In a selfie-saturated culture we can become obsessed with the perfect ‘outer’ life of others. But God is interested in our inner life.
The Jews and the law
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 dishonour 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 law-breaker.
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.
Sometimes we find ourselves measuring ourselves against others – and for some of us, ‘doing the right thing’ or ‘sticking to the rules’ means we feel both safe and superior to others. In this passage Paul continues his focus on Jewish believers in Rome, warning them against a sense of superiority because of a strict observance of Torah (vs 17,18) or a reliance on circumcision (v 25). For Jews, circumcision was a sign of not only their privileges as the chosen people, but also their ‘apartness’.
Here is the great leveller of the Christian faith – Paul points out that the Jewish believers are no better off than their Gentile counterparts because they have failed to obey the law (vs 21–24). And circumcision or no circumcision has no cash value in God’s economy (v 25). In reality, we are all in need of God’s forgiveness and grace.
The provision of the Holy Spirit changes everything. The Spirit creates the true ‘Jew’, that is the true person of God, because the Spirit ensures a lasting circumcision ‘of the heart’ (v 29). Old Testament passages reflect the same idea (see Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 31:31–34 and Ezekiel 11:19).
Christ’s sacrificial death and the gift of the Holy Spirit means that we can all be part of the people of God. We now live ‘by the Spirit’. Pray that God will fill you with his Spirit.
Deeper Bible study
‘Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.’1
In the church at Rome there were both Jewish and Gentile Christians. Forging unity between these traditions was one of the major challenges of the early church. Some teachers saw Judaism as the senior partner and insisted that Gentile converts should in effect become Jews by being circumcised. Paul opposed this and insisted that faith in Christ rather than adherence to religious practice was what identified the church. This made him a controversial figure, with some accusing him of overturning the Jewish way – as indeed he was, in certain respects. When he referred in verse 16 to ‘my’ gospel and then in verse 11 declared that ‘God does not show favouritism’, he shows his distinctive grasp of the international nature of the Christian movement.
This underlies his challenge to Jewish Christians in verses 17–24. In effect he is saying, ‘Don’t look at the outward. Look for what is inside’ – and be true to it yourselves. Being a true Jew is a matter of the ‘circumcision of the heart’ (v 29), not the flesh. This points to the inward working of God’s Spirit. Although this was offensive to many (and probably still is to some) it is entirely in line with what Jesus taught,2 and he himself was entirely in line with the prophets3 and with the expectation that God would give a ‘new heart and … a new spirit’ to his people.4
Paul was not saying that Jews should give up their traditional practices or surrender their identity. He was, however, relativising these markers, making it clear that they should not be required of Gentiles who came to believe, and so displaying the inner spiritual realities that such markers symbolised. What united people in Christ was the devotion of the heart, a shared participation in the life of God. This was the essence of the Christian movement.
Now offer up your heart to God today through Christ.
Bible in a year
Read the Bible in a year: Leviticus 19,20; Psalms 23,24
Pray for Scripture Union
Pray that Local Mission Partner Christians in Schools Trust (Stockport) will be able to maintain contacts that they already have if restrictions remain in place and that they will continue to develop links and partnerships with churches in the area.