4. No Excuse for the Jews (Romans 2)
When I was a youngster in elementary school I had the unique experience of attending school where my father was a teacher. I suppose in the eyes of some of my classmates that could be viewed as a somewhat privileged position. Fellow students would be reluctant to beat me up, even if I deserved it, for fear of facing the wrath of my dad.
There were times when, at least in my mind, the fact that my father was a teacher gave me some kind of an edge with other teachers. Some of them were personal friends of my father and so I knew them on a first-name basis, at least until I was instructed otherwise.
Then again I was aware that teachers were human and even had a weakness or two. I remember having a sheltered young woman as a teacher during her first year of teaching. She had ‘novice’ written all over her. Unfortunately, I did not have the wisdom or the humanity to come to her aid, and, in fact, was the ringleader in giving her a rough time. Some years later I had the unusual opportunity to go back to my home town and teach with some of my former teachers. They told me that every lunch hour they would emotionally prepare her to face me the coming period. I suspect this poor woman left the teaching profession, partly due to my influence.
But one lesson I learned very quickly about being a teacher’s kid; it didn’t impress my father. A friend and I had been selected as projectionists for our school, which enabled us to move freely about the school. One thing we were not supposed to do was to be in a certain wing of the school. One day we decided to do it anyway and were racing each other down the hallway. I skillfully manipulated a corner without overturning projector and cart only to end up running into my father. It was then I learned that my father was not impressed with the fact that I was his son. I can assure you my punishment was considerably more severe than any other student would have received. In fact my father thought that my being his son entitled him to expect more of me than the other students.
The Jews were as wrong in presuming upon their unique status as a nation as I was. They thought that their privileged position exempted them from the judgment of God. They thought their eternal salvation was secure, solely on the basis of their nationality, because they were the offspring of Abraham.
The reading of Romans 1 would not disturb the Jew; it would delight him. They relished the thought of the heathen, getting his due and spending eternity apart from God. It never occurred to the Jew until it was too late that in chapter 1 Paul was setting the trap for his smugly complacent Jewish readers.
Yes, the heathen did deserve the wrath of God, for they were guilty of rejecting and suppressing the revelation of God evident in creation (Romans 1:18-20). This revelation was not sufficient to save, but it was sufficient to condemn. By rejecting the revelation of God’s eternal power and divine nature, the heathen have revealed the condition of their hearts toward God. And the condition of our hearts determines our response to any degree of revelation.
Man’s present condition as described in verses 29-31 is not simply a result of his personal rejection of God, but is a manifestation of the wrath of God on all mankind because from the time of the fall of man, man has rejected God’s self-revelation and exchanged it for his own estimation of God. Because of men’s rejection, God has given man over to his own sinful passions. Thus man is the product of the rejection of his predecessors as well as his own response to God’s self-revelation (Romans 1:21-28).
In the first sixteen verses of chapter 2, Paul does not name his opponent, but establishes the principles of divine judgment by which the Jew is clearly condemned. In verses 17-29 the Jew comes under the spotlight of God’s judgment and is found guilty.
Principles of Divine Judgment
As we can easily discern, Paul does not immediately point his finger at the Jew as the object of his attention. But it becomes evident at verse 17 that this has been his purpose from the outset of the chapter. Some have understood the first 16 verses of the second chapter as directed toward the Gentile moralist, the up-and-outer. Such is not the case for Paul simply continues to lay the foundation for his pointed accusations at the end of this section on condemnation. Verses 1-16 provide a basis for evaluating the righteousness of the Jews. We shall focus upon five principles of divine judgment for by these five standards the righteousness of the Jew will be measured.
(1) God’s judgment of men is according to our own standards (Romans 2:1). The Jews have eagerly consented to the condemnation of the Gentiles. They even delighted in it. The Jew had gladly assumed the seat of the judge. He pronounced the Gentiles guilty of God’s eternal wrath. He sentenced them to eternal torment. In this the Jew has already condemned himself, for he has placed himself under his own standards. Our Lord taught, “Do not judge lest you be judged yourselves. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it shall be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1, 2).
By this our Lord meant that when we set ourselves over others as their judge, we have imposed upon ourselves the same standard of measurement. In our days of situational ethics and relativity, some tell us that they do not feel it is wrong to commit adultery or to steal. We can well afford to be broad-minded concerning our own conduct, but if we are consistent then we must agree that it is acceptable for others to steal from us or to violate the sanctity of our marriage.
