Jesus Christ and the Revolution of Security (Romans 2:17-29)

Lecture 2 in the UNSW Campus Bible Study Easter Lecture Series 2015: “Jesus Christ and the Revolution of Identity”

A security issue

In this Easter lecture series, we have been exploring a revolution in the identity of the apostle Paul. Paul lived and wrote almost 2,000 years ago, but his writings in the pages of the Bible still inspire and challenge countless millions today. Paul was Jewish, and his identity was caught up strongly with his Jewish background. Indeed, when Paul wrote his letters he was still identifying as a member of the Jewish people, the nation of Israel. But there had been a revolution in Paul’s identity, a revolution that came about when Paul encountered and came to know Jesus Christ. Paul did not simply abandon his Jewish identity: he did not leave behind his ethnicity, his kinship or his religious views entirely. Yet these aspects of Paul’s identity, and more, were radically transformed—revolutionised by and through Jesus Christ.

Yesterday we looked at the revolution in Paul’s destiny. We saw how Jesus Christ had dramatically altered Paul’s expectations of the world’s future, and his own future. Paul had seen that the destiny and future of the world were inextricably caught up with Jesus—Jesus was God’s Messiah, raised from the dead, and through Jesus all people will in the end be raised from the dead. We saw how Jesus’ death was in fact a key part of God’s plan to make the world right. Jesus took on himself God’s judgment for human rebellion. When he grasped this, Paul understood that his own identity as an Israelite was to go out to the nations, to announce the gospel message; the message that the world should trust in what God has done through Jesus Christ and turn to him in joyful obedience, and so to escape God’s judgment.

Today we will be looking at a revolution in another aspect of Paul’s identity: his security. Security is a deeply rooted aspect of our identity. Security is about belonging and safety. Our security is the basis for everything else we do in life. Bullies are insecure, aren’t they? They try to compensate for their lack of security by pushing weak people further down. Those who are secure in themselves, those who know who they are and have a positive sense of belonging and status—these secure people are often able to do great things and inspire positive change in others. But none of us is entirely secure in every aspect of our life. We all search and long for greater security; security in a relationship, a career, a position, financial security, etc, etc.. Of course, we need to make sure that we find our security in the right place; for if our source of security lets us down then our world can be rocked to the very core.

How secure are you? Where do you look for security?

The question of security lies at the heart of this passage from the apostle Paul’s writings. It is a section of Paul’s letter to Christians living in Rome. It is a sustained contest over identity and security—in particular, over Jewish identity and security. The passage begins with a question about Jewish identity, ends with a statement about Jewish identity, and is full of questions about confidence and security that clearly arise from a first-century Jewish context. It is possible, and even likely, that this is a summary of a speech that Paul gave multiple times in Jewish synagogues. Now it would have been a highly controversial and dangerous speech for Paul to give, because it asks some searching questions about mainstream Jewish identity and security; it probably got Paul into deep trouble. But it bears witness to a revolution that has occurred in Paul’s own source of Jewish identity and security. It is a security revolution that must have come about through Paul’s encounter with and knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Of course, as we mentioned yesterday, our goal is not merely to scrutinise an interesting figure of past times. I hope that as you hear about the revolution in Paul’s security, it will provoke some kind response in you as well—that you might ask questions about your own source of security. At the end of this lecture we will be suggesting ways you could respond to what you have heard.

Paul and Israel’s security (verses 17–20)

Regulation (Rom 2:17–18)

The passage begins this way, and I’ll be providing my translation.

Romans 2:17-18:

But if you are acknowledged as Jewish,
and rest on the Law and take pride in God
and know his will and approve of what is excellent,
being instructed from the Law…

Paul begins this section of his letter by addressing a person. This person is not a particular individual; rather he seems to be a representative figure, a representative leader or teacher in the mainstream synagogue community of Paul’s day. He is somebody who is acknowledged as Jewish; a paradigm of Jewish identity; the sort of person that Jewish people and others in the first century Roman Empire would point to and say—that person is a prime example of a typical good Jewish person.

