Circumcised in Heart and Ears
“Obstinate men and uncircumcised in hearts and ears, you are always resisting the holy spirit.”—Acts 7:51.
1. What significance was given early on to circumcision, and why?
CIRCUMCISION has been known and practiced for about as long as records have been kept. It has been a subject of much interest, both from the viewpoint of health, also the viewpoint of religion. Circumcision probably became necessary, in the first place, on medical grounds, due to the effect of man’s fall from perfection. In any case, whenever it began to be practiced, evidently it was soon given a religious significance. This is understandable in view of the Bible record. Fallen man “venerated and rendered sacred service to the creation rather than the One who created.” (Rom. 1:25) This logically led to improper attention, even worship, being given to sex and fertility, and anything related thereto. Circumcision, which literally means “cutting around,” pertains to the organ of sex and procreation, and serves as a permanent mark of identification, also as proof of initiation into a social or religious group. But, we ask, does circumcision find a proper place in true religion? If so, we want to give it proper attention, based on a correct understanding. To obtain this, we must go to God’s Word, the Bible, the only source of reliable information.
2. When and with whom did God make circumcision a requirement? What details were given?
2 The first mention of circumcision in the Bible is when God made, or confirmed, his covenant with Abraham, who was then ninety-nine years old. God said to Abraham: “This is my covenant that you men will keep, between me and you men, even your seed after you: Every male of yours must get circumcised . . . in the flesh of your foreskins, and it must serve as a sign of the covenant between me and you.” Further details were given: “Every male of yours eight days old must be circumcised . . . Every man born in your house and every man purchased with money of yours must without fail get circumcised . . . And an uncircumcised male who will not get the flesh of his foreskin circumcised, even that soul must be cut off from his people. He has broken my covenant.” Hence deliberate refusal meant death, not just dismissal from the household, for either a son or a male slave.—Gen. 17:10-14, 22-27.
3. What two questions arise from the record at Genesis 17:10-14?
3 Two questions arise here. There is no question as to God’s right in the matter, but perhaps we wonder why circumcision was chosen as the sign, especially as, humanly speaking, the operation involves some pain and embarrassment. When God gives a sign, or symbol, to be observed, usually its fitness can be seen quite readily, such as water immersion as a symbol of one’s dedication to Jehovah. The other question is, Why was the entire household involved, including all the male slaves? Was it not just Abraham and his descendants who were actually in the covenant? We will be interested to see if God’s Word throws any light on these questions.
4 The Hebrew Scriptures show that Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites, continued to observe the above requirement. It was incorporated in the Law given through Moses, though not given as a new commandment. (Lev. 12:3) However, during the forty years’ wandering in the wilderness, the baby boys then born were not circumcised. It was a new generation that finally crossed the river Jordan into the Promised Land. Jehovah then gave the order to Joshua to circumcise all the sons of Israel. When completed, Jehovah said significantly: “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from off you.” (Josh. 5:2-9) Since the evidence indicates that the Egyptians practiced circumcision, this may mean that now the Egyptians would have no basis for reproaching Israel due to the uncircumcision of so many of its males. Also, there was now a younger generation of Jehovah’s people, from whom the last trace had been cut away, in symbol at least, from having any connection with Egypt, along with its false gods and unclean worship. Now we can begin to appreciate that circumcision, the “sign of the covenant” given to Abraham, was a fitting symbol of pure worship also in Abraham’s case, marking those in covenant relationship with Jehovah as a distinct people. From Gilgal on, this requirement has continued to be observed by the Israelites, who became known as the Jews.
5. Should the Bible be divided into two parts as between the letter and the spirit of the law?
5 Turning to the Christian Greek Scriptures, we find adherence is still given to a like requirement, and now we read about circumcision of the heart, as at Romans 2:29. You might think this is the first reference, and feel a certain relief in getting away from the literal aspect, the letter of the law, and hoping now to get the inner significance, the spirit of the law. But, no. The first mention of circumcision of the heart was made by Moses, where we get the root meaning.
6. (a) In what connection does Moses mention circumcision of the heart? (b) How does Moses show the ears are involved, teaching what lesson?
