Romans 2 : 17 – 29 The tell-tale signs
As we continue our studies of the early chapters of the Book of Romans, we read about Paul discussing Jews and Judaism. Why is he doing this? For two reasons. Firstly, there was a Jewish colony in the city of Rome. Jews were dispersed throughout the ancient world, in many cities where a good living could be made, as they still are today. Secondly, some of the Christians in the congregation at Rome were Jews converted to Christianity. Therefore the relationship with and the understanding of Christianity in relation to Judaism had to be explored. Paul was in a unique position to do this. He was very well educated in Judaism and had been a practising leader of Judaism as we know. He was an instantaneous and sound convert to Jesus Christ and a proven called apostle of the resurrected Lord. No-one was better qualified than Paul to write helpfully about Christianity and Judaism.
What Paul does is reject that simply by being born Jewish, people were chosen and saved. He says that they must live as good Jews and that their Judaism must be practising Judaism. He said that by the racial facts of being descended from Abraham and the men being circumcised did not make people Jews in God’s sight. This was very controversial stuff. Yet – it makes sense to us today in our own context. You can say ‘I was born a Protestant’ but you may not be a practising Christian at all. At Ibrox Park every second week there are over 50,000 Protestants – but how many of them are practising Christians who will be in Church the next day? Over the road at Paradise the same thing holds true. 60,000 Celtic fans - but will they all be in Chapel that evening or the next morning? The Orange Movement continues to parade in our streets at various times of the year. How many attend their local churches regularly? You can support your football team sitting in your living room watching the highlights on Sportscene, but you can’t be a Christian that way. Yes – of course you can be a Christian in your soul wherever you are - but being a Christian is a much more active calling than just what you are inside. Paul is saying that if you do not practise your faith in relationship to what God wants of you, then your claims are spurious and false.
For Paul, Jewishness was not a matter of race or physical marking. It was about spiritual attitude. Therefore he was saying that anyone can be Jewish because anyone can love and worship the one true God. This was heresy to Jews then as it is now. But many say today “You don’t have to go to Church to be a Christian. I’m just as good a Christian as those who go to Church” – better some maintain than we perceived hypocrites. I don’t agree with that viewpoint. If all the supporters of a football club stay at home on Saturday afternoons, then the club will go out of existence very quickly. Any social institution needs people, the more the better and stronger it will be. The Church is like that too. We don’t need people sitting at home on Sunday mornings telling themselves and others that they are Christians. They are deceiving themselves too because they are not learning anything, simply remaining with the views they have held unchanged for years and decades. We need them here with us. We wish and pray they’d come along and let us welcome them.
In the ancient world, Jews had a very special and privileged relationship with the Roman State. Although they were distrusted and despised by the Roman intellectual elite, they enjoyed political favours which other conquered peoples did not. People then thought of Jews as ‘contemptible’, ‘lepers’, ‘worshippers of an ass’s head’, ‘worshippers of pigs’, and because they did not work on their Sabbath, ‘lazy and indolent’. They were thought to be ‘atheists’ because they had no idols or man-made gods. Jews were thought to be unsociable and haters of all other human beings because of their self-imposed segregated lifestyle. People noted that they looked after one another – but they did nothing for non-Jews. That is the secret behind the story of the Good Samaritan. Does this not strike a cord in these days in this country and across Europe? It appears that the Momentum group around Jeremy Corbyn is distinctly anti-Semitic and seeks to deselect Jewish MP’s and even others who are sympathetic to Jews. In the political Left’s pathology Jews are the archetypes of capitalism. They secretly run the world economy in favour of themselves and the rich. The political Left is hostile to Israel though it is the only functioning democracy in the middle east. Jews themselves think that they are the bellwether for future events. Persecution of Jews is, they say, the sign of worse things to come for everyone else.
Christianity has grown and expanded for 2000 years by expressing primary concern for all people irrespective of faith. Paul is critical of his fellow Jews. Racial elitism and spiritual pride typified the attitude of Jews to non-Jews. Yet the Romans allowed Jews to send their Temple tax to Jerusalem every year. They were allowed to practise their Judaism. They were exempted from military service because they would not work on their Sabbath.
