Sermon preached on Deuteronomy 30 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 11/14/2010 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“The LORD Your God Will Circumcise Your Heart”
Deuteronomy is a book of law. There’s lots of law throughout this book, even in this chapter. And yet in this chapter, we also have one of the greatest pictures of the gospel in the Old Testament. In this chapter we have a promise of God’s future forgiveness and grace held out to Israel. In the midst of a future falling away, God gives the hope of a restoration. This restoration would be all about grace. Verse 6 is the climax of that grace when God promises to circumcise their hearts. It’s this restoration that I’d like us to consider today; and it’s this grace of God working on hearts that I want to reflect on today. For I believe that what we have promised in this passage is not ultimately about something for Israel according to the flesh. This passage looks beyond what God would do in the old covenant. This passage is ultimately a prediction of the new covenant. As we study about this predicted restoration and this promise of grace, we’ll find our own story here too. We too have found restoration in Jesus Christ. We too are receiving grace that changes our hearts and lives in Christ. I’m not talking about allegorizing this passage. I’m talking about understanding the ultimate fulfillment of what’s promised in this passage.
So let’s begin today by setting the background for our passage. I’m going to have us primarily focus on verses 1-10 today, but the rest of the chapter helps remind us of the background to our passage. Verses 11-20 present a choice to the people. That choice is summarized in verse 15. They have the choice of life or death. They have the choice of good or evil. They can choose obedience to God’s covenant, or disobedience. One leads to life and good. The other leads to death and evil. That’s the point of verses 11-20. It’s summarizing what we’ve been studying the last few chapters. Chapters 27-29 had been telling us about the blessings and the curses of the old covenant. As Deuteronomy was recounting a covenant renewal ceremony, this part of the book had been holding out the promise of blessings and the threat of curses. The last half of this chapter wonderfully sums all of this up. They were given the law. It was right before them for them all to know and follow. And so having heard all the details about the blessings and the curses, the people were now faced with a choice. I like how verse 19 says it. Moses says, “Choose life,” that you may live. In other words, choose to follow God; choose to keep the covenant; choose the path of blessing through obedience. This is the context for the first half of this chapter.
And yet in the first half of the chapter, we find something terrifying right at the start. We see that this chapter starts out predicting that one day the nation would not be faithful to God. It sees that Israel would break the covenant in disobedience. One day they would not choose life, but go the path of death. Right in verse 1 we see it presume that one day Israel would find itself under the covenant curses; they’d be in exile. They’d find themselves outside the Promised Land. They’d find themselves driven out by God, scattered among all the nations. Verse 4 sees that they might be driven by God even to the “farthest parts under heaven.” In other words, they’d literally be scattered all over the face of the earth. This is the state of Israel presumed in the first few verses of chapter 30.
Of course, this is the momentum we have seen being built by Moses in the last two chapters. Chapter 28 described both the blessings and the curses of the covenant. The worst curse it said would be that they would be destroyed by a foreign nation and removed in exile. Chapter 29 ends with a similar description of the horrors of this reality. As you read chapter 28-29 at points it sounds more like a prediction than just a warning. Well, here in chapter 30, that prediction is clearly seen. Chapter 30 doesn’t see this as merely hypothetical. It sees it as inevitable. There would come a time when Israel falls under the covenant curses. There would be a time when they would be destroyed by a foreign nation and exiled. Of course, that did end up happening. The Old Testament records how God used the Assyrians and the Babylonians to do that very thing. The result was that Israel was driven out of the Promised Land and scattered among the nations.
And yet in the midst of this future reality, Deuteronomy here offers hope. As certain as it predicts a future falling away, it predicts a restoration. Verse 3 continues the thought from verse 1. Verse 1 starts with a time reference. “When,” in the future they find themselves under curse, and when they return to the Lord, then the Lord will bring them back from captivity. As certain as their exile will be, so too the certainty of their restoration.
