Let me begin by summarising what we’ve learnt already. Paul has written about how he longed to go to Rome in order to minister to the members of the church there. And he said that — instead of being ashamed of the gospel — he was eager to preach the gospel, because the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, because in the gospel the righteousness of God — or the righteousness which God gives — is revealed. In other words, in the gospel, God reveals that sinners can become right with God through faith in his Son who died for our sins. For the sake of Christ who died for us, and through faith in him, God declares us righteous in his sight: our sins are pardoned for ever; and we’re accepted by him for ever; and we receive from him the gift of eternal life. As it’s written in the Old Testament book of Habakkuk:
The one who is righteous by faith will live.
So, in the gospel, God reveals his righteousness, the righteousness which he gives to those who trust in his Son. However, every day God also reveals his wrath. He reveals his wrath against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness. People know there’s a God, because the world around us speaks to us of him. But people have suppressed their knowledge of God and they have not given thanks to him. And so, God has revealed his wrath against them. But he reveals his wrath, not by striking the wicked down with a thunderbolt from heaven, but by loosening his restraining grip so that the wicked fall deeper and deeper into sin and into all the misery it causes us.
So, every day God reveals his wrath against sinners. But in the gospel he reveals that sinners can become right with God through faith in his Son who died for us.
And then, last time, we began to look at chapter 2. And in chapter 2, Paul addressing an imaginary Jew. And in verses 1 to 16, he made three mains points which he addresses to this imaginary Jew. First of all, in verses 1 to 5, he explained that if it’s right for God to condemn the Gentile pagan for his sins, then it’s also right for God to condemn the Jew who does the very same things:
Mr Jew, since you do the same things the Gentile pagan does, don’t think you’ll get away with it.
Then, in verses 6 to 11, Paul explained that God is impartial: he doesn’t show favouritism and he treats Jews and Gentiles the same way. So, if it were possible for someone to obey God’s law perfectly, then God would reward that person for what he has done whether he’s a Jew or a Gentile. But if someone breaks God’s law, then God will punish that person whether he’s a Jew or a Gentile. Whether you’re a Jew or a Gentile doesn’t matter. And then, in verses 12 to 16, Paul answered the Jew who was counting on the fact that he possessed the law. And Paul was really saying: So what? So what if you have the law? Having the law isn’t what counts. Have you kept the law? That’s what counts. Those without the law who sin and those with the law who sin will both likewise perish. And they will perish because they have sinned.
So, that’s where we got to last time. And, of course, Paul’s purpose in saying all of this is to make clear that we have all sinned. Jews have sinned. Gentiles have sinned. Everyone has sinned. Therefore every one is liable to God’s condemnation and wrath. However, in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed. In the gospel sinners discover we can become right with God, not by works of the law, or by the things we do, but through faith in his Son.
Today’s passage can be divided into two sections. First of all, there’s verses 17 to 24. And then there’s verses 25 to 29. And in verses 17 to 24, Paul is accusing the Jews of not practicing what they preach. They boast about having the law, but they don’t keep it. And then, in verses 25 to 29, Paul refers to circumcision. The Jews used to rely on the fact that they were the circumcised people of God. But, if they have disobeyed the law — and all of them have disobeyed the law — then being circumcised will not shield them from the wrath of God. And we’ll look at these verses today.
Verses 17 to 24
So, verses 17 to 24 first of all, where Paul accuses this imaginary Jew of not practicing what he preaches. And he first of all lists four distinguishing marks of the Jew. Four things which set the Jews apart and which made them think that they didn’t need to worry about God’s wrath.
First, this Jewish man had God’s law. So, God had come down from heaven and met Moses on Mt Sinai and had given him the law to pass on to the people of Israel. So, this man had God’s law.
Second, this Jewish man was a member of the people of Israel who had this special relationship with God. Of all the nations of the world, God had chosen them. God brought them out of Egypt. He led them through the wilderness. He brought them into the Promised Land. So, this man, being a Jew, was one of God’s special people.
Third, because he had God’s law to instruct him, this man knew God’s will.
And fourth, because he had God’s law to instruct him, this imaginary Jew knew what God approved of and he knew what God disapproved of. And that’s good.
So, put those four things together — being a Jew, he had the law; he had a special relationship to God; he knew God’s will; he knew what God approved — put those four things together and this imaginary Jew was convinced that he could be a guide for the blind. Do you see that in verse 19? He could be a guide for the Gentile pagan who didn’t know what the Jew knew about God. He could be a light for those who are in the dark about God’s will. Verse 20: He could be an instructor of the foolish who didn’t know God. He could teach those who were spiritual infants. And he could be all of these things, because, after all, he had the law of God which contains the embodiment of knowledge and truth about God and his will.
