Romans 2

romans_title

Passage Thought

If followers of Jesus always remember that they are justified before God not by their own work, but by Jesus’ work then it will serve all followers well. I think there is always a temptation for those of us who call ourselves disciples of Jesus and recognize that God calls us to be a holy people, to attempt to put on masks of various kinds. Maybe it would be better put this way.

I served as a student pastor for several years and one of the things I was always addressing was that authenticity mattered. I was always encouraging them to be the same in all aspects of life. I was encouraging them to not have different masks. Often, I would see them act one way at church, one way at school, another way at home, and maybe even another way with different friends. They had a mask for each occasion and each group. My challenge was to not wear any masks, but to be the same person in every circumstance, to be their authentic self. The problem was sometimes they did not know who their authentic self was, it would be a combination of wanting to follow Jesus and be like everyone else.

What I have found is that this way of living with masks is not limited to teenagers. We are not the recipients of Paul’s letter to Rome, but I think Paul would want us to recognize from this text is that it is okay to not have it all together, but to own that. That way when we encourage others to be more like Jesus we need to also acknowledge our need for Him. Paul wants us to know that Jesus is calling us to be a people who don’t live with any masks on and with no masks our expectations of ourselves are to be as great as our expectation for other believers.

1-11 You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?

But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11 For God does not show favoritism.

(For this passage, and some others, it is a good viewpoint to take that Paul is arguing as if there is a heckler arguing with him as he composes this letter.[1])

Righteousness is a theme that runs throughout Paul’s work. It is a central idea to his understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. It is this understanding of right relationship with God that Paul so desperately wants the reader or hearer of this letter to understand. All need to be in right relationship with God and that comes through Jesus.

William Barclay lists four things to take away from these verses in regards to what Paul is reminding Jews in this text.

  1. He told them Bluntly that they were trading on the mercy of God
  2. The Jew regarded the mercy of God as an invitation to sin rather than as an incentive to repentance.*
  3. Paul insists that there is no favoritism with God. He insists that in God’s economy there is no most favored nation clause.
  4. That faith of ours must issue in deeds, for it is by our deeds we are accepted or condemned.[2]

*Side note: It cannot be missed that too often in the church of today that this is the temptation for many. It seems that God’s people (we could add the nation of Israel as well) struggle to find the balance between living in legalism and living in ways that say there is grace for all actions in life. God’s call for His people to be holy is just as true today as it was in any day, but within that holiness there must be a humility and grace.

Paul creates for himself a hypothetical figure to call out, a person who would be a “Jew” who sees themselves as morally and spiritually superior to pagans.[3] The “Jew” would be the type of person that would enjoy pointing out the faults in others and trying to make himself/herself look better. What Paul is not trying to say is that all ways of living are equal. He is saying that apart from the righteousness we receive from God no one is righteous not Jew or Gentile, or any other person and without God’s righteousness we are all judged sinful and in the final judgment. Paul is declaring in a world that says live how you want, because in the end we just die (much like the 21st century) that God is setting the world right and there will be a day when all are held accountable.[4] He is saying that the Jew is ignoring the fact that God’s kindness should lead one to repentance not to a life filled with more sin and more unrighteousness.[5]

What Paul does say in this text is that doing good is a part of being God’s Kingdom people. In verses 7 and 10 this is a clear point he is making and he contrast it with verses 8 and 9.[6] Paul is not in any way trying to say that doing good in and of itself leads one to a place of right relationship with God, but if there is a right relationship with God, then good will come out of it. It will also be the kind of good that is not a momentary way of living, but the kind that lasts for a lifetime.[7]

Verse 11 is an important point for all of us today. God no longer works through a nation, but His Church. God is not working through a national people, but a called out people. This is hope for both Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free person…on and on the list goes!

12-16 All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)16 This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.

