Commentary on Romans 2:17-29

Notes (NET Translation)

17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relationship to God

Paul resumes the diatribe style and explicitly identifies the person he addresses as a Jew (the “you” is singular). In 2:17-18 he “lists five privileges that the one who calls himself a Jew claims to enjoy; he relies upon the law; he brags about his relationship with God; he knows God’s will; he is able to approve what is superior; and he is instructed by the law.”1 These privileges are legitimate in themselves. Paul is criticizing disobedience to the law, not the privileges.

18 and know his will and approve the superior things because you receive instruction from the law,

The phrase “approve the superior things” could also be translated “approve those things that are best” or “distinguish the things that really matter.”2 “In the context of 2:18-20 ‘what is superior’ is the knowledge of God’s will in terms of moral instruction that Jews have access to through the law and therefore could pass on to others.”3

19 and if you are convinced that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness,

Israel was intended to be a light to the Gentiles (Isa 42:6-7; 49:6).

20 an educator of the senseless, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the essential features of knowledge and of the truth —

As he did in v. 18, Paul adds to his list of Jewish prerogatives a participial clause in which he traces the benefits enjoyed by the Jews to the law. Paul highlights the sufficiency of the law by claiming that it contains “the embodiment of knowledge and truth.” Paul has asserted that all people, including especially those without special revelation, have access to “knowledge” and “truth” (1:18-19, 25, 28, 32) and are hence “without excuse” when they turn from it. The Jew has this knowledge and truth embodied in far clearer and more detailed form in the law, a claim he acknowledges, and indeed boasts of. Even more than the Gentile, therefore, the Jewish person is “without excuse” before God (2:1).4

21 therefore you who teach someone else, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal?

The argument veers in a different direction in verses 21-24. Despite the advantages of the Jews, they have failed to live up to their calling. The οὖν (oun, therefore) in verse 21 confirms that Paul draws a conclusion from the preceding verses, although in an unexpected and surprising way. Four rhetorical questions advance the argument in verses 21-22, with a climactic conclusion drawn in verses 23-24. The first rhetorical question (“therefore, the one who teaches others, do you not teach yourself?”) functions as the heading that is broken down more specifically in the three succeeding questions. Paul does not object to Jews teaching others. That is their calling! He questions whether the Jews violated the very law they treasured and taught to others, and implies that they were guilty of hypocrisy (cf. Matt. 23:3-4).5

22 You who tell others not to commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?

Paul’s claim that the Jew “detests idols” is clear enough, and captures an important element of Jewish religion in the first century. The threat to Jewish existence posed by the inroads of Hellenism and the dispersion of Jews throughout pagan society had led to increased emphasis on the need to avoid such pagan practices. Idolatry, in the technical sense, was generally unknown among Jews at this time. Indeed, what Paul accuses the Jew of doing is not specifically worshiping idols, but “robbing temples.” What Paul means by this accusation is not clear.

(1) He might use the word in its natural, literal sense. While evidence that Jews engaged in the robbing of temples is scarce, there is some reason to think that the strictures against using the precious metals from idolatrous articles (cf. Deut. 7:26) were being relaxed and disobeyed. Paul could, then, be citing the use of such articles stolen from pagan temples as an example of a practice that contradicted the Jews’ avowed abhorrence of idolatry.

(2) Paul might apply the word to the robbing of the Jerusalem Temple, which would be taking place when Jews failed to pay the “temple tax” that was required of all Jews for the support of the worship of the Lord.

(3) Paul might apply the word to sacrilege in a general sense. For Paul’s accusation to make sense, this sacrilege would have to involve various acts (or attitudes) of impiety toward the God of Israel–as, for instance, elevating the law to such an extent that it infringed on the rights and honor of the Lord himself. Each of these alternatives has its problems. Both the second and the third suffer from the difficulty that an act committed against the Jewish Temple or God is not a contradiction to the Jews’ abhorrence of idols. If we adopt the first alternative, on the other hand, Paul would be accusing his Jewish target of an offense that was, at best, rare. Nevertheless, this difficulty is not as great as the one faced by the second and third alternatives. Moreover, this interpretation places this third accusation on the same footing as the first two (see below).

