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What is the Meaning of Being Circumcised of Heart, or the Circumcision of Christ?

Students of the Bible will be aware of the act of circumcision that was performed in the Old Covenant. It was commanded of Abraham, and also in the Mosaic Law (Gen. 17:9-14; Lev. 12:1-3). These are good to remember, but some may be surprised by other circumcisions in the Bible. Those being the circumcision of the heart, and the circumcision of Christ.

We need to understand both to recognize our point of entry into the Body of Christ. In the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul spoke of the Jewish people often. He described their keeping of the Mosaic Law, and the physical practice of circumcision. The end of the second chapter of the letter contains references to both of these ideas, “For circumcision indeed profits, if you are a doer of the law, but if you are a transgressor of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26 If therefore the uncircumcised keep the ordinances of the law, won’t his uncircumcision be accounted as circumcision?” (Rom. 2:25-26).

Look at all the different ways these topics are explored back and forth,

  • Doing the law and transgressing it
  • Circumcision and uncircumcision
  • Keeping the ordinances of the law
  • Being accounted as circumcision

Paul then ends the chapter by saying, “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh; 29 but he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men, but from God” (Rom. 2:28-29).

By writing that, he is making a contrast between the Jews of the Old Covenant, and those who are of the New. This is an amazing statement, and something that would have been very challenging to accept. According to verse 29, a Jew is one who is circumcised inwardly, of the heart, in the spirit. The children of Israel who tried to keep the letter of the Law were circumcised outwardly, in the flesh. This first circumcision was physical. The latter circumcision is spiritual.

For some, this may seem bizarre. After all, in Galatians the apostle writes, “For in Christ Jesus neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:15).

He says clearly that circumcision and uncircumcision are not anything. So why should we care about the circumcision mentioned in Romans 2:29?

It is because he is speaking of physical circumcision in Galatians, but in Romans he is contrasting the old physical act with another that is done spiritually.

Circumcision of the Heart

To recognize this reality, it may be helpful to notice that the Old Covenant speaks of more than just one circumcision. Another one is brought up multiple times in Deuteronomy. 

In chapter 10 of that book, the need to fear God, walk in His ways, love Him, and serve Him with all your heart and soul are all commanded (Deut. 10:12-13). The children of Israel are reminded that they were chosen above all people, and then it says, “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiff-necked” (Deut. 10:16).

The reason for this exhortation is because of God’s great strength. The people must not be stiff-necked, but rather have their hearts circumcised. Yahweh is God of gods, and Lord of lords, the great God, the mighty, and the awesome, who doesn’t respect persons, nor takes reward (Deut 10:17). God is Almighty, and must be feared. As such, His people should not be stiff-necked, but rather humble, and circumcised of heart.

This circumcision is again referred to at the end of the book.

Yahweh your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your offspring, to love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, that you may live.

Deuteronomy 30:6

One fascinating aspect of these references is that both instances encourage people to love God with all their hearts and souls. The Lord Jesus repeats these statements in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:29-30; Luke 10:27).

Later in Israel’s history, the prophet Jeremiah prophesies to the men of Judah. Unfortunately, it is because of the evil of their doing. Like in Deuteronomy, he speaks of circumcising the foreskin of their hearts, “For Yahweh says to the men of Judah and to Jerusalem, ‘Break up your fallow ground, and don’t sow among thorns. 4 Circumcise yourselves to Yahweh, and take away the foreskins of your heart, you men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; lest my wrath go out like fire, and burn so that no one can quench it, because of the evil of your doings’ “(Jer. 4:3-4). 

By this time, much of the Jewish people were disobedient for centuries. Despite that, God’s mercy was still evident. The prophet called for the people to repent and turn back to the Lord. Sadly, if we looked later in the book of Jeremiah we would see that they did not repent. However, the call to circumcise the heart remained.

The New Circumcision 

As I shared earlier, Romans 2:29 reads, “but he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit,…” Having examined a few verses in Deuteronomy and Jeremiah, we now know that this circumcision is not a new idea. It was spoken of in the time of Moses, and both the apostle Paul and Jesus would have surely known of it.

The apostle mentions it directly here in Romans, and Jesus shared truths that were closely related to it.

Another way to think of this circumcision is that it is made without hands. No man physically cuts our bodies to circumcise us. Instead, God does a spiritual act upon us. He cuts us off from the body of the sins of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ. 

Paul teaches that in his letter to the Colossians. In the second chapter he proclaims that the fullness of the Deity dwelt in Jesus bodily, and that He is the head of all principality and power (Col. 2:9-10). He also explains that the saints in Colossae were made full in Him, and that they “…were also circumcised with a circumcision not made with hands, in the putting off of the body of the sins of the flesh, in the circumcision of Christ” (Col. 2:11). 

From the above, it is obvious that all the saints in Colossae had the circumcision of Christ. Unlike the physical circumcision of the Old Testament, this one was done to both men and women. This universal aspect seems pretty clear here, but when does this circumcision actually happen? If we read verses 11 and 12 together, we learn the answer. The circumcision of Christ is baptism.

“In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not made with hands, in the putting off of the body of the sins of the flesh, in the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:11-12).

From these two verses many truths are observed,

  • The Colossians had a spiritual circumcision not made with hands
  • It put off the body of the sins of the flesh
  • One of its names was the circumcision of Christ
  • It occurred when the person was buried in baptism
  • Those who were baptized had faith in the working of God
  • This faith was in God raising Jesus from the dead

All of these are key ideas that we need to accept when we speak of our circumcision, or baptism. Describing it as being not made with hands, also known as the circumcision of Christ, and associated with faith in Jesus’ resurrection are all great. However, to ignore the reference to baptism is to be dishonest with the text. I often read authors who speak well of the circumcision of Christ, but conveniently leave out baptism because they don’t think it is part of obeying God.

Apparently the apostle Paul did not think the same way.

He connected the circumcision of Christ, His resurrection, faith, and us being raised with Christ with baptism. Paul continues his discussion of many of these topics in the next verse. The first half mentions the Colossians’ uncircumcision in the flesh. The second refers to the result of the circumcision of Christ, which is being forgiven of sins and made alive together with Him (among other things). 

This verse, and the ones that follow include, “You were dead through your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh. He made you alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 wiping out the handwriting in ordinances which was against us; and he has taken it out of the way, nailing it to the cross; 15 having stripped the principalities and the powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it” (Col. 2:13-15).

The notion of being made alive together with Him is a key concept for us. If you turn back to verse 12, you’ll see statements about Jesus being raised, and also the Colossians being raised with Him through faith in the working of God. This cannot be separated from being with Christ following baptism. Before being raised up, one was buried. There was a burial, a death. After being buried in water, the person who was immersed came back up, alive together with Jesus.

The use of the ideas of “buried,” “raised,” and “made you alive together with him,” only make sense in the context of baptism. Likewise, the transformation from the uncircumcision of the flesh to the circumcision of Christ is understandable when flesh has been put to death, cut off, and replaced with a new life in Christ.

Having done these things, or having them done to us, we no longer have confidence in the flesh. We rejoice in Christ Jesus and worship God in the Spirit, knowing that we are the circumcision (Phil. 3:3). Not in a fleshly sense, but according to the circumcision of the heart. Amazingly being able to be a Jew inwardly, and circumcised in the spirit.

Image Used

Shining Cross Over Water by jeffjacobs1990 from Pixabay.