NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWO (Lesson XXIII)
In response to Paul’s quoting of both Isaiah and Ezekiel on God’s name was being defamed by the Jew’s bad behavior, one of the earliest church fathers had this to say: “There is a blasphemy which we must avoid completely, that is, that any of us should give a pagan a reason to blaspheme [God’s name] because of our deceit or injury or insult or some other matter justifying their complaint. It is that blasphemy in which the Name [of God] is undeservedly blamed so that the Lord is deservedly angry. But the words ‘Because of you, my Name is blasphemed’ seem to cover every blasphemy. So then, are we all at risk since the whole Roman circus assails the Name for no fault of ours with its wicked outcries? Shall we stop being Christians in order for there to be less blasphemy? No! If the blasphemy continues, we will abide by our discipline, not abandon it, as long as we are being approved and not condemned. The blasphemy, which affirms our Christian faith by proving us, is in close proximity to martyrdom. To curse us for keeping our discipline is to bless our [Lord’s] Name.”1 This message by Tertullian is just as critical for Christians to hear now as it was back then. We should never let those who assail the name of Christ and our holy way of living be a reason or excuse for believers to cut back or try to hide their dedication and commitment to Christ and His cause.
Adam Clarke offers a paraphrase of the previous four verses, from another Bible scholar in his day, that goes like this: “What signifies your pretensions to knowledge, and the office of teaching others, if you have no regard for your own doctrine? Why are you better for preaching against theft, if you are a thief yourself? Or for declaring adultery unlawful, if you practice it yourself? Or for representing idolatry as abominable if you are guilty of sacrilege? What honors or singular favors do you deserve, if, while you glory in the law and your religious privileges, you dishonor God, and discredit His religion, by transgressing His law, and living in open contradiction to your profession?”2
Clarke goes on to say: “And this is more than supposition; notorious instances might be produced of the aforementioned crimes, whereby the Jews of the present age have brought a reproach upon religion among the Gentiles; as well as those Jews of former times, of whom the Prophet Ezekiel speaks, ‘I will set apart my great Name to be regarded as holy, since it has been profaned in the nations — you profaned it among them.’3”4 I wonder what Clarke would say today when news is broadcast that churches continue to adopt practices and conduct among its members that once were considered an abomination to God?
Charles Spurgeon ends this section of verses 7-24 in a loquacious manner: He writes: “Professor, what will you think of yourself when your robes are taken from you, when your crown of profession is taken from your head, and you withstand the hiss of even vile men, the scoff of blasphemers, the jeer of those who whatever they were, were not hypocrites, as you are? They will yell at you, “Have you become like one of us? You professor, You high-flying man, have you become like one of us?” And you will hide your guilty heads in the dark pit of perdition, but all in vain, for you never will be able to avoid that hiss which will always greet you. “What! you!” the drunkard whom you told to drink no more will say “Have you become like one of us?” And the harlot whom you scorned, and the young degenerate man whom you warned, will stare you in the face, and say, “What! you! You who talked of religion. A pretty fellow you were! Are you now one of us?” Oh! I think I hear them saying in hell, “Here’s a parson, come here; here’s a deacon; here’s a church member; here’s a man who has had the sacramental wine on his lips; here’s a man that has had the baptismal water on his garments.”5
Charles Hodge explains how to understand what the prophets meant by God’s name being profaned by Jews living among heathens. He writes: “Both Isaiah and Ezekiel, indeed, refer to that blaspheming of God by the heathen, which arose from the misery of his people, whose God they were thus led to regard as unable to protect His worshipers. This, however, does not render the reference of the apostle less appropriate; for it is the mere fact that God’s name was blasphemed among the Gentiles, on account of the Jews, that the apostle means to confirm by this reference to the Scriptures. And besides, as their sins were the cause of their captivity, their sins were the cause also of the evil speaking of God, of which their sufferings were the immediate occasion.”6
Jewish scholar David Stern gives his view why blasphemy resulting from bad Jewish behavior: “The result of the behavior described in verses 17-23 is that, far from being a ‘light to the Gentiles’ (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6), as he is supposed to be, such a Jew plunges them further into darkness, causing them to harden their hearts: because of you… God’s name is blasphemed by the Goyim (Greek ethnê, 1:5b–6)7. One may add that, with the necessary changes, the same accusation can be made of some who ‘call themselves’ (v. 17) Christians: by leading lives that shame God they cause Jewish people to despise the Messiah and distance themselves even further. Fortunately, God’s truth does not depend on them, and there are others whose lives are a better testimony. In the thirteenth century the moralist, Rabbi Moses of Coucy, wrote, ‘Those who lie freely to non-Jews and steal from them, are worse than ordinary criminals. They are blasphemers; for it is due to their guilt, that some say, “Jews have no binding law, no moral standards.”’ ( From Semag, as quoted by Hertz in his Prayerbook, p. 723)”8
Verse 25: If you follow the law, then your circumcision as a Jew has meaning. But if you break the law, then it is as if you were never circumcised as a Jew.
