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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Romans 2



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Verse 1

Paul Challenges All Who Judge Others To Consider What It Involves For Themselves (2:1-5).

‘For this reason you are without excuse, O man, whoever you are who judges, for in that in which you judge another, you condemn yourself, for you who are judging are practising the same things.’

‘For this reason’ refers back to the previous argument about the many sins of mankind, and especially to the final verses of chapter 1. He wants his readers to recognise that what he has said there also applies to judges and philosophers, to Rabbis and to Jews, to people who felt themselves superior, or who might claim that they did retain God in their knowledge, and who were therefore prone to judge others. For the truth was that in spite of their superior attitudes they revealed themselves by their behaviour to be as guilty of the unrighteousnesses he has described as others. For they themselves did what they condemned in others.

Consequently being a judge or self-appointed adviser was a dangerous position to be in, because it meant that they were passing moral judgments on people, whilst overlooking or ignoring the fact that they themselves were guilty of the same things. By judging others, therefore, they condemned themselves, leaving themselves totally without any excuse. As James would have reminded them, ‘be not many teachers knowing that we will receive the greater condemnation, for in many things we all offend’ (James 3:1-2).

Note that Paul’s questions are addressed in the singular, as though speaking to one man. But the phrase ‘whoever you are who judges’ brings out that it applies to the many. It has in mind all who pass judgment on others, each addressed personally.

Verses 1-16

Even Respectable Men, Judges, Philosophers, Rabbis and Jews Come Under God’s Judgment As Sinners (2:1-16).

Having demonstrated the sinfulness and inexcusability of the majority of mankind, Paul now turns to those who are, as it were, standing listening and nodding their approval. The philosophers had said the same thing as Paul had about the general populace. The judges recognised in what Paul had said what they had found to be true about the people who were brought before them. The Rabbis and Jews, maintaining their confidence in the Law, and seeing themselves as superior because of it, also approved. They would all have nodded their heads in agreement with Paul. But they were all sure that what he had said did not apply to them.

So Paul now turns his attention to them. He speaks to those who see themselves as having responsibility for the behaviour of mankind, both Jew and Gentile. There has always been disagreement about whether these early verses in chapter 2 are to be seen as spoken to Gentiles or Jews. That Jews are included is unquestionable because Paul speaks of ‘to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile’. But that phrase equally means that Gentiles are also included. And this is brought out by the fact that Paul carefully avoids using allusions which will pin down who is being spoken to. He is speaking to ‘moral men’ generally. He must thus be seen as having in mind all who looked down their noses at others from a position of supposed superiority.

His argument is quite simple, and it is that those who claim to act as judges of others in the way that these people did, nevertheless regularly indulge in similar sins themselves, something which makes them doubly without excuse in the sight of God. For by judging others they have removed their excuse of ignorance. They have demonstrated by their judgments that they do know what is right and wrong. And yet they still behave wrongly. They must therefore recognise that God shows no favours to His ‘fellow-judges’, and will judge truly. Why, says Paul, if they pass judgment on others, as they do, do they really think that they can themselves expect to escape God’s judgment?

This passage splits clearly into three sections, something brought out by the literary arrangement. In the first section (Romans 2:1-5) we have challenges seemingly put to an individual in the form of charge (‘you are without excuse’) and question (‘and do you think, O man --?’ - ‘Or do you despise --?’), with the verbs in the singular as though addressing one person. In the second section (Romans 2:6-11) we have a change of style , and a clear chiasmus which follows Old Testament patterns. In the third section (Romans 2:12-16) the emphasis is on the fact that both Jew and Gentile will be judged by some form of law, ending with the warning of the coming judgment of all men by Jesus Christ. The three sections do, however, run into each other so that the whole passage also reads as one whole.

Verse 2

‘And we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practise such things.’

He then warns them to remember that there is Another Who will judge, Who will judge absolutely fairly and take everything into account. ‘We know.’ It is something recognised by all such judges. Outwardly at least it is the basis on which they all judge. But as the Judge of all He will carry it into effect. He will judge on the basis of the truth, on the basis of what actually is. He is the One Who ‘will by no means clear the guilty’ (Exodus 34:7; Numbers 14:18). As Abraham declared, ‘Will not the Judge of all the world do right?’ (Genesis 18:25). And this judgment will be applied to all who practise such things as have been described, without discrimination. For ‘All things are naked and open to the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do’ (Hebrews 4:13).

Verse 3

‘And do you reckon this, O man, who judges those who practise such things, and do the same, that you will escape the judgment of God?’

So let them just think about it. They have set themselves up as judges of others. Do they therefore really think that when they practise such things as they have condemned, they will escape unjudged? For God’s judgment will be especially hard on those who judge others and yet do the same things themselves, whether they be judge, philosopher, Rabbi or Jew. If they pass judgment on others and yet do these thing do they really then reckon that they will escape the judgment of God? That would be to render God unjust.

