Studies In Paul’s Letter to the Romans
by Bob Burridge ©2011
Lesson 11: Romans 2:17-29
The religion of Israel was impressive in the time of Christ. The Jews had a glorious Temple, scholarly Rabbis, and a powerful Sanhedrin of honored spiritual rulers. They practiced fancy rituals, wore special clothes, and followed ancient traditions. But there was one serious flaw: it was a confusion of what God had actually commanded them to be and to do.
They had adopted a whole set of cultural rules that gave them spiritual pride. They thought that because of their strict observances, they were so holy that God was pleased with them and would bless them forever. But they had changed the real spiritual principles into superficial and outward rules. While they avoided certain places and certain unclean things, they had missed the real issues of God’s law. They had replaced them with the laws of men.
Paul wrote the Book of Romans to set things right. In the first two chapters he showed that God excuses no one from the demands of justice. The Gentiles, who were un-taught in Scripture, were guilty without excuse. God had generally revealed himself in creation and in their conscience. But they failed to honor their Creator as he had made himself known.
The Jews, who had been taught the Scriptures, were guilty without excuse as well. They will be judged by the law God gave them. It condemned even the least violation of morality. There was no special privilege or exemption from moral and religious responsibility. No one is above or beyond the law of God. Moral and religious principles were built into Creation itself.
So now in this next section of the letter, Paul went on to show them the danger, hypocrisy, and offense of their superficial religion.
The Jews had been graciously privileged to be called God’s people.
Romans 2:17-20, “Indeed you are called a Jew, and rest on the law, and make your boast in God, and know His will, and approve the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law, and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having the form of knowledge and truth in the law.”
The name “Jew” is from the Hebrew word “Judah” (יהודה). It means “one who is praised.” God had made a covenant with that nation to make unworthy sinners into his people. They were marked out by the sign of circumcision, and graciously given God’s truth by his prophets.
As a nation they considered the laws of Scripture to be trustworthy. They gloried in Jehovah who had promised to be their God. They knew that God’s will was revealed in the Scriptures. They gave approval to the things that were good, or “excellent.” They confidently considered themselves to be guides for the spiritually blind. The Rabbis called themselves the “light of the world”. Jesus used their own expression and applied it more correctly to his own Apostles. They dared to correct the foolish and teach the immature. They had the law of God, the very embodiment of knowledge and truth.
These are all good things. But there was a problem.
The Covenant People were not obedient
to what they said was good and right.
Romans 2:21-23, “You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal? You who say, “Do not commit adultery,” do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law?”
In short, he was implying that they were hypocrites. Paul cited the common crimes of the Jews, the same ones Jesus had accused them of committing. They dared teach others but really needed to teach themselves. Jesus had corrected them saying in Matthew 22:29, “You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God.”
They rightly condemned stealing, but they were guilty of theft. Paul didn’t mean that they actually crept into homes and stole someone’s belongings. However, they oppressed the poor, and kept for their own use what would have helped the truly needy. They charged unreasonable interest for loans, imposed high temple taxes, and demanded that worshipers pay to exchange their money for temple currency. As in the days of Malachai, they had re-directed God’s 10th of their income for their own use. The people couldn’t understand the prophet Malachi’s charge of theft so God through that prophet said. “Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed Me! But you say, ‘ In what way have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings.” (Malachai 3:8)
These abuses were obscured by the Jew’s complex and prideful rules and exceptions. It was just a cover up for self-gain and for disregard of God’s principles.
They condemned sexual freedom, but committed it themselves. This included spiritual adultery in lowering their idea of God to go along with corrupt popular ideas. It also included defending physical lusts and sexual looseness and immorality as long as it was done discreetly, and within certain popular contemporary limits. Jesus had also rebuked them for making excuses for their sexual liberties.
While condemning idolatry they robbed temples. The language here is more broad than just physical idols, or theft of temple treasures. The terms were used for showing a general disregard for holy things, sacrilege. As Jesus said, They had made the house of God into a den of thieves. They desecrated the true sacrifice making it an abomination as Daniel had warned.
In a culture of non-believers, a love of all kinds of religion is considered noble. God has always called broad inclusivism a serious offense. There have always been those who try to find words that make it sound as if we all believe the same things when we don’t. It was for their stand against such things that the prophets were persecuted and executed.
