A Matter of the Heart
March 12, 2017

A Matter of the Heart

Passage: Romans 2:17-29
Service Type:

A Matter of the Heart
Romans 2:17-29

Last summer I decided that it was time to replace the fluid in the rear differential of Veronica’s car.  At first I thought Acura had done something really nifty.  The drain and fill plugs have a 3/8” square socket in the middle.  I looked at it and thought, “That’s easy.  You don’t need a socket or anything, you just stick your ratchet in the hole and turn.  But it wasn’t that easy.  There’s a piece of the car’s metal structure that runs right in front of the plugs so you can’t just stick a wrench on them.  You have to have an extension on your wrench that goes through a hole in the structural piece and then sticks into the socket in the plugs.  I didn’t have the right size extension, so I went to the tool shop.  I didn’t want to spend a lot of money.  I quickly scanned the shelf looking for the cheapest one and was surprised that the cheapest one had a well-known brand name on it.  Or so I thought.  I bought it, went home, stuck the new extension on my wrench and tried to loosen one of the plugs on the differential.  I wouldn’t budge.  I pulled and pulled and finally the wrench started to move.  But it didn’t feel right.  Usually when something like that starts to move it snaps free and then starts turning relatively freely.  I pulled a little more.  The wrench moved a little more.  It still didn’t feel right, so I pulled the wrench out of the plug.  The plug hadn’t budged, but there was a forty-five degree twist in my new extension.  My neighbour was working in his garage so I went over and showed him what happened.  He brought his own wrench and extension over and we pretty quickly got both plugs out.  I looked at his tools and noticed the brand name embossed on them and thought, “Wait.  That’s what I thought I was buying, but mine doesn’t look like that.”  I went back and looked at the packaging again and noticed it was just cleverly designed to mimic the name brand.  That’s why it was so cheap and that’s why it twisted under pressure where the real deal did the job.  It was a reminder to pay attention, because names and labels can be misleading.

Paul gets at this sort of thing in our lesson today as we finish looking at Romans 2.  Paul’s been engaging in a hypothetical argument in order to make a point to the Roman Christians.  Up to this point it hasn’t been entirely clear who Paul’s arguing with.  It could be a pagan moralists—someone like Seneca who called people to be moral, but was engaged in a number of dishonest schemes himself.  But as the argument has moved along, Paul seems to be zeroing in on the Jews and now that becomes even clearer.  It’s as if Paul the Apostle is arguing with Saul of Tarsus—the man he was before meeting Jesus.  In verses 17-25 Paul addresses the issues of the law—the torah—and circumcision.  These were the identifying marks of the Jews.  And Paul asks, “What if those external markers don’t really represent what’s inside?”  Paul’s been explaining how the Jews share the same sin problem as everyone else and how, in judging the Gentiles for their sin, they’re really just digging themselves deeper into judgement, because they’re guilty of sin too.

But if Israel is sinful like everyone else, we have to ask, “What about God’s righteousness?  Has God been faithful or not?  He called, he elected Israel to be his light in the world, but if Israel’s light has become darkness…well…how is God going to fulfil his promises?  Is God still righteous in the sense that he does what he promises?  Or has God failed?  This has big implications.  Many people today talk today as if Israel was God’s “Plan A” and Jesus was God’s “Plan B”—as if God was on his way to town, but his car broke down, so he just abandoned it on the side of the road and decided to use his own feet instead.  I’ll come back to this later, but if this is what God did, then it compromises his righteousness, his faithfulness.  Thankfully, God had not abandoned his promises or his covenant.  This is where Paul’s now going and it’s critical to understand this as we close Chapter 2 and then begin Chapter 3 next week.

Paul starts out here by describing how the Jews thought of themselves.  Again, to make the argument, he’s describing himself before meeting Jesus.  Look at what he says in verses 17-20:

But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth…

Paul was a Jew.  He was one of God’s people, called and chosen in Abraham two millennia before.  God had given his people the law—the torah—and living by that law marked them out as his people.  That’s what Paul means when he talks about “relying” on the law.  It wasn’t that the Jews were trying to earn their salvation by keeping the rules, but that they found their assurance in the law because it was the evidence that God had chosen them and established a covenant with them.  Because of that, as Paul says, they could boast in God.  The Creator of the world was truly their God and they were his people.  So far this is all good.  God’s election of Abraham and his family was good.  God’s gift of the law to Israel was good.  Israel really and truly is special.  Israel was and always will be God’s means of bringing light into the darkness, of bringing the good news to the world, of being a guide to the blind.  They all knew this and they found assurance in this.  Again, God was their God and they were his people and nothing could change that.

