NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWO (Lesson XXVIII)
John Stott speaks on the same subject of those with an uncircumcised heart: “This concept is not new with Paul since it occurs regularly in the Old Testament. In the Pentateuch, God complains of His people’s ‘uncircumcised hearts;’ appeals to them to circumcise their hearts, and promises that He will do it for them Himself so that they may love Him with all their being.1 Then the prophets use the same imagery. Foreigners are significantly described as ‘uncircumcised in heart and flesh’; those who are ‘circumcised only in the flesh’ and ‘uncircumcised in heart’ will be punished; Yahweh calls on His people to circumcise their hearts, and promises to give them a ‘new heart.’2”3 All of this occurred, of course, before Jesus explained it to a leading Jewish scholar as being born again.4
Stott goes on to write: “What Paul looks for is something more than this, however, namely ‘a circumcision of the heart that completely replaces the physical rite and does not merely complement it.’ It will also be by the Spirit, not by the written code (v. 29b). That is, it will be an inward work of the Holy Spirit which the law, as an external written code, could never effect. This contrast between gramma (letter or code) and pneuma (the Spirit) sums up for Paul the difference between the old covenant (an external law) and the new [covenant] (the gift of the Spirit). He anticipates here what he will elaborate on in 7:6 and 8:4, indeed throughout the whole first half of Chapter 8.5 Further, such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God (v. 29c). This probably alludes to a play on Hebrew words, since Jews were named from their ancestor Judah, and his name in Hebrew was associated with, and may have been derived from, the word for ‘praise.’6”
And finally, Stott makes this point: “Moreover, what Paul writes here about circumcision and being a Jew could also be said about baptism and being a Christian. The real Christian, like the real Jew, is one inwardly; and the true baptism, like the true circumcision, is in the heart and by the Spirit. It is not in this case that the inward and spiritual replace the outward and physical, but rather that the visible sign (baptism) derives its importance from the invisible reality (washing from sin and the gift of the Spirit), to which it bears witness. It is a grave mistake to exalt the sign at the expense of what it signifies.”7 In other words, if baptism is administered on the outside when the inside has not been cleansed of sin, then such baptism is not only in vain, but an insult to Christ’s death on the cross. The outward cleansing of the body by water can never replace the inward cleansing of the heart by the blood of Jesus.
Douglas Moo confirms what most commentators have already said and then goes on to write: “Paul has made clear that being circumcised and possessing the law (v. 27b) do not, by themselves, qualify a person to be part of God’s true, spiritual people. Such outward marks, to be sure, can show that a person belongs to the ‘physical’ Israel. But real Jewishness can never be determined by physical birth, by cuts on our skin, or by devotion to a particular book. To be a ‘real Jew’ is an inward matter. It is marked by the ‘circumcision of the heart,’ a circumcision that comes in the context of the Spirit, not the ‘written code.’”8
Jewish scholar David Stern gives quite a lengthy exposition of these two verses. Here is some of what he says: “This passage is significant for Messianic Judaism because it answers authoritatively the perennial question facing the Jewish community at large and the State of Israel in particular, ‘Who is a Jew?’ The English word ‘Jew’ and the Greek word ‘Ioudaios‘ transliterate Hebrew Y’hudi, which is related to the word ‘hodayah‘ (“praise”). Thus, by etymology a Jew is a God-praiser; and conversely, the praise he should seek and value comes not from other people but from God. This wordplay was surely present in the mind of a Hebrew-speaking religious Jew like Paul but not conveyed either in the English translation or in the Greek text [that] underlies this passage.”9
We are told that Moishe Rosen, a former Orthodox Jew and leader of the organization Jews for Jesus, was fond of saying: “Being born to Christian parents doesn’t make you a Christian any more than being born in a bagel factory makes you a bagel.” Stern comments: “This is true because being a Christian or a Messianic Jew requires faith, which is not transmitted biologically; trusting Yeshua makes anyone a child of God (8:14–15), but, as a Protestant cliché has it, ‘God has no grandchildren.’ However, this interpretation of our text contradicts the halakhic10 definition of a Jew as the child of a Jewish mother or a person converted to Judaism. While Paul does not necessarily bind himself to the rulings of the Pharisees or the rabbis, it does not appear that he questioned this particular point but that he agreed with it (Acts 16:1–3). Therefore, and also because nothing in the book of Romans questions the halakhic definition of a Jew, this cannot be the meaning.”11
Another Jewish commentator writes: “Unfortunately, this verse is often used out of context by some people to show that believers are all ‘spiritual Jews’ and God no longer distinguishes between Jew and Gentile in any way. The context, however, is quite plain – Paul is ‘talking TO Jews’ here – not to Gentiles. The verse comes at the end of several, showing that being a Jew outwardly means nothing to God. He demanded circumcision of their hearts (being ‘born again’) since their beginnings with Abraham. This is the same lesson Yeshua taught in John, chapter 3. Recall that He chastised Nicodemus for not knowing that he had to be born again. As a ‘teacher of Israel,’ Nicodemus should have known that Moses himself taught this. This does not mean that one no longer has to follow the commandments of Torah. They are all still valid (Matthew 5:17-21, Romans 3:31). Following in the spirit means performing the commandments in faith as part of a proper relationship to the One true God. This means not only keeping the Torah’s minimal requirements but going beyond them, as Yeshua taught in Matthew, chapters 5-7.”12
With this, Paul concludes his self-examination test to see how sincere and authentic these leaders in Rome were in promoting their faith in the law as being equal to their faith in Christ. He wants them to know that it is not all talk and no action. Jesus made this clear when He told His disciples that although they may talk about love unless the world can see that love existing and practiced they will not be able to know if they are real disciples.13 And Paul himself declared to the Corinthians that no matter what outward signs they may exhibit to prove themselves as true followers of Christ unless it was done out of love it will all prove to be a worthless exercise.14 That message rang true back then, and it rings true today.
THE END OF CHAPTER TWO
1 Leviticus 26:41; Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6
2 Ezekiel 449: Jeremiah 9:25ff; 4:4; Ezekiel 36:26ff
3 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 John 3:7
5 Cf. 2 Corinthians 3:6
6 Cf., Genesis 29:35; 49:8
7 John Stott: ibid
8 Douglas J. Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 From Halakha: meaning, the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from the Written and Oral Torah
11 Stern: ibid.
12 Messianic Bible: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Cf. John 13:34-35
14 See 1 Corinthians 13:1-3