God is not so interested in the standards we set for ourselves as those we set for others. It is by these standards that we ourselves will be judged by God. Very few of us would wish to be judged by these standards, but the Scriptures tell us this is the case.
Since the Jews have enthusiastically condemned the Gentiles, they have assumed for themselves the same standards. Shortly, Paul will bear down on these standards.
(2) God’s judgment of men is according to our works (Romans 2:5-11). All of us would prefer to be judged in accordance with what we profess rather than according to what we practice. There is a world of difference between what we say and what we do. If there is any doubt in your mind, simply ask your children. The Jew would have delighted to be judged by their doctrinal statements; in fact, that is what they relied upon.
Furthermore, the Jew expected to be judged according to his standing as a descendant of Abraham. They supposed that being the seed of Abraham was all that was required for entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Paul blasted the false expectations of his Jewish readers when he wrote,
But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to every man who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God (Romans 2:5-11).
But with all the emphasis in the Bible on faith, why is a man judged according to his deeds? Although a man is saved on the basis of faith, he is condemned on the basis of his works: “And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds” (Revelation 20:12).
You see, when a man or woman rejects the righteousness which God has provided as a free gift in Jesus Christ, he, in effect, chooses to establish his own righteousness, and this can be judged only on a performance basis. So Paul establishes that one principle upon which condemnation is administered is that a man’s righteousness is measured by his works.
We should say in agreement with James that the measure of one’s faith is his works. As James wrote, “… Faith without works is useless” (James 2:20b). The genuineness of our faith is revealed by the quality of our works. So a man is judged according to his works. The second principle, then, for the judgment of man is that he is judged according to his works.
(3) God’s judgment of man is according to the revelation we possess (Romans 2:12). If the judgment of God is to be fair, it must account for the amount of revelation that a man has. The revelation available to the heathen is that evident in creation, attesting to the eternal power and divine nature of God (1:20). The Jew, on the other hand, has the written revelation of the Old Testament. Not only is the nature of God described, but also His moral requirements are prescribed, and the way of salvation declared. God judges every man according to what he knows of divine revelation: “For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law; and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law” (Romans 2:12).
(4) God’s judgment of man is impartial (Romans 2:3, 11). Somehow the Jew had it in his mind that God was playing favorites. The Jew thought he had a corner on the market when it came to salvation. Paul declares that the judgment of God is impartial and that the Jew should not expect special treatment:
And do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment upon those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God? (Romans 2:3).
For there is no partiality with God (Romans 2:11).
God does not play favorites; the fact that a man is a Jew will in no way influence the verdict of God. No one will go to heaven because Abraham was his father, nor will any one be kept out because he was not. God’s judgment of men is impartial.
(5) God’s judgment must not be confused with His longsuffering and mercy (Romans 2:4-5). While the wrath of God is presently evident upon the Gentile heathen (Romans 1:17, 27), the Jew may be tempted to misinterpret the momentary absence of judgment on the Jew. The absence of present judgment for sin is not to be understood as God overlooking the sins of His chosen people. God does not look down on the sins of the Jews, shake His head, and say in effect, “Boys will be boys.”
The manifestation of the wrath of God has been delayed because of God’s mercy and longsuffering. The delay is to give men the opportunity to repent, not to encourage them to keep sinning. To fail to repent is to spurn God’s mercy and to store up future judgment on ourselves.
Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God (Romans 2:4-5).
These, then, are the principles which govern God’s judgment on men, and these are the standards by which the Jew, as well as the Gentile, is to be measured. In verses 17-29, Paul applies these standards and finds the Jew equally guilty with the Gentiles before God.
The Jews Found Guilty
Paul sets out in these last verses of chapter 2 to point out all that the Jew relied upon for righteousness before God. He shows that these prove to be no means of providing righteousness, but rather are a millstone about their necks, making them more guilty than the pagans they so enthusiastically condemned.
(1) The Jew and the Law (Romans 2:17-24). If there was one thing the Jew prided himself on, it was his possession of the Law. It was delivered to Jews, through Jews. It had been preserved and passed down by Jews. The Jews felt that mere possession of the Law constituted righteousness.
Verses 17-20 grant that the Jew not only possesses the Law, but understands it so fully that they are able to communicate it to others. However, man’s righteousness does not result from possessing the Law; it comes from practicing the Law. So Paul turns the tables on his audience when he writes, “You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one should not steal, do you steal? You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” (Romans 2:21-22).
