Romans - The Gospel of God The Guilt of the Self-confident - Chap 2 vs 17-29
The Guilt of the Self-confident (Jew) vs 17-29
Their Inconsistency Exposed vs 17-24
Their Self- confidence vs 17-20 Continuing with the diatribe form of address, Paul now directly in name confronts the Jew as to his self-confidence in vs 17-20. Paul speaks to the Jew regarding his ‘boast in God’ and claim to ‘know His will’ being ‘instructed out of the law’ and ‘having the form of knowledge and truth in the law’. Then, having stated the cause and nature of a Jew’s self-confidence, he exposes the reality of hisself-contradiction (vs 21-24). That the Jew had an advantage and status over Gentiles Paul affirms in vs 1 & 2 of chapter 3. They were after all God’s covenant people to whom the ‘oracles of God’ were committed. But, Jewish self-confidence in possessing the law, knowing the law and teaching the law gave them the illusion that they were superior both in status (v 17) and knowledge (vs 18-20) to everyone else. The Jew thought of himself better than any Gentile, yet failing to realize that privilege of status and possession of knowledge not only make a person more responsible, without faith and righteousness, greater is their guilt. Being a Jew didn’t save them neither did possessing the law make them righteousness.
Their Self-contradiction vs 21-24 Thus Paul demonstrates how the Jew’s self-confidence only made him stand out all the more as hypocritical and deservedly condemned because the very truths he taught, preached and professed to believe were the very things in which he was found guilty (vs 21-23). Paul, by a series of questions, challenges a Jew’s assumptions, confronts his hypocrisy and finally makes the collective and serious charge that the unbelieving Jews have actually blasphemed the name of God among the Gentiles as the scriptures testify (v 24). Paul therefore establishes the case against the Jew on the basis of the Jew’s own behaviour. Proud of his status and knowledge, he flat-out contradicted what he professed by what he practiced.
Most of what Paul says in vs 17-24 is fairly straightforward, however the statement – ‘You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?’ requires some explanation and for that I appeal to R.C.H Lenski who says this about the robbing of temples or the committing of sacrilege:
'The point to be considered is not the stealing, which is already fully covered. It is the violation of the first principle of Judaism itself, its abhorrence of all idols. To snatch some jewel, gold, or silver, or other valuable from an idol temple, to buy it from another, to work it up into something else, to sell it, yea, even to touch it and in any way to possess it, really destroyed a Jew’s Judaism. For this reason Paul selects this crime and places it last; it cancels the very first favorable assumption, “if thou denominatest thyself Jew.” What a Jew!' (R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans).
So, the tragedy was that God was dishonoured and His name ‘blasphemed among the Gentiles’ – v 24 because of the law breaking and covenant unfaithfulness of His chosen people just as the Old Testament scriptures state at Isaiah 52 v 5 and at Ezekiel 36 vs 22-23.
As we have considered previously the Jew was equally guilty with the Gentile having the same attitude of rebellion, ingratitude, and self-will, though with the Jew it was covered with a cloak of self-respectability and the veneer of religious conformity. Their hearts were ‘uncircumcised’, their worship was vain and their lives hypocritical.
Their Circumcision Nullified vs 25-29
The Circumcision of Obedience is What Matters vs 25-27 Paul hasn’t finished, he now addresses the matter of the external circumcision of the flesh and how it identifies a Jew. He approaches this issue of circumcision at two levels. First at the level of the conditional value of external circumcision to the flesh and second, this being the climax to what he has been teaching throughout this chapter, the spiritual value of internal circumcisionof the heart (vs 28-29). The importance of what Paul says here needs to be emphasized for He clarifies the character of a true Jew under the law and at the same time expresses the unchanging principle or truth that ever characterizes those who truly obey and serve God and it is this truth that Paul goes on to develop in relation to the full theology of the gospel in this epistle. As previously observed this circumcision of heart is what the Lord always desired and required from His covenant people (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4).
