Connections 07.03.2016: Beneath the Surface


Romans 2:17-29

“A World Gone Wrong.” What a timely unit for these difficult days in our world. If you’re like me, you check the daily news with a guarded heart. In the past several weeks, I’ve read about a mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub, politicians smearing each other’s campaigns, and social media users cursing each other out for personal stances on issues like homosexuality and gun control.

The truth is that anger, hatred, and evil are manifested somewhere in someone’s life every single day. When these experiences make headlines, though, we all tend to feel defensive and uncertain. The lessons in our current unit dig deep to find the source of all the callousness: sin.

At church last Sunday, my pastor said, “People believe different things about the concept of original sin. But if you think babies are naturally angelic, go hang out in the nursery with some one-year-olds.” He talked about the snatching, whining, and biting that goes on even among toddlers as they try to protect what’s “theirs” and get the most attention from caregivers. I remember how hard it was to guide my own girls away from selfishness when they were preschoolers. “Share!” “Say ‘please.’” “That belongs to her, and you must ask to use it.” “We don’t hit each other.” “Say ‘thank you.’” “How can you help your friend feel better?”

It went on and on. My daughters are 9 and 11 now, and much better at showing compassion. But they still have a long way to go. And so do I.

We come into the world with a mega dose of self-protection. It’s terribly hard to move past this—sometimes a daily struggle. Maybe that’s why some of us cling to a list of rules we can follow to ensure that we are “right” before God. As a Christ follower, I find some comfort in a checklist of behaviors and actions that keep me on track. And such guidance is good—even necessary—as long as we keep it in its rightful place.

Paul wrote to people who elevated that checklist above everything else. As long as people met the qualifications, they were considered “in.” They were accepted. Anyone who couldn’t check a box, even a single box, was “out.” As Paul points out, the biggest problem with the in-crowd’s checklist was that most of it was surface level. They bore the outer marks of faithful churchgoers, but beneath that presentation they were corrupt, selfish, unkind—not like God at all.

It is good to attend church. It is good to read the Scriptures and talk about them. It is good to pray in public. It is good to sing in the choir. It is good to lead a Bible study. But when we look to the spiritual checklist for assurance that we are walking in the path of Jesus, let’s go beneath the surface and ask ourselves, “You, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself?” (Rom 2:21). It may be easy to discuss and sing about matters of faith. It is much harder, of course, to instill them into our own hearts and then live them out.

If sin is the cause of our “World Gone Wrong,” no amount of surface-level praying, singing, teaching, or churchgoing will make a lasting difference. Only when we are open enough and humble enough to let God into our hearts each day do we begin to live in ways that have the power to change the world.


1. How do the daily headlines about a world gone wrong make you feel? What do you do when you feel this way?
2. What have you noticed when you spend time with a group of toddlers or preschoolers? Why do you think we are born with selfish tendencies? How do these carry into our adult lives?
3. How often do you think about your sin? What is the relationship between selfishness and sin?
4. How are you like the Jews to whom Paul wrote in Romans? What steps can you take to “teach yourself” and truly live in the way of Christ?

Reference Shelf

In his statement of principle, Paul had said: “all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” (v. 12b). This principle is now applied to Jews in Romans 2:17-29. The application falls into two parts: vv. 17-24 and vv. 25-29. In v.s 17-24 the focus is on the Jews as those who possess the law (cf. Sir 24:23), know the law, and are able to function as teachers of the law (vv. 17-20; cf. Sir 24:27).

In v.s 25-29 the focus is on circumcision as a sign of Jewishness. Physical circumcision was, for Jews, a sign of the covenant (Gen 17:10-11; Jub 15:28) and was central to Jewish identity (1 Macc 1:48, 60-61; 2:46; 2 Macc 6:10). No one could be counted as belonging to the people of God without it (Jub 15:25-34; Josephus, Antiquities 13.257-58,318). Later rabbis could say: “No person who is circumcised will go down to Gehenna” (Exodus Rabbah 19 [81c]). At the same time, there was within Judaism the notion of the circumcision of the heart. “Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer” (Deut 10:16). “Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut 30:6). “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, remove the foreskin of your hearts, O people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Jer 4:4). “All the house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart” (Jer 9:26b). “I shall cut off the foreskin of their heart and the foreskin of the heart of their descendants” (Jub 1:23). In 1QpHab 11:13 the interpretation of Habakkuk 2:16 runs: “Its interpretation concerns the Priest whose shame has exceeded his glory because he did not circumcise the foreskin of his heart.” This distinction between literal and spiritual circumcision had a variety of results. Philo knew Jews in Alexandria who dispensed entirely with physical circumcision. They believed circumcision was rather a matter of inward reality. It involved “the excision of pleasure and all passions, and the putting away of sacrilegious opinion” (On the Migration of Abraham 92). This spiritualizing tendency reflected a widespread Greco-Roman tendency. It affirmed that externals were not as important as what is on the inside (Horace, Satires 2.3.159-62; Ovid, Amores 3.4.4; Musonius Rufus XII; Seneca, De Beneficiis 4.14.1; Dio Chrysostom 69.8). Philo himself could agree that “he shows himself most clearly that he is a proselyte who is not circumcised in foreskin but in pleasure, desires, and other passions of the soul” (Questions and Answers on Exodus 2.2, fragment on Exod 22:21). Nevertheless, Philo insisted that literal circumcision be retained (Migration of Abraham 92-93; Special Laws 1.1+6). It is this distinction between physical and spiritual circumcision that Paul employed in v.s 25-29. “For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal” (vv. 28-29; cf. 1 Cor 7:19). Of course, in 3:1 Paul allowed a place for literal circumcision for the ethnic Jew. This, however, is only on the basis of historical priority. It has no soteriological value in the era of Christ.

In v.s 17-29 Paul has made two points. First, Jewish obedience to the law has not matched Jewish knowledge of the law (cf. 7:14-24 where the “I” values the law but is unable to obey it). Second, the Jew’s circumcision has been only physical and not spiritual. With both points the apostle has applied the principle, all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” (v. 12b), to Jews. Jews, as well as Gentiles, stand under God’s impartial judgment. Note that Paul’s argument here has exposed, not Jewish ethnic exclusiveness, but Jewish disobedience to God.

Charles H. Talbert, Romans, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002) 87-89.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and book since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading fiction, spending time with her two daughters, and watching television shows on Netflix.


For further resources, subscribe to the Connections Teaching Guide and Commentary.

Additionally, the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series is a scholarly but accessible means for enhancing your study of each lesson. To purchase the volume quoted in today’s Reference Shelf, please click Here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email