And yet this restoration will happen upon their repentance. That’s the point made in verse 2. It’s repeated in verse 10. Together these two verses bracket this section. They’re like the introduction and the conclusion of this passage on restoration. That’s a common way they organized their writing back then. Start and end with the same idea. Verses 2 and 10 both have the same language in the Hebrew. Return to the LORD with all your heart and soul. That’s when this restoration will happen. Upon repentance. When they repent and truly return to the Lord, then God will restore them. Right here in Deuteronomy, God promises forgiveness and grace to a future repentant Israel. As a side note, do you see how Deuteronomy helps us to understand what’s going on in the Old Testament? The rest of the Old Testament is working out this chapter. Israel would experience blessings and curses in the land, ultimately fall away, and be exiled. Then they’d call upon the Lord as this prophecy predicts, asking for restoration. This chapter helps paint the picture of the rest of the history in the Old Testament.
And so look at the nature of the restoration promised here. Consider what’s promised in this passage. What does it say about this restoration? Four things can be said. First, there’s a gathering up of the scattered people of God. God would gather them up and bring them out of captivity back into the Promised Land. That’s verses 3-4. Second, they would abound and prosper again in the Promised Land. Verse 9 describes this. They’d abound agriculturally, reproductively, and God would rejoice over them. This is a summary of the blessings. They’d be blessed in the Land, it says, and this, just like their forefathers. But a third thing it says here about the restoration is very interesting. Verse 5 tells us something more about the prosperity they’d have in the Land when they are brought back. Look at verse 5. Moses tells them that God, “Will prosper you and multiply you more than your fathers.” More than their fathers.
That’s an amazing promise here. God promises them that after they fall away in sin, that God offers not just the hope of restoration. But he offers to restore them to something better. Something better than what their forefathers experienced in terms of prosperity. That’s a point not to miss here. It’s part of the prophecy of this passage. That’s amazing.
A fourth thing promised about this is restoration is also amazing. It’s the promise of verse 6. It’s that promise I already mentioned. The promise of a circumcised heart. Way back in Deuteronomy 10:16, Moses commanded as part of the law for the people to circumcise their own hearts and obey the terms of the covenant. Now in chapter 30, this chapter predicts that the Israelites will fail in that effort themselves. They won’t circumcise their hearts. So God promises to do it himself. This I think is the most amazing of all the things promised in the restoration. Why? Because it actually clues us in on how the restoration is even possible in the first place.
You see, there’s an interesting tension that immediately arises in this passage when you read verse 6. The tension is the contrast of verse 6 with verses 2 and 10. Verses 2 and 10 say that the restoration will happen when the people repent with their whole heart and soul. But that’s what they’ve been failing at. That’s why they were in exile. They hadn’t done that on their own. Verses 2 and 10 are the book ends to this passage. But the center of this passage is verse 6. Right at the center, we realize how wayward Israel would be able to turn back to God with their whole heart and soul. Because God would circumcise their hearts. This is nothing less than the promise of divine grace to be at work in their inner selves. There are three places in this chapter where the word heart and soul get mentioned together. And it’s in these three verses, 2, 6, and 10. I believe the point here is that the repentance described in verses 2 and 10 will happen because of verse 6. Verses 2 and 10 are descriptive. They describe the future repentance. Verse 6 gives us the background for why this will happen. It will be a work of God in their hearts. The law said circumcise your own heart. The gospel says that God will circumcise your heart. That’s a tension throughout Scripture. God calls us to repent, and yet we also see in both Old and New Testaments that it’s God who changes hearts to lead us to repentance. I’ll make that case a little further in a moment when I connect this passage with a few others in Scripture.
And this is so important because of what verse 6 says is the outcome of this changed heart. God would do this heart change, he says, so they would live. Contrast that with the last half of this chapter which called for obedience that we might live. Here God brings that obedience about, through a heart change caused by him. God makes the way for his people to live. This passage is about divine grace. It’s a picture of the gospel.
So the question becomes as we read this chapter, has this promise of Scripture been fulfilled? Has this promised restoration happened yet? Did it happen at the call of King Cyrus? That’s when the Persian king allowed the Israelites in the Old Testament go back to the Promised Land after their initial captivity. That’s actually a reasonable candidate. In so many ways it looks like what we see in this chapter. God’s people have a time of repentance. We see that recorded in Daniel 9 and the book of Lamentations, for example. They are allowed to go back to the Promised Land, coming back after being scattered all over the known world at that time. They do experience a measure of prosperity, compared to being in complete captivity in a foreign land. They rebuild the temple and over time look to live out the Mosaic covenant and its laws again, albeit their obedience becomes quite lacking again. And so this is what the Old Testament history shows. In many ways, that looked like the restoration that was promised.
