A Commentary by John Stott
If the Jews’ possession and knowledge of the law did not exempt them from the judgment of God, neither did their circumcision. To be sure, circumcision was a God-given sign and seal of his covenant with them (Gn. 17:9ff.). But it was not a magical ceremony or a charm. It did not provide them with permanent insurance cover against the wrath of God. It was no substitute for obedience; it constituted rather a commitment to obedience. Yet the Jews had an almost superstitious confidence in the saving power of their circumcision. Rabbinic epigrams expressed it. For example, ‘Circumcised men do not descend into Gehenna,’ and ‘Circumcision will deliver Israel from Gehenna.’
How does Paul counter this false assurance? He begins with an epigram of his own: *Circumcision has value if you observe the law* (25a). He does not deny the divine origin of circumcision, but he relativizes its value on the ground that he who is circumcised ‘is required to obey the whole law’ (Gal. 5:3) For circumcision is the sign of covenant membership. and covenant membership demands obedience. On this basis, namely that circumcision and the law belong together in God’s covenant, Paul now makes two bold complementary statements. On the one hand, *if you* who are circumcised *break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised* (25b). On the other hand, *if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised?* (26). We may perhaps express Paul’s double assertion in terms of two simple equations. Circumcision minus obedience equals uncircumcision, while uncircumcision plus obedience equals circumcision.
The consequence Paul infers from this will have been profoundly shocking to Jewish people. In contrast to their traditional picture of themselves sitting in judgment on the uncircumcised pagans (cf. 2:1-3), the roles will be reversed, and *the one who is not circumcised physically, who yet obeys the law, will actually condemn you* (a Jew) *who, even though you have the written code (i.e. the law) and circumcision, are a law-breaker*. (27). The ultimate sign, the *bona fide* evidence, of membership of the covenant of God is neither circumcision nor possession of the law, but the obedience which both circumcision and the law demand. Their circumcision did not make them what their disobedience proved they were not. This is not salvation by obedience, but obedience as the evidence of salvation. The corollary is that Jews are just as much exposed to the judgment of God as Gentiles.
The extraordinary reversal of roles which Paul has described in verse 27, by which the Gentile condemns the Jew instead of the Jew condemning the Gentile, is due to a necessary redefinition of Jewish identity, which Paul proceeds to give, in contrast to the Jewish self-definition of 2:17ff. First, he states negatively what a Jew is not (28), and then defines positively what a true Jew is (29). *A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly (en to phanero*, ‘in the open’ or ‘visibly’), *nor is circumcision merely outward (en to phanero*, repeated) *and physical (en sarki*, ‘in flesh’) (28). *No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly (en to krypto*, ‘in secret’); *and circumcision is circumcision of the heart* (29a). This concept is not new with Paul, since it occurs regularly in the Old Testament. In the Pentateuch God complains of his people’s ‘uncircumcised hearts’, appeals to them to circumcise their hearts, and promises that he will do it to them himself so that they may love him with all their being (Lv. 26:41; Dt. 10:16; 30:6). Then the prophets use the same imagery. Foreigners are significantly described as ‘uncircumcised in heart and flesh’; those who are ‘circumcised only in the flesh’ and ‘uncircumcised in heart’ will be punished; Yahweh calls on his people to circumcise their hearts, and promises to give them a ‘new heart’ (Ezk. 44:9; Je. 9:25f.; 4:4; Ezk. 36:26f.).
What Paul looks for is something more than this, however, namely, ‘a circumcision of the heart that completely *replaces* the physical rite and does not merely complement it’. It will also be *by the Spirit, not by the written code* (29b). That is, it will be an inward work of the Holy Spirit, such as the law as an external written code could never effect. This contrast between *gramma* (letter or code) and *pneuma* (the Spirit) sums up for Paul the difference between the old covenant (an external law) and the new (the gift of the Spirit). He anticipates here what he will elaborate in 7:6 and 8:4, indeed throughout not from men, but from God* (29c). This probably alludes to a play on Hebrews words, since Jews were named from their ancestor Judah, and his name in Hebrew was associated with, and may have been derived from, the word for ‘praise’ (cf. Gen. 29: 35; 49:8.).
In his redefinition of what is meant to be a Jew, an authentic member of God’s covenant people, then, Paul draws a fourfold contrast. First, the essence of being a true Jew (who may indeed be ethnically a Gentile) is not something outward and visible, but inward and invisible. For the true circumcision is, secondly, in the heart, not the flesh. Thirdly, it is effected by the Spirit, not the law, and fourthly, it wins the approval of God rather than human beings. Human beings are comfortable with what is outward, visible, material and superficial. What matters to God is a deep, inward, secret work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
Moreover, what Paul writes here about circumcision and being a Jew could also be said about baptism and being a Christian. The real Christian, like the real Jew, is one inwardly; and the true baptism, like the true circumcision, is in the heart and by the Spirit. It is not in this case that the inward and spiritual *replace* the outward and physical, but rather that the visible sign (baptism) derives its importance from the invisible reality (washing from sin and the gift of the Spirit), to which it bears witness. It is a grave mistake to exalt the sign at the expense of what it signifies.
Tomorrow: Romans 3:1-8. Some Jewish objections.