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Therfield Chapel
Romans 2:17-3:8
April 2010

Over the years I’ve read lots of books which seek to understand our world and God’s
plans for that world; many of them very helpful

But none of those books comes close to the Book of Romans

At a time when our nation is immersed in election fever, from time to time we could
do no better that to switch off our TVs and radios, put our newspapers in the recycling
box and take time to read what Paul wrote in these pages

For here we have the really critical issues of life painted before us

Now I don’t want to downplay the significance of the election campaign and the
preciousness of the ability to vote, but we need to get the whole thing in perspective

At Christmas we sing of Christ

“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight”

Listening to the news one could get the impression that the hopes and fears of all the
coming years will be met by getting the right party into power

That the right government is the key all the happiness of us all

No longer do we trust in God; for all our cynicism about politicians, now we seem to
trust in the government to fix the world and build the good society

As David Robertson said, “The state is now taking the place that God once did”

Whatever party(ies) get into power we are destined to be very disappointed

And so for me it’s been a great source of relief to bury myself in Paul’s letter to the
Romans and refocus on our unchanging and faithful God and His plans for His world
and His people

For in a society where so much is fake; Paul teaches us what’s real

In a society where in the party leaders are packaged as celebrities, here we find a real
hero; it is the Lord Jesus who has done something really heroic for us; he has died for
our sins

In an age that can barely see back more than a few years of history to learn lessons, in
the Book of Romans, we find the purposes of the Ancient of Days going right back to
the Garden of Eden

And at a time of nervousness about what the future will hold, here we find Paul
unfolding the end of the world with the defeat of evil and the future return to earth of
the One who made it all, and who will reign with his people forever

In an age when all seems increasingly plastic and transient and fleeting here we find
pure gold, substance and all that is unchanging

Now one of the reasons I’m starting like this is to help us see the abiding relevance of
Paul’s letter both today and to all generations

But one of the things that we need to remember was that each of the New Testament
Epistles had an immediately context

In other words, each one was written against a backdrop of certain issues that were
live ones at the time

And the Book of Romans is no exception; Paul was tackling false teaching and the
particular doubts and struggles of his readers

But as was the case throughout his life and ministry, it was the connection between
Judaism and Christ that needed most to be disentangled and explained

In his letter to the Romans, Paul knew it would by read by numerous people who, like
himself, although now Christians were converts from Judaism

Paul knew that the Christian message raised countless questions for the Jews and so
what we find here in our passage is him taking time to dealing with some of the
objections to Christianity that were constantly raised by his Jewish opponents

Remember that Paul spent much of his life debating with the Jews in their synagogues

He knew his heckler’s questions and he anticipates them in his letter

There are really two objections that he handles in this passage

The first one concerns the status that the Jews had before God (Ch 2: 17- 29); now
that he was saying that Jews must become Christians, did this make their previous
status irrelevant?

The second one and linked to the first, concerned the advantage of being a Jew (3: 1-

Did being a Jew now mean nothing? Were there no benefits of being a Jew?

Let me take each one in turn

First let’s look at the status that the Jews had before God (verses 17-29)

What did Paul have in mind here?

Well Paul knew that the Jews were proud of what they perceived as their standing
before God

Look at verse 17a to see who he’s addressing

17Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your
relationship to God

So he’s speaking to people who now or previously replied on the fact that they were
God’s chosen people; people who had been blessed down through the centuries and
had had the benefits of being including in a covenant relationship

That made them different to the Gentiles, did it not?

Remember what Paul had been saying in his letter up to this point

He’d been looking out at the Gentile world – the Greco-Roman world of the pagan
and he’d declared it sinful and under God’s righteous judgement

It’s as if has Paul has just put on his wig and brought the Gentile world into the court
of God and as chief prosecuting barrister declared it guilty before its creator

And you can only imagine the Jews’ reaction

“You’re absolutely right Paul” we can hear them say; “we don’t call the Gentiles dogs
for no reason”

But the shock that they were about to get is that now Paul has done with the Gentiles,
he turns his sights on the Jews, his own people

In the next few verse he is about to argue that the Jews were no different to the
Gentiles in the sense of being guilty before God and in need of Christ’s salvation

