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 should 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. If therefore the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And will not 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; neither 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. (2:17–29)
People long for economic security, job security, marital security, national security, health security, home security, security of social position, and many other kinds of security. It is the natural impulse of self-preservation to want security. Yet, despite the claims of independence and self-sufficiency that many people make, they know instinctively that, in themselves, they are not completely secure.
A measure of economic security can be had from such things as having a long-term work contract, working for or owning a business that has proven to do well even in hard times, or by having a diversified portfolio of investments. A measure of home security can be achieved by burglar alarms, high fences, or watch dogs. A measure of national security can be had from a well-trained, well-equipped military force. But history and personal experience have proved over and over again that such things cannot guarantee absolute security.
When they bother to think about it, most people hope for some form of eternal security. If they do not believe in heaven and hell, they hope death will be the end of existence, that it will usher them into an impersonal, unconscious nothingness, or recycle them through another lifetime in an endless linking chain of lives better than the ones before.
But Paul has already declared unequivocally that, whether they realize or admit it or not, all men, even the most pagan reprobates, know something of God’s “invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature” (Rom. 1:18–21). Every person, Jew and Gentile alike, has the witness of heart and conscience, by which he is able to discern basic right from wrong (2:14–15). And all people know to some degree that those who do not live up to God’s standards of righteousness are “worthy of death” (1:32). Most have this gnawing fear that God is going to judge their sin, that one day they will be held accountable for the way they have lived. And Scripture says they will live and die only once, “and after this comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27).
Therefore instinctively people hope that, in some way or another, they can escape that judgment. Whether consciously or unconsciously, religiously or irreligiously, they understand deep within themselves that they need to deal with their spiritual insecurity. They want the assurance that they will not be punished for their evil. In the attempt to do that, men have devised countless false ideas and philosophies to try to escape the punishment they innately know they deserve.
Some people build up a false sense of spiritual security by trying to convince themselves they are basically good and that a just God could not condemn good people to hell. They believe that their good works and intentions outweigh their bad ones and that, in the balance, they are pleasing and acceptable to God. Others believe that God is too loving to send anyone to hell and will ultimately save even the most wicked of sinners. Still others insist that there is no God and that the idea of a final divine judgment is therefore ludicrous. These beliefs are so common that those who put their security in them can find reassurance in the large numbers of other people doing the same. They even design religions to affirm these views.
Far from being cruel and insensitive, the Christian who exposes such false ideas of spiritual security does a great service to those he warns. If a person is to be commended for warning a family that their house is on fire or that a bridge they are about to cross might collapse under them, how much more is a believer to be commended when he warns the unsaved of their lostness and condemnation apart from Jesus Christ. No greater kindness can possibly be offered a person than that of showing him the way of salvation. But before he can have motivation for being saved, he obviously must be convinced that he is lost.
As the forerunner of Jesus Christ, John the Baptist preached a sobering message of repentance from sin (Matt. 3:2). Jesus began His own ministry preaching the same message (Matt. 4:17). Perhaps more than anything else, the Sermon on the Mount is an extended series of warnings about such false spiritual security. In that message the Lord declares unequivocally that men’s righteousness, attitudes, good works, relationships, professions, prayers, fasting, ceremonies, and generosity can never measure up to the standard of perfect holiness to which God holds them accountable (Matt. 5:48).
Jesus stripped naked the hypocritical and legalistic false securities of the Judaism of that day. He declared that those who trust in outward substitutes for true righteousness will one day say to Him, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” But to such false disciples Jesus will say, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:22–23). The person who builds his religious house on any self-made foundation is certain to have it washed away by the storm of God’s judgment (vv. 26–27).
Having shown how both the moral Jew and the moral Gentile alike will be brought before God’s great tribunal in the end times and have no basis for any sense of well-being and security (Rom. 2:1–16), Paul now focuses exclusively on the Jews, the covenant people of God. They had far greater light and blessings than the Gentiles. But as the apostle now points out, that greater privilege made them more accountable to God, not less, as most of them supposed. Before he explains the way of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, he shatters the idea of false spiritual security that most Jews had in their heritage (2:17a), in their knowledge (vv. 17b-24), and in their ceremony (v. 25–29).
