“You who call yourselves Jews are relying on God’s law, and you boast about your special relationship with him. You know what he wants; you know what is right because you have been taught his law. You are convinced that you are a guide for the blind and a light for people who are lost in darkness. You think you can instruct the ignorant and teach children the ways of God. For you are certain that God’s law gives you complete knowledge and truth.”
Romans 2:17-20 NLT
Paul starts the verse we are reading today by making reference, with a hint of sarcasm, to the fact that at least some of the people in the Roman church still call themselves Jews. Superficially at least, there is nothing wrong with that. Most people call ourselves after their origins. So I might call myself British. Others might call themselves American. We call ourselves after the country in which we were born. But it appears that the Roman Christians of Jewish ancestry had two problems. Instead of relying on the saving grace of Jesus and His sacrifice at Calvary for their salvation, they instead had returned to obeying the rules and regulations of God’s Law. Their second problem was that they claimed to have a special relationship with God and they were boasting about it. Now it should be said, that neither being obedient to God’s Law or claiming to be part of His chosen people are in themselves wrong. Both claims made by the Jews in the Roman church were factually correct.
God’s original intention was that through a system of laws and precepts, He established everything the Israelites needed to do, to have the relationship with Him that He wanted. Jeremiah 7:23 says (God speaking through Jeremiah), “This is what I told them: ‘Obey me, and I will be your God, and you will be my people. Do everything as I say, and all will be well!’” Deuteronomy 30:10, “The Lord your God will delight in you if you obey his voice and keep the commands and decrees written in this Book of Instruction, and if you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and soul“. Jesus Himself said that the greatest commandment in the Law was “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Matthew 22:37-38). And in Matthew 5:19, Jesus taught, “So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven“.
Jesus taught about the spirit of obeying the law in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:27-28, “You have heard the commandment that says, ‘You must not commit adultery.’ But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart“. Obeying the letter of the Law is achieved if a man is totally faithful to his wife, and he doesn’t enter into any adulterous relationships. However, the spirit of the Law would say that even if a man looks at another woman lustfully, then he is breaking the Law. The problem for the Roman Jewish Christians was that they were trying to obey the letter of the Law rather than the spirit of the Law, (which was what God wanted).
The people in the Roman church would have claimed that through their birth they were Jews. Paul himself made that claim because he wrote down his origins in Philippians 3:5, “I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one!...”. So Paul himself was obviously very proud of his roots. In Deuteronomy 7:6 we read, “For you are a holy people, who belong to the Lord your God. Of all the people on earth, the Lord your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.” Of course this is a wonderful place to be, to know that, as a member of a race of people, you are in a special relationship or privileged position with God. But Paul rose above these thoughts. We read what he said in Philippians 3:7-9, “I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith”.
So we pilgrims have a challenge from a verse that at first sight doesn’t seem to apply to us. Well, perhaps that is what we think. But it couldn’t be further from the truth. We too can fall into the Jewish Christian traps that Paul was writing about. By introducing a legalism into our faith, so that we go through the motions of worship and prayer but our hearts, our thoughts, are elsewhere. Or we try and take the moral high ground when the world around us seems to sink lower and lower into sinful depravity. Instead, we must remain close to God in our relationship with Him. Keeping short accounts with Him if we lapse into sinful ways. Choosing to live a life of devotion focused on our loving Heavenly Father. One thing we cannot do is try and live a life with one foot in the secular society around us, and the other in God’s Kingdom.
Dear Father. We repent today of our feelings of pride and legalistic tendencies. We reach out to You, knowing that Your love and kindness is always there for us. We love You Lord. Amen.