True Jews

Romans 2:17 – 3:18

I’m not sure where it began, but at some point, in some generation, the word of God ceased to be a living revelation. It changed from being the powerful, life-giving Word of God to being a book of rules to be obeyed – a contract to be executed.

Romans 2:17-27 Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker.

They made a fatal error in judgment. The Jews assumed that they were uniquely and permanently God’s chosen people because they were descended from Abraham. They further assumed that God’s favor was on the basis of their being possessors of the Law and of the symbol of the covenant, circumcision.
It brought up a couple of very disturbing questions:
1) What was one’s relationship with God if one believed the law and taught the law and defended the law – but did not live the law?
2) Second, what if one had the mark of the covenant, but was not faithful to the covenant?

I hate to step on any toes, but it sounds a whole lot like some folks I know who assume that if you go to the right church, believe the right doctrine, and have been baptized with the right formula, that you are a shoe-in with God. Living the Christian life, being an active part of the body, growing in spiritual qualities are optional extras.
It was, and is, a subtle form of legalism. God gives us a list, we follow the list, God is obligated to reward us.

God has never been pleased – and has never rewarded his people for wearing the name without living the life. His desire has never been for ritual obedience without absolute commitment. Simply to be a Jew, or to have your name on the membership roll of a church has never brought God’s pleasure.

What God wants is not someone who can trace his lineage back to Abraham, or proudly point to his law keeping and his circumcision. That’s not what makes a Jew. A true Jew is not one who merely wears the physical mark or participates in some routine ritual of his faith, but one whose faith reaches all the way down to his heart. Listen once again – Rom. 2:28-29 “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.”

I told you last week that Paul had read the OT. Don’t think Paul has invented something new. God has always wanted his people’s obedience to be deep down and not just for show. And listen to the way God expressed it:
Lev. 26:40-42 “But if they will confess their sins and the sins of their fathers … when their uncircumcised hearts are humbled and they pay for their sin, I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.”
Deut. 10:16 “Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.”
Deut. 30:6 “The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.”
Jer. 4:4 “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, circumcise your hearts, you men of Judah and people of Jerusalem.”
Jer. 9:25-26 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh - Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab and all who live in the desert in distant places. For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.”
Are you a true Jew? The key is not from whom you came, but to whom your heart belongs.

Now, all this is very unsettling. Paul has attacked the very foundations of their religion – their keeping of the law and circumcision – the symbol of their covenant relationship with God. It sounds like he has no respect – total contempt for their heritage – that there is no value at all in claiming to be one of God’s chosen people.

Paul asks the question in 3:1 that is on all of their minds – “What advantage is there in being a Jew?” Is it all for nothing? Does being God’s chosen count for nothing?
Not at all! He continues by saying, “Much in every way! // First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God.” Paul will come back to this issue in ch. 9-11. He’ll come back to this same question and say, they are “the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised!” (9:4-5).

We might ask the similar question: Is there any advantage to being raised in a Christian family? There is tremendous advantage. Your life is immersed in things of God. You get to grow up worshiping God, you grow up in Bible class, you learn from an early age what God’s will is and all of the influences in your life are pulling you in the right direction. But with great privilege comes great responsibility.

Some people don’t have those advantages – they aren’t raised in church learning about God – they don’t have those habits ingrained in their lives. Does God expect any less obedience from them? No, but if you have all those advantages and then choose not to live for the Lord – I think of the words of the Hebrews writer. He speaks of those “who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age -- if they fall away… they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace” (Heb. 6:4-6).

How many people I’ve talked to who think that salvation is genetic. “I was raised in the church – baptized when I was 12 – I haven’t been to church in 30 years, but it’s not like I don’t believe in God – of course I’m saved!” / “My mother was a wonderful Christian.” / “My grandmother went to church enough for all of us.”

But Paul writes: For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. (Rom. 9:6)

What if I told you I was a farmer? You’d look at me funny. And so I explain – my dad and grand-dad were farmers – I’ve got 400 acres – I’ve got a pair of overalls in the closet and a tractor in the barn – I get a government check every month for not growing wheat, cotton, potatoes – I’m seriously considering getting into not raising cattle. How convinced would you be about my claim to being a farmer?

Being a Jew (or a Christian) – in name only – is never God’s will.

To be fair, though, some Jews worked very hard at living according to the Law. They were shining examples. Everything God said, they did – literally – to the letter of the law.

Now, certainly God was pleased with them, and they had earned God’s favor – hadn’t they? Their righteousness wasn’t imputed to them, it was real righteousness – earned through hard work and a straight life. Like the rock-stacking brother in the parable, they believed that when they finally make it back up the river through their own hard work and determination, that they will have earned the Father’s mercy and forgiveness. (And just between us, we don’t think there’s a whole lot he’ll need to forgive at that!) We’ll be in heaven because we deserve to be in heaven.

Let’s listen to some other NT writers for a moment:
James 2:10-11 “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.”

Acts 15:1,7-11 “Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”... After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

Romans 3:20 “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.”

Paul levels the playing field – Rom. 3:9-12 “What shall we conclude then? Are we any better ? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

Paul’s point? None of us – on the basis of our ancestry, our pedigree, our morality, our law-keeping, our church-going – have any claim on salvation because of our merits.

And none of us – by our family background, our disobedience, our sinfulness – is beyond the reach of God. We all come to God’s throne of mercy with empty hands – nothing of deservedness – all in need of God’s grace. When God chooses people – it is their heart he wants.
Are you a true Jew – chosen by God, circumcised in the heart?

Let me leave you with a story that illustrates what I’m talking about:
Jonas and Elisabeth were a simple, illiterate couple who lived in London. Jonas wanted to do something meaningful – something to help others – so he began volunteering at the Salvation Army mission. He loved the work, providing food and clothing to homeless people. But one day he came home dejected and downcast. His wife Elisabeth asked, “What’s the matter?”
He said, “All of the people down at the SA wear red sweaters, and I don’t have a red sweater.” She said, “I’ll knit one.” So she knitted him a red sweater. He was thrilled.
The next day, when he came home, he looked sadder than before. “What’s wrong this time?” she asked. “Everyone else’s sweater has yellow writing on it.” “Don’t worry, I’ll embroider some writing on it for you.”
Now, she had no idea what the yellow writing on the red SA sweaters said. (Anybody know? It’s a yellow circle with the words, “BLOOD AND FIRE.” That’s their motto. Unbutton the jacket of one of those bell ringers some time and tell him you’re just checking!)
Since Elisabeth didn’t know and couldn’t read, she chose the most convenient writing she could find – the words on a sign in a store window across the street from their apartment.
When Jonas came home the next day, she asked him, “Did they like your sweater?” “They loved my sweater. Some of them said they like my sweater better than theirs.”
What neither of them knew, was the sign on the storefront read, “UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT.”

That’s what it means to be circumcised in heart and a true child of God.