The word Yehudi (“Jew”) means “one who gives thanks. Because we’re in a passage in Romans addressed to Jewish people, I thought I would share that fact with you. And here are a few salient truths that will emerge from the passage we are reading this morning.
- Being born Jewish is no guarantee of going to Heaven.
- Jewish people need the Gospel just as much as Gentiles.
- Conscientious Gentiles are better off than disobedient Jews.
- Our conduct reflects on God – for better or worse
- Circumcision: not what this is about
- Arrogance and hypocrisy are closer to all of us than we’d like to think.
- This passage doesn’t justify Gentiles calling themselves ‘spiritual Jews’
- Rabbi Paul consistently made clear distinctions between Jews/Gentiles
- Becoming one in Messiah doesn’t mean we become the same
And so as we continue in Romans chapter two this morning, let’s take a moment to review the context and the grand theme. I’m so glad that we’re studying Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome. This is considered by many to be his theological magnum opus.
The great Emissary opens his letter in typical ancient Roman literary fashion. First he identifies himself, then his recipients; then he extends greetings and gives thanks for them. After these formalities, he then transitions into the body of the letter at chapter 1, verse 16 where he declares I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes; to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Gentile). That verse, which of course has come to mean so much to us, is in reality the overarching theme of the entire letter. After all, he’s writing to the kehilah, the assembly, in Rome, the capital city of the greatest empire the world had ever known. By this time it would have been a sizeable and ethnically diverse congregation. Yet the Faith was still very much in its formative stages (we estimate Romans to have been written around 57 or 58 AD), and questions were inevitably going to arise about how Jews and Gentiles interact with the Good News and with the Torah, and with one another.
Consider just how unusual and counter-intuitive that this Orthodox Jewish man, a former Pharisee, having at one time been the preeminent disciple of one of Israel’s greatest rabbis; a man whose Jewishness would make today’s Orthodox look like Reform Jews by comparison, would be sent by God to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. And so our brother Paul begins to outline his God-revealed, Holy Spirit-inspired message to a group that would have included many Jews and Gentiles.
Right out of the gate, he has made clear that mankind, having rebelled against God and having ceased to even acknowledge or give thanks to Him, has degenerated into the depths of depravity, and is in a desperate spiritual condition which no amount of religious observance (mitzvot) can remedy. And in this passage, he makes clear that he’s addressing the Jewish contingent of his audience, chastising those among them who think their Jewishness automatically guarantees them a place in the World-to-Come. He calls them on the carpet for their arrogance and for hypocrisy. They lay claim to superior knowledge because they have the Torah, yet fail to abide by it themselves. Let’s pick up at chapter two, verse seventeen.
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 –
Forgive me for reading it aloud with a sense of sarcasm, but in context Paul is addressing those with an arrogant spirit. That’s just how I hear him saying it. At any rate, it would be consistent with how Yeshua took the self-righteous to task during His earthly ministry.
A word of caution is in order here. Paul is by no means speaking to all Jews, but to a certain kind of person. The Greek grammar bears this out. The verbs here are uniformly in the second person singular. But can you see how easily this passage, taken out of the larger context, could be used as the basis of an anti-Jewish polemic? And it happens frequently; even sometimes with otherwise well-meaning Christians. The Bible can be a dangerous book when mishandled. Interpreting a text without context leads to pretext, and leads astray.
This is addressed to the Jewish person who believes that he is in a privileged position, but not at all in a humble way. There is a real arrogance here. A prime example of this dismissive attitude is found in John 7. Listen to this exchange between the Jewish religious leaders and the Temple guards they sent to arrest Yeshua: Finally, the temple guards went back to the Chief Priests and Pharisees, who asked them, “Why didn’t you bring him in?” “No one ever spoke the way this man does,” the guards declared. “You mean he has deceived you also?” the Pharisees retorted. “Has any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law – there is a curse on them!”
Now Jewish ancestry certainly carries with it a sense of antiquity and peoplehood and a unique place in God’s plan. But if we’re going to be honest about it, Israel’s track record with Adonai left a lot to be desired. The same Torah in which this person boasts tells me that my people were stubborn, stiff-necked and rebellious, and Moses wasn’t using hyperbole.
