Biblical Story Lesson Plans - Circumcision of the Heart

Circumcision was one of the most defining practices of the Hebrew people. It was physical sign reminding them of God’s covenant with Abraham. For us today, it is also a reminder of their biggest downfall: their tendency to place their confidence in religious activity and ancestry instead of faith. In this lesson, we will hear how Moses, Jeremiah, and Paul call the people to inner repentance and faith.


When God made his covenant with Abraham, he commanded that all males in Abraham’s household be circumcised as physical sign of their covenant with God. Abraham’s descendants kept this practice from that point forward. In the book of Exodus, we read about God’s deliverance of Israel from their slavery in Egypt. God then makes a new covenant with Moses, representing Israel. This covenant, the Mosaic Covenant, includes a set of terms which the nation must obey if they want to continue to receive God’s blessing.

After Moses descends from Mount Sinai with the terms of the covenant, the nation had already abandoned faithfulness to God. In response, God’s anger stirs up against the nation, but Moses intercedes for them, asking God to forgive them. Again, Moses goes back up the mountain to receive the terms of the covenant again, for he had broken the first tablets in anger.

When Moses returns to the people, he reminds them of the obedience that God requires of them, and their privileged position as God’s chosen people, and what he has done for them. In this speech, he commands the people to “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” (Deut. 10:16).

Later, Jeremiah, speaking to the nation after they have abandoned God, says “For thus says the Lord to the men of Judah and Jerusalem: ‘Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns. Circumcise yourselves to the Lord; remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; lest my wrath go forth like fire, and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds’” (Jer. 4:3-4).

Much later, in the New Testament, Paul picks up this theme in Romans 2, saying “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).

Theological Significance

For Abraham and Israel, circumcision was an outward sign of an inward reality, that God had promise to Abraham of descendants, land, blessing, and the Messiah. The Israelites enjoyed a privileged status as God’s chosen people, his witness to the world.

Despite this privilege, Israel’s history contains repeated failures to keep the covenant terms. But how could they? They had festivals and feasts, priests and a sacrificial system, the temple, judges, prophets, and above all, God’s written Word. All of these were a constant reminder of God’s moral standards, and yet the nation still wandered from God.

They took God’s blessings for granted, presuming that he would be patient while they sinned. They thought that they were good with God because they came into the right family and kept up with the religious rituals. And, in all of their religious activity, they lacked faith. Their outward obedience wasn’t motivated by love for God.

The lesson to learn from Israel is that the Law, God’s moral standard, is powerless to make us more righteous. We can be busy with religious activity and rule keeping, but it won’t be enough. As we saw in the Ten Commandments lesson, God’s standard requires perfect motivations. It’s not enough to change our external behavior, to be externally circumcised.

No, we have to start at the heart, with repentance and faith. Circumcision of the heart means turning away from our sin, cutting off anything that causes us to sin, and turning to God in faith. “Cast away all corrupt affections and inclinations, which hinder you from fearing and loving God."\autocite[Deuteronomy 10:12-22]{MatthewHenry}

Israel failed to obey God over and over again because they didn’t begin with faith. Only when we have faith, given to us by the Holy Spirit, are we able to obey God’s Law.

Like the Israelites, we cannot rely on our family history, church involvement, or baptism, to be right with God. “Rest not in your bodily circumcision, or in any mere external observances or duties."\autocite[Deuteronomy 10:16]{Benson} Each of us must see our sin for what it is, turn from it, and trust in Jesus as our Savior and Lord.

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