Romans 2:1-29

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The first word in the opening verse is dió, meaning “therefore.” This conjunction appears to link what follows with the previous statement. Those guilty of the vices Paul enumerated and who looked with approval upon others who engaged in them knew the decree of God indicating that these things merited condemnation. In view of this full awareness respecting wanton behavior, any man or individual (regardless of who he might be) who judged or condemned someone else for deviant acts would be without excuse and would condemn himself when engaging in corrupt actions. Such an individual would demonstrate that he could determine what is and is not right or proper, eliminating any basis for claiming ignorance. Paul’s reference to doing the same things does not necessarily mean engaging in the identical wrongs but denotes carrying out the same kind of lawless deeds. (2:1)

The apostle and those to whom he wrote knew that God’s judgment is expressed in harmony with “truth” or in keeping with the actual state of affairs, and is directed against those who are guilty of debased practices. For this reason, God’s judgment will always be impartial and just. (2:2)

Individuals who condemn others for their lawless behavior may wrongly conclude that they will escape God’s judgment despite engaging in sinful practices. To counter this, Paul raised the rhetorical question, “Do you think you, O man who judges those who practice these [lawless] things and do them yourself, will escape the judgment of God?” (2:3)

By means of his next question, the apostle stressed that engaging in corrupt behavior meant despising the “riches,” abundance, greatness, or priceless nature of God’s kindness, forbearance, and patience. Lawless conduct reveals a deliberate failure to recognize that the purpose of divine kindness is to lead sinners to repentance. (2:4)

Persons who refuse to repent, maintaining a hard and unrepentant heart (an inner disposition that refuses to regret wrong conduct and to change), are “storing up wrath” for themselves. They are building up a record of wrongdoing that is reserved for divine wrath, which will be expressed when God reveals his just judgment at his coming day of wrath. (2:5) All will then be recompensed according to their deeds. (2:6; compare Psalm 62:12[13].)

Those who persevere in work that is good and thereby seek the “glory” (splendor or renown), honor (dignity), and the imperishable state that God grants to those whom he approves will receive eternal life from him. (2:7) This is the real life, a life of an enduring relationship with him and all the blessings associated therewith.

God’s adverse judgment will be rendered against those who act “out of contentiousness [eritheía],” fighting against what is proper, and “disobey the truth” or refuse to conduct themselves according to what is right but obey unrighteousness, revealing themselves to be enslaved to evil. They will come to be recipients of God’s wrath and anger. (2:8; see the Notes section for additional comments.)

This will mean “affliction and distress” for those whose deeds have been hurtful to others. Not a “soul” or no single person, whether Jew or Greek (non-Jew), will escape wrath, anger, affliction, and distress for flagrant moral wrongs. Probably because of the greater enlightenment available to the Jews because of having been given God’s law, Paul added “first” after Jew (“the Jew first and [also] the Greek”). Those whose deeds are good would come to be in possession of “glory” (splendor or renown), “honor” (dignity), and “peace” (tranquility and well-being as divinely approved persons). This, too, would be for the “Jew first and [also] the Greek” or non-Jew. No one would be specially favored on the basis of descent, for God does not act with partiality (literally, does not accept faces). He does not treat individuals based on who they are but judges them based on what they have done. (2:9-11)

All who sinned without having the law would perish for their wrongs “without law” or without having their transgressions judged on the basis of the law. In the case of all who did have the law, they would be judged by it. (2:12)

Possession of the law did not make anyone righteous or upright. Therefore, it was not enough for individuals to be mere “hearers of the law.” For them to be justified before God or for him to consider them to be upright persons, they would need to be “doers of law,” living up to it. (2:13)

When non-Jewish peoples who did not have the law met certain requirements it contained, doing so “by nature” or instinctively, they proved to be a law to themselves. Although they did not have the law in written form, they did have an internal sense of right and wrong. For this reason, Paul referred to them as having the “work of the law,” or what the law required, “written on their hearts.” Certain moral demands of the law proved to be part of their inner selves. Therefore, this inner sense of right and wrong, or their conscience, could act as a witness for or against them, either accusing them of wrongdoing or excusing or approving their attitude, words, or deeds. (2:14, 15)

In the day when God, through Christ Jesus, will judge the deeds that had remained hidden from human view, he will do so according to what individuals could and should have known based on what was available to them. The Jews had the law, whereas the non-Jewish people had law in the form of conscience, an internal sense of right and wrong. According to the evangel the apostle Paul proclaimed, there will be a day of judgment or reckoning. Both Jews and non-Jews will be judged, and for all persons a basis for doing so exists. (2:16; see the Notes section for additional comments.)

In view of the idolatry and debauched practices existing in the Greco-Roman world, Jews would have regarded their way of life as superior to that of non-Jews. With apparent awareness of this, the apostle Paul, however, did not direct his words to the Jewish people as a whole nor to Jewish believers specifically. When drawing attention to the wrong kind of pride and the failure to live up what it meant to be one of God’s people, he started his discussion with a man who called himself (or identified himself as) a Jew. Such a Jew, whom the apostle addressed with the singular “you,” is described as “resting on the law,” boasting in God, knowing God’s will, and, because of having been instructed in the law, able to determine what would be best in matters of conduct. (2:17, 18)

The mention of “resting on the law” suggests that the individual trusted in his standing before God because of possessing the law. The person’s boasting in God seems to point to an assumed approved relationship with him. In view of the context, the knowing of God’s will is likewise an assumed knowing, as it is not identified as a knowing that is evident from uprightness in attitude, word, and deed. Based on having been instructed in the law, the man considers himself equipped to make proper evaluations, determining the preferable course of action.