It is one of the signs of man’s depravity that men whose responsibility it is to maintain law and order, or who have the gift of speaking about the follies of mankind, or who are experts in the Law, can feel that they themselves are exempted from the strictures that they bring on others, even though they might indulge in the same sins. They feel that because they take a high moral tone they will somehow be excused, even though they fall short of what they require of others. One of the failings of the Jews was that they thought that because of their association with Abraham, and because they had the Law, they would be treated differently from others. Paul is saying, ‘no, that is not so’.

Verse 4

‘Or do you despise the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?’

These men themselves do what they condemn in others, and yet somehow they feel that God will do nothing about it. They even argue that God is good and forbearing and longsuffering and will therefore condone their sins, the consequence being that they continue sinning without abatement, thus ‘despising’ His compassion. So he now calls on them not to treat casually ‘the riches of His goodness and forbearance and longsuffering’, by taking them for granted and assuming that they will go on for ever. They should recognise rather that God is like this, not because He is willing to allow them to carry on freely, but in order to give them a chance to repent. Indeed they should recognise that because they are themselves also guilty of things of which they accuse others, they will all the more be called to account.

In consequence, as a result of recognising and acknowledging the goodness of God which is giving them a second opportunity, they should be led to repentance. At present God in His rich goodness and longsuffering is being forbearing. Let them then look at His goodness and see that for them it is a call to repentance before it is too late. For one day that forbearance will cease.

The thought is not that they openly and consciously despise God’s goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, but that they despise it in their hearts by neglect, not allowing it to count as important in such a way that it alters the way they live.

Paul is bringing out an important principle here. Men tend to think of the goodness and forbearance of God as something which indicates that they can carry on as they are because God does nothing about it. They see the goodness of God in showing forbearance and longsuffering as guaranteeing that they will not be called to account. Paul is now pointing out that their viewpoint is wrong. The reason for God’s delay is not because He does not care, but because He wants to give man time to repent. For there is an appointed day coming when God will call all men into judgment (Acts 17:31). When God will call into account the secrets of men through Christ Jesus (Romans 2:16). One would have thought that the Jews at least would have recognised this from their history. The prophets constantly warned of what would come. Lamentations and the destruction of the Temple was the proof that it did come.

Verse 5

‘But after your hardness and impenitent heart you treasure up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.

But rather than repenting their hearts are hard and impenitent. They ignore God’s pleadings and carry on in their old ways. As a result they are treasuring up for themselves wrath, a wrath which will be applied to them in the day of wrath and righteous judgment of God when God will render to every man according to his works. There is something very sad about the thought of a man hoarding up God’s wrath, like a squirrel hoards up nuts, without realising it. Every day he adds to his sins. And every day the burden of responsibility grows larger, and God’s antipathy towards him increases. Note how the hard and impenitent heart is in total contrast to the goodness, compassion and longsuffering of the God Whom they ignore. It is man who is hard, not God.

But he needs to remember that a day is coming on which every man will have to give account, a day of wrath and of the righteous judgment of God (1 Thessalonians 1:8; Acts 17:31; Hebrews 9:27). Then man will be faced up with his sins. Then the wrath that has been hoarded up will be applied. Then God’s righteous judgment will be exacted, and He will render to each according to their works, according to how they have behaved, according to what they have done. What has been done in the dark will be brought to the light, and what has been done in secret will be made known to all. And what is worse, it will come before the attention of a God Who is holy and righteous.

Note the idea of a building up of wrath. Everything that we do is to be seen as helping to build up that wrath, for by our actions we are increasing God’s antipathy against our increasing sinfulness. Unless we repent we are building up within ourselves a mountain of sin and guilt.

‘The day of wrath --.’ The phrase is based on Psalms 110:5 (see also Zephaniah 1:14-15; Revelation 6:17). Jesus applied this Psalm to Himself when demonstrating that He was greater than David ( Mark 12:36-37; Psalms 110:1), and the Psalm is about the triumph of the Davidic king, who is also priest after the order of Melchizedek (compare Hebrews 7), who will judge among the nations on the day of His wrath. So there is in this a clear pointing to Jesus.

Verse 6

‘Who will render to every man according to his works.’

In this verse the thought from Romans 2:5 continues. At the day of wrath and of the righteous judgment of God all will receive according to what they have done, whether good or bad (2 Corinthians 5:10), ‘because God will render to every man according to his works’. This latter phrase comes directly from the Scriptures, so Paul is saying, ‘let the Jew recognise from his own Scriptures what the principle of judgment will be’ (see Psalms 62:12; Proverbs 24:12; Job 34:11; Jeremiah 17:10; Jeremiah 32:19), a position confirmed by Jesus Christ Himself (Matthew 16:27). Then it will not be his relationship with Abraham which will matter. What will matter according to his own Scriptures is what he has done and how he has behaved. All will be treated on the same basis.