As we can see, this passage is all about the security of this Jewish person. It is about “resting” on and “taking pride” in something. What is the source of security that this Jewish person rests on and takes pride in? That source of security is the Law of Moses—the regulations given by God to the nation of Israel, through Moses, with instructions about how to live and how to honour God. The Law of Moses is essentially the first five books of the Bible. Paul’s Jewish interlocutor rests on this Law and consequently takes pride in God.

And this confidence, this pride, makes perfect sense. The Law of Moses is indeed a wonderful work. It contains principles that have profoundly affected our entire Western civilisation. It values human life and it puts limits on human power by acknowledging God as the highest power. You may know the core of the Law of Moses, the Ten Commandments. “Do not murder”. “Do not commit adultery”. “Do not steal”. “Honour your father and mother”. “Do not be greedy”. Other laws are just as well-known: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” is a prime example.

This Law was the special possession of the Jewish people. In the first century in the Roman Empire, Jews gathered every Saturday to hear this Law, to read it and to learn it. Here is a description from Josephus, the first century Jewish historian:

Josephus, Against Apion 2.175 [trans. Barclay 2007]:

[Moses] left no pretext for ignorance, but instituted the law as the finest and most essential teaching-material; so that it would be heard not just once or twice or a number of times, he ordered that every seven days they should abandon their other activities and gather to hear the law, and to learn it thoroughly and in detail. That is something that all [other] legislators seem to have neglected.

The Law of Moses, the Jewish Bible, was not simply a moral code that was kept on a bookshelf to be pulled out and consulted occasionally. No, the Law defined the identity of the Jewish community in a deep and profound way. They gathered around the Law, they were instructed in the Law, and they were rightly proud of the Law. The Law gave them security.

The Law enables this Jewish person to know God’s moral will, and to approve of what is excellent. This is consistent with what we know about the synagogues in the first century. Josephus and Philo, another Jewish writer, describe the Jewish synagogues as schools of “moral excellence”, teaching people what is right and true.

Notice that Paul does not deny that the law is good. Actually, in the very next part of his letter to the Christians in Rome, Romans 3:1-2, Paul affirms that Jews have a great and wonderful privilege in knowing God through the law:

Romans 3:1-2

What, then, is the advantage of the Jew?
Or what is the value of circumcision?
Much in every way—
primarily, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.

This security, this knowledge of God’s moral will, ran deep. And so it should. In the midst of the Roman Empire, where exploitation was rife, where the Emperor took far too much power for himself and declared himself a god, where unwanted young babies were exposed to the elements and died, where men used their wives to produce children, their mistresses for their daily needs and their prostitutes for fun, the Law of Moses stood out as a shining light against the darkness. Jewish people gathered around the Law, and learned the Law, and loved the Law. The Law told them what God’s world was like; it provided the regulations and the rules for life and safety and flourishing. Follow the rules, do what it says, and you will live.

And we do the same thing ourselves, don’t we? Don’t we seek security by learning and grasping the rules of the world around us? If you know the way the world really works and what you need to do to fit in with the world, you will be safe and secure in the world, won’t you?

It works at the basic level: the toddler learns the rules about what is right and wrong and the limits of her parents’ tolerance; the teenager learns the rules about the right way to talk and what is the right music to listen to and what to wear; the student learns the rules about how to pass exams and how to write essays; the postgrad learns the rules about what are the right journals to publish in and what are the key words to say and who controls the conversations.

But it works at a higher level too. We want to know the seven habits of highly effective people, the ten steps to achieving success; the ten commandments for dating. And we have moral rules. We have that moral outrage against those people who break the moral code: companies or politicians who trample the poor in the dirt and break the commandment against greed; bigots who put down those who are different from them and break the commandment of tolerance. Just go anywhere online and you will find people raging and fuming against all those terrible people who do wrong.

