A Matter of the Heart - Rom. 2:17-29
Romans • Sermon • Submitted • Presented • 36:01
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Nearly 2900 years ago, the wisest man to ever live, said:
23 Keep your heart with all diligence, For out of it spring the issues of life.
Jesus some 900 years later taught:
43 “For a good tree does not bear bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. 44 For every tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they gather grapes from a bramble bush. 45 A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.
According to the Bible, the heart is the centre not only of spiritual activity, but of all the operations of human life.
And here we find Paul - focusing in on the heart of the matter when it comes to the Proclamation of the Righteousness of God.
Now, remember that Romans is all about the righteousness of God provided to the unrighteous through faith in the Gospel.
With that context in mind, Paul is writing to those who have already believed the Gospel.
Here in chapter 2 he is teaching these believers about God’s righteous judgement.
In (2:1-11) We found that mankind turns out to be poor judges because our perspectives are tainted by hypocrisy, but God is a just judge because His baseline is always truth.
Because God is the right and just judge of all, He alone is the one we are accountable to. And in the midst of what we deserve because of our depravity, v. 5 teaches that He is kind, forbearing, and patient with us. You see, God has been good to you, and his goodness has a purpose - which is to lead you to Him.
From there, in (2:12-16) God alone is our righteous judge. Thankfully the gospel fulfills the Law and spares us from judgement.
Paul said in 2:11, that there is partiality or favoritism with God. He then explains that everyone will be held accountable to what they did with what they knew - so that no one is excusable in His just judgement.
The Jew will be judged by the written law and the non-jew by the law that is written on their hearts.
Paul mentions that none are excusable, but that the only hope Jew and non-Jew have is in the Gospel.
He then takes it a step further in our passage today, primarily addressing Jews, and he speaks on their:
1. Misplaced Confidence (vv. 17-20)
Notice with me vv. 17-18
17 Indeed you are called a Jew, and rest on the law, and make your boast in God, 18 and know His will, and approve the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law,
Here we have a list of traits that relates to the blessings of the Jews as God’s people:
“rest on the law” – The Jewish people were given their identity by God through the Law after their Exodus from Egypt. This phrase does not mean that they did not rely on God. Rather, it meant that the Law was a means of spiritual blessing (see Psalm 19:7-11).
“boast in God” – This would have been an appropriate boasting in God’s mercy and kindness to them (see Jeremiah 9:24ff).
“know his will” - The people of Israel had been blessed by knowing God’s will as mediated through the commandments of God. The Law mercifully identified who God was and what He desired. The other nations of the world were not given this blessing.
“approve that things that are excellent”– This idea follows the knowledge of His will,.namely, that God helped His people understand what was the best way to live.
“instructed out of the law”– We have a summary statement here that captures the previous items. Jews had been blessed with spiritual knowledge from God’s Law.
Again, this is a great list and that there was nothing wrong with any of this. What is more, it was all true. So Paul has just listed things with which every Jew would have agreed.
Paul does not stop with he traits of a good Jew, but lists another five things that relate to Israel’s understood purpose:
19 and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having the form of knowledge and truth in the law.
“you are a guide to the blind”– The Jewish people, through the Messiah, would be able to help those who were spiritually blind (Isa. 42:7).
“a light to those who are in darkness”– Israel was to be a light to the surrounding nations, and the Law was supposed to be that light (Isa. 42:6, Ps 119:105).
“an instructor of the foolish”– Instruction was designed to be the way that Israel helped the other nations of the world.
“a teacher of children”– The words “foolish” and “children” are synonymous, so this is a restatement of the previous idea.
“having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth”– It seems that we have here another summary statement that highlights the centrality of the Law in the life and identity of Israel.
Pastor Mark Vroegop of College Park Church in Carmel makes a great conclusion to these verses when he answers the quetion:
What do we make of this this list?
The things listed here represent an excellent summary of how a spiritually-minded Jew would have seen him or herself, and nothing listed is either inaccurate or arrogant. God intended for the nations of the world to come to Jerusalem because those nations observed the uniqueness and the blessing of God upon the people of Israel (see Isaiah 2:1-4 and Micah 4:1-4).So what we have seen here fits with that vision.
However, verses 17-20 are not merely a reciting of the blessings of Israel and her God-given mission. It is a set-up for what comes next.
The problem is that Israel enjoyed all of these blessings and then allowed these things to become badges of self-righteousness. Their confidence in their Jewish identity became misplaced, and Paul is about to show them the measured complications of such misplaced confidence.
2. Measurable Complications (vv. 21-24)
21 You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal? 22 You who say, “Do not commit adultery,” do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law? 24 For “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” as it is written.
Here we find Paul dismantling the self-righteousness of the Jew.
He highlights that all of the traits and mission emphasis of vv. 17-20 are in vain if their practice doesn’t match their profession.
In fact, their disobedience led to their dishonor of God (v. 23) and the Gentiles blasphemy against God (v. 24)
In v. 24. Paul is quoting from Isaiah 52:5, which in context was when Israel was destroyed as a nation and carried into exile because of their evil. They were proclaiming about being God’s chosen, but they were proving that God was not able to save His own people.
And this is Paul’s point. The self-righteous is actually not righteous in themselves, and actually proves the opposite to be true. And in proving the hoax, gives a false pretense about the God they say they know.
