In this section, Paul continues his rhetoric against the Jewish Christians in the Roman congregation. We have heard it all before. Paul accuses the Jews of teaching others to obey the Law, even of boasting that they are better than the Gentiles because they have the Law, while simultaneously disobeying the very rules they try to impose on others. His examples:
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? (Romans 2:21-22 ESV)
Paul’s point is that there is a reason the Gentiles around them are refusing to hear anything they have to say: it is because they are hypocrites. If, Paul says, the Law is so good; if you “know [God’s] 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” (vv. 18-20), why aren’t you living by that very same Law?
The Jewish hypocrisy is a problem for two reasons. First,
You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. (v. 23)
The main reason religious hypocrisy is a problem is because it dishonors God. If these Jews claim to love the Law, it must be special if they brag about it, then they should be themselves practicing it. But they aren’t, which is equivalent to giving God the finger. But Paul says there is another reason their hypocrisy is a problem.
For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (v. 24)
It’s interesting that Paul would say this. God is mocked because of what the believers are doing? Don’t people deny and mock God because they don’t have the Holy Spirit? That may be theologically true, but that doesn’t mean anything to people who think they have it all together and they are right and everyone else is wrong. Paul points out the practical reality that the Jews lack of commitment to the Law is turning people away from the way of God. To Christianize this, Paul would be saying that the reason people are turning from Jesus is because we don’t look like him. They hear what He says, they may like Him a lot, but they want nothing to do with the faith because of how Christians are living in direct opposition to the way that Jesus would have us to live. Not a popular argument to make, but it is Biblical, and Paul uses it here to drive home the importance of obedience to the Jews.
Let us stop here for a moment and just think about the ramifications of this for our lives. As a church, how much is our hypocrisy responsible for turning people off to hearing the Gospel? What does it say to the world around us when we say that we love our enemies by praying for them to accept Jesus while we drop bombs on them? What does it say to the non-Christian when we boldly preach against homosexuality while our leaders are caught in homosexual relationships? What does it say to the unbeliever when we say God is love, but only define His judgment?
When it comes down to it, the way we live has eternal consequences for not only us, but for those around us. We may claim to have the Gospel, but if we don’t live like it, then we are condemned as though we don’t. And those around us are condemned too as they deliberately deny the very Gospel we proclaim.
Paul goes on to reiterate this point, which he has been making repeatedly in the first 2 chapters of Romans.
For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 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. (vv. 2:25-29)
I think we get what Paul is saying here: the outward sign of being a Jew is worthless without obedience to God’s will. For us, he would probably say something like simply believing the right stuff is worthless if our lives are not reflective of the way that God wants us to live. If the Jew breaks the Law, it is as though he were never circumcised. If the Christian refuses to live the way of Jesus, it is as though she were never a Christian to begin with.