Summary: This message is from an expository series from the book of Romans.
“God’s Answer to Hypocrites”
September 28, 2008
When you talk to imaginary friends, like Harvey, Jimmy Stewart’s 6-foot white rabbit, they come to take you away. But in Greek literature, there was a literary device which consisted of pretty much this thing: a conversation with an unseen, unnamed individual. It was called a diatribe, and it was used to make a point, and that’s what Paul is employing here; the question is, who is the imaginary person Paul is conversing with? Some believe that Paul, having begun at the end of chapter 1 to address the pagan world, now turns his attention to the religious Jews. He clearly does this later in chapter 2, but remembering that the chapter divisions are man-made, we’re under no obligation to make that assumption. He may have Jews only in mind, but I believe that he is speaking, not per se with either a Jewish or a Gentile individual, but with the person who imagines himself to be an upstanding citizen, a person who is “above” such deeds as are described in Romans 1. And such people could also be Gentiles…
The Roman Seneca was an example of one such highly-moral Gentile individual. Seneca would have been at the forefront of our so-called “culture wars”. F.F. Bruce comments, of Seneca, that “he exposed hypocrisy, he preached the equality of all human beings, he acknowledged the pervasive character of evil…he practiced and inculcated daily self-examination, he ridiculed vulgar idolatry, he assumed the role of a moral guide…” By his example of moral living, Seneca put to shame the vast majority of licentious Roman culture, and if we were to speak of his “theology”, at some points he’d be more orthodox than some of our contemporary “Christian” pulpits! And so to suggest that all Gentiles were living lives of debauchery would be as foolish as to suggest that all Jews were living lives of pious devotion.
It seems to me that in the first 11 verses of chapter 2, if not in the first 16 even, Paul is addressing people who in their own eyes live moral lives, who might well fancy themselves good enough people to achieve heaven in their own merits. He’s confronting the moralizer, the person who not only lives by a strict moral code but also who looks down his nose judgmentally at others who don’t live up to the code.
And let’s not kid ourselves: there are plenty of these people who sit in nice churches on Sunday mornings, who sing consistently and listen politely and give significantly and work diligently in the church’s ministries. They’re upstanding members of the Kiwanis Club, they serve on the board of the PTA, they coach Little League and take their kids to Girl Scouts and vote in every election. And they think that they’re living pretty good, moral lives, and that in the end, God will take all of that into account because, you know, they’re not like those “other people”.