NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWO (Lesson XXVII)
Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria also had several comments on how to view the act of moral circumcision. In one place he says: “The rite of circumcision is an emblem of cutting out of all the pleasures and of all the passions, and of the destruction of that irreverent opinion, according to which the mind has imagined itself to be by itself competent to think on its own.”1 And in another place, Philo talks about circumcision as being a symbol of two things of the most vital importance. First, the cutting off of the pleasures which deceive the mind. And second, the discarding of that terrible disease, the arrogance of the soul.2 But Philo also warned against those who sought the novelty of being able to claim they experienced the “circumcision of circumcision” or the “purification of purification.”3 By that they mean, that the purified soul was itself able to purified, giving them the power to cleanse their life of all stains without the assistance of divine wisdom. This sounds very much like what Jesus accused the Pharisees of claiming in their claims of self-righteousness. I’m certain Paul was hoping and praying that the Jewish leaders in the church at Rome never reached that point of arrogance.
But to best understand these verses in context, go back and start reading from chapter 1:16. Paul is primarily speaking to Christian Jews who still depend faithfully on keeping every single law to justify their salvation. He wants them to know that salvation ceased to be based on external oblations after Christ the Lamb of God was slain for our sins. Furthermore, the physical sign of circumcision denoting someone as being part of God’s chosen people lost its divine significance and remains important for medicinal purposes only. The heart is now the object of this ritual. Displaying superficial signs as evidence of being children of God is no longer acceptable in God’s eyes. If the teachings of Christ are not written on the tablets of one’s heart, all physical expressions of dedication are in vain. We no longer work to acquire salvation, that work was done by Jesus Christ on the cross.
Early church father Origen has an interesting take on this subject: “We must realize that in some people these two things go together while in others they do not. For there are some things which have their beginning inside a man and which proceed from there to the outside, but there are other things which start on the outside and work their way inside. What I mean is this. If chastity begins inside a man, there is no doubt that it will manifest itself on the outside of him as well. For it is hardly possible if someone does not commit adultery in his heart that he should do so in his body. But it does not follow from this that if chastity starts as an outward observance that it will necessarily penetrate to the point of inner restraint so that if someone does not commit adultery in his body, it will follow immediately that he does not do so in his heart either. Therefore, the circumcision of the inner and the outer man must be understood allegorically as meaning that the inner man should not lust in his heart, nor should the outer man surrender to lust in his body, so that he whom the apostle says is no longer in the flesh but in the Spirit, and who mortifies the deeds of the flesh by the Spirit, may be said to be circumcised in the flesh as well.”4
Then Ambrosiaster has this to say: “It is clear why Paul denies that circumcision of the flesh has any merit with God. For Abraham was not justified because he was circumcised; rather, he was justified because he believed, and afterward he was circumcised. It is the circumcision of the heart which is praiseworthy before God. To circumcise the heart means to cut out error and recognize the Creator. And because the circumcision of the heart was to come in the future, first Moses said: ‘Circumcise the hardness of your heart,‘5 and Jeremiah also: ‘Circumcise the foreskin of your heart.’6 He said this to Jews who were following idols.”7
This brings up the same prospect of those today who are adherents of a particular Christian denomination because it was handed down to them from their grandparents through their parents. They did not join this church because of their own convictions but as a matter of their family’s religious tradition. So for instance, if someone says, “I’m Catholic,” or “I’m a Methodist,” or “I’m a Pentecostal, it may not be that they studied the doctrine and compared it to the Holy Scriptures, but merely because they were raised that way. So it was with many of the Jewish leaders in Rome.
