Where the world comes to study the Bible

Study and Exposition of Romans 2:17-29

A. Introduction

Hypocrisy—carefully presenting one appearance on the outside, while clinging to another on the inside—is declared by Jesus to be like a white washed tomb. Such houses for the dead look great, however, even impressive on the outside, but… and you know how the rest of that goes (cf. Matt 23:27). Two stories illustrate well the nature of hypocrisy and the pain that comes with it.

The first is related by Stuart Briscoe. He tells the story of the time he was in business and had to deal with a coworker who had embezzled a large sum of money from the bank for which they both worked. The reason for the embezzlement was that he had two wives and families and was trying to run two homes. When he was apprehended and fired, he stunned everyone by saying, “I am very sorry for what I have done, and I need to know whether I should fulfill my preaching commitments on Sunday in our local church!” Briscoe says that in the following weeks he spent much time mending the damage done by the man’s inconsistency. To Briscoe’s chagrin, he found that his fellow workers not only despised the man but also “were quick to dismiss the church he belonged to as a ‘bunch of hypocrites,’ the gospel he professed to believe as a ‘lot of hogwash,’ and the God he claimed to serve as ‘nonexistent.’”33

The second story involves a saloon keeper who sold his tavern to a local church. The members tore out the bar, added some lights, gave the whole pale a fresh new coat of pain, and installed some pews. Somehow a parrot which belonged to the saloon keeper was left behind. On Sunday morning that colorful bird was watching from the rafters. When the minister appeared, he squawked, ‘New proprietor!’ When the men who were to lead in worship marched in, the bird piped, ‘New floor show!’ But when the bird looked out over the congregation, he screeched, ‘same old crowd!’34

The church in the U.S. and Canada has a tremendous crisis of credibility. I realize that some non-Christians, especially those in the media, want to characterize Christians as hypocritical whenever the opportunity arises, but I wonder how much of what they say is true and deserved. Certainly not all of it is, but there are times when the gap between our preaching and our practice resembles a canyon rather than a ditch, and our critics are correct when they dutifully point this out. The immense problem of the current, low morality among Christians—and the obvious indictment regarding the powerlessness of our religion—I am convinced, constitutes the single most damaging blow to the cause of the gospel in America. Based on Christian testimony and lifestyle, it is difficult to see what, if any, difference the gospel really makes. No amount of rigorous apologetic for the faith—as important as that is—will supplant or squelch the consistent noise coming from the moral megaphone of our lives. That “consistent noise” is precisely that Christians are, by and large, “inconsistent.” They proclaim one ethic and live another. Or as one person quipped, “they traffic in unlived truth.” There is, at present, a great and lamentable distinction that needs to be drawn between Christian ethics and the ethics of Christians. The tide will change, however, when Christians repent and seek the living God who reigns from Monday to Sunday.

In Romans 2:17-29 Paul lands squarely on the issue of hypocrisy. Though he talks specifically about the Jews of his day, we would do well to pay close attention to what he says lest we fall into the same error of “claim without conduct.”

B. Translation of Passage in NET

2:17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relationship to God 2:18 and know his will and approve the superior things because you receive instruction from the law, 2:19 and if you are convinced that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 2:20 an educator of the senseless, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the essential features of knowledge and of the truth— 2:21 therefore you who teach someone else, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 2:22 You who tell others not to commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 2:23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by transgressing the law! 2:24 For just as it is written, “the name of God is being blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” 2:25 For circumcision has its value if you practice the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 2:26 Therefore if the uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 2:27 And the physically uncircumcised man who keeps the law, will he not judge you, the one who, despite the written code and circumcision, transgresses the law? 2:28 For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision something that is outward in the flesh, 2:29 but someone is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart by the Spirit and not by the written code. This person’s praise is not from people but from God.

C. Full Exegetical Outline

    I. The Jew thinks that through his relationship to the Law he has the essential features of knowledge and truth and can guide and teach the Gentile (2:17-20).

