The world is a pretty nasty palace. People do bad things all the time. In chapter 1 we read a list of disreputable activities: every kind of wickedness, evil, greed, depravity , envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant, boastful, senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. That’s just Paul’s summing up list, read chapter 1 again for more! If you tutted with disapproval at any stage as you read this list then chapter 2 is for you!
As we noted in chapter 1, Paul wrote this letter at a time when there was much debate and discussion about what we might call ‘the Jewish problem.’ For centuries God had dealt principally with the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They were the subject of almost the entire Old Testament and they were the people to whom Jesus came. But they rejected Messiah Jesus and now Paul’s gospel was being preached: a gospel that was for Gentiles as well as Jews. The dual issue of Israel’s future and the progression of law to grace are key themes in this letter and we shall see the matter of the Jews coming to the fore again in this second chapter.
- Passing judgement
From time to time the news agencies will tell us about miscarriages of justice. Someone is convicted of a serious crime they never committed, many years of imprisonment and a ‘lost life’ are described. Our response to such stories is (usually) significant sympathy with both the victim of the miscarriage of justice as well as the victims of the original crime who are left without justice. Such stories tend to make me wonder if our system is so flawed that we can have little confidence in any judgements! The reality is that we can normally have reasonable confidence that justice is usually done, but not always. I suppose that miscarriages of justice often happen because the people making the judgements and presenting the evidence are themselves imperfect. The fact is that we all make imperfect judges, but that doesn’t deter us much at all! In verse 1 Paul points out that anyone who passes judgement on the activities he described ought to be careful, why? Because they themselves do the very things they judge others of doing! Read the list again! You may well be a fine upstanding citizen but I defy you to exclude yourself from every activity Paul describes. They say that as you point your finger there are usually three fingers pointing back in your direction!
Jesus wanted people to realise that if we are to get ourselves right with God we need to acknowledge who and what we are. There was an incident recorded in John’s gospel (chapter 8): a woman was presented to Jesus who had been ‘caught in adultery.’ The Pharisees (with of course impure motives to say the least) reminded Jesus of the Old Testament law ‘the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women.’ ‘What do you say,’ they asked. Leaving aside the fact that the Pharisees had failed to apprehend the man involved (see Leviticus 20:10 and note that both guilty parties were deserving of death by stoning) it is clear that the motivation of the Pharisees was not for justice but to trap Jesus. What did Jesus say? ‘If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.’ The result was dramatic! The accusers, no doubt with some embarrassment, departed the scene. The Pharisees were not interested in justice. And Paul says be careful as you judge others when you are imperfect yourself – but equally be reassured that when the time for administering justice comes it will be done by a perfect judge! ‘Now we know that God’s judgement against those who do such things is based on truth.’ Since God is just and since he is not lacking in understanding the facts, the minds and the motivation of the guilty, his judgements are based on truth.
Not only is our tutting and judging inappropriate because of our own imperfections, our judging of others shows contempt for God’s kindness, forbearance and patience. How often do we want to ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key!’ In contrast God’s justice is largely delayed. Why do people get away with it? Why does God not intervene? The answer is as surprising as it is wonderful: God is kind, and he delays his judgement to enable the guilty to repent. Next time you pick up a rock of judgement to fling at the guilty, remember that you are not fit to judge, and that he who is fit to judge is delaying his judgement to bring about repentance. When the Pharisees and teachers of the law slinked away, Jesus was left with the woman accused of adultery, what did he say? ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’ This is grace: unmerited favour. But note that this was not dismissal of adultery as of no importance; the woman was to sin no more. Why, because although judgement is delayed it is not cancelled.
2. Judgement day
Paul tells his readers that there is a day of judgement coming. What we do in the here and now will determine the outcome of that judgement. The idea of storing up God’s wrath in the present time for it to be released on judgement day is the picture Paul paints. That’s quite a thought and it’s well within our capability to provoke God’s wrath by being stubborn and unrepentant. The principle of judgement is simple: ‘God will repay each person according to what they have done.’ There is eternal life, glory, honour and peace for those who do good and wrath and anger for those who are ‘self seeking, who reject the truth and follow evil.’ This immediately raises the question as to how good do you have to be and what the cut off point is for eternal life versus wrath. We need to let Paul develop his argument further before we find out, but I can’t help but take a peek a chapter or two ahead! The answer is somewhat startling, you need to be perfect to get eternal life! And the bad news is that there is no one who is – we’re all flawed. But there was one who came and was perfect and through his work we can escape judgement, but more of that later. For now Paul is establishing that there will be a day of judgement and the outcome of the judgement will be based on what we do, and the bar is set high!
The judgement will bring trouble and distress for everyone who does evil, and in the front of the queue will be Jews followed by Gentiles. Why this order? It seems that since God spoke first to Jews and since they have been granted special privileges that they bear special responsibilities. That seems entirely right, and let’s not forget that this will not be a judgement based in incomplete and shaky evidence – all the facts will be fully and perfectly known.
