Sunday School Lesson
Lesson 5 (KJV)
Inward and Outward
Devotional Reading: Ezekiel 36:25–30
Background Scripture: Romans 2:1–29
Romans 2:12–24, 28–29
12 For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law; 13 (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.
14 For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:
15 Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)
16 In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.
17 Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God,
18 And knowest his will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law;
19 And art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness,
20 An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law.
21 Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal?
22 Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege?
23 Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonourest thou God?
24 For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you, as it is written.
28 For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh:
29 But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.
He is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.—Romans 2:29
God’s Law Is Love
Unit 2: Faith Triumphs,
After participating in this lesson, each learner will be able to:
1. Restate what makes a person “a Jew.”
2. Explain the importance of circumcision of the heart.
3. Make a plan to ensure that his or her actions serve as teaching examples.
How to Say It
Gamaliel Guh-may-lih-ul or Guh-may-lee-al.
A. Heart Surgery
A dear woman in a church where I ministered went into the hospital for heart surgery. When I made a post-surgical visit, I was surprised when her husband told me the surgeon had replaced a defective valve in her heart with a valve from a pig’s heart. This use of a “porcine valve” in a human heart has now been practiced for over thirty years. It is known as “receiving xenographic tissue,” meaning from a non-human source.
Once rare and dangerous, various types of heart surgery are now common. Included are “minimally invasive” or “keyhole” procedures, where small incisions are made and repairs involve tiny cameras and robot-assisted tools. The ultimate heart surgery is the heart transplant.
In Paul’s day, the necessity of the heart for human survival was recognized, but surgical repairs to a heart were unknown. It is ironic, then, that Paul unknowingly anticipated some of the wonders of modern medicine when he wrote of a spiritual heart surgery, what he calls the “circumcision of the heart.” This lesson explores what Paul means by this curious choice of words.
B. Lesson Context
Paul wrote the letter to the church in Rome in about AD 58, near the end of his third missionary journey. He had not visited Rome but hoped to do so in the near future (Romans 1:10). Despite this lack of firsthand familiarity, Paul was quite knowledgeable about issues causing dissention in the church of Rome. Conflict between Christians of Jewish and Gentile backgrounds was one of these issues. This may have been sharpened by the expulsion of all Jews from the city through an edict issued by Emperor Claudius in AD 49 (see Acts 18:2).
By the time Paul wrote, Claudius was dead, and Jews had returned to Rome. They included Jewish Christians. Gentile Christians had necessarily assumed leading roles in the church at Rome while the Jewish Christians were gone. We speculate that Paul knew that some of the returnees had attempted to assert their previous authority. In so doing, they may have elevated Jewish Christians above Gentile Christians. Circumcision, a sign of the old covenant, may have become a flash point in this conflict.
For the Hebrew people, circumcision began with Abraham (Genesis 17) as a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham. That was in about 2000 BC. About 550 years later, circumcision of male babies was established (codified) to occur when the baby was eight days old (Leviticus 12:3). This tradition began with Abraham and his son Isaac (Genesis 21:4). The God-given instructions to Abraham seem to have presumed that the man knew what circumcision was, thus implying that circumcision was practiced by others before him. The antiquity of circumcision outside of Judaism was confirmed in 2021 when scientists “digitally unwrapped” the intact mummy of Pharaoh Amenhotep I (reigned about 1525–1504 BC), discovering that he had been circumcised.
In Paul’s day of the first century AD, neither the Romans nor the Greeks practiced circumcision. Greeks viewed circumcision as an intentional marring or mutilation of the ideal body. Prohibition of the practice had been a notable factor in the Maccabean Revolt, which began in 167 BC (see the nonbiblical 1 Maccabees 1:60–61; 2:45–46; 2 Maccabees 6:7–10). Paul addressed the implications of the circumcision issue at length in the book of Galatians. But he also did so in Romans 2—today’s lesson.
I. Just Judgment
A. With or Without the Law? (v. 12)
12. For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law. A way to express the distinction between Jews and Gentiles in Paul’s day was to say that Jews were in the law while Gentiles were without law. The law that Paul had in mind was given by God through Moses for the nation of Israel: the Law of Moses. The first five books of the Old Testament, often called the Pentateuch, embody this law.