The False Security of Heritage
But if you bear the name “Jew,” (2:17a)
The chosen people of God took great pride in the name Jew. In centuries past they had been referred to as Hebrews, so called because of the language they spoke. They also had long been called Israelites, after the land God had promised and given to them according to His covenant with Abraham. But by the time of Christ, the most common name they had was that of Jew. The term was derived from Judah, the name of one of the twelve tribes as well as the name of the southern kingdom after the division following Solomon’s death. But during and after the Babylonian captivity, it had come to refer to the whole race that descended from Abraham through Isaac.
The name represented both their racial and religious heritage, and in their own minds it denoted their distinctiveness from all other peoples of the world. Despite the bondage and oppression they had suffered at the hands of Gentiles for hundreds of years, and were presently still suffering, they wore the name Jew as a badge of great honor and pride. The name marked them off as the unique and specially favored people of God. The root meaning of Judah, and therefore of Jew, is “praised,” and the Jews of Paul’s day considered that to be a well-deserved title and description of themselves.
Jews had long since lost sight of the purpose of their unique divine calling, however, which was to be the channel through which “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). They had no desire to share their God-given truths and blessings with the rest of the world, much less be used by the Lord as the means through which He would draw all nations to Himself. Jonah’s reluctance to preach in Nineveh because he feared they would believe in God and be spared judgment (Jonah 4:2) typified the attitude of many Jews toward Gentiles.
Instead of viewing those divine truths and blessings as a trust from a gracious and forgiving God, they viewed them as their right by merit. They believed they were specially blessed not because of God’s grace but because of their own goodness. They felt superior and proud. Instead of boasting in their great God and in His gracious revelation of Himself to them, they boasted in their own supposed greatness for having received it. John Murray observed that such an attitude “demonstrates … how close lies the grossest vice to the highest privilege and how the best can be prostituted to the service of the worst.”
The minor prophets repeatedly warned their fellow countrymen about arrogant boasting in their heritage as God’s chosen people, which caused many of them to think they could sin with impunity. As the heirs of God’s promise to Abraham, they believed they were automatically protected from judgment. But Micah declared that wicked, corrupt Jews who presumptuously said, “Is not the Lord in our midst? Calamity will not come upon us,” would one day find their holy city of Jerusalem “plowed as a field” and left “a heap of ruins” (Mic. 3:11–12).
Pride in their being the chosen people of God made some Jews absolutely blind to reality, not only religiously but politically. On one occasion when Jesus was teaching “those Jews who had believed Him,” He said, “If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31–32). When some of the unbelieving Jewish leaders heard those words, they were greatly offended. They were so self-deluded about their superiority and independence that they retorted, “We are Abraham’s offspring, and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You shall become free’ ” (v. 33). As the Lord explained, they completely missed His point. “Truly, truly, I say to you,” He said, “everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin” (v. 34).
Even if Jesus had been speaking politically, as those leaders assumed, their response would have been ludicrous. For the past 100 years they had been brutally subjugated to Rome, and immediately before that to Greece. And during more than a thousand years before that they had been in periodic bondage to Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon.
The Jewish leaders’ main confusion, however, was spiritual. Being Abraham’s physical descendants did not make Jews his spiritual descendants. “If you are Abraham’s children,” Jesus told them, “do the deeds of Abraham. But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do. You are doing the deeds of your father.” When they replied indignantly, “We have one Father, even God,” Jesus responded, “If God were your Father, you would love Me; for I proceeded forth and have come from God. … You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. … Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:40–42, 44, 56). If the Jewish leaders had been spiritual heirs of Abraham and true children of God, they would joyously have received Jesus as their Messiah and King. Instead of receiving Him in faith, however, they sought to kill Him, reflecting the murderous character of Satan, their spiritual lord and father.
Infuriating the leaders still more, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am” (v. 58). The root meaning of Jehovah, or Yahweh, is “I am” (see Ex. 3:14). Jesus therefore not only claimed to have existed before Abraham was born, some 2,000 years earlier, but even applied the covenant name of God to Himself. Because they rejected Jesus’ claims to messiahship, the Jews considered His words to be inconceivably blasphemous, and “therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself, and went out of the temple” (John 8:59).
Jesus utterly undermined the Jews’ imagined security of racial and religious heritage. John the Baptist had done the same thing. While he was baptizing repentant Jews at the Jordan River, a group of Pharisees and Sadducees came to him for baptism. But John scathingly rebuked them, saying, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance.” Well aware that those religious leaders believed that merely being Jews protected them from God’s judgment, John added, “And do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Matt. 3:7–9).