      A. Many Jews rely on the Law and boast in their relationship to YHWH and claim to know his will since they are instructed out of the Law (2:17-18).

        1. Many Jews proudly call themselves Jews, rely on the Law, and boast in their relationship with God (2:17).

        2. Many Jews know God’s will and approve of morally and spiritually superior things because they claim to have been instructed out of the Law (2:18).

      B. Many Jews are convinced that since they have the essential features of knowledge and truth in the Law they are de facto able to carry on a mediatorial and pedagogical role in the world (2:19-20).

        1. Many Jews are convinced that they are a guide to the blind (2:19).

        2. Many Jews are convinced that they are a light to those in darkness (2:19).

        3. Many Jews are convinced that they are an educator of the senseless (2:20).

        4. Many Jews are convinced that they are a teacher of little children (2:20).

        5. The Jews have in the Law the essential features of knowledge and truth (2:20).

    II. But the Jew does not obey the teachings of the Law and as a result the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles (2:21-24).

      A. The Jew who teaches, preaches, and tells others not to steal, commit adultery, and rob temples is himself guilty of the same sins (2:21-23).

        1. Many Jews preach against stealing, yet they steal (2:21).

        2. Many Jews tell others not to commit adultery, yet they commit adultery (2:22).

        3. Many Jews abhor idols, yet they rob temples (2:22).

        4. Many Jews boast in the Law, but they dishonor God by transgressing the Law (2:23).

      B. The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of the Jews’ disobedience (2:24).

    III. The Jew cannot arrogantly appeal to the outward rite of circumcision since (1) the uncircumcised man who obeys the Law will be regarded as circumcised and he in turn will judge the disobedience of the circumcised Jew as uncircumcision, and (2) the true Jew who gets praise from God, not people, is the one who is circumcised by the Spirit inwardly, in the heart, and not by the letter (2:25-29).

      A. Circumcision is as uncircumcision when a man continually breaks the Law (2:25).

      B. The uncircumcised man who keeps the Law will be regarded as circumcised and he will judge the disobedience of the circumcised man as uncircumcision (2:26-27).

        1. The uncircumcised man who keeps the Law will be regarded as circumcised (2:26)

        2. The uncircumcised man will judge the disobedience of the circumcised man as uncircumcision (2:27).

      C. The true Jew who gets praise from God, not people, is one who is not simply circumcised outwardly in the flesh, but one who has been circumcised inwardly, by the Spirit, and not the letter (2:28-29).

