July 16, 2017
WHO ARE TRULY GOD’S PEOPLE?
(8 of 44 in a series through Romans)
The New Testament, interestingly, has a category of “mystery.” For example, Paul will write about the fact that marriage was designed by God to picture the relationship between Christ and his church as a mystery in Ephesians 5:32. Then, one chapter later, Paul will ask his Ephesian hearers to pray that he might boldly proclaim the “mystery of the gospel” (6:19).
What then does Paul mean by “mystery” so that marriage and even the gospel itself can be labeled with this term? When Paul uses this word he indicates something that was true but somewhat hidden or unclear until the coming, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. So, for example, marriage was designed and always existed to be a picture of Christ and the church, but that this was a key purpose for marriage wasn’t clearly revealed until Christ. Similarly, the gospel itself was declared in the Old Testament, as Genesis 15:6 and 22:18, for example, preached the justification of Gentiles by faith, but this wasn’t really clear until Jesus Christ.
Well, in our text this morning, we don’t find the word “mystery.” But what we do find is Paul shedding light onto something that is present but a bit hidden in the Old Testament, namely, who are truly God’s people? Or, using the language of this text, we might say that Paul is shedding light on who is truly a Jew.
Therefore, my hope this morning is to walk us through what Paul is arguing here, explain it, and move us to be a people who are filled with thanksgiving over the privilege and blessing of being part of God’s people.
And I want to start by pointing out a truth that we can derive from this text but that I want to go ahead and note before even working through the text because it will help us make sense of how Paul can make the statements he’s making. And here it is:
Circumcision and Jewishness itself were both symbols of greater realities
This is a truth that falls under that category of mystery, which is to say that this is somewhat hidden in the Old Testament but is now clear since Christ has come and done his work of redemption. Let me explain what I mean by this point, however.
In Genesis 17, the Lord made a covenant with Abraham, saying, “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. . . . This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (17:7, 10-11).
Now, when you read this text, it becomes clear (as we see in the rest of the OT) that these descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (known as the Jews in contrast to the rest of the world, who were Gentiles) were indeed specially privileged by the Lord, as Paul’s noted in previous verses. They were alone given the law, and God’s presence dwelt in their midst alone. They were the Jews, God’s special people, and the identity marker that showed they were Jews was circumcision. To be a Jew was to be a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. To be a Jew was to be physically circumcised. And to be a Jew was to be among God’s chosen people.
How then, in the text we’re looking at this morning (Rom. 2:25-29) can Paul talk about circumcision becoming uncircumcision, uncircumcision being regarded as circumcision, and Gentiles being Jews? Paul answers by noting in verse 29 that “a Jew is one inwardly and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.” And that makes absolutely no sense unless you understand this: circumcision and Jewishness itself were both symbols of greater realities.
In other words, God used a physical lineage of people and the physical act of circumcision to be a sign and symbol of a greater realty. The physical act of circumcision was never meant to be a lasting identifier of God’s people, which is why Paul can say in Galatians 6:15, “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” But that’s not to say that God was giving a pointless command when he had Abraham’s descendants practice the circumcision of the flesh. He was providing a continual sign and symbol of something greater, which the Scripture refers to as a circumcision of the heart (Deuteronomy 30:6), where the Lord removes your old, dead, hard heart and replaces it with a living, beating heart that loves him.
Similarly, physical descent from Abraham (i.e. being a physical Jew) was never meant to be a lasting identifier of who God’s true people were. This is why Paul can say in Galatians 3:7, “Know then that it is those of faith who are sons of Abraham.” Paul obviously doesn’t mean that those who place their faith in the crucified and risen Lord somehow become physical descendants of Abraham. Rather, he means that they become spiritual descendants of Abraham which is the greater reality that Abraham’s physical descendants foreshadowed, as the physical redemption from Egypt foreshadowed spiritual redemption from Satan, sin, and death. This is also why Paul can later say in this book of Romans that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring” (9:6-7). He means, of course, that not all of the Jews had faith and were saved, though some were. Thus, not all of Israel (physically) is Israel (spiritually).
