Sermon on Romans 2:17-29 – "A Matter of the Heart"

Preached on Feb. 4, 2018 at Dillingham Presbyterian Church
Have you ever been to a Barnes & Noble or some other bookstore and found a very stately volume. A nice looking book. Its about the right size – maybe 150 pages. It has an old-fashioned feel to it. Maybe a nice navy blue color with some gold inlay. And if you’re like me – a lover of books – you might wonder what it says on the inside. You open it up, and … its all blank pages! It is not a book at all, but a journal of some sort. It is just paper! It is not a book. To be a book it matters that there is something on the inside. It might look like a book on the outside, but it is not a book.
In today’s passage Paul doesn’t address the question “What is a book?” but rather “What is a Jew?” That is, he asks, what is a true follower in the Lord? A true follower of the Lord, he contends, is not merely one who appears so on the outside; having been circumcised outwardly or having been baptized by water in the sight of the congregation. But it is a matter of the heart. A Jew, a true believer, needs to have something on the inside, not just a nice cover and blank pages. It is, Paul says, “a matter of the heart.”
What is a Jew?
So first we might want to know what a Jew was in the common usage. The Jews have other names as well. They are also called Israelites or Hebrews.
They were called Israelites because they were the people of Israel, descendants of the patriarch Jacob who also was called Israel. Israel itself means “to wrestle with God” which Jacob literally did when he wrestled with the angel of the Lord in Genesis chapter 32. There is even an ancient Egyptian stone on which the name “Israel” is engraved with other text, showing that this is what other nations referred to them as. And the nation itself was called Israel for a time, and there is a nation of Israel again today.
Another term, probably even older than “Israelites” is “Hebrews.” Seven generations before Jacob/Israel there was a man named Eber from whom the word Hebrew comes. (We’ll have to trust that in their language these words sound similar!) So the Israelites are the Hebrews, and the Hebrews are the Israelites. They are the same people.
Then, these same people are called Jews, a third name. Usage of the word Jew became prominent after the Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered and taken away into captivity by the Assyrians. Then, only the Southern Kingdom, Judah, remained. So those people of God who remained in the promised land were Judites, Judeans, or Jews. That is, the name “Jew” was derived from their ancestor Judah, after whom the tribe and kingdom was also named. And Judah means “praise.” PRAISE. When Judah was born his mother said “This time I will PRAISE the Lord” (Gen. 29:25) and later Judah’s father said to him, “your brothers shall PRAISE you.” (Gen 49:8) This is likely why Paul ends the section we read today about the true Jew saying “His PRAISE is not from man but from God.”
So this is who the Jews are outwardly. They are the sons of Eber, the sons of Israel/Jacob, and the sons of Judah. But Paul wants to focus on more than just what a Jew is outwardly, he wants to focus on what it means to be a Jew inwardly, what it means to be a follower of the Lord, chosen in Jesus Christ, not by birth among the Hebrew nation, but by a second birth of the Holy Spirit.
As we look to our passage today we’ll look at four particular points:
I. Hypocrisy dishonors God.
II. The Nations blaspheme God because of the hypocrisy of the Jews.
III. Being ethnically a Jew is of no benefit if you do not keep the law.
IV. To be a true Jew is a matter of the heart.
I. Hypocrisy dishonors God (v. 17-23)
First, let us look at the first point – Hypocrisy dishonors God.
To this point, let us again read the first 6 verses of our passage, from verse 17 to verse 23:

17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God 18 and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; 19 and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth– 21 you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law.