Paul seems to have a portion of the popular Psalm 50 in mind here. Notice the similarities.
Psalm 50:16-21,”But to the wicked God says: ” What right have you to declare My statutes, Or take My covenant in your mouth, Seeing you hate instruction And cast My words behind you? When you saw a thief, you consented with him, And have been a partaker with adulterers. You give your mouth to evil, And your tongue frames deceit. You sit and speak against your brother; You slander your own mother’s son. These things you have done, and I kept silent; You thought that I was altogether like you; But I will rebuke you, And set them in order before your eyes.”
It is sin enough to steal, or to practice sex outside of marriage, or to approve of false religions. Then to condemn others while speaking as God’s spokesman and doing the very same things, adds yet more offense to their charge.
The behavior of God’s people reflects upon
the reputation of God among others.
Romans 2:24, “For ‘the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,’ as it is written.”
Notice that he says “just as it is written”. Paul is alluding to the Jew’s own Scriptures. The principle was laid down long before by Moses. He warned that because of their sin God would one day let them be taken as captives. While among the nations they would become a mockery. Deuteronomy 28:37, “And you shall become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword among all nations where the LORD will drive you.”
Long after the time of Moses, after listing the sins that caused Israel’s captivity, God’s Prophet said in Ezekiel 36:20, “When they came to the nations, wherever they went, they profaned My holy name — when they said of them, ‘These are the people of the LORD, and yet they have gone out of His land.’ ”
As children can bring disgrace and dishonor upon their parents, so Israel by her hypocrisy brought disgrace upon God instead of promoting his glory. They had been captured and were being held as slaves by the ones they called heathen. It was caused by Israel’s own sins and rebellion. Yet in the eyes of the heathen Jehovah appeared weak and defeated. They had been seen as a hypocritical nation holding forth the Ten Commandments of Moses and all their high standards, but living selfishly, deceitfully and lustfully. It made God appear to have founded an immoral nation.
The hypocrisy continued in Paul’s time. God’s people are marked out to be a testimony to the world of God’s glory. Disgracefully, they often obscure God’s truth and glory when their compromise with culture or
religion makes God’s ways seem unclear or unimportant.
God’s covenant with his people is not
just about the things we see outwardly.
Romans 2:25-29, “For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision? And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.”
God had commanded circumcision to mark out families as his own special people. As a mere act it had no magical powers and offered no benefits. It changed no one by itself, but as a sign and seal of God’s covenant it served a very important purpose. It marked out God’s covenant people from all others. It represented God’s pledge to fulfill his promises to them. It obligated the marked out people to all the stipulations of God’s covenant.
But a covenant carries with it both blessings and curses. Moses explained that part of God’s covenant in Deuteronomy 11:26-28, “Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you today; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside from the way which I command you today, to go after other gods which you have not known.”
Circumcision was only one part of God’s revealed law. By marking themselves out as God’s people, they were obligated to live by all of God’s principles. Paul quoted another part of God’s promises from Deuteronomy 27:26. In Galatians 3:10 he said, “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.’ ”
So to take pride in circumcision but to disobey any other part of God’s law demands the curse of the covenant, rather than its blessing. The central duty for God’s people in the covenant is full obedience and faithfulness. Disobedience annuls the outward claims. The Jew who breaks the law makes his circumcision into uncircumcision.
Remember, this was Paul’s main point in this section of Romans. He was showing that all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, are in need of salvation by grace. Since all have sinned, no one can expect the blessings of God’s covenant.
Those who sin but are outside of the covenant have no promise of blessing. If such a person was to keep the law, his lack of an outward sign would not hinder God’s blessing. His obedience would show that he had been redeemed by God’s grace and deserved the sign. God judges by the deeds of men which reveal the state of their heart, not by their professions, claims, or rituals. (2:6).
Those who sin bearing the sign of the covenant, deserve its curses, not its blessings. Circumcision is no exemption from justice. God sees all and is not fooled. Circumcision marked out those who were outwardly God’s people. It is never said to actually redeem anyone from their guilt and excuse them from justice apart from the work of God’s redeeming grace.