Why has Paul chosen examples of such serious and relatively infrequent activities to accuse Jews generally of failing to live out the law they reverence? How could his accusations be convincing to those Jews, surely in the majority, who had never stolen, committed adultery, or robbed a temple? Some interpreters conclude that Paul must view each of these activities in the light of the “deepening” of the law taught by Jesus (Matt. 5:21-48). “When theft, adultery, and sacrilege are strictly and radically understood, there is no man who is not guilty of all three.” But there is nothing in the context to make such an understanding of these activities likely, and much that is against it. Paul’s purpose in Rom. 2 is to convince Jews of the inadequacy of their works, defined according to the standard of the law itself. For him to accuse them of breaches of the law in the radicalized sense in which Jesus taught it would be to leave this intent behind.

Another suggestion is made by Watson, who notes that the context especially stresses the teaching activity of Jews. He thinks that Paul may be criticizing leaders of the Jewish community in Rome who had been active in proselytizing, but whose immorality had led to their expulsion from the city. Watson’s interpretation grows out of his reconstruction of the social situation addressed by Paul in Romans, a reconstruction that reads more into the text than is justified. Nevertheless, there may be an element of truth in his suggestion, in the sense that Paul’s intention seems to be to cite these breaches of the law as exemplary of the contrast between words and works, possession of the law and obedience of it, that is the leitmotif of Rom. 2. It is not, then, that all Jews commit these sins, but that these sins are representative of the contradiction between claim and conduct that does pervade Judaism. Paul may, then, have chosen these particular sins in order to make a contrast with the commands of the Decalogue (if “robbing temples” can be construed as a violation of the first commandment) or to follow the pattern of other “vice lists,” in which items such as murder, adultery, and sacrilege often appeared, or, perhaps most likely, to show the equivalence between the sins of Jews and of Gentiles (cf. 2:3).6

The lead question contains the theme: Do you Jews violate the very law you teach? The three questions that follow provide colorful examples of the principle that they transgress the law they proclaim. To conclude that these examples charge every Jew of committing these particular sins is a mistake. Paul uses particularly blatant and shocking examples (like any good preacher) to illustrate the principle that Jews violated the law that they possessed. . . . Furthermore, the indictment is against the Jews as a nation, as Ito rightly observes. They have not experienced God’s saving righteousness because of their sin.7

While it is difficult to be certain about the precise meaning of Paul’s reference to robbing temples, the overall purpose of 2:21-22 is clear enough. It highlights the hypocrisy of his dialogue partner and those whom he represents, that is, Jews who teach others but do not practice what they preach.8

23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by transgressing the law!

The ultimate reason the Jews were given the law was so that their lives would bring honor and glory to the name of God. By their transgression, however, they have brought scorn and dishonor upon his name. Just as the Gentiles failed to bring him glory by repudiating the revelation available from the created order, the Jews failed to honor him by practicing the law that was vouchsafed to them.9

24 For just as it is written, “the name of God is being blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

This quotation is from Isa 52:5.

Isaiah was speaking of the Jews’ Babylonian captivity, during which time God’s name had been blasphemed among the Gentiles. As his people were punished for their disobedience to his law, it provided occasion for God’s name to be profaned among the Gentiles. Paul implies that his dialogue partner’s failure to obey the law is likewise bringing God’s name into dispute.10

In Isaiah, the blaspheming of God’s name occurs through the oppression of Israel, God’s chosen people, by foreign powers. Paul ascribes the cause of the blasphemy to the disobedient lives of his people. Perhaps Paul intends the reader to see the irony in having responsibility for dishonoring God’s name transferred from the Gentiles to the people of Israel.11

25 For circumcision has its value if you practice the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision.

The Jew might believe that circumcision marks him out as belonging to God’s chosen people and thus not in danger of God’s wrath. Paul contests the value of circumcision from shielding the Jew from God’s judgment and wrath.

What does Paul mean by “practice the law”? Does it mean perfect conformity to the letter of the law or not?

The following arguments are made in support of the claim that “practice the law” means an imperfect but heartfelt obedience to the law:

  1. The OT, like Paul in vv 28-29, stresses that the attitude of the heart is necessary to truly obey the law.
  2. First century Judaism taught that the law was doable. In vv 26-27 Paul seems to think that it is possible to obey the law.

The following argument is made in support of the claim that “practice the law” means perfect obedience of the law:

  1. Throughout Romans Paul maintains a distinction between faith on the one hand and “the law”, “works,” or “doing” on the other (3:27; 4:1-5, 13-16; 10:5-8; cf. Gal 3:12). It is faith that saves so it is unlikely he is according salvific value to circumcision or doing the law.

