“You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:23,24 NIV).
“A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God” (Romans 2:28,29 NIV).
“What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God” (Romans 3:1,2 NIV).
“Therefore, no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20 NIV).
Blasphemer or TrueHeart
It’s sometimes hard for us to realize how much of an impact the gospel had on the Jewish nation and culture as a whole. First, they had to deal with Jesus who was neither a lunatic nor a liar but still claimed to be the Son of God, one with the Father. For centuries the Jews had recited the Shema, “The LORD our God, the LORD is One….” Of course, that originally meant that God was not to be confused with the multiple gods of the animistic cultures that surrounded Israel. Even Egypt, the mightiest empire in the region for centuries had multiple gods to worship. In that context, God is One.
But now Christ was essentially saying that the One God consists of two people (and later three with the Holy Spirit). So, in Christianity, “the Lord our God, the LORD is One..” is changed to “the Lord our God, the LORD is Three in One.” If that wasn’t a bombshell, I don’t know what is.
The thing is that it was very difficult to believe and nobody would have taken it seriously if Jesus had not proved it with his life and ministry and miracles and then rose from the dead. It took nothing less than world-shaking proof to get people to take this claim seriously. Which is what God gave them.
Now, Paul is doing the same thing again. Actually, he is simply repeating something that God had been saying for centuries as well but the way Paul puts it is nothing short of world-shaking once again. Paul claims that a man is not a Jew just because of his ancestry or because he was circumcised but that it was a question of the heart. Is that true? Of course the Jews who haven’t converted to Christianity would be totally against the idea. They would scoff at Paul’s interpretation of the Old Testament or of God’s opinion on the matter even though they repeat the Shema almost every day. What does it say?
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:4 NIV).
You can’t have one without the other. What the Jews of Paul’s day (and Jesus’ day) had done was pervert the relationship the people had with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob into a religion devoid of love for God. This was the great sin of the Pharisees which is why Jesus was so angry with them all the time. Not only did they pervert the relationship between the people and God by focusing on the law without a foundation of love, but they persecuted those (like Jesus) who insisted that that was not true Judaism.
But Paul isn’t really talking to the Jews here. He is talking to the Jewish Christians. The ones who claimed to have accepted Christ as their Saviour and Lord. Why are they still tied to the Pharisaism of the past? Stubborn hearts. Misconceptions. In any case, Paul is clear that God is looking for a heart relationship with his people and that a true law keeper is one who has a true intent to please God and that a true Jew is one who is one in the heart and not just one ethnically.
Personally, I think that there is a reason why Jesus came to earth when he did. Certainly, Paul claims that Christ came in “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4 NIV) and many people associate that with the peace of the Roman Empire, the extension of the Roman Road system which facilitated the spread of the Gospel, the fact that almost everyone spoke Greek (if not some Latin) which made it easier to communicate the gospel. But Paul seems to be speaking of the right time in the development of God’s plan of salvation.
I would go so far as to say that there was a reason why the context of the gospel as recorded in the Bible happened the way it did. The existence of the different groups who were in opposition to Christ have meaning even for today.
In almost every church there are Pharisees, more interested in sin than in relationships, judging people with their eyes, their mouths, their attitudes. As Paul said earlier, just like the Jews, “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
But there are also Sadducees in every church. The politicians, the power-mongers, the “good and great, slap on the back, superficial types” you can find on any board of elders or even in the Pastorate.
And then there are the Zealots, who would take a knife to the Romans at every opportunity they could. Simon the Zealot was one of the disciples of Jesus. That must have been interesting. We have Zealots in the church today as well. Some people who are zealous about their cause, whether it is abortion, gay rights, education, or the poor. That doesn’t mean that their cause is not just. Most likely it is. But they embrace that cause like a zealot, sacrificing their relationships with others in their zeal to win them to their cause, forgetting the real focus of our zeal which is Jesus Christ.
And then the Essenes who lived in the desert, separating themselves from the world, studying the scriptures, maintaining their purity, keeping apart from the mundane activities of every day life. We think John the Baptist might have been part of that group while he lived in the desert. Good people. Devout. The “spiritual” types who may be so focused on the spiritual elements of the faith that they aren’t much earthly use.