Some years ago now, there was a man is America who drove his car in a stupid way
and in the process knocked down a killed a lady

The police put a case together against him; it was a sound case and they sought to
have him convicted for manslaughter

But when it came to it, they never got him into court

Over the next thirty years he committed four major crimes

And in each case he was found out and the police put together a case for his

But on each occasion he never appeared in court

I obtained this illustration from a sermon by David Pawson.
The reason was that he was the son of a senior diplomat to the United States and with
each incident he claimed diplomatic immunity from prosecution

And so he escaped the demands of justice and got away with his crimes

Now there is something in the heart of each one of us that thinks we will escape the
demands of God’s justice

We think that we are special

Others perhaps deserve God’s wrath but somehow we personally can claim
diplomatic immunity

We’re wrong of course

But Paul’s argument here is that of all people the Jews thought they had diplomatic
immunity from God’s justice

They thought they were special; they were God’s chosen people

The Jews had the opposite of an inferiority complex; they had a superiority complex

They were in a special category and for them there was no greater outrage than to
lump them in with the rest of humanity

They thought they could wave their Jewish passports at God and wander unopposed
into his presence avoiding his judgement hall altogether

And what Paul is doing in these verses is to disabuse them of any notion that they had
any such exemption for their sins

He is seeking to show that the Jews were in fact no better off than the Gentiles when it
came to their predicament before God

And so Paul fires a series of bullet into the very places where the Jews placed their
security and safely before God

Just see where Paul is seeking to end up

It’s in Chapter 3:22b -23

“There is no difference (between Jew and Gentile), for all have sinned and fall short
of the glory of God”

I suspect that there were many things about Paul’s teachings that the Jews found hard
to stomach; but that one took the biscuit and provoked their rage

So how does Paul strip away the Jew’s refuge and false security?

David Pawson

Well he’s addressing people with several characteristics

Verse 17

Those who rely on the law (for their salvation, I suspect)

Those who brag about their relationship with God

Verse 18

Those who know God’s will and approve what is superior because they are instructed
by the law

In Verses 19-20 he sets out a list of titles that the Jews claimed for themselves

Guides for the blind; lights for those in the dark; instructors of the foolish; teachers of

These were common sayings amongst the Jews at this time

So Paul sets out the ground of the Jew; the evidence that he sees himself superior to
the Gentiles

They mostly centre around the claim that the Jew has something to teach others – the
Gentiles of course

And didn’t possession of the law give them that right?

They were the ones in the know with God and they could put you in the know

But then having accepted that the Jews did have the law and with it the knowledge of
God’s will and a desire to teach others, Paul then asks the million dollar question

Verse 21

21you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against
stealing, do you steal? 22You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you
commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23You who brag about
the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law?

You see it’s all very well possessing the law and teaching it

But having the law is not the point

The point is, are you living by the law?

And to they extent that the Jews didn’t, they are hypocrites

David Pawson

They are not practicing what they preach

God gave the Jews a special role in the world and that was to be a light to the nations

But nothing dimmed that light like hypocrisy

In any country there is nothing more likely to undermine the law and the enforcement
of justice than corrupt judges and bent coppers

Upon their appointment judges and police officers swear to uphold and enforce justice

And it is for that reason that we reserve special distain for corrupt law enforcement

I guess that’s why the press are at this present time scandalised over the issue of
paedophile priests within the Roman Catholic Church

Those who preach righteousness are thoroughly unrighteous

And so Paul asks the question; are you who know God’s ways living by them?

His questions are rhetorical; we assume that Paul’s knowledge of Judaism – and
remember he’d been reared in it – led him to think that in many case they weren’t

And if I had time I could explain to you why most commentators think that Paul was
putting his finger on sins that had become common place and accepted amongst Jews

These sins are documented by the first century historian Josephus; the theft of money
by Jewish money-lenders; adultery by Jewish husbands; the stealing of synagogue
money and so on

Those with copies of the law; those who were lecturing others about obeying it were
ignoring its demands on themselves

And so Paul comments

24As it is written: "God's name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you."[b]