In a similar way, countless people since the time of Christ have considered themselves safe from God’s judgment simply because they have been born into a Christian family or have been baptized or belong to a church or have made a profession of faith. Some people consider themselves Christians virtually by default. In European countries that have been thought of as Christian for centuries, many citizens who do not specifically belong to another religion consider themselves Christians simply by virtue of their national heritage. Even in some countries of the Middle East, many citizens who are not Muslim think they are therefore Christian, simply because the other historically prominent religion in the country is the Eastern Orthodox brand of Christianity to which their ancestors adhered.
The Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli took the position that if a child of believers died while in infancy it was within the Christian covenant, in other words, it was saved. He did not believe, however, that children of unbelievers were saved if they died in infancy. With an illogic that was not typical of his thinking, the great Puritan John Owen believed that infant salvation could be passed down two generations, from grandparent to grandchild, sometimes skipping the intervening generation. One wonders how the in-between parents, being themselves children of believers, could escape being saved.
The Roman Catholic church believes that infant baptism actually confers salvation. As one Catholic writer has said, “The faith which the infant lacks is replaced by the faith of the church.” Some Protestant denominations, though denying that infant baptism in itself has power to save, nevertheless maintain that the ritual has direct spiritual benefit for the child. Martin Luther, for instance, believed that through this sacrament God miraculously grants saving faith to the infant, who itself is incapable of believing. Others view infant baptism as a confirmation of the child’s salvation by virtue of its being born into a Christian family and thereby into the New Covenant of Jesus Christ.
According to Scripture, however, a person who is raised in a Christian home and trained in a Christian environment is not saved by such a heritage, valuable as it is. Nor does baptism, or any other Christian rite in itself, possess or bestow any spiritual benefit. Apart from true faith held by the person receiving it, no ritual or ceremony has any spiritual value whatsoever. Baptism is not a sacrament and, without faith, it becomes a sacrilege.
Such ideas about covenant transferal of salvation and about the spiritual efficacy of baptism are merely extensions of the kind of thinking that caused the common Jewish belief in New Testament times that a person was saved simply by being a circumcised descendant of Abraham through the line of Isaac.
The False Security of Knowledge
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 should 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. (2:17b-24)
The second false religious security Paul mentions is knowledge of God’s Law, which in this context represented what we now refer to as the Old Testament. This Law represented not only the Pentateuch, the five books of the Mosaic law, but also what were called the writings (Psalms, Proverbs, etc.) and the prophets. This Law encompassed all of God’s revelation until that time: His revelation about His covenants, His blessings, His cursings, His warnings, His promises, His rites and ceremonies, His moral standards, and His teaching about Himself and about man and the plan of redemption.
In regard to the Jews’ knowledge of that divine revelation, the apostle mentions four aspects: what they learned of the Law (vv. 17b-18), what they taught about it (vv. 19–20), what they did in light of it (vv. 21–22), and what they caused by breaking it (vv. 23–24).
What They Learned About the Law
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, (2:17b-18)
Taken by itself, this statement by Paul might seem to have been a commendation. But as he soon makes clear (see vv. 21–25), it was a strong indictment, because the Jews did not live up to the Law they knew so well and praised so highly. Most Jews of that day were proud and self-righteous about their heritage and had come to rely upon their knowledge of the Law and their boasting in God as means of satisfying the Lord. They loved to recite such passages as, “[God] declares His words to Jacob, His statutes and His ordinances to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any nation; and as for His ordinances, they have not known them” (Ps. 147:19–20).
But since it was impossible for anyone to keep all of God’s law perfectly, some of the rabbis began teaching that merely learning the facts of the Law was sufficient to please God. Weakening the purpose of the law still further, some taught that the mere possession of it, in the form of written scrolls, was sufficient. Still others taught that Jews were safe from God’s judgment simply because, as a people, they were the specially chosen recipients and custodians of God’s Law.
The Old Testament makes its purpose quite clear, however, and it repeatedly warns against Jews placing their trust in outward ceremonies and objects, even those, such as the priestly sacrifices and the Temple, which God had ordained. Through Jeremiah, the Lord said,
Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words, saying, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor walk after other gods to your own ruin, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever. (Jer. 7:3–7)
In other words, spiritual safety and security was not in the Temple but in God Himself and in faithful obedience to the divine truth and righteousness which His Temple represented.
When ungodly Jews would boast in God it was really a means of boasting in themselves, in the unique privileges and blessings they thought were theirs by fight rather than by grace.
