Sixth Sunday of Pentecost,

Series on Romans:

Who Really Belongs to God?


Scripture reading: Ezekiel 2:1-5.

Sermon text: Romans 2:17-29.

Note: This is a sermon from Romans, not a commentary. Sermons differ from commentaries in a critical way: An application. Sermons present a means for the congregation to apply the passage to their lives, while commentaries explain the text.

Yesterday, Americans celebrated the 233rd anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. On July 4, 1776, 56 men signed a document declaring our independence from the British Empire. This declaration was followed by years of hard, bitter war that finally ended with the singing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

Some of us here today are descended from veterans of the Revolutionary War. Our ancestors wrested 13 colonies from the British Crown and helped forge a nation from the squabbling politicians and wild lands. Does this give us any special rights over other citizens of our nation?

Thankfully, America doesn’t work that way. I still remember the story of a Russian who emigrated to the United States during the Cold War. To the puzzlement of his friends, the Russian émigré worked hard to pass his citizenship examination. The friends tried to reason with him. “The Americans have let you live here, even work here without your citizenship. Why put yourself through this?” After passing his examination, the Russian replied, “Before I take exam, I am Russian who speak poor English. After I take exam, I am American who speak good Russian.” One of our nation’s greatest ideas rests on the idea that anyone born here becomes an American citizen, and anyone who moves here and works hard to become a citizen can do so. Naturalized American citizens can do anything in our nation but serve as President of the United States.

The second chapter of Romans ends with a group of people who thought their ancestry brought special privileges. For centuries, the Jews had relied on their descent from Abraham to determine their relationship with God. God had made a covenant with Abraham in c. 2090 B.C., promising that his descendants would inherit the land west of the Jordan River. Furthermore, Genesis 15 records, “He believed the LORD, and He counted it to him as righteousness” (15:6). Following the covenant of Genesis 15, God gave the rite of circumcision to Abraham and his descendants as a sign of their covenant with God.

This covenant was reinforced on Mt. Sinai in c. 1446 B.C. Moses received the Law from God Himself, with the promise that those who obeyed the Law would receive the blessings of God. The Old Testament tells the story of Israel’s success at keeping their side of the covenant. In short, Israel failed miserably, leading to numerous defeats, lost wars, and eventually to the burning of their royal city and a 70-year exile in Babylon. When you read the 10 Commandments, keep 2 things in mind: First, these words only begin the Law; Second, the Jews spent the next 8 centuries breaking every one of the Commandments and the laws that followed them.

By the time St. Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, the Jews had forgotten the laws they had broken and instead remembered their “special relationship” with God. This relationship brought special privileges, to be sure, but the Jews had forgotten the real intent of the covenant and the Law; they had forgotten their responsibility to God.

This raises two questions for us today. As believers in Christ who possess a relationship with God, what responsibility does this bring to us, and how do we fulfill this responsibility? St. Paul’s condemning words to the Jews help us answer these questions today.

Notice the claims of the Jews in the sermon passage today. The Jews claimed to “rely on the law and boast in God” and to “know” God’s will. The Jews believed the Mosaic Law “instructed” them in their lives. Jewish history told them that God gave the Law to Moses for the Jews’ ancestors to uphold. Although their ancestors failed miserably, the Jews could claim they had upheld the Law for over 500 years. The Babylonian Exile had thoroughly purged the Jewish fasciation with idolatry from God’s people.

The Jews could also claim they had served as “guides” to the blind, “a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth.” To some degree, history proved them true. Throughout the Mediterranean world, Jewish synagogues sprung up in Greek and Roman cities. Everywhere the Jews went, Gentiles noticed the difference in their lifestyles. Numerous Gentiles began attending synagogue services and hearing the words of the Prophets, the beauty of the Psalms, the history of God’s work in the Jewish nation. Many of these Gentiles converted to Judaism, but most Gentiles balked at circumcision. These Gentiles remained content to settle for the title “God-fearers” who prayed to God and kept the commandments without formally converting to Judaism.