There is nothing worse than a hypocrite; we love to hate hypocrites

When a Gentile sins it is bad; when a Jew does it is much worse

For there is the strong risk that the God of the Jews will be blamed for their behaviour
and mocked

Then Paul comes onto circumcision in verse 25

David Pawson

Circumcision was what marked out the Jews from the other peoples of the world

It was the sign of being in covenant with God; on the eight day of his life every male
was branded as a Jew; he now belonged to God’s covenant people

Once done it was irreversible

In Nazi Germany it led to many men being discovered as Jews who might otherwise
have escaped the gas chambers by lying about their ethnicity

Now Paul knew that circumcision was a badge of pride for the Jew; it was the
ultimate sign of being the Jew and thus of being different to the other people of the

Paul’s argument in this passage is that circumcision cannot be seen as a badge only
but as connected to the keeping of the law of God

By that he meant at the very least the 10 commandments and probably the rest of the
OT law as well

In verse 25 he says that circumcision is only of value if the one who is circumcised
keeps the whole law

And by simply logic, if a man breaks the law, he becomes as if he were not

Then he pulls the rung from under the Jews by saying that someone who is
uncircumcised but who keeps the law’s requirements can be regarded as if he were

And they would condemn the Jew who although circumcised breaks the law

In other words, now the roles are reversed for when that happens the Gentile is now
teaching the Jew

The uncircumcised is teaching the circumcised

And so Paul concludes this section in the following way:

28A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely
outward and physical. 29No, 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.

In other words, Jewishness, according to Paul has in the final instance nothing to do
with race or circumcision; it is to do with conduct; it is not about having the law but
obeying it

It is about having one’s heart changed by the Holy Spirit

So if you have the badge of being God’s – circumcision - but live without the
responsibilities it bestows, the badge becomes invalid

Paul is saying that the Gentile without the badge is better off than the Jew with it, if
he is living according to his conscious before God when the Jew is not

So according to Paul you can be a real Jew without having Jewish blood flowing
through your veins

The Jew who constantly transgresses the law of God may as well be an uncircumcised
Gentile for the benefit it gives them before God

In fact circumcision actually can become a curse rather than give benefit

For circumcision is a permanent reminder of one’s covenant responsibilities and
bestows greater accountability for sin

Paul said exactly that when he wrote to the church in Galatia:

3Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to
obey the whole law

And since we can’t kept the whole law – no one can – circumcision becomes a
permanent mark of our covenant failure

What matters is the condition of the heart towards God and since the Jews had broken
the law of God they shared the same territory as the Gentiles

Both camps were sinners in need of the salvation wrought by Christ

So that’s the thrust of Paul’s answer to the first question Paul was used to hearing

Surely our Jewish status means that we don’t need Christ to die for us?

And Paul says, “no, you couldn’t be more wrong”

Their status as Jews was not something to give them any security before God

Now let’s now turn to a related question; the one that Paul seeks to answer in Chapter
3: 1-8

This concerned the advantage of being a Jew

Look in verse 1

1What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in

Chapter 5:3

Let me read you a section from John MacArthur’s commentary on Romans as he
seeks to answer that very question

“Looking at the rather tragic history of the Jewish people, one is inclined to think
there has been little advantage in being a Jew. In spite of the reality that they are such
a noble strain of humanity and chosen by God, their history has been a saga of
slavery, hardship, warfare, persecution, slander, captivity, dispersion, and humiliation.

They were menial slaves in Egypt for some 400 years, and after God miraculously
delivered them, they wandered in a barren wi1derness for forty years, until an entire
generation died out. When they eventually entered the land God had promised them,
they had to fight to gain every square foot of it and continue to fight to protect what
they gained. After several hundred years, civil war divided the nation. The northern
kingdom eventually was almost decimated by Assyria, with the remnant being taken
captive to that country. Later, the southern kingdom was conquered and exiled in
Babylon for seventy years, after which some were allowed to return to Palestine.