All of this raises the question as to the basis of the judgement. The Jews in their position of privilege had the law, the ten commandments and all of the law described in detail in the book of Leviticus. There is no doubt, as Paul says ‘all who sin under the law will be judged by the law.’ Hearing and knowing about the law is not enough, obedience is demanded. You’ve probably seen many of those police car documentaries where the cameras track traffic police for a few days. When the police pull someone over for speeding they seem to always ask the same questions, ‘what is the speed limit’ – ‘30 mph’ comes the reply, ‘and what were you doing?’ The sheepish driver usually responds with an underestimate but usually acknowledges that he or she had broken the law. Knowing the speed limit offers no assistance! It was the same for the Jews, they might know the law, they might even be rather proud of the fact that they were the special people who received the law, but this offers them no benefit if they break it. It’s a fair cop!
I often hear the phrase that ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse,’ and this is surely correct. As citizens and residents of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland we live under the law of the land: whether we know the law or not, it applies to us. If the law applies, there is no escape! I worked with a German national in Switzerland. He married a French girl and lived over the Swiss border in France. He drove a black Mercedes and proudly refused to register it in France, only German number plates for him! As he drove along the French motorway to Basel one morning a cheeky French driver cut him up. My German friend was driving well in excess of the French national speed limit at the time. He made a rather rude gesture to the cheeky French driver only to find to his horror that blue lights started flashing. He soon realised that he had rather upset the French traffic police who were patrolling in an unmarked car! His reward was a rather miserable day in a French police cell! My friend discovered that whilst he was in France the French law applied to him, irrespective of his nationality or the country of his car’s registration. But sometimes the law does not apply.
I used to work in Lower Regent Street in London, just nearby is the lovely St James’s square: a pleasant place for lunch in the summer months. On the square is a memorial to PC Yvonne Fletcher, aged just 25 years on the 17th April 1984 she was shot dead by a gunman in the Libyan Embassy. Through some quirk of international diplomatic law the killer was never brought to justice in the British courts, it was somehow deemed that UK law did not apply. But in spite of this, under pressure from the ‘international community,’ the Libyan government did accept responsibility and currently there is an ongoing effort to bring the killer to justice. In spite of the inability of UK law to apply, there is a natural desire for justice that has persisted. Paul says that for those who are under the law the law will be applied rigorously: ‘it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous’ (v 13). But what about the Gentiles who are not under the Jewish law? Gentiles have an innate sense of the law, Paul says that they have a sense of law written on their hearts and their consciences speak to this too. Paul says that they ‘do by nature the things required by the law.’ The Libyan gunman may have slipped out of UK law but everyone is agreed that he broke a natural law and justice is demanded. We are well aware of an unwritten law. One of my old bosses used to talk about the ‘little man in his head’ who would guide in matters of judgement – he was speaking of his conscience and innate knowledge of right and wrong. This will be the basis of judgement for those who do not have the law. Paul’s key point is that there will be a basis for judgement for everyone: whether people are Jews with the law or Gentiles with ‘natural law.’
3. The chosen ones
Paul now specifically addresses the Jews. He makes four ‘if’ statements: 1. if you call yourself a Jew, 2. if you rely on the law and boast in God, 3. if you know what God wants and accept this, 4. if you recognise that you have a privileged position and can bring benefit to others through the enlightenment that you have. Then Paul poses a question: if you teach others why do you not teach yourself?
The Jews spoke against stealing, but they themselves were stealing. The Jews spoke against adultery, but they themselves committed adultery. They spoke against idols but were happy to enrich themselves by robbing temples. The reputation of the Jews was such that ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles’ because of the way they behaved.
The Jews were proud of their traditions and physical evidence of their special place in God’s plan. But Paul says that the circumcision they practised was only of value if it was accompanied by obedience to the law. Failure to keep the law was in conflict with the outward sign of circumcision. In contrast people who were not circumcised but kept the law were in a better place. Finally Paul says that a true Jew is not one who merely outwardly circumcised but rather is one who is inwardly changed. What is Paul saying here? He is addressing Jews and he is pointing out their hypocrisy and informing them that pride in the external is of no value, it is what Jews were on the inside that mattered. Incidentally Paul was not saying that we can all become Jews if we are changed on the inside – what he is saying that a true Jew is one who obeys the law, external physical marks don’t really count.
To sum up this passage, Paul makes it very clear that we will all be judged. The judgement will be perfect and righteous. But for now the judgement will be delayed – there is room for repentance and change before the judgement comes. Jews will be judged according to the law they have received , everyone else will be judged according to their natural appreciation of right and wrong. The Jews can’t expect any favours as they are guilty of hypocrisy and pride. As the Roman recipients of this letter started to think about these things I have little doubt that they would be filled with some alarm – and we ought to have a similar response – how can we escape this coming judgement? After all, we all break the law.
In the next chapter Paul will confirm our hopeless situation but as he has hinted in this second chapter there is a remarkable hope in the Lord Jesus and it’s available to everyone.