Essay on Romans 2:21-29
Quote:While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, "The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you." (Rom. 2:21-24)
It goes without saying that if you do not understand the substance of a man's argument, or his purpose in arguing the way he does, you will certainly not understand his conclusions.
An argument is usually made up of several logically connected points, each point building on the one that preceded it, until finally you reach the conclusion. If you don't know what those individual steps in the argument are - if you can't follow the roadsigns - you will not arrive at the intended destination.
I emphasize this because this defect is precisely why so many people today misinterpret St. Paul's writings, especially his epistle to the Romans. The epistle to the Romans is bursting at the seams with quotes from the Old Testament - 52 explicit quotes (71% of which occur in chapters 9-16) in just 16 chapters. As is hopefully becoming clearer to you, understanding the context of those OT quotes is absolutely necessary if we are to understand St. Paul's meaning.
However, since most people don't know the Old Testament very well, they have no idea what context St. Paul is evoking; and since they don't know the larger context of which he is trying to remind us, they don't understand the point he is trying to make; and since they don't understand his individual points, they end by misinterpreting his writings completely.
The epistle to the Romans, like the epistle to the Galatians, was written to defend the Gospel of Jesus Christ against the heresy of the Judaizers. Understandably, then, it draws heavily on the historical events of Israel's past, and the Old Testament texts that evoke the memory of those events.
By the time we reach the passage above (Rom. 2:24), St. Paul's argument is already well under way. Here is a brief outline of that argument.
In 1:1-7, St. Paul introduces himself as a preacher of the "gospel of God"; he emphasis that this gospel is "concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh"; he prepares his reader for the onslaught of OT texts that are coming in the next 15 chapters by saying that this gospel was "promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures"; finally, St. Paul's purpose is to "bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations."
In 1:16-18, St. Paul says he is "not ashamed of the gospel." He alludes here to an entire prophetic tradition found in the Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc. - the constantly-repeated theme of the righteous man who trusts in God and is not "confounded" or "put to shame." Already he is appealing to Israel's history, for it was Isaiah who prophesied in these very terms, saying that Israel's enemies would be "put to shame and confounded," but that "Israel is saved by the LORD" and "not ... put to shame or confounded to all eternity." (Is. 45:16-17). In fact, a quick glance at these two verses in Romans reveals several parallels with the words of Isaiah:
Quote:For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation [soterian] to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness [dikaiosune] of God is revealed [apokaluptetai] through faith for faith. (Rom. 1:16-17)
Listen to me, my people, and give ear to me, my nation; for a law will go forth from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples [ethnon]. My deliverance [dikaiosune] draws near speedily, my salvation [soterion] has gone forth, and my arms will rule the peoples. (Is. 51:4-5)
The LORD has bared [apokalupsei] his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations [ethnon]; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation [soterian] of our God. (Is. 52:10)
St. Paul then goes on in 1:18-32 to describe the wickedness and depravity of men. What most readers will miss here, however, is that St. Paul is not just describing mankind in general (although certainly what he says applies to mankind), but a particular slice of mankind: the Jews. Compare these texts:
Quote:For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse ... they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator. (Rom. 1:19-20, 22-25)
They made a calf in Horeb and worshiped a molten image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass ... Then they attached themselves to the Baal of Peor, and ate sacrifices offered to the dead; they provoked the LORD to anger with their doings, and a plague broke out among them. (Ps. 106:19-20, 28-29)
For all men who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know him who exists, nor did they recognize the craftsman while paying heed to his works; but they supposed that either fire or wind or swift air, or the circle of the stars, or turbulent water, or the luminaries of heaven [i.e., all created things] were the gods that rule the world ... from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator. (Wis. 13:1-5)
Already, then, we can see that the first chapter of Romans is directed specifically at the Jews; St. Paul draws on their prophecies of deliverance ("justification"), salvation, and freedom from "shame"; he also reminds them of their past history, when they "became fools," "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling animals," and "exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator."
This litany of accusation does not stop as we move into chapter 2. He begins with these stinging words to his Jewish interlocutor:
Quote:Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things ... Do you suppose, O man, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? (Rom. 2:1-3)
Once more he calls upon the Jewish prophetic tradition when he employs a stock phrase found in the texts of Isaiah and Deuteronomy: "There will be tribulation [thlipsis] and distress [stenochoria] for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek." (Rom. 2:9)
This echoes God's prediction of Israel's future exile:
Quote:And you shall eat the offspring of your own body, the flesh of your sons and daughters, whom the LORD your God has given you, in the siege [stenochoria] and in the distress [thlipsei] with which your enemies shall distress [thlipsei] you. (Dt. 28:53)
It also echoes Isaiah's judgment:
Quote:They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry; and when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will curse their king and their God, and turn their faces upward; and they will look to the earth, but behold, distress [thlipsis] and darkness, the gloom of anguish [stenochoria]; and they will be thrust into thick darkness. (Is. 8:21-22)
The effect of all of this is obvious: ever since chapter 1:18, St. Paul has been walking the Judaizers through their own checkered past, reminding them of their exile; he is reminding them that even though they presume to act as judges and teachers of the heathen Gentiles, they themselves are judged by their own words because they have not listened to their own teaching. That is where we arrive at vss. 21-24:
Quote:... you then who teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, "The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you." (Rom. 2:21-24)
The questions above are all rhetorical, of course; the answer to all of them is an implied "yes." Do you steal? Yes. Do you commit adultery? Read Ezekiel 16, where the Jews are called a "harlot" and/or accused of spiritual adultery some twenty times in 63 verses. Do you break the law and so dishonor God? St. Paul's answer to this question is in his use of the Old Testament.
The key concept that St. Paul mentions here, the profaning of God's name before the Gentiles, cannot help but remind the Jewish reader of Ezekiel 36, where this concept is repeated several times in short succession:
Quote:I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed through the countries ... But when they came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that men said of them, 'These are the people of the LORD, and yet they had to go out of his land.' But I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel caused to be profaned among the nations to which they came ... Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations will know that I am the LORD ... (Ezek. 36:19-23)
This is an interesting textual twist. You would think that God sent Israel into exile because they profaned His name; but that's not what Ezekiel says. Rather, it was after Israel went into exile that they profaned His name - and actually, this makes a lot of sense. God is speaking here of His covenant Name - "By myself I have sworn," He said to Abraham, or, "By my own Name" - the Name by which He swore on oath to bless Abraham and to bless the Gentiles through Abraham's seed.
And what does the presence of Israel in exile among the Gentiles say to the Gentiles? Yeah, right, some great God you've got there; He swore to bless you, and then bless us through you, and now here you are without even a plot of land to call your own.
The minute Israel goes into exile is the minute God's Covenant Name begins to be profaned. So what does that mean? Well, why was Israel in exile to begin with? Because they were rebellious and wicked. So if we work backwards from effect to cause - if we deduce from the present circumstances what got us to this point - we come up with this: God's name is being profaned, which must mean that Israel is in exile, which must mean that Israel was rebellious and wicked.
Or, to take the shortcut: If God's name is being profaned through Israel's exile, this is proof that Israel was and is wicked and rebellious.
You see St. Paul's logic, then? He asks them, do you steal? Do you commit adultery? Do you break God's law? And the answer, through Ezekiel, is well, you're in exile, aren't you? What more proof do we need? Of course you're still rebellious and wicked - you're enslaved to Gentile Rome, aren't you?
But there is another reason why St. Paul reaches for this passage from Ezekiel. Read the next few verses of Ezekiel 36:
Quote:I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. (Ezek. 36:25-27)
What do we see in these verses? Clean water. A new heart. A new Spirit. Keeping the law ("ordinances") of God. Where in the New Covenant do we find clean water, a new heart, and the Spirit of God?
And what is Baptism in relation to the Old Covenant, according to St. Paul?
Quote:In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ ... buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Col. 2:11-12)
So, for St. Paul, Baptism is the new circumcision. And he's just finished quoting a passage in Ezekiel that strongly suggests Baptism, with its mention of clean water, a new heart, and a new Spirit. So where does he go next with his argument in chapter 2? Right where you'd expect, if he's thinking in terms of Baptism as the new circumcision:
Quote:Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision ... Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God. (Rom. 2:25-29)
Interesting, isn't it? Ezekiel talks about a new heart, a new Spirit, clean water, and keeping the law; Baptism is the New Circumcision; so what do we find St. Paul talking about next? True circumcision vs. false circumcision, keeping the law, true circumcision as a matter "of the heart" (as in Ezekiel's "new heart"), and true circumcision as "spiritual" (as in Ezekiel's "new spirit").
By playing off the passage in Ezekiel, St. Paul has just contrasted the Judaizers' literal circumcision with the New Covenant spiritual circumcision; he has made the segue from circumcision to Baptism.
And in speaking of an inward circumcision of the heart, he is not engaging in any kind of innovative teaching. The Jews knew this teaching well, for it was taught to them by their own law and prophets.
Quote:But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers ... if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled ... then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land. (Lev. 26:40-42)
Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will punish all those who are circumcised but yet uncircumcised - Egypt, Judah, Edom ... for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart. (Jer. 9:25-26)
This brings us to the end of Romans 2 and sets us up to understand the arguments that St. Paul mounts in Romans 3 and 4. He continues to demonstrate that Israel/Judah is no better than the Gentile nations in heart, even though they have circumcision and the Mosaic Law, while the Gentiles do not. The force of his argument will be, essentially, you insist on Christians receiving circumcision and you place such a high value on this Old Covenant rite - but why? What good has it done you? It is an only an external sign meant to point you to an inward reality; the circumcision of your flesh is meant to remind you of your need for circumcision in the heart - but for 700 years none of you have been learning that lesson, and you're still stuck on the outward sign, as though that sign had some kind of power to make you holy. Obviously it doesn't, because, in case you've forgotten, you've been just as wicked as all the other nations.
This will be his argument in 3:1-20, before he finally introduces faith as the cause of justification, over and against circumcision and the works of the Mosaic Law.

You see St. Paul's logic, then? He asks them, do you steal? Do you commit adultery? Do you break God's law? And the answer, through Ezekiel, is well, you're in exile, aren't you? What more proof do we need? Of course you're still rebellious and wicked - you're enslaved to Gentile Rome, aren't you?
Yes, I do see it. :)
S.A.G. ~ Kathy ~ Sanguine-choleric. Have fun...or else.

Adoramus te, Christe, et benedicimus tibi, quia per sanctam crucem tuam redemisti mundum.

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