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Introduction of Romans

Some things to know about this book as a whole that will help you as we study it…Paul was writing to the believers who lived and worshiped in Rome. He had never met them but had heard of their faithfulness and fellowship. The most significant thing that will help us in understanding what we are reading is that most likely the church was composed of both Jews who had put their faith in Christ and non-Jews (gentiles) who had put their faith in Christ. As we have talked about before, this means that they come from very different backgrounds and so their struggles in living out the Christian faith are going to be different. We see this reflected in the book of Romans as Paul seeks to help the gentiles understand the history of the messiah and an understanding of God’s law, but also helps the Jews to understand the fulfillment of prophecy and what it means for their faith. So keep these things in mind as we study Romans the next several weeks.

Tonight we are going to look at the last part of chapter 2, and it is clear when you read it who Paul is addressing: the Jews. However, what is not clear is whether he is addressing Jews in general or specifically Jews who have put their faith in Christ. But either way, he is going to point out one of their biggest and most detrimental problems as followers of the Lord. So let’s read the passage and then work through it together…

Going Through the Motions

Read Romans 2:17-29

Leading up to this passage in chapters 1 and 2, Paul deals with the sins of those who don’t know Christ and refuse to worship God or living according to His commands. And he makes the point that even though we can look at the non-believing world and recognize this truth, it is not our place to judge them, that is God’s place. And the truth is, we will all be held accountable for how we lived. So Paul is basically telling them, stop worrying about other people’s sin and start worrying about yourself and how you live your life and faith. And in the verses leading up to where we are at tonight, Paul explains that the bottom line is that the non-believers don’t claim God’s law so that is why they aren’t concerned to live according to it….however, believers do, we claim God’s law as truth so we should be concerned with whether we are living according to it or not. And then he specifically calls the Jews out in this area and shows that this is their greatest downfall is.

Beginning in verses 17-20 Paul characterizes the Jews using a series of rhetorical questions to emphasize who they were and what was most important to them. One of the most significant things about the Jews is that they were God’s people, chosen to bring about redemption for all of mankind. They had a very special relationship with God and were the first to be given the law and enjoy covenant relationship with God. So Paul is saying , if you are a Jew, then this is what you are most proud of and he lists off those things that would characterize them and set them apart from other people. First, they are verbal about their faith and relationship with God and open about their intent to live a righteous life according to God’s law. Secondly, he says they know God’s will (sounds arrogant at first but we need to remember that knowing God’s will is one of our privileges of being in relationship with God, Paul even affirms to them later in Romans 12 that believers can know God’s will.) He also says, they “approve of what is superior.” In other words, they know the difference between what is important in life and what is not – we might say today that they had an eternal perspective – and they are not ashamed to “approve” of what is right and good in God’s eyes. Finally, Paul explains that they understood that as believers they were to be witnesses of the truth to those who were spiritually blind and living in spiritual darkness. Verse 20 literally says they are “…corrector[s] of the foolish [and]…teacher[s] of the immature…” So they understood their role was also to help those who misunderstood God’s word or who were younger in their faith. And Paul explains, their confidence in doing this comes from their belief and faith in God’s law as the “embodiment of knowledge and truth.”

As we break this description of the Jewish followers down we realize these are all good things! Paul has not said anything “bad” about them yet. This is exactly as we are called to live and what God commands us to do. Paul is describing mature believers here. As you grow in faith this is what your life should look like, this is what we are all striving for each day. So as we think of these Jews and hear what Paul is about to say to them, we should relate with them and think of them as “mature believers.” Today, these would be those who have been walking with Christ for a good portion of their lives, who know God’s word and can easily verbalize it to others, who are a part of a church body and spend a lot of time with other believers. For us today, it could be someone who was raised in the church, or someone like me who was not raised in the church but came to Christ in a student ministry and has now been living in Christ for 18 years. Whatever our stories, I bet a good majority of us in the room tonight can relate more to the Jews in Rome than the gentiles.

