer a Jew; he's no longer one of God's people.

Circumcision represented a covenant between the Jews and God; when a Jew broke the law, Paul is saying, he put himself outside the covenant.

Circumcision was not invented with the children of Israel. Many pagan people practiced circumcision before God called Abraham. God used the rite as a symbol, however, of a powerful commitment between him and Abraham's promised descendants.

After Abraham took matters into his own hands and produced a son by Hagar, his wife Sarah's bondwoman, God made it clear that His promise was not going to be fulfilled through the son of Abraham's effort. One year before Isaac would be born, the Lord appeared to Abraham to finalize his covenant with him. God repeated his promise to Abraham that he would be a father of many nations, and that the whole land of Canaan, where Abraham was then an alien, would one day belong to his descendants forever. He reiterated that Sarah would bear a child, whereupon Abraham laughed. Sarah was 90 years old; he was 99. (see Genesis 17:3-21)

When God repeated his promises to Abraham, however, he added a new requirement: circumcision. Circumcision was to be the sign that Abraham and his descendants would practice as a sign that they would honor God's covenant with them. Abraham was to circumcise every male member of his household including his servants, and from then on every male child born to Abraham's promised descendants was to be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth.

It was common practice in the world of Abraham's day for a conquering king to make a treaty, or covenant, with the people of a conquered nation. The covenant would list the things each side of the treaty would be required to do. God had promised to be responsible for everything in this treaty between him and Abraham. The only thing he was now requiring was that, as a sign of commitment to the covenant between them-specifically, as a sign of commitment to God and his faithfulness to fulfill the covenant, Abraham's descendants would be circumcised.

Ancient treaties commonly included what was known as a "self-maledictory oath". The covenant parties promised to be faithful to their agreement on pain of corporal penalty. By Abraham's agreeing to the sign of circumcision for himself and his offspring, he and each Israelite male for generations were saying in effect, "If I fail to honor God as my only Lord, and if I fail to worship and obey only him, may his sword cut off me and my descendants from him forever, even as I have cut off my foreskin." (see notes in the NIV Study Bible for Genesis 17:10)

Abraham promptly had his household circumcised, including himself. Ishmael was 13 at the time. After Ishmael was sent away, he circumcised his descendants at the age of 13, a ceremony which Arabs and others practice as a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. (see NIV study notes, NIV Study Bible, Genesis 17:12)

God's declaration that Abraham's promised descendants must be circumcised on the eighth day set them apart from other people who also practiced circumcision. It symbolized that Israelite babies were part of God's covenant people from infanthood. God didn't wait until they became men to claim them. Their commitment to honor and obey God began at birth, and God's promises were for them from the time they were born.


Circumcision of the Heart

As Paul clarified in the previous chapter, for a Jew to break the law put him in a position equivalent to being uncircumcised. Circumcision was the sign that a Jew would honor, worship, and obey God alone. As Paul said in Galatians 5:3, every man who is circumcised is "obligated to obey the whole law." To break the law was to put oneself outside the covenant relationship with God. Such a person's circumcision meant nothing as long as he was disobedient. His status was no more than that of a Gentile.

The problem was that circumcision did not enable the Jews to keep the law. It symbolized something that demanded a heart response. The obedience which circumcision represented was possible only with a right heart attitude. Through Jeremiah God entreated Israel to circumcise their hearts, "or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done." (Jeremiah 4:4) By wearing His symbol on their bodies but disobeying him in their hearts and actions, they were desecrating His covenant with them.

God gave a curious prophecy through Jeremiah in chapter 9:25-26. He said the days were coming when he would punish all people who were circumcised [as a covenant symbol] only in the flesh. Then he named examples: "Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, and Moab" and all those in distant, desert places. These, God said, were uncircumcised. In fact, the "whole house of Israel" is uncircumcised in their hearts.

The nations that God names in this prophecy were all intimately connected with Israel. Egypt has been called "the womb" of God's people. Abraham and Sarah found refuge from famine in Egypt on their trek from Ur to Canaan. Joseph ruled there and provided food during a famine, thereby saving the lives of his family. The Israelites grew to a viable size in Egypt. Moses was reared and trained there; Joseph took Mary and the young Jesus to Egypt to find refuge from Herod's death threat.

Edom was the nation that descended from Esau, the twin brother of Jacob who fathered the twelve sons whose names identified the eventual tribes of Israel. Israel was commanded not to hate Esau and his descendants. They were related-and, as descendants of the grandson of Abraham, Edomites would likely have been circumcised even though God's promises were not being fulfilled through their branch of the family tree.