Not long after they rebuilt their homeland, they were conquered by Greece, and the
despotic Antiochus Epiphanes (E pif an ees) revelled in desecrating their Temple,
corrupting their sacrifices, and slaughtering their priests. Under Roman rule they fared
no better. Tens of thousands of Jewish rebels were publicly crucified, and under
Herod the Great scores of male Jewish babies were slaughtered because of his insane
jealousy of the Christ child. In the year A.D. 70, the Roman general Titus Vespasian,
carried out Caesar’s order to utterly destroy Jerusalem, its Temple, and most of its
citizens. According to Josephus, over a million Jews of all ages were mercilessly
butchered, and some 100,000 of those who survived were sold into slavery or sent to
Rome to die in the gladiator games. Two years previously, Gentiles in Caesarea had
killed 20,000 Jews and sold many more into slavery. During that same period of time,
the inhabitants of Damascus cut the throats of 10,000 Jews in a single day.

In A.D. 115 the Jews of Cyrene, Egypt, Cyprus, and Mesopotamia rebelled against
Rome. When they failed, Emperor Hadrian destroyed 985 towns in Palestine and
killed at least 600,000 Jewish men. Thousands more perished from starvation and
disease. So many Jews were sold into slavery that the price of an able-bodied male
slave dropped to that of a horse. In the year 380 Emperor Theodosius I formulated a
legal code that declared Jews to be an inferior race of human beings — a demonic
idea that strongly permeated most of Europe for over a thousand years and that even
persists in many parts of the world in our own day.

For some two centuries the Jews were oppressed by the Byzantine branch of the
divided Roman empire. Emperor Heroclitus banished them from Jerusalem in 628
and later tried to exterminate them. Leo the Assyrian gave them the choice of
converting to Christianity or being banished from the realm. When the first crusade
was launched in 1096 (to recapture the Holy Land from the Ottoman Turks, the
crusaders slaughtered countless thousands of Jews on their way to Palestine, brutally
trampling many to death under their horses’ hooves. That carnage, course, was
committed in the name of Christianity.

In 1254 King Louis IX banished all Jews from France. When many later returned to
that country; Philip the Fair expelled 100,000 of them again in 1306. In 1492 the Jews
were expelled from Spain even as Columbus began his first voyage across the
Atlantic, and four years later they were expelled from Portugal as well. Soon most of
western Europe closed to them except for a few areas in northern Italy, Germany, and
Poland. Although the French Revolution emancipated many Jews, vicious anti-
Semitism continued to dominate most of Europe and parts of Russia. Thousands of
Jews were massacred in the Ukraine in 1818. In 1894, because of growing anti-
Semitism in the French army, a Jewish officer named Dreyfus was falsely accused of
treason, and that charge was used as an excuse to purge the military of all Jews of
high rank.

When a number of influential Jews began to dream of re-establishing a homeland in
Palestine, the Zionist movement was born, its first congress being convened in Basel,
Switzerland, in 1897. By 1914, some 90,000 Jews had settled in Palestine. In the
unparalleled Nazi holocaust of the early 1940s at least 6,000,000 Jews were
exterminated, this time for racial rather than religious reasons.

Although in our society anti-Semitism is seldom expressed so openly, Jews in many
parts of the world still suffer for no other reason than their Jewishness. From the
purely historical perspective, therefore, Jews have been among the most continuously
and harshly disadvantaged people of all time.”

So when one looks at the history the Jewish people, one is inclined to think there has
been little advantage in being a Jew

But what does the apostle Paul say?

Paul didn’t want to leave the impression that being Jewish was meaningless; as we
suspect his opponents were suggesting

In answer to his own question he writes

“Much in every way (there were many advantages), first of all they were entrusted
with the very words of God”

There was nothing meaningless about being the receivers and custodians of the word
of God

They were given this book that they might give it to the world

And they did; most of you hold a copy in your hands

They treasured these words, they treated them with the reverence their deserve, they
guarded their accuracy, they copied them and put them into places of safety when
they risked being destroyed

The Jews may have failed in many areas; but let’s not forget that they didn’t fail in
that responsibility

And we are the beneficiaries

Now for the remainder of our passage we find Paul addressing a few related themes

His argument is quite hard to follow and I’m not going to unpack it all here; time
simply doesn’t permit, but let me make a few remarks

Let’s read verses 3 and 4

Speaking of the Jews he writes:

3What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God's
faithfulness? 4Not at all! Let God be true, and every man a liar. As it is written: "So
that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge."[a]

Paul has built his argument with the charge that Jews are not in right standing before
God just because they are Jewish

And in response his hecklers were saying something like this

“If you’re saying that the Old Testament dispensation didn’t make a man or woman
right with God, then you must be implying that God been unfaithful to His people”

That he has failed

And in response, Paul rejects this strongly, saying that the unfaithfulness of some of
God’s people towards Him doesn’t nullify His faithfulness to them

In other words, Paul is saying that covenant unfaithfulness by one party part doesn’t
invalidate the faithfulness of the other party

That although most Jews had failed in their covenant responsibilities, God had not
failed them

Their God-given advantage in being Jewish remained an advantage, even if it was

Paul then goes even further arguing in effect that the sinfulness and unfaithfulness of
the Jews has actually highlighted God’s righteousness and faithfulness

The mistake of Paul’s hecklers was to think that we go from man to God rather than
God to man

We hear this today

People say, “I can’t believe in God, look at his people”

The New Bible Commentary Revised, Ed. D. Guthrie, p1020
Stuart Olyott, The Gospel as it Really Is, p25.
This application came from David Pawson
But I suspect that on the day of judgement that will be a lame excuse

For each one of us has to deal with God and His Christ directly

We can’t argue from the people of God to God

Ultimately we must go by God’s witness of Himself; not each other’s witness to God

Don’t judge God by His people even if they’re unfaithful; rather let God be true and
everyman a liar Paul says

The failure of God’s people will not excuse us if we refuse to believe

There are generally two types of people in this world

There are those who think that they are in the right and God is in the wrong

These are the folk are always pointing the figure at God’s people and the state of the
world and all the suffering and the intolerance of Christians

They know better then God; they are in the right

And the other type are those who think God is in the right and they are in the wrong

What Paul is seeking to do in these verses is to show people that the second one is
always true

In the end God will be shown to be justified; he will be seen to be in the right

In the final verses of this chapter (5-8) Paul anticipates another heckler

Paul has just concluded that the Jews have proved to have been unfaithful to God but
that their very unfaithfulness has actually etched out God’s faithfulness and
righteousness all the more

And in response his Jewish heckler, says, “well if that is correct then and good has
come out of the situation, then God will be unjust if he judges us”

In other words, if something good comes out of their sin and God’s faithfulness is
highlighted – then the sin of the Jews is not so bad, even excusable

It severity is mitigated

Or to put it another way, the heckler he is saying, “If we were part of the
demonstration of God’s righteousness, why should we be blamed for making that
demonstration possible”

This application came from David Pawson
David Pawson
Sometimes our minds can twist things to make any point we want if it is convenient to
make it

Especially if it involves justifying and thereby excusing our sin; human beings are
better at that than anything else

It starts when we are about 18 months old

And Paul suggests here that such ideas are ridiculous

He’s saying that the idea that God coming out of the situation looking better actually
diminishes His right to judge our sin is a crazy argument

Sin is always sin and justice requires sin to be punished

Just because good comes out of evil, the evil is never justified

If God let the Jew off for his sin – or you or I for that matter – just because we
provide a lesson in God’s righteousness – He would have to let off the whole world

And if justice collapses in an evil world, the whole world would collapse with it

And you and I and our whole race would be set for an eternity of literally hell on earth

Just because God can bring good out of evil, evil is never justified

Let’s finish with a little application

(1) Don’t forget the Jews

I know that some people get overly-preoccupied by Israel and the Jews

But let’s not go the other way and forget the role of the Jews in God’s purposes

The Jews were a historical demonstration of God’s ways or we could say of God

They demonstrate his power

The Emperor Frederick of Prussia once said to the German philosopher Heidegger,
give me one proof of the existence of God

And Heidegger replied, “Your Highness, The Jews”

The fact that the Jews have survived 3000 years and maintained their identity at all is
a miracle

I derived these thoughts from David Pawson and JC Ryle
The fact that a nation grew up in the Middle East which was radically distinct from all
the other nations around them is a miracle

