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Romans 2:25-29 – “Circumcision” Law

In our text today, Paul continues in his diatribe against Jewish privilege and misuse of law.

  • Thus far he has argued for a “by nature” law of the Gentiles.
  • He has shown how the “boast in” law of the Jews dishonors Gods and reveals hypocrisy.
  • And today he drops the ultimate law bomb on the Jews’ “circumcision law”.
    • In line with Paul’s handling of “by nature” law and “boast in” law, I am calling this section “circumcision” law.



Our Text:

Romans 2:25–29 (ESV) — 25 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly [in public], nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 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.



Necessary Background:

We have to remember, as N.T. Wright points out, that Romans is showing us how Paul is redefining previously understood Jewish concepts of what it means to be the covenant people of God.

  • In our text today, Paul addresses how this redefinition relates to circumcision.
  • Specifically, “The issue in this section is whether circumcision provides a status for Jews that Gentiles however righteous, simply lack” – Robert Jewett.


Why was it necessary for Paul to address “circumcision law”?


1) Abrahamic Covenant

  • To begin with, God gave circumcision to His people as a sign of the Abrahamic covenant.
  • Genesis 17:11 (ESV) — 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.
  • Genesis 17:13 even says, “So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant”.


And remember Joshua 5.

  • Joshua 5:2 (ESV) — 2 At that time the Lord said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the sons of Israel a second time.”
  • Taking a break from his Promise Land conquest, Joshua circumcises those born in the wilderness that had not yet been circumcised.


2) Historical Identity

  • During 2nd Temple Judaism, it appears that circumcision was elevated above just being a “sign” of the Abrahamic covenant.
  • We know this from texts like Jubilee 15:26.
  • It taught that, “Anyone…who’s own flesh is not circumcised on the eighth day is not from the sons of the covenant which the Lord made for Abraham since he is from the children of destruction” – Robert Jewett.


3) Historical Pride

  • In the 160’s BC, Antiochus Epiphanes was a Greek king who occupied Palestine.
  • Under his reign, “Jews…practiced circumcision at the risk of losing their lives (1 Macc 1:60–61; cf. 2 Macc 6–7)” – DHPL.
  • This elevated the practice of circumcision to one of patriotic proportions.
  • “Thus any diminution of the rite would naturally inflame both the cultural and religious passions of Jews” – DHPL.


What parallels are there to this and American Christianity?


4) Judaizer Movement

  • All of the previous elements contributed to the Judaizer problem that Paul faced.
  • “Paul’s insistence that circumcision not be imposed on Gentile converts led to one of the most serious and fundamental controversies in the early church” – DPHL.
  • Acts 15:1 (ESV) — 1 But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
  • Acts 15 goes on to describe the convening of the Jerusalem Council to deal with this problem.


5) Life in Christ

  • Moreover, the new covenant in Christ had to be properly understood.
  • This whole thing was a huge issue for Paul!
  • Galatians 5:2–6 (ESV) — 2 Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.


With this background, we can now proceed into our text.



Verses 25-27:

Romans 2:25–27 (ESV) — 25 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law.


Paul is making a significant contrast in this text.

  • Paul is contrasting circumcision with uncircumcision.
  • And importantly, he is situating this contrast within his previously stated idea of obedience and justification.


What is “uncircumcision”?

  • “To label someone as uncircumcized means to designate somebody as not being a Jew and, therefore, outside of the promises” of God – Strongs.
  • In other words, the uncircumcised were not part of the covenant people of God.
  • Paul, however, turns this view on its head!


Verse 25:

He begins by attacking the “value” of circumcision as understood by too many Jews.

  • He says it is only of “value” if it is accompanied by obedience.
  • The “value”, in context here, is “membership in the Jewish covenant” – Robert Jewett.
  • So for “C” to be of advantage to the Jew, it must be accompanied by a life of obedience.


And then Paul drops a huge “but” into the conversation.