That this principle refers to good works as well as bad works comes out in what follows. But this does not conflict with the idea that righteousness is by faith, for the whole point of God coming to men with His righteousness is that they, having received His righteousness, will begin to be righteous. The point is that no man can be clothed in God’s righteousness without it deeply affecting him. In the end what we become is thus proof of what we really believe.

Verses 6-11

God Will Be Impartial In Judgment (2:6-11).

As mentioned above this new section is in the form of a chiasmus. The chiasmus was found regularly in the works of Moses, and in other books of the Old Testament, forming an a b c c b a pattern or equivalent, with the repetition of a phrase sometimes coming in the second half (‘of the Jew first and also of the Greek’ - ‘to the Jew first and also to the Greek’). The chiasmus here is as follows:

a ‘Who will render to every man according to his works’ (Romans 2:6).

b ‘To those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and incorruption, eternal life’ (Romans 2:7).

c ‘But to those who are factious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation (Romans 2:8).

c ‘Tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who works evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Greek’ (Romans 2:9).

b ‘But glory and honour and peace to every man who works good, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek’ (Romans 2:10).

a ‘For there is no respect of persons with God’ (Romans 2:11).

Note that in ‘a’ God renders to every man according to his works, and in the parallel He shows no respect of persons. In ‘b’ and its parallel there is glory and honour for those who do good. In ‘c’ there is wrath and indignation for the factious, and in the parallel there is tribulation and anguish for those who work evil. Note also that central to the chiasmus is Paul’s thesis from Romans 1:18 to Romans 3:23, that all men obey unrighteousness and do evil and therefore come under judgment.

Verse 7

‘To those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and incorruption, eternal life,’

For God will in that day render to those who by patient endurance in well-doing seek for glory (from God) and honour (in God’s eyes) and incorruption, eternal life. In view of the reference to incorruption, ‘glory’ here may have in mind heavenly splendour. But his picture here is of the ideal man whose whole heart is set on well-doing in the expectation of glory and honour from God, and of final incorruption. Such a man lives only to please God. His whole heart is set on God. He never strays from his course for an instant. His only concern is what is good and true and will please God. Such a one will receive eternal life. We notice, of course, that he is a believer, for only a believer would think in these terms. But he is also a dream of what man ought to be. He is the pattern that destroys all our hopes. For there is only One Who has ever truly lived like this from the cradle to the grave, only One Who by doing so has deserved eternal life, and that is our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Paul is therefore depicting a life which is outside the range of all but One. He is describing the ‘impossible’. The ones who come nearest to it are Christians who live in the Spirit, but they will be the first to say ‘ sinners, of whom I am chief’ (1 Timothy 1:15).

‘Eternal life.’ That is, the life of the age to come. It is not just speaking of living for ever but of having life more abundantly (John 10:10). In referring to this as a theoretical possibility Paul is following in the footsteps of His Master, for Jesus also, when asked how a man might receive eternal life, answered, ‘if you would enter into life, keep the commandments’ and listed a number of them including ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 19:16-19), before making the young man realise that it was a hopeless ideal by calling on him to put it into practise.

In considering all this we must recognise what Paul is doing. He is not outlining the way to eternal life which he expects anyone to strive to achieve, but is building up his case that all men are equally sinful in God’s eyes. On the basis of this what he is describing is to be seen as in fact impossible. All these experienced legalists will immediately acknowledge that such men do not exist. The ones who will come nearest to the ideal are those who, abandoning any hopes in their own works, have received God’s righteousness and salvation.

Verse 8-9

‘But to those who are factious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation; tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who works evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Greek,’

In contrast to this ideal man are those who are ‘factious’. The basic meaning of the word is to behave like a hireling, and NEB translates as ‘those who are governed by selfish ambition’. But its meaning had tended to be assimilated with ’eris (strife, contention), although 2 Corinthians 12:20 distinguishes the two words. The idea is that such people are in contention with what God requires of them, not wanting to obey the truth, but desiring to obey unrighteousness. Whatever their outward protestation, they want in their hearts to be allowed to practise the things described in Romans 1:28-30. Thus they ‘work evil’. On them will come wrath and indignation, tribulation (affliction) and anguish. The wrath and indignation indicate the positive activity and attitude of God in judgment as He responds in judgment towards man’s sin, the tribulation and anguish indicate the consequence for the accused of the verdict that will follow. What is described is totally in contrast to the ‘eternal life’ notionally to be received in Romans 2:7. And let the Jew not think that he will escape this verdict. For just as the Jews were first in receiving the message of salvation, so will they be first to receive condemnation, because having the Law, theirs is the greater sin. The putting of ‘the Jew first’ serves to confirm that Jews are very much in mind in these verses. And the point is that Jews will not be excluded from the judgment, rather they will be the first to be judged. But the verses also undoubtedly include all who put themselves above the common herd. The Greek (the hellenised man) is also included (‘also to the Greek’).

