By Mark Scott
American Express had a commercial: “Membership has its privileges.” But if a member refuses to pay the balance, those privileges are revoked. With privilege comes responsibility. This is the thinking at this point in Romans. To help people appreciate the power of the gospel (Romans 1:16, 17), Paul first had to convince everyone how much they needed the gospel (vv. 18–3:20). The Gentiles needed the gospel because they had suppressed the truth (1:18-32). The Jews thought they could escape, but Paul was quick to point out that God’s judgment would come home to roost on them (2:1-11). Even though the Jews had privileges (their calling and the law), they had forgotten their responsibilities. In fact, some Gentiles who did not have the Jewish privileges actually did God’s will, and some Jews who had the law did not live by it (vv. 12-16). The Jews in the church in Rome needed more than law. They needed genuine faith and obedient hearts.
Pretense v. Obedience
To be grateful for privileges is one thing. To boast about those privileges is something else. For the Jew, the law was the embodiment of knowledge and truth. But Paul cautioned the Jews not to rely on the law and boast in God. In other words, be careful of pretense. Paul used six phrases to drive that point home (vv. 17-20): The pretentious self-perception included relying on the law, being instructed by the law, guiding the spiritually blind, being a light for those who are in the dark, being an instructor of the foolish, and being a teacher of little children. Paul said, “Knowledge puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1).
It is not pretense but obedience that matters. A few secular proverbs unpack the content of Paul’s next five phrases (vv. 21-23): “Look in the mirror.” “Walk your talk.” “Practice what you preach.” Three of Paul’s five phrases are part of the Ten Commandments (stealing, adultery, and idol worship). The first and last are about teaching and obeying God’s law. Good intentions are never enough. Performance matters.
Outward v. Inward
But it is not just performance that matters. Both the Old and New Testament stress the importance of having the right heart to match right actions (Joel 2:13; Mark 7:14-23). God looks at the inward—not just the outward (1 Samuel 16:7). Circumcision (“cut around”) is the sign of the Old Testament Mosaic covenant (though it goes back farther than Moses). Obviously it was an outward sign. When the sign of the covenant matches a heart committed to keeping the covenant, God is pleased and his people have integrity. When only circumcision is in place, but the heart for obeying God’s law is not, then circumcision is of little value. The inverse is also true. If people who are not circumcised (Gentiles) keep God’s law, then they will be viewed as God’s people even though they do not have the sign of the covenant.
The backdrop behind Paul’s remarks is the tension in the church in Rome between Jew and Gentile. If the Gentiles were feeling poorly after Romans 1:18-32, their self-esteem should have recovered in 2:25-27. Though the Jews might have felt like they had all the privileges, the Gentiles might have had a leg up on the Jews if they obeyed God (see also Acts 15:1-35). Next Paul took circumcision to another level. He actually matched what the Old Testament already taught. Circumcision also dealt with the heart (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; 9:25). Christians are to be circumcised in Christ (Colossians 2:11; 3:11; Galatians 5:6). Otherwise circumcision amounts to nothing (1 Corinthians 7:19). When we understand how the outward goes with the inward, we are the true circumcision (Philippians 3:3).
Maybe the middle verse of the text is the climax: God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you. It would be terrible indeed to have all the privileges of God and compromise them to the point of hindering people from coming to God. Perhaps the best way to receive the “nod of God” is to unite obedience with heart—that takes us beyond the law.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2012, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.