EVEN THE MOST RELIGIOUS PERSON (DEVOUT JEW) CANNOT ESCAPE GOD’S RIGHTEOUS JUDGMENT–TRUE SPIRITUALITY IS MUCH MORE THAN POSSESSING RELIGIOUS PRIVILEGES AND PRACTICING RELIGIOUS RITUALS
Frank Thielman: Paul wants to demonstrate to his Roman readers, by means of this fictional dialogue with a Jew, that Jews as well as gentiles are transgressors and that their Jewishness gives them no privileges over gentiles on the day of judgment. Just as condemning the unrighteous person and possessing the Mosaic law will not permit Jews to escape God’s judgment (2:1–16), so teaching the Mosaic law and possessing physical circumcision will count for nothing on that day (2:17–29). Keeping the law from the heart, not making judgments based on it, possessing it, or teaching it to others, will bring praise from God. The difference in the two sections lies in the way Paul makes his point: now he focuses on the failure of Jews to fulfill their vocation of being a light to the gentiles (2:17–24) and shows that physical circumcision is not the defining boundary of the people of God (2:25–29).
Main Idea: Neither knowing the law so well that one can teach it to others nor possessing physical circumcision will exempt the Jew from God’s judgment of the sinner. Only doing what God requires, from the heart, will bring praise from God on the final day. . . This section is devoted to the question of Jewish identity: What makes a Jew a Jew and therefore part of the people who will survive the final day of judgment?
The paragraph consists of fifteen elements (2:17–23) and a closing quotation from Scripture (2:24). The fifteen elements describe Paul’s interlocutor with three lists of five characteristics each, and the whole list of fifteen exerts a powerful rhetorical force, using anacoluthon, polysyndeton, and asyndeton.
Douglas Moo: Possession of the law and the covenant sign of circumcision were perhaps the two most distinguishing marks of being Jewish. Given to Israel by God himself, they signaled the fact that the Jews were a special people, elevated above all other peoples. In discussing their value in these verses, then, Paul is discussing the ultimate value of being Jewish.
Let us recall the key point the apostle has made thus far: The Jews, because they do “the same things” as the Gentiles, are, like the Gentiles, subject to God’s wrath (vv. 1–5). But in putting the Gentiles and the Jews on equal footing, Paul could be accused of ignoring the special place that Jews have before God. Thus, without dismissing the Jews’ privileges entirely (see 3:1), he insists that the blessings God gave his people Israel did not, in themselves, bring rescue from divine judgment. Those blessings must be responded to in obedience. As Paul has made clear already (vv. 6, 13), it is doing God’s will, not knowing it or teaching it, that matters in the judgment. At precisely this point the Jews have fallen short.
Timothy Keller: Moralism is extremely common, and always has been. It is the biggest religion in the world today. It is the religion of people who compare themselves with others, who notice that they are “a lot more decent than other people,” and conclude: If there is a God, he’ll certainly accept me. I’m a good person.
How do we know if we have lapsed into “Christian” moralism as the source of our righteousness? Whenever we brag about something we have done—when we rely on our own action, profession or identity—we are living as functional moralists. . .
The crushing result of Christian moralism is that it dishonors God (v 23). When religious people boast about their law-keeping while breaking the law, usually the only person who cannot see what they are doing is them. “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (v 24). This is a convicting principle. A life of religious legalism is always distasteful to those outside the faith. A moralist will be smug (they are good people); over-sensitive (their goodness is their righteousness, so must not be undermined); judgmental (they need to find others worse than them in order to be good); and anxious (have they done enough?).
John Murray: The thrust of the passage flows out of the principle enunciated in verse 13 that “not the hearers of the law are just before God but the doers of the law shall be justified”. The apostle now addresses the Jew directly and pointedly and shows him that all the privileges and prerogatives he enjoyed only aggravated his condemnation if he failed to carry into effect the teaching which he inculcated.
John MacArthur: He is exploding the myth of Jewish false security in order that they might be brought to the point of true and genuine security. Now they felt themselves secure before God and they felt that some day they would go to heaven and enter the kingdom. They felt that they would never be judged or punished or condemned for three basic reasons. And these were the basic elements of their security.
- Number one was their nation.
- Number two was their law.
- And number three was their sign.
Based on the nation, the part of the law they had been given, and the sign of circumcision, they felt themselves to be secure. Paul then attacks those securities and shows that they are no security at all; in fact they only serve to aggravate the condemnation that is inevitable. It is necessary to tear down people’s false security in order to reveal their danger and then to offer to them the true security, faith in Christ.
I. (:17-24) TRUE SPIRITUALITY IS MUCH MORE THAN POSSESSING RELIGIOUS PRIVILEGE
A. (:17-20) Religious Privileges Can Produce False Security
- (:17a) Privilege of Special Identity
“But if you bear the name ‘Jew,’”
Barclay: The Jew believed that everyone was destined for judgment except himself. It would not be any special goodness which kept him immune from the wrath of God, but simply the fact that he was a Jew.
- (:17b-18) Privilege of Special Revelation and Discernment
“and rely upon the Law, and boast in God, 18 and know His will,
and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law,”
Lenski: To glory in God means to find one’s highest treasure in God and to manifest this.
- (:19-20) Privilege of Special Ministry to the Gentiles
“and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind,
a light to those who are in darkness,
20 a corrector of the foolish,
a teacher of the immature,
having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth,”
Timothy Keller: First, Paul lists six things the Jews were proud of when it came to how they lived—their moral goodness:
- “You call yourself a Jew” (v 17)—they were proud of their nationality, pleased to be Jews.
- “You rely on the law” (v 17)—a pride in having and knowing the law God had revealed to their ancestor, Moses, at Mount Sinai (see Exodus 19 – 31).
