Romans 2:17–3:20. Lesson 4. Paul Speaks to Jews and Then to All.
Key Notes: The spirital advantages of the Jews do not result in godly living. Value of circumcision. An indictment from Psalms. Discussion of sin.
Paul addresses his countrymen severely in Rom. 2:17–3:8. He can do that because he is an insider, having sat where they sit. We do not know how many Jews there were in Rome. Claudius had expelled all the Jews from Rome (Acts 18:2) at about this time (50 AD), but the Jewish colony was rapidly reestablished after he died. We believe that Paul’s intent is not to limit his address to the Jewish community in Rome but to send a major communication through Rome to the whole Empire, Jews and Gentiles.
(F. F. Bruce has an excellent discussion of the situation in Rome in the introduction to his commentary on Romans. The Epistle of Paul to the Romans. F. F. Bruce; Eerdmans,’63)
2:17–24 This paragraph starts with a palindromic structure: A-B-C-B-A, a form often used by the writing prophets. The climax is in the middle.
Paul lists five great advantages that devout Jews had. Christians can claim similar privileges.
A ~ They rely on the Law,
B ~ Boast of their relationship to God,
C ~ Know His will,
B ~ Approve what is excellent
A ~ Are instructed in the Law,
The next section has an A-A-B-B paired construction, like Hebrew poetry.
Here he lists four natural uses of their advantages. Christians have similar roles.
A ~ They are guides to the blind
A ~ They are a light to those in darkness
B ~ Correctors of the foolish
B ~ Teachers of children
The last part has an A-B-A-B structure. Paul concludes with four rhetorical questions:
A ~ Do you steal?
B ~ Do you commit adultery?
A ~ Do you rob temples?
B ~ Do you break the Law?
"The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you." We too must cringe at the folly of televangelists, and fraudulent religious investment schemes, sexual perversions of clergy, and the homogenizing of Christians into American culture.
The scandals of the time that Jews participated in are recorded by Josephus. On the issue of robbing temples, he reported that during the time of Tiberius, a noble Roman convert to Judaism was persuaded to contribute a big amount to the temple at Jerusalem, but the money was kept by the solicitors. This put the name of the Jews in disrepute and gave Emperor Tiberius an excuse to expel all the Jews from Rome in 19 A.D.
(The Epistle of Paul to the Romans. F. F. Bruce; Eerdmans,’63; p. 93.)
2:25–29 Paul points out that breaking the Law makes circumcision void. The Jews believed that circumcision alone was enough to protect one from Gehenna, but it must be noted that the Egyptians also practiced circumcision. So the idea that circumcision alone made the Jews special is not correct.
(Paul’s Epistle to the Romans; L. Morris; Eerdmans, 1988; p. 139, 140).
Circumcision is a rite originally commanded by God on Abraham and his sons including Ishmael, when Abraham was 99 years old. (Gen. 17:9–27). It was a follow-up to the covenant by God with Abraham established in Gen. 15. After this, circumcision was to be practiced on 8-day-old infant males (Gen. 17:12), perhaps because infants suffer less pain and heal more rapidly than older males. Circumcision of adolescent females is practiced in Africa but is roundly condemned as painful, useless and harmful.
Moses made a spiritual application to Israel, about to enter the Promised Land, addressing adults:
“Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.” (Deut. 10:16)
Paul would make it even clearer:
“… by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ.” (Col. 2:11)
Circumcision is a symbol of getting rid of the flesh, the old nature. The symbolism of baptism, with which circumcision is often compared, is different. Baptism represents burial to an old life and being raised to a new life in Christ. If baptism is performed in infancy, it leads to the same fallacy that circumcision did: people assume that it is a proof of salvation. Paul’s point is that the obedience of faith saves, not a ritual.
3:1–8 Paul answers a number of typical questions that probably have been thrown at him in various arguments that he had with Jews in synagogues and other teaching locations.
Q. Is there any advantage in being a Jew? What is the value of circumcision?
A. The Jews were custodians of the Oracles of God—the Old Testament.
Q. Does the unfaithfulness of some circumcised Jews nullify the faithfulness of God?
A. God is true even if everyone else is false. He quotes David (Psa. 51:4) repenting of his sin with Bathsheba, affirming God’s justice in dealing with him.
