By Rev. Mark Robinson
Circumcision is practiced almost universally among Jewish people. The command is to circumcise all males on their 8th day, Genesis 17:9-13, as a sign of their covenantal relationship with God. Rabbi Eugene Korn understands the most important aspect though is the theological significance of circumcision.
“Yet the Bible is more concerned with the theological meaning of circumcision than its ethnic significance. First commanded to Abraham, circumcision in the Bible does not constitute the brit (covenant) itself, but is the most permanent ot (sign) of someone who undertakes to live in covenant with God. Without this commitment, circumcision carries only surgical meaning; and without circumcision, the Bible’s commandments that were intended to be suffused with higher religious dimension lose their value. Hence, according to rabbinic tradition, the Jews in Egypt had to circumcise themselves before performing the first paschal sacrifice, and according to the Book of Joshua, 40 years later the next generation of Jews circumcised themselves before they entered the Promised Land.”1
Rabbi Korn is correct, but he is missing a vital purpose of circumcision. The circumcision of the flesh is also a picture of the greatest circumcision need – that of the heart.
The Rabbi Meets the Messiah
There was a very devout rabbi in the first century who was part of the sect known as the Pharisees, the group that was the progenitor of modern-day Judaism. The Pharisees believed the oral traditions to be equal in authority to the Scriptures. Although they numbered only about 6,000 at the time of Jesus, the Pharisees had great power over the religious affairs of the nation of Israel.
Since he was “a ruler of the Jews'” this rabbi was also a member of the Sanhedrin, which had been given by Rome limited control over the affairs of the Jewish nation. Powerful, religious, sincere — these adjectives aptly describe this rabbi. His name was Nicodemus.
John chapter 3 records the account of this devout orthodox rabbi coming to Jesus one night. The life of Jesus had obviously affected him, and the miracles of Jesus had convinced him that Jesus was sent from God. Hear it in Nicodemus’ own words: “Rabbi [speaking of Jesus], we know that thou art a teacher come from God; for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him,” vs. 2.
Nicodemus was a spiritual leader of the nation and one of the most authoritative men of his time, both religiously and politically. He very likely believed that he would one day have a very prominent place in the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ response must have shaken him deeply. “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again; he cannot see the kingdom of God,”vs. 3. This is the first recorded use in Scripture of the term born again.
Nicodemus was evidently confused by Jesus’ statement and responded by asking: “How can a man be born! when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?,” vs. 4. Nicodemus was thinking only of physical birth. Like many today, he did not consider the spiritual implication of Jesus’ statement.
Nicodemus’ confusion was reflected in his question to Jesus. “How can these things be?,” vs. 9. Jesus’ response is a challenge to the spiritual leadership of Israel, as well as to individual Jewish people through the centuries. He asked, “Art thou a teacher of Israel, and knowest not these things?,” vs. 10. It is clear from Jesus’ response that the necessity of being “born again” was not a new teaching. As a religious scholar and spiritual leader in Israel, Nicodemus should have understood the meaning of this concept.
Although the New Testament had not been written, and the only Scripture available to the people of Nicodemus’ time was the Tenach (the Old Testament), it contained the same truth Jesus was sharing, and Nicodemus should have known that truth and understood His statement.
To what was Jesus referring in the Tenach of which Nicodemus should have been aware? What should be the understanding of a Jewish person, then and now, regarding the necessity of being “born again?”
The Giving of the Law
One of the most awesome events in the entire Bible, recorded in Deuteronomy chapter 5, is the account of Israel’s receiving the tablets of stone – the Ten Commandments – from God through Moses on Mount Sinai. This one time only, momentous event, was accompanied by darkness, fire, a cloud, and the glory and voice of God. The people of Israel at the time recognized the significance of this occasion and said,
“Behold, the LORD our God hath shown us his glory and his greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire; we have seen this day that God doth talk with man, and he liveth. Now, therefore, why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the LORD our God anymore, then we shall die. For who is there of all flesh, who hath heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived?,” vss. 24-26.
They recognized that this was a unique moment, never to be repeated. If such an event were to occur again, they would die by virtue of being in the presence of God.
The Response of the People
The people responded in the only way possible, considering the circumstances. There were no atheists in this group, no agnostics who weren’t sure. Without exception or reservation, they told Moses, “Go thou near, and hear all that the LORD our God shall say; and speak thou unto us all that the Lord our God shall speak unto thee, and we will hear it, and do it,” vs. 27. We will obey what God tells us to do.
