A Circumcision of the Heart
May 17, 2020
Spiritual Circumcision, 5.17.20
Well good morning, church. It’s so good to see you this morning. We’re not where we want to be but at least we can gather in some capacity. What we have going is better than nothing. Please continue to pray for the elders and deacons as we navigate these waters. We ask for your renewed patience and support. The decisions that have to be made have trade-offs. They’re not easy to make.
As with every Sunday, God has something for us to hear and know. The Bible calls for the Word to be preached in season and out of season. In a pandemic and not in a pandemic. We got to keep going and learning and pressing and ministering. This life weighs us down, doesn’t it. It’s hard to keep going, to keep ministering, to keep fighting. The Lord is for us, dear friend. His power and purposes are for us. Amen? God is good, dear friend. He is good.
Let’s go ahead and turn to our passage this morning to see what the good Lord has for us. Our passage this morning is the very first part of Phil 3:3. Thus says the Lord,
For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.
Last week we covered vv. 1–2. We delved into the Judiazers. Paul had harsh words for the Judiazers. He called them dogs. They distorted the gospel by teaching that in order for Gentiles to be right with God, in order for Gentiles to receive the benefits of the New Covenant that Christ had purchased with his blood, the Gentiles needed to submit to the OT law. Specifically, the Judiazers taught that Gentiles needed to be circumcised. Paul didn’t believe this. He taught, look with me at the end of v. 2, that this teaching of circumcision from the Judaizers was mutilation. The Judiazers held to a doctrine of mutilation. Wow.
Now as we transition to v. 3, we begin to explore the reasons why Paul believes the Judiazers are wrong. Paul doesn’t just criticize. He also provides reasons why the Judiazers are incorrect in their teaching that Gentiles needed to be circumcised. How do I know that v. 3 provides the reasons for Paul’s disagreement with the Judiazers? Look with me again at v. 3. How does the passage begin? The first word is “for.” The “for” indicates that v. 3 is the reason for v. 3. We might understand it like this. Looking at v. 2. Paul says to the Philippians, “Philippians, beware of the Judiazers. Watch out for them.” Verse 3 answers the reason why the Philippians should watch out for them. Why, Paul, should we watch out for the Judiazers? Why should we watch out for them?
Paul gives four reasons in v. 3 for why he believes the Judiazers are wrong. These four reasons will be what consume our energy for this week and next. So for this week and next week, I will be unpacking this verse.
For this morning’s sermon, I will only be unpacking the first reason that Paul gives for why the Judaizers are wrong. That reason is specified right at the beginning of v. 3.
(This morning’s sermon is going to be heavy on “teaching.” All sermons should be a mixture of both preaching and teaching. Some weeks my sermons are heavy on teaching; others are heavy on preaching.
Paul says this,
For we are the circumcision.
The way I want you to understand this statement from Paul is to place an emphasis upon the word “we.” Don’t read the passage like this: “For we are the circumcision.” Instead read it like this: “For WE are the circumcision.” How does that emphasis change our understanding of the passage?
What Paul is saying is it is him and the Philippians we are “the circumcision.” He is denying that “they,” the Judiazers, are “the circumcision.” Paul is saying that the Judiazers are not “the circumcision.”
Rather, what the Judiazers do is the have co-opted the label of “circumcision.” They’ve taken the notion of circumcision, changed it’s meaning, and have used the label for themselves, even though they’re using it improperly. They said, “Look, everyone, we have this label. We are “the circumcision.” Paul is saying, no, no, no. Paul responds, “You’re not “the circumcision”; we’re the circumcision.
An illustration of this is in our day is the rainbow. If you read the Bible, the rainbow has a special place in the story of Scripture. The rainbow is a sign from God to us that he will not flood the world again. It is a sign of God’s promise. It is a manifestation of his Word. A tremendous sign of God’s promise. Now if you see the rainbow today, especially on a flag, what are you prone to think about? The rainbow has become a sign of the LGBTQ movement. The rainbow was chosen as a sign of their movement in the late 1970s. What the LGBTQ movement has done is that they’ve taken an important biblical symbol and they’ve co-opted it for their purposes. They’ve taken a symbol of rightoeuness and love, and turned it into a sign of depravity and immorality.
This is what Paul is saying the Judiazers have done. They’ve taken one of the central promises of the OT and they’re using it for their purposes. Purposes, which Paul specifies, are disastrous. They’re using this symbol for evil purposes. Paul response is to say, “Hey, that’s not your sign. That’s our sign. You’re not ‘the circumcision.’ We’re ‘the circumcision.”
