Romans 2:17-29
Circumcision Of The Heart

Authored By Rev. Takao Kiyohiro, Tokyo, Japan

Re-Translated In October 1999

1.  At the beginning of chapter two Paul started by saying, "O all who pass judgment on others."  At verse seventeen it becomes clear that Paul was definitely beginning to address the Jews.  In today's passage "law" and "circumcision" appear in relation to that [address].  Well, what is God trying to say to us through these circumstances which at first glance don't seem to have a thing to do with us.

External Actions And Hidden Conditions

2.  To begin with, let's read once more from verses seventeen to twenty-four.

"So, you call yourself a Jew, depend on the law, take pride in God, know God's will, and you know what you ought to do being instructed by the law.  Furthermore, in the law you think knowledge and truth is specifically revealed [to you], and you brag you are a guide to the blind, light to those in darkness, leader to the ignorant, and instructor to the inexperienced.  If that's true, don't you teach yourself while you teach others?  While you preach 'Don't steal,' do you steal?  While you say, 'Don't commit adultery,' do you commit adultery?  While you hate idols, do you leave the temple turned over [like a thief]?  While you take pride in the law, you break the law and make light of God.  According to what has been written it says, 'among your company the name of God is defiled among the Gentiles,'" (verses seventeen through twenty-four).

3.  The name "Jew" here is not merely a racial title.  It is a name that includes the religious meaning "the chosen people of God."  Those who considered themselves as the people of God lived in reliance on the law and in taking pride in God.  They think that it is probably the Jews of the Pharisee sect to which Paul himself used to belong that he is particularly describing here.  They used to consider themselves as guides to the blind, light to those in darkness, leaders to the ignorant, and instructors to the inexperienced.  However, Paul ventured to address those who were living in such pride as follows:  "If that's true, don't you teach yourself while you teach others?"  Then Paul specifically takes up [their] evil deeds of "stealing," "adultery," and "sacrilege or stealing from the temple."1

4.  Well, did they truly used to commit all these [offenses]?  Even though it could not be said outright that such things were not in Jewish society at all, it doesn't mean that every single one of them used to commit theft or adultery.  Was Paul making a kind of indictment of [the Jews all together as] a body by taking up the evil deeds of but part of the people?  How should we understand his message?

5.  The key to understanding it then, I think, is in the preceding words.  "This matter will become clear on the day God, according to the gospel I am revealing, judges through Christ Jesus the hidden conditions of the people," (verse sixteen).  What [God] will hold accountable at the last [judgment] is not the part that is merely superficially apparent. Paul says that what God will judge is the hidden aspects.  Surely when you look at the surface, the height of the ethical level in regards to every day Jewish life must have been conspicuous in Gentile society.  There were more than a few Gentiles who looked at [the Jewish] way of life, were attracted to that life of respect for the law [of Moses], and freely attended their synagogues.  They were, so to speak, a model for righteous people in this world.  But, here Paul dares to take issue with [their] hidden condition.

6.  Once the Lord Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers and of those selling pigeons who traded inside the temple grounds in Jerusalem and drove out the ones buying and selling.  At that time Jesus said, "Has not this been written (in the scriptures)?, 'My house ought to be called a house of prayer of people from all nations.'  However, you have made it a den of robbers," (Mark 11:17).  Well, did the temple truly turn into a den of robbers?  No, such a situation never actually existed.  What they had been doing in the temple was legal trade.  People came to the temple and in order to pay the temple tax they had to exchange the money they had for Jewish currency.  Moneychangers were necessary for that purpose.  Also, the animals of sacrifice which they offered in the temple could not have any wounds, scars, or weak points.  Hence, they purposefully did not bring animals along with them from far away, but rather approved animals were on sale at the temple.  These were businesses that responded to the needs of the people.  At first glance it didn't seem like they were doing anything wrong.  But, behind the scenes the priests and the merchants were in complicity greedily taking excessive profits from the public.  But more so, it was not just a problem of their business methods.  The problem was their hearts.  In the hearts of the people there were repulsive thoughts in which they were wanting to use things that belonged only to God for their own lusts.  Even in the circumstances related to worship, they were only interested in profits for themselves.  The Lord took issue with their "hidden circumstances."  When the Lord looked at them, their actions were nothing but temple robbery in which they cheated at things pertaining to holiness.  He said that since people of that [caliber] had assembled together, it had become a den of thieves; hadn't it?