Now Paul turns the corner and starts his exposition on what it means to be a genuine Jewish believer. It does not depend solely upon being conceived by Jewish parents or born in Israel. It has to do first of all with receiving the sign God gave to Abraham. But even that is not enough. The taking of that sign is a form of agreement to follow the Law that God gave to Moses. So the one does not have any meaning without the other. We could liken it today to the combination between being baptized and obeying the teachings of Christ. If a person says they are a Christian because they were baptized but do not carry out the teachings of Christ, their claim is invalid. Likewise, anyone who says they do all that Jesus said to do but they have never been baptized, then their efforts are also in vain. God is not impressed by what a person does to please Him. He is more interested in what a person is in order to please Him.
God’s word to His people concerning spiritual circumcision was sent through the prophet Jeremiah a long time ago and was very clear: “People of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, circumcise yourselves for Adonai, remove the foreskins of your heart!”9 Before Paul wrote this letter to the Romans, he mentioned the same thing to the congregations in Galatia: “It doesn’t matter if anyone is circumcised or not. The only thing that matters is this new life we have from God.”10 This too was similar to the message Jeremiah received from the LORD: “The time is coming when I will punish all those who are circumcised only in the flesh. I am talking about the people of the nations of Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab, and all those who live in the desert. The circumcision they do is not the kind the Lord wants. But the people of Israel are not really circumcised either. They are not circumcised in their hearts.”11
So we can see that as far back as Jeremiah there were those who practiced circumcision to copy the Jews. Also, there were Jews who were circumcised but did not have a change of heart. In God’s eyes, neither one was genuine. As Stephen, the first Christian martyr spoke to those who were about to kill him said: “You stubborn Jewish leaders! You refuse to give your hearts to God or even listen to Him. You are always against what the Holy Spirit wants you to do. That’s how your ancestors were, and you are just like them!”12
Both early church scholars Chrysostom and Ambrosiaster have similar thoughts on Paul’s thinking on the role of circumcision. First, Chrysostom says: “Paul accepts the value of circumcision in theory but abolishes it in practice. For circumcision is only useful if the person circumcised keeps the law.… But a circumcised person who breaks the law is really uncircumcised, and Paul condemns him without hesitation.”13 Then, Ambrosiaster notes: “An opponent might say: ‘If circumcision is of value, why was it stopped?’ It is only of value if you keep the law. Circumcision may be retained, therefore, but if it is to be of any value, the law must be observed. So why did Paul prohibit what he shows to be of value if the law is observed? Paul answers by saying that if the law is not kept, the Jew effectively becomes a Gentile.… But to keep the law is to believe in Christ, who was promised to Abraham. Those who are justified by faith have their own merit and are included in the honor shown to the patriarchs. For every mention of salvation in the law refers to Christ. Therefore, the man who believes in Christ is the man who keeps the law. But if he does not believe then he is a transgressor of the law because he has not accepted Christ … and it is no advantage for him to be called a son of Abraham.”14
Reformer John Calvin gives some thought to this aspect of circumcision. He says: “They [the Jews] thought that circumcision was of itself sufficient for the purpose of obtaining righteousness. Hence, speaking according to such an opinion, he gives this reply — That if this benefit [is to] be expected from circumcision, it is on this condition, that he who is circumcised, must serve God wholly and perfectly. Circumcision then requires perfection. The same may also be said of our baptism: when anyone confidently relies on the water of baptism alone and thinks that he is justified, as though he had obtained holiness by that ordinance itself, the end of baptism must be adduced as an objection; which is, that the Lord thereby calls us to holiness of life: the grace and promise, which baptism testifies and seals, need not, in this case, to be mentioned; for our business is with those who, being satisfied with the empty shadow of baptism, care not for nor consider what is material in it. And this very thing you may observe in Paul — that when he speaks to the faithful [believer] of signs, apart from controversy, he connects them with the efficacy and fulfillment of the promises which belong to them; but when he contends with the absurd and unskillful interpreters of signs, he omits all mention of the proper and true character of signs, and directs his whole discourse against their perverted interpretation.”15 How true, that some believers today have done to baptism what the Jews did to circumcision. That is, they point to the ritual as a sign of their special status in God’s sight rather than pointing to their obedience to the Word of God as the result of their being baptized.”
1 Tertullian: On Idolatry 14
2 Adam Clarke: On Romans, loc, cit.
3 Ezekiel 36:23
4 Adam Clarke: ibid.
5 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Goyim became the Latin word “gentilis” which was anglicized as “Gentiles” and means “of the same family or clan, and after the Christianization of Rome it was used to denote pagans or heathens
8 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Jeremiah 4:4
10 Galatians 6:15
11 Jeremiah 9:26
12 Acts of the Apostles 7:51
13 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans, loc. cit.
14 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, loc. cit.
15 John Calvin: On Romans, loc. cit.