Circumcision was another way of saying you’re a Jew, it was the covenant sign given to Abraham the man of faith and his descendants as we have previously discussed. This is Paul’s first mention of circumcision in Romans. He is addressing in stages the things of which the Jew boasted. First the law, now circumcision. Specifically and surely he is destroying their arrogant self-confidence and hypocritical self-righteousness. So when Paul writes at v 25 that ‘circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law’ he is in effect saying that being a Jew with this covenant sign of circumcision is only of value if one puts the law into practice, that is, if you are an obedient Jew. There were two sides to the Old Covenant, God’s faithfulness (Rom 3 v 3) and His people’s ‘true’ obedience. Break the law carelessly, willfully and continually and your circumcision and Jewish identity are worth nothing – ‘your circumcision has become uncircumcision’ – v 25. But Paul says more. First he asks, ‘if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision?’ – v 26. Paul seems to be going further in what he says regarding the Gentiles than he did at vs 14-15. His question has the implication to the Jew that such a man is not only as much of a Jew as he is, he is in fact more of a Jew. In other words such a man belongs to God’s true covenant community and is and will be manifestly counted among His people. We must be careful of reading more into these verses than Paul actually says or intends, yet in light of vs 28 & 29 being ‘counted for circumcision’ seems to indicate a deeper meaning than just stating a mere point of argument. The implication is that what God required from his people – a repentant heart and submitted will, seen in an obedient life – he has found among the ‘uncircumcision’. The word ‘counted’ is used with regard to imputed righteousness in chapter 4 v 3 etc. and the phrase ‘the righteous requirements of the law’ is found at chapter 8 v 4 in relation to the Spirit led and empowered believer. Some therefore interpret vs 26 & 27 as referring especially to ‘Gentile Christians.’ This means that Paul is here anticipating the theological truth he will go on to develop in relation to the fullness of the gospel as the epistle proceeds. However, true as this is we must remember that what Paul writes here has always been the character of a faithful and obedient believer who knows acceptance with God. We must not rob either true Jewish believers of their justification by faith who lived under the Old Covenant and expressed their obedience through it nor must we deny that there were believing Gentiles who responded to God and with a circumcised heart lived a life pleasing to Him. Consider what the LORD said through His prophet Isaiah:
'Thus saith the LORD, Keep ye judgment, and do justice: for My salvation is near to come, and My righteousness to be revealed. Blessed is the man that doeth this, and the son of man that layeth hold on it; that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and keepeth his hand from doing any evil. Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath joined himself to the LORD, speak, saying, The LORD hath utterly separated me from His people: neither let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry tree. For thus saith the LORD unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant; Even unto them will I give in Mine house and within My walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off. Also the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the LORD, to serve Him, and to love the name of the LORD, to be His servants, every one that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of My covenant; Even them will I bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for Mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people. The Lord GOD which gathereth the outcasts of Israel saith, yet will I gather others to him, beside those that are gathered unto him' (Isa 56:1-8 KJV).
At any rate, according to the verb tenses Paul uses, the uncircumcision who fulfill the righteousness of the law will in the future be ‘counted’ for circumcision – v 26 and in the future will ‘judge’ the circumcision who are law breakers – v 27. Again he appears to have in mind God’s ultimate Day of Judgment and so Paul continues to keep the focus on works according to God’s standard of righteousness. He probably does not mean that Gentiles will sit as judges to the Jews, rather that they will appear as witnesses for the prosecution, so to speak, on that solemn day. The Lord spoke of the Ninevites and the Queen of the South who would ‘rise in judgment’ and ‘condemn’ the Jews who saw His miracles and heard His word yet did not repent (Matthew 12: 28-42). The obedience of Gentiles condemn the disobedient Jews. How powerful the impact of these words to a self-righteous Jew. What a shock for one who glories in his status and possession of the law to realize that not only is he no better than a Gentile, there is in fact no value in his Judaism before God whatever for it has no reality. As Peter said to Cornelius and those gathered with him: “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him” – Acts 10:35.
The Circumcision of the Heart is What Counts vs 28-29 The climax of Paul’s argument is reached in these verses. Paul now reminds his audience that it is the spiritual value of internal circumcisionof the heart that counts with God. This is what constitutes a trueJew and this is what constitutes a true believer. Being a Jew as God intended is not by an outward identity in name nor by a ritual in the flesh. He is one whose heart has been spiritually circumcised as opposed to merely outward circumcision done in conformity to the letter of the law as prescribed at Lev 12 v 3. To circumcise the heart is the evidence of repentance and faith, the work of the Holy Spirit and submission to the will of God. It is one who has cut off the desires of the flesh, who is dedicated to God and who loves Him in truth and righteousness. This Jew has the approval of God and such Jews would be ‘doers of the law’. In the Old covenant era the outward circumcision and life of a true Jew under the law had meaning and reality before God because of their faith and obedience to His revealed word and will. The lives of the saints throughout the Old Testament and into the New give eloquent testimony to this fact.
Of course, Paul is now writing in the New Covenant era. It has brought full revelation through Christ, but the way of acceptance with God does not change in any age for “the just shall live by faith” (Rom 1:17). Perhaps one of the best examples of a true Jew ‘whose praise is not from men but from God’ is that of Nathanael. In John 1 vs 45-49 we read:
'Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” And Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him, and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit!” Nathanael said to Him, “How do You know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered and said to Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Nathanael, along with his fellow disciples and many others believed Jesus of Nazareth to be the promised Messiah “of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote”’.
Every true believer, whether Jew or Gentile, is so because they have believed God and in the gospel era of full revelation, they have believed in Jesus, who Himself said:
“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life” – John 5 v 24.