Reflecting on Israel’s disobedience in the wilderness, refusal to exercise faith in the Lord, and consequent judgment, Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” and later repeated, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:6, 11-12).
In other words, Paul says that one reason the Lord made sure to record in Scripture Israel walking in unbelief, rebelling against the Lord’s commands, and being judged by God in the wilderness was so that we might have before us an example of what path not to follow. He gave us their examples so that we might “take heed” and not fall. He wants us to look at them closely, see where they went wrong, and guard against that ourselves. So, that’s what I want us to do this morning. It’s one reason why I thought it’d be advantageous for us to look at these early chapters in small, bite-size pieces. It allows us to look carefully, think about, and consider these details without rushing over them. So, here’s what I want to do this morning. I want to give a preliminary word about what Paul is doing and commend this practice to us, then I want to try to explain his argument, and then I want to make a pointed application toward us.
First, let me give a preliminary word before we dive into understanding this text, explaining and commending what Paul is doing here. I’ll put it in the language of application for us, namely,
It will be good and necessary for us to tear down others’ insufficient defense before God
Let me explain why I’m saying this. As we’ve noted, starting in Romans 1:18 and continuing all the way through 3:20, Paul is showing that all people apart from Christ are sinful and, therefore, condemned before God. In 1:18-32, he showed that reality with respect to Gentiles. They know God exists but suppress that truth and instead of honoring him, turn to idolatry and all manner of unrighteous living. Then, in chapter 2 Paul begins by noting the same sinfulness and condemnation with respect to the unbelieving Jew.
However, you can see one key difference among his condemnation of the unbelieving Jew when compared to his condemnation of the unbelieving Gentile, namely, he anticipates that the unbelieving Jew will have a defense. That is, if the Gentile’s response to Paul’s condemnation is, “So what. I don’t even believe the God you say will condemn me in judgment actually exists,” he knows that the Jew happily concedes that God exists, that he’s going to judge, and that all people are therefore liable to him. Consequently, the Jew cannot simply ignore Paul’s attacks but must mount a defense. And, knowing that’s what they will do, Paul decides to take apart their defense piece by piece. And he’s somewhat ruthless in doing so.
In 2:1-11, he wants the Jew to see that God will judge justly and impartially. If the unbelieving Jew wants to claim, “But God has shown us much more kindness over the centuries than the surrounding Gentile nations,” Paul responds, “Yes, but that kindness was to lead you to repentance, and because you haven’t repented you’re storing up wrath for yourself on the day of judgment.”
In 2:12-16, they say, “But surely we’re okay before God because we have the law,” and Paul answers, “Having the law doesn’t matter; doing the law matters. And you’ve not done it. More than that, everyone in some sense has the law, even unbelieving Gentiles have it on their hearts. So don’t think you’ll be excused before God because you have the law.”
Then, in our text this morning, 2:17-24, Paul is pushing all the chips into the middle of the table, if you will. He’s noting almost everything the Jew might say in defending himself before God, calling himself a Jew, boasting in God, being able to know God’s will, teaching others, etc., and Paul pushes back to destroy that defense (the details of how he does this we’ll look at shortly).
But the point I want us to see is that Paul ruthlessly tears down any defense the unbelieving Jew thinks will suffice before God on the day of judgment, not because he’s a cruel and angry man who loves confrontation and argument but because he deeply loves his countrymen and doesn’t want them to stand before God with a defense that won’t stand on that final day. He loves them deeply. In fact, remarkably, Paul will say in Romans 9 about these unbelieving Jews that he has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart because they aren’t believers and even could wish himself condemned before God if only it would lead to their salvation. That is a love so deep it’s hard to relate to or explain. And love that deep will sometimes motivate an attack this strong.
Now the reason I want to say this is a pastoral one. I think there can be a great temptation for us to shrink back from doing the same thing with our neighbors who think they’re okay before God but don’t think of salvation as being by grace alone through faith alone in Christ (who is God the Son incarnate) alone. When we live in a culture as harsh to our lifestyle as this culture is becoming, it can be very easy for us to see our neighbor, who thinks abortion is bad and speaks of Jesus but thinks that salvation is wrapped up in doing enough good, as he actually is, namely, an enemy of Christ, storing up wrath for himself on the day of judgment.
