The Marks of God's Chosen People
Scripture: Romans 2:12–2:29
12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
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. 24 For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
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. 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
Life is filled with important signs and markers. There are geographical signs to help us navigate, to make sure that we get to our planned destination. There are nutritional signs that help us make decisions about what we should and should not put into our bodies. There are also signs and markers of identity. We can sometimes tell by a certain sign or feature that two persons are related, that they belong to the same family. But, of course, signs can be deceiving. I’m still confused by the signs at I-44 and I-235. I still cannot tell if that granola bar I like to eat is healthy or not. And, of course, your doppelgänger does not share your DNA.
One of the very important questions that lurks just beneath the surface of Romans—and, indeed, in so much of the New Testament—is the question, “Who are the people of God?” It’s an important question, because the people of God are those who will inherit the kingdom of God. They are those whom God has saved and will save in the final judgment.
Now, if you know your Old Testament, you know the answer to the question. The people of God are identified with the nation of Israel. The Jews are the chosen people of God. Deny this, and you have a message that is different from the Old Testament. You’ve got a doctrine that contradicts the Scriptures.
But it seems that Paul has denied this. In our passage last week, he said that Jew as well as Gentile stands in danger of God’s wrath and final judgment. God will show no partiality to Jew or to Gentile. Is this a contradiction to the Old Testament? If so, can you trust the gospel that Paul preached?
Our passage this morning answers these kinds of questions. Paul does not deny that the Jews are God’s chosen people, but what he says is that we often mistake their identity because we are looking at the wrong signs, the wrong markers.
How can we identify the people of God? By what are they marked? In this passage, Paul gives us three identifiers. He says they are marked by true righteousness, by the honor they give to God, and by the circumcision of the heart.
First, in verses 12-16, Paul says that God’s people are marked by true righteousness. In verse 11, we were told that God will show no partiality when it comes to his judgment against sin. All sinners are judged equally. No one will hold any advantage over any other at the bar of God’s judgment. This probably seems right to you. It probably seems fair. But here Paul wants to stress the point that Jews have no advantage over Gentiles when it comes to God’s righteous judgment. Why would anyone think otherwise? Because if Israel gets the same treatment as everyone else, this is not good news for anybody.
The Hope of Israel
The story the Bible gives us is that God has promised to redeem his good creation through his chosen people, the people of Israel. The promise is given to Abraham and the great nation that descended from him, so that in him all the families of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:1-3).
But it’s not long before we start to see a problem, and it’s a problem that is impossible to ignore. The people of Israel have a checkered history. Theirs is a story of abusing the powerless, deceit, and broken promises. It is obvious that God did not choose them because he took one glance at them and thought, “Wow, I could really get a lot of good things done through them.” No! The only explanation for why God chose them is because he “set his love on them” and selected them to be his “treasured possession” (Deut 7:6-9). But his selection of them did not mean that he would tolerate sin in them any more than in anyone else. He gave them his law and put them under obligation to keep it. They must “be careful to do the commandment and the statutes and the rules” that he had set before them (Deut 7:11).
And that’s why Paul can say, here in verse 12, that those who sin “without the law” (Gentiles) will be judged, but the same holds true for those who sin “under the law” (Jews).
Now, do not miss Paul’s point here. Feel the weightiness of it. He is saying that to be “under the law” will do one no good when it comes to their violation of it. Just because Israel possessed the law of God, and indeed the rest of the Old Testament is essentially Israel’s own story, this would give no Israelite any advantage over people from the other nations. Whoever sins would fall under the righteous judgment of God.
The point is even clearer in verse 13. “It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God.” Paul is deflating anyone who puts their hope in the wrong place. He is specifically dealing with ethnic Jews who might think that merely being acquainted with God’s instruction, with God’s laws and with God’s ways, puts them in some advantaged position before God. But no! It is only “the doers of the law who will be justified.”
The Righteous Must Be Righteous
Does that verse (Romans 2:13) trouble you? It should. For one thing, if you look down at Romans 3:20, you will see that Paul seems to contradict himself when he says, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight.” Similarly, in Galatians 2:16 Paul says, “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law.” But then we find support for Romans 2:13 in other texts like James 2:24: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Here we encounter one of the great puzzles in Romans, indeed in the whole Bible. What exactly is the relationship between good works or adherence to God’s law and justification?
One thing we should keep in mind in working through the puzzle is that the word justified or justification comes from the same root word as the word translated righteous. The reason it is translated differently is because we do not have a verb in English “to righteous” or “to be righteoused.” Translations that try to point out the similar word origins usually translate the verb form as “to declare” [one to be] righteous.” But this then usually raises the question, “on what basis does God declare someone to be righteous?”
