NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWO (Lesson XXVI)
Verse 27: And will not he who is physically uncircumcised if he keeps the Law, judge you who still break the Law although you have it in writing and are circumcised?
There is no way that the Roman believers could escape Paul’s repeated theme of obedience being better than obligation. Not only that but how those who are obedient, even though they have never experienced physical circumcision, are putting to shame those who do pride themselves in their circumcision but are not in harmony through obedience with the very law that requires it.
Jesus spotted the same quandary when he compared the Pharisees and teachers of the Law with the pagans of Nineveh. He warned them: “On judgment day, you people who live now will be compared with the people of Nineveh, and they will be witnesses who show how guilty you are. Why do I say this? Because when Jonah preached to those people, they changed the way they lived. And you are listening to someone greater than Jonah, but you refuse to change!”1
Several early church scholars give their impressions of what Paul is saying here. Origen says: “The Jew according to the flesh may keep the law, but only the man who is spiritual… can fulfill it. Insofar as the former is a transgressor of the law, it is the latter who will be his judge.”2 And Ambrosiaster adds this: “The Gentile who believes through the guidance of conscience condemns the Jew, to whom Christ was promised through the law and who refused to believe in Him when He came. For as much as the Gentile is being prepared for glory by having known the Creator of nature by conscience alone, so the Jew deserves to be punished all the more because he did not know Christ the Creator, either by conscience or by the law.”3
Then Chrysostom offers his view that there are two types of people who do not live in compliance to the Law, one who is uninformed and the other by choice. He speaks here of those who are not physically circumcision and goes on to say that if they keep the law, they will judge the judge the physically circumcised who breaks it. He writes: “For this kind of uncircumcision is offended when the law is broken and comes to its defense.… It is not the law which is dishonored but the one who disgraces the law.”4 And Pelagius says: “This either means that as long as the Jews continue their physical circumcision, they reject the spiritual circumcision, or that they will be judged because they have not followed what the law said, that is, that by believing in Christ they might receive the true circumcision.”5
Reformer John Calvin says that Paul does not imply that they violated the law. They had the physical circumcision; but because they continued, though they had the outward rite, to neglect the inward spiritual worship of God, even through devotion, justice, judgment, and truth, which are the chief matters of the law.6
John Bengel sees the same argument here by Paul concerning the Letter of the Law versus the Spirit of the Law as spoken of in chapter 7.7 And Albert Barnes makes this note on the standard translation of “Who by the letter of the Law.” He writes: “The translation here is certainly not happily expressed. It is difficult to ascertain its meaning… The word ‘letter’ properly means the mark or character from which syllables and words are formed. It is also used in the sense of writing of any kind Luke 16:6-7; Acts 28:21; Galatians 6:11, particularly the writings of Moses, denoting, by way of eminence, the letter, or the writing; Romans 7:6; 2 Timothy 3:15.”8
In other words, a Gentile was never given a written law, purity rites, or circumcision. However, once he hears the written law, he consciously tries to follow it without participating in all the commandments, rites and rituals the Jews practice. Yet, the Jews say the Gentile is still unrighteous because he had not been circumcised. Meanwhile, the Jew who has the written law but is not following it to the letter calls himself righteous because he has been circumcised and engages in all the rites and rituals of his religion. Paul says that in the end the Gentile will be considered more righteous than the Jew.
