Exploring Moses' odd metaphor for Israel's relationship to God.
by Robert Friedman | March 01 1981
“A bris in the heart!” Sounds strange. Maybe even a bit ridiculous to modern ears, doesn’t it? Yet God Himself speaks of circumcision of the heart in the Jewish Scriptures. And strange as it may seem, it holds as deep a meaning for us today as it did when God first gave circumcision in Abraham’s time.
To understand circumcision of the heart, we first must look at the rite of circumcision of the flesh.
The record begins in the 12th and 15th chapters of Genesis. God made unconditional promises to Abraham that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars in the sky; that through his descendants all the nations would be blessed; that Abraham’s people would be given a great land to occupy and that all who blessed them would in turn be blessed. Then, in the 17th chapter of Genesis, we read:
This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised.
And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants.
A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.
The key here is that circumcision was to be a “sign of the covenant” that had already been given, with no strings attached, to Abraham.
The rite of circumcision was made a part of the Law of Moses several hundred years later when God gave instruction concerning the birth of a male: “And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised” (Leviticus 12:3).
This practice was continued generation after generation, but when the nation of Israel was forced to wander 40 years in the wilderness the rite of circumcision temporarily ceased.
Some authorities believe God demanded this generation die out because of their refusal to believe Him when He told them to enter the promised land (Numbers 14:32-35). And so a rejected generation no longer practiced circumcision.
The disobedient nation of Israel, roaming like lost sheep in the wilderness, were momentarily taken out of the covenant. They had refused to believe God’s promise when He told them to take the land, and now they were paying for their rebellion.…
Yet with God’s punishment comes God’s love, for when the 40 year journey was ending, the covenant—and all its blessings—returned.
As soon as the nation of Israel crossed the Jordan into the land of milk and honey the Lord God immediately gave a command to Joshua: “At that time the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Make for yourself flint knives and circumcise again the sons of Israel the second time.’ ” (Joshua 5:2.)
Now that they were in the land, back in the place of faith enjoying obedience and fellowship with God, the practice of circumcision was restored and the people of Israel were blessed by God.
Israel has always had a special place in the sight of God. He chose the nation to point the way to Himself and to spread His love among all the nations. Since circumcision was the sign of the covenant which involved this universal blessing, it had significance beyond its observance as a national rite.
Practically, we can’t show the world we’ve been circumcised, but God’s covenant extends further than just the physical realm. A way has been provided in which our words and actions can show the nations God has touched us. We read His promise in Deuteronomy 30:6:
“Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live.”
This type of circumcision, by definition a circumcision of the spirit and not the flesh, goes to the heart of a man, to his soul, his essence, his attitudes and relationship with God. Because this theme of an inner circumcision is so important, God repeats and stresses it, as in Deuteronomy 10:12-16:
“And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require from you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
And to keep the Lord’s commandments and His statutes which I am commanding you today for your good?
Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the highest heavens, the earth and all that is in it.
Yet on your fathers did the Lord set His affection to love them, and He chose their descendants after them, even you above all peoples, as it is this day.
Circumcise then your heart, and stiffen your neck no more.”
Over and over again God probes the inner man, the real person. His discerning eyes won’t allow us to hide behind social facades, adopted mannerisms or walls of materialism. Before God each man is seen just as he is. His innermost thoughts, thoughts he may wish to hide from the world, are exposed by the light of God.
God requires us to keep all His statutes and laws, and yet which one of us can possibly keep all of them all the days of our lives? The prophet writes:
“For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”
On one hand God tells us to keep all His statutes. On the other the prophet recognizes the human condition: we all fall short of perfection and therefore cannot possibly keep all the Law all the time.
Yet, as we read in Deuteronomy 30:6, God does not expect us to circumcise our own hearts. He says He will do that. But how? And what does He expect from us? Let’s look at Leviticus 26:40-42:
“If they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their forefathers, in their unfaithfulness which they committed against Me, and also in their acting with hostility against Me—
I also was acting with hostility against them, to bring them into the land of their enemies—or if their uncircumcised heart becomes humbled so that they then make amends for their iniquity,
Then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and My covenant with Abraham as well, and I will remember the land.”
This appears to be a spiritual operation, but we sense within ourselves that we lack the divine power necessary to perform this—to change our own heart. Then we remember this is an operation God said He would perform.
King David knew the secret, for after he had sinned against God by taking Bathsheba, he pleaded, in Psalm 51:10-12:
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Thy presence, and do not take Thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Thy salvation, and sustain me with a willing spirit.”
David said, “Do not take Thy Holy Spirit from me.” The Holy Spirit, the Ruach Ha’kodesh of the ages is the renewing force. It was the Holy Spirit of God which brought peace, comfort and joy to David. He knew what it was like to live both with and without God’s Spirit dwelling within him.
It’s this very Spirit which David called upon to create a clean heart within him—to renew him. In other words, it is the Holy Spirit of God which performs the circumcision of the heart.
From Abraham to David to you, the inner circumcision continues.
Today we have a promise from God, a promise He always keeps. He has promised for every person who places his trust in the Messiah, in the Anointed One of Israel, this Holy Spirit will indwell him and circumcise his heart, making it right with God.
At some point we all face God as uncircumcised, unrenewed searchers after truth. We stand as animated beings of flesh without God’s Spirit inside us. We seek our own truth and walk our own paths.
Perhaps you’ve searched and walked and questioned without finding the heart-changing, spiritual answers you’ve known are there but have never discovered.
Maybe now God is telling you that by placing your faith in Messiah Jesus His Spirit will circumcise your heart and refresh you today and forever.
As you confess Messiah Jesus as Lord and Savior, the One promised by the ancient prophets of Israel, the sacrificed Lamb of God, you too will be able to stand with other believers in Him and fully appreciate the words of Saul of Tarsus. Saul, an ancient scholar of Israel who became the apostle Paul, writes of an eternal circumcision of the heart:
“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Messiah.
For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form.
And in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Messiah.
Having been buried with Him in baptism (of the Spirit), in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.
And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions.
Having cancelled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.”
-Colossians 2:8-9, 11-14 New Testament
We pray you, too, will seek, find and be refreshed by His Spirit.