So, this imaginary Jew regarded himself as being perfectly qualified to be a teacher because he had God’s law. However — verse 21 — why don’t you practise what you preach? Since you feel able to teach others, why don’t you start with yourself? You preach against stealing. But don’t you steal? You preach against adultery. But don’t you commit adultery? You preach against idolatry. But aren’t you guilty of the very same thing? And look at verse 23:
You brag about the law. You boast about it. And you’re relying on the fact that you have the law for your standing with God. But don’t you realise that you’re dishonouring God? And you’re dishonouring God because you’re breaking the law.
You think you’re okay because you have the law. But so what? So what that you have the law? Because the thing is you keep breaking the law. And so, instead of teaching the nations to honour the Lord, you’re teaching the Gentile nations to blaspheme the Lord.
Paul is pretending to debate with this Jewish man who boasted that he had the law. And because he had the law, he thought he didn’t need to worry about God’s wrath. But Paul is pointing out that the Jew who has the law is still a sinner. He’s still a sinner who is liable to God’s wrath. And therefore, he needs to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Verses 25 to 29
In verses 25 to 29 Paul mentions circumcision. And we can imagine this imaginary Jew objecting to Paul and saying to him that there’s no way God will treat the Jews the same way as he treats the Gentiles, because, after all, aren’t the Jews the circumcised people of God? Doesn’t their circumcision mark them out as being special in the sight of the Lord?
So what does Paul say? Verse 25: Circumcision is of value if you keep the law, but if you break the law, circumcision is of no value to you. In other words, having circumcision is the same as having the law. Those with the law who sin are still sinners. And those with circumcision who sin are still sinners. And whoever sins is liable to God’s wrath.
And look at verse 26: The person who hasn’t been circumcised — in other words, the Gentile pagan — who keeps the law, will be regarded by God as if he were circumcised. In other words, the person who keeps the law perfectly will receive eternal life from God whether he has been circumcised or not. And whereas Jews normally looked down on the Gentiles for being unclean, nevertheless Paul tells this imaginary Jew that the obedient Gentile will sit in judgment on the disobedient Jew. The Gentile who has perfectly obeyed God’s law will condemn the Jew who has been circumcised but who breaks God’s law.
Of course, no one — apart from the Lord Jesus — has kept God’s law perfectly. But what Paul is trying to do is to teach us that being circumcised or being uncircumcised makes no difference. Having the law or not having the law makes no difference. What counts is keeping the law. Whoever breaks the law is liable to God’s wrath. And since we have all broken God’s law, we all need to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus. The circumcised Jew needs to repent and believe. The uncircumcised Gentile needs to repent and believe. We all need to repent and believe because we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
Paul has been pretending to debate with an imaginary Jew. And he’s been making the point that having the law won’t shield him from God’s wrath. And having circumcision won’t shield him from God’s wrath. Well, in the last two verses of this chapter, Paul goes on to explain to this imaginary Jew that what counts is not outward circumcision. Outward, physical circumcision is not what counts. What counts is circumcision of the heart by the Holy Spirit. In other words, what counts is a heart that has been changed. Not the cutting away of a piece of skin from the body, but the cutting away of our hard, sinful and unbelieving hearts. And the written code of the law cannot produce that. The law cannot change us. It merely points out our sin and our guilt. But the Holy Spirit can change us.
The Holy Spirit is able to change the heart of the Gentile pagan. And the Holy Spirit is able to change the heart of the disobedient Jew. He’s able to take away from us our old, sinful, unbelieving heart and replace it with a new heart, which is able to love and trust the Saviour. And the person whose heart has been changed like that may not have all the advantages the Jew boasted about. But nevertheless God is pleased with the man or the woman who has a believing heart. He’s pleased with us, because it’s through faith, through believing in the Saviour, that we become right with God.
Of course, what Paul says about having circumcision relates to what has always been the perennial problem in the church of Jesus Christ. It’s not just Jews who rely on the outward. Even today there are church members who rely on the fact that they have been baptised or on the fact that they have received communion. They rely on these outward things for peace with God. And while the Lord commands us to be baptised, and while he commands us to receive the Lord’s Supper, the Bible is always clear that what the Lord is looking for in his people is a believing heart. And so each one of us ought to make sure that we also have a believing heart.
But let’s also remember that Paul complained about the Jew that he had the law and he had circumcision, he had all these advantages, and yet he continued to sin against the Lord so that he was no better than the Gentile pagan. Well, as members of Christ’s church, we have an abundance of advantages. We have the law. We also have the gospel. We have baptism and the Lord’s Supper which speak to us in a visible way of all that Christ has done for us. We have the gift of the Holy Spirit and the example of other believers. We have so many advantages and privileges. So, let’s make sure that all these advantages are not in vain. Let’s ensure that we’re not just like everyone else. Let’s be careful that we’re don’t behave like those who have no faith and who have had none of the advantages we have had. As believers in the Lord Jesus, let’s be careful to obey the Lord and to do his will so that we always bring glory and honour to him.