Verse 10

‘But glory and honour and peace to every man who works good, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek,’

But lest the Jew think that he is prejudiced against them by suggesting that they are first on God’s target list, Paul then points out that the same priority applies to those who work good. For, as he has already demonstrated in Romans 2:7, to every man who works good there will be glory and honour and peace (wellbeing). Thus none who are truly God-like, if such there be, will lose out, and again the Jew takes precedence. But as we shall see, Paul will inexorably ram home his argument that none achieve this standard, for all have sinned (Romans 3:10-18).

Verse 11

‘For there is no respect of persons with God.’

Whether Jew or Greek, judge, philosopher or common man, all will be treated the same. There will be no unjust partiality. The Jew therefore stands in no better case than anyone else. Nor does the philosopher. All will be examined on the same basis, without exception. God will not take into account whether they are sons of Abraham, or circumcised, or Sabbath-keeping, or knowledgeable about the Law, or famous for their philosophising. He will delve down into the inner heart to discover the truth about what they really are, as revealed by the things that they have done or said.

Verse 12

‘For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without the law, and as many as have sinned under the law will be judged by the law,’

The principle is simple. All will be judged on the basis of whether they have sinned or not. Those who are Gentiles and have sinned outside the Law of Moses will perish outside the Law of Moses. They will be judged by the light that they have. But they will still be found guilty and punished. They will still necessarily perish because they have sinned. Similarly those who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law. They too will be found guilty and will perish.

Verses 12-16

All Will Be Judged On The Basis Of Their Own Moral Code (2:12-16).

Paul now stresses that all men, as well as the Jews, have a moral code by which they live, and by which they will be judged, and that all will be judged by their own moral code. Thus none will have grounds to complain.

Verse 13

‘For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law will be justified,’

And this is because the question is not whether men have been willing to hear and listen to the Law being read out, thus being ‘hearers of the Law’, and have nodded their approval. That makes no man in the right before God. (Many Jews foolishly thought that it did, as indeed do some nominal Christians with regards to the Bible). What matters is whether they are ‘doers of the Law’ in other words are those who have done what the Law says. In mind here may be Leviticus 18:5, ‘you will keep my statutes and my judgments, which of a man DO he will live in them’, and Deuteronomy 27:26, ‘cursed be he who confirms not the words of this Law to DO them’. So it will only be the ‘doers of the Law’ who will be seen as ‘in the right’. They alone can and will be judged as righteous. The phrase ‘doers of the Law’ is also found at Qumran in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The principle of needing to ‘do the Law’ was therefore acknowledged by many contemporary Jews. But they still failed to do it.

So Paul points out that having the Law and hearing it read does not put people right in the sight of God. Many Jews assumed that it did. They thought that somehow it put them in a better position. Surely God would take into account the fact that they trusted in His Law? Paul rather, therefore, underlines the fact that what is important is actually being a DOER of the Law. He is saying, ‘What is the use of trusting in it if you do not obey it?’

Of course, as Paul will bring out later, that is the problem. No one has ever actually succeeded in a full ‘doing’ of the Law. He had made the attempt himself and had failed. Thus these words condemn all men and women as sinners. All are exposed as coming short of being ‘doers of the Law’. For as James would elsewhere remind us, we only have to come short on one point in order to be deemed a Law-breaker and therefore as guilty of breaking the whole Law (James 2:10).

Verse 14-15

‘(For when Gentiles who do not have the law do by nature the things of the law, these, not having the law, are the law to themselves, in that they show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness with it, and their thoughts one with another accusing or else excusing them),’

Paul’s flow of argument suddenly comes to a halt as he recognises that someone will therefore object, ‘but if the Gentiles are not under the Law (Romans 2:12), how can they be judged by the Law (Romans 2:13)?’ So he now explains how that is so.

These two verses are to be seen as in parenthesis. They interrupt the flow of the narrative in order to explain how the Gentiles could be judged by law (Romans 2:13) when they were without law Romans 2:12. Why, says Paul, they do have law, for you will notice that the Gentiles who do not have the Law, do by nature the things of the Law, thus demonstrating that they have the equivalent in themselves, that they are following their own inner law, a law to which their conscience bears witness. Such people are a law to themselves. For by their moral actions and behaviour they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, and their conscience bears witness with it. This is demonstrated by the fact that they are constantly arguing the moral case for things, sometimes approving of them and sometimes disapproving. Sometimes accusing and sometimes excusing. In other words they demonstrate a moral dimension in their lives in which both positive and negative positions can be arrived at, showing that some kind of law is at work.

