NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWO (Lesson XXIV)
Reformation leader John Calvin continues his comments on the misleading role of circumcision in Jewish thinking: “Now many, seeing that Paul brings forward circumcision rather than any other part of the law, suppose that he takes away justification only from ceremonies: but the matter is quite otherwise; for it always happens, that those who dare to set up their own merits against the righteousness of God, glory more in outward observances than in real goodness… As to the Pharisees, who were satisfied with imitating holiness by an outward disguise, it is no wonder that they so easily deluded themselves.”1 Scholar John Bengel offers a similar view by pointing out that Paul not only turns his adversary’s own principles against them, but also speaks his own mind, and shows, that they who trust in circumcision, while they break the law, are deceiving themselves.2
Methodist scholar Adam Clarke adds it is a blessing to belong to God’s church and wear the sign of the covenant [baptism], provided the terms of the covenant are complied with. But, if you do not observe the conditions of the covenant, the outward sign is both without meaning and without effect. This was a maxim of the Rabbis themselves; for even they allowed that an apostate or ungodly Israelite must go to hell, notwithstanding his circumcision.3
Albert Barnes also points out the deception of believing that anything we do, can be substituted for what only God can do. He writes: “The mere sign can be of no value, The mere fact of being a Jew is not what God requires. It may be a favor to have His Law, but the mere possession of the Law cannot entitle [one] to the favor of God. So it is a privilege to be born in a Christian land; to have had pious parents; to be surrounded by the ordinances [sacraments] of religion; to be trained in Sunday school; and to be devoted to God in baptism: for all these are favorable circumstances for salvation. But none of them entitle [someone] to God’ favor.”4 Henry Alford says that when this happens the Jewish transgressor is no better off than the Gentile transgressor.5 And we can add, that the same kind of delusion leaves the church member no better off than the unconverted sinner.
And Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodges points out the way circumcision was viewed by the Jews as an example of how baptism can be considered by Christians. He writes: “If any Jew fulfilled his part of the national covenant, and in that sense kept the law, his circumcision profited him. It secured to him all the advantages of Judaism. But this rite was, in the second place, attached to the spiritual covenant formed with Abraham; that is, ‘it was a seal of the righteousness of faith;’ it was designed as an assurance that Abraham was, in virtue of his faith, regarded as righteous in the sight of God. To all those Jews who had the faith of Abraham, and thus kept the covenant established with him, circumcision was in like manner profitable. It was the visible sign and pledge that all who believed should be justified. On the other hand, if either the national or spiritual covenant was broken, circumcision was of no avail. The fact that an Israelite was circumcised, did not save him from excision from the people if he broke any of the fundamental laws of Moses; neither could circumcision save those who, being destitute of the faith of Abraham, appeared as sinners before the bar of God. Paul, therefore, teaches that circumcision had no inherent, magical efficacy; that it had no value beyond that of a sign and seal; that it secured the blessings of the covenant to those who kept the covenant, but to the transgressors of the law it was of no avail.”6 All we have to do is substitute “baptism” for circumcision, and “Bible” for the law, and we can see how this also applies to Christians.
Frederic Godet has this to say: “Paul knocks from under the Jew the support which he thought he had in his theocratic position, with its sign circumcision. We have seen it; the proverb of the Rabbis was: ‘All the circumcised have part in the world to come,’ as if it were really enough to be a Jew to be assured of salvation.7 Now, circumcision had been given to Israel as a consecration to circumcision of the heart, an engagement to holiness, and not as a shelter from judgment in favor of disobedience and defilement. Taken then in this sense, and according to the mind of God, it had its use; but employed in the Rabbinical sense, it formed only an external wall of separation requiring to be overturned. The prophets never ceased to work in this direction.8”9
F. F. Bruce points out: “This lesson had already been taught in part by Jeremiah: ‘Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will punish all those who are circumcised but yet uncircumcised—Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab … for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.’10 Israel’s neighbors, for the most part, practiced circumcision (the Philistines were a notorious exception); but the circumcision of Israel’s neighbors was not a sign of God’s covenant, as Israelite circumcision was intended to be. Yet, if Israel and Judah departed in heart from God, their physical circumcision would be in God’s sight no better than that of their neighbors: so far as any religious value was concerned, it was no circumcision at all. What God desired was a purified and obedient heart.’11”12
