Circumcision was a BIG deal with Jews of Jesus’ time (and Paul’s of course). In my last passage from Romans Paul talked about the difference between knowing the law and keeping the law. In this subsequent passage, he talks about the difference between symbolism (circumcision) and the thing symbolized (separation from the flesh). The “flesh” in scripture refers to our lower nature — the nature that wants what it wants, whether that’s a good thing or just a thing it WANTS. Here is my paraphrase of Romans 2:25-29:
Being of the circumcision covenant is a benefit IF you keep the covenant laws. But if you do NOT keep the covenant law, then it is as if you did not carry in your body the seal of the covenant — circumcision. Therefore if the uncircumcised Gentile (non-Jew) does keep this law, then God will count his uncircumcision as circumcision. And the one who keeps the law by nature, though he is uncircumcised, will be your judge — though you are circumcised physically and you have the written covenental law — but do NOT keep it.
For not the one who looks like a Jew is a Jew — nor is the physical appearance of circumcision in the flesh genuine circumcision. But the person who is inwardly a Jew is a true Jew, and the true circumcision is circumcision of the heart — in spirit rather than in letter (flesh), whose praise is not from people but from God.
What does it mean to be a “true Jew”? The Jews were chosen by God to be a light and a blessing to the whole world. They were to glorify God by revealing Him through their lives and their testimony. If they failed to keep the law, as a spiritual law and not just a legal skeleton, they failed to be the thing God had called them to be: a revelation of Him to the nations.
In placing such a high value on circumcision, they missed the point of circumcision. It is a symbol of the separation from the flesh (which represents this world’s system of slavery to sin). The Jews were to have been free from that through trust in God, but they failed. We as Christians fail too, when we trust in our own ability. Circumcision (our our own versions of that such as going to church, wearing a cross, reading a chapter from the bible each day, listening only to “Christian” music, etc.) means nothing unless it is the outward sign of a deep, inward separation toward God and away from the sinful world system.
God does not care how perfectly we keep the outward requirements of the law. He doesn’t care that we look good, smell good, talk good or even act good if our hearts are far from Him. Going through the motions does not cut it.
Have you ever had unexpected guests, and run through the house in the half hour’s notice they gave you, shoving things into closets, back rooms, dusting the living room and piling all those books and etc. off the coffee table and behind your bed? That is the bare minimum. Does your house look clean? Yes it does, as long as no one looks too deep. IS it clean? Hahaha. Sure. Is it a true representation of how you really live? Have you changed from a moderately messy person into a clean freak? Hardly.
Nope, if you’re going to count circumcision as your ticket into God’s good graces — as the thing that makes you better than THOSE people, you have to keep the whole covenant. Paul will go on later to explain that yes, this is impossible for us, in our own strength, to do. At present he’s establishing that this is what circumcision means and what it requires if it’s to mean anything at all. Circumcision is not the covenant, but merely the SIGN of the covenant, as a clean-looking house is not a tidy person, but merely the SIGN of a tidy person (unless it is a lie intended to lead your guests to think well of you).
Christians today find ourselves in the position of the religious Jews of Paul’s day. What is your bare minimum? Church attendance? Not cursing in public? A snappy “Christian” bumper sticker? Your radio dial set to the local Christian music station? “Christian” paraphernalia such as t-shirts, bible covers, jewelry, the latest books by your fave Christian author, etc.?
Or how about some other window dressing that we might feel less inclined to consider optional? The “sinners prayer”, our version of correct doctrine, the tithe, the communion ceremony, baptism. Do these things mean anything until the heart is put right? Hardly. Do we make our “baptism” into “unbaptism” by our failure to follow the Lord of Love?
But if someone follows the writing of God on his heart, will not his “unbaptism” be made “baptism”? Will that one who by nature followed the one true God in right relationship (righteousness) with Him and with one another be our judge?
My children, let us not love one another in word and in tongue, but in deed and in truth. (1Jn 3:18 Lamsa NT)