The idea of the law written in the heart is found in Jeremiah 31:33, but there the idea is of the living laws in men’s hearts replacing the written Law. It is, however, seen as the same Law. Here too we have a law written by God in their hearts, a moral dimension within Gentiles which guides their ways. And it is because they have this moral dimension ‘written within them’ that they can be judged by it and found guilty of breaking it.

Some do not see these verses as a parenthesis, arguing that the argument continues, but the end result is the same. Others consider that it depicts the Gentile who has become a Christian and thus has God’s laws written in his heart in accordance with the words of Jeremiah. They have lived according to conscience. But the fact that these Gentiles do it ‘by nature’ is against this suggestion.

Verse 16

‘In the day when God will judge the secrets of men, according to my gospel, by Jesus Christ.’

This verse continues the thought in Romans 2:13 where it is not the hearers of the Law who are to be seen as just in the eyes of God, but the doers of the Law, who, if they fulfil the Law perfectly, will be counted as in the right. We may then ask, ‘when will such a judgment take place?’ And Paul now tells us. It will be in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, in accordance with Paul’s Gospel, which is the Gospel of God (Romans 1:1), the Gospel of His Son (Romans 1:9). Note the emphasis on the fact that in that day nothing will remain hidden. All men’s deepest secrets, their hidden things, will be brought into the light, and men will be judged by them. What was done in the darkness will be revealed by the light. Man may look at the outward appearance, but God will look at the heart. They will be known as what they really are. Compare Romans 2:29 where ‘the true Jew’ (who can be a Gentile), is one ‘hiddenly’.

We note also that this is the first mention of Jesus Christ since Paul’s argument began (indeed since Romans 1:16). All the emphasis has been on ‘God’, for Paul has been facing both Jew and Gentile up with his arguments on the basis of what they know and accept. Now, however, his readers are suddenly faced up with the reality that, according to Paul’s Gospel, God’s judgment on men will be in the hands of Jesus Christ, the Son Who had lived among them but was also declared to be the powerful Son of God by the resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:2). Having lived among men, and having endured as a man, He is seen as perfectly fitted to judge. This is fully in accord with what Jesus Christ Himself taught, that God has committed all judgment to His Son (John 5:22; John 5:27).

Verses 17-20

The Jew And The Law Of God.

‘But if you bear the name of a Jew, and rest on the law, and glory (boast) in God, and know his will, and approve the things which are excellent, being instructed out of the law, and are confident that you yourself are a guide of the blind, a light of those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having in the law the form of knowledge and of the truth,’

Here we have an impressive list of claims. The Jew claimed that:

· He bore the name of ‘a Jew’, which meant ‘praise’ (Genesis 29:35). He thus saw himself as praised by God (Genesis 49:8), and as one of the covenant people. By the time of Jesus ‘Jew’ had come to signify any Israelite.

· He rested on the Law.His confidence lay in the fact of his possession of a God-given Law which shaped his opinions and guided his thoughts. Thus he considered that whilst he might not always succeed in observing it, the very fact that he was committed to it (in theory at least) would be sufficient.

· He gloried (or ‘boasted’) in God.He delighted in his knowledge of the one, true God in Whom he gloried or ‘boasted’, this in contrast with a world which worshipped idols. He not only gloried in his heart, he boasted about his God in front of others. For this idea compare Jeremiah 9:24, ‘but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD Who exercises covenant love, judgment (justice) and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight.’ Of course they missed Jeremiah’s point which was that what they should glory in was a God Who delighted in love, justice and righteousness for ALL. He exercised them ‘in the earth’. Thus they would repeat Deuteronomy 6:5-6 every day, thinking that it made them special, and without even considering how far short they came of fulfilling it. They rather saw it as separating them off as God’s special people. What they overlooked was that Jeremiah was talking about boasting in a God Who exercised ‘in the earth’, not only covenant love, but also justice and righteousness, the concerns that Paul has in mind. He treated the whole world the same.

· He knew His will.Through the Law he considered that he knew what the will of God was, in contrast with the philosophising and feeling in the dark of the Gentiles. His knowledge of God’s will came from the Scriptures. Again he felt that this made him special. Yet he never considered that the Scriptures revealed that what God willed was for him to be wholly obedient to that will of God, and threatened curses if he was not (Deuteronomy 27:26).

· He approved things which were excellent, or alternately ‘the things which differ’. The same phrase occurs in Philippians 1:10, of the Philippian Christians, and was a result of their ‘knowledge and discernment’. Thus the Jew believed that the Law gave him the right perspective on God and the world so that he approved of what was most excellent, even if he did not quite live up to it. His intentions were good, even if he did not carry them out.

· He was instructed out of the Law.He prided himself on the fact that his beliefs and his way of life rested on the God-given Law that he possessed, which was read out at the synagogue each week. This was how he knew God’s will and knew what was excellent. And he learned it from experts.