Self-righteous, presumptuous Jews were satisfied simply to know His will, without obeying it. They knew what God required and what He forbade, what He commanded and what He prohibited, what He approved and what He disapproved, what He rewarded and what He punished. But rather than saving them, that knowledge became a judgment against them, because they refused to live by it and refused to accept the remedy for such failure.
They were also willing to approve the things that are essential. Dokimazō (approve) carried the idea of testing in order to prove the value of something, such as precious metals. In other words, the Jews had the means not only to know what was right and wrong but to discern what was the most important part of God’s law.
Jews were also continually being instructed out of the Law. Katēcheō (being instructed) is the term from which catechism is derived. It had the general meaning of oral instruction of any sort but was especially associated with teaching by repetition. Both at home and in the synagogues, Jewish boys in particular were systematically and thoroughly instructed out of the Law. Not only rabbis but also many other Jewish men memorized large portions of the Old Testament, which they often recited in public as a demonstration of piety.
It is ironic that ancient Jews considered wisdom to consist of acting according to the knowledge one had, whereas the ancient Greeks simply equated wisdom with knowledge. By New Testament times, however, many Jews, especially the religious leaders, had, in practice, accepted the Greek view of wisdom. Whether they did so intentionally or not, the consequence was that they felt content with merely knowing God’s law and had little desire or motivation to obey it. They knew much but obeyed little.
What They Taught About 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, (2:19–20)
The Jews not only felt secure in what they knew but also in what they taught. Considering themselves to be the most religiously wise, they naturally thought themselves to be the most competent teachers of the spiritually unwise, namely the Gentiles, who did not have the benefit of God’s written revelation.
But Israel’s continued unfaithfulness to God and disobedience of His Word disqualified her as an example and teacher to the unenlightened Gentiles. And when Jews made an occasional convert to Judaism, they made him worse off than he was before. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites,” Jesus said, “because you travel about on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves” (Matt. 23:15). Instead of leading Gentiles to trust in the true God and become obedient to His will, the Jewish leaders engulfed converts in the vast rabbinical system of man-made, legalistic traditions.
In Romans 2:19–20, Paul mentions four specific areas in which many Jews considered themselves to be spiritually superior teachers.
First, Paul said, “You are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind.” Jews in general, and the scribes and Pharisees in particular, considered themselves to be superior mentors of the community in spiritual and moral matters. They saw themselves as religious guides to their unlearned Jewish brethren and especially to the spiritually blind Gentile pagans. But because of their arrogant pride and blatant hypocrisy, Jesus charged them with being “blind guides” (see Matt. 23:24–28). Far from being qualified to guide others, they were themselves in desperate need of guidance.
Second, Paul notes that most Jews considered themselves to be a light to those who are in darkness. Actually that was precisely the role God had intended for Israel. He had called His people to be a spiritual light to the Gentiles (Isa. 42:6). As noted above, it was through them that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3).
Jesus declares His disciples to be “the light of the world” and charges them to put their light on a lampstand, where it can be seen and will do some good. “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven,” He said (Matt. 5:14–16). That has always been God’s intention for His people. He gives them light not only for their own spiritual benefit but also for the spiritual benefit of the rest of the world, before whom they are His witnesses.
Third, the self-righteous Jew prided himself as being a corrector of the foolish. Again the primary focus was on the Gentiles, even the wisest of whom most Jews considered to be foolish in the area of religion.
Fourth, the self-righteous Jew thought of himself as a teacher of the immature. The idea is that of teaching very small children, in this case, children in the Jewish faith. In light of the context, it is likely that the term immature here represents Gentile proselytes to Judaism, who needed special instruction. They not only needed to learn God’s law but also needed to rid themselves of the many pagan ideas and practices in which they had been brought up.
Through God’s unique revelation of Himself and of His will to Israel, Jews had in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth. Morphos̄is (embodiment) has the basic meaning of an outline or sketch. It therefore seems better to translate the word here as “semblance” or “appearance,” because throughout this passage Paul emphasizes the religious superficiality of most of the Jews of his day. He uses the same word in 2 Timothy 3:5, where he warns of men in the last days who will hold “a form [morphōsis] of godliness, although they [will] have denied its power.” In both passages the idea of counterfeit is implied.
The Jews did indeed through the Law have the revelation of divine knowledge and … truth, but their understanding, teaching, and exemplifying of it had become so incrusted with rabbinical tradition that God’s true Law was generally unknown and disregarded.
