Nitzavim + Vayelech: Circumcision of the Heart

Many Christians believe that physical circumcision has been replaced by a spiritual circumcision of the heart. It is evident from the New Testament that for Gentiles who believe in Yeshua (Jesus), circumcision and conversion to Judaism are not necessary for salvation, and in fact these things are discouraged. But what about Jewish believers? And what does it mean that a person’s heart is circumcised?

The first mention of physical circumcision in the Bible is God instructing Abraham that he and his descendants are to circumcise their sons as a lasting sign of the covenant between them: “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” (Genesis 17:10-11). This passage doesn’t say anything about circumcision of the heart, but is very specific in stating that it is circumcision of the flesh, and that it is to continue throughout the generations of Abraham’s descendants, even going so far as to call it an “everlasting covenant” (verse 13). Circumcision was a visible sign of Abraham’s obedience, which as Paul tells us stemmed from his faith in God (Romans 4:11).

The first time circumcision is related to anything non-physical is found in Leviticus 26, which predicts a future day when, after Israel has strayed from the covenant and recognizes their sin, they will be restored: “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… 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” (Leviticus 26:40-42). Here, the people are referred to as having “uncircumcised hearts.” If circumcision was instituted with Abraham as a sign of faithfulness, then the uncircumcision of their hearts indicates their rebellion and refusal to obey God. This is also alluded to in Jeremiah 4:1-4.

We see this symbolism again in this week’s portion where Moses is speaking to the children of Israel about the same future day of exile and restoration. He uses similar language to refer to the disobedience of the Israelites, but he includes a prophecy about how God will remedy the situation: “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, so that you may live… And you shall again obey the Lord, and observe all His commandments which I command you today” (Deuteronomy 30:6, 8). Here we find another clue that circumcision of the heart has to do with obedience and faithfulness. In this time of restoration, everyone whose heart is circumcised by God will be able to obey God faithfully and keep all of His commandments.

There is another allusion to this in the words of the prophet Ezekiel: “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances” (Ezekiel 36:25-27). Again we see that the circumcision or restoration of the heart is related to obedience and following God’s commandments.

Paul echoes these words regarding being circumcised in the flesh without being circumcised in the heart. He tells his Jewish readers, “For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Torah; but if you are a transgressor of the Torah, your circumcision has become uncircumcision” (Romans 2:25). Although the outward circumcision is a sign of faithfulness, if it is not accompanied by a faithfulness and obedience from the heart, then it is not the circumcision which God desires. Paul continues, “So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Torah, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” (verse 26). If a Gentile believer, who is not required to be circumcised, lives his life in obedience to God and His commandments as they apply to him, then he will show that his heart is circumcised, which means that he is obedient to God.

The chapter concludes with Paul saying, “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God” (Romans 2:28-29). Inward circumcision does not invalidate outward circumcision, but outward circumcision is supposed to be a sign and a reminder of the covenant which God made with Abraham because of his inward circumcision. Paul is not saying that Gentile believers become or replace Jews, but he is saying that not everyone who claims to be a Jew is truly acting in a Jewish way (meaning obeying God and keeping His commandments through the power of the Spirit).

Therefore, let us make sure we have allowed God to circumcise our hearts as we seek to know Him and imitate His obedience to the Father, for “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” (Colossians 2:11).

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