· He was confident that he was a guide of the blind, a light to those in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, and a teacher of babes.As a result of his knowledge of the Law he saw himself as a guide to the blind (compare John 9:41), a light to those who were in darkness (to Jews the Gentiles were in darkness, which was why the Servant of YHWH would be a light to the Gentiles - Isaiah 42:6; Isaiah 49:6), a corrector of the foolish (who themselves worshipped idols - Romans 1:22), and a teacher of babes (their responsibility to teach their children was a prime concern of the Law, e.g. Exodus 12:26-27; Deuteronomy 11:19, but here the ‘babes’ were probably Gentiles looked at with some disdain).

· He had in the Law the very form of knowledge and of the truth.Whereas others wavered and argued and debated, and had no certainty, he knew that in the Law he had ‘the very form of knowledge and of the truth’, a structured revelation from God. He had it detailed in writing. It gave him a certainty which the world lacked. The problem was that he only selected the parts that suited him.

It will be noted from this that there is no mention of any recognition on their part of a need to be obedient. It was all about their opportunity to have knowledge. They considered that that knowledge would somehow result in their being excused in the day of Judgment. Paul will, however, point out their error. Knowledge of what was good was an excellent thing, but if it was not followed up with obedience then it became a heavy weight around the neck.

We can, however, see from this why the Jews had such false confidence in their position. Nor would Paul have denied much of this, although he clearly saw them as drawing the wrong conclusions from it. Indeed he was ready to concede the superiority of the Law to anything that the Gentiles possessed (they were after all the Christian Scriptures). But what he argued was that this put the Jews in a position of greater responsibility to actually obey the Law, rather than a lesser one, and what he was very much against was the idea that their privileges made them untouchable by judgment. He would have argued that to be enlightened was good, but only if it then resulted in living according to that enlightenment, something which the Jews did not do. Otherwise their knowledge could only condemn them for not responding to the light that they had. He will go on now to bring this out.

Verses 17-29

The Special Case Of The Jew. Paul Is Answering The Question - ‘Does Not His Knowledge Of The Law And The Understanding That Goes With It, Along With The Fact That He Is Circumcised Into God’s Covenant, Put The Jew In A Special Position In God’s Eyes?’ (2:17-29).

The next hurdle that Paul had to do face was the claim of every Jew that, as a Jew he was privileged to have the Law and to be a teacher of men, and to have been circumcised into God’s covenant. Thus he saw himself as somehow superior and as special to God. He considered therefore that God would treat him on a different plane to that on which He treated others. The Jews would have agreed wholeheartedly that unless they became proselytes to Judaism allGentilescame under God’s judgment. But every Jew considered that it was a very different case with regard to himself. He saw himself as one of God’s favourites. He was after all a member of God’s treasured possession, of God’s holy nation and kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:5-6). He was child of Abraham to whose descendants God had promised special favours (compare Matthew 3:9). He had been given the Law. He had been circumcised into God’s covenant. How then could God treat him as though he was merely on a par with the Gentiles? So Paul now addresses the Jew directly, and he commences by listing out his claims.

Verse 21

‘You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal?’

For example they taught that it was wrong to steal, something that was central to the covenant. And yet they themselves stole in all kinds of ways, by sharp business practises, and as a result of their contempt for the Gentiles, not considering theft from Gentiles as really theft. Paul no doubt had examples in mind.

Verse 22

‘You who abhor idols, do you act as temple-robbers?’

The point here is that they claimed to abhor idols, and indeed in many cases did so, and yet themselves in some way benefited from heathen temples by illicitly making gains out of temple possessions. It is quite possible that Paul knew of instances where Jews, in areas where they had a strong community, had attacked heathen Temples, seeing them as a kind of sacrilege, possibly in retaliation for what was done to synagogues, and that they had then appropriated for themselves what they found there on the grounds that it was defiled, but could become undefiled in the hands of Jews. Indeed writing to Rome it is just possible that he had in mind the incident in 19 AD when a rich Roman lady converted to Judaism and was persuaded to give gifts to the Temple at Jerusalem, only to have her gifts misappropriated by the Jews concerned (Josephus ‘Antiquities’ 18:81 ff), thus robbing the Temple. It resulted in the expulsion of Jews from Rome. But the parallel with abhorring idols really requires the temples to be heathen ones. However, there may indeed have been incidents where Jewish traders handled goods stolen from temples in the course of business, and did a thriving trade, thus sharing in the guilt. Businessmen are notorious for excusing doubtful behaviour on the grounds that it is ‘good business’ ‘Temple-robbers’ simply suggests that they made illicit gains in some ways out of the temples, but its mention here suggests wide-scale practises. Acts 19:37 may indeed suggest that there were Jews who were temple-robbers.