Brother and sister, it is not unloving to make sure your Mormon friend, who is living an externally moral life, understands that unless you believe that Jesus Christ is the eternal God (the Son), who took on flesh to live, die at atoning death for our sins, and be raised from the third day, you will be condemned by God. It is not unloving to makes sure that your Roman Catholic friend understands that salvation is by grace through faith alone and not on the basis of us doing enough good and to tear apart any sense from him that is relying on his works as his basis for salvation in any sense, noting (as Paul says in Romans 11:6), “If it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”
So, I just want to strengthen us in that understanding that what Paul is doing is not only okay for us to imitate but to note that sometimes love will demand that we attack and tear down others’ insufficient defense before God. It’s not only loving but it is necessary in the work of earnestly contending for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.
In light of that preliminary note, then, let me note that Paul shows us in these verses the following:
It’s possible to have knowledge of Scripture, even instruct others, and be damned
Paul notes in verses 17-20 that the Jews had many elements about themselves that they could point to (and no doubt did point to) in order to show they were free from condemnation before God. Let’s note verses 17-18 first. Paul writes, “but if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law.” Now, let’s stop there to understand what Paul is noting.
He’s acknowledging that an unbelieving Jew would no doubt first say, “I’m a Jew.” Again, the weight of this might be lost on us, but the Lord had chosen only to reveal himself to the Jewish people in a special way throughout history. The Hittites didn’t get the law of Moses. The Egyptians didn’t have a tabernacle with God’s presence dwelling in their midst. Only the Jews. So, to say, “I’m a Jew” might seem like a sufficient defense before God. That is, “I’m one of those among whom you specially chose to reveal yourself to and be present with.” Not only that, Paul notes that they relied on the law. And instead of reading this negatively, perhaps we should read it positively. That is, knowing that David had said that the law was worth meditating on and was a lamp unto their feet, the unbelieving Jew would look to the law for guidance.
And they boasted in God. Their God, they noted, was superior to the gods of the nations, as God had noted for them to do in Jeremiah 9:23-24. And they were able to say all of these things and do these things because they were instructed by the law, unlike the pagan Gentiles.
Because of that, Paul continues, “And if you are sure that you yourself are a guide 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 truth” (vv. 19-20). That is, the Jew could have instructed his Hittite neighbor, saying, “The reason you’re wrecking your home is because adultery is condemned. The reason you’re causing all kinds of uproar in your village is because you’re not condemning stealing. The reason all kinds of evil is among you is because you’re worshipping idols.” Because he had the law which embodied knowledge and truth, he well could give instruction to his unbelieving Gentile neighbor. The unbelieving Jew could well be one who meditated on the law, instructed others in light of God’s commands, and had a zeal for God.
Now, at this point, the unbelieving Jew could well be saying, “Amen. That’s right, Paul.” But Paul is building them up only to level them. For he adds, “You then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law” (vv. 21-23).
This doesn’t mean that Paul would expect every unbelieving Jew to say, “Yes, I have stolen. I have committed adultery. And I have gone in to pagan temples and stolen their idols because they’re valuable to sell on the street.” Some of these sins may well have landed on some. But his point simply is, “You violate God’s law, don’t you?” And the answer is, “Yes.” Every one of them knew it. As they might teach the pagans all that God commands, they had to do it with their heart telling them, “But you don’t do all that God commands.”
And this wasn’t new with the unbelieving Jews. For years their disobedience and idolatry had led to God disciplining them, at times, at the hands of their pagan Gentile neighbors. Consequently, Paul notes, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (v. 24). That is, the Gentiles were able to say, “The God who has made himself known to Israel must not be that great because they’re willing to worship our gods, committing what would be idolatry, and violate his commands.” This is why God says, for example, in Ezekiel 36 that he is going to redeem them for the sake of his own name among the nations, as the Jews had profaned it.
But what was Paul’s goal in pointing out that the Jews who relied on the law, taught the law, and taught others to obey the law had actually broken God’s law. After all, the law was never given so that we might do the works of the law and on the basis of our good works be justified before God.