And here we must observe that this text, nor any others, says that God will declare us righteous on the basis of our obedience to his laws. But there must be some sort of relationship between righteousness and adherence to God’s laws. God will not declare us righteous if we, in fact, are not.
Paul will come to this question soon enough. But for now, his point seems to be simply that no one can claim to be “righteous” before God on the basis of their status in the old covenant. Simply being a Jew, while making one a member of God’s chosen people in the old covenant, did not make them righteous before God, not if they actually were unrighteous. God will not simply ignore our sin, our unrighteousness and say, “Well, let’s just call it good. You are righteous.” Anyone can see that that would be unjust. It would be unrighteous for God to do such a thing.
The Righteous Standard
When it comes to being right, there has to be a “doing” of what is right, not just a “hearing” of it. In verses 14-15, Paul argues that the very fact that the Gentiles do, on occasion at least, what the law requires, demonstrates that God is not just interested in knowing his ways. He is interested in his ways being followed, being obeyed.
And that’s because God is not merely interested in forgiving sins. He is interested in transformation. He is interested in changing everything, including you and me, so that his creation can be what it was always meant to be.
So we learn that it is simply not enough to be an ethnic Jew in order to be justified, to be right before God. God’s plan all along is to see his people transformed, to be doers of his law, and not hearers only. God will only say “righteous” to those who truly are righteous. He will not say “righteous” to those who do not deserve the name. Now in verses 17-24 he pursues this point further. A true Jew must be truly righteous, because a true Jew is one who brings honor to God.
You Call Yourself a Jew
Who is a Jew? The word originally referred to a person hailing from the region occupied by the descendants of Judah. It came to be used for all Israelites after the Babylonian exile, when the territory Israel occupied was roughly the area that Judah occupied. By the time of Paul, to be called a “Jew” meant more than just the land from which a person came. It referred to the special status of those who belonged to the old covenant. It was a way of distinguishing one’s self from all other people.
A Jew, then, would be eager to distinguish his or herself from all other people. What made them different? Paul mentions 8 things in verses 17-20. These 8 things come in two groups. First, Paul speaks of those who rely on the law, boast in God, know God’s will, and approve what is excellent. These are distinguishing characteristics of one who considered himself a “Jew,” a member of God’s chosen people. Now these are all, in themselves, good things. To “rely on the law” does not necessarily mean that a person is trusting in his good works rather than in God. To rely on the law may simply refer to the impulse to see it as God’s revealed word and therefore to be trusted and obeyed. Boasting in God? Paul concurs with Jeremiah 9:23-24 that the one who boasts at all ought to boast in the Lord (1 Cor 1:31). We are to seek the will of God, and we should be taught by the word how to discern between essential and non-essential matters. So these are the kinds of things that a Jew would be right to prioritize in his life. And they would then create some sort of distinguishing character from non-Jews. Again, so far, so good.
A Guide to the Blind?
Now, in verse 19, we see the second group in the eight things that distinguished Jews from Gentiles. Here the emphasis is on the way the Jews were to be a blessing to the Gentiles. Remember, this was indeed their calling. They were supposed to be a light to the nations, or as Paul says here, a guide to the blind. It was through Israel that the Gentiles were to be instructed, because it was Israel who possessed the scriptures, what Paul calls “the embodiment of knowledge and truth.”
But in verse 21, Paul turns the tables. He basically says to the Jew, “Yes, you were indeed supposed to be all these things. But instead of being a guide to the blind, you are more like the blind leading the blind.” In verses 21-22, he accuses them of hypocrisy, of not practicing what they preach. “While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?” No doubt many Jews would claim innocence here: “No, I don’t!” Most of us would not readily admit to hypocrisy. It’s not until we begin to understand all that the law of God requires of us that we fall one by one under conviction. You might say, “Well, I’ve never murdered anybody,” but of course you would then be reminded that Jesus says “that everyone who is angry with his brother” or sister falls under the judgment of the sixth commandment (Matt 5:21-22).
It will not do here to claim innocence because you’ve more or less kept God’s law. All have sinned.
Sin and God’s Honor
But the larger point that Paul is making here has to do not with prosecuting every individual Jew but with the nation of Israel as a whole. Remember, the question lurking behind it all is, “Who are God’s people?” Everyone knows what the answer should be. But Paul is saying, “Look, how can you claim to be God’s people if you keep breaking the law of God that you boast in, that you claim to be a marker of your identity as God’s own?” The question sticks because Paul is not dealing here with individual salvation but with God’s greater promise of cosmic salvation. The promise is that God would save the entire created universe through his chosen people. So, who are these people? It certainly does not appear to be the nation of Israel, who at this point in time remained in exile, under the dominion of Rome, not at all fulfilling the divine calling outlined in the prophets or in Paul’s sketch in verses 17-20.