And of course, it works at the highest level. Religion itself is about the divine rules; the rules to make God or the higher powers happy. The religious practitioner seeks to know the laws and the right path and the way to gain eternal life and avoid God’s judgment.

We find safety and security in learning the rules. Paul’s Jewish interlocutor is just like us, only more so. His security comes from knowing the Law of God.

Status (Rom 2:19–20)

In the next two verses, Paul introduces another, related, source of security for his Jewish conversation partner. The Law not only gives him rules to follow, but also provides him with a status, a place in the community, even a special place in the world. Because he knows God’s Law himself, he is also able to teach others around him, and so he is secure in his status as a moral teacher.

Romans 2:19-20:

… and if you are sure about yourself,
that you are a guide for the blind,
a light for those in darkness,
a tutor of fools,
a teacher of infants,
having the embodiment of knowledge and truth in the Law

This special status that comes from knowing and teaching God’s Law is a theme that occurs in many places in Jewish literature from this period. There was a widespread belief that having the Law of God gave Israel and Jewish people a great status, and that they should be praised.

Here’s a writing called The Prologue to the Wisdom of Ben Sira, which declares:

Prologue to the Wisdom of Ben Sira:

Many great teachings have been given to us through the law and the prophets and the others that followed them, on account of which we should praise Israel for instruction and wisdom.

There is another Jewish writing called the Letter of Aristeas that takes great pride in the status of Jewish Law-teachers. It tells the story of an idealized feast held by the Greek King Ptolemy II. King Ptolemy invites a delegation of Jewish teachers to his feast. They provide him with detailed instructions on scores of matters relating to his kingdom and his rule. “How can I keep my kingdom safe?”, the pagan King asks the Jews, and the Jews answer from the Law: “Make sure you put checks and balances in place so that nobody in authority can do too much evil; and remember that God will be your judge”. The pagan King constantly praises the Jews for their wisdom and learning which comes from the Law. The feast ends with the Jews receiving “loud and joyful applause” for their Law-based wisdom. The Law gives them a status.

Again, this is not something that is unique to Jewish people is it? How often do we seek our security in our status? You are secure when you are seen in a positive light by those around you, aren’t you? You are secure when you are honoured rather than shamed. To be the paragon of a community; to be a good mother or a good father or a good child or a good lover; to have extra letters after your name; to be called doctor or professor; to be an expert in a field of study; to be looked up to as the one who knows what to do in any given situation; to be a good Christian, a good Muslim, a good Jew, a good moral person who stands before God with a status that brings you eternal life. Our status before people, our status before God, is so often the place we look to find security.

Where does your security lie?

Security deconstructed (verses 21–27)

Well so far Paul has summarised the security of his conversation partner, a security based on regulations and status. But now he begins to ask questions. Serious questions. Questions which go to the heart of the security of his Jewish conversation partner.

The failure of regulation (Rom 2:21–24)

Romans 2:21-22:

You who teach others, do you teach yourself?
You who preach not to steal, do you steal?
You who say not to commit adultery, do you commit adultery?
You who abhor idols, do you profane the temple?

You who teach others, says Paul, do you teach yourself?

To spell it out, Paul asks three more questions. The first two questions are based directly on the Ten Commandments from the Law of Moses. “Do not steal”—commandment #8; “Do not commit adultery”—commandment #7. The third question is also based on the Ten Commandments, commandments #1 and #2. “You will have no other gods before me;” and “You shall not make for yourself a carved image”—that is, no idols apart from the true God. Paul’s questions are this: do you practice what you preach? Do you actually steal? Commit adultery? If you say you hate idols, do you profane the very house where the true God is worshipped?