But what if things aren’t really that simple, Paul asks.  You see, when Paul was confronted by the risen Jesus, the Messiah, on his way to Damascus, it forced him to rethink everything.  If Jesus was alive, that meant Jesus had been raised from the dead and that meant only one thing: Jesus really is God’s Messiah.  Remember, the Jews—and that included Paul—were looking for a Messiah who would come and conquer the pagans and set Israel free.  They were looking for a Messiah who would somehow teach and enable Israel to finally keep the law.  (They knew that they had failed to keep it.)  But this Jesus who claimed to be the Messiah didn’t do what the people expected.  They rejected him and they crucified him and—to people like Saul of Tarsus—that proved Jesus wasn’t really the Messiah.  Messiah’s don’t die; they conquer and they rule.  That’s how Paul could be confident that he was serving God when he sought out these Christians and dragged them before the authorities as blasphemers and heretics.  They were following a false Messiah.  But then Paul met the risen Jesus in person and because of that he was confronted with the incontrovertible fact that Jesus really is the Messiah.  The Jews and the Romans had condemned him and executed him as a false Messiah, but in raising Jesus from the dead, God had overturned their verdict and vindicated his Son.  And Paul—and this is Paul’s great gift to the Church—Paul put his brain to work to figure out how it could be that God fulfilled his promises to Israel through the violent and shameful death of the Messiah on a Roman cross.

But we’re getting ahead of Paul now.  Again, Israel found her assurance in having God’s law.  She considered herself a light to the Gentiles.  Like my socket extension, the package looked right on the outside.  But Paul goes on in verses 21-24:

You then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal?  You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?  You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law.  For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

Israel was appointed by God to teach the nations, but she’s been hypocritical.  What’s inside doesn’t match the package.  She judges the Gentiles for stealing, but she herself steals.  She judges the Gentiles for their adultery, but she commits adultery herself.  Remember, Paul’s talking in general about the whole people, not singling out individuals.  There were many faithful people in Israel, but the nation the people as a whole had failed.  And Paul singles out stealing and adultery specifically in order to bring to mind the Old Testament prophets Malachi and Hosea.  Through Malachi the Lord had rebuked Israel.  She was in exile because she had robbed God, because she had failed to tithe, to return to God in faith a portion of the good he had given her.  And in the second chapter of Hosea, the Lord likened Israel to a prostitute.  Instead of loving the Lord who was perpetually faithful to her, she had given herself to foreign people and foreign gods and the Lord warned that if she continued to be unfaithful he would strip her naked, taking away everything and leaving her in the wilderness.

The accusation of robbing temples is a bit different, but gets to the heart of the matter.  The Jews knew that the pagan gods were false gods and several ancient historians attest to Jews developing a reputation for robbing temples.  Whether it was their way of mocking the pagan gods or whether they did it for gain knowing that the false gods could do nothing to them, it destroyed their reputation.  The First Century Jewish historian, Josephus, says that the pagans slandered the Jews saying that Jerusalem was a pun on the word for “temple robbery”.  The Jews were supposed to be a light to the nations, but instead they failed to keep God’s law and, Paul says quoting Isaiah, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

Paul takes us back to these rebukes given by the prophets, by Malachi and Hosea and Isaiah, because the Old Testament prophets didn’t just point out Israel’s problem.  They also spoke of the solution.  And this is what Israel had missed.  This is what Saul of Tarsus had missed.  But this was what he started to realise and to understand after he met the risen Jesus.  In Isaiah 52 the prophet rebukes Israel for causing the nations to mock and blaspheme the Lord, but just a few verses later Isaiah goes on to talk with hope of the suffering servant who would die for the sins of Israel.  Earlier, in verse 15, Paul wrote about the law being written on hearts, evoking Ezekiel’s prophecy.  Ezekiel spoke of a day when the Lord would write the law on the hearts of his people and in doing so he would establish a new covenant with them.  And so it dawned on Paul, as he began rethinking the Scriptures in light of Jesus the Messiah.  Israel was still in the exile that the prophets spoke of.  Daniel had spoken of the original exile in Babylon as being seventy years, but the truth was that Israel was still in exile.  Daniel’s seventy years had become seventy weeks of years.  The nations blasphemed the Lord because of Israel, but all of this meant that it was time for God to act and in Jesus he had.

