First we had the wise fools of Romans 1 who ignore God revealed in creation, and suppress the truth about God. To them, God declares their ignorance will not be excused.
Then we looked at the morally depraved, who believed the lie which Satan has told from the beginning, "be your own god".
Next we had the self-righteous hypocrites, standing on personal righteousness, while hardening their hearts against God's grace and mercy.
Each of these groups is rushing headlong into a future of God's wrath. This week they are joined by religious posers, who pretend to show the way to God by force of religious practice, instead of repentance.
Religion, for many people, is all pain and no gain. The religious will try to attain a level of goodness that would be acceptable to God. This is the most common religious idea, that God will balance the scales, and we just have to do more good than bad. But God has said "My Spirit shall not strive (or abide) with man forever, for he is indeed flesh" (Genesis 6:3). Since the fall of mankind spirit and flesh have been in conflict. Without the spiritual rebirth of salvation, the flesh has no chance of pleasing God.
Being a Christian, however, is not just being religious. Being a Christian is about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. A true believer in Christ recognizes that no amount of religious effort will bring him any closer to God. He recognizes that the best efforts in the flesh, even his righteousness are "as filthy rags" before a most holy God. In fact, he wouldn't trust the best 5 minutes of his life to gain him entrance into heaven! Only God's grace can do that. God's grace provides salvation that cannot be earned, favor that is not deserved, and kindness that cannot be repaid.
It is the religious person that is probably the hardest to reach with the gospel. While there is no one too bad for Jesus Christ to save, there are millions WHO THINK they are too good to need saving. The religious man thinks that his possession of religious truths and his practice of religious tasks make Him righteous before God. However, the apostle Paul points out in this passage that while both are privileges neither pays the price for man's sin.
17 Indeed you are called a Jew, and rest on the law, and make your boast in God, 18 and know His will, and approve the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law, 19 and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having the form of knowledge and truth in the law.
The Jew had two advantages when it came to the truth: 1) a Hebrew birth, and 2) a Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). From childhood the Jew was taught in Synagogue of: his special heritage, to revere and keep the Sabbath, his need of a sacrifice for sin, and the fact that he was to live separated from the world. This special access to God's truth was an incredible advantage in a world where most men were pagans steeped in superstition and idolatry.
This special access to truth often led to pride and deep scorn and resentment over the spiritual ignorance of others. The Jew often looked with disgust at his Gentile neighbors; even calling them dogs because of their spiritual ignorance.
It is an awesome privilege to be raised with such access to spiritual truth. To have been born into a family where the things of God are common knowledge and where the Bible is a well-read book. It reminds me of Jesus' statement, "For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required" (Luke 12:48 NKJV). We'll talk more about this later.
21 You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal? 22 You who say, "Do not commit adultery," do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law? 24 For "the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you," as it is written.
In verses 21 through 24 Paul begins to cross examine the Jew in order to point out the condemnation that accompanies a mere "head-knowledge" divorced from a life of obedience to God. A religious experience which is "all talk" and "no walk" will not pass the test on the Day of God's Judgment.
This is especially true when the one who teaches has not applied that which is being taught. It is the height of spiritual insincerity to teach others without learning the lesson for yourself. Paul pointedly tells the privileged Jew, "You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself" (Romans 2:21 NKJV)? Spiritual insincerity often leads to spiritual insensitivity. How many times have we heard of preachers and teachers who thunder away at sin from the pulpit only to have their personal failures find them out. Paul points out in these verses that ethnically, morally, and spiritually the Jew was guilty of the very behaviors they were scolding others for. They were preaching the high and holy standard of the law while they themselves were violating it.
Remember when Abraham lied to Pharaoh about Sarah being his wife while they were in Egypt (Gen. 12:10-20)? Led to believe that Sarah was Abraham's sister, the Pharaoh took her into his harem. All of a sudden, Pharaoh and his household were the recipients of all kinds of plagues from God; and it was revealed that Sarah was actually Abraham's wife. Imagine Abraham's shame when a pagan Pharaoh scolded him for telling a lie when he supposedly served the God of truth. Nothing will turn strangers away from truth like the misbehavior of a professing believer. One hypocrite makes a hundred unbelievers. When David sinned against the Lord with Bathsheba, Nathan said, "By this deed you have given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme" (2 Samuel 12:14 NKJV).