Why does Paul suddenly ask these particular questions? Well the questions make sense in the light of a particular news story that seemed to be doing the rounds at the time; it was a scandalous and juicy story. One version of the story can be found in writings of the Jewish historian Josephus, in his Antiquities, chapter 18. It was the story of a man who was a Jewish teacher of the Law around 19 AD. This Jewish teacher had left Judea and was living in Rome. He became well-known and respected as a Law-teacher in Rome. He had gotten to know a wealthy Roman woman called Fulvia. Fulvia had been so taken by the teaching of the Law of Moses that she had embraced the Jewish religion herself. Somehow, the Jewish Law-teacher, along with three others like him, had persuaded Fulvia to give funds, expensive cloth and gold, for the temple in Jerusalem. But instead of sending it to the temple in Jerusalem, these Law-teachers had spent the money themselves. Fulvia’s husband discovered what had happened, and it became a scandal. There were strong hints of dirty secrets, maybe more was going on between Fulvia and these men than just Law-teaching. Actually, it seems that corruption on a grand scale among others too was unearthed. The issue became such a hot topic that the Emperor Tiberius actually ordered the banishment or punishment of all the Jews living in Rome at the time.

It is quite possible that Paul is alluding to this scandalous story here. It was a story of theft, with strong hints of sexual misconduct, and it involved a corrupt misappropriation of funds which robbed the Jerusalem temple of glory, and was tantamount to desecration of that temple.

Now it’s interesting when you read the Jewish historian Josephus telling the story, because you can see his bias. When he tells this story, he actually tries to downplay its seriousness. He stresses that the whole thing was completely unfair—four isolated individuals did something wrong, they were not typical, yet all the Jews suffered. In other places, Josephus stresses how the Jewish people as a whole are exceptionally upright and good people, very good people, because they know the Law so well.

Josephus, Against Apion 2.174-178

[Moses] set the law as their boundary and rule, so that, living under this as a father and master, we might commit no sin either wilfully or from ignorance … Were anyone of us to be asked about the laws, he would recount them all more easily than his own name. So, learning them thoroughly from the very first moment of consciousness, we have them, as it were, engraved on our souls; it is rare to find a transgressor, and impossible to gain exemption from punishment.

Josephus’ logic is simple. Jews know the law so well, from their infancy; they know how God wants them to live, and so of course they do the right thing. The Law teaches them how to be good, and they are good.

But what does Paul say? No, this logic doesn’t work. For Paul, this kind of thing shows all too clearly that just because somebody knows the Law, even if that person is influential and respected teacher—a paradigm of Jewish identity and security—that does not guarantee upright behaviour. People who have the rules, don’t necessarily keep the rules. Just because you know it, doesn’t mean you’ll do it. We sin—we do what is wrong against God. And that sin is far more deep-rooted in us than we like to think. It’s scandalous.

Paul takes it a step further:

You who take pride in the Law
dishonour God through transgression of the Law! For
“the name of God—through you—is blasphemed among the nations,”
just as it is written.

Paul quotes from Isaiah, one of the prophets. The prophets are full of examples of Israelites having the Law but not keeping the Law. And the fact that they have the Law from God makes it even worse! All the nations round about Israel at them and say, “Well, your God can’t be any good, can he? What a horrible God.”

I am grieved, deeply grieved, when I hear about Christian leaders who fail in a big way, morally and spiritually. It is awful, isn’t it, this news about children who are abused under the care of those who claim to be following God? Of course, this abuse is not at all limited to religious groups; in fact, tragically, from all accounts the abuse of children happens most often in domestic situations. Yet when it does happen under the care of religious groups, it is such a source of grief, because it calls God’s very name into question.

Why does it happen? It does not happen because God is evil. It does not happen because God’s law is evil either. No, it happens because religious people, even religious leaders, too easily forget how deep-rooted our sin can be in us. We rely on the fact that we know God, we know what’s right, and so of course we’ll be OK; we’re good upright people. But it’s a tragic mistake. We need to always be wary, and make ourselves accountable, so that sin does not have an opportunity.