The Jews knew their law well. It was the basis for their faith, having been studied and practiced for centuries. Yet they had knowingly broken that law, and they could not avoid being judged according to those violations.
The Gentiles, for their part, had not been given this special revelation of law from God. Even so, Romans 1:18–21 establishes that Gentiles could not escape judgment by pleading ignorance.
What Do You Think?
Knowing that the Old Testament law cannot bring salvation, what value can Christians experience from studying it?
Does your answer change when you expand the question to include the entire Old Testament? Why or why not?
B. Hearers or Doers? (vv. 13–15)
13. (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.
For this verse and the next two, Paul breaks the flow of his argument to give an aside. In so doing, he adds background to his criticism of Jews who boasted of their possession of the law. Faithful keeping of the law was more than merely having and being acquainted with it, which would amount to being nothing more than hearers of the law. Justification came from being doers of the law (but see also Romans 3:9–20).
To understand what Paul means by being justified is central to the book of Romans, where the underlying Greek verb occurs 15 times. In its noun form it occurs many more times than that! These terms come from the legal arena—the world of courtrooms and laws. To be justified in this sense means to be free from penalty for breaking the law. The Bible sees the Lord as the always-righteous judge and humans as always-unrighteous and guilty of sin, thereby incurring the wrath of God (Romans 2:8; 3:23). We are declared righteous because Christ has paid the penalty for our sin (3:21–26; 4:25; 5:18).
14. For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves.
The other side of the coin is the situation where a Gentile (a non-Jewish person) who is ignorant of the Law of Moses behaves in accordance with its precepts nonetheless. For example, if a Gentile believed strongly that adultery was a bad thing and lived faithfully in a monogamous marriage, he or she would unwittingly be keeping the commandment “thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14).
In so doing, Gentiles are keeping the Law of Moses by nature. The laws of God as given to the nation of Israel were not the imposition of unnatural, unreasonable, or unnecessary requirements for living. Rather, God’s laws gave instructions for living according to His created plan. Sin has distorted and thwarted this divine blueprint for holy living.
I heard a flight attendant voice the following during the COVID-19 pandemic:
You must wear a mask while on this flight, covering both your nose and mouth. If you do not intend to do this, please let us know now so that we can remove you from the plane. You will be free to make other arrangements to reach your destination. But be forewarned: you will not be allowed on any commercial airline in this country.
Such a stern warning resulted from insults and even assaults on flight attendants by opponents of mandatory masking. Rather than obey government rules on health and safety, some people believed that their personal rights allowed them to make their own rules.
Jews in Paul’s days prided themselves for having a comprehensive set of rules (laws) that guided behavior. They believed that keeping these rules made them righteous and better than the Gentiles who did not have Jewish law. Yet Paul affirmed that neither Jews with the Law of Moses nor the Gentiles without that law were truly righteous. All were sinners, even if they denied it.
What category are you in? Are you a proud rule-breaker, one who believes in personal sovereignty? If so, read Romans 11:17–21; 13:1–5. Or are you one who keeps the rules and feels smugly superior in that regard? If so, read Romans 3:9–20 and James 2:10. Do you sincerely believe that neither group is righteous apart from faith in Jesus Christ? —M. S. K.
15. Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.)
This verse is sometimes seen as opening the door for the possibility of a Gentile achieving a state of righteousness without knowing the Law of Moses as Paul introduces the concept of conscience. Paul uses some form of this word 21 times in his epistles. Sometimes this word implies “to know” or “to be aware of” something (examples: Acts 23:1; 1 Corinthians 4:4); at other times, it refers to moral sensitivity. The latter is the meaning here. Even without having the Law of Moses, everyone has a built-in sense of right and wrong—a moral compass. But this guide can be suppressed (1 Timothy 4:2; Titus 1:15–16). And indeed it has been suppressed (compare Romans 1:18).
What Do You Think?
What role does conscience play in following the Spirit’s leading?
How do you guard against a “seared” conscience that follows deceptive teaching (1 Timothy 4:1–2)?
