Romans (Part 12) – The Failure of Israel (2:12–24)
That God came in the flesh to do what we could not do—conquer sin by not falling to its oppressive and seductive manipulation—was our rescue. Without guilt Jesus went to the cross, giving his pure life as the death consequence for our guilt. But notice carefully what happened next: Jesus rose from the dead! It is no wonder that Paul insists in I Corinthians 15:17—“And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless, you are still in your sins.” We must die in Adam (death paid by Jesus), but we are reborn (for covenant relationship as God’s children) into Christ through his resurrection. Thus, and importantly, we are not merely spirits as the Gnostics would have it. We are spirit/body unions that are reborn in spirit and will be reborn in the uncorrupted flesh of Jesus’s redemption. That understanding is what the whole Kinsman Redeemer idea establishes. Boaz (back in the book of Ruth) became Kinsman Redeemer when repurchasing the land—the physical aspect of the family. With that redemption of the physical, Boaz received Ruth as well (Ruth here as a type of the spirit). This idea reflects the necessity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, showing his now uncorrupted flesh as the firstfruits of the redemption of the entire world—our physical essence—with which our spirits (as Ruth) come with our redeemed bodies to be the reborn children of God.
This idea is also the undergirding point of all the images of captured Israel taken into the lands of her enemies. In redemption, Israel leaves the land of Egypt (representing corrupted flesh) to be restored in the Promised Land (representing resurrected flesh). Israel was rescued by the Messiah Cyrus from the land of the Babylonians/Persians (representing corrupted flesh) to be restored in their God-given land (representing resurrected flesh). And all those rescues were based on the faith of the people (as it is our faith that is necessary to move toward the redemption of our bodies at Christ’s second coming).
This concept is also behind Jesus’s discussion with Nicodemus in John 3. Jesus told him he must be born again. Why? Not only because Nicodemus was guilty of sin to be paid for by death, but also because to be with God our corrupted bodies had to be die and be reborn without corruption. And so Jesus tells him, “Whatever is born of flesh is flesh (struggling in the corrupting influence of that fallen essence), and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit” (Jn 3:6). This seemingly (to our corrupted fleshly minds) cryptic saying should not be cryptic to our reborn minds of understanding. In the grip of the sin-influence of our corrupted flesh, it is the flesh that holds dominance over our spirits making us subject to the flesh; this idea is what is meant by “whatever is born of flesh is flesh.” We need a reversal, which happens through the rebirth in the Spirit. Through that rebirth, God’s originally intended operation is restored: to have our spirits dominate our physical being (Ge 1:26–28), which is what is meant by “whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit.” This understanding also puts sense into Jesus’s following statement to Nicodemus. Notice Jesus does NOT simply draw a conclusion of similarity between any person’s spirit and the wind. No, he says the similarity is there only for “everyone born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:8). Why is that so? It is because it is only those born of the Spirit whose spirits are free (like the wind)—free from the sin-corrupting hold of the condemned person’s dominating flesh.
Although we will spend more time discussing Romans 5 in detail when we get there in our study, what we have learned so far of the corrupting influence of the flesh should make this passage clearer. Romans 5:12 tells us, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, in this way death spread to all men, because all sinned.” With our greater understanding now of the corrupting essential nature of our flesh, this statement makes much more sense rather than resigning ourselves to the extra-biblical idea of representative guilt from a federal head. By viewing the verse as the chiasmus it is, we see Paul’s logic.
Point A1: Adam acted in sin
Point B1: Death came to Adam (spirit and flesh)
Point B2: Death spread to all persons
Point A2: All sinned
So then, Adam acted in sin (point A1), bringing death to himself both spirit and flesh (point B1). Death to Adam’s flesh was death to his essence—physical creation. Death to physical creation, therefore, spread to all spirits as they were born and enjoined with physical creation (point B2). And that corrupting influence of death was shown in the fact that all sinned (point A2).
In conclusion, then, to this side discussion of why Paul does not mention punishment for the guilt of Adam’s sin in his judgment scenario, humans will not be judged based on guilt for the results of Adam’s action, rather we will be judged by our works (Romans 2:6). However, we certainly have realized the effect of Adam’s sin because our own flesh (shared essence) is corrupted, exercising a dominating influence for sin on the spirits of all humankind so that all sin; all become guilty.