And yet what is missing is verse 5. After they came back to the Promised Land, it was not better than what their forefathers had. For the most part, they didn’t have political autonomy, but were under occupation by the Persians and the Greeks and the Romans. No son of David on the throne. When they started rebuilding the temple, the young people rejoiced, but those who were still alive that could remember the previous temple wept, Ezra 3:12. They remembered the former glory of the previous temple and in comparison, they cried. It was not as glorious. That was a good picture of the nature of the restoration. It was a mixed restoration. It didn’t approach the glory predicted. Other prophets had picked up on Deuteronomy 30 as well, and also predicted that the restoration would result in something better than what their forefathers had before. Yet when the Old Testament closes, the people have not yet fully experienced that. When the New Testament opens, the people are still awaiting for the kingdom to be restored. They are looking for the Messiah to come and do that.
So how do we understand this historical restoration in the Old Testament? It somewhat looks like what was promised here in Deuteronomy 30. But it obviously falls short. Here’s how I think we should see it. The historical restoration in the Old Testament is typological. It’s a type of restoration. It looks like the restoration promised here, but it’s not the real restoration promised. The Old Testament is full of types and shadows that look forward to the real thing to come. That’s what the Old Testament restoration was from Babylonian captivity. Another type and shadow of something greater to come.
Now some fellow Christians think this greater restoration to come still lies solely in the future. They think this passage is just for ethnic Israel, Israel according to the flesh. They point out how the nation of Israel was destroyed again by the Romans in 70 AD and is now scattered throughout all the nations. Such Christians think this passage must not be fulfilled yet. They think there will be an earthly reign of Christ in the future that will involve Israel according to the flesh reigning in Palestine with Christ. That’s an interesting idea, but I don’t see the light of Scripture needed to come to that conclusion. Rather I think Scripture drives us to see the fulfillment of this passage in another way. The ultimate fulfillment of this passage comes in the new covenant, and is now semi-realized in terms of its fulfillment; it’s semi-realized in the church, even today.
So start, I’d point you to two other Old Testament prophecies to make this case. Remember, we should always use Scripture to interpret Scripture. Jeremiah and Ezekiel both describe this same promised restoration. For example, both describe the promise of verse 6 here in their own way; this promise that in the restoration God would circumcise their hearts. Jeremiah 31:33 describes this, quoting God as saying, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” Ezekiel 36:26 describes God circumcising hearts with this language, quoting God as saying, “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.” Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel are telling us about God working on his people’s hearts. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel are talking about this in the context of the promised restoration. Yet what is interesting, is that they both tell us more about the context of this restoration. They situate this restoration in the new covenant. Jeremiah 31:33 and Ezekiel 37:26 both use the specific language of a new covenant. It in this new covenant that they tell us that this restoration would happen. It’s in this new covenant they tell us that this divinely effected heart change would happen.
Well, if that’s the case, then that clears up for us right away about the fulfillment of this passage here in Deuteronomy. The fulfillment is in Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 11:25 tells us that Jesus at the Last Supper said that the new covenant has been inaugurated through his blood. Hebrews 8, 9 and 12 tells us that this new covenant has already come in Christ, actually quoting the same passage on restoration from Jeremiah 31. I don’t see anyway to miss this. The testimony of Scripture is that the restoration promised in the old covenant has come in Jesus Christ in the new covenant.