But this is Paul’s very point. The Jews were boasting in the law, teaching others, and teaching others to obey God’s commands, believing that obedience to the works of the law was sufficient for salvation. And Paul is simply noting, “You fail the standard demanded by your very teaching.” Consequently, you’re condemned by your own standards.
What then did Paul want? He wanted them to realize that you can have the Scripture, teach it, teach others to obey it, and still be damned, if you never come to the realization that the Scriptures are meant to lead us to repentance and faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. You see, Paul will later say of the unbelieving Jews, “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (10:2-3). Paul wants his unbelieving Jewish to realize, “Yes, Paul, I am guilty before the law, and my only hope is to turn from my own righteousness and trust in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ to be my righteousness for me.” That was the work God intended for the law of Moses to do.
But this is a healthy reminder for us that we can have all kinds of exposure to the Scripture, even teach it, and be damned, if we do not see that the Scripture is pointing us to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
So, as I noted, I want to give a preliminary word about what Paul is doing, an explanation of the text, and a word of pointed application for us. Let me now do the last of these things for us in our day and in our setting. It is this:
A lifelong pursuit of obedience is a necessary fruit of saving faith
As I thought about what Paul is doing here and how this might apply in our setting, it reminded me of the effects of revivalism in my own life. I grew up in a church setting that was indicative of many churches in the south where we came up with some external rules (or motions) to be followed to be justified. Chiefly those two rules were walking at aisle at the conclusion of a church service and saying a prayer in which you confessed your sin and asked for the Lord to save you. Now, neither walking an aisle nor praying a certain prayer is present in the Scripture, but nor is either one of those things evil, and I believe the Lord has worked in these measures to save many.
But these external motions began to be exalted as sufficient elements for salvation. And then we added to these elements a dangerous third element. That was instant assurance of salvation. That is to say, if you walked the aisle and prayed the prayer, then you were given instant assurance that you were saved and exhorted never to doubt your standing before the Lord. This meant that if you walked the aisle, prayed the prayer as a child, and then went on to live the next seventy years of your life, bearing no fruit of obedience to Christ in your life, then you may well approach death thinking it is well with your soul, while you’re on your way to hell.
Then, to make matters worse, we removed the idea of church discipline from our churches and acted as if the individual believer is not accountable to any group with whom he is in covenant. Consequently, I grew up in a setting where not only did professing believers commit adultery and leave their spouses, but worse, the church said nothing to them and did nothing about it. And because of their claim to Christ and immoral lifestyle, the name of Christ was blasphemed among unbelievers, noting that they wanted nothing to do with the church because we were a bunch of hypocrites.
So, as I thought about Paul dealing with those (the unbelieving Jews) who were coming from a background and a defense that he was quite familiar with because he lived it, I found myself thinking of those who may well have come from my same background and a defense that I am quite familiar with. Therefore, moved by love, for those who were raised or exposed to the same teaching that I was, I want to try to lovingly push against your insufficient defense before the Lord, if you’re here or listening this morning.
And the way I want to do it is by noting that there is a holiness without which no one will see the Lord. That is to say, obedience to Christ is a necessary fruit of faith in Christ. If saving faith doesn’t produce the fruit of obedience at some level then, as James would say, that is dead faith that does not save. So, if your life isn’t characterized by wanting to turn from sin and walk in obedience to the Lord, then I want to exhort you to repent and look to the crucified and risen Lord because Christians are characterized by a desire for obedience, by the Spirit warring against the flesh within them, and by repentance when we sin. And as a pastor, my heart aches to want to make sure that no one stands before the Lord on that final day, thinking they are okay before the Lord simply because they went through some motions but never had a heart that was turned toward the Lord.
But my exhortation to us isn’t, “So do better at obeying.” It’s the same exhortation Paul wanted to give to the Jews, “Repent and look with faith to the crucified and risen Lord as your only hope.” And then, having realized his gift of righteousness to all who believe, pray for grace to obey, build discipline into your life in line with your desire to obey, and walk in a way that does not blaspheme Christ’s name but honors him before the unbelieving world.
So, let’s now profess our faith in the finished work of Christ by coming to the table. Amen.