But Paul’s not done ripping open the package to see if what’s inside matches.  Israel takes assurance in having the law, but she hasn’t lived by it.  The other sign, the other mark in which the Jews took pride was circumcision.  It was the covenant sign that God had given to Abraham.  Like the law, if you had it you were a Jew; if you didn’t have it you weren’t.  Paul takes on circumcision in verse 25:

For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision.

Circumcision only has value if you live the life it’s meant to represent.  A lot of Jews would have been upset by this sort of statement, but it wasn’t new with Paul.  God had said this hundreds of years before through Jeremiah: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh…all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart: (Jeremiah 9:25-26).  It doesn’t matter what the package says if what’s inside doesn’t match.  The brand name on the package is worthless if what’s inside is a fake.  Again, a statement like this would have upset most Jews.  Paul’s saying that if you break the law, even if you’re circumcised, you’re really no better than a Gentile.  To say that those are “fightin’ words” would be an understatement.  But Paul’s not done.  He goes on:

So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? (Romans 2:26)

If what Paul said first about circumcision being uncircumcision was “fightin’ words”, this is truly and utterly outrageous.  This is the sort of thing that would have got him stoned if he’d said it in a synagogue.  But Paul still isn’t done.  If a Gentile’s keeping of the law counts as circumcision, it also means that such a Gentile can sit in judgement over the Jew who fails to keep it—maybe even that such a Gentile will sit with the Messiah in judgement over Israel when that day finally comes.  This is Paul’s point in verse 27 where he writes:

Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law.

What Paul’s saying is that this person’s state as a Gentile will ultimately be recognized by God as a sign or a mark of his or her membership in Israel, as part of his covenant people.

And of course, the old Saul of Tarsus is turning red and fuming as he hears this.  This is blasphemy!  But Paul anticipates how he might object.  The old Saul would say, “Circumcision is a requirement of the law.  How can a Gentile keep the law without being circumcised?”  And so Paul responds in verses 28 and 29:

For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical.  But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.

Paul’s taking us back to the Old Testament prophets again.  When he talks about Gentiles keeping the law he’s not talking about any old person who makes an effort to be a good person.  Paul says something very similar in 2 Corinthians 3, although he expands on it there:

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you?  You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all.  And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.  Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:1-6)

Again, Paul’s not talking about pagan moralists working hard to do good.  He’s talking about Christians and he’s specifically talking about Christians as the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel.  His language about circumcision being a matter of the heart is language drawn straight from Deuteronomy 30, where Moses called the people to a renewed commitment to the Lord’s covenant.  This is language that’s drawn from Jeremiah 31 and from Ezekiel 36 where the Lord promises to renew his covenant with Israel in such a way that he would give his Spirit in order to transform their lawless and rebellious hearts.  And Paul, having met Jesus in person, knowing that he truly is the Messiah, has worked out the inevitable truth that, in Jesus, God has indeed renewed his covenant and given his Spirit as he had promised to do.

And this leads Paul to make what would have been his most outrageous statement yet: A Jew isn’t the one who merely bears the outward signs of the covenant—the right genes passed down from Abraham, circumcision, or even the torah.  No, a Jew is one whose heart has been circumcised by Jesus the Messiah through the Holy Spirit.  And so Paul can finally say in verse 29 that this man or woman, this person who has been circumcised in the heart, is praised, not by man, but by God.  Paul’s almost certainly hinting at the inevitable persecution that will come because of this.  The Jews wouldn’t stand for what Paul is saying here.  But his primary point is made with a word play.  In Hebrew the name “Judah”—from which “Jew” is derived—means “praise”.  And so Paul’s saying that while the physically circumcised children of Abraham who have not kept the law will be condemned in the judgement to come, the same Judge will praise these people who are circumcised in their hearts even if many of them are Gentiles.