        1. A true Jew is not one outwardly and circumcision is not something purely outward in the body (2:28).

        2. A true Jew is one inwardly where the circumcision is of the heart by the Spirit, not by the letter (2:29).

        3. A true Jew is one whose praise is not from people, but from God (2:29).

D. Simple Point Outline

    I. The Claims of the Jew and His Role among the Gentiles (2:17-20)

      A. The Claims of the Jew (2:17-18)

        1. He Calls Himself a Jew (2:17)

        2. He Relies on the Law (2 :17)

        3. He Boasts in His Relationship with God (2:17)

        4. He Knows God’s Will (2:18)

        5. He Approves of Superior Things (2:18)

        6. He Is Instructed out of the Law (2:18)

      B. The Mediatorial Role of the Jew (2:19-20)

      The Jew is convinced he…

        1. Is a Guide to the Blind (2:19)

        2. Is a Light to Those in Darkness (2:19)

        3. Is an Educator of the Senseless (2:20)

        4. Is a Teacher of Little Children (2:20)

        5. Has Knowledge and Truth in the Law (2:20)

    II. The Jews and Hypocrisy (2:21-24)

      A. The Jews’ Hypocrisy (2:21-23)

        1. The Jews and Stealing (2:21)

        2. The Jews and Adultery (2:22)

        3. The Jews and Robbing Temples (2:22)

        4. The Jews’ Dishonoring of God (2:23)

      B. The Result of Their Hypocrisy (2:24)

    III. True Circumcision and the True Jew (2:25-29)

      A. Circumcision and Disobedience (2:25)

      B. The Uncircum. Man and Obedience (2:26-27)

        1. His Obedience Is As Circumcision (2:26)

        2. He Judges the Disobedience of “the Circumcision” as Uncircumcision (2:27)

      C. The True Jew and True Circumcision (2:28-29)

        1. The True Jew and Circumcision: General Statement (2:28)

        2. The True Jew and Spiritual Circumcision: Specific Statement (2:29)

E. Exposition Proper

What Paul has been saying regarding the Jews, albeit somewhat obliquely in 2:1-16, comes into the full light of day in 2:17-29. The fact of their hypocrisy, alluded to in 2:1-3, is highlighted with full force in 2:17-29.

Romans 2:17-29 breaks down in three smaller units. In 2:17-20, Paul—through the use of a series of conditional statements which are never really formally completed—focuses on the particular claims of the Jew as one who was privileged and sustained a special mediatorial role to world in light of his possession of the Law of God. The emphasis falls on the Jews’ knowledge via the Law and their claim to be teachers of those without such moral and spiritual insight. In 2:21-24 Paul refers to the fact that although they had the Law, and claimed they could teach others, it was obvious that they had not taught themselves; they were committing the same sins for which they had the habit of rebuking the Gentiles. In 2:25-29 Paul focuses on the one thing in which the Jew prided himself as a covenant person—i.e., circumcision. Paul’s interpretation of circumcision, however, was that it was only a sign and that, if the reality was not present, the sign was of no value. We move now to consider the details of the passage.

2:17-18 Paul mentions five things about the Jew in 2:17-18, all of which are connected to the fact that as a Jew he had been instructed out of the very revealed Law of God. When a man referred to himself as a Jew it was done with pride since, as such, he did not commit the same sins as the lawless Gentile—or so he thought—and thus, in his mind, he accorded special favor with YHWH and was specially chosen by him. As a Jew he relied on the law, that is, he derived his sense of security with YHWH from his connection with, and obedience to, the Law. He was also one who supposedly, having obeyed the Law, could boast about his relationship with the true God whereas Gentiles who were guilty of such varied and awful sins could obviously make no such claim. All they could do is hope to be taught by a Jew!

That this is the Jews’ focus in boasting in God is clear from the next claim, i.e., that they know his will (ginwvskei" toV qevlhma, ginoskeis to thelema). The term will refers primarily to that revealed in the Mosaic Law and includes spiritual and moral truth. The Jew supposedly knows right from wrong in matters of worship and ethics and claims that he can, therefore, teach others.

As someone who knew the will of God, the Jew could then rightly judge between what was proper, spiritually and morally speaking, and what was not. He was able to approve the superior things (dokimavzei" taV diafevronta, dokimazeis ta diapheronta), as Paul says, since he had been instructed out of the law (kathcouvmeno" ejk tou~ novmou, katechoumenos ek tou nomou). The Jew was to have learned how to discern the will of God through catechetical instruction based on the Law. In short, the Jew’s religion was a revealed religion—God making himself known to man—and as the special recipient of that revelation, he prided himself in his name, position, and knowledge.

2:19-20 Therefore, as someone who knew the will of God through Torah (i.e., the Law), he was confident (pevpoiqa", pepoithas) that he fulfilled the chief mediatorial (for God) and pedagogical role in the world. First, he was a guide to the blind (oJdhgoVn ei ai tuflw'n, hodegon einai tuphlon); he was supposed to lead those without Torah into a right relationship with YHWH. Second, and intimately related, he was supposed to be, again via his connection with YHWH and the Torah, a light to those who were in darkness (fw'" tw'n ejn skovtei, phos ton en skotei). That is, he was to shine the light of YHWH’s truth upon those in darkness in order to bring salvation and forgiveness to them (Isa 49:6). Third, as someone with wisdom from the Law, he was to be an educator of the senseless (paideuthVn ajfrovnwn, paideuten aphronon), that is, as an obedient Jew he had knowledge to pass on that would render an otherwise futile existence worthwhile (cf. Prov 11:29; Luke 12:20). Fourth, he was to be a teacher of little children (didavskalon nhpivwn, didaskalon nepion). In the eyes of the Jew, the Gentile was basically an infant needing the instruction of one more mature in the knowledge of faith.