  • But if you break the law” you have no membership in the Jewish covenant.
  • You are not a member of the covenant people of God.


In fact, you – the Jew who prides yourself on “C” – actually become “uncircumcision”.

  • Paul has just declared that circumcision carries no value in and of itself.
  • With that he is also arguing that one can be circumcised and yet excluded – being no better off than the Gentile.
  • This is a massive reversal!
  • A reversal that would have been outrageously to the Torah Jew.


Moreover, some scholars believe Paul may have also had in mind the Jewish practice of “epipasmos” with his use of “uncircumcision”.

  • “The surgical restoration of the foreskin practiced by Jews who wished to assimilate into Gentile culture” – Jewett.
  • Again, what an outrageous notion for a Torah Jew.


Verse 26:

Then Paul heaps it on even more.

  • As he had done in Romans 2:13 when he stated that Gentiles could be justified “doers of the law”, Paul says that Gentiles can in effect be uncircumcised circumcised.
  • His “uncircumcision” can “be regarded as circumcision”.


In other words…

  • The Gentiles’ obedience is a sign (as circumcision was meant to be – a sign) of something much bigger.
  • That “something” is actually the thing that included them in God’s covenant people.


Therefore, the circumcised Jew’s disobedience was also a sign of “something” that excluded them from being part of the people of God.

  • Paul is about to get to this “something”.
  • But first Paul has even more heaping on to do.


Verse 27:

Then Paul drops another huge reversal on top of the circumcised law-breaker.

  • Whereas it was always understood that at the inauguration of the “age to come” the righteous/circumcised Jew would stand in condemnation of the Gentile…
  • Paul says quite the opposite.
  • The obedient uncircumcised will stand in condemnation of the disobedient circumcised!


This shocking event is spoken of in a couple of other places.

  • Matthew 12:41 (ESV) — 41 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.
  • Hebrews 11:7 (ESV) — 7 By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
  • In each of the above, the uncircumcised demonstrated righteousness and could stand with God in judgment of the unrighteous.


BTW – One might ask, is Paul rejecting God’s command about circumcision?

“Paul’s purpose in this section is not to indicate how circumcision is of value with respect to the covenant but to remove circumcision from the list of those things that the Jew might think would afford him an automatic pardon from the wrath of God” – Douglas Moo.

  • There certainly is, however, a new covenant implication for the disuse of circumcision.



Verses 28-29:

Romans 2:28–29 (ESV) — 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly [in public], nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 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.


Finally, Paul finishes up this part of his diatribe with the biggest “circumcision” law bomb yet.

  • He begins to redefine – in anticipation of his coming thoughts on Christ – what it means even to be a Jew.
  • Or to put another way, Paul lays out who are actually the people of God.


Verse 28:

In order to redefine whom the people of God are, Paul makes an interesting statement.

  • He says “a Jew” (a people of God Jew) is not someone who is “merely one outwardly”.


The Greek word here actually means “in public” or “in the open” – BDAG.

  • In other words, inclusion in the people of God is not secured with a conformity done for public consumption.
  • Apparently, outward acts – including circumcision – were mainly done for “status acquisition” – Jewett.


In fact, Paul says, real circumcision is not a physical act – not an outward pubic act.

  • Nor is circumcision outward and physical”.


How much of our “obedience” is for “status acquisition”?

  • This is why even our obedience is tainted.
  • Praise God for the grace in which we stand!


Like Paul, Jesus was not a fan of this “outward” Judaism either.

  • Matthew 6:5–6 (ESV) — 5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.


Verse 29:

Paul then lays out the “something” that the sign of circumcision was supposed to point to – an inward reality.

  • If real circumcision is not “outward and physical” what is it?


Real circumcision is…

  • a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter”.
  • And unlike the Jew Jesus criticized in the Matt. 6 text, the inward reality circumcision seeks praise from God and not from man!
    • Why do we do what we do in church – for God or man?