Their sincerity was unquestionable. They were honest and forthright in their request to Moses, as seen in God’s response to him in verse 28. “I have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they have spoken unto thee; they have well said all that they have spoken.” They were sincere – no question about that. Even God commended them for their sincerity.
Sincerity is Not Sufficient
The Israelites at Mount Sinai were like many Jewish people today who believe that sincerity is sufficient to please God. Although sincerity is needed for true belief in God, it is never enough, as demonstrated in God’s next statement. “Oh, that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!,” vs. 29.
They did not have the ability to keep His commandments. As sincere as they were, God knew that they did not have a “heart in them” to do what they had promised. This reference to a “heart in them” means much more than desire or sincerity. It goes to the “heart” of man’s problem.
A Circumcised Heart
In Deuteronomy 5:27 the Jewish nation asked Moses to tell them what God expected of them. God’s response is summarized in Deuteronomy 10:12-16 and is most helpful in shedding light on the passage in chapter 5.
In response to their request, Moses again spoke with God. When he returned from his second encounter with Him, Moses told the people,
“And now, Israel, what doth the LORD thy God require of thee, but to fear the LORD thy God, to walk
in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul,
To keep the commandments of the LORD, and his statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good?,” vss. 12-13.
The requirements were very clear. God’s command was not out of line. Verses 14 and 15 state that, not only does God own “the heaven and … the earth,” but that He has specifically chosen and loved the Jewish people above all other people. Because of who He is and His special relationship to the nation of Israel, it should be logical, as well as fundamental, for a Jewish person to respond with obedience to whatever God says.
In order to do what God requires, however, something must be done first: “Circumcise, therefore, the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiff-necked,” vs. 16. To meet the requirements of God, one must first have his heart circumcised. This will provide the “heart in them” mentioned in Deuteronomy 5:29. Without a circumcised heart, it is impossible to meet God’s requirements.
Jewish people are very familiar with circumcision of the flesh. A Jewish male child is circumcised on the eighth day after birth, thereby becoming part of the covenant people of Israel, Genesis 17:9-14. Circumcision of the heart, however, is a foreign idea to most Jewish people, even though Moses and a number of the prophets spoke of it.
The Prophets and Circumcision of the Heart
Israel was hard of heart. As Moses pleaded with them not to be stiff-necked, so Jeremiah also pleaded with them concerning their stubbornness of heart. If they were not responsive to the message of the prophet, judgment would come. In Jeremiah 4:4 the Jewish people were told what they were to do to avoid God’s judgment:
“Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart, ye men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, lest my fury come forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings.”
Ezekiel also had much to say concerning circumcision of the heart. Among a number of such passages in the Book of Ezekiel, one is very instructive. Although the event described is still future for the nation of Israel, the need is applicable today.
“A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep mine ordinances, and do them,” Ezekiel 36:26-27.
The message of the prophets is the same as that of Moses. In the words of Joel, “rend your hearts, and not your garments,” Joel 2:13.
In the traditional circumcision ceremony of a Jewish infant, a qualified man (a mohel [moh-uhl]) actually cuts away the foreskin. Spiritually, however, there is no one in the Jewish community today who is qualified to circumcise the heart. As advanced as our medical knowledge has become in the last few decades, biblical circumcision of the heart is not a physical procedure that can be performed by a doctor, but a spiritual procedure. Only God can perform a circumcision of the heart. Moses said, “And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live,” Deuteronomy 30:6.
To receive a circumcised heart, a person must first be willing to allow God to change his heart. When He does, that person has the ability to love God and keep His commandments.
Samuel and Saul
An interesting confrontation is recorded in 1 Samuel chapters 9 and 10. In 9:15-20 God told Samuel that Saul would become the first king of Israel. At that point in his life, Saul was a man of humility, as evidenced by his response to Samuel upon learning he was to become king: “And Saul answered and said, Am not I a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel, and my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin? Why, speakest thou so to me?,” 1 Samuel 9:21. He felt he was the least deserving of this honor in all of Israel – he was not a prideful man. Pride often keeps a person from accepting God’s work, through the Messiah, for his or her life. A man consumed with his own self-worth cannot receive God’s grace or be used of God. Pride ultimately caused the downfall of Saul’s ministry for God. When he was called by God, however, Saul was willing to allow Him to work in his heart.