C. Secret or Public Violators? (v. 16)
16. In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.
Both Jews with the Law of Moses and Gentiles with the law written on their hearts will stand as guilty on the day when God shall judge the secrets of men. People may get away with hidden acts of sin under human judicial systems, but that is not so with God (also 1 Corinthians 4:5). The function of eternal judgment is entrusted to the Son, Jesus Christ (John 5:22; 9:39; Acts 17:31; 2 Corinthians 5:10). God knows what we believe to be hidden (Psalm 139:1–3; Matthew 6:4). He is the omniscient (all-knowing) judge who never lacks evidence.
The phrase my gospel used here and other places (Romans 16:25, 2 Timothy 2:8) shows a personal attachment between Paul and the message of Christ. Paul had been taught the gospel message by none other than Jesus Christ himself (Galatians 1:11–12).
II. False Faithfulness
A. Boastful Credentials (vv. 17–20)
17–18. Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God, and knowest his will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law.
Paul turned his attention to readers of Jewish background. His propositions that begin in this verse are of the conditional “if then” type. Such arguments feature one or more hypotheses (if-statements) followed by a logical conclusion; here, the word if is implied; compare Galatians 3:21, 29, where “if” is explicit.
The hypotheses take the form of what we might call a “résumé of righteousness”—a listing of things the Christians of Jewish background might smugly cite as evidence of their superiority to Christians of Gentile background. The Jews of Paul’s day claimed to know the divine plan and desires of the Creator. They were confident that the law expressed God’s enduring pattern for life in all aspects. These standards were seen as timeless and absolute.
19–20. And art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law.
Before reaching the conclusion of the argument, Paul adds more hypotheses. These two verses describe the ancient Jewish attitude toward Gentiles. As a guide of the blind, the Jew had spiritual insights that the Gentile lacked (see Isaiah 35:5). Combined with the image of being a light of them which are in darkness, the situation describes spiritual blindness—the Gentile inability to know and follow God’s will fully (compare and contrast Isaiah 9:1–2 [quoted in Matthew 4:15–16]; Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6 [in Luke 2:32 and Acts 13:47]). The Jews living by God’s law were to be a model of righteousness that condemned sin (Isaiah 51:4) while drawing people to God and His glory (60:3). Consequently, Jews believed themselves to be instructors and teachers in that regard.
What Do You Think?
In what circumstances are you a teacher?
How can you remain confident that what you do and say are teaching the same lesson to your “students”?
To See Ourselves as Others See Us
Denial and unawareness are part of the very definition of spiritual blindness. That’s because if the one who was spiritually blind could and would admit to it, then he or she would correct the situation and wouldn’t be spiritually blind!
At one time, Paul needed to be struck physically blind in order to have his spiritual blindness corrected (Acts 9:1–22). That correction qualified him to recognize spiritual blindness in his fellow Jews who saw themselves as spiritual guides yet suffered from spiritual blindness themselves. They had become as the blind guides whom Jesus described in Matthew 15:14; 23:16–24.
Many people today suffer from spiritual blindness, unable to see Jesus for who He really is. They need our help! But that help won’t be effective unless we first correct our own areas of spiritual blindness. And that correction won’t happen until a spiritually mature person makes us aware of our deficiencies in this regard. Whom will you invite to be your spiritual mentor? —R. L. N.
B. Blasphemous Hypocrisy (vv. 21–24)
21a. Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself?
Paul moves from if-statements to his concluding then-statements. These surely reflect the actual situation within the Roman church, where Christians of Jewish background had regained positions of leadership and teaching, lording over those of Gentile background. Paul’s solution is to begin by questioning the consistency and sincerity of the teachers. Failure in this area results in being hypocrites—a condemnation on the lips of Jesus more than a dozen times in the Gospel of Matthew (see especially chapter 23).
21b–22. Thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal? Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege?
Paul now dives deeper, into the very heart of the law itself as he refers to behavior forbidden by the eighth, seventh, and first (and/or second) commandments, respectively (Exodus 20:3–4, 14–15; Deuteronomy 5:7–8, 18–19). Since Paul had never visited the church in Rome (see Lesson Context), it is unlikely that he knew of specific violations of Jewish law by these teachers. But we should remember Paul’s background: he had been a student of the renown Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), and Paul had been raised as a Pharisee, a sect with fanatical devotion to strict interpretation and observance of the commandments (23:6; 26:5; Philippians 3:5). As an “insider,” he had surely seen famous teachers whose private lives did not live up to their teaching.