To become uncircumcised is to become like a Gentile and to forfeit any defense being among God’s chosen people might provide on judgment day.

26 Therefore if the uncircumcised man obeys the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?

As in 2:14, we must ask whether the obedience of the Gentiles is (1) hypothetical, (2) the obedience of those who have responded to the light they have perceived, or (3) the obedience of Christian Gentiles.

Douglas J. Moo takes it as hypothetical:

Who are these uncircumcised Gentiles who keep the law and are saved on the day of judgment? We have already dismissed the possibility that Paul would describe Gentiles apart from faith in Christ as saved through their obedience to the light they have received. However, if one finds a reference to Gentile Christians in earlier verses of the chapter where a similar positive assessment of Gentiles is made (2:7, 10, 14-15), it is natural to make the same identification here. But even some who do not think these earlier verses refer to Gentile Christians are persuaded that they are in view here. Partly, this is because of the apparent realism of v. 27 and the fact that v. 29 alludes, however ambiguously, to Christians. But it is also argued that the phrase “guards the just decrees of the law” is a stronger expression than, for instance, “do the things of the law” (v. 14) and signifies a full and complete fulfillment of the law such as is possible only for Christians. This is questionable. Although Paul says that Christians who are walking by the Spirit have fulfilled in them “the just decree of the law” (Rom. 8:4), both the singular noun and the passive verb differentiate that statement from what Paul says here. Yet Paul does not depict the Christian as one who is under obligation to the specific stipulations of the Mosaic law. The Christian is no longer “under the [Mosaic] law” (6:14, 15), but under “the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2; cf. 1 Cor. 9:20). Finally, the context suggests that as transgression of the law disbars the Jew from salvation (v. 25), so obedience to the law grants the Gentile membership among the saved. But it is impossible that Paul would have described any Christian as having been granted this status as a result of obeying the law.

We therefore conclude that Paul is again here citing God’s standard of judgment apart from the gospel as a means of erasing the distinction at this point between Jew and Gentile. Paul is not pointing the way to salvation but is showing Jews that their position, despite their covenant privileges, is essentially no different from that of the Gentiles: disobedience brings condemnation; obedience brings salvation. Paul’s way of putting the matter in this context could, of course, suggest that there actually are people who meet this requirement for salvation; but his later argument quickly disabuses us of any such idea (cf. 3:9, 20).

Nevertheless, we should not miss the revolutionary implications of what Paul suggests here. Circumcision was, after all, commanded in the law–yet Paul can say that people who are not circumcised can do the law. This assumption looks toward a new understanding of what the covenant is and what God requires of his people, an understanding that arises from the conviction that a new stage in salvation history has begun. Without directly describing Christians here, then, Paul’s logic anticipates his teaching that it is faith and the indwelling of the Spirit that meet God’s demand and so bring people into relationship with God. We may paraphrase: “if it should be that there were an uncircumcised person who perfectly kept the law (which in this sense there is not, though in another sense, as we will see, there is), that person would be considered a full member of the people of God.”12

Thomas R. Schreiner believes Christian Gentiles are in view:

That Paul refers to genuine obedience is suggested in both verses 26 and 27, where the uncircumcised observe the law. In verse 26 the Gentiles “keep the ordinances of the law” (τὰ δικαιώματα τοῦ νόμου ϕυλάσσῃ, ta dikaiōmata tou nomou phylassē), and in verse 27 they “fulfill the law” (τὸν νόμον τελοῦσα, ton nomon telousa). Nothing indicates that the obedience described here is hypothetical. For instance, Paul does not mention the judgment of Gentiles, as was evident in 2:12 and 16. Moo suggests incorrectly that Paul in verse 27 is thinking of Gentiles who will judge Jews “not by keeping the law, but by faith.” Against this, the text specifically refers to the keeping of the law twice, and says nothing at all about faith. Of course, the obedience of the law spoken of here flows from faith, but it is obedience that has its source in faith. We should not miss the accent here, which is on keeping the law. Moo goes astray not by emphasizing faith but by separating keeping the law from faith. No significance should probably be ascribed to the different verbs employed for keeping the law. The words πράσσειν (prassein, to practice, v. 25), ϕυλάσσειν (phylassein, to keep, v. 26), and τέλειν (telein, to fulfill, v. 27) are overlapping synonyms. The word δικαιώματα is often used of OT commandments (e.g., Deut. 4:40; 6:2; 7:11; Ezek. 11:20; 18:9; 20:18-19), and thus the OT law is in view, although a distinction in the law seems to be contemplated since circumcision is excluded from the “ordinances.” A parallel text in Rom. 8:4 suggests as well that 2:26 refers to believers fulfilling τὸ δικαίωμα τοῦ νόμου (to dikaiōma tou nomou, the ordinance of the law) by the power of the Holy Spirit. The singular δικαίωμα signals that the law is a unity. No material difference exists between the singular in 8:4 and the plural in 2:26, since the singular in the former text comprehends the diversity of the law’s requirements.

