Bible ancient-futurenetThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Romans 2:25-29

25 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded[a] as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically[b] uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code[c] and circumcision but break the law. 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 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.

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Last week’s post discussed Paul’s criticism of the hypocrisy of the Jews of his era. They preached the law but did not obey it themselves.

Romans 2:24 says:

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

Harsh words. We can also apply Paul’s criticisms to ourselves as Christians substituting ‘atheists’ or ‘agnostics’ for ‘Gentiles’.

Paul ends with a few verses on circumcision, which, for Jewish males, is as important as baptism is for Christians. Paul points out that a Gentile, uncircumcised, who obeys natural law can be a better person in God’s eyes than a circumcised Jew who flouts the law of God.

Therefore, circumcision, Paul says, is worth something only if the circumcised man obeys God’s precepts; otherwise, it is worth nothing at all and becomes uncircumcision (verse 25).

At that time, some Gentiles worshipped in synagogues and obeyed some of the Mosaic laws, not necessarily circumcision (verse 26). These Gentiles rejected paganism and loved God. They are called ‘God-fearing’ in Scripture. Cornelius, the first Gentile to convert to Christianity thanks to Peter, was one of them.

Matthew Henry reminds us about Acts 10 (emphases mine):

The case of Cornelius will clear it. Though he was a Gentile, and uncircumcised, yet, being a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house (Acts 10:2), he was accepted, Acts 10:4. Doubtless, there were many such instances: and they were the uncircumcision, that kept the righteousness of the law; and of such he says, (1.) That they were accepted with God, as if they had been circumcised. Their uncircumcision was counted for circumcision. Circumcision was indeed to the Jews a commanded duty, but it was not to all the world a necessary condition of justification and salvation.

Paul says that uncircumcised Gentiles who keep God’s law and worship in synagogues are better than Jews who received the law as their birthright, were circumcised yet disobey the law. Through their conduct, those Gentiles ‘condemn’ the Jews (verse 27).

Henry explains that many Jews of that era did not think they needed to obey God’s law. Having it was sufficient. They were wrong:

That their obedience was a great aggravation of the disobedience of the Jews, who had the letter of the law, Romans 2:27. Judge thee, that is, help to add to thy condemnation, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress. Observe, To carnal professors the law is but the letter; they read it as a bare writing, but are not ruled by it as a law. They did transgress, not only notwithstanding the letter and circumcision, but by it, that is, they thereby hardened themselves in sin. External privileges, if they do not do us good, do us hurt. The obedience of those that enjoy less means, and make a less profession, will help to condemn those that enjoy greater means, and make a greater profession, but do not live up to it.

Paul takes his argument further, saying that Jewishness depends not on outward signs, such as circumcision, but upon what is in one’s heart and displayed in one’s conduct (verse 28). If one is truly a Jew, then one is circumcised in the heart and ruled by the Spirit. Furthermore, such a Jew seeks God’s favour, not man’s (verse 29).

Displaying outward signs of Jewishness was not enough, Paul said. One had to have the law written on one’s heart and in one’s mind.

Henry offers this analysis:

(1.) It is not that which is outward in the flesh and in the letter. This is not to drive us off from the observance of external institutions (they are good in their place), but from trusting to them and resting in them as sufficient to bring us to heaven, taking up with a name to live, without being alive indeed. He is not a Jew, that is, shall not be accepted of God as the seed of believing Abraham, nor owned as having answered the intention of the law. To be Abraham’s children is to do the works of Abraham, John 8:39,40. (2.) It is that which is inward, of the heart, and in the spirit. It is the heart that God looks at, the circumcising of the heart that renders us acceptable to him. See Deuteronomy 30:6. This is the circumcision that is not made with hands, Colossians 2:11,12. Casting away the body of sin. So it is in the spirit, in our spirit as the subject, and wrought by God’s Spirit as the author of it. (3.) The praise thereof, though it be not of men, who judge according to outward appearance, yet it is of God, that is, God himself will own and accept and crown this sincerity; for he seeth not as man seeth. Fair pretences and a plausible profession may deceive men: but God cannot be so deceived; he sees through shows to realities. This is alike true of Christianity. He is not a Christian that is one outwardly, nor is that baptism which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Christian that is one inwardly, and baptism is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter, whose praise is not of men but of God.