Q. If our wickedness highlights God’s justice, then He should not punish us.
A. God must judge the whole world, you know.
Q. If my lies make God appear truthful, why am I to be condemned? Why not do evil so that God can do more good?
A. A stupid question does not deserve an answer.
Paul dismisses the questions with simple and incomplete answers. However, he is not through answering these questions. He is setting the stage and preparing his readers for further work. In Romans 6 he will take up the question: “…shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” (It is a heresy that is still thrown at Christians: since your sins are forgiven, you can live as you please.) Paul will also devote much attention to Israel’s defection in the light of God’s faithfulness in Rom. 9–11.
3:9–20 The last section of this indictment, which began in 1:18, is the most devastating and climactic. Are the Jews better off? He said they had a sovereign advantage (3:1), but here says they are actually no better off. That is, they did not make use of their advantage. Like the pagans, they are all under the power of sin.
The words of indictment are taken from the psalms where Israelites like David and Asaph denounce their own kin. The words “no” or “not” are found seven times in the full English versions.
No one is righteous. Psa. 14:1–3
Their throat is an open grave. Psa. 5:9
Their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness. Psa. 10:7
The poison of asps is under their lips. Psa. 140:3
Their feet are swift to shed blood. Isa. 59:7, 8
There is no fear of God before their eyes. Psa. 36:1
Words indicating evil talk are used four times. This seems disproportionate, for we think mainly of sins of the body; but Paul knows that the soul is revealed by the mouth. James also speaks to Christians about talk and goes into detail.
“The tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell.”
“…no human being can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. Does a spring pour out from the same opening fresh water and brackish?” James 3:6–11
Everyone is under the Law—either the Law Written on the Heart, or the written Law of Moses. The whole world is accountable to God. And He has put us in a box for which He alone has the key.
And the key is not the Law, either.
“No human being will be justified in His sight by works of the Law, since through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.”
This is a most important verse. It discards with a backhanded gesture every religion except Christianity. All other religious systems are law-based and therefore unable to meet God’s demands for righteousness.
The Law is not a failure. It is most important. It describes sin. It does not prevent sin. Paul will elaborate that in Romans 7. Only God can give us power to stop sinning.
Is sin a positive or a negative? Is it something or nothing?
People may say they feel empty, broken, lacking, lonely, alienated but are not likely to feel sinful. We have many New Testament sin words that are negative: foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless, unbelieving, dishonest, lawless—all implying the absence of goodness.
If we look at the generic Greek words that mean sin in Romans, we find both passive and active words. The passive words indicate things we failed to do right (omissions). The active words indicate things we do wrong (commissions). Active words are in the majority.
Ungodliness (1:18) ~ passive?
Wickedness (1:18) ~ active
Evil (1:29) ~ active
Falling short of the mark (3:23) ~ passive
Transgression; stepping over the line (2:23) ~ active
Disobedience; failure to hear (5:19) ~ active
Offense, trespass (5:15) ~ active
For other evidence that sin is something and not nothing, we go back to Gen. 1–3.
There was a countervailing force against God—Satan—tempting the humans.
Eve stood away from God. We call that apostasy.
Eve was deceived into thinking God was not acting in her best interests.
Adam and Eve fell—hard. We call it “The Fall” and it was terrible.
God cursed the serpent, the humans, and the earth.
They lost their fellowship with God.
Sin would appear to Cain as “crouching at your door.” (Gen. 4:7), to be mastered or succumbed to.
Sin is not nothing. Sin is something, like a viper coiled at the door; and it is dreadful.
In classical theology, sin has two main descriptors:
- Depravity, total depravity. Depravity means twisted or perverted. Depravity is total, meaning that there is no part of our humanity—flesh, body, heart, mind, soul, spirit—that is not distorted by sin. It does not mean that humans are devoid of any good. Depravity is described in Romans 1:17–32.
- The second word is inability, incompetence, helplessness. Inability says that we lack the resources to meet God’s demand for righteousness. This concept is summarized in Rom. 3:20.
But are there no grades of sin? We understand that a white lie is less wicked than premeditated murder. Catholics have traditionally separated sins in two categories:
- Venial sins (such as the white lie) need confession but do not break fellowship with God.
- Mortal sins (e.g. premeditated murder) need confession plus pardon because they break the bond between us and God.
James 2:10 says, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” That makes the question of venial vs. mortal sin moot. Both break the law and therefore break fellowship with God.
The party’s over. It's midnight. The booze ran out. The doors are locked. Sorry, guys. The jig is up.
The car won’t start. The blizzard is coming. We can’t get home. Can’t somebody do something? We’re all going to die out here in the cold.