When Paul here says that the Jews were said to “rely on the law” it does not mean that they were “taking delight in the Law of the Lord” as in the Psalms, but that they were erroneously thinking that merely having possession of the law as ethnic Jews somehow made them better than off than others and even brought them eternal salvation. It might be as if you think you are saved because you have a Bible in your house.
When the Jews are said here to be “boasting in God,” they were not boasting of the great things God had done, but were boasting of their own close relationship to God as if it was their own achievement.
But their actually achievements were only sins. And in sinning while thinking they were fine they were hypocrites. And this hypocrisy dishonors God.
They preached against stealing – but they stole.
They preach against adultery – but they committed adultery.
They preached against idols – but they robbed temples.
They had the law of God, but did not do the things contained in the law. By thinking themselves better than others and even pretending to teach others from the law they showed themselves to be hypocrites, speaking one way but living another.
Because the Jews had the law, they were responsible to live by the law. Knowing what is right and what is wrong, they were required to do live according to what was right.
What a great privilege it was too to have law. We sometimes think of laws as oppressive and bad. But law brings order to society and the Jews were proud of having good laws, the best laws in fact because the laws were from God. But if they thought that having these laws was sufficient for their salvation, such that they did not have to obey the laws, then they were mistaken. They were hypocrites in preaching those laws to others, but in breaking the laws themselves.
How then can such a person be a teacher of others? How can they pretend to lead other people when they cannot lead themselves?
Paul’s comment here about “robbing temples” is particularly interesting. We know that around the year 49 A.D. the Jews were banished from the city of Rome. In Act 18:2 we learn of this. Paul meets with two Jews, Aquila and Priscilla, who were among those banished from Rome by the emperor Claudius. And there is some speculation, based on writings the Jewish historian Josephus, that the banishment of the Jews from Rome was related to some four Jews having stolen funds from the temple. In the Roman world such was an attack upon their gods, and the most serious offense. A capital offense, treason punishable by death. Robbing temples would bring the Jews into disrepute.
Thus in all their sins they dishonored God. In their stealing they dishonored God. In their adultery they dishonored God. In their robbing temples they dishonored God. But even more, in their hypocrisy they dishonored God, for they boasted in the law while breaking it themselves.
You can clearly see then why being a Jew merely outwardly is of little importance. It is what is inside that counts. It is a matter of the heart.
Because of these sins of hypocrisy among those who are Jews only outwardly, the nations around them blasphemed God.
And this is our second point, from verse 24: The Nations blaspheme God because of the hypocrisy of the Jews. (REPEAT)
II: The Nations blaspheme God because of the hypocrisy of the Jews. (vs. 24)
Verse 24 reads:

“24 For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

Whenever a New Testament writer says “As it is written” we know that he is referring the Old Testament. So where does Paul get the line that says “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”?
Most commentators believe this is referring to a quote from Isaiah 52:5 which reads:

Now therefore what have I here,” declares the LORD, “seeing that my people are taken away for nothing? Their rulers wail,” declares the LORD, “and continually all the day my name is despised.

But John Calvin thinks that Paul is referring to Ezekiel 36:20 which reads:

“But when they came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that people said of them, ‘These are the people of the LORD, and yet they had to go out of his land.’”

Either way, it is because of the crimes/sins of the Jews, that their God is blasphemed among the Gentiles.
Application: To apply this our own situation, we should ask, Do you give Christianity a bad name because of your deeds? Do you cause people to blaspheme God? Do you cause people to say “Those Christians are a bunch of hypocrites.” It is very serious if you are the cause of these things. For there are people who are kept away from the church because, they say, the actions of those who claim to be Christians. Now, many will use the hypocrisy of believers as an excuse to not attend church, but for others they have been actually harmed by Christians who they can no longer trudy. And so today, through the sin and hypocrisy of Christians, God is dishonored and even blasphemed by the nations, by those who despise God because of the actions of Christians.
But you are a representative of your God and of your Faith. All Christians are representatives of the faith, and they should be a good example to other of what a Christian is. Your actions reflect not only upon yourself, but upon your church and upon your God.
So we see that not only does hypocrisy dishonor God, but it leads others away from Him.
Paul warns those sinners and hypocrites that being ethnically a Jew is of no benefit if they do not keep the law. This is our third point: being ethnically a Jew is of no benefit if you do not keep the law. Or we might say, being a church member is of no benefit if you do not follow the Lord.
III. Being ethnically a Jew is of no benefit if you do not keep the law.
Paul writes in verses 25 to 27:

25 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law.

Here “the circumcision” refers to the Jews, and the “uncircumcision” refers to the Gentiles.
This idea of Jews being outwardly physically circumcised, but yet uncircumcised in the heart is not one Paul is inventing himself, but it finds precedent in the Old Testament, in the book of the prophet Jeremiah. There, in chapter 9, we read:

[Jer 9:25-26 ESV] 25 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh– 26 Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab, and all who dwell in the desert who cut the corners of their hair, for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart.”