In closing I think there are two points in particular that need to be made.  The first is theological and the second is practical.  The first gets back to what I said earlier about God and Israel.  There are those who would say, essentially, that God has indeed abandoned Israel.  On the other side, many know that God does not abandon his promises, but for various reasons they can’t accept what Paul is saying here about God’s promises to Israel being fulfilled in Jesus and in the Church.  The result is that you have two parallel salvation-history tracks—one for Israel and one for the Church.  On one hand, part of this—usually in more liberal circles—has come about in the last century as Christians have reflected on the awful things done to Jews down through the centuries and particularly what happened in the holocaust and that much of it was justified with appeals to St. Paul and the other New Testament writers who speak of God judging Israel for her unfaithfulness.  Of course, those people were misrepresenting Paul the same way others used him, for example, to justify slavery.  But the result is that many Christians—not to mention many Jews, too—see it as anti-semitic to say that God’s promises to Israel were fulfilled in Jesus.  Now, we need to acknowledge that our forebearers in the faith were wrong to use Paul to justify atrocities against the Jews.  We need to commit to never doing such things again.  But that doesn’t mean we can throw out what Paul has said simply because some have abused it.

But as Evangelical Christians, what we’re more likely to encounter is a system of theology called Dispensationalism that became very popular in the last century, although in the last couple of decades there’s been a strong pushback by classical Protestants.  What I’ve outlined Paul as saying here in Romans is what these folks would call “Replacement Theology”.  The accusation is that we teach that the Church has replaced Israel.  The foundational idea in Dispensationalism is that there is a perpetual distinction between Israel and the Church and it teaches that the Old Covenant was established with Israel and is still in force for Israel and that the New Covenant is for the Church.  What they end up with are two parallel tracks to redemption, which gets into dangerous and gospel-undermining territory.  Calling what I’ve outlined here “Replacement Theology” misrepresents what Paul is saying.  The Church has not replaced Israel.  Paul’s point is that the Church isIsrael.  Again, this is getting ahead of Paul’s argument in Romans.  He hasn’t yet spelled out how these Gentiles who keep the law and who will be considered Jews despite can be so, but as he’ll explain, it’s because of Jesus who has renewed the Lord’s covenant with Israel.  Paul will stress throughout Romans that God has only one people and that people is Israel, because we are—whether Jew or Gentile—in Christ, in the Messiah, who embodied Israel himself, took her punishment, and fulfilled her mission.

That’s the first point.  As I said, the second point is more practical.  Paul talks about those who set themselves up as teachers of the foolish and guides to the blind.  He was writing about the Jews and his point is that while they had the light of God’s law, they utterly failed to live that law and in the process made God a laughingstock among the nations.  I can’t read that as a Christian and not squirm more than a little bit myself.  We read Jesus’s words, in the Sermon on the Mount, calling us to be the light of the world.  He took up the torch that Israel had dropped and now he hands it to us.  But how have we done carrying it?  How often have we kept the light to ourselves and failed to take it out in the world?  How often do we hide it, lest we embarrass ourselves?  And worse, how often could Paul be just as easily rebuking us as he was Israel when he wrote, “You who preach against stealing, do you steal?  You who preaching against adultery, do you commit adultery?”  And then I think about that and realise that I—that we—are particularly without excuse, because we’ve been given the Holy Spirit.  Israel struggled because she had the law written on stone tablets.  What excuse do we have when the Spirit has written Jesus’ law of love on our hearts?  Brothers and Sisters, are we the light that Jesus calls us to be?  Is the name of Christ blasphemed because of our hypocrisy?  These are serious questions we have to ask ourselves.

But don’t lose hope.  Jesus invites us to his Table this morning as a reminder of his promises, as a reminder that he who gave his life for us will not abandon us.  As he poured his Spirit into us in baptism to make us new, so at his Table he pours his grace out afresh.  Here he graciously feeds us and assures of his favour and goodness.  Here he assures us that, despite our failings, we are true members of his body, the blessed company of all faithful people, and are heirs through hope of his kingdom.  Here he assists with his grace that we may continue in that holy fellowship and do all such good works as he has prepared for us to walk in.  Amen.

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