However, their supposed moral and spiritual superiority hid serious issues from the Jews themselves. Look at the list St. Paul threw at his Jewish readers for an idea of how badly the situation had deteriorated.

While the Jews had certainly avoided idolatry, a large segment of their nation had descended into mere formalism and ritual in their adherence to the Law as a whole. Jewish teachers began arguing over seemingly minute differences in interpretations of the Law while failing to encourage their followers to consider the spirit of the Law.

Most people know the Commandment, “You shall not steal.” In reality, the office of the high priest had gone to the highest bidder for decades before Herod the Great treated it like a political spoils system. The commercialization of the Temple may have begun as a legitimate service to traveling pilgrims, but it quickly degenerated into legitimized highway robbery. Jesus’ cleaning of the Temple following His entry into Jerusalem barely interrupted business.

Isn’t it amazing how we manage to delude ourselves into thinking we’re better morally than we really are? The Jews managed to overlook their own failures while exaggerating those of the Gentiles. No wonder St. Paul reminded them of God’s disgust with His people: “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Isaiah 52:5).

Given their inability to keep the Law, did the Jews really possess any advantage before God? “For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision.” The Law worked only if kept. If broken, the Law condemned: “He who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 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.”

I believe this passage clearly answers the questions I posed earlier.

Fulfilling these responsibilities rely on a key point: “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit.” When we confess Jesus as Lord, the Holy Spirit comes into our hearts and guides us in life. He draws us into fellowship and worship with other Christians, then He guides us in our lives as we pray for wisdom to live as He desires.

First, what responsibility do we have through our relationship with Christ?

We have a responsibility to serve as guide, as light, and as instructor to a dying world needing a way out of its darkness. When we confess Jesus as Lord of our lives, we receive the Holy Spirit in our lives to help us live as God commands us. We must remember that the Jews of the Old Testament times lacked our key advantage in living the salvation lifestyle: The indwelling, permanent presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives following our confession of Jesus as Lord.

However, serving as an instructor requires something of us. As a college instructor, I know the impossibility of teaching something you don’t know. We cannot instruct people in the way of God if we don’t know it ourselves. We must study Scripture to posses the ability to instruct people in God’s word. Unlike any ancient writings you’ll find, Scriptures bring life to people as they hear them and read them. The Scriptures often convict us as we find ourselves reading or hearing of God’s requirements and then realizing we do not live up to those requirements. However, the Scriptures also bring comfort as we begin conforming our lives to Scripture and experiencing the joy that comes from living as God desires.

Lastly, how do we fulfill this responsibility?

We must avoid falling into the trap that brought down the Jews. Over the centuries, the Jews often failed to remember that Abraham’s faith, not his circumcision, resulted in his justification before God. (See last week’s sermon regarding justification.) People in the world need to see us in worship, for believers must always worship to praise God for His blessings for us. People need to see us living as Scripture requires so they can see that Christian living brings joy, not confinement.

Unfortunately, as they watch us live by Scripture, people will also see us fail. Scripture tells us of a holy God who expects holiness from His people. None of us can meet this standard perfectly. This is not an indictment of Scripture or of God; anyone who complains that our faith requires too much of us fail to understand the righteousness of God. God gave Adam and Eve a simple command: “Don’t eat the fruit of that tree.” They rebelled. Our sin resulted from that rebellion, but we continue that sin when we put ourselves above God or others. However, when people see us fall, they will also see forgiveness both from God and from one another.

What of those who have not confessed Jesus as Lord? If you fall into this category, on what do you rely to guide you in life, to bring you comfort in grief, joy in happiness, and guidance in life? If you’re a human, you were created for a relationship with your Creator. He offers that relationship to you in spite of your sin and rebellion. Everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord, believing in His resurrection, finds peace with God and joy that lasts eternally.

We cannot rely on anything for that relationship but Jesus. Only faith in Jesus, the risen Lord, can insure our inclusion in the ones who truly belong to God the Father.