Therefore, it is not sufficient to be a physical Jew and be circumcised. What is required is being a Jew (by faith) and circumcised (in your heart). Or, using the words of verses 28-29 in our text: “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.” These are the ultimate categories the Lord was establishing, even in his commands back in Genesis 17. And Paul, knowing this, utilizes these biblical categories of true, spiritual Jewishness and circumcision throughout these verses we’re looking at this morning.
Now, with that in mind, I want to make a point that I think will help to explain the argument of these verses. The argument, at least to me, is a bit tedious, so I want to try to walk through it slowly. But first, let me note a point that will help explain the argument. It’s this:
We keep the law by having our hearts transformed by the Spirit so that we love God and obey his commands
In other words, if you want to know what it means to “keep the law,” as Paul writes in this text, I think it means “having your heart transformed by the Spirit so that you love God and obey his commands.” Let me try to show you why I think that’s Paul’s argument.
He first notes in verse 25 to the unbelieving Jew, “For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision.” Paul understands that the unbelieving Jew would point to the fact that he has been circumcised in accordance with the law of Moses as a ground for the fact that he should be spared from God’s wrath and have eternal life. And Paul quickly dismisses that ground for confidence for the unbelieving Jew by noting that circumcision is only valuable in terms of attaining salvation if you obey the law.
In other words, if you’re going to try to gain a right standing before God on the basis of obeying the law of Moses, then being circumcised is valuable if you obey every single command in the law. The reason it would be valuable in that circumcision, of course, is one of the commands of the law, and if you’ve got to obey all of them, it’s one you better be obeying. This aligns with what Paul wrote in Galatians 5:3, as he wrote, “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.”
However, Paul notes, if you break the law at any one point, you’ve failed. You’ve become a lawbreaker. Or, in Paul’s words, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision, meaning, that you’re not righteous before God, considered among the people of God, but a condemned outsider to God’s people.
On the other hand, Paul notes that a Gentile can be one of God’s true people. Here’s what he writes, “So, if a man who is uncircumcised [i.e. a Gentile] keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? (v. 26).” Thus, there is a way for someone who is physically uncircumcised (which would have been a violation of Genesis 17:10 under the law of Moses) to “keep the precepts of the law” and be counted as among God’s people, even though he remains physically uncircumcised.
And just in case we don’t think Paul is actually saying that a physically uncircumcised person can be regarded as one of the people of God while remaining uncircumcised, he repeats it more strongly in verse 27, writing, “Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law.” He’s now envisioning a physically uncircumcised Gentile who has somehow kept the law, on the day of judgment, condemning the unbelieving Jew who has the written law and is physically circumcised but didn’t keep the law but broke it.
Now, it’s clear how someone could be physically circumcised and break the law. After all, all this one would have to do is disobey the law at any one point. He could have an instance where he coveted, bore false witness about someone, or didn’t obey his parents. Any one instance of disobedience to any command of the law constitutes breaking the law. But what is unclear is how one “keeps the law” or “keeps the precepts of the law,” as Paul writes in verses 26-27, while not obeying the specific command of being physically circumcised. After all, you might say, physical circumcision is the first of the commands of the law, so how could one who is not obedient at that very first point be considered to have kept the law?
Well, I’ve already given you my answer in this sermon point, but let’s go on to see how Paul unfolds it in verses 28-29. He writes in verse 28, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical.” That is, Paul’s first step is to note what I’ve noted for us this morning right out of the gate, namely, that physical circumcision and Jewishness itself are signs and symbols of greater realities. Consequently, not being a physical descendant of Abraham doesn’t prevent you from being a true Jew and being physically uncircumcised doesn’t prevent you from being truly circumcised in your heart because true Jewishness and true circumcision are not ultimately outward and physical realities.
But he continues in verse 29, stating the positive side of this. If true Jewishness and true circumcision aren’t merely outward physical realities, then what are they? Paul answers, “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.”