What They Did in Relation to the Law
you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one should 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? (2:21–22)
A third area of false security was related to what most Jews did in response to the law they claimed to know and teach. Paul here contends that their understanding and teaching not only fell far short of God’s law but that they themselves disobeyed it. Even when they taught the truth, they taught it hypocritically. Just as Satan sometimes disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14), false teachers sometimes teach the truth for their own selfish and perverse ends.
In theological terms, their preaching reflects orthodoxy (right doctrine), but their living does not reflect orthopraxy (right practice). They are much like corrupt police officials or judges, whose lives are in direct contradiction of the laws they have sworn to uphold and enforce. And because of their greater responsibility, they bring upon themselves greater punishment when they break those laws.
The psalmist sternly warned ungodly men who presume to teach in God’s name. “To the wicked God says, ‘What right have you to tell of My statutes, and to take My covenant in your mouth? For you hate discipline, and you cast My words behind you. When you see a thief, you are pleased with him, and you associate with adulterers. You let your mouth loose in evil, and your tongue frames deceit. You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother’s son’ ” (Ps. 50:16–20).
Even teachers who are true believers are held especially accountable for living out what they teach. James therefore gives the somber caution: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1).
Like the wicked teachers the psalmist castigated, the hypocritical Jew of Paul’s day would often teach another person the truths of God’s Word but would fail to teach them to himself. Even less would he obey those truths himself Such men were typified by the scribes and Pharisees, of whom Jesus said, “They say things, and do not do them” (Matt. 23:3).
Paul mentions three areas of their spiritual and moral hypocrisy: stealing, adultery, and sacrilege. You who preach that one should not steal, do you steal? he asks. Despite the clear pronouncements of the Mosaic law against theft, it was very common in ancient Judaism. Isaiah rebuked those who “turned to their own way, each one to his unjust gain” (Isa. 56:11). Ezekiel denounced those who “have taken bribes to shed blood; … taken interest and profits, and … injured [their] neighbors for gain by oppression” (Ezek. 22:12). Amos wrote of those who stole by making “the bushel smaller and the shekel bigger” and by cheating “with dishonest scales” (Amos 8:5). Malachi accused his fellow Jews even of robbing God by withholding some of the tithes and offerings owed to Him (Mal. 3:8–9).
When Jesus cleansed the Temple during the last week of His earthly ministry, He censured the money changers and sacrifice merchants for making His Father’s house “a robbers’ den” (Matt. 21:13; cf. John 2:16). On another occasion He scathingly condemned the scribes and Pharisees-the self-appointed authorities on righteousness-for devouring “widows’ houses” under the pretense of serving God (Matt. 23:14).
The second area of hypocrisy related to sexual sin. You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? As with stealing, the clear implication is that they practiced the very evil they condemned in others. Many Jewish men tried to circumvent the Mosaic command against adultery by divorcing their wives and marrying another woman to whom they were attracted. But Jesus declared that divorce and remarriage on any ground other than sexual infidelity results in adultery just as surely as if no divorce is involved (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). Adultery can even be committed without the physical act. “Everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her,” He said, “has committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matt. 5:28).
The third area of hypocrisy related to sacrilege. You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? The root word behind bdelussō (abhor) means “to stink, to reek.” Although Israel had fallen into idolatry repeatedly during the period of the monarchies, since the Babylonian exile Jews have never practiced that evil to any significant degree. During the Greek and Roman occupations after their return from Babylon, Jews developed a strong abhorrence for anything remotely resembling idolatry. Because some Caesars had declared themselves to be gods, Jews even loathed handling Roman coins, because Caesar’s image was inscribed on them (see Matt. 22:19–21).
To rob temples may have referred to Jews who robbed their own Temple in Jerusalem. As noted above, they often robbed God by withholding part of their tithes and offerings. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, some Jews also robbed the Temple in other devious ways. He reports that on one occasion a group of Jewish men enticed a wealthy Roman woman into giving a large sum of money to the Temple. But instead of putting the money in the Temple treasury, they divided it among themselves.
But Paul’s reference to abhorring idols suggests that he had something else in mind in regard to temple robbery. The Mosaic law strictly forbade Israelites from making personal gain from the idols they seized after conquering pagan enemies. “The graven images of their gods you are to burn with fire; you shall not covet the silver or the gold that is on them, nor take it for yourselves, lest you be snared by it, for it is an abomination to the Lord your God” (Deut. 7:25).