Verse 26 also shows that believers are in view by saying that the “uncircumcision” of Gentiles “will be reckoned as circumcision” (εἰς περιτομὴν λογισθήσεται, eis peritomēn logisthēsetai). I noted above that circumcision was the covenant sign that one belonged to the people of God. To be considered as circumcised means that the Gentile who keeps the commandments is part of God’s people, the redeemed community. The future tense of λογισθήσεται implies that such a reckoning will occur on the day of judgment, while the passive intimates that God does the reckoning. In addition, Paul uses λογίζεσθαι often, especially in Romans (cf. Rom. 3:28; 4:3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 22, 23, 24; 9:8; 2 Cor. 5:19; Gal. 3:6), of those who are reckoned to be in a right relationship with God. To interpret the reckoning here in a weaker sense is unpersuasive. The most natural way to take the clause is that Gentiles who observe the commandments will be reckoned righteous before God on the last day.

The decisive argument for seeing genuine obedience by Gentiles in verses 26-27 and for identifying these Gentiles as Christians is the γάρ (gar, for) that links verses 28-29 with verses 25-27. The γάρ has a twofold significance in these verses. First, it confirms that no salvific advantage exists in being physically circumcised and possessing the law (vv. 25-27). To be an ethnic Jew (ὁ ἐν τῷ ϕανερῷ Ἰουδαῖος, ho en tō phanerō Ioudaios, a Jew outwardly, v. 28) or to be physically circumcised (ἡ ἐν τῷ ϕανερῷ ἐν σαρκὶ περιτομή, hē en tō phanerō en sarki peritomē, circumcision that is outward in the flesh) does not mean that one is a true Jew or truly circumcised. Again the notion that the Jews could rely on the Mosaic covenant for their salvation is undermined.

Second, the γάρ strengthens the case for the Gentile Christian interpretation in verses 26-27. How can uncircumcised (ἀκροβυστία, akrobystia) Gentiles belong to the people of God if they do not adopt the covenant sign of circumcision and attach themselves to Judaism? Paul’s answer in verse 29 is that physical circumcision and being an ethnic Jew are unnecessary to belong to the people of God. What counts is being “a Jew in secret” (ὁ ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ Ἰουδαῖος, ho en tō kryptō Ioudaios), that is, in the heart, and possessing “the circumcision of the heart” (περιτομὴ καρδίας, peritomē kardias). Paul’s radical shift from the covenant with Moses is apparent. Contrary to Gen. 17:9-14 he asserts that submission to physical circumcision for membership in the covenant is unnecessary. All that is needed is the spiritual circumcision of the heart. Of course, both the OT (Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4) and second temple Judaism (Jub. 1.23; 1QS 5.5; Philo, Spec. Laws 1.1 § 6; 1.61 § § 304-5; Migr. Abr. 16 § § 89-93) emphasized the need for a circumcised heart. But both spiritual circumcision and physical circumcision were considered essential. No thought of abandoning the physical rite was contemplated. Paul transcends his contemporaries in insisting that physical circumcision is expendable. I noted earlier that a few lax Jews questioned the necessity of circumcision for conversion to Judaism. Paul’s position on circumcision differs dramatically from theirs as well. They questioned imposing circumcision on Gentiles because it was culturally or politically difficult for Gentiles to join the Jewish people (cf. Josephus, Ant. 20.2.4 § § 38-41). Paul, however, rejected the imposition of circumcision on Gentiles in principle, for it was part of an old covenant that was temporary (cf. 2 Cor. 3:4-11) and the day of distinctions between Jews and Gentiles had ended (Eph. 2:11-22).13

27 And will not the physically uncircumcised man who keeps the law judge you who, despite the written code and circumcision, transgress the law?

