There are several metaphors used in both the Old and New Testaments to describe spiritual realities. One such familiar image is God as a shepherd. The power of metaphor lies in its unexpected pairings (God and shepherd). These arrest us, enable fresh engagement with the subject, and often effect new thinking and action. One such metaphor is that of circumcision of the heart.
The idea of a heart being circumcised is a bizarre picture! The physical rite of removing the foreskin was, for Israel, a sign of covenant identity. It was a reminder of God’s choice and covenant with Abraham and his descendants so that ultimately the world would be blessed through one descendant, Jesus the Christ. Circumcision was also a reminder that Israel was to respond with lives of worship, holiness, and justice. Circumcision was external but it was really about commitment of heart and life.
That is where the metaphor comes in. God says that Israel is “uncircumcised of heart” (Lev 26:41; Jer 9:26). The heart as the place of will, emotion, and intellect is descriptive of one’s whole life. Israel’s “uncircumcised heart” had lost the heart-and-life commitment that was to characterize covenant people. They were so blasé about loving God and loving their neighbor that God tried to wake them up by using this strange picture.
In Deuteronomy 10:12-22, Moses urges Israel to this heart-and-life commitment. Moses says, “circumcise then, the foreskin of your heart” (v. 16). Israel was to remove every barrier of will, intellect, and emotion, loving God with “all your heart and all your soul” (v. 12; see also Deut 6:4-5). And Moses in this passage tells the people why God is worth loving: (1) although creator and owner of all, God loved and chose them (vv. 14-15); (2) although all-powerful, God justly defends the weak (vv. 17-19); and (3) God rescued Israel (vv. 21-22). Being loved by such a God, it seems that loving God back is a natural response. Out of this love, the heart is circumcised and one desires to please God in thought, word, and action.
Sadly, Israel could not do this. Several centuries later, the prophet Jeremiah laments the same problem (Jer 4:4; 9:25). Even more, Jeremiah describes their hearts as “evil” (Jer 7:24), “hard tablets” (Jer 17:1) and “stubborn” (Jer 13:10; 23:17). This describes not only Israel’s heart, but (because of sin), the heart of all humanity.
To solve this ongoing problem, Jeremiah proclaims a solution (Jer 31:31-34): God will make a “new covenant” with his people, putting God’s instructions in people’s minds, and writing it on their hearts. God will be “their God” and they will be “his people.” God will “forgive their wickedness” and “remember their sins no more.” This is an astounding promise to people who persisted in uncircumcised, hard hearts. Israel couldn’t solve the problem, so God in compassion does.
The New Testament recognizes in Jeremiah’s words a prophetic anticipation. At the Last Supper Jesus speaks of a “new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20; see also Matt 26:28; Mark 14:24). The Eucharistic Table reminds us that this New Covenant is in place because of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
The Apostle Paul says that what was impossible in the Old Testament has now happened. Believers in Christ have been circumcised with a “circumcision not performed by human hands.” By faith, and through baptism into Christ, we experience that “circumcision of the heart” (Rom 2:28-29; Col 2:11-12; 3:11). All the promises of the New Covenant are fulfilled in Christ: our sins are forgiven and remembered no more. We are God’s people. The Law of the Spirit is written “not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor 3:3).
All this has taken place in Christ. But the reality of our world is that — until Christ returns and renews everything — sin is still powerfully present. Our own hearts, softened and circumcised, can stray from God. Thus, James urges that we “purify our hearts” (Jms 4:8) by submitting to the circumcision God has performed and living accordingly. The act of submission to God’s circumcising work is a daily act.
So, there is a “now-and-not-yet” sense to the New Covenant. The New Covenant is fulfilled: we are Christ’s; our hearts are circumcised. But it is a reality to which we must daily submit. We are now people of “circumcised hearts” and by the power of God’s Spirit we are disciplined to live accordingly. The complete experience of the New Covenant — with sin and its effects destroyed — awaits Christ’s return. In that in-between time we worship together, and encourage one another to “love the LORD our God with all our hearts, all our souls, all our minds, all our strength.”
Lissa Wray Beal is Professor of Old Testament at Providence Seminary and an Anglican priest.