Then revivalist Adam Clarke makes this comment: “If the Gentile is found to act according to the spirit and design of the law, his acting thus uprightly, according to the light which God has afforded him, will be reckoned to him as if he were circumcised and walked agreeably to the law.”9 Then another scholar of that same period suggests this: “We might begin Romans 2:27 as an affirmative proposition: and so He will judge you. But perhaps it is more in keeping with the lively tone of the piece to continue in Romans 2:27 the interrogation of Romans 2:26. The thought is analogous to Luke 11:31-32, and Matthew 12:41-42, though the case is different. For there are Gentiles who condemn the Jews by the example of their repentance and their love of truth; here, it is the case of Christians of Gentile origin condemning the Jews by their fulfillment of the law.”10
Henry Alford says that he does not regard this verse as a continuation of the question in the previous verse but as a separate emphatic assertion, and as leading the way to the next verse. The assertion is this: If a Gentile remains in their natural state of being uncircumcised, yet they live up to the moral requirements of the law, they will be used as an example to judge (Greek “krinō”) the Jews who fail to live up to the moral requirements of the law? Alford then points to Matthew 12:41-42 where the word judgment (Greek “krisis”) is used in a similar manner.11 Jewish scholar David Stern agrees: “Paul presses his case against sanctimoniousness in general and its Jewish form in particular. The Greek word ‘krinei’ may be rendered ‘will judge,’ ‘is judging,’ or, as here, ‘will, by his very existence and manifestly righteous behavior, stand as a continual judgment.’”12 And another Jewish writer makes this point: “This does not mean Gentiles will sit with God in judgment of Jews one day. Rather, the obedience of righteous Gentiles will serve as witnesses (along with Torah) against Jews who violate Torah.”13
If we put this in perspective for today’s believer, it would make more sense to use water baptism rather than circumcision. In that light, we could illustrate this by saying that if a church member who is baptized but does not follow the teachings of Christ yet criticizes an unbaptized nonmember who is living up to the standards of Christ’s teachings, then the unbaptized nonmember is more in line with God’s will than the baptized member. This points out, that internal baptism of a person’s spirit by the blood of Jesus is more effective than the external baptism of a person’s body by water to identify them as part of the body of Christ.
Verses 28-29: You are not a true Jew if you are only a Jew in your physical body. True circumcision is not only on the outside of the body. A true Jew is one who is a Jew inside. True circumcision is done in the heart. It is done by the Spirit, not by the written law. And anyone who is circumcised in the heart by the Spirit gets praise from God, not from people.
There can be no doubt that about the fact that Paul was targeting those Jews who were in Rome and their discrimination against the Gentiles around them. While it is not said specifically, there can also be little doubt that some friction may have occurred between the Jewish leaders and non-Jews who were part of the congregation. It reminds me of the situation I found during my visit to the island of Fiji where they imported so many workers from India to harvest their crops, that after many decades the number of such immigrants began to exceed the number of indigenous Fijians. The church there was made up of both descendants of Indian immigrants and native Fijians. But to my surprise, they did not worship together. The Fijian leadership felt that they were best suited to lead the church. So this caused friction between them and was not the best representation of Christian brotherly love to the unconverted Fijians around them. So it was as more and more non-Jews became part of the Jewish Messianic congregation in Rome, they wanted more and more leadership positions as well. So Paul had a real job on his hands in bringing them together.
Paul handled a similar conflict among the believers in churches throughout Galatia. Some of those who came preaching after Paul left were promoting the benefit of circumcision. So Paul wrote: “I hope I will never boast about things like that. The cross of our Lord Jesus Christ is my only reason for boasting… It doesn’t matter if anyone is circumcised or not. The only thing that matters is this new life we have from God. Peace and mercy to those who put this rule into effect among all God’s people.”14 Paul will have more to say about this later in this letter.
This extrapolation of virtues from members of one culture or religion to members of another was not foreign to Jewish thinkers. In their own writings, some Jewish Rabbis were discussing how some people who were not born Jews could be referred to as Jews. Rabbi Johanan said: “Anyone who repudiates idolatry is called ‘a Jew’.”15 In this same place, they speak of Bithyah the daughter of Pharaoh who married Mered who is also called a Jewess because she too repudiated idolatry.16 And in a medieval Jewish document written as a polemic against Christianity, it nevertheless says: “Faith does not depend upon circumcision, but upon the heart: he that believes not as he should, circumcision does not make him a Jew; and he that believes as he ought, he indeed is a Jew, though he is not circumcised.”17 At this point, it may be difficult to apply what Paul is saying here to our modern world. However, when we see how the churches are divided today along denominational lines, it tells the world that Christians have trouble loving one another, so how can they love the sinner. But we can counter that by speaking well of our fellow believers. After all, if it wasn’t for varied tastes and preferences, there wouldn’t be so many restaurants to choose from.
1 Matthew 12:41; See also 12:42 on the Queen of Sheba
2 Origen: On Romans, loc, cit.
3 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, loc. cit.
4 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 6
5 Pelagius: On Romans, loc. cit.
6 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit. p. 232
8 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 Frederic Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit. p. 22
12 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Messianic Bible: On Romans. op. cit., loc. cit.
14 Galatians 6:15-16
15 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Megillah, folio 13a
16 See 1 Chronicles 4:18
17 Nizzahon Vetus: on Genesis 17