Although by New Testament times the nation of Israel had long since ceased conquering Gentile territories, it is possible that individual rogue Jews plundered pagan temples for purely mercenary reasons. The statement by the town clerk at Ephesus that Paul and his associates were not robbers of temples (Acts 19:37) suggests that it was not uncommon for Jews to be guilty of that offense. It is possible that, despite the clear Mosaic prohibition, the offending Jews rationalized such theft by thinking they were doing God a favor by striking a blow at paganism. But Paul condemns their hypocrisy. Their motive was not religious, but mercenary.
What They Caused by Breaking God’s Law
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. (2:23–24)
The indictment of verse 24 makes clear that the question in verse 23 was rhetorical. Many hypocritical Jews were blatantly breaking the divine Law they so proudly boasted in, and in doing so, they brought dishonor to God.
Every sin dishonors God. David confessed, “Against Thee, Thee only, I have sinned, and done what is evil in Thy sight” (Ps. 51:4). Sin committed by those who claim God’s name dishonors Him the most. Quoting Isaiah 52:5, Paul strongly rebuked hypocritical Jews by declaring that “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” just as it is written.
The principle applies even more strongly to Christians, because they not only have greater spiritual light through the New Testament but have greater spiritual resources to obey that light through the indwelling Holy Spirit. When a believer falls into sin, his witness is ruined and the name of His Lord is sullied before the world. Those who claim to be Christians but persistently live in sin give evidence that they carry the name of Christ in vain. And because there is no difference between their standard of living and that of the world, the Lord’s name is blasphemed.
The Lord lamented to Ezekiel,
Son of man, when the house of Israel was living in their own land, they defiled it by their ways and their deeds; their way before Me was like the uncleanness of a woman in her impurity. Therefore, I poured out My wrath on them for the blood which they had shed on the land, because they had defiled it with their idols. Also I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed throughout the lands. According to their ways and their deeds I judged them. When they came to the nations where they went, they profaned My holy name, because it was said of them, “These are the people of the Lord.” (Ezek. 36:17–20)
When those who go by God’s name are openly sinful, or are exposed as being privately sinful, God and His Word are understandably ridiculed by the world. The unbeliever has no reason to repent of his sins and turn to God for salvation if he sees professed believers committing the same sins.
Unfortunately, God’s name is also ridiculed when the world sees His people being chastised for their sins, as in the case of ancient Israel just cited. Failing to comprehend the purpose of the chastening, the world reasons, “If God makes His own people suffer in that way, why should anyone want to believe in and serve Him?”
And on the other hand, when God chooses to withhold chastening for a time, the world may conclude that He is either too impotent to control and correct His people or that He approves their sinful acts and is therefore Himself evil. In that way His name is blasphemed worst of all.
It would be better for many Christians, true believers as well as false, to hide their religious profession. Their living is such an obvious contradiction of Scripture that the cause of Christ is mocked and scorned by the world.
Because of the Jews’ exclusive serf-righteousness, many defamatory legends grew up about them in Gentile lands where they lived. They were accused of sometimes sacrificing a Gentile in their religious rites and of being descended from a band of leper slaves who managed to escape the rock quarries of Egypt. Unfounded as such stories were, their origin is understandable. The Gentiles were simply returning in kind the contempt that most Jews had for them.
The False Security of Ceremony
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. If therefore the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And will not 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; neither 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. (2:25–29)
Proceeding to a third type of false security (circumcision) in which many Jews placed their trust, Paul clarifies the true significance of that rite.
God had instituted circumcision as a mark of His covenant with Abraham and his descendants, declaring that “every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations” (Gen. 17:10–12). Centuries later, when for some reason Moses failed to circumcise one of his sons, his wife, Zipporah, performed the rite herself, thereby protecting Moses from the Lord’s wrath (Ex. 4:24–26).
No doubt this surgery was symbolic of the sinfulness of man that was passed from generation to generation. The very procreative organ needed to be cleansed of a covering. So man at the very center of his nature is sinful and needs cleansing of the heart. This graphic symbol of the need for removing sin became the sign of being a Jew.
But as important as circumcision was as an act of obedience to God and as a reminder to Jews of their covenant relation to Him, the rite had no spiritual power. Circumcision is of value, Paul explains, only if you practice the Law, that is, live in obedience to God’s will. To the faithful, obedient Jew, circumcision was a symbol of God’s covenant, His blessings, His goodness, and His protection of His chosen people.