The Law sets the standards of righteousness for men. Mere possession of that Law does not constitute men as righteous in the eyes of God. To be a custodian of God’s Law was indeed a great privilege, but Paul reminds the Jew that with this privilege comes that added responsibility of greater knowledge.
The Jews’ pride in the Law was ill-founded, for they did not keep the requirements of the Law. They not only failed to live by the Law, they failed to live righteously before the Gentiles. They who were so quick to condemn the Gentiles were slow to confess that because of their sinfulness and rebellion the name of God was blasphemed among the Gentiles (Romans 2:24).
This quotation from Isaiah 52:5 was a reference to the fact that during the Babylonian exile of the Jews the humiliation of the nation, Israel, was such that the Gentiles mocked their God, Whom they thought was unable to deliver His people. The application to Israel’s present condition was similar. The rebellion of Israel against God again brought the disciplinary hand of God to the extent that the Jews and their God were lightly esteemed, even a mockery among the nations. Israel was to bring glory to God, but her rebellion and chastening made them a mockery. God’s name, which the Jews esteemed so highly that they would not even pronounce it, was a byword among the heathen because of Israel’s sin.
(2) The Jew and Circumcision (Romans 2:25-27). There are many through the history of mankind who have regarded religion as primarily a matter of ceremony and ritual. The rite upon which the Jew rested his standing before God was circumcision. This rite will be fully discussed by Paul in chapter 4, but here Paul makes the point that circumcision is an outward act which symbolizes some inward reality. The rite has no value without the reality.
Circumcision was the sign of the Old Testament covenant between God and His people. The covenant obligations of the Jew were prescribed by the Law. But in failing to keep the Law the Jews indicated their rejection of the covenant, and thus the rite of circumcision was a meaningless act. It is like one who puts on a wedding band as he makes a marriage covenant with his bride. The ring itself is nothing but a symbol. It has great value if the vows are kept, but it is an empty sham if the vows are violated and set aside.
As one may be married without the presence of a ring, so one may be in relationship with God without circumcision. Any Gentile who could keep the requirements of the Law would be reckoned as one who had received the rite of circumcision for the reality was present without the symbol. But the symbol apart from the reality is worthless.
(3) Spirituality versus Superficiality (Romans 2:28-29). The entire issue with the Jews can be summarized in terms of spirituality and superficiality. The Jew was relying on superficialities for his righteous standing before God. He relied on his physical relationship to Abraham, on a possession of the Law and in the practice of rites and rituals such as circumcision. But God does not judge on the basis of externals. Righteousness is a matter of the heart. As our Lord had said to the self-righteous Jews of His day, “And He was saying, ‘That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness’” (Mark 7:20-22).
My friend, what is it that you are relying on for right standing before God? When you stand before Him, on what basis will you expect to spend eternity in His heaven?
By the keeping of some set of ethics? You will fail. The kind of righteousness which is necessary to please God is perfect righteousness. If you are trying to keep the Law of God you must keep it in every detail or you fail completely (James 2:10). Do you have some other standard of righteousness? You will not abide by it either, for none of us can live by the standards which we set for others.
Are you trusting in some rite or ritual for right standing before God? They are all meaningless without inner righteousness, demonstrated by our works. Have you been baptized? As a friend of mine says, “You can be baptized until the tadpoles know your Social Security number.” That will never get you to heaven. Have you been christened, confirmed, circumcised, canonized? None of these rites will get you one inch closer to heaven. Church membership, partaking of the Lord’s Table, all of these are of profit if they symbolize your relationship by faith to Jesus Christ.
My friend, if the Jew with all his misdirected zeal cannot be declared righteous before God, neither can you or I. The message of the gospel, the good news, is that what you and I can never earn, God has provided as a gift. If you have come to the point where you acknowledge that you have nothing to commend you to God, nothing which merits your eternity in the presence of God, then accept the righteousness of Jesus Christ by faith. Trust in His sacrifice in your place, and in His righteousness in place of yours, and you will have eternal life.
There is a particularly relevant warning in this passage for those of us who have been exposed to the teaching of the Scriptures. God is not nearly as concerned with what we know about doctrine as He is with what we are doing with what we know. Let us not get puffed up about the knowledge we possess and look down our spiritual noses at the spiritually underprivileged lest we, like the Jews, be found guilty by God.
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine, and acts upon them, may be compared to a wise man, who built his house upon the rock. And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded upon the rock. And everyone who hears these words of Mine, and does not act upon them, will be like a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand. And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and it fell, and great was its fall” (Matthew 7:24-27).