Nevertheless, this man believes his learnedness and special relationship to God makes him the remedy for the clueless, the fools, and the ignorant and naïve of the world. I’m not overstating the case. Look again at verses 19 and 20:
…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…
What arrogance! But now pay attention to the end of verse 20. Paul writes, because you have in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and truth… Ironically, while the man being described here is unjustly proud, the Torah really is a source of great knowledge and truth. The problem has never been with the Torah. The Torah is a blessing from God. The problem is with us. Our inherently sinful nature prevents us from faithfully carrying it out. Furthermore, unlike the Abrahamic Covenant, the Sinai Covenant was bilateral in nature; and we violated it. It is a broken covenant, and therefore we cannot look to the Law as our basis for righteousness.
So now that Paul has addressed the unfounded pride problem, he moves on to address the accompanying problem of hypocrisy.
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?
We have here a series of rhetorical questions that reveal the failure of this person to practice what he preaches. Of course, stealing and adultery are prohibited in the Ten Commandments. So is idolatry, but the charge isn’t idol worship, but profiting from the raiding of pagan temples in order to obtain gold, silver and precious stones from the idols. The exact meaning of his last charge is a little ambiguous, but the larger implication is as clear as day: hypocrisy.
You might think that not very many Jewish people were engaged in thievery or adultery, and statistically speaking you would be right. You might even take some comfort in the fact that you haven’t been a thief or an adulterer. But that comfort evaporates pretty quickly when you remember that under the New Covenant that lustful second glance renders you guilty of adultery, and that quiet hatred renders you guilty of murder. Hypocrisy is nearer to us than we would like to think.
As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
Paul quotes from Isaiah 52, but the idea he is conveying is really well illustrated in Ezekiel 36:16-21. Listen to this indictment:
Then the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Son of man, when the house of Israel was living in their own land, they defiled it by their ways and their deeds… therefore I poured out My wrath on them for the blood which they had shed on the land… I scattered them among the nations… When they came to the nations where they went, they profaned My holy name, because it was said of them, ‘These are the people of the Lord; yet they have come out of His land.’ But I had concern for My holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations where they went.”
When a man boasts in his Torah observance, yet violates the Torah, he becomes a stumbling block to others. It makes it harder to have respect for the God who gave the Torah. The same is true of the person who claims to be a follower of Messiah Yeshua, yet whose life belies that confession; maybe they do business dishonestly, or exhibits bigotry or treats others cruelly dishonors the Faith and becomes a stumbling block to others. Let’s make sure that the fruit of our lives and the words of our lips are consistent. At any given time, we are either making it easier or harder for people to consider the truth of Messiah Yeshua.
Circumcision has value if you observe the Law, but if you break the Law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised.
I was reminded of James’ words: For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it (James 2:10).
The issue here isn’t circumcision in and of itself. After all, God commanded that Abraham’s male descendants through Isaac and Jacob be circumcised. The issue is that some people used the fact of their circumcision as a claim to have a privileged standing with God. Paul says, in effect, “Your circumcision doesn’t benefit you at all if you violate other aspects of the Torah. In that case, you’re no better off than a heathen.” That might seem harsh, especially when you consider the fierceness of Jewish ethnic pride, and the historic contempt that Jewish people had for the Gentile nations.
And let’s remember that Paul isn’t advocating for Sinai Covenant law-keeping. He’s simply warning against those who boast in their Torah observance and their Jewish identity, and who suppose they deserve God’s favor on that basis. I would remind you that in Genesis 15:6 God declared Abraham righteous before he had even been circumcised! And I am also reminded of John the Baptist’s warning to the religious leaders who were reluctant to heed his message: “Do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham.”
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 Law-breaker.
These verses, as well as 28-29 are misinterpreted and misapplied at times, and especially lately within the so-called “Hebrew Roots” movement. We have encountered people who, though Gentile, insist they are “true Jews” or “spiritual Jews” and cite this passage as evidence. But take another look: The God-fearing Gentile is not regarded as a “Jew” but is regarded as being right with God.
If Gentiles are capable of obeying the demands of the Law without even knowing the Law, it raises the question: what are the Law’s requirements? There are various passages that could be brought to bear on this issue, but since Messiah is the final arbiter of what constitutes Torah, and Yeshua told us that the entirety of the Torah and the Prophets depend on the Two Great Commandments: to love the Lord our God will all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, that is what I believe Paul had in mind here. This isn’t about avoiding mixed fabrics or wearing tzitzit or having separate dishes for meat products and dairy products. It’s about loving God and loving the people around us – the intent of the Torah, not the particularism of it.
