One summer in my college years I worked for an industrial painter, mostly spray painting large structures like barns, farm buildings, warehouses, churches, etc. Not only was it a hot job in the sun (I got burns on my shoulders that summer that I still believe could become something nasty in my life), it was rather physically demanding. We mostly used bucket trucks with powerful compressors, and between three of us could spray in excess of 100 gallons of paint a day.
One day our job was to paint a centuries-old church in the Pennsylvania countryside. It was a rather large building with a steep-pitched roof about 40+ feet above the ground. Beyond that was a 20-foot wooden steeple that needed to be painted. Being the light-weight of the group (you’ll have to take that by faith), I drew the assignment. The boss sent me to the roofline in the bucket truck, along with an extension ladder. We put the ladder legs on either side of the peak, extended it fully, while also tying a rope from the ladder to the steeple for “safety.”
I still can’t believe I did this. The view from the top was amazing, but the foundation of it was so precarious in the extreme that it should rightly be catalogued in the “foolish” classification.
And such was the category of self-evaluation possessed the “allegedly righteous” Jew to whom Paul speaks here in Romans chapter 2. From where they looked down upon the rest of the world, they saw themselves as in really good shape, just because of who they were. They knew that they had the truth of the one true God. But for too many, this did not really make a total difference in their lives. Many were guilty of the same sins as the riff-raff of the rest of the world.
Paul quotes from the Old Testament, from Ezekiel 36:20-22 … talking about how instead of Israel being a great witness for the one true God, they were an embarrassment due to His necessary, repeated judgments upon them because of their rampant sinfulness…
And wherever they went among the nations they profaned my holy name, for it was said of them, ‘These are the Lord’s people, and yet they had to leave his land.’ I had concern for my holy name, which the people of Israel profaned among the nations where they had gone.
“Therefore say to the Israelites, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone.”
And it is not just that these self-righteous Jews saw themselves as OK simply because of who they were, it was also because of certain rituals they observed – circumcision particularly.
Paul’s admonition is that a real “Jew” (in the sense of one rightly connected to God) is one who is so because of a heart obedience and trust in God. Such a person understands that the real game is not about outscoring most people in terms of identification and deeds, but rather one who understands that they cannot score points at all without divine help – assistance to be identified ultimately in this letter as coming from Christ’s righteousness.
In our midst of our congregations that include all those even on the fringes of church fellowship, we probably don’t have any who fit this categorization of self-righteous Jewishness. But I realize that we do have those who wrongly think they are really pretty much OK with God, believing this as they see themselves outscoring most folks in deeds and general beliefs. I would call these people “generic Christians” – believing in God and making it a part of life when nothing more interesting or pressing is in the way. Rather, our faith should be the first and most defining truth of everything else. Priorities flow from this foundation of faith in the understanding of one’s totally hopeless condition apart from Christ – both for eternal salvation and the daily walk with God in this temporal world.
So don’t be generic. The view might be great, but the foundation is perilous. Be specific. And may it be that the human “steeples” of our “ForOurCity” churches are witnesses to the work of God, and not merely some high spot upon which we look down at a lost world around us.
2:17 – Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; 18 if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19 if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— 21 you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
25 Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26 So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? 27 The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker.
28 A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.