(Rom 2:17-24 ESV) 17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God 18 and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; 19 and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth– 21 you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. 24 For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
After showing why God can justly condemn the Gentiles despite their not having the Torah or other special revelation of God’s will, he deals with the Jews. And he is harsh.
He first points out their advantages — the Law, their relationship with God, their knowledge of God’s will. And then he addresses God’s purposes for the Jews. They were to be a ” a light to those who are in darkness” (2:19).
(Isa 42:6-7 ESV) 6 “I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
(Isa 49:5-6 ESV) 5 And now the LORD says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him– for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength — 6 he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
(Isa 60:2-3 ESV) 2 For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. 3 And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.
The Jews were to be a “light for the nations.” When Jesus later declared that he is “the light of the world” (John 8:12), he was being a bit sarcastic, because the Jews as a nation were to be the light of the world. And here, Paul declares that they failed. Jesus had to take on the task that the Jews had left undone.
Paul then speaks of particular sins, accusing the Jewish people of being thieves, adulterers, idolaters, and Law breakers. But, of course, these accusations are hardly true of all Jews! Paul’s point isn’t that all Jews are horrible sinners, but rather that it’s quite impossible for the Jewish people to be “a light to those who are in darkness.” Just as Paul condemned Greek society in Romans 1, here he condemns Jewish society. Neither race is good enough to do what needs to be done.
Of course, Paul also condemned every human ever born — other than Jesus — by pointing out how we all violate our moral codes and thus condemn ourselves, and this is surely true of both of Jews and Gentiles alike.
Therefore, not only do we fail to measure up individually, but none of us is part of a race or nation holy enough to be a light to the world — and the world needs light. We cannot be our own saviors, much less saviors for the world. We’re just plain not good enough.
(Rom 2:25-29 ESV) 25 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
This passage anticipates the magisterial Romans 8 — and it’s critically important to understanding Romans 8. It’s not just that we need a heart-religion rather than a law-religion. Paul’s point is that the only way to get to a real heart-religion is through the Spirit.
Paul is referring to Deuteronomy, and it’s a vitally important point. In Deuteronomy 10, God commands,
(Deu 10:12-19 ESV) 12 “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? 14 Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. 15 Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. 16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. 17 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19 Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”
The standard God (and later Jesus) announced is to —
(Deu 10:12 ESV) 12 “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul …”
How do we love God that much? Well, the command is —
(Deu 10:16 ESV) 16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.
That is, we must change our own hearts so that we are capable of loving God with all our heart and soul. And that’s no easy task. And the Jews — as a nation — failed, and this is just as God predicted later in Deuteronomy.
In a series of curses culminating Deuteronomy 29, God promises a curse on those who rely on God’s grace to sin. God will bless those who honor his Law and curse those who rebel. And, of course, this is exactly what happened — at the hands Nebuchadnezzar and later at the hands of Rome. But God promises to be true to his covenant nonetheless.
(Deu 30:1-3 ESV) “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, 2 and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you.”
And at the time of God’s compassion —
(Deu 30:6 ESV) 6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
Notice the subtlety here. After the Exile is over, no longer will the burden of obedience from the heart be solely on man. Rather, God himself will soften and transform the hearts of his people so that they will “love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”
This thought is echoed and expanded upon several times by the Prophets, especially —
(Eze 36:25-27 ESV) 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Ezekiel explains that God will accomplish his promise by means of the Spirit.
(Jer 31:33-34 ESV) 33 “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
Jeremiah speaks in similar terms. No longer will obedience be a purely human effort. God himself will write his laws on our hearts so that we will be his people.
This is what Paul is talking about here and what he expands on in chapter 8. The only way anyone can measure up to God’s standards is if God comes down from heaven and dwells within us, changing our hearts and minds, transforming us into his image.