Ammon was the nation descended from Lot and his union with his younger daughter. The Ammonites were regarded as relatives of Israel, and Israel was commanded to treat them kindly. Similarly, Moab was Lot's son by his elder daughter. They also were relatives of Israel, and in spite of Moab's rudeness to Moses and the Children of Israel on their journey through the desert to Canaan, God forbade Moses to attack Moab.

God listed Judah and the whole house of Israel along with their close but unchosen relatives in this text. Their inheritance as relatives of Abraham (except for Egypt who had no blood ties to him) made their circumcision meaningless. God demanded circumcision of the heart, and they did not surrender their hearts to Him for that surgery.

The nations of the desert were the Arab nations, the descendants of Ishmael. They, too, were circumcised because of their connection to Abraham, but their hearts were also uncircumcised. They did not honor God.

Circumcision represented the relationship God wanted to have with his covenant people. They viewed their mark as the "seal of God", so to speak, but God was clear that the physical mark did not make them worthy of his blessing. In Leviticus 26:40-42 God said if Israel would confess their sins and allow their "uncircumcised hearts" to be humbled, allowing them to be able to take responsibility for and to pay for their sins, then God would "remember [his] covenant" with Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham, and he would remember the land.

Deuteronomy 10:16 records God begging Israel to circumcise their hearts and to stop being "stiff-necked". Deuteronomy 30:6 adds more light onto the heart circumcision process. In this text Moses declares that God will circumcise their hearts so they could love him with all their hearts and souls. Heart circumcision, unlike physical circumcision, is a process that requires God to perform.

Jeremiah wrote an interesting variation on the circumcision theme. In chapter 6:10 he declared that Israel's ears were closed, or uncircumcised, and they would not hear God. Ezekiel gave the word of the Lord that accused Israel of bringing uncircumcised foreigners into the temple and putting them in charge of "my sanctuary".

"No foreigner uncircumcised in heart and flesh is to enter my sanctuary," God declared. (see Ezekiel 44:7-9)

God's concern has always been the heart commitment of his people. The physical symbol he gave Abraham was a tangible reminder of God's claim on them and of their responsibility to honor God, to be in relationship with him so His covenant with them could be fulfilled. In the days before sin had been atoned, when it was not possible for the Spirit of God to indwell humans and to create new hearts of flesh instead of stone, the physical reminder was even more important than it is today. God's people needed to be powerfully reminded that their relationships with the Lord were bought with a price. Their physical scars foreshadowed the physical scars Jesus would bear for eternity as the symbol of the price he paid for our sin.

In addition, circumcision was a physical sign in the Israelites' flesh that their seed was sacred, a race set apart for God, never to be mixed or commingled with other people. That symbolism was fulfilled when God gave believers the new birth. With the indwelling Holy Spirit, people become a new "race", holy people set apart for God, commanded not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers. The physical sign that symbolized Israel's ethnic separateness foreshadowed the reality of the new race of people born again by the Holy Spirit.


Two Signs

Circumcision was the sign of God's covenant with Abraham and his descendants. It represented God's promise to give Abraham's offspring a promised Seed, land, and blessings. It represented the Israelite's obligation to honor and obey God. It was the sign that preceded the law, and it was intimately connected to the promises of God.

When God led Israel out of Egypt and into the desert of Sinai over 400 years later, he gave the fledgling nation a new sign. While circumcision remained the sign of their entrance into God's covenant of promise, the law brought with it a symbol of continuing obedience: the Sabbath. While circumcision happened once and reflected the once-for-all physical sacrifice Jesus would offer for their salvation, the Sabbath was a repeated sign that marked their continuing obedience and set them apart from other nations because on that day Israel rested and trusted God's work for them. It foreshadowed the believer's eternal rest in Christ's finished work of salvation.

Ezekiel 20:12 says, "Also I gave them my Sabbaths as a sign between us, so they would know that I the Lord made them holy." The Sabbath was never intended as an arbitrary sign of mere obedience. It was a sign of Jesus' righteousness which was his promise for his people. It was a sign of the spiritual rest which Jesus's followers would one day experience through the miracle of the new birth.

Many of us today have misused the Sabbath command. Instead of seeing it for what it was, a foreshadowing of rest in Christ, we have used it as a modern replacement for circumcision. We have worn the Sabbath as a badge of belonging, of uniquely possessing correct doctrine, of belonging to God's only true church, and of being God's only true people. We missed the point of both circumcision and of the Sabbath, just as the Jews missed the point.

