Circumcision of the Heart

© Zvonimir Atletic | 123f.com

© Zvonimir Atletic | 123f.com

Circumcision in the Bible made its appearance in Genesis 17, when God appeared to Abraham and made a covenant with him. The sign of this covenant for Abraham and his offspring was that “Every male among you shall be circumcised.” (Genesis 17:10) Male slaves were to be circumcised as well. So every living male was to have his foreskin removed and every male child born to Abraham and his descendants was to be circumcised. Any male who was not circumcised would be cut off (excluded) from his people as a covenant breaker.

Circumcision was practiced by Near Eastern cultures outside of the Israelites. “The circumcision of male boys was a common practice among the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Edomites and the Egyptians. “ (Jeremiah 9:25-26) In these cultures, it was adolescent and adult males who were circumcised, not infants. So it is theorized the ritual was associated with male fertility rites or preparation for marriage. The Philistines were an exception to the rule among the people in Canaan, so they were sometimes referred to as uncircumcised Philistines (Judges 14:3).

Early Greek writers such as Heroditus attributed the origins of circumcision to the Egyptians and Ethiopians: “But as to the Egyptians and Ethiopians themselves, I cannot say which nation learned it from the other; for it is evidently a very ancient custom.”

The practice of circumcision continued under the Mosaic Law. Every male child was to be circumcised (Leviticus 12:3), as was every male sojourner or slave who wanted to participate in the Passover (Exodus 12:43-49). No foreigner, “uncircumcised in heart and flesh,” could enter the sanctuary (Ezekiel 44:9). So circumcision became the final step in New Testament times for a male Gentile converting to the Jewish religion. Paul was accused of attempting to violate this restriction by bringing uncircumcised Gentiles into the temple (Acts 24:6).

Circumcision also became a point of contention in the early days of the church. There was a sect of Christians who argued that Gentiles needed to first convert to Judiaism—they should be circumcised—before they could belong to God’s chosen people. The first Council of Jerusalem decided this wasn’t necessary (Acts 15). Yet Paul was still refuting this expectation in his letter to the Galatians. He said if someone accepted circumcision, they were obligated to keep the whole law (Galatians 5: 3). He even wished that those who continued to unsettle the Galatians over the issue of circumcision, even though it had been settled at the Jerusalem Council, would emasculate themselves (Galatians 5:12).

But circumcision had always been an outward sign of an inward change. There was an expectation from the beginning that there would be heart change in the individual that would be witnessed to by the outward sign of circumcision. Deuteronomy 10:16 calls for the Israelites to circumcise the foreskin of their heart and no longer be stubborn. Commenting on the verse, Samuel Driver said an uncircumcised heart is impervious to good influences and impressions, just as an uncircumcised ear is an ear that cannot listen and takes no pleasure in hearing the word of the Lord (Jeremiah 6:10). Later on in Deuteronomy, as Moses renewed the covenant with Israel, he said: “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”

Jeremiah called for the men of Judah to circumcise themselves to the Lord by removing the foreskin of their hearts (Jeremiah 4:4). He also warned that judgment would come to all those who were uncircumcised in their hearts (Jeremiah 9:26). In the Lexham Bible Dictionary, Kelly Whitcomb and Getachew Kiros said:

This suggests that a circumcised heart, not just a physical circumcision, is necessary to avoid God’s wrath. Even the circumcised Israelites were considered uncircumcised if they did not have knowledge of Yahweh and practice kindness and righteousness.

In Romans 2, Paul made the same point. The circumcised heart is the true circumcision. If uncircumcised people kept the precepts of the law, they would be regarded as if they were circumcised. Robert Mounce commented: “It is one’s action, not one’s physical features, that count.” Therefore, the person who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn the person who is circumcised, but breaks the law (Romans 2:27).