The next subsection, concluding our discussion of God’s judgment of good and evil covers verses 12 through 16 of Romans 2. We recognize Paul’s continued address of the two groups of his imaginary audience (unsaved Gentiles and unsaved Jews) as he explains further the non-exemption of any group to his concluding judgment of verses 1 through 11. More precisely, Paul will further explain that judgment is by works, and that judgment by works is for both the Jew and the Gentile.
Again, in this section (just as in verses 7 through 11), Paul links actions to motivation. He does not praise the Jews for having, possessing, holding, hearing the Law. If it were in their hearts, Paul seems to imply, it would show in their actions. And so, it is the doers of the Law—the ones who show by their works that they believe God’s law—that will be declared righteous. Paul further emphasizes this fact by saying when the Gentiles, who do not even have the Law and have never heard it read, do those things that are right and just and good before God, they show by their actions—by their works—what is truly in their hearts.
This idea is what I believe Paul is suggesting when he says that at the judgment, the secret things of the heart will be revealed (2:16a). I think we have a tendency to look at a passage that says the secret things of the heart will be revealed at judgment and immediately conclude Paul is talking about secret evil things of the heart that will be made known. We have a verse sort of similar to that in John 3 when Jesus explains, “For everyone who practices wicked things hates the light and avoids it, so that his deeds may not be exposed.” But here in Romans, Paul is equally emphasizing the good and the bad being made known. His point is that at the judgment, the Gentiles won’t be presenting the Law that they possess, but rather their hearts as evidenced by their actions.
Paul ends that verse (2:16b) with a phrase that links his argument back to his premise about the gospel. First, he calls it “my gospel.” He is not trying to distinguish this gospel from other gospels as being the one of his opinion. Rather, I think, he is emphasizing why this idea is good news to him. He as yet has not mentioned redemption. We are still being told that judgment based on our works will determine our fate. But Paul hints about the heart and faith and desire for good that will effect his own salvation through the mission of God’s appointed one, Jesus. Remember that Paul explained the gospel is the “power of God” (1:16). Paul also told us that the power of God is his loving care (derived from 1:18–20 along with Genesis 2). Therefore, linking the judgment with the “my” gospel links God’s determinative action with his loving care, resulting in good news for Paul.
Verse 17 of chapter 2 actually begins a new section, although Paul isn’t changing subjects. Paul’s discussion, of course, leads from one point to the next. Therefore, what he has to say in the rest of chapter 2 leans heavily on what he has said so far in chapter 2. But it is new in the fact that he gets very specific with the unsaved Jews of his imaginary audience and how their claimed identify is misplaced.
Here is our outline of Part 2, including this new section into which we will venture.
Part 2: God’s Righteousness: Judging TGB (1:18–3:20)
I. God’s Revelation and the Effects of Turning Away (1:18–32)
II. God Will Judge Good and Evil (2:1–16)
III. The Failure of Israel (2:17–29)
I’m not certain I should be calling this section The Failure of Israel. While Paul certainly points out the fact that Israel fails, he does so in support of another point more important to his argument: to show how futile identifying with Israel is considering they failed.
Paul begins in verse 17 with the second person pronoun “you.” N.T. Wright makes a point to say that this is not singular, as if speaking of the typical Jew, but rather plural, speaking to Israel as a whole. As defense, he shows that Paul speaks of specific sins in verses 21 and 22, and Paul certainly is not arguing that every Jew has done these but rather that Israel as a whole has sinned in this way. I agree that Paul does not intend to accuse every Jew of every sin. His argument (though valid in another context) is not here saying that since you are guilty of one point you are guilty of all. But still I think it is a mistake to pull emphasis away from the typical individual Jew. The connection to the individual is subtle but necessary.
When a Jew claimed to be a Jew (to which Paul refers at the beginning of verse 17), that Jew is claiming identification with the people as a whole—with Israel as the people of God. Therefore, the individual Jew is saying, “I’m with them. I’m a Jew. I’m identified as one of the people of God.” And importantly, therefore, to Paul’s point, the Jew is saying this: “I, as a Jew, then, belong to God.”
