When I read the OT, I enjoy seeing something to which the writers of the NT specifically refer. I find myself reading along and saying, “This reminds me of something Paul said. I wonder if he had this passage in mind?”
Sometimes such references are obvious. For example, Paul might quote a particular verse in the OT, and you know he had that in mind. Other times, however, there is no direct quote. I recently ran across a situation like that as I was reading the book of Jeremiah.
In the book of Jeremiah, the prophet is speaking to a nation that thought God would not judge them for their sins. After all, they were His chosen people. The temple of God was in their midst in their capital city. They made daily sacrifices to God in that temple. When Jeremiah told them that the Babylonians would come and destroy their capital and the temple if they did not repent, they refused to believe him, even though he told them this for about 40 years.
The Israelites of Jeremiah’s day wrongly thought that God was pleased with them because of their religious rituals. They did these rituals because they had made a covenant with God. As a sign of that covenant, the men were circumcised. Their circumcision was another ritual they rested in. In their mind, God would never discipline a nation of men who had been circumcised.
At one point, Jeremiah tells the people that what is really important in their relationship with God is that they know Him. They should be a nation who understood His character. He was a God who was gracious, righteous, and loved justice (Jer 9:24). That was Who their God was. Clearly, the point was that they should seek to be and act in the same way.
A major theme of the book is that if they did not do what God told them to do, their religious rituals were meaningless. What good was it if they had the temple and even sacrificed animals in the temple, if they did not practice righteousness and justice? Would their rituals protect them from the discipline God promised He would send them if they disobeyed Him? Jeremiah’s answer was a clear NO. Rituals are only good if they reflect a heart that loves the Lord and a life of obedience to what God commands.
In Jeremiah 9, the prophet applies this to circumcision. He tells them that the day will come when God punishes those who are physically circumcised but still uncircumcised internally. He then tells them that they were still uncircumcised in their hearts, even though they had gone through the ritual. Their acts of disobedience showed that their hearts were not pleasing to the Lord.
This should have been obvious to them. Jeremiah reminds them that there were nations all around them that also practiced circumcision. These included Egypt, Edom, Ammon, and Moab. But they did not know God. They cut their hair in a way that showed their allegiance to other gods, even though they were circumcised. Would their circumcision save them from their worship of other gods? Of course not. What made the Israelites think that their physical circumcision would please God when they actively disobeyed Him (Jer 9:25-26)? In fact, they too worshipped other gods.
Paul does not quote these verses verbatim in Rom 2:25-29, but he had them in mind. He is talking about how a person is declared righteous before God. In addressing the Jews of his day, he points out that many of them think their circumcision marks them out as righteous in God’s eyes. But physical circumcision means nothing if the person does not keep the Law. There needs to be a circumcision of the heart.
In Paul’s discussion, he points out that nobody keeps the Law of Moses. The only way to become righteous before God is by faith in Christ alone. The bottom line is this: Religious rituals make nobody acceptable before God. Only faith in Christ does that.
Jeremiah had to rebuke the people of his day about their trust in religious ceremonies. They were assured that such things protected them from God’s discipline. They should have practiced circumcision and offered sacrifices because they loved the Lord and wanted to please Him.
Many today also place their trust in religious rituals like church attendance, tithing, baptism, praying, and partaking of communion. They believe that if they can remain faithful in these rituals until death, then they will be admitted into Christ’s kingdom. But that is not correct. Nobody ever was declared righteous before God or received eternal life because he or she practiced such things. Serving in a church, giving to Christian ministry, and baptism should simply be expressions of a grateful heart in response to the grace of God. In Christ, the believer knows he has eternal life as a free gift that can never be lost (John 3:16; 5:24; 11:26). Whatever rituals we value, they have nothing to do with that.