Some, however, do see the temple in mind as the Temple in Jerusalem and relate it to the first part by making it mean that they abhor false religion, seeming to be very holy, but take dishonest advantage of their own Temple, revealing that they are unholy. This could then refer to robbing God by withholding tithes (Malachi 3:8) or by dishonest practises in the Temple like the ones that aroused the anger of Jesus (Mark 11:15-17).

Verse 23

‘You, who are boasting in the law, are through your transgression of the law dishonouring God.’

This may in fact be a question (‘are you through your transgression dishonouring God?’) or a statement (’you are through your transgression dishonouring God’). But whichever it is, it is applying what he has said above. They boasted in the Law, and yet through breaking it they dishonoured God, for God would be judged by outsiders on the basis of whether teachers of the Law followed their own teaching of which they boasted. Their very boast concerning the knowledge of the Law was thus bringing God into disrepute because of their hypocrisy.

Verse 24

‘For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you, even as it is written.’

Indeed he declares that as a result of their activity the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles, and claims Scriptural support, without citing it. It may be that he had in mind Isaiah 52:5, ‘those who rule over them howl, says the Lord, and my Name is continually blasphemed all the day’. The Scripture might be seen as not applying directly for it has in mind that what causes the Lord’s name to be blasphemed among the Gentiles is that His people are ruled there by foreign rulers who intimidate them, but Paul’s point was probably simply that it was an instance of how His people could cause His name to be blasphemed among the Gentiles. He could also have argued that they were actually where they were under foreign rulers because of their sins. The lack of direct parallel would explain why he does not cite it directly.

Because of the difficulty with the parallel some have suggested that Paul had in mind Ezekiel 36:20, ‘ and when they came to the nations to which they went they profaned my holy Name in that men said of them, “These are the people of the LORD and they are gone forth from the land”.’ But that falls at a similar hurdle of not being directly appropriate, and the Isaiah reference is much closer linguistically.

Verse 25

‘For circumcision indeed profits, if you are a doer of the law, but if you are a transgressor of the law, your circumcision is become uncircumcision.’

Paul then puts circumcision in perspective. His reply is that circumcision does indeed profit those who are doers of the Law from the heart, for it marks them off as observers of the covenant. It is therefore of great value if they are FULLY observing the covenant into which circumcision has introduced them. As a consequence they would be gaining the full benefit from the covenant that God has made with them (see Deuteronomy 10:16; Deuteronomy 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; Jeremiah 9:26). On the other hand if they openly and deliberately transgress the Law in any way they are thereby rejecting the covenant relationship, and with the covenant broken their circumcision becomes of no value. It becomes just what circumcision was to most of Israel’s neighbours, something of no significance as far as God was concerned. For then it had ceased to be genuine covenant related circumcision, and had become the equivalent of non-circumcision. The Scriptural claim of the need to be circumcised in heart was proof of that. In other words the man who is circumcised should recognise that he has received a special privilege, membership of the covenant, and should as a consequence throw himself into obedience to the covenant, i.e. to the Law. Many Jewish teachers would have agreed with him in this, but only to a certain extent, for Paul’s thesis will then be that no one, neither Jew nor Gentile, is fully a doer of the Law, in which case circumcision is seen to be valueless.

Verses 25-29

Will Not Circumcision Ensure That The Jew Is Treated Differently By God? (2:25-29).

The Jew then goes on to his second argument. If the possession of the Law and the benefits described above will not ensure that the Jew is treated differently by God, what then about the fact that he is circumcised? Is that not the mark of God’s special covenant relationship with him? In reply Paul would have agreed that circumcision was the sign of a special covenant relationship. What he would have disagreed with was the idea that God would as a result soften His attitude towards sin, something for which he would find good support in the Old Testament, especially in Lamentations. Indeed, he would argue that the covenant relationship makes greater demands on the Jew because he has thereby committed himself to obeying the covenant. The Gentiles had not committed themselves to anything. The Jew therefore has a greater responsibility to observe the Law, and if he fails to do so then he is liable to be ‘cut off from Israel’. There are a host of citations from Jewish tradition that suggest that Jews did see circumcision as affording special privileges regardless of behaviour. Paul condemns such an attitude outright.

Some reader may be saying, ‘well that is fine as regards the Jew, but what has it to do with us?’ One answer lies in the fact that to many baptism is seen as parallel to circumcision, thus in their case the same arguments can be applied to baptism. Baptism profits for someone who is truly responsive to God, but is of little value for someone who is not obedient to God. (As 1 Peter 3:21 says, its purpose is not a washing away of defilement, but the answer of a good conscience towards God). So in what follows we can read ‘baptism’ for ‘circumcision’. But it is of equal importance in bringing out that the Jew has no special position before God unless he is fully living in accordance with the covenant. As he will point out, the true Jew is the person, whether Jew or Gentile, who is truly circumcised in heart.

Verse 26

‘If therefore the uncircumcision keep the ordinances of the law, will not his uncircumcision be reckoned for circumcision?’

