With Dale Ratzlaff
We pick up our study in Romans 2:17-29:
But if you bear the name “Jew” and rely upon the Law and boast in God, and know His will and approve the things that are essential, 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, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth, you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal? You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God? For “THE NAME OF GOD IS BLASPHEMED AMONG THE GENTILES BECAUSE OF YOU,” just as it is written. For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And 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? 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 which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God (Rom. 2:17-29).
This is a fairly long section, and it is easy to read over it without grasping the positive qualities of Jewish thought. Note the positive nature of the points below:
- Bear the name Jew—having the right name for the people of God
- Rely upon the law—as commanded in the Law of Moses
- Boast in God—like Paul boasted in the cross of Christ
- Know His will—a blessing arising from having God’s word
- Approve the things that are essential—showing good moral judgment
- Being instructed out of the law—as commanded throughout the Old Testament
- Confident you are a guide to the blind—self-confident in your mission
- A light to those who are in darkness—spreading the truth of God to others
- A corrector of the foolish—something commended in the Proverbs
- A teacher of the immature—needed in every time and society
- Having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth—given to them by God
One cannot read over this list of attitudes and accomplishments without thinking this would be a good resume for a Christian worker. There is expressed here a degree of apparent spiritual maturity seldom found. Paul notes, however, that beneath all these apparent blessings and accomplishments, there is an element of pride and/or works righteousness. This list is reminiscent of Paul’s resume listed in Philippians 3:
…circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless (Phil. 3:5,6).
Later, Paul stated that all these apparent blessings, when used to support right standing with God, are as worthless as a pile of stinking, rotten compost. Paul goes on in this section of Romans to ask some penetrating questions. Do the Jews who claim to live out the law, actually keep the law? The implied answer is “No”—not good enough. Then he reasons that if they are such good teachers of others, they should be able to teach themselves, but are they? The Jews of the day were quick to project blasphemy on anyone who challenged their theology including on Christ who gave evidence of His divine nature. However, the Jews, although privileged by God’s revelation, began to think that they were special, superior to others, and there pompous attitude caused the unbelieving Gentiles to dishonor and blaspheme God. Paul points to the inconsistency in the heart of the Jews: they were quick to condemn others and slow to apply God-revealed truths to themselves.
There is in Paul’s words an added tone of bitter indignation—the indignation of the high-minded Jew who moved about among the great cities of the pagan world and found the very name of Jew made a byword by the evil ways of its bearers.
Paul now moves into a ritual/moral discussion regarding circumcision and the law. For the circumcised Jew it was unthinkable that he should fail to receive salvation. Although circumcision was a ritual law, it nevertheless over time came to be seen as a moral accomplishment. The line between ritual and moral became blurred. Paul is saying that ritual laws are good as long as they are a sign of obedience to the moral principles of the law and are connected to the covenant to which they are a sign. For example, celebrating the Lord’s Supper—a ritual law—in a manner inconsistent with the values of Christianity and by so doing to expect to receive some merit, is wrongly placing moral value on a ritual law. The same would be true for a Christian to be circumcised—an old covenant ritual—expecting to receive some kind of merit. There must be harmony both with the moral principles tied to the ritual law and the covenant to which the ritual law is connected. Conversely, if someone keeps the moral principles of the law, even though they do not carry the ritual sign, they are accepted to the same degree as if they did.
Paul ends this discussion by showing that ritual laws are meaningless unless they represent a heart tuned to the Holy Spirit.
It is so easy for us who have discovered the simple new covenant gospel to look down upon those who are still in the clutches of legalism. We who want to teach others must, as Paul stated in this section of Romans, be careful to teach ourselves the principles of the new covenant law—love to others, yes, even to our enemies—with the same love shown to us by our Lord.
Have you ever seen a passing car with the Christian “fish sign” on it and then had to hit the brakes as the Christian in the car cut you off? Have you seen an old, dilapidated, paint-pealing sign with “Jesus” or “John 3:16” on it? I am left to wonder if the sign would encourage people to seek the Lord—or if these ill-kept signs cause people to look at Christianity with disdain?
Perhaps some of us are so wedded to a ritual sign—such as the Sabbath—that we place moral value in its observance. As this section of Romans teaches, for any ritual to have value it must be associated with that “which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.” Man looks on outward behavior, God looks on the heart.
Father, I want to live in openness before you. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way” (Ps. 139:23-24). Help my life to reflect Your love. May my obedience and worship spring from the heart, tempered by the Spirit of Christ and in harmony with your will.
In Jesus Name,
1See Mt. 12:26-31; 26:64-66.
2Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 138.