Through the Bible in One Year

Day 251

Romans 2:17-29

Over the last two sections of his letter to the Roman church Paul has been building the case for God not showing favoritism.  And now today Paul is going to offer his best argument, that applies not only to the Jewish people (those who had the Word of God in Paul’s day) and the Christian Church (those who have the Word of God today).

Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker.

A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.  Romans 2:17-29

Now that we have read this entire passage let’s break it down section by section starting with verses 17-20.

Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—2:17-20

Paul begins a new section, resuming the charge that the upright, self-appointed judge introduced earlier in verse 1 is guilty of the same kind of sins as the pagans.  In verses 17-20 Paul spells out the privileges of Jews: Israel was chosen to show its wisdom and understanding to the nations (Deuteronomy 4:6) and to be a light for the Gentiles (Isaiah 42:6).  Yet this is ironic given their behavior, which Paul describes next.

you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”—2:21-24

Paul gives the first body of evidence for his charge that his Jewish contemporaries, represented by his dialogue partner in chapter 2, are just as guilty as the pagans depicted in Romans 1:18-32.  The general point in Romans 2:21a is expanded in the three questions in Romans 2:21b-22: stealing, adultery and contact with pagan idolatry have contaminated Israel throughout its history and continue to be present among the Jews of Paul’s day.  The proof of this is contained in verse 24.  Paul’s Old Testament reference is a paraphrase of Isaiah 52:5 and gives the context of how God is blasphemed.  It is not just the general fact that when God’s people behave badly, people will assume God is irrelevant.  It is the specific context of Israel’s exile.  Israel was given the law, and exile was always one of the penalties for Israel’s disobedience (Leviticus 18:28).  And when Israel went into exile, the nations asked about Israel, “Where is their God?” (Joel 2:17).  Paul is bringing forward the exile as proof that Israel had been and still is disobedient.

Now to put all of that in simple and easy to understand terms here is what Paul is saying and doing in this eight verse section.  Paul is exposing the self-righteous attitude of many of his fellow Jews, which he understood because he himself used to think this way (Philippians 3:4-6).  They enjoyed all kinds of advantages and felt superior because they possessed the Law that God had given through Moses.  Yet, the benefits of all God’s laws and promises became a burden, or hinderance, to them because they failed to truly live by them.  For many, there was little or no connection between what they said they believed and what they practiced in their lives—their beliefs did not affect their behavior.

Since the Jews claimed to follow God, their obvious sins and offenses against him gave people of all other nations and cultures reasons to curse, doubt and disrespect God in word and actions.  In the same way today, Christians and churches who do not wholly follow after God set a terrible example for those who do not know Christ.  This gives those who are lost already more reason to slander Jesus’ name and reject his pursuing love toward them.

Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker.

A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.—2:25-29

Paul reinforces the point of verses 17-24 that because God’s judgment is impartial, being a Jew is only valuable if one also obeys.  This is the point set out in verse 25a.  Conversely, in verse 25b a Jew (an elect member of the covenant) who disobeys becomes, in effect, a Gentile (outside the covenant).  Similarly, in verse 26 an uncircumcised Gentile who becomes obedient to God (by turning to Christ) is, as it were, circumcised into God’s covenant.  The true covenant member, even a Gentile, will be on God’s side judging disobedient Israelites on the day of judgment.  The summing up in Romans 2:28-29 echoes what Paul said in verse 16 about judgment being based on what is secret and inward.  The true member of God’s covenant people is the one who has experienced the new covenant blessings promised in the Old Testament: a new heart and the gift of the Spirit (Ezekiel 36:26-27).

Again to this in easy to understand terms: Circumcision involves the removal of the foreskin.  God established this physical act as a confirmation of his promise to make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation and latter as a sign of Israel’s acceptance of his covenant with them.  The Jews had come to accept this act as a guarantee of God’s favor.  While having God’s law should have been a benefit, it only served to condemn them when they resisted the spirit and original meaning behind it.  The true sign of belonging to God was not a mark on the physical body, but rather the inner work of the Holy Spirit that is able to transform a believer’s heart.  The changed heart allowed him or her to have a personal relationship with God and to participate in his purposes.  This inner work of God’s Spirit also enables the follower of Christ to live a spiritually pure life, separated from sin and fully devoted to God, which is what it means to be holy.  That is the true outward sign that a person is living under the new covenant—God’s “life agreement” with those who put their faith in him, based on the life and sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ.  And that is where we will pick up tomorrow as we deal with God’s faithfulness.

Tomorrow’s Bible Readings:

Isaiah 3-5, 2 Corinthians 11:1-15, Psalm 53:1-6 and Proverbs 22:28-29

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