The Problem

While Paul’s characterization of the Jews in Rome is a positive one, he’s not done…the next verses tells us what the problem is. What Paul is implying is that while they are doing all of those things that he just listed, while they are outwardly living the Christian life, inwardly they are lacking. Here’s how Paul explains it…Verbally they are speaking truth and claiming faith, they are even teaching others what God’s Word says….but they themselves are not living out what they are speaking.

Paul says, you teach others, but do you teach yourself? So Paul is basically saying, Do you not see that no matter how knowledgeable you are in God’s Word, you still need to apply it to your life every single day. Following God is not about learning all of God’s Word, passing a test, and then moving on. It is a daily, moment by moment struggle to live for God and live out His Word. And no matter how your life might look compared to another’s, you still need the Spirit of Christ to be able to follow God’s law, which means depending on Him and not on self. Here, Paul even chooses two specific examples that we can only assume were present amongst these Jewish believers….stealing and adultery…and he summarizes by saying, you boast about God’s law, but then you turn and choose to not live by it.

Then in verses 23-24 Paul tells them the result of their hypocrisy. First, God is dishonored. Second, non-believers blaspheme God. Here Paul refers to Isaiah 52:5 and Ezekiel 36:22, when the Israelites had sinned against God and been exiled from the promised land. We are told in those verses that the behavior of the Israelites (acting against what they said they believed) caused the pagan nations to profane God’s name. To profane means to “treat something sacred with irreverence or disrespect.” When we say we believe one thing, but don’t live our lives according to what we say we believe, God is dishonored, and even worse, God is misrepresented to the unbelieving world and so they fail to know who God truly is and even degrade God. And we know this is true because we hear it from non-Christians constantly. Brennan Manning said it best when he said,

“The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”

Application

As we study this we must be very careful to not dismiss what he is saying about the Jews because we don’t see blatant hypocrisy in our own lives. We think, how could this possibly apply to us? What we need to keep in mind is that the Jews did not decide one day they were going to be hypocrites, they had no sly plan of how to get the most out of God but not have to give up their lives completely. God’s law was one of their most treasured possessions, they cared about their special relationship with God more than anything. But overtime this is where they found themselves as that relationship with God slowly moved from the center of their lives to just a part of their lives.

We need to understand that this is the trap that we can all find ourselves in as we become mature believers. Our reality is that, after awhile, being a Christian can seem more like second nature than like something that is strange and unfamiliar. We eventually get to a point where we don’t think twice when it comes to being leaders in the church, teaching others, or even living in the world as followers of Christ. This is what eventually happened to these Jews, and what eventually happened is that the life they were living before man became disconnected from the life they were living for God. Being a believer for them was one of their characteristics that defined them, but not the thing that defined them and shaped every aspect of their lives. They became lazy over time and began to depend more on their status as Jews than their relationship with God, growing apathetic in their faith instead of zealous; judging others, but never questioning themselves. And eventually it led to a double standard in their lives and justifying their own sins.

And this is also what happens to us. We wear the label “Christians” pretty easily here in Dallas; but we can also hide it easily when we need to. We know God’s truth and easily teach it to others, but many times the core of what the Bible teaches is not at work in our own lives, transforming us and changing us. We see sin in others’ lives clearly, but may rarely recognize or repent of our own sins, much less feel sorrow or regret over our sins. More often we might lament over our sin nature in general but justify our behavior and move on. And I’ve begun to believe this is the most true sign of a spiritual problem…lack of repentance and justifying our actions. And like the Jews, we have our own little public and private sins that we’ve somehow disconnected from our relationship with God to the point that we don’t even identify them as sin. And all of this not only results in apathy in our own relationship with God, but it also misrepresents God and even causes others to turn away from God in resentment.

Relying on Outward “symbols” of our faith

Paul could have stopped there, but he wants to make another point about this. He now brings up circumcision. First, we need to think about what circumcision was and what it meant to the Jews. It was a symbol given to them by God to identify them as God’s people whom He had made a covenant with. So, it was a physical sign of their relationship, God’s commitment to them, their commitment to His law, and of the promises of God to them that would come. Even though it symbolized all of these things and was given to them by God, it did not make them anything. It was simply a sign, it didn’t accomplish anything.