While the Gentile had knowledge (1:28, 32; ejpivgnwsi", epignosis) of God, Paul says that the Jew had in the law a much clearer understanding of the essential features of knowledge and of the truth (thVn movrfwsin th'" gnwvsew" kaiV th'" ajlhqeiva" ejn tw'/ novmw/, ten morphosin tes gnoseos kai tes aletheias en to nomo). What was written on the human heart and subsequently obscured through the fall and sin was made explicit in the Mosaic Law—and much more as well. In terms of revelation from God, the Jew was in a position of privilege for he not only had nature and conscience, he also had the Mosaic Law.

2:21-24 In 2:21-24, and indeed throughout the rest of the section, Paul begins to argue that although the Jew has been long on privilege, he’s been short on responsibility; in point of fact, he has not lived up to his calling and as a result the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles.

The Jews, though perhaps not to the same degree as some Gentiles, were guilty of committing the very things they taught, preached, and spoke against. They preached at others, but failed to listen to their own sermons! They were guilty of stealing (klevptei", klepteis), adultery (not spiritual, as we have in Hosea, but literal; moiceuvei", moicheueis), and robbing temples, and not simply in thought (e.g., Matt 5:27-30)—as if Paul were appealing to the Law at the deeper level of sinful thoughts and attitudes only. On the contrary, there were Jews who were guilty of the acts themselves. Paul’s indictment against the Jew could hardly be expected to “stick” if this were not the case—i.e., if they had not really committed these acts.

The meaning of the last sin mentioned, namely, to rob temples (iJerosulei'", hierosuleis), is difficult to determine precisely, but it seems to refer to stealing idols from pagan temples in order to use the materials from which they were made. Though the rabbis made numerous concessions, this was prohibited in Deuteronomy 7:25-26. Other commentators, however, have suggested that the term hierosuleis is more general and means “to commit sacrilege” against a temple, and in particular the Jerusalem temple.

In short, the very ones who boast in the Law dishonor God by transgressing the Law. The result of Jewish hypocrisy, as noted above, is that the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles (Isa 52:5 LXX; Ezek 36:20). Isaiah 52:5 in the MT (Hebrew Bible) does not have among the Gentiles and because of you but this wording is found in the Greek version (LXX) which Paul is chiefly indebted to in this case. The way Paul is using the Isaiah passage is similar to Ezekiel’s words in 36:20.

2:25-29 In 2:25-29 Paul further explains (note the “For” in 2:25) vv. 21-24 by way of the best example he can think of—circumcision. He explains why Gentiles blaspheme the name of God; it is because the Jews, even though circumcised, do not live up to their profession. But Paul also goes further than this in 2:25-29.

Paul says that circumcision (peritomhv, peritome) is definitely not a “ticket” to the world to come. In short, it is of no value if not attended by faithful practice (pravssh/", prasses) of the Law for which it was a sign. Indeed—and here’s where Paul begins to go further than just to explain the reason for Gentile blasphemy—it is as though the man is not even circumcised. This must mean that such a man is not a true member of the covenant community and is unregenerate, as 2:28-29 would seem to indicate.

Paul continues his argument by asking a rhetorical question that demands a positive answer, though not all Jews would have agreed. He asks: if the uncircumcised man (hJ ajkrobustiva, he akrobustia) keeps the righteous requirements of the Law, will he, in contrast to the circumcised man who does not keep the Law, be regarded (logisqhvsetai, logisthesetai) as circumcised, i.e., a member of the covenant community and heir of the promises of God? According to Paul, he will certainly be regarded as such.