First of all, what that individual, typical Jew did not realize was that being Israel—being the people of God—did not mean simply that Israel was to enjoy favored-nation status with God forever. Israel became the people of God to do a job: to be a nation of priests to the world. Remember that the function of a priest is to represent God to the people and represent the people to God. So in representing God to the people, the job was of image and use. As image, in showing his loving care for Israel, God was showing he would be providing his loving care for all humankind. As use, God would bring the blessing for the world (Jesus) through Israel. So in these two ways, Israel was acting as priest in showing God to the world. But in representing the world to God, Israel was supposed to trust in God in everything to show the world that they too should trust in God. But in that function, Israel failed.
And Israel’s failure is what Paul is recounting in those first verses of this section: 17–20. He isn’t saying these things sarcastically, as if the Jews were arrogant for thinking they should “approve the things that are superior” and be “a guide for the blind, a light to those in darkness, an instructor of the ignorant, a teacher of the immature.” Yes, absolutely, they were supposed to do and be those things. However, Paul says to them, how can you, who are supposed to do those things, even believing you are supposed to do those things, still consider yourselves as permanently belonging to God when you yourselves fail to do those things. Paul concludes that they dishonor God: by breaking the Law themselves, they have no right to boast in the Law.
Now, this argument may seem obvious to us. They were doing wrong things. They were breaking commandments—breaking the Law. Why in the world, we may wonder, did they think they were the special people of God when they knew they did all these things wrong? Our bewilderment at their state of mind is because we have been taught to view the arguments of Romans incorrectly. And we have to lay the blame for that wrong viewpoint at the feet of the Reformers.
Please don’t get me wrong. All the major issues which made the Reformers reformers were important issues that they were very right in addressing. To make the stands they did, defying those who had power to kill the body, were bold acts of courage and dedication to God. They were also right in their choices and arguments against the opposing Catholic church of the day. I have no disagreement with them on that, and I am hugely grateful for the stands and the Scriptural discernment they had to oppose the false actions of the Church.
However, because they saw so clearly the gigantic error of the Roman Church, it over-flooded their vision and they saw the errors (projected the errors) wherever they looked. So reading Paul’s letter of Romans, they had the tendency (as we all do when we are passionate and engrossed in something) to project their current fight into what they were reading. The Reformers were engaged in a struggle of faith versus works. Do we gain salvation through works with faith or faith without works? The Reformers were correct: salvation comes through faith; it is not merited by any of our works. The problem was that they projected this battle of faith versus works on all Paul’s arguments in Romans. The Roman Catholics were the opposition of the Reformers. The Roman Catholics held to a requirement of works. The Reformers, then, read Paul’s letter to the Romans, understood the opposition in the letter as unsaved Jews, and therefore projected the error of their opposition—the Catholic Church—on Paul’s opposition—the unsaved Jews. The Reformers, therefore, understood the Jews as trying to work their way to God through the works of the Law. It is that misunderstanding that muddies the waters for a correct view of Paul’s argument.
The Jews understood that they did not keep the Law. The Jews knew that they failed in keeping the Law. Nevertheless, the Jews still and always understood themselves to be the people of God—in position as belonging to God. They were not trying to work their way to gaining God’s favor. They did not believe themselves to be lost needing to perform works of the Law to be accepted by God. They believed themselves already the people of God. So the argument right here where we are in Romans is not one of faith versus works. The problem was not that the Jews were stuck in a works-based religion thinking they could work themselves into God’s favor. In fact, it is Paul, not the Jews, who is insisting (at this point) that works were important and that judgment would be based on works.
So how could the Jews believe such a thing—that it didn’t matter what they did, that they didn’t have to work to gain God’s favor, and that they already belonged to God? “Well, look at what we possess,” they would argue. “We have circumcision, identifying us as the people of God. We have the Law in our possession. God gave it to us precisely because we are the people of God.” So they were not thinking in terms of needing salvation to be brought from death and separation to relationship with God. They were convinced they already had relationship and they pointed to circumcision and the Law as signs, as markers, as badges that indicated they were already there. Paul is trying to show them that those markers—those signs—were not signs of existing communion with God. Those markers served a purpose, but it was not the purpose the Jews understood.