Paul’s teaching is that the ethnic Jew is no better than the Gentile if he breaks the law. And a Gentile, if he were able to obey the law, would be better than a Jew who does not. But, as we know, no one can fully obey the law. These Gentiles who might keep the law do not in fact exists, for no one keeps the law.
Interestingly, here Paul doesn’t say that circumcision is of no value. He says that it has value if you obey the law.
So we might ask, what is the value of circumcision? Like Baptism, circumcision saves no one. But also like Baptism, it is a symbol of the covenant. It is a symbol pointing to something greater than itself. So circumcision had value in pointing to the covenant with God which is of great value.
Like circumcision was a symbol of the Lord’s covenant in the Old Testament, Baptism is a symbol of the Lord’s covenant in the New Testament. And so today Baptism has great value in pointing to that covenant. Baptism itself does not save, but it points to a God who does.
Paul clearly connects Baptism and circumcision as symbols of the covenant in his letter to the Colossians. There he calls Baptism “the circumcision of Christ” and “a circumcision made without hands.” (See: Col. 2:11-12)
Baptism then, like circumcision, points to a spiritual promise. If we say merely that we are Baptized — that we have this outward form — but we neglect the meaning of Baptism, then we have, as John Calvin says “gloried in vain.” We have gloried in the symbol rather rather than what it symbolizes. What does baptism symbolize? According to the Presbyterian minister and counselor Jay Adams in his book “The Meaning and Mode of Baptism” baptism symbolizes “the descent of the Holy Spirit into the Christian’s life bringing cleansing from sin and union with Christ.” (Jay Adams, The Meaning and Mode of Baptism, p. viii)
Baptism then, like circumcision, saves no one. Rather, it symbolizes, it points to, it reflects the work of God which does save man. These things — circumcision and baptism — are outward things, but to be a true Jew, a true believer, it is a matter of the inward things; is a matter of the heart.
Before we move on from the outward to the inward, however, let us consider the nature of true humility; which is the opposite of this hypocrisy that dishonors God and leads the nations to blaspheme.
There is a paradoxical nature in true humility. It is the one thing that if you say you have it, you don’t. If you say you are humble, you are not. The natural man seeks glory for himself, but glory only comes from the lord. Any attempt to glorify one’s self proves to be disgraceful to you and to God. This praise — and remember the word Jew is related to the word praise — comes only from God.
And so these outward things, these things which man does are of no import to making us true Jews, to making us believers saved by Christ. For this, we must look inward, to a change in the heart.
IV. To be a true Jew is a matter of the heart. (vs. 28-29)
And so we read the final two verses of this passage, verses 28 and 29:

28 For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither [is that] circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: 29 But he [is] a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision [is that] of the heart, in the spirit, [and] not in the letter; whose praise [is] not of men, but of God.

To avoid hypocrisy we must do the things of the law, not merely preach them. But doing the things of the law is not enough either. For it is neither in knowing the law nor in doing the law that we have salvation. To be a true Jew, a real believer, it is a matter of the heart, that which is on the inside.
But, what, more exactly, is this that is to be on the inside?
That which is on the inside for the believer is the Holy Spirit, leading us to know the law and to do the law. REPEAT
The true believer has a circumcision of the heart – a covenant with God in his whole being – for “heart” in the scripture means the entirety of the man. The commentator John Murray explains that the meaning of this phrase “that of the heart” is clear from the Old Testament. It means “the renewal and purification of the heart.”
And thus the true believer has a renewal and purification of the heart only by the Holy Spirit in him.
This is a great blessing we have as Christians – the Holy Spirit lives within you. REPEAT
Paul writes, in 1 Corinthians 6:19

“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own.”

This the doctrine of the “indwelling of the Holy Spirit.” God told his people, in fact, in the Old Testament that this would happen.
In Ezekiel 36:27:

“And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”

And the doctrine of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is confirmed in numerous places in the New Testament including Galatians 4:6 which reads:

And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”

So one is a Jew inwardly when one has the Holy Spirit indwelling in them and leading them to the renewal and purification of the heart which bears out in the good deeds the believer does.
The believer who is a believer only outwardly is not a believer at all. The book with a nice cover, but blank pages, is not a true book.
For it to be a true book it is a matter of what is inside. And to be a true believer it is a matter of what is inside; a matter of the heart.
But do not be too quick to flatter yourself. It is a not a matter of heart as if you have made yourself good from the inside. This is the error of many of churches who credit the individual with coming to faith, rather than saying that it is from God. Truly it is not you who have come to faith, but it is the Holy Spirit dwelling in you that has given you faith.
That is why in the Gospel of John, when his disciples asked him “what must WE do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus does not answer that it is within their power, but says “the work OF GOD is that you believe in him whom he has sent.” It is a work OF GOD, not a work OF MAN. And this work of God — this faith — is through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
What must I do to inherit eternal life? The work OF GOD is this: believe in the one whom He has sent.
The matter of heart is of the Lord, from the Lord, through the Lord, and continuing always with the Lord. Salvation is 100% from beginning to end of the Lord, and the faith that we have is by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is within you and leads you to do things worthy of God’s praise. The spirit in you brings good deeds out of you. And so to God is the glory. Soli Deo Gloria! To God be the glory! Amen