Paul here is talking of the necessity of all to be made right with God and that happens in what we call and Paul writes throughout his writings, that through Jesus people can be “justified” with God.[8] Paul is writing in such a way that says the Jew is responsible for what he knows under the law and the Gentile will be judged by God from the basis of what she knows. This would mean that Paul wants to make clear to his Gentile readers that not only are Israelites going to be held to God’s righteous judgment but that the Gentiles will also be held responsible for how they live. It is as William Barclay writes, “God is fair.”[9]

It should be noted that Paul writes very clearly in other places that there is a way of living for those that call themselves followers of Jesus and when one says they are a disciple of Jesus then there is an accountability among believers. Paul is not saying mutual edification or holding one accountable is wrong, but judgment which in its essence is really about making one’s self look better is wrong.

Paul is in no way throwing out the law (neither did Jesus), but is helping reorient the understanding that knowing the law is not enough it is necessary to follow the law. In relationship with Jesus there is a continual growth in which a believer moves from a moment of justification before God through his sanctifying work and in so doing the “law” becomes a way of living in God’s love through the work of His Spirit.

17-24 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.”

I don’t know how many times I have heard someone say, or someone else has shared that the church is full of hypocrites. Often, there is truth to this statement, but many times I don’t know that hypocrisy is the bigger problem. What I think turns more people off to following Jesus is when his followers act as if they have the corner on all truth and say either directly or indirectly, “I have it together.” Or, “If people would just live like me their lives would be better.” The reality is living as a follower of Jesus is likely to bring more joy than less, but a follower of Jesus should attract people not push them away with their boasting. That is what Paul is saying in verse 17. If you tell people you are better than them you are likely not! A follower of Jesus should be marked by a humble confidence in the Lord. The humility to recognize their own unrighteousness apart from Jesus and at the same time recognizes their confidence that Jesus through the work of the Spirit has enabled them to become righteous before God. Paul is calling into question boasting all the while pointing out the hypocrisy among those who point out others sins and at the same time commit those sins.

Paul is referencing two Old Testament (Torah, to Paul) passage in this section. The first he quotes directly in verse 24 as he quotes from Isaiah 52 and in that text a few verses later it addresses the idea of the suffering servant. Ezekiel 36 talks of God’s new covenant and it seems that Paul is addressing both prophets with this section of Scripture. Paul is taking what seemed to be a nationalistic identity and role for Israel and saying that apparently they got it wrong and God is doing a new thing.[10]

25-29 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[c]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.

In other words, just because you are from a certain place or just because your family raised you a certain way does not mean that is who you really are. Circumcision was the defining thing that set apart the males of Israel, it was truthfully a source of pride. However, Paul is saying that if things look good on the outside and yet you do one thing outside the law then the result is as if you were never circumcised.

Barclay says it this way, “To a Jew a passage like this must have come as a shattering experience. The Jew was certain that he stood in a special relationship with God, and that God regarded him with special favor, simply and solely, because of his national descent from Abraham, and because he bore the badge of circumcision in his flesh. But here Paul introduces an idea to which he will return again and again. Jewishness, he insists, is not a matter of race at all; Jewishness has nothing to do with circumcision. Jewishness is a matter of conduct. If that is so, there is many a so-called Jew who is a pure descendent of Abraham, and who bears the mark of circumcision in his body, who is no Jew at all; and equally there is many a Gentile who never heard of Abraham, and who would never dream of being circumcised, who is a Jew in the real sense of the term.”[11] In other words, race doesn’t matter, but character does.

Paul goes on to write that one that keeps the law even without circumcision is more right than the circumcised one. He says that a right heart is more important than an outward act that doesn’t in itself change us. To have the circumcision of the heart that Paul is talking about it requires the work of the Holy Spirit in their life. It could be said this way, before Jesus those marked as God’s covenant people were circumcised physically, but since Jesus came into the world the mark of God’s people was not a physical mark, but a spiritual one. A transformed heart is now the mark of God’s people and it is no longer tied to national identity.

[1] Barrett, 41. (“Black’s New Testament Commentary: The Epistle to the Romans” by C.K. Barrett)

[2] Barclay, 35-38.

[3] Greathouse, 84.

[4] Wright, 30.

[5] Barrett, 43.

[6] Greathouse, 85.

[7] Greathouse, 89.

[8] Wright, 34.

[9] Barclay, 39.

[10] Wright, 37.

[11] Barclay, 42.

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