 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Romans 2:28-29)

Notice the inward/outward contrast between what can be seen (physical circumcision and Jewish birth) and what only God can see, the changed heart. As we saw above, Paul’s call for circumcision of the heart by the Spirit, is not new. The true circumcision always was a circumcision of the heart. Douglas Moo, in his commentary The Epistle to the Romans, takes us back to Deuteronomy and Jeremiah:

From the earliest history of Israel, God called on the people to display the kind of inner transformation that could be called a “circumcision of the heart” (e.g., Deut. 10:16; cf. Jer. 4:4). Significantly, it was also recognized that only God could ultimately bring about this heart transformation (Deut. 30:6). There thus grew up in Judaism the expectation that God would one day circumcise the hearts of his people through the work of the Spirit.


Abandoning the Spring of Living Waters

ancient cistern image credit: iStock

ancient cistern
image credit: iStock

Have you done something appalling lately, anything? Has there been something you did that so shocked you that it feels like your hair is standing on end when you think about it? Has what you did meant that some aspect of your life was so devastated, that it is in utter ruins? Keep reading then. The prophet Jeremiah has something to say to you.

Jeremiah 2:9-13 is a “lawsuit” that the Lord brings against His people. From the island of Cyprus in the west, to the land of Kedar in the east, nothing like this has ever happened before. No nation has ever been disloyal to their gods, even though those gods are not really gods! Yet God’s people exchanged the God of glory for gods that cannot help them (Jer. 2:10-11).

10 For cross to the coasts of Cyprus and see, or send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has been such a thing.

11 Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit.

So be appalled; be shocked and utterly devastated. The people of God—His people—have committed two evils. First, they have abandoned the Lord who brought them into the promised land—He who is the spring of Living Water. Second, they have hewn out cisterns for themselves. But these were broken (cracked) cisterns that could not hold water (Jer. 2:12-13).

12 Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the Lord,

13 for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.

The metaphor of fresh flowing water here is contrasted with that of a self-made cistern with cracks in its plastered sides. The captured, brackish water in the cistern would then seep out through the cracks and be lost into the porous limestone. The broken cistern couldn’t hold water. Yet it was preferred to the living waters. To a desert people, this would have been complete and utter foolishness, making it a powerful image of senseless waste. Despite the example of Israel, Judah was making the same idolatrous mistake that brought about the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (Ezek. 16:44-52; 23:1-48).

image credit:

image credit: BibleScreen.com.

I first studied Jeremiah 2:12-13 in seminary, where I wrote a paper on how I believed Larry Crabb misused the verses. In his book, Inside Out, Crabb said the text suggested that while “God assumes His people are thirsty … He never condemns them for that thirst.” My professor, who knew Larry personally, agreed that the verse didn’t really say what Crabb said it did. He then proceeded to give me three or four other passages in Scripture that did.

One of those passages was Psalm 42:1-2: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” Here God does not condemn us when we thirst after Him, the living God. And we can also say that God assumes His people are thirsty. But we have to ask, what am I thirsty for?

In Jeremiah 2:9-13, the answer was that Judah, the people of God, had thirsted after other gods. They forsook the fountain of living waters and exchanged Him for “that which does not profit.” So God does condemn His people when we thirst after other gods. Believers today don’t exchange Christianity for Baal worship. But we will idolize just about anything else. John Calvin commented that: “the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols.” What have you made an idol in your life? “Such are not gods!” (Jeremiah 16:20)

Returning to Jeremiah 2:13, we see that the second evil done by God’s people was to try and capture the fountain of living waters in self-made cisterns. So you can thirst for God, and even turn to the living waters to slack your thirst, but sin in trying to capture or store it. God does not slack our thirst from wells or cisterns that we fashion by our own efforts. “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again.” He invites us to drink from the fountain of living water and never be thirsty again. “The water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:9-14)

Now ask yourself: How do you slack your spiritual thirst? Do you return to the fountain of living waters or try to drink from a self-made cracked and broken cistern?

Do not abandon the spring of Living Waters. Whether you have devastated or ruined part or all of your life; when you have behaved in an appalling manner; when the hair on your head stands on end in thinking about what you have done, return to the fountain of living waters in Jeremiah 2:13. Drink the living water from which you will never be thirsty again.

Where have you abandoned the spring of Living Waters?