We continue this morning our study of the apostle Paul's elaborate assessment of the plight of a hopelessly sinful mankind before the face of the eternally righteous God, as set forth in the first three chapters of the Epistle to the Romans. We began last week a consideration of Chapter 2, wherein Paul, having set forth a persuasive argument for God's just condemnation of the Gentile world, turns his attention to those who believed their privileged religious status would provide escape from the judgment of God.
Paul's discourse in this section of his letter is directed primarily, of couse, toward the Jewish believers in Rome. Like all their kindred, they had long taken great comfort and considerable pride from their singular place in the world as God's Chosen People. The Covenant into which He had entered with their "father" Abraham had been for centuries perpetuated through the rite of circumcision. The Law of God, given personally by Him to their ancestors, had been embellished, expanded and codified by generation after generation of Hebrew scholars, and towered above any other religious "system" in history to that time. The annual Passover feast and national Day of Atonement had served as a continual reminder of their unique relationship with Jehovah. Those Jews who accepted Christ as the promised Messiah could add to this impressive list the fact that the incarnate Son of God was Himself a Jew.
If in fact close proximity to God is the essential criteria for justified status with Him, surely the Jews could make a strong case for their collective salvation. If any group in history could boast in their religion it was the Hebrews. And if any single Jew could stand out in the midst of such a group, it was Paul, who presented his own credentials in Philippians 3:4b-6.
I f anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.
It is fitting, then, that it is Paul who now confronts the issue of religion in his Epistle to the Romans. His target is the religion of the Jews of his day; we will broaden our study this morning to encompass the entire question of organized religion and its effectiveness not only as a vehicle for building a relationship with God but as a vehicle for maintaining a relationship with the world around us. We will begin by reading the Living Bible paraphrase of this morning's text passage, Romans 6:17-29.
You Jews think all is well between yourselves and God because He gave his laws to you; you brag that you are his special friends. Yes, you know what he wants; you know right from wrong and favor the right because you have been taught his laws from earliest youth. You are so sure of the way to God that you could point it out to a blind man. You think of yourselves as beacon lights, directing men who are lost in the darkness to God. You think that you can guide the simple and teach even children the affairs of God, for you really know his laws, which are full of all knowledge and truth. Yes, you teach others -- then why don't you teach yourselves? You tell others not to steal -- do you steal? You say it is wrong to commit adultery -- do you do it? You say, "Don't pray to idols," and then make money your god instead.
You are so proud of knowing God's laws, but you dishonor him by breaking them. No wonder the Scriptures say that the world speaks evil of God because of you. Being a Jew is worth something if you obey God's laws; but if you don't, then you are no better off than the heathen. And if the heathen then obey God's laws, won't God give them all the rights and honors he planned to give the Jews? In fact, those heathen will be much better off than you Jews who know so much about God and have his promises but don't obey his laws.
For you are not real Jews just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the Jewish initiation ceremony of circumcision. No, a real Jew is anyone whose heart is right with God. For God is not looking for those who cut their bodies in actual body circumcision, but he is looking for those with changes hearts and minds. Whoever has that kind of change in his life will get his praise from God, even if not from you.