- You “brag about your relationship to God” (Romans 2:17)—God had chosen Israel to be his people (Exodus 19:4-6).
- “You know his will and approve of what is superior” (Romans 2:18)—they were able to make correct ethical decisions, and they were able to see the wrong choices others were making. Following the detailed rules and regulations in the law of God gave them a sense of being pleasing to God, particularly as they compared themselves to others.
- “You are instructed by the law” (v 18)—they did not only “have” the law, they had mastered it. They could quote it; cross-reference it; go deep into the details of it.
- “You are convinced that you are a guide for the blind” (v 19)—they know that they can see, and that others cannot because they are lost in idolatry, and so they spread the knowledge of the law.
B. (:21-24) Religious Privileges Mean Nothing If Your Life Doesn’t Measure Up
Your life will show whether or not you truly belong to God or whether you are a hypocrite.
- (:21a) General Test of Authenticity vs. Hypocrisy = You Must Practice What You Preach
“you, therefore, who teach another,
do you not teach yourself?”
Assumption = what you teach is God’s truth and His standard of righteousness
- (:21b-22) Three Specific Examples of Hypocritical Law Breaking
a. (:21b) Stealing
“You who preach that one should not steal,
do you steal?”
b. (:22a) Adultery
“You who say that one should not commit adultery,
do you commit adultery?”
c. (:22b) Idolatry
“You who abhor idols,
do you rob temples?
Frank Thielman: As the frequent occurrence of “temple robbery” in vice lists from antiquity shows, profiting from goods stolen from temples was common. Paul is probably pointing out here that the Mosaic law prohibited temple robbery because of the danger that it might lead those who possess such materials into idolatry (cf. 1 Cor 10:14, 20). His point, then, is that his interlocutor detests idolatry but opens the door to this very vice by profiting from the sale of items taken from gentile temples.
- (:23-24) Spiritual Hypocrisy Dishonors God and Destroys Your Testimony
“You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God? 24 For ‘the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,’ just as it is written.”
John Murray: The tragic irony is apparent. The Jews who claimed to be the leaders of the nations for the worship of the true God had become the instruments of provoking the nations to blasphemy. With this the indictment has reached its climax.
II. (:25-27) TRUE SPIRITUALITY IS MUCH MORE THAN PRACTICING RELIGIOUS RITUAL
A. (:25) Religious Rituals Have No Value Apart from Obedience
- Circumcision Has Value If You Obey the Law
“For indeed circumcision is of value, if you practice the Law;”
Frank Thielman: What is this benefit? Since Paul says that transgression of the law metaphorically turns the circumcised Jew into someone who is uncircumcised, the benefit of circumcision must be membership among the Jewish people. Their advantage is access to God’s word in the Mosaic law, with its promises that God would be faithful to his people (3:1–4; cf., e.g., Deut 4:31).
- Circumcision Has No Value If You Transgress the Law
“but if you are a transgressor of the Law,
your circumcision has become uncircumcision.”
B. (:26-27) Obedience Transcends Religious Rituals
- (:26) Obedience Qualifies for Covenant Status
“If therefore the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law,
will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?”
- (:27) Obedience Qualifies for Moral Superiority over Transgressors
“And will not he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law,
will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law?”
III. (:28-29) TRUE SPIRITUALITY THAT PLEASES GOD IS AN INWARD REALITY ACCOMPLISHED BY THE HOLY SPIRI
A. (:28) Outward Appearances Can Be Deceiving
- Outward Appearance Cannot Validate Our Spiritual Identity
“For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly;”
- Outward Appearance Cannot Give Significance to Religious Rites
“neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh.”
B. (:29) Inward Reality Constitutes True Spirituality
- Inward Reality Validates Our Spiritual Identity
“But he is a Jew who is one inwardly;”
Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum: These verses [vv. 25-29] must be kept in their context, which is that Paul is dealing with Jews and making a distinction between Jews who believe and Jews who do not believe. He is not teaching that every Gentile Christian is a spiritual Jew. Rather, he is teaching that every Jew is not a full Jew. A completed Jew is one who has had both circumcisions, the circumcision of the flesh, which is outward in obedience to the Abrahamic covenant, and an inward circumcision of the heart as an act of obedience to the new covenant.
- Inward Reality Accomplished by the Spirit Gives Significance to Religious Rites
“and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter;”
Robert Gundry: The contrast lies between God’s Spirit as the enabler of Law-keeping and the Law as a dead letter on scrolls that can’t enable obedience to it (compare 7:6; 2 Corinthians 3:1–11). Though human beings—in particular, non-Christian Jews—withhold praise from such a Gentile because he hasn’t gotten physically circumcised, God will praise him at the Last Judgment. It helps Paul’s line of reasoning that the Hebrew word for “Jew” plays on the Hebrew word for “praise,” as in Genesis 49:8 according to the original Hebrew text. The Mosaic law required circumcision for membership in God’s people, Israel; but Paul declares circumcision unnecessary for membership in God’s people, the church. For Christians, then, the Law that’s necessary to be kept and is evidentially kept consists in the moral law exclusive of ritual law.
- Only Inward Reality Pleases God
“and his praise is not from men, but from God.”
Douglas Moo: Verses 28–29 are a kind of appendix to this argument. Paul has made clear that being circumcised and possessing the law (v. 27b) do not, by themselves, qualify a person to be part of God’s true, spiritual people. Such outward marks, to be sure, can show that a person belongs to the “physical” Israel. But real Jewishness can never be determined by physical birth, by cuts on our skin, or by devotion to a particular book. To be a “real Jew” is an inward matter. It is marked by the “circumcision of the heart,” a circumcision that comes in the context of the Spirit, not the “written code.”