Both circumcision and the Sabbath had in common the fact that God declared that they were everlasting covenants. Genesis 17:13 declares circumcision to be "my covenant in your flesh [which would] be an everlasting covenant." Similarly, Exodus 31:13 says this about the Sabbath: "Say to the Israelites, 'You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy." Verses 16-17 confirm that the Sabbath was to be a "lasting covenant", "a sign between me and the Israelites forever."

Both signs were declared to be everlasting covenants between God and Israel. Both were required as signs of entering covenant relationships with God, and both were required for blessings on Israel. In the new covenant, however, these shadows of ultimate reality were rendered obsolete.

In 1 Corinthians 7:17-20, Paul clearly says that circumcision no longer has any meaning. People should remain in whatever condition, circumcised or uncircumcised, they are in when they accept Jesus. "Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God's commands is what counts," he wrote to those new Gentile Christians.

In Colossians 2:16-17, Paul similarly retires the seventh-day Sabbath as a requirement for following God. "Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ."

When Jesus came, his body suffered and died. He rose bearing eternally the physical marks of his crucifixion. His covenant in Israel's flesh, circumcision, was fulfilled in his own body. At Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon those who believed, the eternal fulfillment of His covenant in Israel's body was literally fulfilled. Because of Jesus' eternal marks of sacrifice, God himself now inhabits the flesh of believers. They are a new race born of the Holy Spirit, set apart for God's work and for worshipping him. The indwelling Holy Spirit has fulfilled the covenant of circumcision. He has established the true meaning of circumcision in his believers: circumcision of the heart, a race set apart for holiness.

"Watch out for those dogsmutilators of the flesh," Paul warned in Philippians 3:2-4. We who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus are the circumcision, he emphasizes.

To the Colossians Paul wrote they were circumcised in Christ in putting off the sinful nature. This "surgery" was not done by human hands, he stressed, but was done by Christ. (Colossians 2:11-12) Only in Christ could spiritual circumcision and rebirth into the family of God happen.

Likewise, Jesus' paying the penalty of sin and forever erasing its curse from the lives of those who believe in him has fulfilled in the hearts of believers the obligatory weekly Sabbath. Now, eternal Sabbath rest in Christ has revealed the true meaning of the seventh day. The physical behavior has been replaced by the true intent of the shadow: hearts at rest in the finished work of Christ. This reality is made possible by the true circumcision of the heart which the Holy Spirit performs in God's people.



The Jews were proud of their circumcision, the physical proof that they were God's people. They had the birthright, and they had the revealed law. Their chosen status, however, did not result in their humility or commitment to obedience. Rather, they developed a sense of entitlement which blinded them to their own sin and made their hearts impermeable to the wooing of God's Spirit.

Jesus is trying to get your attention. He wants you to know the truth about yourself and your spiritual condition. He wants you to acknowledge the sins of motivation and attitude that keep you from experiencing the peace and freedom of trusting in Christ.

If you have accepted Jesus, the Holy Spirit wants to heal your heart. He wants to reveal to you the habitual attitudes and sins which stand between you and intimacy with Jesus. He is calling you to acknowledge the areas in which you feel pride and specialness. He is asking you to release those areas in your life to Him, allowing Jesus to fill that void instead. He is calling you to realize that he has prepared in advance the work he wants you to do, and whatever you do for Him is really His Spirit at work in you.

Jesus wants you to let go of the fears and skills you have and allow Jesus to give you His identity. Allow him to show you how he wants you to use the skills and talents he has given you. Let him present to you the work he wants you to do.

As a born again child of God, your life and your person are his. Jesus himself becomes your great reward. Let him fill your heart and your senses until you find your fulfillment and pleasure only in him.

If you have not accepted Jesus as your Savior, He is asking you to admit your helplessness to be good. He is asking you to surrender the control of yourself to him and accept his death and resurrection for you. He wants to bring peace into your chaos. He wants to perform his heart circumcision on you and make you part of his family.

Praise God for the revealing metaphors of the old covenant that foreshadowed the mysterious reality of the new covenant. Praise Jesus for fulfilling the symbols of the Old Covenant, for bearing in his body the marks that bought our belonging. Praise the Holy Spirit for completing the New Covenant in us, for indwelling us and for bringing us to eternal life!

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!

Copyright (c) 2003 Graphics Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Posted August 14, 2003.
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