OUT IN THE COLD
“Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? 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. A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.” Romans 2:25-29.
Paul took great pains to ensure that his Jewish readers understood the place of the law in their lives. Being a Jew was much more than having the outward and physical sign of the covenant in their bodies. It was an issue of the heart. Paul needed them to understand that they were all lawbreakers, no matter how much they viewed themselves as the privileged covenant people of God.
Like the Pharisees who were Jesus’ persistent opponents, defending their natural birth into the nation of Israel was of no use if they did not back it up with obedience to the terms of God’s covenant. It would be the same as thinking that natural birth in a country would be enough to keep me out of prison even if I committed a crime.
The thinking of the Jews whom Paul addressed then is, unfortunately, the same false teaching that deceives millions of people today. False religions teach people that the way to please their god, or the way to get rid of sin is to subscribe to a certain religion and to do certain things, rituals or rules that relate to the body but cannot change the heart. Eat or do not eat certain foods; wash here or wash this way; offer sacrifices of food or blood; bow so many times, or bow this way etc. What can any of these things do to alter the state of the heart, or remove the guilt of the soul?
The prophet Micah, in the Old Testament, struggled with the same issue.
“With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He had shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:6-8.
What value is there in washing the body, putting the right kinds of food in the mouth or offering sacrifices to an inanimate block of wood or stone? What evidence it there to prove that these rituals have any effect on the guilty conscience? Of what value is circumcision, as a mark of membership if it does not issue in obedience to God, or offering sacrifices if they are an excuse to keep on sinning? All the adherence to religious practices in the world cannot and will not change the heart.
Paul was slowly building his case for the hopelessness of all human beings. Not even the Jews, who had thousands of years of history – God actively involved in their lives, revealing Himself to them, cutting covenant with them, intervening in their lives with many miracles, protecting and providing for them, governing and guiding them – were any better than the Gentiles because they were just as guilty of ungodly behaviour as their uncircumcised neighbours.
Worst of all, although the Jews probably did not even give it a thought, was their arrogant attitude towards the Gentiles whom they despised. It was their very pride in their privileged birth that cut them off from God. “God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble.” 1 Peter 5:5b. So, instead of living in God’s favour, they had cut themselves off from Him because of their arrogant attitude.
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