The OT on Circumcision
Now when Paul says the circumcision is a spiritual reality, he is not denying the OT. Paul knows the OT well. The OT repeatedly refers to circumcision as a physical act. This should be of no surprise to any of you. The OT teaches that circumcision was a physical reality. This is our second point this morning. Write this. “Physical circumcision.”
There are many texts that speak of this. The most important comes from Gen 17:9–14. Go ahead and turn with me to Gen 17. Circumcision is first mentioned in the Bible at Genesis 17 at the confirming/upholding of the Abrahamic covenant, previously initiated in Genesis 15. It’s important that we read this together. The passage reads,
This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. 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, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants. A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.
This is an extremely important passage. You can’t understand the OT without this passage. You can’t understand the NT without it. You can’t understand our passage without understanding this important background text.
When challenged by Paul, the Judaizers would likely bring Paul to this passage. They might point to the last verse in this passage, v. 14, and say, “Look, Paul. God himself said to Abraham, “Thus shall my covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.” See, Paul. It is an everlasting covenant and should be placed upon Gentiles.” That might have been how they reasoned. These Judaizers had a point with this passage. It’s not like they were making this stuff up. Nevertheless, they were wrong. They failed to incorporate another important teaching found in the OT that teaches something else about circumcision.
To explore this other element of circumcision, turn with me to Deut 30:5. I will read through v. 6. Moses says,
And the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
What type of circumcision is this passage referring to here? It’s a circumcision of the heart. What Moses is talking about here is not some physical operation that God is going to do on the organ of the heart. The organ of the heart does not have a foreskin that can be removed. Moses is not talking about some surgical reality. Rather, Moses is talking about a physical reality. The Bible as a whole and the OT specifically, teaches that the heart is the centerpiece of man’s existence. In our day, in our Western day, we might label this idea of “heart” as “soul.” Nevertheless, it’s
referring to the same reality. The heart is the centerpiece of mankind. The Bible also teaches that the heart is sick with sin. Our hearts are not basically good. Are hearts are basically evil. We are born with sinful, depraved hearts that lead us away from the one true God. These “hearts” need spiritual surgery from God. What Moses is saying here is that one day God will perform this “spiritual circumcision” on the Israelites. The purpose of this will be “so that [they] love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” Here Moses is referring to a “spiritual circumcision.”
Paul’s response to the Judiazers, “Do you guys see this notion of a spiritual circumcision? You are interpreting circumcision incorrectly. Physical circumcision was important but it pointed to a spiritual reality. You neglect to see the spiritual reality. Circumcision is really about this spiritual reality.”
Paul in Romans
This is exactly what Paul himself says in Romans. First turn Romans 4. In Rom 4 Paul talks about Abraham and the covenant of circumcision. Paul’s argument against the Judaizers was that physical circumcision takes a back seat to spiritual circumcision. I want you to see how Paul gets to that point. Let’s begin in 4:1.
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.
What Paul is saying here is that if salvation is determined by circumcision then Abraham has something to boast about before God. Pulling the Judiazers into this, if salvation is based upon circumcision then the Judiazers can boast in the presence of God. That was a blasphemous thought to Paul. This can’t be true. Man can never boast in God’s presence. So what is Paul’s response to the Judiazers? Look at the next verse,
For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”
Paul’s point here is that, for Abraham, faith came first then circumcision. Abraham was saved when he believed, not when he was circumcised. Circumcision was a sign of the righteousness and not the righteousness itself. Look with me at 4:9.
Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.
What Paul is saying here is this. Circumcision was not what made Abraham righteous. It was faith. Abraham was justified, was saved prior to his circumcision, not after. Circumcision was a sign of the covenant and not what saved Abaraham.
Paul’s conclusion then is that salvation is determined by faith, what he earlier refers to as spiritual circumcision, a circumcision of the heart. Look at Rom 2:28. We will read through v. 29. Paul says this,
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. His praise is not from man but from God.
Notice how Paul interprets circumcision here. Circumcision is “a matter of the heart.” It is a spiritual reality, Paul says. Paul can claim that he and the Philippians are “the circumcision” because they are the ones who have been circumcised in their hearts.
Paul does not believe, though, that physical circumcision is of no value. He does not disregard Gen 17, God’s covenant of circumcision with Abraham. Paul says this in Rom 3:1–2. Look with me there.
Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.