John Stott also examines this subject of circumcision being misunderstood by the Jews. He writes: “If the Jews’ possession and knowledge of the law did not exempt them from the judgment of God, neither did their circumcision. To be sure, circumcision was a God-given sign and seal of his covenant with them.13 But it was not a magical ceremony or a charm. It did not provide them with permanent insurance cover against the wrath of God. It was no substitute for obedience; it constituted rather a commitment to obedience. Yet the Jews had an almost superstitious confidence in the saving power of their circumcision. Rabbinic sayings expressed it. For example, ‘Circumcised men do not descend into Gehenna,’ and ‘Circumcision will deliver Israel from Gehenna.’14”15
In the Messianic Bible, we find this commentary: “Paul addresses the subject of ‘covenantal arrogance’ – the idea some Jews had that they were righteous before God simply because they were Jews. Paul makes it clear that possessing the Torah is only advantageous for Jews if they are following it. Paul uses the concept of ‘boasting’ in the Torah, and teaches that Jews have nothing to ‘boast’ about. This verse (as with any in Scripture) does not stand alone. Some might take this to mean that as the Jews violate Torah (including rejecting Messiah) that God is done with them as His chosen people. Paul makes it extremely clear in chapters 9-11 of this letter, that this is not the case. Such Jews remain God’s chosen, but now are not fulfilling the role they were given; ‘For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel.’16”17
Verse 26: So, if those who are not circumcised as the Jews are, yet still do what the law says, even though they are not yet circumcised shouldn’t they be accepted as being such?
Again, the apostle Paul ties being circumcised with keeping the law for the circumcision to be valid. Therefore, he argues, if a non-Jew begins to earnestly obey the laws of Moses, should they not then be accepted as true believers even though they have yet to receive the sign of circumcision. Let’s put it another way. If a seminary student named Timothy Goy has completed all his coursework with passing grades, and defended his dissertation before the graduate board’s oral examination to receive a doctoral degree in his field of study, even though he still has not had the diploma actually placed in his hand, wouldn’t it be permissible for people to already call him, Dr. Goy?
This is the same argument we find in Isaiah where God tells the people of Israel: “Any non-Jew believing in Adonai should not say, ‘Adonai will keep me separate from His people’… Non-Jews who join themselves to Adonai to serve Him, to love the name of Adonai, and to be His workers, all who keep Shabbat and do not profane it, and hold fast to my covenant, I will bring them to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer.”18 We see this illustrated in Jesus’ ministry when the non-Jewish Phoenician woman came to Him on behalf of her ill daughter. Jesus told her: “Woman, you have great faith! You will get what you asked for.”19 Later on, the Apostle Peter would experience the same transition of a Roman officer named Cornelius. Luke’s description of Cornelius is very revealing: “He was a devout man. He and all the others who lived in his house were worshipers of the true God. He gave much of his money to help the poor people and always prayed to God.”20 This led Peter to a greater understanding. Peter exclaimed: “I really understand now that God does not consider some people to be better than others. He accepts anyone who worships Him and does what is right. It is not important what nation they come from.”21
Believe it or not, such discrimination by the Jews against non-Jews has been practiced by Christians and continues up to this day. By that I mean, although a person may have a personal relationship with God through their faith in Christ as Lord and Savior, if they are not members of that particular church or denomination, they are not accepted or allowed to participate in certain rites, rituals, or ceremonies. There is no question that they should be required to be members to hold office or participate in organizational matters. But when it comes to receiving communion, washing of feet, and water baptism, such restrictions are purely man-made and not inspired by the Holy Spirit or taught in the Holy Scriptures.
2 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 231-232
3 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 21
6 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 99
7 See Jewish Mishnah, Tractate Sanhedrin, Ch. 10:1
8 Cf. Isaiah 1:10-15; 66:1ff
9 Frederic Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 Jeremiah 9:25-26
11 Cf. Deuteronomy 10:16; See also Jeremiah 4:4
12 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, p. 100
13 Genesis 17:9ff
14 Stott is also referring here to the Jewish Mishnah, Tractate Sanhedrin, Ch. 10:1, “All Israel [even those who were executed by the court for their transgressions] have a portion in the World to Come.” Cf. Genesis 17:10-14. Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph in Medrash Thillium makes this statement: “Circumcision is regarded with favor; for the holy and blessed swear to Abram that no one who was circumcised should descend into Gehenna.”
15 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
16 Romans 9:6
17 Messianic Bible: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
18 Isaiah 56:3, 6-7 – Complete Jewish Bible
19 Matthew 15:28
20 Acts of the Apostles 10:2
21 Ibid. 10:34-35