In Galatians Paul speaks of this inward reality this way:

  • Galatians 6:15 (ESV) — 15 For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.
  • And in 2 Corinthians 3:6 he says, “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”.


What is this circumcision of the heart about which Paul speaks?

  • It is regeneration; it is new birth.
  • And from this authentic inner circumcision, obedience comes from “a transformed heart, without regard to reputation” – Jewett.


OT Gospel:

We must understand something here.

  • Paul is not teaching something new.
  • He is, however, stripping away centuries of cultural baggage that have obscured the truths he is teaching.
  • Truths, he will reveal, that find their grounding in Christ.


Jesus Himself understood that righteousness is a “matter of the heart”.

  • Matthew 5:27–28 (ESV) — 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.


But, amazingly, the OT is ripe with the very truth Paul is teaching.

  • In fact, it is the following various OT texts to which Paul is alluding.


For starters, we have to go to Ezekiel.

  • Ezekiel 36:25–27 (ESV) — 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.


And for that matter, we need to throw in a little Moses.

  • Deuteronomy 10:16 (ESV) — 16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.
  • Deuteronomy 30:6 (ESV) — 6 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.


And let’s not forget Jeremiah.

  • Jeremiah 4:4 (ESV) — 4 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.”
  • Jeremiah 9:25 (ESV) — 25 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh—
  • Jeremiah 31:33 (ESV) — 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.


So there did exist in Judaism (the Judaism expressed by Jesus in Matt 6):

  • “The expectation that God would one day circumcise the hearts of his people through the work of the Spirit” – Douglas Moo.
  • This expectation finds its fulfillment in Christ and the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost.


I love how George Ladd puts it.

“Like physical circumcision, spiritual circumcision is an event, a result of the death and resurrection of Christ, not a subjective experience or objective performance” – LBD.


So, the Gospel is in the OT!

  • The scarlet thread of Christ and the Gospel are woven throughout the OT.
  • The idea that the law does not provide righteousness is throughout the OT.
  • Righteousness has always been about the inward things – the heart!


The Finish:

I want to finish with one last observation.

  • The “by the letter” and “by the Spirit” contrast is unique to Paul (Moo, Jewett, etc.).
  • It is a contrast between a man-centered activity to secure righteousness and…
  • The divine activity that Paul introduced earlier in Romans – God’s “righteousing” of creation.


The circumcision of the heart is God at work – as Ladd said above – in a real, objective way.

  • It is an expression of his covenant faithfulness and righteousness.
  • To be the object of that work is to be a “Jew”.
  • Something Paul comes back to in Romans 9 when he deals with election.


At this point in Romans, Paul is exiting off the highway of the law so that he might enter the city that is Jesus Christ.

  • He is moving from “plight to solution” – Douglas Moo.
  • But before he does, he needs to acknowledge two things.
  • (1) Jews were set apart.
  • (2) Unrighteousness is the default position of humanity – we are all in Garden Exile.
  • We will get into these over the next few weeks.




Paul’s attack on circumcision was also a subversion of the patriarchal underpinnings of Judaism.

“The patriarchal family was the existing reality in the NT world, and what you discover when you compare what is in the NT and what is outside the NT, is that Paul and others are working hard to change the existing structures in a more Christian direction” – Ben Witherington III.


How did Paul’s view of circumcision subvert patriarchal underpinnings?


Circumcision was clearly a male-centered activity – to the exclusion of females.

  • How were women, then, to demonstrate an outward sign of the Abrahamic covenant?
  • For Paul, the truth of the circumcision of the heart solved this apparent inequality.
  • Galatians 3:28 (ESV) — 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.


In Christ – circumcision of the heart – there is “no male and female”!

  • This undercuts both Jewish privilege and male privilege (not to mention “free” privilege over slave).
  • Women were now on equal ground both in their internal reality and their outward expression (the sign) of this reality.