An analogy that might help us understand this better is that of a wedding ring and what it symbolizes. While a ring symbolizes a commitment made between two people, it does not make those people anything. The commitment they make through their vows and the covenant they sign in marriage is what makes them husband and wife. The ring is simply a physical symbol of that commitment. But, as that symbol, others can look at their ring to know that they are married and committed to one another. The ring is not what keeps someone from committing adultery, it is a person’s commitment and resolve to live according to that commitment that keeps them from cheating. In the same way, being circumcised did not make you a child of God, it symbolized something that already existed.

So in the same way, here in verse 25, Paul says, “circumcision has value if you observe the law.” A wedding ring has value, if you live according to what it symbolizes (your commitment to one person) “but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised.” If you are married and have an affair, you are behaving as though you are not married. So the symbol loses it’s meaning…our actions are what reveal what we are truly committed to and what we believe.

Obviously, the symbol of circumcision doesn’t apply to us today…but what would? What are some of the symbols of our faith and commitment to Christ? Perhaps baptism or church membership. For some, it may be hanging crosses in your home or around your neck, a fish on our cars, scripture decorating our houses or offices. And for many it could be attending things like Bible studies, worship services, church, etc… Now keep those examples in mind and read on in verse 26.

“If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised?”

If someone today has none of those symbols we just listed, yet they live their lives according to God’s Word and truth, will they still not be regarded as followers of Christ? Yes! Why? Because being a Christian is about our hearts and lives conforming to God’s truth and law, continually submitting to live according to the Spirit and not our flesh. It is not about wearing an outward symbol of membership and then our lives not reflecting His truth. So then Paul explains, that the person who does not have those “symbols” but lives as Christ called us to live, condemns us. And we also know this to be true…how many times have you been humbled and floored by someone who is so much more Christ-like than you but doesn’t know as much as you do or isn’t as verbally Christian as you are?

Circumcision isn’t the problem…

Now one thing we need to be clear on is that Paul is not saying circumcision is bad. How do we know that? Because it was given to them by God and He even commanded them to do it. So in the same way, baptism, church membership, and all those things we listed a minute ago, are not bad….they are actually very good and biblical

But when those things become our “proof” that we are followers of Christ, when they become what we lean on for salvation, when we see them as the most important thing that makes us a believer, and we fail to continue striving to live out the truth in God’s Word, that is where the problem lies. Because when we do that we will always fail to allow God’s truth to penetrate and transform the way we live, which as Paul says, is the very meaning of those things/symbols. So they lose their meaning.

Going back to the wedding ring/marriage analogy…when a spouse fails to live out the commitment he/she has made, the ring means nothing. It can no longer symbolize a commitment that is not really there. But instead, as Paul says here, the symbol then condemns us because we do what we have committed not to do.

A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical.”

Let’s reword that for us….A person is not a Christian if he/she is only one outwardly, nor are any of our Christian symbols merely outward and physical. – in other words, they are meant to be outward symbols of our inward condition. Both the inner and outer must be present.

Conclusion

“But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.”

The thing that we must be most concerned about as we strive to live out our Christian faith, is what is going on inside us. It is not about whether you know it all, or if you’re a regular attending member of a church, or if you are outwardly a great Christian in other’s eyes. It is about the heart, that is what God sees and what God cares most about. And when we live concerned most with the state of our heart before God, we can count on the fruit of the Spirit flowing from that and the outside reflecting the transformation that is happening on the inside. When we do that, God will convict us of our sins and shed light even on the sins we try to hide from Him….and our lives outwardly before men will reflect our lives inwardly before God. And as Paul says here we will seek God’s praise and not men’s, realizing God’s is the only one we need.

Questions for Discussion & Application

●       How did you relate to this passage and the lesson tonight?

●       How can you “teach yourself” as Paul says here in 2:21?

●       What is one of the outward symbols of the Christian faith that you find yourself leaning on rather than on being transformed by God’s truth?

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