6 Moses wrote: “You must circumcise the foreskin of your hearts and not harden your necks any longer.” This was necessary in order to carry out, not the ceremonial requirements, the letter of the law, but the fundamental requirements, based on true love, as expressed in the appeal: “And now, O Israel, what is Jehovah your God asking of you but to fear Jehovah your God, so as to walk in all his ways and to love him and to serve Jehovah your God with all your heart and all your soul.” Later, Moses again appeals, showing how both the heart and the ears are involved, saying: “Jehovah your God will have to circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, that you may love Jehovah your God with all your heart and all your soul for the sake of your life.” He puts the choice before them: “If you will listen to the commandments of Jehovah your God,” so as to love and obey him, they would have his rich blessing. “But if your heart turns away and you do not listen, and you are actually seduced and bow down to other gods and serve them, . . . you will positively perish.” In other words, circumcised heart and ears mean a humble heart, wholly sincere, ready and eager to listen and observe, thus preserving one in the way of pure worship. But if one has a heart that is inclined to turn away, to turn a deaf ear, due to pride, as implied by a hardened, stiff neck, then that one is bound to be entrapped in false religion, and lose out.—Deut. 10:12, 16; 30:6, 15-18; see also Joshua 24:14, 15, 19.
7. How does Jeremiah speak respecting this same thing?
7 Notice Jeremiah’s pointed words on this subject: “To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? Look! Their ear is uncircumcised, so that they are unable to pay attention. Look! The very word of Jehovah has become to them a reproach.” When both Judah and Israel had become very unfaithful, Jeremiah, contrasting fleshly and spiritual circumcision, reports Jehovah’s message: “I will hold an accounting with everyone circumcised [in the flesh] but still in uncircumcision, upon Egypt and upon Judah . . . for all the nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart.”—Jer. 6:10; 9:25, 26.
8. When and how did Stephen review Israel’s history, leading to what accusation and outcome?
8 Centuries later, when Stephen, the Christian martyr, was giving his defense before the Sanʹhe·drin, he spoke of Abraham, saying that God “gave him a covenant of circumcision.” He then mentioned Moses, and that “to him our forefathers refused to become obedient, but they thrust him aside and in their hearts they turned back to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘Make gods for us to go ahead of us.’” Finally, linking those forefathers with the Jerusalem Sanʹhe·drin (his immediate hearers), Stephen said: “Obstinate men and uncircumcised in hearts and ears, you are always resisting the holy spirit; as your forefathers did, so you do.” Stephen spoke of the “righteous One [Jesus], whose betrayers and murderers you have now become.” What was the reaction of the Sanhedrin? “They felt cut [not as in circumcision, but “sawn through,” Kingdom Interlinear] to their hearts.” As for their ears, there was no excess of flesh, calling for literal circumcision, and so what did they do? They “put their hands over their ears and rushed upon him with one accord,” and stoned him to death.—Acts 7:8, 39-43, 51-58.
9. Uncircumcision in heart and ears is due to what? With what results?
9 What a terrible indictment of those religious leaders! Uncircumcised hearts and ears signify those who are callous, obstinate, unyielding, and are connected with a bold, hard face, a hard heart, and a hardened neck. (Prov. 21:29; 28:14; 29:1) Pride is the root cause, leading one on from bad to worse, as Daniel said of Nebuchadnezzar: “His heart became haughty and his own spirit became hard, so as to act presumptuously.” The same was true of Pharaoh.—Dan. 5:20; Ex. 7:22; 9:7; see also Hebrews 3:7-13.
10. (a) How can we distinguish between the mind and the heart? (b) How can the heart be circumcised?
10 How important, and how desirable, it is to have a circumcised heart! How can we do this? As distinct from the mind, that thinks and reasons on information taken therein, the heart is closely identified with affection and desire, and becomes the source, or seat, of motivation. It has a great emotional power, and can impel, or incite, to a certain course of action. (Ex. 35:21) It can easily sway the mind. The heart is the very center, or mainspring, of your whole makeup, your personality. It is the real, inner self, the “secret person of the heart,” “the man I am within.” (1 Pet. 3:4; Rom. 7:22) How can the heart be circumcised? We can be guided by what happens in literal circumcision. When this becomes necessary, because of a hazard to health, the flesh that is cut off is viewed as excessive, or as an obstruction, standing in the way of maintaining a clean and healthy condition. Thus circumcision of the heart means getting rid, or making a clean cut, of anything in our desires or motives, that is contrary to Jehovah’s desires. It means a complete removal of anything that is acting as an obstruction, such as pride, causing one to become unresponsive to Jehovah, to his appeals and to his Word.
11. (a) What fine example is recorded of circumcised heart and ears? (b) How can this spiritual operation be performed?
11 A fine example of circumcised heart and ears was shown, as Luke reports, by a “certain woman named Lydia, . . . a worshiper of God, [who] was listening, and Jehovah opened her heart wide to pay attention to the things being spoken by Paul.” (Acts 16:14) There certainly was no obstruction. We cannot perform this spiritual operation in our own strength and wisdom. Paul speaks of the true Jew, whose “circumcision is that of the heart by spirit.” Yes, we need God’s spirit, and he told us how to pray for a new attitude: “Create in me even a pure heart, O God, and put within me a new spirit, a steadfast one.”—Rom. 2:29; Ps. 51:10.