As Paul says here, “Physical circumcision has tremendous value.” Paul elaborates that this was part of the earliest revelation of God. Circumcision had tremendous value for the plan of salvation. If you read in Acts 16, Paul engaged in circumcision. Luke specifies in Acts 16 that Paul circumcised Timothy. His protégé. Paul thought that it served an important purpose for distinguishing the Jewish people. However, he did not believe it addressed mankind’s central problem. What was that problem?
Look down with me at Rom 3:9. Paul says this,
What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin
Paul concludes that, yes, physical circumcision was important. However, it’s not the basis of salvation. Why? Because circumcision does not address man’s central problem. You can be a Jew, be physically circumcised, and yet still be lost because of the power sin. Man’s central problem is not ethical identification. Man’s central problem is sin. Sin is not touched by a physical act. The physical act points to a spiritual act. However, without the spiritual act, the physical act does nothing to bring about salvation in man.
The way I want to end this morning is with a word of application. So far I have provided no application. We’ve just been diving heavily into what circumcision is all about, trying to understand what Paul means when he says, “We are the circumcision.” What he means is that we are those who the OT speaks of regarding the circumcision of the heart. Christians are those who have true, real circumcision, a circumcision of the heart. Christians are those who have had their sin natures, their sinful tendencies addressed and dealt with. They have a new heart.
The Judiazers did not have this. The Judiazers believed what mankind needed was not a dealing with his sin nature but an external religious identification. The Judiazers believed that man’s greatest need was to be identified as a Jew. Mankind’s sin problem took a back seat to the importance of religious identification. The Judaizers taught that in order to be right with God, you must join their club. And the way you get into their club is by way of physical circumcision. Physical circumcision, though, did nothing to treat man’s sin problem. That’s where the Judaizes went wrong: they misidentified the problem. They addressed a spiritual problem with a physical solution.
We all have this Judiazing tendency in us. That is, we all have this tendency to addressing spiritual problems with physical solutions. As sinners, we are prone towards misidentifying our problems. We have a tendency towards addressing our spiritual problems with non-spiritual solutions. We’re prone towards rejecting our own sin as the reason for why our life is in shambles. And this problem of misidentifying problems can really hinder us in our walks with life. If you’re sick, step one is to identify the illness. That’s so important. In order to move past your problems, you have to correctly identify those problems. Misidentifying problems can lead to disaster. The reason why we a prone towards misidentifying our problems is because we want to believe that we’re good people. We enjoy thinking of ourselves in good terms.
Let me give you an example of this from my life. Recently I’ve felt a restlessness. Maybe for the past 2 months I’ve felt this way. It’s hard to explain other than just a boredom with life. Kinda of a ho-humness. Some lack of motivation. Dullness. At first I didn’t realize I felt this way. I’m sure many have you have felt this way recently. As I’ve felt this way, I’ve found myself gravitating towards looking for something exciting to think about. Whether it’s checking my e-mail constantly or waiting for an Amazon package at the door, I’ve been looking for ways to numb my boredom and restlessness. I’ve been looking for distractions. The more I’ve thought about it, though, my problem has been then: discontentment. I’ve been discontent. My restlessness has been because I’ve not been discontent with my circumstances. And, dear friend, the Bible says that Christians are to always be thankful, always be rejoicing, always being content with what God has given us. We have so much. We have all that we need in Christ. I’ve failed to see that. I’ve failed to see that my restlessness is rooted in my discontentment.
Another example, more broadly. This example comes from the marriage context. Many couples struggle with marital problems. Many couples. No matter where you go, your going to find married couples who have problems in their relationships. This is a universally true reality. When problems arise in marriage, there is a tendency towards attributing the problem to a non-spiritual problem. There is a tendency to, like the Judiazers, towards misidentifying the problem. Well we need to work on our communication, we need to budget better, we need to save money, we need time away from the kids, we need a vacation, we need more income, we need . . . All of these might be true, dear friend. I’m not discounting these this morning, dear friend. This could be very true. You know what also is true, dear friend, and even more of a problem in marriages? Selfishness. Oh dear friend, selfishness. That’s a spiritual problem, beloved. Your greatest struggle in your marriage is going to be your own tendency towards self-exaltation. It’s not going to be communication styles or personality quirks.
Dear friend, give attention to what it is that is causing your problems. The greatest problem you will face in this life is what Paul says in Rom 3:9: “For we have already charged that all, both
Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” Don’t miss this, dear friend. Beware of your inner Judiazing tendency to dismissing your problems as not spiritual in nature. We need God, dear friend. He is the answer to all of our problems.