But now let me turn the question back on to you. What kind of moral code do you have? What principles do you live by? “Love and respect your neighbour”? “Be generous and kind”? “Do not lie or cheat”? So, honestly … do you actually live by it? Really? Who are your neighbours? Do you even know them? Would all the people who have had dealings with you in your life say that you are generous and kind? What about those people who you’ve forgotten about or excluded from your life because it’s too hard to think about them? What would they say about how good you are?

The question isn’t about whether you have a wonderful moral code. The question is about whether you’re keeping it.

This is an important question to ask, because it goes beyond whether we are good people or bad people in this life. It’s not just about whether we feel secure in ourselves and have a good solid moral code. It also has to do with our eternal security. Paul’s whole letter to the Romans is about eternal security before God. And the argument begins with the truth that God himself is rightly angry with people because of their sin. Earlier in Romans, Paul says:

Romans 1:18

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.

The point, says Paul, is that simply knowing what God wants does not mean you will do what God wants. And this is a serious business. Our eternal security is at stake.

Are you secure in your goodness? Are you secure in your standing before God himself, the maker and judge of the world?

The failure of status (Rom 2:25–27)

In verse 25, Paul begins to discuss the topic of circumcision. Paul is not introducing a radically new subject at this point. “Circumcision” is just a way of talking about Jewish identity and distinctiveness. Male circumcision was how Jewish people distinguished themselves from others around about them. The practice goes back to Abraham, who was commanded by God in the Law to circumcise his sons. So all Jewish boys were circumcised on the eighth day after their birth. Circumcision was a status symbol. It was a sign that a person was Jewish, it was a symbol that they were the people of the Law, who kept the Law, and so were connected to God. Circumcision was, therefore, a source of great security for many Jews.

But in verses 25-27, Paul begins to ask some serious and destabilising questions about this status symbol. Paul argument is very Jewish, and it is in three steps. Let me take you through it briefly.

The first step is setting the groundwork.

Romans 2:25

For circumcision would be valuable
if you were to practise the Law;
but if you were to transgress the Law,
your circumcision would become uncircumcision.

Paul says that being circumcised isn’t something that works by itself—there’s no point being circumcised if you’re just going to abandon the Law and break it. Now, many Jews in Paul’s day would have said a hearty “Amen” to this first point.

But the next step would have been a little more controversial.

Romans 2:26:

So—if the “uncircumcised” were to observe the regulations of the Law,
would not his uncircumcision be reckoned as circumcision?

When Paul talks about the “uncircumcised”, he is talking about those non-Jews (or “Gentiles”) who came along to the synagogue to hear the Law of Moses read and taught. We know there were a number of Gentiles who were attracted to the God of Israel, who had a social connection to the synagogue, who came along and had the opportunity to hear God’s Law taught, and who responded to this Law in some way. But these people had not taken the step of “conversion” by being circumcised. They were people on the fringe of the synagogue. Paul is saying: think about someone like this. Say he doesn’t get circumcised, but basically keeps the commandments he has heard. Shouldn’t he be regarded as circumcised anyway?

Jews in Paul’s day actually argued about this very issue. The Jewish philosophical writer Philo would have said “yes”! The Jewish historian Josephus would have said “no”—although Josephus knew of other Jews who would have said “yes”. Paul argues “yes”: because circumcision derives its value from the Law. God’s Law is what matters, not the status symbol.

The final step in Paul’s argument would have been radical in the first century synagogue!

Romans 2:27

And the physically “uncircumcised” person who keeps the Law would judge you
who, though you have the letter of the Law, and circumcision, are a transgressor of the Law.

At this point, Paul is being his most revolutionary! Instead of Jews teaching Gentiles because the Jews know the Law and have the Law, the Law-keeping Gentile “judges” the Law-breaking Jewish synagogue teacher!

What’s Paul doing? He’s making the point this whole “status” thing doesn’t work as a source of security. If you rely on your status, there is no real security for you. It’s keeping the moral code that matters. And the question then comes back—have you kept the Law?

Have you kept God’s Law?

Security revolutionised (verses 28–29)

What has Paul done so far?