But if you are a transgressor of the Law, Paul warned, your circumcision has become uncircumcision, that is, valueless. A Jew who continually transgressed God’s law proved that he had no more saving relationship to God than a pagan Gentile, whom Jews often referred to as the uncircumcised.
Important as it was, circumcision was only an outward symbol. And rather than freeing Jews from God’s law, circumcision made them even more responsible for obeying it, because that ritual testified to their greater knowledge of their sin, of God, and of His will in regard to them.
Circumcision was, in fact, more a mark of judgment and obligation than of salvation and freedom. It was a constant reminder to Jews of their sinfulness and of their obligation to obey God’s law. Speaking about the Judaizers, who were corrupting the church by teaching that Christians were obligated to keep the Mosaic law, Paul wrote, “I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law” (Gal. 5:3). Circumcision was a mark of legal obligation.
Long before Paul’s day the rite of circumcision had become so shrouded in superstition that ancient rabbis formulated sayings such as “No circumcised Jewish man will see hell” and “Circumcision saves us from hell.” The Midrash includes the statement “God swore to Abraham that no one who was circumcised would be sent to hell. Abraham sits before the gate of hell and never allows any circumcised Israelite to enter.”
But the prophets had made clear that mere physical circumcision had no spiritual power or benefit. “ ‘Behold the days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘that I will punish all who are circumcised and yet uncircumcised-Egypt, and Judah, and Edom, and the sons of Ammon, and Moab, and all those inhabiting the desert who clip the hair on their temples; for all the nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised of heart’ ” (Jer. 9:25–26). Disobedience to God put the circumcised Israelites in the same category of judgment as the uncircumcised Gentiles.
On the other hand, Paul continues, If the uncircumcised man keeps the requirement of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And will not 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?
The apostle’s point is that the substance of pleasing God is obedience to His will, of which circumcision is but a symbolic reminder. Sincerely keeping the requirement of the Law because it is God’s will is of great value, whereas circumcision without obedience is of absolutely no value. If the uncircumcised man, that is, a Gentile, keeps the requirement of the Law, God will look on him just as favorably as on a circumcised Jew who keeps His law-counting the believing Gentile’s uncircumcision as if it were true circumcision.
Paul’s next devastating salvo at the Jew who had false trust in his Jewish privileges was the declaration that the obedient Gentile who is physically uncircumcised not only pleases God but figuratively will sit in judgment on disobedient Jews, who though having the letter of the Law and physical circumcision are a transgressor of the Law. It is not that such Gentiles will perform the actual judgment, which is God’s prerogative alone, but that their faithful obedience will stand as a rebuke to the faithless disobedience of hypocritical Jews. To the Philippian Gentile church Paul said that the unsaved and disobedient Jews who rejected the gospel of grace were “dogs, … evil workers, … [and] false circumcision” (Phil. 3:2).
Theologian Charles Hodge wrote, “Whenever true religion declines, the disposition to lay undo stress on external rites is stressed. The Jews when they lost their spirituality supposed that circumcision had the power to save them.” Apostasy always moves the religious focus from the inward to the outward, from humble obedience to empty formality.
In verses 28–29 Paul summarizes his demolition of false trust. First, he reiterates that Jewish heritage, wonderful as it was, had absolutely no spiritual benefit if it stood alone: He is not a Jew who is one outwardly. As John the Baptist had pronounced many years earlier, God could raise up physical descendants of Abraham from stones if He so chose (Matt. 3:9). Making much the same point, later in his epistle Paul contends that “they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel” (Rom. 9:6). Second, Paul reemphasizes the truth that ceremony is of no value in itself, saying, neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh.
Putting those two truths together, the apostle says that the true child of God, epitomized by the faithful Jew, is the person who is one inwardly. The true mark of God’s child is not an outward symbol, such as circumcision, but a godly condition of the heart.
Third, Paul restates the truth that knowledge of God’s law has no power to save a person. Salvation comes by the Spirit of God Himself working in a believer’s heart, not by the mere letter of His Word, true as it is.
The praise that the true Jew, the true believer, receives is not from men, who are more inclined to ridicule God’s people than to praise them. The true believer’s reward of praise comes directly from God, his heavenly Father.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (pp. 145–161). Chicago: Moody Press.