Early the next morning Samuel opened the Word of God to Saul. Hear it in Samuel’s own words: “And as they were going down to the end of the city, Samuel said; to Saul, Bid the servant pass on before us (and he passed on) but stand thou still a while, that I may show thee the word of God,” 1 Samuel 9:27.
At that time very little of the Bible had been written – the Torah (the five books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy) and perhaps the Book of Job. Samuel may have shared a passage regarding circumcision of the heart from Deuteronomy, or possibly some of the messianic prophecies in the Torah (e.g. Genesis 22:1-14; 49:10; Deuteronomy 18:15-18). Perhaps he related the truth from Genesis 15:6 that faith in the Lord is the basis of righteousness. Unfortunately, we will never know, this side of Heaven, exactly what Samuel shared with Saul.
Saul’s response and the change that took place in his life make it clear that Samuel’s counsel had an impact on him. “And it was so that, when he had turned his back to go from Samuel God gave him another heart,” 1 Samuel 10:9. Saul was circumcised in his heart. Evidently, Samuel told Saul that he must truly know God before he could serve Him – that he needed a new heart in order to follow God.
A changed heart does not guarantee perfection, only the God-given desire to perform His commands. Saul was thrust into a position that God never intended for him. Misplaced and out of God’s will for his life, he became filled with envy, fear, and pride, and destruction ultimately overtook him (1 Chronicles 10:13-14; cp. Proverb 16:18).
Despite his ultimate disobedience, Saul did undergo the experience of all those in the Bible who knew God in a personal way – his heart was changed; it was circumcised by the Lord.
A Prophet Like Moses
Nicodemus should have understood what Jesus was talking about because Moses told the Jewish people in Deuteronomy 18:15-19 that God would send them someone special. “The LORD thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken,” vs. 15. Moses was saying, Someone will come who will be like me. He will be a deliverer – as I delivered you from Egypt – He will speak God’s Word – as I have; He will be Jewish (“from the midst of thee“) – as I am. You must listen and respond to Him.
Moses then reminded the people of their commitment to hear and obey the Lord at the time the Law was given:
“According to all that thou desiredst of the LORD thy God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God, neither let me see this great fire any more, that I die not. And the LORD said unto me, They have well spoken that which they have spoken,” Deuteronomy 18:16-17.
God then repeated what Moses had said in verse 15:”I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him,” vs. 18. God reiterated, just so you don’t misunderstand, so there is no question about it, this message is Mine! It has been delivered by My servant Moses, but it is most definitely My word to you.
In the history of the Jewish people, there has never been one acknowledged to be the individual spoken of by Moses. There is a saying in the Jewish community that confirms this: “From Moses to Moses, there is none greater than Moses” – that is, from Moses the Lawgiver to Moses Maimonides the great philosopher and doctor in the Egyptian courts of the 12th century. This play on words shows the esteem in which Moses the Lawgiver is held by the Jewish community. They feel that none greater than Moses, or even like him, has ever come. However, God told the Jewish people that one would come, and His clear command is that they were to respond to the words of this Prophet: “And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him,” vs. 19.
You Must Be Born Again
Nicodemus’ lack of understanding was inexcusable. This was not a new message foreign to the Jewish Scriptures. In the Greek, to be “born again” literally means to be born from above. It is the same truth taught in the Jewish Scriptures concerning the need of a circumcised heart, which only God can accomplish.
The many messianic prophecies of the Jewish Scriptures clearly point to Jesus as the Messiah. The New Testament confirms that Jesus is the Prophet spoken of by Moses (Acts 3:20-24). Many of the people of Jesus’ day knew the prophecy of Deuteronomy 18 and believed Him to be the fulfillment of it (John 7:40).
If Nicodemus had been as aware of the Scriptures as he was of Jewish tradition, he would have readily understood and responded to the command of Jesus to be “born again” or, in the vernacular of the Jewish Scriptures, to have his heart circumcised. Like Nicodemus, most Jewish people today are well-versed in tradition but know little of the Jewish Scriptures. When a Jewish person – in Nicodemus’ day or today – comes in humility to the Word of God and sees the truth of the Messiah, he will willingly respond and allow God to change his heart. He will be “born again.”
- Rabbi Eugene Korn, The Significance of Circumcision, The New York Jewish Week, March 29, 2011,