This then leads on to a more startling claim by Paul, and that is that if the uncircumcision keep the ordinance of the Law, then his uncircumcision will be reckoned as circumcision. This may have had in mind the God-fearers, those Gentiles who had thrown in their lot with Judaism but did not want to be circumcised. Many of them were more dedicated to the covenant than circumcised Jews. Paul may be saying that if their hearts are right, and they are wholly committed to the covenant, it does not matter whether they are circumcised or not.

This would not be to say that they could be saved in that way once they had truly heard the Gospel, only that during the transitional period when men had not heard the Gospel, salvation in that way was a possibility. It would then make Paul’s statement meaningful, and at the same time illustrate the invalidity of circumcision without obedience.

On the other hand we may well see Paul as postulating a theoretical case as he has before, simply on the basis of logic, in order to illustrate the irrelevance of circumcision unless accompanied by full obedience to the covenant. His point would then be that a theoretical Gentile might observe the whole Law (although in practise that was impossible) and thus be reckoned as circumcised even though he was uncircumcised. He is not really demonstrating how an uncircumcised man can be acceptable to God, but simply demonstrating that circumcision of itself means nothing in such a situation. This would have come as a terrible shock to many Jews who placed great reliance on circumcision.

Verse 27

‘And will not the uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge you, who with the letter and circumcision are a transgressor of the law?’

Then logically if someone was naturally uncircumcised because he was not a Jew, but fully fulfilled the Law, would he not be in a position to act as judge on those who had the letter of the Law and circumcision, but were transgressors of the Law? Thus the tables would be turned. It would not be the Jew who on behalf of God judged the Gentile (which was the Jewish viewpoint), but the Gentile who on behalf of a righteous God judged the Jew, in spite of the Jew having the Law and being circumcised. Paul’s whole point is that circumcision in itself does not put a person in a position of special privilege unless he ‘does what the Law says’.

It should be noted that, although he does not cite the fact here, Paul’s position is supported by the Old Testament where on a number of occasions the Scriptures emphasise that it is not outward circumcision that is important, but the circumcision of the heart (which is not strictly physical circumcision). See, for example, Leviticus 26:41; Deuteronomy 10:16; Deuteronomy 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; Jeremiah 9:26 where the command to circumcise the heart suggests that their physical circumcision is not enough for them to be truly in the covenant. What is required is a work in the heart, wrought by God.

With regard to the uncircumcised judging the circumcised compare Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:41-42; ‘the men of Nineveh will stand up in judgment with this generation and will condemn it’, for they had truly repented, unlike Israel. They were the uncircumcised who would judge the circumcised.

Verse 28-29

‘For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh, but he is a Jew who is one inwardly (hiddenly), and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit not in the letter, whose praise is not of men, but of God.’

Paul now concludes his argument by describing ‘the true Jew’. Based on his arguments above, being a Jew is not something dependent on a man’s own outward claims or on the external evidence of circumcision. It is rather based on what he is hiddenly (there is no physical sign apart from behaviour), when he demonstrates a genuine response to God’s law. Thus we learn now that the true Jew is one who is circumcised in heart, in the spirit (in genuine spiritual response or in the Holy Spirit or both) and not in the letter (not just physically circumcised because it is written down in the Law), for such a man receives praise from God rather than from men (see 2 Corinthians 5:10). The man whose heart is right with God in the Spirit is the one who pleases Him. Here we have the clear indication that the true Jew is the believer in Christ through the Spirit.

This conclusion is of immense importance. It indicates that Paul sees all true Christians as true Jews (see Philippians 3:3), and conversely that unbelieving Jews had ceased in God’s eyes to be Jews because they had been ‘cut off’ (Romans 11:17 onwards). It is a reminder that it is Christ’s people who are now to be seen as the true Israel. Unbelieving Israel has been cut off (Romans 11:17 ff) and all true believers, whether Jew or Gentile, form the true Israel of God (Romans 11:17-28; Galatians 3:29; Galatians 6:16; Ephesians 2:11-22; 2 Peter 2:9).

So Paul has demonstrated that neither possession of the Law nor physical circumcision put a man into a position of special privilege unless they are accompanied by full obedience to the Law, something which is impossible. Instead therefore it is necessary to be circumcised in heart ‘in the Spirit’ in order to be a true Jew.

‘Whose praise is not of men, but of God.’ There is a play on ideas here. The word Jew, signifying initially a man of Judah, contains within it the thought of ‘praise’ (see Genesis 29:35; Genesis 49:8). But Paul wants it to be clear that the only one who is a true Jew and who is really deserving of praise from God is the one who is ‘circumcised in heart’, in his spirit (or ‘in the Spirit’). He alone is the one whom God will praise (2 Corinthians 5:10).


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Romans 2:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, October 29th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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