So then, while access to religious truths increases one's accountability it does not make one more acceptable to God. It doesn't really impress unbelievers either, because they can easily detect a person that says one thing but does another. As Paul just reminded the hypocrite is verse 13, "for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified" (NKJV).
25 For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26 Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision? 27 And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law?
Paul writes in verse 25, "For circumcision is indeed profitable IF YOU KEEP THE LAW; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become un-circumcision" (Romans 2:25 NKJV). In other words, a rite or religious task is meaningless UNLESS it is an outward expression of an inward experience. No outward ceremonial act can have any value if it is not related in some way to a dynamic, personal, scriptural experience. Remember circumcision was supposed to be a sign of the covenant to follow God your whole life.
Well then, here's the problem for the Jew (and for all of us really), for circumcision to be of any practical value, the Jew must keep the law of God – something humanly impossible. To break the law at any point is to render the ritual null and void. For if we keep the law sometimes, and break the law at others are we not still law breakers? No one in prison today has broken every law, yet we hold each person responsible for every law. If men do this imagine the stricter judgment of a God who sees everything.
To further make his point, Paul turns the tables on the Jew and explains, "Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his un-circumcision be counted as circumcision?
And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law" (Romans 2:26-27 NKJV)?
OUCH! Paul essentially says that a man devoid of rituals may be more righteous than a man devoted to them, and a man devoted to rituals may be more responsible in the sight of God than a man devoid of them. You see the value of a religious task is limited by the condition of a person's heart. A mere ceremony does not make a person right with God.
Paul's point can be illustrated by looking at the Hebrew Bar mitzvah ceremony. When a Jewish boy reaches his thirteenth birthday, he is believed to have attained the age of responsibility and religious duty. But performing this religious ceremony does not make a man out of a boy. There is far more to manhood than that. Being baptized with water or circumcised in the flesh does not make a person right with God. These religious tasks were designed to be outward expressions of an inward reality.
28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; 29 but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.
Paul was not presenting a new idea here. The truth that mere religious tasks did not make a man a Jew was as old as the law and the prophets. Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 10:16, "Therefore circumcise the foreskin OF YOUR HEART, and be stiff-necked no longer" (NKJV). In Ezekiel 44:9, the prophet wrote, "Thus says the Lord GOD: 'No foreigner, uncircumcised IN HEART or uncircumcised in flesh, shall enter My sanctuary, including any foreigner who is among the children of Israel'". (NKJV)
God always judges a man by his heart – a lesson that even godly Samuel had to learn. When he was sent by God to Jesse's house to anoint the next King of Israel he was very impressed with Eliab; the tall and handsome eldest son. But we read in 1 Samuel 16:7, "the LORD said to Samuel, 'Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, BUT THE LORD LOOKS AT THE HEART'" (NKJV). It was not until David walked into the room (whom Saul and Goliath later mocked as a "mere youth") that God said to Samuel, "Arise, anoint him, for this is the one" (1 Sam. 16:12 NKJV). The kingly qualities of David were inward, not outward.
So, then, Paul indicts the Hebrew by taking him to task on his religious tasks. External tasks are no substitute for internal trust. Religious ceremony does not equal real Christianity.
While Paul's purpose in this passage was pointed to the Jew, we should be prompted to examine ourselves in light of the following privileges that we enjoy as believers. Jesus shared these same ideas with the Pharisees, but I would apply them to any form of religious legalism; Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu. Each religious tradition contains posers who pretend to be closer to God by virtue of their religious works. But this is impossible, since righteousness comes from God.
Things to consider:
1. Do you call yourself a Christian because you've repented of your sin and placed your trust in Christ's finished work on the cross for your salvation; or do you say that you're a Christian because you were: born in a "Christian nation", raised in a Christian home, attend a Christian church and live a "moral" life?
2. The fact that we have access to our own copy of God's inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word is an awesome privilege! How can we demonstrate that is true?
3. How does our life reflect the idea that our standing with God, is determined by Christ's righteousness and now our own?
4. How can we avoid the trap of religious imperialism, believing we hold a position of privilege above other recipients of God's grace?
5. How does staying humble and trusting only in the righteousness of Christ help fulfill the great commission?