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Day 5 - How About Those Jews?

Romans 2:17-29


17 Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; 18 if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19 if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— 21 you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”  25 Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26 So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? 27 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.   28 A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 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.

If you have ever been on a hike with a group, you quickly learn that there are the hikers and the non-hikers.  The people who are physically fit, have all of the right gear and know how to pace themselves on a trail, quickly emerge as superior in this environment.  Those who are a little out of shape (although round is a shape), wearing flip-flops and have no water bottle quickly lag behind and an “us versus them” spirit quickly arises.  Years ago I went on a hike in the Rocky Mountains while attending a retreat.  I was quickly made aware of my condition.  The higher altitude and my inexperience were resulting in a very slow pace.  I had to keep stopping to breathe!  As the more experienced hikers continued to pass me, I became more and more aware of my weakness in this area.  

What is true in hiking is also true in religious circles.  Those who know their Bible, the lyrics to the songs, the religious jargon, and are in positions of leadership in the church often distance themselves from the common folk and begin to develop an air of superiority.  Evidently this was happening in the church at Rome and happened to be falling out along the lines of Jews and non-Jews.  Having argued the universal guilt of everyone under the law, Paul now turns his attention to those of Jewish heritage.

The theme of the book of Romans was stated in our introduction:  I become completely acceptable to God (righteous) by believing (faith) in the sacrifice of Christ for my sin (Gospel) and it is absolutely free (grace).  This righteousness that God offers is available to all at no cost to them and is needed by all because of the universal sinfulness of mankind under the law.  Therefore we all must approach this gospel from the same point of guilt.  

Highlight the following words with the same color.  Jew (2:17), rely on the law (2:17), boast (2:17), superior (2:18), guide, light (2:19) and instructor, teacher (2:20).  Now draw a line and connect it to you, then (2:21)

What about Those Jews? 

But what about those Jews?  It is obvious from this passage that the Jewish people in Rome still believed themselves to be superior in some way to the Gentiles.  Because they were specifically given the law (the same law that we just learned condemned everyone) and invited into a covenant of law by God, they considered themselves superior and in a position to instruct others in spiritual matters.  Paul has been setting them up from the beginning of the book and is now going to lower the truth on them.  Let’s consider the progression of Paul’s thoughts up to this point:

·      The Gospel is the power of God bringing salvation to Jews and Gentiles alike (1:16)

·      The wrath of God is being revealed against all godlessness and wickedness (1:18).

·      If you point the finger at others, you also condemn yourselves (2:1).

·      The judgment (wrath) of God will be based on truth (2:2), will take into account every man’s works (2:6), and will result in death for both those who sin without the law and those who sin under the law (2:12).

Having set the stage, Paul turned his attention toward the Jews (2:17).  The Jews were God’s chosen people.  They had been specifically chosen and invited into a covenant relationship with God under the law.  There was a pride associated with being a Jew because of this covenant.  They had been entrusted with the law and therefore seemed the best qualified to teach, guide, and instruct others in it.  But this attitude missed the point of the covenant and the law.  The point was obedience (2:13).   Paul began to unravel their superiority by pointing out to them that while condemning others, they were actually condemning themselves.  The Jews who were teaching others not to steal, commit adultery, or participate in idolatry were actually just as guilty as those they were teaching.  This  brought dishonor to God (2:23) and allowed the Gentiles to blaspheme God (2:24).  

Now before all of my non-Jewish readers dismiss this passage as inapplicable to them, what if we just changed the language?  What if the church members were appointing themselves as teachers, leaders, guides of the unchurched simply because of their position?  What if the baptized were bragging about their relationship with God to the unbaptized?  Different position but same principle.  If we begin to believe that we have something to do with our righteous standing with God, we can begin to think that we are better than others, sit in judgment on others and even condemn others.  Remember, it is all God’s righteousness and is only available by faith.  We have nothing in ourselves to boast about. 

Underline observe the law (2:25), keep the law’s requirements (2:26), obeys the law (2:27) and circle circumcision of the heart (2:29).

Yeah, But What about Circumcision?

The Jewish nation began in Genesis 12 when God promised to make Abraham a great nation.  When Isaac, the promised son was finally born to Abraham and Sarah, God instructed the child to be circumcised.  Circumcision was the cutting of the male foreskin and was introduced by God to Abraham as a physical symbol of the covenant He made with Abraham regarding the nation of Israel.  Every male child born to a descendant of Abraham (every male Jew) was to be circumcised on the 8th day of life as a symbol that he was a son of the covenant.  Later, under the covenant with Moses, those circumcised descendants of Abraham were invited into a special relationship with God based on their obedience to His laws.  Circumcision was also a part of this covenant.  However, over time, the physical act of circumcision began to be the definition of the covenant itself.  Instead of evaluating themselves by whether or not they were obeying the law, they were evaluating themselves by whether or not they were circumcised.  Circumcision became the bragging rights of the Jews.  In this same way baptism can become synonymous with relationship with God for the “Christian”.  Trusting in a ritual or outward symbol is not the same as obedience.  Under the old covenant it was obedience to the law and under the new covenant it is obedience to the gospel (faith).  

So when Paul began to show them that the law actually condemned them, he expected them to ask what about circumcision?  In the remainder of this chapter, Paul answers this objection (2:25-29).  He takes them right back to the point of the covenant relationship.  The crux of the covenant wasn’t whether or not they were circumcised, but whether or not they obeyed the law (2:13).  Circumcision was an outward symbol that a man belonged to God.  The only way to really belong to God was to be righteous and righteousness had been defined for them by the law.  If someone then, could be righteous by obedience to the law, God would look at him as if he were circumcised because he truly belonged to him.  On the contrary, if someone were circumcised but not obeying the law, God would look at him as if he were uncircumcised because he didn’t belong to Him.  God was concerned with his heart (not his foreskin).  Circumcision of the heart was referring to a heart made righteous by obedience to the gospel, not obedience to the law.  This righteousness which comes by faith is lived out by the Spirit of God who is in us and not by following a prescribed list of behaviors.  

Paul concluded with the reality that those who were circumcised may be able to receive praise from men because of their position, but God would praise those who are righteous.  Throughout the epistles of the New Testament the early church was urged to work toward unity.  Unity is compromised when a hierarchy of believers emerges because some begin to think of themselves as superior or inferior based upon some action or behavior.  Evidently Paul was concerned about the unity of the church at Rome between the Jews and the Gentiles which is why he was making such a big deal about this issue of circumcision.

Questions to Ponder

1.   What kinds of things did the Jews tend to brag about?  How would you relate this problem to our own church culture?

2.  For the Jews the outward sign of circumcision had become the very definition of relationship with God.  Are there things that we tend to              equate with our relationship with God?

3.  What was it about being a child of the law that the Jewish people kept leaving out?

4.  What is the circumcision of the heart?

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