The Jews had come to trust in the rites, not in the work the rites represented. God gave the law and its sign to point to the need for and promise of the Savior. However, the Jews made a “Savior” out of the law and its sign. Circumcision took on a magical sense to them. Rabbi Menachem said, “Our Rabbins have said, that no circumcised man will see hell.” The Rabbis wrote; “Circumcision saves from hell” (Jalkut Rubeni), “God swore to Abraham, that no one who was circumcised should be sent to hell”(Medrasch Tillim), “Abraham sits before the gate of hell, and does not allow that any circumcised Israelite should enter there” (Akedath Jizehak).
Such things directly contradict what Moses said. God looks on the heart and does not regard mere external circumstances. The real Jew is one circumcised in the heart, inwardly pledged to God’s covenant.
There has always been both a visible and an invisible people of God. The visible church is made up of those who are outwardly identified with God’s covenant. Stephen, in his detailed history of God’s covenant to the council in Acts 7 referred to Israel as God’s church or “congregation” in the wilderness. This same church continued after the time of Christ in a renewed form, but still represented those people called out by God’s promise of Grace. Paul said in Gal 3:7, “Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham.”
The visible church is made up of all those who say they believe the truths revealed in God’s word, who promise to strive to obey the principles of God’s word, and who submit to the outward ordinances of God’s word including the authority of his church. These alone are biblically considered to be members of God’s covenant people. For the Jews the sign of membership was circumcision. For believers after the coming of Christ its the sign of baptism.
This, however, is only an outward relationship. It does not promise that each member is redeemed. This is the error made by the ancient Jews and by many Christians today. Baptism does not save a soul from hell any more than did circumcision. However, it does obligate all who are baptized to the whole of God’s revealed principles. Those who take on the sign but disobey call down the most frightening curses of God.
The invisible church is made up of those actually made right with God by grace. In ancient Israel it was those transformed by regeneration based on the future work of Christ. In New Testament times it is those regenerated by that same work of Christ now accomplished. We cannot know for sure who are of the truly redeemed. Only God knows for sure, so we use the word “invisible church.” We cannot see by our own judgment who is included.
We are told to look at the evidences of a redeemed life. By this the Elders are to admit believers to membership or to remove them from the Lord’s Table (as in Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 11). By these evidences we are to examine our own lives in light of God’s word. There is no hope in circumcision or baptism alone. However, if we see the evidences of a changed heart, we can have great hope in God’s promise.
What hope is there if we are hypocrites? If our lives contradict our profession? If our attitudes show no evidence of the Fruit of the Holy Spirit? If our morality is conditioned more by situations and feelings than by eternal principles? Then there is due cause for alarm and grave spiritual concern.
Jeremiah warned God’s people long ago in 4:19-22, “O my soul, my soul! I am pained in my very heart! My heart makes a noise in me; I cannot hold my peace, Because you have heard, O my soul, The sound of the trumpet, The alarm of war. Destruction upon destruction is cried, For the whole land is plundered. Suddenly my tents are plundered, And my curtains in a moment. How long will I see the standard, And hear the sound of the trumpet? ‘For My people are foolish, They have not known Me. They are silly children, And they have no understanding. They are wise to do evil, But to do good they have no knowledge.’ ”
Membership in the church, baptism, a memory of a decision or emotional moment, or a long list of rules and things you abstain from, are no ground for hope in God’s promises.
Since we are all guilty before the demands of God’s law, our only hope is in the provisions of the Savior Jesus Christ. By his perfect life his people are credited with righteousness, his righteousness. By his suffering and death the sin and guilt of his people are justly satisfied in God’s eyes. By the renewed fellowship they have with God by Christ’s redemption, real works of righteousness and the character of Christ are produced in them. He delivers us from hypocrisy by forgiving it, and by changing the heart itself.
Where the life contradicts the profession of faith, where situations and outward rules replace God’s more broad principles of morality, there is room for grave doubt.
Come to Jesus Christ and make your calling and election sure. Look back upon your baptism as an ordinance given in God’s Covenant God as a sign and as a seal of his pledge to redeem his people by the gracious work of the Savior, and that you do not see it as a replacement for the Savior.
Make sure you love the Law of God because you have been transformed by grace to love the God of the Law. Make no excuse that would diminish the holy and sovereign Lordship of the King of kings in your life. Confess and repent with a determination to live in faithful obedience by the power of the Holy Spirit according to the standards in God’s revealed word.
(The Bible quotations in this article are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)