Advantages? Or responsibilities?

Advantages?  Or Responsibilities?

Romans 2:17—29

This is an interesting group of verses, and easily applicable to the Christian, even though it was written to and about Jews. The Jews of Paul’s day and the Christians of our day both have the same problem. Maybe you’ll see yourself reflected in these verses.

The context of these verses is pretty simple. In 2:17—29, we see that the various advantages the Jews had, or thought they had, are apparently offset by his boastfulness and fruitlessness.

1. Advantages of the Jews, 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—

Paul gives us some details about these advantages:

  • You call yourself a Jew. The first time we see the term “Jew” is in the Old Testament, 2 Kings 16:6, and was thought to be a term of derision. By the time of the New Testament, though, to be known as a “Jew” was like a badge of honor to the one called such.

  • You rely on the Law. The Greek verb translated “rely on” is used in the sense of “finding rest” or “relying upon” or “finding support” in something. The Jew, then, had learned to lean on and find support in the Law. The Jew, in fact, was chosen of God and the Torah was seen as proof of that. Therefore merely being in possession of that same Law, not necessarily practising it, was enough.

  • You boast in God. This can also be translated as “you glory in God.” Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. To “glory in God” is the heart of worship. But as the phrase is used here, there was no humility in sight. These Jews boasted in God arrogantly, with, as John Calvin noted, without any personal knowledge of God. The Jews had “made God their own,” even though they didn’t possess Him. They assumed they were His people; that assumption being based on God’s relationship with their ancestors.

  • You know His will. Paul concedes the Jews had a knowledge of God’s will—the ability to discern right from wrong—through the Law.

  • You approve of what is superior. The Jews were well-instructed in the Law and knew full well the difference between right and wrong and they knew what actions pleased God and which ones did not.

  • You are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark. Because of those advantages, the Jews assumed they were able to teach and lead others, and to judge others. The Jews clearly had a very high opinion of themselves, but obviously a low opinion of others.

2. The inconsistencies of the Jews, verses 21—24

…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.”

Descending from these seeming advantages comes a scathing exposure of the inconsistency of Jew. This whole section reminds us of what our Lord said in Luke 12:48—

From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

The various inconsistencies of the Jews are phrased in a series of strong questions which indicate that the sanctimonious Jews was guilty of breaking the at every point:

  • You who teach others, do you not teach yourself? In other words, “Do you practice what you preach?” The answer was, obviously, no.

  • You preach against stealing, do you steal? We’re not sure what Paul was referring to here. Was he thinking of Jews who were literally stealing from other people? Or was he thinking of Jews who preached tithing but then refused to tithe? Either view could be true, and either view puts these people in a very poor light.

  • You say not to commit adultery, but do you commit adultery? Yet another commandment was being broken by the self righteous Jews. This time it’s the seventh, and it calls to mind the incident of the woman caught in the act of adultery in John 7:53—8:11.

  • You abhor idols, but do you rob temples? This is a very telling accusation. The Jews hated idols and idol worship, and rightfully so. They even went so far as to refuse to use the Roman coins with Caesar’s image on it because they considered it to be a “graven image.” What is Paul referring to here? Simply this: he is accusing these pious Jews of committing irreverent acts in or against a holy place, like their Temple. The irreverent acts probably referred to what Paul has been saying up till now: they were preaching one way but living another.

  • You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? This is a sort of summary of all that went before. They broke the very Law the preached and held is such high esteem. Doing that brought dishonor to God.

3. No better than a Gentile

The thing that makes Paul’s argument so interesting and powerful is that both the Jews and Gentiles had the same problem, but in a different way. The Gentiles, teaches Paul, suppress the truth available to them by observation and interpretation of the world around them by the way the live their lives. The Jews, however, suppress a much fuller truth available to them because they refuse obey the Law given to them by God. The Gentiles had a kind of fuzzy knowledge about God and His will, but the Jews a crystal clear knowledge of God and His will, but both ignored what they had.

4. Ritual but no reality, verses 25—27

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.

Now Paul turns from the Law to an essential tenant of the Law: the rite of circumcision (Genesis 17:10). Paul was convinced that this sacred rite had lost it significance to many of his people and was now completely devoid of reality. Paul was certainly not the first Jew to point this out. The prophet Jeremiah did so in a fiery way:

Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, circumcise your hearts, you people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or my wrath will flare up and burn like fire because of the evil you have done—burn with no one to quench it. (Jeremiah 4:4)

This rite should have been a constant reminder to submit to God in every way, and should have served as a sign of God’s complete mastery over their lives. Instead, it apparently meant nothing.

For these Jews to insist on circumcision but to disregard what it stood for was no different than pagan tribes who practised it without any direction from God. The rabbis had a well-known statement:

Only the circumcised have a place in heaven.

We Christians read things like that and we scoff and roll our eyes. But there are many believers today, like the Jews of Paul’s day, who have practice a kind of “spiritual superstition.” People like this gladly submit to church rules and regulations with no basis in Scripture; they may engage in liturgies and ecclesiastical rites assuming that is the same thing as genuine worship.

While the Jews thought that their faithful observance to this part of God’s Law put them in good standing with God, the opposite was true: it was a sign of their completely lost condition.

The word “Jew” means “praise” and Paul states that the true Jew is not the one who glories and trusts in their outward appearance or in listening to the Law and blindly following its teachings. True “Jews,” true people of “praise,” are those who, down in their heart of hearts, have entered into a personal relationship with God. People like that look to God for affirmation, not to other people.

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. (verses 28—29)

(c)  2011, WitzEnd

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