Here in 2:27 Paul makes an even more drastic statement: the obedient Gentile will condemn the Jew who, though privileged to have the written code (the law) and to bear the mark of the covenant in his flesh (circumcision), is nevertheless a ‘lawbreaker’. The apostle has in mind not so much Gentiles acting as judges but rather as witnesses for the prosecution. Their obedience to the law will constitute the ‘evidence of what the Jew ought to have been and could have been’.14

28 For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision something that is outward in the flesh,

29 but someone is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart by the Spirit and not by the written code. This person’s praise is not from people but from God.

From the earliest history of Israel, God called on the people to display the kind of inner transformation that could be called a “circumcision of the heart” (e.g., Deut. 10:16; cf. Jer. 4:4). Significantly, it was also recognized that only God could ultimately bring about this heart transformation (Deut. 30:6). There thus grew up in Judaism the expectation that God would one day circumcise the hearts of his people through the work of the Spirit. Thus Paul’s call for a “circumcision of the heart, in the Spirit,” is not entirely original. But the unprecedented addition of the negative phrase “not in letter” raises the question whether or not he is using the concept with a deeper significance.

The “letter/spirit” contrast Paul uses here has played a prominent role in church history, where it was often applied to interpretation: the “letter” denoting the literal, surface meaning of a text and the “spirit” its deeper, allegorical sense. Paul, however, never uses the contrast with this application. As we have seen (see v. 27), Paul uses “letter” to refer to the law of Moses “as written.” In the current context, because of its proximity to “heart” and apparent contrast with “manifest,” some interpreters think that “spirit” might refer to the inner aspect of the human being. But the immediate contrast here is with “letter”; and this suggests that “spirit,” like “letter,” refers to a God-given entity. Thus, as in the other Pauline “letter/spirit” passages (Rom. 7:6; 2 Cor. 3:6-7), “spirit” should be capitalized: it refers to God’s Holy Spirit. Paul’s “letter”/”Spirit” contrast is a salvation-historical one, “letter” describing the past era in which God’s law through Moses played a central role and “Spirit” summing up the new era in which God’s Spirit is poured out in eschatological fullness and power. It is only the circumcision “in the Spirit” that ultimately counts.15

The Spirit’s work on the heart logically precedes the observance of the law by the Gentiles. Autonomous works are rejected, but works that are the fruit of the Spirit’s work are necessary to be saved. Paul is not speaking of perfect obedience, but of obedience that clarifies that one has been transformed. This fits with Gal. 3:1-5 and Rom. 8:9, where reception of the Spirit is the mark that one belongs to the people of God. The good works done are not an achieving of salvation, then, but the outflow of the Spirit’s work in a person’s life. The obedience by the Gentiles is not perfect (see exegesis and exposition of Rom. 7:14-25), but it constitutes a significant and substantial indication of the Spirit’s presence.16

Comment

A Jew might believe that by possessing the law he has a special status before God. Paul’s argument in these verses is that knowledge of the law and physical circumcision have no value unless the law is obeyed. For both the Jew and the Gentile it is what is done that is important.

Circumcision, like the law, was a sign of the Jew’s privileged position as a member of the chosen people, participant in the covenant that God established with Abraham (Gen. 17). Later Judaism claimed that “no person who is circumcised will go down to Gehenna,” and the importance of the rite throughout the Second Temple period suggests that this view was prevalent in Paul’s day also. But Paul goes even further. Not only does disobedience of the law endanger the circumcised Jew’s salvation; obedience of the law can bring salvation to the uncircumcised Gentile.17

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Kruse 2012, 145 
  2. Moo 1996, 160-161 
  3. Kruse 2012, 148 
  4. Moo 1996, 162-163 
  5. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2899-2904 
  6. Moo 1996, 163-165 
  7. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2938-2945 
  8. Kruse 2012, 151 
  9. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2953-2956 
  10. Kruse 2012, 152 
  11. Moo 1996, 166 
  12. Moo 1996, 169-171 
  13. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 3053-3098 
  14. Kruse 2012, 154-155 
  15. Moo 1996, 174-175 
  16. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 3154-3159 
  17. Moo 1996, 166-167 
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