This same thought led Reformist John Calvin to write: “The meaning is, that a real Jew is not to be ascertained, either by natural descent, or by profession, or by an external symbol; that the circumcision which constitutes a Jew, does not consist in an outward sign only, but that both are inward. And what he appends with regard to true circumcision, is taken from various passages of Scripture, and even from its general teaching; for the people are everywhere commanded to circumcise their hearts, and it is what the Lord promises to do. The foreskin was cut off, not indeed as the small corruption of one part, but as that of the whole nature. Circumcision then signified the mortification of the whole flesh.”8
Calvin goes on to say: “He (Paul) calls the outward rite, without piety, the letter (of the law), and the spiritual design of this rite, the spirit (of the law); for the whole importance of signs and rites depends on what is designed; when the end in view is not regarded, the letter (of the law) alone remains, which in itself is useless. And the reason for this mode of speaking is this, — where the voice of God sounds, all that He commands, except it, be received by men in sincerity of heart, will remain in the letter (of the law), that is, in the dead writing; but when it penetrates into the heart, it is in a manner transformed into spirit (of the law).”9
John Bengel joins Calvin in the understanding that a Jew who outwardly appears to be genuine because of his circumcision and ceremonial observance is not a real Jew. A genuine Jew is one who is inwardly circumcised of the heart, not just in the flesh. To bring this up-to-date and apply it to Christianity, we could also say that a Christian who outwardly appears to be genuine because of their baptism and ceremonial observance, is not a true Christian. A true Christian is one who is inwardly circumcised of the heart (through the new birth), not just in the flesh.
Albert Barnes follows this same line of thinking. He writes: “‘Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’10 The praise of God can be bestowed only on those who really conform, and not externally only, to His requirements. The remarks which are made here respecting the Jews, are also strictly applicable to professing Christians, and we may learn: 1. That the external rites of religion are of much less importance than the state of the heart. 2. That the only value of those rites is to promote holiness of heart and life. 3. That the mere fact that we are born of pious ancestors will not save us. 4. That the fact that we were dedicated to God in baptism will not save us. 5. That a mere profession of religion, however orthodox may be our creed, will not save us. 6. That the estimate which people may put on our piety is not the proper measure of our true character and standing. 7. It is an inexpressible privilege to be in possession of the Word of God and to know our duty. It may, if improved, contribute to our elevation in holiness and happiness here, and to our eternal happiness hereafter. 8. It is also a fearful thing to neglect the privileges which we enjoy. We shall be judged according to the light which we have, and it will be an awful event to go to eternity from a Christian land unprepared. 9. Whatever may be the destiny of the pagan, it is our duty to make preparation to meet God. The most wicked of the pagans may meet a far milder doom than many who are externally moral, or who profess religion in Christian lands. Instead, therefore, of speculating on what may be their destiny, it is the duty of every individual to be at peace himself with God, and to flee from the wrath to come.”11
Charles Hodge confirms what many Bible scholars are saying: To understand this better, says Hodge, take verse 28 as a negative statement and verse 29 as an affirmative statement of this general truth. From a doctrinal point of view, religion and religious services, to be acceptable to God, must begin in the heart. Mere external homage is of no account. This is what Jesus told the Samaritan woman when He said: “The time is coming when you will not have to be in Jerusalem or on this mountain to worship the Father… God is spirit. So the people who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”12 Hodge goes on: “If the heart be right in the sight of God, it matters little what judgment men may form of us; and, on the other hand, the approbation of men is a poor substitute for the favor of God.”13
In other words, wearing crosses around our necks or on our lapels on the outside will not guarantee that we are true Christians inside. Neither will attending church and reading the Bible just for show, nor repeating prayers or participating in rites, rituals, or sacraments. One of the greatest compliments a believer can receive is when someone tells them: “I just knew you were a Christian by your demeanor, the way you act, and the way you talk.” That’s what Jesus meant when He told us to let our light shine so that people could see the good work that God has done in our lives.14
1 Philo of Alexandria: On the Migration of Abraham, Ch. 16 (92)
2 Ibid. Special Laws I, A Treatise on Circumcision, Ch. 2 (8-10)
3 Ibid. On Dreams, Bk. 2, Ch. 4 (25)
4 Origen: On Romans, loc. cit
5 Deuteronomy 10:16
6 Jeremiah 4:4
7 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, loc. cit.
8 John Calvin: On Romans, loc cit.
10 1 Samuel 16:7
11 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 John 4:21, 24
13 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 101, 104-105
14 Matthew 5:16