7.  If we think along that line, we know we can't just merely claim, "I have never done such a thing" as stealing or adultery.  The commandment "You shall not steal" is the eighth command of the ten commandments.  Therefore, it was not originally just a commandment based on moral principles, but a commandment connected to a relationship with God.  Why shouldn't we steal?  [We shouldn't steal] because all rights to ownership belong to God and he shares with humanity each and everything according to his will. Therefore, we should not trespass into something that has been entrusted to another. However, what disappointingly takes place among us is that instead of treasuring what [God] has given to us and managing it well, we want what [God] has given to someone else and would think nothing of making it our own stuff.  In society, unless it comes to light, you will probably not be judged for sin.  However, the Lord takes issue with our hidden situation.  He takes issue with what begins in the inside of our hearts.

8.  It is the same with adultery.  Even the commandment "Don't commit adultery" is a commandment in regards to a relationship with God.  Because the bond between husband and wife was given by God, we ought to take care of that bond.  We should not betray it.  However, betrayal does not begin from the act in the first place.  It begins from inside one's heart. Therefore, the Lord said, "Whoever looks at another man's wife with improper thoughts has already violated her in his heart," (Matthew 5:28).  He says that it is adultery already.  However, this was not necessarily a problem for just males.  When one has thoughts in whatever form for another of the opposite sex which makes light of the marriage bond given to oneself or the marriage bond given to someone else, it is already the sin of adultery. Because God will hold inquiry into the hidden situations [of the heart].

9.  To be brief, Paul takes issue here with the serious discrepancy between what appears on the outside and what actually happens on the inside.  This type of thing was taking place inside the moral Jew who took pride in the law. Paul knew this quite well because he himself had experienced it.  The Lord Jesus also once said:  "O scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites are sorry because you resemble white painted graves.  The outside looks beautiful but the inside is full of the bones of the dead and all manner of defilement. In this way you look righteous on the outside to a person yet the inside is full of hypocrisy and unlawfulness," (Matthew 23:27-28).  Paul says the same thing.  "While you take pride in the law, you break the law and make light of God.  'Among your company, the name of God is made unclean among the Gentiles,' according to what has been written in the scriptures."

Circumcision Of The Heart By The "Spirit"

10.  Let's continue by reading from verse twenty-five on.

"The circumcision which you have received has meaning if you keep the law, but if you break the law that is the same as not receiving circumcision.  Therefore, the person who does not receive circumcision, if he practices the requirements of the law, even though he has not received circumcision, won't he be considered as a circumcised person?  Furthermore, a person who keeps the law even though they have not received circumcision to the body will bring condemnation on you.  Because you possess the letter of the law but while receiving circumcision you have broken the law.  A Jew from the outward appearance is not a Jew, and neither is circumcision of the outward appearance performed on the flesh circumcision.  The person who is Jewish on the inside is the Jew; circumcision is not of the letter but circumcision performed on the heart by the "Spirit" is circumcision.  That honor is not from man but rather comes from God," (verses twenty-five through twenty-nine).

11.  The issue is not [so much] what appears on the outside but the very hidden condition itself.  On that note Paul proceeds further along in his speech on "circumcision" as a sign of being a Jew and a sign of a covenant with God.  He does so because it naturally turned into a problem over what meaning then does this circumcision business have.  [His] conclusion in verse twenty-eight is written as, "A Jew from the outward appearance is not a Jew and neither is circumcision of the outward appearance performed on the flesh circumcision."

12.  Well, [two] confusing things occur here. [One], we are not familiar with the ceremonial rite called "circumcision" in which they remove a portion of the foreskin of the male genitals. And [two], the debate about being a Jew or not a Jew doesn't seem to concern us directly. Therefore, it seems hard to understand what Paul has been talking about here with all his might and strength and how it ties in to us.