At the start of his speech, Paul summarised the view of Jewish identity and security that was standard and mainstream in his day. Jewish people are secure because they have God’s law and know God’s law. And because they had God’s law and knew it, Jewish teachers had a special status in their community, and Jewish people understood themselves to have a special status in the world.

However, Paul deconstructed this view of Jewish identity and security. Having the law is no good unless you keep it—you can’t be secure just by possessing and approving of a good moral code from God. Having the status symbol of circumcision is no good either—you can’t be secure just in having the status of being Jewish.

But then, in verses 28-29, Paul talks about a new way to be Jewish, and a new way to find security. And it’s revolutionary. Paul’s Greek is a little compact here, but here is my translation:

Romans 2:28-29:

For being Jewish is not a matter of being in public view,
Nor is circumcision a public matter, in the flesh.
But being Jewish is hidden,
And circumcision is a matter of the heart, in the Spirit, not the letter.
This person’s praise is not from people, but from God.

The problem, says Paul, is that the Jewish people of his day were looking for their security in the wrong place. The mainstream community—the one in public view—looked for their security in the law and in their status. Their security was matter of having God’s moral regulations in the Law, and being circumcised as a public symbol of status.

But for Paul, security is found in an entirely different place. Paul’s view of true security can be summarised in three words: heart, Spirit and praise. These words apply particularly here to Jewish identity and security, but actually they apply just as much to anyone who has heard and trusts in Paul’s message, Paul’s gospel about Jesus Christ. These words show us that Paul view of true security has been revolutionised—revolutionised by his encounter with and his knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Firstly, true security is a matter of the heart. Paul’s gospel is a gospel that is addressed straight to what’s inside us: our thoughts, our desires, our secrets, our heart. When Paul came to know Jesus Christ, he realised the truth about his own heart. He realised that his heart was far more corrupt, far more sinful, than he had previously dared imagine. He also realised that God’s judgment on our sin is a matter of the heart. Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, and he is the Messiah, the King, who will judge, not just by externals, but by what is true, what is inside us. And this might be very, very scary—except for one thing. Those who trust in Jesus Christ can have full and complete forgiveness of their sins. Later in Romans, Paul says that God’s love has been poured into our hearts. It means that our corruption has been dealt with by Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus has taken that judgment on himself, and so all those who have faith—those who trust God and trust his Son—have forgiveness. This is where real, lasting, eternal security is found.

Secondly, true security is a matter of the Spirit. God gives his Spirit, his very self, to all those who trust in Jesus Christ. And so our security is not found in rules and regulations. No, it’s found in a relationship: a relationship with God. The Spirit enables us to call God our Father, to cry out to him in prayer, to know him—truly know him. And to love God, with our hearts, not just doing the right thing by the rules, but doing the right thing by God himself. Not to earn some kind of payment from God, but because he has loved us and forgiven us already. This is what Christianity is. A Christian is not someone who knows rules, but someone who knows God, through Jesus Christ, through God’s Spirit.

And finally, true security is a matter of praise from God. If you look for the approval of people to find your security, you will never ultimately find it. If you look for the approval of your family, the approval of your community, the approval of your students or colleagues, the approval of a boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife or mother or father or son or daughter—if you look for your security in your status as an expert, or your qualifications or the letters after your name or your income … you will not ultimately find it. But if look for your security in your status before God himself; this is a deep and lasting security. If you trust in Jesus Christ, then you can know that you have been forgiven, and you can have that certain hope of everlasting life, resurrection from the dead, and a praise from God like that of a Father to a child.

It can be very hard to let go of our status before people. It was hard for Paul. He was often rejected by his own brothers, sometimes to the point of being flogged. And yet his security in Jesus Christ was real, and deep, and lasting. Paul’s security had been revolutionised by his encounter with Jesus Christ. Has yours?


This lecture was based on material from my book Paul and the Vocation of Israel: How Paul’s Jewish Identity Informs his Apostolic Ministry, with Special Reference to Romans.