A NEW PERSONALITY
12. What is involved in putting off the old personality, and putting on the new?
12 God does not automatically put his spirit, his invisible, active force, within us. We must cooperate, by submitting our own spirit, or mental and emotional inclinations, to the influence and working of his spirit, which operates through his Word. Thus you have a new and steadfast spirit in your clean heart, based on accurate knowledge, “just as truth is in Jesus.” You will be “made new in the force actuating your mind,” and will be helped to “put away the old personality which conforms to your former course of conduct.” In its place, you will learn how to “put on the new personality which was created according to God’s will in true righteousness and loyalty.” Those who pursue this course “become imitators of God,” imitating what is good.—Eph. 4:20-24; 5:1.
13. Does this require an entirely different personality? How can this be illustrated?
13 You might feel this is easier said than done, and we wish to consider certain aspects. For one thing, putting on the new personality does not mean an entirely different personality, thus losing our identity. True, we must impale, or deaden, those things that are bad, both in our hearts and in our lives. (Gal. 5:24; Col. 3:5) However, some qualities and abilities, though harmful if uncontrolled, can accomplish much good when brought under control, and directed into right channels. For example, a quick temper is the working of a quick mind, together with strong feelings, both uncontrolled, and soon doing much damage. But that same ability to think quickly, and to express spontaneous sympathy, or enthusiasm, when controlled by a good motive, can be a great help, especially when witnessing to others. In all this, including self-control, perseverance is required. As James says: “He who peers into the perfect law that belongs to freedom and who persists in it” becomes, “not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, [and] will be happy in his doing it.”—Jas. 1:25.
14. How can the abilities prompting a natural gift be turned to a good use?
14 Or you might feel that a natural gift, such as music or poetry, should be repressed as being a distraction, making one a daydreamer, when there is so much work to be done. That may well be true, if the gift is uncontrolled, but the special ability coupled with that gift can be turned to a good use. For example, a symphony is made up of various movements, carefully built up, forming a balanced contrast, beautifully and harmoniously expressed, and well modulated throughout, free from dull repetition. Well, exactly the same can be said as regards preparing and giving a talk on the truth. The more you appreciate God’s Word in its composition, also the Watch Tower Society’s Bible study aids, the more you get out of it for yourself, and in helping others. The reward, too, is much greater. Whereas in music the emotional appeal predominates, when one is expressing the truth, the Kingdom message, there is a proper balance between the intellectual and emotional appeals. Above all, it honors Jehovah, the Great Composer.
15. (a) What are some of the causes for discouragement? (b) Who doubtless had similar feelings, and what can we learn from them?
15 Sometimes we get discouraged in our efforts to put on the new personality. The old one, with its deep-rooted habits, and internal pressures, not to mention the external ones from Satan’s world—these things are allowed to get the upper hand. Though Paul said that the spirit and the flesh are “opposed to each other, so that the very things that you would like to do you do not do,” he also said: “Keep walking by spirit and you will carry out no fleshly desire at all.” (Gal. 5:16, 17) Hence, when overcome in a wrongful course, we feel brokenhearted. We are not alone in this. Imagine how Peter felt on realizing he had done the very thing he had promised he would never do, that is, disown his beloved Master. Imagine, too, how he must have felt when, after years of service in a responsible position, he had to be openly rebuked by Paul. As for Paul, just imagine how he felt when, as Saul, “breathing threat and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” the real situation was suddenly and forcefully brought home to him. (Matt. 26:35, 75; Gal. 2:11-14; Acts 9:1-9) Those servants, however, did not lose heart. More importantly, they did not harden their hearts. Neither should we. How comforting to read what John wrote: “By this . . . we shall assure our hearts before him as regards whatever our hearts may condemn us in, because God is greater than our hearts and knows all things.” How is this true?—1 John 3:19, 20.
INVITED TO COME
16. (a) Who is now inviting us to come, and are we obliged to respond? (b) How does Jehovah have priority in choosing, giving what encouragement?
16 How delightful and uplifting it is when you are invited to come to someone’s home for the first time, opening the way for a closer friendship. The invitation itself puts new heart into you, and you feel like a different person. Is that not true, especially if you are having a difficult time? Well, in these “critical times hard to deal with,” Jehovah is extending the most appealing invitation. (2 Tim. 3:1) No one is compelled to respond. As mentioned earlier, the choice is yours. In the first place, however, the choice is Jehovah’s, and rightly so. As David wrote: “Happy is the one you choose and cause to approach, that he may reside in your courtyards.” For one thing, Jehovah makes the choice by stating the conditions that must be met. (Ps. 65:4; 24:3, 4) For another thing, the invitation is so made that it appeals only to those who are sincere and humble at heart, even brokenhearted. This shows that Jehovah is greater than our hearts. As he says: “In the height and in the holy place is where I reside, also with the one crushed and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly ones and to revive the heart of the ones being crushed.”—Isa. 57:15; see also 2 Chronicles 16:9.