John MacArthur has a similar perspective. Obeying God’s law is what counts:

the Jew thought, just because I’m circumcised, I’m okay. It’s a perfect parallel to baptism … And the Jew felt, because I have the mark of the covenant, I’m okay. And here Paul says, if you don’t keep it, it doesn’t mean anything

It was the sign of God’s promise. It was the sign of God’s blessing. It was the sign of God’s protection and care and love, but it didn’t mean a thing if he didn’t keep the law. That message is also repeated in the fifth chapter of Galatians. He says, “I testify to every man that is circumcised that he’s a debtor to keep the law.” If you’re circumcised, it doesn’t mean you’re free from the law. It just means you’re in the covenant and you’ve got to keep it all. You want to know the truth of it? And this is the most interesting thought, I don’t know if you ever thought of it, circumcision was a symbol of the fact that men were condemned, not that they were saved. Because if you were circumcised it said you were in the covenant and the covenant was that you had to keep the law. So it was a sign of your lostness, not your redemption. It was a constant reminder that you had to keep God’s law, you were in the covenant. You had to keep God’s law. And you couldn’t keep God’s law so you were lost. But to them, just being circumcised was their security.

In fact, the rabbis said. I’ll quote some of the rabbis. “No circumcised man will see hell.” Rabbi Joel Kut Rabin said, “Circumcision saves us from hell.” In the midrash, it says, “God swore to Abraham that no one who was circumcised would be sent to hell. Abraham sits before the gate of hell and never allows any circumcised Israelite to enter.” Now they believed they were saved by that. All that was was a constant reminder that they were responsible to the covenant. It was an outward sign of an inward responsibility. It was an outward sign of an inward obligation and duty before God.

In Jeremiah 6:9 it says, “Thus saith the Lord of hosts, They shall thoroughly glean the remnant of Israel as a vine. Turn back thine hand. Like a grape, gather into the baskets. To whom shall I speak and give warning that they may hear? Behold, their ear is uncircumcised and they cannot hearken.” Circumcised became then the concept of a spiritual reality, or the symbol of a spiritual reality. God wanted ears that were circumcised, that is, obedient to the covenant. Later on in chapter 9 he talks about circumcising the heart. God wanted an obedient ear to hear the truth of God and God wanted an obedient heart to respond to the truth of God.

Now look at verse 26. And he looks at the same issue from an opposite angle. “Therefore if the uncircumcision — that’s the Gentiles, the ones that aren’t circumcised — keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision?” In other words, a Gentile who keeps the law of God is going to be included in the covenant blessing even if he isn’t circumcised. And he’s only reinforcing verse 25, circumcision doesn’t mean anything. If you break the law, it isn’t going to help you. And if you keep the law, it isn’t necessary. The point being, circumcision is not necessary. Everything depends on whether you keep the law. Everything depends on obedience.

You go back to chapter 2, verse 6. God will render to every man according to his circumcision. Is that what it says? “According to (his what?) his deeds,” his works. So circumcision, mark this, has no inherent value. It has no efficacy. It has no power to redeem. It is only a symbol. And not a symbol that everything is okay, but a symbol that everything is not okay because it reminds me that I’m obligated to keep the whole law. There is no security in that symbol. There is only insecurity, because man can’t keep the law whether he’s circumcised or not. And in chapter 4 we’ll get into this in more detail when he shows how Abraham was righteous before he was ever circumcised, so that his circumcision had nothing to do with whether or not he was righteous.

Now a fatal shot in verse 27. And here is the last verse that deals with their security, the fatal shot. “And shall not uncircumcision — that’s the Gentile by nature, Gentiles by nature — if it fulfill the law, judge thee, who by the letter in circumcision dost transgress the law?” You know what that says? An obedient Gentile will be the judge of a disobedient, a disobedient Jew. Oh that is… They don’t want to hear that. The Gentile will not really assume the role of a judge. That’s not the idea here. God is the judge. But the Gentile will assume the role of a witness for the prosecution. Why? Listen to this. If a Jew comes into the court and says, “Hey, I mean, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.” All God has to say is, “You see this uncircumcised Gentile, he did what was right and he didn’t know what you knew, therefore he is living testimony of your guilt.” You see? It’s an interesting argument on Paul’s part.

The obedience of an uncircumcised Gentile is proof of the responsibility of a circumcised Jew. They held on to circumcision like people do to infant baptism

Baptism does not confer automatic salvation in and of itself. We must obey God’s precepts through the help of Jesus, our only Mediator and Advocate with the Father.

Next time — Romans 3:1-22a