13.  So then, people one way or another will generalize what Paul said.  Many people think like this:  "It's not the outward rules of form and ritual that are important in religion but the spirit.  No matter how much you have the outward sign and the name, if you are lacking in the spirit, it amounts to nothing.  This is real genuine religion.  This is in a word what Paul was wanting to say exactly."  Furthermore, in a similar way familiar to us, we have the habit of applying [something like] this to modern Christians.  In other words, we can simply change the words "circumcision" to "baptism" and "Jew" to "Christian."  "The baptism you have received has meaning if you live in a Christian way, but if you don't, then it's the same as if you did not receive baptism. Therefore, the person who has not received baptism, if he lives with a Christian mind [or spirit], even though he has not received baptism, isn't he considered a person who received it?... A Christian from the outward appearance is not a Christian, and baptism from the outward appearance performed on the flesh is not baptism."  By re-wording it like that, they suppose they have understood this passage.  And a sincere Christian might think:  "That person has not received baptism, but yet he is consistently more Christian than I.  As for the substance of our interior, his is Christian but I can't claim mine is."  Well, it is not necessarily wrong to self-reflect in this manner, but have we then really understood this passage properly?

14.  If put conclusively, we are simply not able to substitute in [the words] Christian and baptism for two reasons.  First, Paul begins to speak on baptism again in chapter six.  Paul himself does not say that it makes no real difference whether you have undertaken baptism or not.  Paul himself sees a vast difference in essence between circumcision and baptism.  Therefore, we cannot confuse them and make our own convenient rewording.

15.  Secondly, this is a very important point, but when Paul says, "The person who has not received circumcision if he practices the requirements of the law..." this has tremendously heavy significance.  That should be clear from what I have already told you.  The problem here is not simply with external observance, but rather the problem is the hidden situation. Therefore, it is truly a situation where we can't help but arrive at the [question] of "Is it possible in the first place to practice the requirements of the law perfectly?"  If we thoroughly investigate and think about "practicing the requirements of the law" it is not something that can just be done as an every day matter of course. You can't make a calm face and reword ["practicing the law"] to "living the Christian way" or any thing else like that.

16.  Paul says, "A Jew from the outward appearance is not a Jew, and neither is circumcision of the outward appearance performed on the flesh circumcision. The person who is Jewish on the inside is the Jew..."  Being Jewish on the inside, that is, being a person of God on the inside was never just a simple matter.  In actuality, this very matter itself is a miracle from God.  If ever the inward [self] is able to become a person of God it is a miracle from God for both a Jew or a Gentile.  Therefore, Paul continues speaking as follows:  "The person who is Jewish on the inside is the Jew; circumcision is not of the letter but circumcision performed on the heart by the "Spirit" is circumcision.  That honor is not from man but rather comes from God."  If the inward part is the real issue, then you must change inwardly.  That is what the letter, that is the law, is unable to do.  That is what only the Holy Spirit can accomplish. Circumcision must be performed on the heart through the Spirit.  The words "circumcision of the heart" appeared long before in the Old Testament.  For example, we have the following words from Deuteronomy:  "Your God the Lord will perform circumcision on your own hearts as well as your descendants, and by spending your heart and spending your soul you will love your God the Lord and be able to obtain life," (Deuteronomy 30:6).  In other words, circumcision of the heart is a person coming to love God as he or she exhausts his or her heart and soul.  It is different from just an outward observance of the law and from reverent actions [comprised] only of form.  We become persons who love God and truly live according to God's commands.  That is circumcision of the heart and it is not what humans can accomplish. Deuteronomy also clearly states that it is a miracle of God and comes from his work of salvation.   To become persons who love God the foreskin of our stubborn hearts must be removed.  That only comes by the work of the Holy Spirit.

17.  Paul is not merely trying to say outward ceremonies and signs have no meaning.  It is the condition of salvation that Paul is trying so persistently to speak on.  Paul has clarified here that in the deepest places of the interior where no matter how hard the hand performs [rites like circumcision or baptism] the miracle of salvation according to Jesus Christ is necessary.

End Note

1This means sacrilege, stealing from the temple, and leaving it wildly turned over as a thief would do.

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