And so we acknowledge that this is semi-realized. It’s already been fulfilled in Christ, but not yet fully realized. Already we have been freed from captivity from sin and death, and are brought to new life in Christ. Already we’ve tasted of divine forgiveness for our sins. Already God has begun real heart change in us; heart change that causes real repentance in our life; heart change that begins to grow us in godly living. Already we are given an inheritance. And yet that gets us to the “not yet.” Our inheritance it says in 1 Peter 1 is at this point kept in heaven for us. The book of Revelation promises that our eternity with him will be spent in a New Jerusalem, a place where we have no more sin or sorrow. When Christ comes back, he will gather up his elect from the four corners of the earth and bring them to this paradise. Do you see what that is? That’s the final fulfillment of verse 5. Verse 5 promised that the restoration will be better than what their forefathers experienced. Well, that finds its ultimate fulfillment in eternity. In those New Heavens and New Earth and that New Jerusalem where we will have no more suffering. Then our heart work will be complete, and we will all fully love God and keep his commandments perfectly.
This description of how Christ fulfills this passage makes us recognize that the typological aspect here. Typologically, there’s a sense in which Israel experienced the restoration in the old covenant when they came back from Babylonian captivity. We mentioned that. But we described how that was only typological; it didn’t bring out the fullness of the restoration God intended. And so we see that ultimately God was using the language of the old covenant to describe how much better the new covenant would be. That’s of course, how we communicate, isn’t it? If you’re describing something to someone, you use terms they’ll be familiar with. If you are talking to a computer programmer about something, you might use a computer example. If you’re talking to a carpenter, you might use a wood-working example. God in the old covenant routinely did this through the prophets. He used the language of the old covenant to look forward to the new covenant. Of course, he does that again even in the New Testament. The Book of Revelation describes eternity using old covenant typology; talking about a New Jerusalem with city walls, and a Tree of Life, and the Ark of the Covenant. It even uses the typological language to distinguish itself from the old covenant. For example, it says there won’t be a temple in the New Jerusalem, because the Lord God and the Lamb will be its temple.
Of course this is what bothers some Christians when thinking about this passage. They think that this promised restoration was given to ethnic Israel. They wonder how we can apply it then to the church, a church made up both Jews and Gentiles. That’s a fair question, but we have a clear answer in Scripture. Paul in Ephesians 3 says this was a divine mystery that’s now been revealed in the New Testament. Paul essentially says that the mystery is that Gentiles and Jews together can be joined together in Christ as one body, one nation, one people. That together Jews and Gentiles can be fellow heirs together of the promise that has come in Christ. So, yes, this passage doesn’t tell us that Gentiles will experience this restoration. Certainly many Old Testament prophecies hinted at it. This chapter is silent about it about the inclusion of the Gentiles. But the New Testament tells us that this was kept secret by God for a time. But now he has revealed this mystery. This revealed mystery means that we Gentiles along with Jews all have the same opportunity. We all have the same opportunity to experience the real restoration. Jew and Gentile can experience this, through faith and repentance in Christ. Turn from your sin unto Christ, believe on him and his forgiveness and grace. If you do, whether Jew or Gentile, you can begin to experience the restoration promised here in Deuteronomy.
Trinity Presbyterian Church, the bad news in Scripture has always been that sin has drastic consequences. Disobedience to God leads to his divine curse. But the good news of Scripture has always been that God forgives repentant people, and that God even changes the heart of his people to lead us to repentance. This is told here in this passage. This is a little bit of the gospel right here in Deuteronomy. And the message of the gospel in contrast to the law keeps getting told again and again and more and more clearly as Scripture is revealed.
And so my call to each of us today is to turn our whole heart to him who turns hearts. Turn your whole heart to him who turns hearts. I know that sounds a bit circular, but it’s the beauty of God’s Word. We’re called to repent and believe in Christ. But to us who are called by his Spirit, we find him working this in us. It simultaneously gives glory to God, but at the same time it keeps the call right before us. We must turn! We must repent of our sins. We must come to Christ in real faith looking for his forgiveness and grace.
Verse 6 gives part of the gospel, saying that God would change his people’s hearts so that they would live. Verse 19 goes on to issue the law, telling them, choose life, that they may live. Well, that tension is resolved in Christ. Jesus said that he is the life. And so, friends, choose life! Choose Christ and find life in him. Turn from your old life to find real life in Jesus today. As we do, may we live as those whom God is circumcising our hearts; learning to follow Jesus day by day; learning to keep his commandments more and more; looking forward to his return when his restoration work in our lives will be completed. Amen.
Copyright (c) 2010 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.