A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 2:17 – 3:8. Self-confident Jews.
Paul now moves on, in his wide-ranging critique of the human race, from critical moralizers in general (2:1-16), whether Jews or Gentiles, to Jewish people in particular in their self-confidence (2:17-29). In the first half of the chapter his interlocutor has been a human being (‘O man’, 1, 3, RSV); now in the second half it is a Jew (*Now you, if you call yourself a Jew…, *17).
Paul anticipates and responds to Jewish objections to what he has written. He imagines Jews protesting somewhat as follows: ‘Surely, Paul, you can’t possibly treat us as if we were no different from Gentile outsiders? Have you forgotten that we have been given both the law (the revelation of God) and circumcision (the sign of the covenant of God)? Have you overlooked the fact that these three privileges (covenant, circumcision and law) are themselves tokens of the greatest privilege of all, that God chose us to be his special people? Are you saying that we Jews (who have been uniquely favoured by God’s election) are no better off than the Gentiles? How can you disregard these peculiar blessings of ours, which distinguish us from the Gentiles and protect us from God’s judgment?
In reply to such questions Paul writes about the law in verses 17-24 and about circumcision in verses 25-29, and insists that neither guarantees Jewish immunity to divine judgment. His words are ‘a pricking of the balloon of Jewish pride and presumption.’
1). The law (17-24).
Paul uses eight verbs to describe aspects of Jewish self-consciousness and self-confidence. First, *you call yourself a Jew*, being proud of the chosen people’s honourable name. Second, *you rely on the law* given you at Sinai, trusting in your possession of it as a shield against disaster. Third, *you…brag about your relationship with God* (17). The Greek phrase is identical with the climax of Paul’s portrayal of Christians who have been justified by faith, namely ‘we rejoice in God’ (5:11). But NIV is surely right to elaborate the translation here in order to express the Jews’ pride in their monotheism and in their supposed monopoly of God. Fourth, *you know his will*, literally ‘the will’ absolutely, to which all other wills are relative. Fifth, *you…approve of what is superior*. Both here and in Philippians 1:10 this expression could mean either ‘you test things which differ’ or, having done so, ‘you approve those things which the test has shown to excel’. Sixth, the reason for your moral discernment is that *you are instructed by the law* (18). And a further consequence of your instruction and discernment is (seventh) that *you are convinced* that you are competent to teach others. So *you are a guide for the blind and a light for those who are in the dark* (19), i.e. the Gentiles, since this is the stated vocation of the servant of the Lord (Is. 42:6f.; 49:6).You are also *an instructor of the foolish and a teacher of infants*, probably meaning spiritual babies, i.e. proselytes or converts. And all this *because (eighth) you have in the law an embodiment of knowledge and truth* (20). In these eight statements Paul has given a straight forward account of Jewish people in their double relation to the law. Being instructed, they instruct. Being taught, they teach.
But now Paul turns the tables on them. They do not live up to their knowledge (cf. 13). They do not practise what they preach. Following his eight verbs which portray their identity, he asks five rhetorical questions, which draw attention to their inconsistency. The first is general *You then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself?* (21a). It is followed by three questions about particular sins: *You who preach against stealing, do you steal? (21b). You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?* (22). The last-named might refer to the misappropriation of funds intended for the temple, since Josephus tells the story of just such a scandal, but Paul is more likely to have pagan temples in mind. *You who abhor idols* is an accurate portrayal of Jews. They recoiled from idolatry in horror. They would not dream of going anywhere near an idol temple, therefore – except for the purpose of robbery. In such cases ‘scruple broke down before thievish avarice’. Some commentators think all three sins so unlikely in Jewish leaders that they suggest a non-literal interpretation. ‘When theft, adultery and sacrilege are strictly and radically understood, there is no man who is not guilty of all three.’ writes C.K.Barrett, and reminds us of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount about the thoughts of our hearts (Mt. 5:21ff.). But Paul seems to have actions rather than thoughts in mind, and Dodd quotes Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai, a contemporary of Paul’s, who bewailed in his day ‘the increase of murder, adultery, sexual vice, commercial and judicial corruption, bitter sectarian strife, and other evils’.
Paul’s fifth rhetorical question is again more general: *You who brag about the law* (which the Jews did, see verse 17), *do you dishonour God by breaking the law? (23). As it is written, ‘God’s name in blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’* (24). This quotation seems to combine Isaiah 52:5 and Ezekiel 36:22. In both texts God’s name had been mocked because his people had been defeated and enslaved. Could Yahweh not protect his own people? Just so, moral defeat, like military defeat, brings discredit on the name of God.
The argument of verses 17-24 is the same in principle as that of verses 1-3, and is just as applicable to us as to first-century critical moralizers and self-confident Jews. If we judge others, we should be able to judge ourselves (1-3). If we teach others, we should be able to teach ourselves (21-24). If we set ourselves up as either teachers or judges of others, we can have no excuse if we do not teach or judge ourselves. We cannot possibly plead ignorance of moral rectitude. On the contrary, we invite God’s condemnation of our hypocrisy.
Tomorrow: Romans 2:25-29. Circumcision.