Now, one of the fundamental truths of being a Jew was the outward sign of circumcision.
It symbolized the covenant between God and Abraham’s descendants (Genesis 17:9–14). It was the expression of Israel’s national identity and was a requirement for all Jewish men. Circumcision was a physical reminder to Jews of their national heritage and privilege.
Bruce Barton et al., Life Application New Testament Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2001), 589.
We find Paul’s understanding in vv. 25-27
3. The Meaning of Circumcision (vv. 25-27)
25 For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26 Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision? 27 And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law?
This is a huge statement by Paul.
RC Sproul wrote about this passage:
The Gospel of God: Romans Jews and the Law of God (2:17–29)
There developed in the history of Israel a belief that circumcision, the sacred rite which was the sign of the Old Testament covenant, was all it took to be saved. We have a similar confusion in the Christian church today where some people believe that baptism automatically guarantees salvation. One rabbinic tradition says, ‘Circumcision saves from hell.’ The same rabbi wrote that Abraham himself sits before the gates of hell and does not allow any circumcised Israelite to enter there.
By implication, the way you lived made no difference.
In a similar way, some Christian groups have believed that the rite of baptism saves, and so baptism was delayed until the end of life to make sure all sins were “washed.”
But the issue of this rite being meritorious is that circumcision was given after Abraham was brought into covenant relationship with God and declared righteous because of his faith.
In Genesis 17 you find the symbol of circumcision given after Genesis 15 when God makes His covenant with Abraham.
So the picture is clear. Circumcision is not the merit for right standing. Nor is baptism. Nor is religious manifestations of any kind.
Paul says, (v. 25) your religious acts are good, if you keep all of God’s law - but if you break His law, your misplaced confidence is counted as nothing.
He goes on in v. 26 - that even a non-jew, if he keeps the law will be counted in right relationship and will actually become the standard for the Jew who hasn’t fulfilled all the law.
In context, this would blow the mind and boil the temper of any committed Jew.
which leads us to some:
4. Momentous Conclusions (vv. 28-29)
Verses 28–29 function as the ground (For) of vv. 26–27.
In striking contrast to the Jewish beliefs of his day, Paul claims that true Jewishness and genuine circumcision are not ethnic or physical matters.
They are matters of the heart. They are the work of the Holy Spirit.
28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; 29 but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.
If we take the context of Chapter 2 and apply the truths of these last two verses, momentous changes will occur. Paul finishes with 3 statements that I’d like for you to write down this morning, if you would:
A. Don’t live externally-focused. (v. 28)
This is what Paul is explaining - that although Jews were born in the right family, were in the right location, and did the right religious activities - they actually weren’t right with God because of these things.
This is not just a problem for Jews. It is a problem for all of us, in that it reflects what humans tend to do with spirituality.
We have tend to reduced spirituality to a series of “things” that we do.
For example: if you were to ask someone if he or she is a Christian, and you might hear the following answers:
I grew up in the church
I was baptize at age 13
I walked an aisle and prayed a prayer
I was raised in a Christian home
I read my Bible every day
I tithe on everything that I make
And while all of these are not necessarily bad, if that is the sum total of what it means for us to be a Christian, we are in trouble.
For example, if you asked me “John, how’s your marriage?” Imagine your reaction if I said, “Great, we are still living together.” The answer is good, but not good at the same time. And that is the point here.
True spirituality has to be more than being in the right place, being born into the right family, and doing the right things.
B. Strive for heart-based obedience (v. 29a)
Rom 2:29a reads: “but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter;”
You see, True obedience is a result of the Spirit’s work at cutting away the old UN-regenerate heart - not by keeping the letter of the law.
Throughout Romans, we will find that God is looking for obedience that springs from love and desire and passion not compliance, duty, and obligation. He is interested in heart-based obedience.
Parenting is similar. As our kids are young and unable to reason well, we focus more heavily on external obedience. Rules help guide behavior.
But as our children grow we transition away from an externally-focused emphasis, to an internal heart-based obedience.
This is hard, and Heidi and I are in the middle of it!
Our tendency as humans is to slap more rules on a situation and expect compliance. But as our kids grow older, the less our rules effect. And so we strive for something that will last in our parenting, which takes intentional consistent direction.
But this is not our default - so in our parenting, our marriages, our counseling or teaching we must keep returning to the principles of the word - externally-based focus leads away from heart-based obedience.
Notice with me now the last statment in v. 29b
C. Live with a God-centered pursuit (v. 29b)
29 but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.
The one who purposes to live internally-focused and with a heart-based obedience will be praised by God.
The focus of his life is not external, because the praise of people is not the pursuit.
Remember, the issue that Paul is addressing is the false pretense that people had that their racial or religious status made them superior. That the external was enough.
But Paul emphasizes again, what Christ emphasized:
8 ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, And honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me.
So knowing what Paul is putting forth, we conclude (weekly focus):
That righteousness is not achieved through external considerations like race or religion.
The color of your skin
The family you grew up in
The religion you claim
The things you do
None of these merit a right standing with God.
Therefore, rest this week in the truth that God is at work in you on what matters most - heart change.
God is at work in you:
to change your focus from outward (what man sees) to inward (what God knows)
to exchange our hypocritical show of obedience for an inward motivation of love
to draw you closer to Him
So, seek him and be sensitive to His leading this week - and as He leads obey from the heart.