Within Christianity, there are churches and groups which have the same spiritually superior attitudes. The Roman Catholic Church doggedly maintains its teaching of being the ‘one true Church’ in spite of 460 years of Reform and Protestant Christianity, in spite of people like John Wesley and Florence Nightingale, Mary Slessor, Martin Luther King, Billy Graham and Desmond Tutu and in spite of the clear lack of practising Christianity in so many Roman Catholic congregations. The Christian Brethren are also exclusive in their own way refusing to accept those who do not worship God in their way as full and equal Christians. Some Baptists and Pentecostal churches are the same and look at Church of Scotland Parish Christianity as shallow and ineffective, nominal and even hypocritical. In all of these perceptions, Paul would say, “Ah yes – but – within these churches are there any who actually live as Christians?”. And the truth is that there are – in every church – those who live as Christians and those who do not.
In the passage from Paul’s letter which we heard read to us, Paul denounces the spiritual pride of the Jews. So had Jesus. Paul actually uses the same language and words as did Jesus. “Do you set yourselves up as guides?” – “Maybe you are blind guides leading people in to the dark!” Jesus spoke in exactly these terms to the Pharisees who opposed and harried him in his public ministry. Paul echoed Jesus’ teaching thought for thought and word for word. Jesus is quoted in John’s Gospel 6:45 saying to those Jews who were harassing him “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me”. They didn’t and they didn’t. They were not devout, spiritually minded practising Jews. And so their hearts and minds were not open to recognise Jesus as their Messiah. Jews looked down on others as moral inferiors. Yet so often – they did not live out the content of their own faith. Sir Philip Green is Jewish but he does not practise Judaism according to the Old Testament. Neither does Harvey Weinstein. But there are many good Jewish people, gifted in sciences and arts as well as business who contribute disproportionately much to our national welfare and prosperity. Take a few names for example: Simon Shama, Robert Winston, Vernon Bogdanor, Anna Freud, Nigella Lawson, Julia Neuberger, Alan Sugar, Alex Carlile, Melanie Phillips, Michael Grade, and thousands more, many knighted and honoured.
Paul hit back hard against his own who were criticising Christians. So they preached against stealing but were themselves dishonest. They said they were against adultery but committed it. They said they hated idols but stole money from the temple. They broke the law frequently and got away with it. Paul pointed out that people were not daft and could easily see the discrepancy between claims of faith and practice. It’s the same today. It is not that hard to be a Minister. It is hard to be a Christian Minister. It is not hard to be an elder. It is hard to be a Christian elder. It is not hard to join the Church. It is hard to be a life-long Christian in the Church. It is easy to say you are a Christian. It is hard to practise Christianity.
Paul says “By all means claim that you are Jews if you are – but let that be seen in your love and devotion to God, in your neighbourly humanity, in your honesty in business, in your works of charity – then we will know you are Jewish as God intended you to be Jewish!” So today we say “By all means call yourself a Christian – but let us see that you are a Christian – in your confession of Jesus Christ, your devotion to worship and your commitment to building up this congregation, and in the way you manage your life and treat others, in the blessing that you are to those who know you”.
Paul, the former devout and strictly living Pharisee, member of his national assembly, prominent persecutor of Christians, now says to his own people “Circumcision is meaningless – it is a faith of the heart that is important. Outward signs are irrelevant. It is the inward relationship with God that is the spring of realised faith.”
We say today, “Calling yourself a cultural or social Christian matters little. Pride in being Protestant is mistaken. If you do not personally know the Lord Jesus Christ who died for you and is alive for you and seeks to dwell by the Holy Spirit in your life, then you have not found true Christianity. If you do not show the effects of His life-changing influence in your language, conversation, disposition and conduct and treatment of others, then you are living a lie”.
So here today – whatever your spiritual state or condition – you are offered the very best that God can offer you. The Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Living Saviour. You are offered the Real Presence of the Lord Himself in your own heart and soul and life. You are offered the one-to-one relationship on which to base your lifestyle choices. Make a decision today to move from armchair Christian to practising Christian, from occasional supporter to loyal fan, from spectator to player, from church membership to born-again Christian. You will know the difference. You will make a difference. We will see the difference.