They demonstrate God’s power

But they also demonstrate God’s mercy and his love

He took a powerless and landless bunch of slaves and made of them a great nation

He didn’t choose a people who were great in number or a nation that was established
and rich and a great player on the world stage like Egypt or Babylon or Greece

He passed those nations by

He chose the Jews because he loved them and wanted them as his precious possession

And that is all; we have no other explanation

The Jews demonstrate God’s mercy and his love

But the Jews also demonstrate God’s justice and his discipline

For His choosing of the Jews and His love for them didn’t mean that he failed to
discipline them for their sin and their rebellion

Actually it’s quite the opposite

Those who had had such great privileges faced perhaps greater discipline than all
other peoples of the earth

It’s as if the Jews were used by God as a demonstration of his justice and discipline
more than all the others

When I look at the Jews and study their history in the Old Testament, I’m reminded of
God’s inflexibility towards a rebellious and sinful people

He disciplines even His own people; even those he loves and will never finally

Perhaps its because he loves them

His love is not an indulgent love; let all parents take note

And so we should remember that whilst the Jews are a living demonstration God’s
power, mercy and love, they are also a living demonstration of his justice and his
willingness to punish his wayward people

Let us never forget it

If you want to know God and his ways; study the Old Testament

God’s revelation of himself and the history of the Jews in the Old Testament are one
and the same thing

Don’t forget the Jews is my first lesson

(2) The benefits and risks of a godly upbringing

I don’t think that anyone here is a converted Jew

But these verses still have relevance for us

If Paul was here with us, I’m sure that he would tell us that growing up in a Christian
family is a huge benefit

Having the Scriptures read to us by our parents, having them pray over us, attending
Sunday School and growing up in a church family are wonderful privileges and give
great advantages over those who never had them

But they can’t save us

Knowing God’s will puts us in a great position to do God’s will

But it doesn’t mean that we will do it

Many who have these privileges never act upon them and drift off into godless
existence outside of the covenant people, the church

Many come back of course; I did

But a great number of the children I knew in Sunday School and from Christian
homes are in that category today

But the fact that they fail to take advantage of their heritage does not make God a

And I think at this point Paul would get even more serious

He would doubtless suggest that such people are actually in a more dangerous plight
before God than those without those privileges

For privilege brings accountability

Neglecting that heritage makes you worse off than if you never knew it

As with the Jews, growing up with a Christian advantage is something to be grateful
for but it doesn’t make you better than those growing up with none

Stuart Olyott, The Gospel as it Really Is p26.
Each one of us needs to be saved by God

(3) Let’s not copy the Jews

We need to be careful that we don’t fall into the same position as the Jews that Paul
was speaking to

We mustn’t be people who have the badges of Christianity but don’t live it out in real
obedient living before God

We mustn’t be people who think we are qualified to teach the non-Christian but by
our lives deny the reality of our profession

Hypocrisy is a terrible thing

Let’s stop


Extra bits

(1) Remember that Paul is seeking to establish universal guilt, both of the Jew and

What Paul is doing in these chapters is seeking to convince his fellow Jews of their
sinfulness and guilt before God

He was speaking to people who didn’t feel guilty or in need of Christ

But Paul was not in the least bit concerned about whether they felt guilty or sinful; he
was in the business of persuading them that they were

One of the problems of today is that we have often presented the gospel as a means to
human happiness

And presents us with the problem; why would people be interested in Christianity as a
route to happiness when they are already happy?

I was raised among people who believed that we must work hard to persuade people
who thought they were unhappy that they weren’t happy!!

These verses persuade me that if Paul were speaking to such people he would be
seeking to show people the reality of their lostness, not their unhappiness

We’re not seeking to make people feel lost, just show them what they are

Not persuade them that they have a guilty conscience but that they are guilty before
God whether their conscience troubles them or not

The gospel is not a remedy for human misery it is a remedy for real human guilt
before a holy God

It is God’s assessment of us that counts as true not our own

If our feelings and estimation of ourselves don’t mesh with God’s, it is his that count

Yes I know that joy and happiness and meaning come with the gospel, but they are a
by-product not the essence of what the gospel achieves

One of the problems we face

The idea for this point came from John Stott on a sermon he preached on this passage.