Further, that very man who is uncircumcised by birth and yet keeps the Law, he will judge (krinei~, krinei) the circumcised lawbreaker as though uncircumcised. And he will do this despite the fact that the man claims to have both the written code (grammato", grammatos), namely, the Mosaic Law and circumcision as the sign.

In vv. 28-29 Paul says there is a reason why circumcision by itself guarantees nothing. It is because true religion is first and foremost—and always—a matter of the heart (i.e., genuine faith) or the inner man. To be sure circumcision was a sign of membership in the covenant community of Israel, but it was only a sign. It could not create the reality of participation in the saved community, nor could it somehow replace the means of participation in the covenant community, i.e., by living faith (Rom 4). The true Jew, therefore, as one knowledgeable of what consitututes true religion should know this better than any one.

Thus a true Jew is not one who is merely circumcised outwardly (fanerw'/, phanero), that is, in the flesh. The true Jew is one who is circumcised inwardly (kruptw/~, krupto), a circumcision of the heart done by the Spirit and not by the written code (ejn pneuvmati ouj gravmmati, en pneumati ou grammati). The circumcision Paul intends here is in keeping with the promise of Jeremiah 31:31-33 and refers to a supernatural rebirth, the same thing about which Jesus spoke to Nicodemus (John 3:1ff). These verses here in Romans anticipate the larger discussion about the Spirit to come in 5:1-5 and 8:1-39 (see Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 1:23)

F. Homiletical Idea and Outline

Idea: Closing the Gap—Restoring the Marriage of Claims and Conduct

    I. What Is Our Role in the World (2:17-20)?

      A. Our Claims

      B. Our Witness

    II. Be Careful for Hypocrisy (2:21-24)!

      A. What Are Our Areas of Weakness?

      B. What Does the Watching World Say?

    III. What Do You Cling To As A Sign of Your Christianity (2:25-29)?

      A. The Need for Inward Transformation

      B. The Centrality of God over Human Opinion

G. Contribution of Passage to Systematic Theology

This passage speaks strongly against hypocrisy and the futility of trusting in religious rites to sanctify or make one right with God. Thus it speaks directly to the area of personal sanctification as well as ecclesiology and the rite of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

While baptism and the Lord’s Supper are necessary rites, they have no value in and of themselves to save or sanctify. They do not function ex opere operato. In the case of the former, it is an attempt through an outward symbol to capture the inward transformation which has already taken place through being joined to Christ by faith. In the case of the latter it is a memorial designed to proclaim a historical fact, that is, the death of Christ, and remind the church of the basis of her forgiveness before God (1 Cor 15:1-11).

Now, we said that in and of themselves these rites do not save or sanctify, but this does not mean that when the worshiper is right with God through Christ (s)he experiences no grace at all. On the contrary, in the performing of the rite, with a heart surrendered and fixed on God through Christ, God infuses sanctifying grace through His indwelling Spirit.

H. Contribution of Passage to Discipleship and Church Mission

The church, when it proclaims the truth about God and man’s sin, will almost always be hated by the world. But, there are unfortunately times when the church is ridiculed and her God blasphemed because of what she does and the way she does it. There are times when we fail to live up to our profession and the world looks on with a critical eye. Our response to this is not to condemn the world, whether they are right or wrong. Our response, rather, is twofold: (1) to love the world by continuing to serve and proclaim the truth, and (2) to examine ourselves and Scripture to see if the claims are true. If they are, we simply must seek God for forgiveness for dishonoring his name (1 John 1:9). Then let us repent and set out on new and fresh ways of living in the world—ways that honor God’s name and give the unbeliever no basis for accusation (1 Peter 2:11-12; Titus 2:5, 10; 3:8).


33 R. Kent Hughes, 1001 Great Stories & Quotes (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1998), 219.

34 Michael Hodgin, 1001 More Humorous Illustrations for Public Speaking (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 168.