Series on Romans, III The Gospel and Jewish Need, A False Confidence, Text: 2:17-3:8, Title: The Peril of Privilege


From the beginning of chapter 2 Paul has been focusing on  his own people the Jews. This is a Jew talking to Jews, and he is warning them of the peril of privilege. We should listen carefully because what Paul says to his people, might readily be said to the church. Just because you have a Bible in your hand do not think that you are OK. If we were to conduct a survey and ask Christians to list their privileges, what should they put at the top of the list? We should say we know Christ and the gospel, have Christian homes, and families, and we are part of a fellowship of believers. But many people would not think of these things as privileges. In some places these privileges would cost you your position, your reputation, your freedom, or even your life, but they are still the most precious possession that we have. Do we appreciate it. The peril is that we ignore, abuse or misuse our privilege. So let us look at the privilege and then the presumption, the pathology and the perversion that Paul finds in his own people.

I The Privilege

In verses 17-20 Paul concisely expresses the situation with Israel.  Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth. In Old Testament times the light of God was like a spotlight on Israel. They alone had the truth. Now in New Testament times it is like a floodlight spreading to all nations. Thus at the time Paul wrote it was just starting to spread. However, Israel’s exclusive possession of the truth about God was not intended to be confined to them even in former times. It was given to them as a light to spread to the nations. Many Psalms and some passages in the prophets talk about the Gentile nations coming to the light. Instead of spreading the law of God, Israel built a wall of separation around it much as communism built a wall in Berlin to keep their people in slavery. In the case of the Jews it was slavery to the law, but it prevented the spread of the truth and led to bragging. This bragging led to presumption.

II The Presumption

The presumption was that Israel was highly favored and chosen by God and It did not matter what they did. God would take care of them. We find this in verses 21-24,  You, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?  As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” The light had become darkness. So great was the darkness that when first John the Baptist and then Jesus came announcing the fulfillment of the kingdom of God the command was repent. John actually mortified, discomposed and chagrined the leaders of the Jews by demanding that they submit to baptismal cleansing. However they were the keepers of the law, they were kosher and clean. How dare he tell them to repent and be washed. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, Jesus uses the formula, “You have heard it said,” but “I say into you. Thus he exposes their disobedience and hypocrisy in claiming to be God’s special people while not truly obeying. They had redefined what sin means in such a way as to remove all possibility of guilt from themselves. Paul says the same thing here. Presumption here means they believed something to be true that was not really true. They were chosen but they were not choice. This was their pathology.

III The Pathology

Pathology comes from two Greek words meaning the study of suffering and is used by the medical profession in general to describe the diagnosis of a disease. Their disease was confidence in the flesh and in outward religion. We see this in verses 25-29, Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker. A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God. Circumcision was the rite given to Abraham  as a sign and seal of his faith. It became the mark of a Jew, and the first century Jews were convinced that no one could be a Jew unless he was circumcised. Consequently it became a huge issue in the early church between Gentile and Jewish converts. Certain people called Judaizers were bent on having all Christians circumcised so that they would be true children of Abraham. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles fought that tendency every place he went. Listen to what he says to the Galatian Christians who had been invaded by Judaizers. We read in Galatians 5:1-6. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. Circumcision belonged to the Old Testament preparation and was no longer in effect with the coming of   Christ. We are circumcised spiritually in Christ according to Colossians 2:11 and 12,  In him (Christ) you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. In their zeal to be “true” Jews the Judaizers were condemning themselves because if they observed the law of Moses in that, then they had to observe it in everything and as Paul says in our text, Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ. This is Paul’s diagnosis of his own people’s false confidence.

IV The Perversion

They were perverting the truth and were saying that God was at fault, God had betrayed them. This is twisted thinking in 3:1-8, What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God. What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness? Not at all! Let God be true, and every man a liar. As it is written: “So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge.” But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” Why not say—as we are being slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say—“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is deserved. The key to this whole section in Paul’s argument may be found in the words, "What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness?" The Lord had given them a high privilege and yet now because of their own disobedience they were losing out. They were put in the same position as the Gentiles and were no longer special. Instead of concluding that it was their fault they blamed God. God was not unjust; they were! We Presbyterians who believe in the absolute sovereignty of God are familiar with this argument. If we tell people that God has ordained whatsoever comes to pass, then they end up blaming Him for their own failures instead of accepting responsibility. This is the human argument that Paul mentions in our text. However as Paul says later in Romans 9:19-21, One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? It is an old argument that we still encounter today. Men are always trying to tell God to act differently. But God does not change, men do. The Jews were saying God has chosen us so He is not being faithful to His promise if he rejects us. However the Bible does not teach that God’s ordination of whatsoever comes to pass eliminates our responsibility. God’s plans can not be judged and condemned by sinful men. The proper course for the Jewish people was to listen to Paul and accept God’s provision in Christ; they needed to forget the old ways and see God’s faithfulness to them in the new way. Then they would avoid the peril of privilege.