Even if that was not the case among the Christians of Jewish background in Rome, the warning itself was valid. It was all too easy to skirt the commandments by rationalizing (see Mark 7:9–13).
The Greek word translated sacrilege is difficult; this is the only place in the New Testament where it appears. The Greek word does appear in the non-biblical 2 Maccabees 9:2, where it refers to robbing the temple. That is likely the sense here. One theory is that Paul was referring to the possibility that some of his Jewish readers had sullied themselves by dishonorable contact with pagan temples, perhaps by shady business dealings with pagan priests.
23–24. Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonourest thou God? For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you, as it is written.
The squeaky-clean moral image the Jews wished to project to the Gentile world was filled with hypocrisy (again, Matthew 23). Their pride in the Law of Moses was dishonored by their failure to keep that law. The Jews through their hypocritical behavior among the Gentiles were dishonoring the name of God. This was not a new problem in the first century AD, given that the phrase as it is written likely refers to the same problem of blasphemy in Isaiah 52:5 and Ezekiel 36:20–22. For the name of God to be blasphemed by pagans is bad enough; how much worse it was when such blasphemy came about among the Gentiles through God’s covenant people of the Old Testament era! Paul did not countenance any sort of “Do as I say, not as I do” behavior (1 Timothy 3:7; etc.).
What Do You Think?
When you consider the state of the world, what would you consider to be the greatest sin problem “out there”?
How do you avoid the hypocrisy of contributing to this sin by your action or inaction (James 4:17)?
III. True Identity
A. Outward Appearances (v. 28)
28. For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh.
Paul began this section by appealing to those who proudly call themselves Jews (Romans 2:17). He now defines what a Jew is not in the ideal sense. Jewish identity is neither an issue of outward appearance in general nor the covenant sign of physical circumcision (or lack of it) in particular. Those are mere considerations of the flesh.
B. Inner Convictions (v. 29)
29. But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.
Being a Jew in the ideal sense is an issue of the heart, in the spirit, not that of the flesh, which focuses on the letter of the Law of Moses. Therefore being a Jew in this sense is neither a matter of biological ancestry nor of adherence to the Law of Moses. In offering this proposition, Paul lifts the discussion above physical realities to that of spiritual realities. But that wasn’t really anything new! God had always desired circumcision of the heart (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4). To have a circumcised heart was to relinquish stubborn disobedience and be free to love God without limits. For Christians, it is to say with Jesus, “Not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42).
Truly following God is a matter of the heart, the inner being, not a surgical procedure on the physical body. Demands for strict, even slavish adherence to the Law of Moses may have elicited praise from men and women, but not necessarily the approval of God (Matthew 23:23–24; etc.). God knows our hearts, and He knows both Jews and Gentiles are sinners without excuse.
Many places in the Bible teach us that God looks upon our hearts (example: Psalm 44:21) and sees us as we truly are. Indeed, the Lord made David the King of Israel because God knew what was in David’s heart (1 Samuel 16:7; Acts 13:22). Paul elsewhere drew on this idea of spiritual circumcision to identify the new people of God (Philippians 3:3; Colossians 2:11–12). Physical circumcision or uncircumcision is ultimately a nonissue; it’s spiritual circumcision that accompanies faith in Christ that matters (Galatians 5:6).
What Do You Think?
What habits reveal the earnest conviction of your heart?
What habit would you like to break or develop to live in a way that reinforces your desire for God’s praise over people’s?
A. Circumcised Heart
The idea of the circumcised heart was powerful for Moses and Paul, and must be for us today. Can we humble ourselves and leave behind our tendencies to be stiff-necked? Can we trust fully in Christ for our salvation, not our own good works?
Paul’s exposition for the rest of the book of Romans required both Jews and Gentiles realize their need for God’s salvation because all are under the power of sin (Romans 3:9). For both groups, hope comes not from keeping the law, whether it be the law of the conscience or the Law of Moses. It comes from faith in Christ.
Heavenly Father, may our hearts turn away from pride and sin and toward You in faith and hope. May our trust be only in Your Son, Jesus. We pray in His name. Amen.
C. Thought to Remember
God wants a humble, obedient heart.
Standard Publishing. KJV Standard Lesson Commentary® 2023-2024 (pp. 126-144). David C Cook. Kindle Edition.