17. In what way is humility required on God’s part, and how has he shown this?
17 We need to be humble when approaching Jehovah. Surprisingly, this works both ways. Have you ever thought it requires humility on God’s part to bend low, as it were, to peer at the sin-stricken human family? “Who is like Jehovah our God? . . . He is condescending to look on heaven and earth, raising up the lowly one from the very dust.” “Your own right hand will sustain me, and your own humility will make me great.” Even to those who have gone astray, Jehovah appeals: “I have spread out my hands all day long to a stubborn people.” Listen too to Jesus: “How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks together under her wings! But you people did not want it”! Such long-suffering and undeserved kindness surely require humility.—Ps. 113:5-7; 18:35; Isa. 65:2; Matt. 23:37.
18. Where has Jehovah invited us to come, and how can we identify this today?
18 Have no doubt. You are invited to come. Where? The choice is Jehovah’s. “Jehovah has chosen Zion; he has longed for it as a dwelling for himself.” David had in mind earthly Zion, the center of pure worship. (Ps. 132:8, 13-18) This finds its modern fulfillment in the heavenly Mount Zion, where Jehovah installed his Son as king in 1914 C.E. In vision, John saw the Lamb standing there, “and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand,” the complete Christian congregation. There is a remnant of this Zion class still on earth, representing God’s organization. This is where he invites those to come who realize their need for a place of safety, similar to the provision God made at the time of the Flood. He then provided the ark, wherein he “kept Noah . . . safe with seven others.”—Ps. 2:6; Rev. 14:1; Gen. 7:1; 2 Pet. 2:5.
19. (a) Since her restoration, what condition obtains in Zion? (b) What requirement is laid on all who come to God’s organization?
19 When this remnant of spiritual Israel had been regathered, after being disciplined during the 1914-1918 period, then these grand promises were fulfilled, with the emphasis on cleanness and humility: “Wake up, wake up, put on your strength, O Zion! Put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city! For no more will there come again into you the uncircumcised and unclean one.” “I shall certainly let remain in the midst of you a people humble and lowly, and they will actually take refuge in the name of Jehovah.” (Isa. 52:1; Zeph. 3:12) All those coming to God’s organization, into close association with the Zion class, must be circumcised in their hearts and ears. Ah! now we can understand why even the slaves in Abraham’s household had to be circumcised. That entire household pictured God’s organized people today. It must be kept clean, with all the “reproach of Egypt” rolled away from off it.—Josh. 5:9.
20. How has a permanent transfer been made possible, and at what cost?
20 How thankful we are that Jehovah has kindly invited us to come to Zion, not just on a visit, but on the basis of a permanent transfer. In the world of sport, such as football, a tremendous sum will be paid for the transfer of a specially talented player from one team to another. However high the sum, it does not begin to compare with the price sponsored by Jehovah, and willingly paid by his Son in his costly human sacrifice. As Paul says: “You were bought with a price.”—1 Cor. 6:20.
21, 22. (a) How can we show appreciation for Jehovah’s invitation? (b) In what different ways is the invitation to come expressed in God’s Word, and how should it affect us?
21 We can, and should, show our appreciation of Jehovah’s invitation by extending it to others. Like Lydia, who, after being baptized, entreated Paul and his companions to come and stay in her home. Luke says: “She just made us come.” Isaiah foretold this grand work, saying that “many peoples will certainly go and say: ‘Come, you people, and let us go up to the mountain of Jehovah’ . . . For out of Zion law will go forth, and the word of Jehovah out of Jerusalem.” Listen also to this free invitation: “Hey there, . . . come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk even without money and without price.” When on earth, Jesus invited: “Come to me, all you who are toiling and loaded down, and I will refresh you.” He foretold that on his return he would invite the sheeplike ones: “Come, you who have been blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the founding of the world.” In fact, God’s Word concludes with this fine appeal, encouraging those who respond to pass it on to others: “And the spirit and the bride keep on saying: ‘Come!’ And let anyone hearing say: ‘Come!’ And let anyone thirsting come; let anyone that wishes take life’s water free. He that bears witness of these things says, ‘Yes; I am coming quickly.’ [And John responds:] ‘Amen! Come, Lord Jesus.’”—Acts 16:15; Isa. 2:3; 55:1; Matt. 11:28; 25:34; Rev. 22:17, 20.
22 The invitation to come is expressed so often in God’s Word, and with such appeal, it can truthfully be said that it is indeed a most pressing invitation. Will you not respond? Will you not come, and invite others to come?