Jesus set himself apart from all of them. He was a Jew but he was no proponent of the prevailing Judaism of the day. He loved the law but he did not agree in the least with the Pharisees interpretation of the law. He paid no attention hardly at all to the Saduccees and the Chief Priests (except during his trial). The Zealots are not mentioned (except for Simon) but Jesus did not preach revolution and that must have caught their attention since everyone, at that time, was preaching revolution. And the Essenes are not mentioned at all even though Jesus clearly did not follow their teaching to separate himself from the world. Jesus got involved in the everyday life of the people.
So, for me, it is instructive to see how a disciple of Jesus is different from each of these groups and also to note that Jesus’ strongest words are for the Pharisees. Take that to heart. This is not just a problem in Paul’s time. This is a problem for today.
I don’t know how many times in the church, the Pastor or a leader, an elder or a small group leader has sacrificed their relationship with people for the sake of a rule (or even a misunderstanding of a rule). How many of us do it? The truth is that all of these tendancies are in all of us and, even if some churches tend to be more Pharisaic and others more political (like the Sadducees), the truth is that these attitudes are in all of us. Paul’s words are powerful and penetrating.
Do I blaspheme God among the Gentiles? or am I a truehearted follower of Christ? That is the question for today. And it is not an easy question to answer. Keeping relationships with God and others more important than rules or sin is essential in our walk with God. And it is possible only because of the cross of Christ.
My daughter is having a hard time with her best friend these days. She is 16 years old. Her friend claims that my daughter said something rude and her friend told the entire group what she had done. She claims she hadn’t done it and that it was a misunderstanding. Still, three weeks later, there is no resolution. Typical of the age, you say? Maybe. I find it typical of almost any age.
My point is that we all do it. We all prioritize the sin, the mistake, the rudeness, the words higher than the relationship. For a very small thing, the relationship they have had for years is thrown under the bus. What does that mean? They don’t love each other anymore? How cheaply we sell our most prized possessions. If the relationship is what matters, sin will be confessed and forgiveness granted. Love covers over a multitude of sins (I Peter 4:8 NIV). Even though my daughter confessed to something she didn’t do and asked for forgiveness, still there is no forgiveness and reconciliation.
I told her that teenagers were not very good at relationships (including her) and that adults were not much better. This is the fundamental problem of life. Healing Relationships. Protecting Relationships. Prioritizing our Spiritual Unity above all else. That’s what Jesus taught but the church is full of different groups with different agendas and the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of us.
As one philosopher put it, if love is the answer and the church is supposed to have the answer, why is the church not full of love? Obviously, that isn’t the place to look for the answers our world needs.
How sad. What an opportunity lost. The Jews had the same problem. What advantage is there in being a Jew? Much, in every way. You have been entrusted with the word of God. That isn’t the question. The problem is that you perverted that word of God into a religion of do’s and don’ts, rules and regulations as if God was some sort of ogre, just waiting for someone to step out of line so that he can punish them. And then, after all that, you want to stand before God and claim some sort of righteousness based on the fact that your morality looks better than your neighbor’s morality? Especially when it isn’t about morality at all but about relationships? Yes, how sad.
We need to get this one thing straight, once and for all. We are all under sin (3:9b). All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (3:23). There is no difference between the Jew and the Gentile, between the prostitute and the faithful woman, between the beggar on the street and the successful businessman. Why? Because it isn’t about our different levels of morality, it’s about our heart relationship with God. Unless you understand that, you understand nothing at all.
The heart is what matters to God and, for all of us, that is bad news because our hearts are in rebellion against Him. Only in Christ is that problem remedied. And that is a gift which leaves no room for arrogance.
I, for one, will strive to be a TrueHeart and not a Blasphemer.
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Let’s talk to God….
Lord, you prioritized your relationship with us over the law. Not that you set the law aside but rather you fulfilled it. We can do the same thing in our relationships. We can forgive and reconcile with one another because of the cross. We accept your death on the cross as sufficient payment for the sins against us and we dedicate ourselves to treating others as they are in Christ and not as they are in the flesh. We do this because you do the same with us. Teach us your ways, O Lord. In your name I pray. Amen.