We have already established that Jewish identity in and of itself is no guarantee of salvation. The fact is that conscientious Gentiles are better off than disobedient Jews. Consider the words of Isaiah:
Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely exclude me from His people.” And let not any eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the Lord says: “To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, who choose what pleases Me and hold fast to my covenant – to them I will give within My Temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off. And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve Him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship Him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to My covenant – these I will bring to My holy mountain and give them joy in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on My altar; for My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56).
I love Isaiah chapter 56. It wasn’t Yeshua who first came up with the idea of making Jews and Gentiles into “one new man”. It goes all the way back.
Throughout the pages of Scripture, we occasionally encounter individuals of exceptional faith who were not native Israelis. For example, we think of Naaman the mighty and honored Syrian military leader whose leprosy knew no cure until he journeyed to Israel, came to the prophet Elisha, followed his instructions, bathed in the waters of the Jordan River and was instantly healed! This foreigner had the wisdom, humility and faith to come back to Elisha to give thanks (and that’s what Yehudi means – “one who gives thanks”). Naaman became a follower of the God of Israel. In fact, this foreigner had more faith in the God of Israel than the king of Israel!
Think about Jonah, and the heathen sailors on that ship bound for Tarshish. They showed more obedience and reverence for the God of Israel than the wayward prophet who was in their midst. Even the Ninevites were more receptive to the call to repentance than the Israeli prophet who was in their midst. Centuries later, Peter and the other apostles would affirm that God welcomes those from every nation and people group who reverence Him.
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.
By way of reminder, let me ask you: to whom is Paul speaking? He is speaking to the Jewish contingent in the kehilah at Rome. This passage in no way justifies Gentiles calling themselves ‘spiritual Jews’. If you’re not Jewish, and you follow Yeshua the Messiah, you’re already everything you need to be! And we are one! God doesn’t have a double-standard – I don’t get a better salvation than you. I don’t get a bigger ‘mansion’ than you. There’s no first-class vs. coach seating in Heaven.
Nevertheless, it seems that sometimes people are dissatisfied with who God made them to be. From time to time individuals come into our midst (and eventually pass out of our midst), deciding they want to be “more Jewish” or decide that they really are Jewish, after all. And it’s so unnecessary; and it’s counter-productive, because when that happens it means your eyes are on you, and your identity. If we’d just forget about who we are, and focus on how wonderful He is, we won’t have a problem!
First of all, let’s get something straight: no one in the ancient world ever called themselves a Jew if they weren’t – especially at this time in the Roman Empire, during which time there was increasing disfavor toward Jewish people, and as we moved closer to the first Jewish Rebellion against Rome, it was dangerous to be Jewish. And I have a sneaking suspicion that if this was 1940 and we were living in Nazi-occupied Poland, where Jews were being systematically hunted down, these ‘Hebrew Roots’ people walking around calling themselves ‘Israelites’ or ‘spiritual Jews’ would quickly revert to calling themselves ‘Christians’.
The Great Emissary to the Gentiles consistently wrote about the unity we have in Messiah, but also consistently made the distinction between Jews and Gentiles. A very important point for us this morning is to know that there is nothing in this passage, rightly interpreted, that justifies Gentiles calling themselves ‘spiritual Jews’ or ‘Israelites’. And, frankly, that is just as bad as the Replacement theologians. Either way, it’s “identity theft”. This section of Romans is addressed specifically to Jews – Jews who wrongly felt that justification comes via Torah observance, and who had prideful attitudes. The two usually go hand-in-hand.
The circumcision that matters is circumcision of the heart. And even Moses, in the Torah itself, spoke of this. Deuteronomy 10:16 and 30:6 speak of the need for fallen, sinful human beings to have a circumcision of the heart – to have our hard hearts replaced with soft, teachable, humble hearts, and that is the immediate benefit of the New Covenant – God’s Torah put on our hearts, so that we delight to do what pleases Him.
The rabbis have long taught, and incorrectly, that “All Israel have a place in the World-To-Come.” That may be what the rabbis teach, but it isn’t what the Scriptures teach, either the Tanach (Old Testament) or the Brit Chadashah (New Testament). The Scriptures speak with one voice to the eternal truth that there is only one way of salvation, and that is through transferring our loyalties and putting our entire trust in Messiah Yeshua, who alone was capable of keeping the Torah perfectly. He did it all on our behalf, and when we trust in Him, we are credited with His righteousness.
So let me encourage us to get our eyes off ourselves and cease from worrying about our own identity, and put our focus squarely on Messiah Yeshua. That is the key to having the kind of joy that transcends our circumstances.