In verse 24, Paul cites from Isaiah 52:5 when he says, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” Those words in Isaiah summarize the prophet’s contention that the reason why Israel was under the domination of a foreign power was because of national sin, because of the nation’s failure to uphold the law of God. And as long as Israel remained in exile, the salvation for which they were looking had not yet arrived. They were still under judgment. They were still in their sin. And God’s name was being blasphemed by the Gentiles who everyone could see were the ones who were in power here.
It is at this point that the scandal of the gospel of Jesus is made plain. Paul is casting shade on the understanding that to be a Jew marked one as a member of the people of God. How can this be, Paul implies, when Jews have failed to bring honor to their God by their own disobedience to his law? The people of God must be marked by adherence to God’s laws so that God is glorified in them and not mocked, not blasphemed.
It would seem then, if we are following Paul’s prosecution, that there is simply no one left who can rightly claim to be a member of God’s chosen people. If not even a Jew can make such a claim anymore, who is left to be marked as one of God’s own? The answer comes in verses 25-29, and it is quite shocking. God’s people must be marked by circumcision, the circumcision of the heart.
Back to Law-Keeping
I want you to see that in verses 25-27, Paul does not say that law-keeping is no longer a marker of God’s people. Instead, he upholds that argument. God’s people are those who keep the precepts of the law (v. 26). In fact, if one does in fact obey what the law requires, “his uncircumcision” will “be regarded as circumcision.” And the opposite is true as well. If “you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision” (v. 25). Paul is not opposed to circumcision as the God-given marker of membership in the old covenant. The gospel he preaches does not do away with the old covenant but is instead the fulfillment of it. What we have in the gospel is not a renouncing of God’s promise in the Old Testament. Paul is telling us that it is in the gospel that we find the promise being fulfilled. It is coming to pass.
In the gospel of Jesus we find, not an entirely new thing, but the realization of a very old thing. The gospel, Paul says, is to be seen in line with what Israel has been hoping for all along. When God’s salvation comes, God’s people will be marked once more by adherence to God’s law. And Paul is writing Romans to say that this salvation has indeed come.
The Inward Jew
This explains the curious words that Paul writes next. Starting in verse 28, he writes, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, not is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart.” Again, notice that Paul is not overturning the rite of circumcision as a marker of God’s people, but he is saying that it can be fulfilled in a different way. It can be “a matter of the heart,” an inward circumcision.
Now how can Paul say that? What gives him the right to say it? We should be suspicious of anyone coming along and saying, “Well, you don’t have to actually do that thing God requires, you can just do it in your heart.” But Paul did not invent this idea. He saw it in the same scripture he cited in verse 24. If you read on in Isaiah 52, you will see that, immediately after verse 5 come these words:
Therefore my people shall know my name. Therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here I am.
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice; together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of the LORD to Zion. Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. (Isa 52:6-10)
Paul believed that this “good news of happiness” had arrived. God had begun to reign again. The exile of his people was now over, and God was now being glorified through them once again, no longer blasphemed.
The Circumcision of the Spirit
Isaiah’s prophecy matches the prophecy of Ezekiel, who lamented the fact that Israel had profaned God’s holy name and had therefore been sent into exile (Ezek 36:20). But, just as in Isaiah, this charge against God’s people came also with the announcement of God’s remedy, and when we see what follows in Ezekiel, we can see that Paul had this remedy in mind. God said, “I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations. . . . Therefore, . . . 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.” God promised to “vindicate the holiness of [his] great name.” And as for his people, look what he said:
I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh 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 obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezek 36:24-28)
This is what Paul says has come to pass in the gospel. Ezekiel’s prophecy is coming true!
And what is it that marks out the people of God, according to Ezekiel? It is an inner transformation, “a new heart” and “a new spirit” within. The promise is that God would put his own Spirit within them, causing them to walk in his ways. This is how God’s people are marked when God’s salvation comes, when his kingdom comes.
Do you have this new heart? Does God’s Spirit dwell within you? Do you have the markers that identify you as a member of God’s family, his true people? If not, how can you get in? If you’re not sure, what should you do?
Well, we must continue reading in Romans. But Paul has already shown his hand, and we must do the same here as we end our study this morning.
Trust in Jesus! Believe the good news about Jesus, the Messiah of Israel. For this good news “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16). In Jesus alone will we find the true marks of God’s people: true righteousness, lives that bring honor to God, and the promise of a heart that has been transformed by God’s Holy Spirit. You cannot put your hope anywhere else. Trust in Christ today!