Circumcision of the Heart

Torah Portion: Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)
Gospel Reading: Romans 2
Commentary by: Matthew Day

Many of us when we joined the Messianic movement were surprised to find grace in the Old Testament, that Israel was not saved by works, and that circumcision of the heart is actually in the Torah. No where is this more explicit in the Torah than in this week's portion. Moses warned the children of Israel not to say "It is because of my righteousness" (Deut. 9:4 ESV). On the contrary, Israel was a stubborn people. Even after seeing the ten plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, the destruction of the Egyptians, and receiving the ten commandments, they still turned around and built an idol. And continued to test God time after time after time. Moses reminded them of all of this. No, it was not because of Israel's righteousness, but because of God's faithfulness to His covenant.

In Romans 2, we see this same idea come up with a slight twist. The Jews of Paul's time "relied on the law"--that is, they believed that their salvation came from simply being a part of the people of the Covenant. The Gentiles, on the other hand, were excluded because they were not of the Covenant, not of the "circumcision." They were relying upon their own righteousness--not in the sense of doing all the right things, but of being in the "right" status. They were on God's "good side," His favorites, and therefore assured of salvation. Or, so they believed.

Paul was not shy about letting his brethren know that their Jewishness was no guarantee of a place in the Kingdom. Indeed, unless they got their act together, their places would be given away to the very people who were supposedly excluded because they weren't in God's "in" group--the Gentiles. Circumcision (shorthand for Jewish identity) is worthless if you aren't living in accordance with what that mark means. Paul sums up his argument thus, "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" (Rom. 2:28-29 ESV).

But hold on. This whole Romans passage sounds a bit supercessionist, does it not? The "old" Israel of physical circumcision is being replaced by the "new" Israel of spiritual circumcision. It may sound that way, but turn back to our Torah portion, and read what Deuteronomy has to say:

And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet, the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. (Deut. 10:12-19 ESV)

God did indeed choose Israel above all peoples, and if you read on in Romans, you see that Paul affirms this fact (see Romans 3:1-2, for example). But, this choice came with an instruction. Repent. Circumcise your heart. Be no longer stubborn, but rather approach God in humility. This is an idea we see over and over and over again throughout Scripture. Deuteronomy later warns of the bitter root who walks in the stubbornness of his heart, trusting in his righteous status to bring him unending forgiveness (Deut. 28). Moses warns that such a root (and any who follow him) will not endure. David reminds us that the sacrifices of God are a "humble and contrite heart" (Psa. 51:16). This is reaffirmed by Isaiah and, later, Yeshua (Isa 66:2, Luke 18:10-14). Even in the midst of the Gentiles coming into the promise, Paul warns them not to boast against the natural branches for their position is no more secure than those that came before (Rom. 11).

God is not partial. He chose Israel for a special mission, but He still loves the stranger. You see, Yeshua took up Israel's mission where Israel had left off. While Israel had become a religious clique, Yeshua invited the stranger, the outcast, the downtrodden. He came as a physician not looking to hang out with the healthy, but to bring healing to the sick. He came to redeem the world. This was the mission of Israel, and now, as the body of Messiah, it is our mission. But, it is one we must carry out humbly, remembering where we came from. Without the work of Messiah, we would still be out there, participating in a pagan nation, without God or any hope in the world. But God loved us, the stranger, the outcast. So, don't be stubborn. Circumcise your heart and love the outcast.