He feels sure that he can serve as a guide to the blind, those lacking the enlightenment the law has given him. In the moral darkness of the world, the man regards himself as a light, making clear to others the direction they should be following. (2:19) He views himself as a corrector of those who lack good judgment and a teacher of “babes” (persons lacking in the knowledge and experience needed to conduct their affairs aright). The basis for this superior view of himself is a presumed possession of “the embodiment of the knowledge and of the truth in the law.” (2:20) This “embodiment of knowledge” appears to designate what the individual conceived to be the absolute knowledge incorporated in the law, knowledge relating to direction for one’s daily life. In being associated with “truth,” the law, to the one who relied on possessing it, contained truth or trustworthy guidance in the absolute sense.

Paul then raised the challenging questions, “You, then, who teach someone else, do you not teach yourself? You, the one proclaiming not to steal, do you steal? You, the one telling [others] not to commit adultery, do you commit adultery? [Exodus 20:14, 15; Deuteronomy 7:25, 26; compare Psalm 50:16-18.] You, the one abhorring idols, are you robbing temples? You, the one boasting in the law, do you dishonor God by transgressing the law?” Failure to live up to the law while wanting to impose it on others dishonored God, the giver of the law. It resulted in bringing reproach on him, as the apostle Paul emphasized when quoting from Isaiah 52:5 (LXX), “The name of God, because of you, is blasphemed among the nations.” (2:21-24; see the Notes section for additional comments on verses 22 and 24.)

Just as mere possession of the law did not benefit those who failed to live up to it, circumcision as the sign of the covenant between God and Israel meant nothing without adherence to the covenant obligations. In the case of a Jewish man who transgressed the law, his circumcision proved to be merely the evidence of an operation performed in his infancy. From God’s standpoint, his circumcision would be uncircumcision. (2:25) Centuries earlier, the prophet Jeremiah (9:25, 26, NRSV) expressed a similar thought when conveying the word of YHWH, “I will attend to all those who are circumcised only in the foreskin: Egypt, Judah, Edom, the Ammonites, Moab, and all those with shaven temples who live in the desert. For all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.”

Regarding an uncircumcised man who, guided by his conscience, observed the moral requirements of the law, Paul raised the rhetorical question, “Will not his uncircumcision be reckoned as circumcision?” (2:26) By his conduct, such a man, though uncircumcised, would reveal the true significance of circumcision, its being a bodily mark of one whose actions were divinely approved. God’s dealings with individuals confirms this. Whereas he responded favorably to the sincere petitions of non-Israelites, he refused to answer the prayers of unfaithful Israelites. (1 Kings 8:41-43; Isaiah 1:15; Jeremiah 11:14; Jonah 3:6-10; Acts 10:1-4, 34, 35)

When living up to the moral requirements of the law, the uncircumcised man would condemn the one who was circumcised but transgressed the law which he was obligated to observe. The lawless Jew’s failure would be exposed in the light of the laudable conduct of the man who did not have the benefit of the law as a guide. (2:27)

Drawing on the etymology of the designation “Jew” or “Judah” expressed in Genesis 29:35 (which links the name to “laud” or “praise”), the apostle Paul identified the real Jew as one whose circumcision is of the heart and whose praise comes from God, not men. (2:28, 29) What counted was not the mark of the physical operation but whether the individual’s “heart,” or his inner self, was responsive to God’s requirements. The value that men might attach to circumcision would not be a valid basis for praise or for being recognized as one of God’s people. To be a Jew or one of God’s people in the true sense would mean having his approval or being lauded or praised by him for living a life that harmonizes with his will.

Notes:

In Romans 2:8, the Greek word eritheía can mean contentiousness or strife. Numerous translators, however, have opted for the meaning “selfish ambition” and refer to the individuals as “those who are self-seeking” (NIV, NRSV), “those who selfishly disobey the truth” (NAB), and “those who are governed by selfish ambition” (REB).

The apostle Paul referred to the glad tidings about Jesus Christ as “my evangel.” (Romans 2:16) This did not mean that the message originated with the apostle, but it was the good news that he made known to others.

No specific passage in the extant Hebrew Scriptures refers to the robbing of temples. (Romans 2:22) But Josephus, in his Antiquities (IV, viii, 10), attributes the following command to Moses, “Let no one blaspheme those gods which other cities esteem as such; nor may anyone steal what belongs to strange temples; nor take away the gifts that are dedicated to any god.”

In the Masoretic Text and the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah, the part of Isaiah 52:5 that is quoted in Romans 2:24 reads, “And continually, all the day, my name is despised.” The reading of Isaiah 52:5 in the Septuagint, though differing from Romans 2:24 in word order, conveys the same basic meaning, “Because of you, continually my name is blasphemed among the nations.”