That is to say, God’s people (true Jews) are those who have had the Spirit transform their hearts so that they love God and want to obey him. This is what the Lord spoke of even back in Deuteronomy when he declared, “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart of the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut 30:6). This is what we mean when we speak of being born again or made alive by the Spirit.
But, let’s put this together, if what Paul means by a physically uncircumcised Gentile being counted as one of God’s people (a true Jew and circumcised in heart) is having the Spirit transform his heart so that he loves and obeys God, then that must be what Paul was talking about when he spoke of these physically uncircumcised Gentiles keeping the law. In other words, keeping the law means having your heart transformed by the Spirit of God so that you love and obey God.
This was the intent of God in giving the law. God’s intent was never that you try to do all the works of the law as a basis for being right before him on the ground of your good works. His intent was to push you to come to the realization that you can’t do enough, that standing before God on your own merits simply isn’t going to be good enough, that you put no confidence in the flesh but instead trust in the Lord by faith. And when you did this, you were actually keeping the law. That is, the first fruits of having a heart transformed by the Spirit (i.e. keeping the law) was coming to the realization that you have no hope of standing on the ground of your own good works but instead turned to the Lord in faith. Pulling all of this together, this is why Paul writes in Philippians 3:3, “For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.”
The reason the unbelieving Jew, Paul notes, didn’t find salvation was because he was intent on establishing his own righteousness on the basis of his good works instead of putting no confidence in the flesh, turning to the Lord in faith, and being credited with the gift of righteousness from God that he gives us in Christ. That’s what Paul means by keeping the law. Paul labels the first approach to the law “letter” and the second “Spirit.” And as he notes elsewhere, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6).
And the good news is that whether one is a Jew or Gentile by birth, he can become a true Jew if he’ll put no confidence in himself but turn to the Lord in faith. Whether one is circumcised or uncircumcised, he can have circumcision of the heart and turn to the Lord for the gift of righteousness. He who is uncircumcised can be regarded as circumcised “for no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (vv. 28-29).
But Paul adds one more note, writing, “His praise is not from man but from God” (v. 29b). Why does he include this note? I think it’s because he’s been noting that what matters are internal unseen realities. The circumcision of the heart is an inward change. Becoming a true Jew merely because you have faith in Christ but no treasured lineage removes some kind of outward badge of honor.
In other words, people who experience salvation have to come to a point of recognizing that we've got to abandon being able to boast in our own flesh. We cannot point to our lineage as a point of boasting. We cannot point to our obedience to the works of the law as a point of boasting. We have to say, instead, I’ve got nothing to brag about in myself, and I am giving up on earning the praise of man. I’m counting every ounce of righteousness I might have considered bringing to the table as rubbish and simply look to Christ. I’m abandoning the praise of man and looking for the praise of God. That’s, I think, why Paul wrote that last sentence in chapter 2.
And I’ll remind you that he practiced what he preached. The reason Paul could write so passionately to the unbelieving Jew who was trusting in his own good works is because Paul had once stood where he now stands. But Paul had turned from that hope and trusted in Christ. He’s what he wrote in Philippians 3:3-9, “For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”
And the glorious news, brothers and sisters, is that if indeed we have repented of our sins and trusted in Jesus’ life, death for our sins, and resurrection from the dead as our only hope of forgiveness and righteousness and now long to know, love, and obey our God, then it is a clear indicator that we've had hearts transformed by the Spirit of God. It’s a clear indicator that we’ve experience circumcision of heart. We who are not Jewish by birth get to be counted as true Jews, as God’s chosen people, to whom all the promises come in Christ. And this should produce in our hearts gratefulness, a delight in our gracious God, and, consequently, a desire to know, love, and obey him more.
Paul has been writing to tear down the unbelieving Jews’ insufficient defense before God because of his deep love for them. But in doing so, he’s reminded his believing audience (and us) of the grace that God has shown in making us his people, in doing in our hearts what we could never do for ourselves, and in causing us to love and obey him. So, it is fitting that we come to the table now and give thanks to this gracious God who is our God, as we (believing Jews and Gentiles) are his true people. Amen.