“Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God, and knowest His will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law; and art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law.” —Romans 2:17-20
“Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God” (Romans 2:17). First, we know that this letter was written to Christian believers in Rome (Romans 1:7); that it was a faithful church (Romans 1:8); that it was a congregation made up of ethnic non-Jews (Romans 1:13); yet, as we see here in Romans 2:17, it is a congregation that also has ethnic Jews in it. Some may have been saved at Pentecost when Peter preached that first sermon Monday morning in the Temple fifty days after the resurrection of the Lord; other Jews, like Aquila and Priscilla (Romans 16:3-4), were saved by God through Paul’s missionary ministry. It is so very important to understand that the Jews who were addressed in this portion of Scripture were not being addressed as those stiff-necked, heart-hardened antagonists that opposed Jesus in John 5. These are, presumably, Jews who have made a profession of faith in the Lord Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ who suffered God’s wrath upon Calvary’s Cross; confessing that this Jesus was made the substitutionary and atoning Sacrifice for their sins. IF WE MISS THIS, we will miss the very central message of the truth presented to us in this text… and missing this, we can develop some skewed views of the salvation of God and His justification of sinners when we get to that at the end of Romans 3 and beginning of Romans 4. Another thing that can happen if we misunderstand this point is that we will just get caught up in peripherals and non-essentials and lose sight of the all-important free and sovereign grace of God within its truth.
There is a tendency in many of us to just speak of the Jews mentioned in this text as hypocrites, just like the Christ-rejecting, tradition-loving Pharisees that Jesus laments in Matthew 23, et al: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” No. Although the text in Romans 1:17-32 presents that the heathen, who have denied God, are guilty of the most heinous sins, the text also presents that we– you and I– are also guilty of the essence of every one of these sins (if not altogether guilty of these particular sins in practice); and, as we examined from the last several articles covering Romans 2:1-16, that among the very many things the passage presents, it explains that God’s just and holy judgment is upon every sinful man, woman and child since the fall of Adam.
Now, here, beginning in Romans 2:17, the Holy Spirit, speaking through the apostle Paul, presents a warning among the Jews not to boast in God because of their reliance upon the Law of Moses; reliance (restest in the KJV) in the revelation of God’s will from Scripture: “And knowest His will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law” (Romans 2:18).
Because they possessed the Scriptures, the Old Testament scriptures also known as “the law and the prophets,” there was a rather proud confidence in the Jew, ascertained from what the apostle writes here: “And art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness” (Romans 2:19). Stephen Charnock (1628-1620) made an interesting statement, which seems to be appropriate for this verse: “A man may be theologically knowing and spiritually ignorant.”
But Paul corrects this arrogance in Romans 2:20: “…a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of truth.” The Law of Moses is the form or expression of knowledge and truth, but not the very Being of all-knowledge and truth, which is God. The Law is the embodiment of knowledge and truth but not the very Person of all-knowledge and truth, who is the Lord Jesus Christ, “the Way, and the Truth, and the Life;” for in Him dwelleth all the fullness of deity in bodily form.
Therefore, the apostle Paul asks the Jewish contingent of the Roman congregation some rhetorical questions in Romans 2:21-23 because he already told them (and all of us) that they were guilty of doing the same things as the heathen in Romans 1, according to Romans 2:1. He’s not asking to get a yes or no response. He’s getting them to think about their sin in light of the truth of the Law they trusted, which did not deliver them from the very sins they knew and taught about.
“Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal?” (Romans 2:21).
“Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege?” (Romans 2:22).
“Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonourest thou God?” (Romans 2:23). Well, there’s no doubt about that; since they boasted in the Law of Moses and relied upon it and placed their trust in it, when they sinned it only brought dishonor to God. They claimed to represent the law, which is good and holy; and the Law is good and holy because it came from a good and holy God. Nevertheless, in their transgression against the law, against God’s commands, they were suggesting with their teaching and behavior that sin is acceptable to a holy, good and just God. What was their sin? Trusting the law rather than Christ. You see, they were actually breaking the law by trusting law, breaking the first and second commandments of the law, Exodus 20:3-6, as well as the great commandment of the law, Deuteronomy 6:4-5,
“Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.“
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.”
“For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you, as it is written” (Romans 2:24). Though the reference is not cited, Paul may have been quoting from the Septuagint (Isaiah 52:5) as the Greek is nearly identical in both places (with some slight textual variations notwithstanding).
In the next article, we will take a look at how this very portion of text is applicable to local congregations today.
Listen to the sermon preached on this text, Romans 2:17-24, “The Just Judgment of a Righteous God,” on August 23, 2009 at Sovereign Grace Baptist Church.
Read the previous article in this series, “Secret Lives Judged Through Jesus Christ” (Romans 2:12).