In the days when the Apostle Paul wrote his Epistle to the Romans, there were a lot of seemingly “religious” people who were counting on a lot of different things to make them acceptable before God. Paul knew very well the heart and mind of the average devout and pious Jew, after all, he had been one himself. In Romans 2:17-2:29, he referenced 7 key elements upon which many of his countrymen and former spiritual brothers were relying in order to receive the Salvation of God. Although he applied these specifically to the Jews, we can certainly see many obvious similarities between what they were counting on to save them and what many around us today are confiding in for their own salvation. Let’s look at them now:
1.) Spiritual Heritage
“Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God,” (Romans 2:17)
There was a great deal of spiritual pride among many Jews in that day. The culture and race into which they were born gave a false sense of security to many Israelites. They felt that, since they were descendants of Abraham, whom God blessed, God would bless them each individually, as well. They believed that this heritage and lineage entitled them to God’s favor, regardless of their own personal behavior.
“And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.” (Matthew 3:9)
John the Baptist pointed out the illogical nature of this type of thinking to the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to investigate his ministry. God places no value on a person’s heritage and lineage, He deals with each person based on their own faith and actions, not their great-grandfather’s.
Jesus, in one of His own confrontations with the Pharisees, made it clear that a person’s true father is the one whose will he obeys and whose behavior he imitates:
“They answered and said unto him, Abraham is our father. Jesus saith unto them, If ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the works of Abraham. But now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God: this did not Abraham. Ye do the deeds of your father. Then said they to him, We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God. Jesus said unto them, If God were your Father, ye would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me. Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.” (John 8:39-44)
As Paul had earlier mentioned, God makes no distinction with respect to a person’s race or nationality (see Romans 2:11), and He certainly gives no merit to a person’s heritage. The Jews of the day were relying on the fact that they were Jewish to save them from God’s judgment. They believed that, since they were descendants of Abraham, God would spare them.
What About Today?
We should notice that verse 17 does not say, “Behold thou art a Jew…”
It says, “Behold thou art CALLED a Jew…” (emphasis added).
The distinction is subtle, but very important because this passage serves to define what really makes a person a Jew. The common idea of the time was that a person is born a Jew, racially and religiously. But being a Jew has more to do with obeying God than it does a birthright.
Distinguishing between the Jewish race and the Jewish religion is a difficulty even to this day. Added to it is the confusion of the title “Jew” given to the scattered peoples of Jewish heritage throughout the world. It is hard to know exactly what a person is referring to when they say, “I am a Jew.” Do they mean that they are an “Orthodox Jew” who practices the religion of Judaism? Are they a “secular Jew” in the sense that they are an Israeli national but not necessarily a member of the Jewish faith? Or are they a Jew simply because their ethnic background is of Semitic origin, regardless of their nationality and religion?
The ancient definition melded these distinctions together. If you were a Jew by race then you were a Jew by religion. If you were one, then you were the other. This concept still exists in the Arab Middle East today where a person’s religious affiliation is inseparably tied to their national origin. Since participation in the State endorsed religious practices in Islamic countries is compulsory, every person living in those countries is either considered a Muslim if they participate, or a heretic and criminal if they do not.
Consequently, Arabs label any Westerner as a “Christian”, regardless of their religious beliefs, simply because they were born in a nation where the historically predominate religion has been Christianity. Added to this is a residual mindset from the medieval days of Christendom, where “Christianity” was often more of a political force used to unite a King’s subjects than a religion.
So, the idea still exists to this day. Many people in the United States, Europe, Latin America, and Australia identify themselves as “Christian” for no other reason than that has been the religious heritage they were brought up in. To them, it is a cultural identifier more than a religious faith. They may have never set foot in a Christian church, picked up a Bible, or prayed a single prayer, but they will claim to be Christian because of the culture into which they were born. They believe that this spiritual heritage is enough to make them right with God.
Others rely on the faithfulness of family members to save them from God’s judgment. They believe that the fact that their father was a Protestant minister, or that their sister is a Roman Catholic nun is sufficient reason for God to deal mercifully with them. I once actually heard a woman comment that her mother was extremely delighted that her brother was studying to enter the Roman Catholic priesthood since it meant an automatic “free pass to Heaven” for the whole family!
If anything, our spiritual heritage does more to condemn us than save us if we reject God’s grace. Salvation is non-transferable from one person to the next, every person must secure it for themselves by their own faith in Jesus Christ.
2.) Knowledge Of God’s Will
“And knowest his will…” (Romans 2:18a)
The second thing that will not save a person from God’s righteous judgment is knowing His will. The Jews had the written Word of God in the form of the Old Testament and could read God’s will in it. They felt that this gave them an inside track into the heart and mind of God, that they knew Who He was and what His will was for mankind. This “inside knowledge” of God, they felt, was sufficient to shield them from God’s judgment.
3.) Approval of God’s Law
“…and approvest the things that are more excellent,…” (Romans 2:18b)
The exaltation and reverence for God’s Law, God’s Word, or a strong moral code are not enough to make us right with God, either. The Jews in that day placed a great deal of reverence on God’s Word. The local synagogue normally contained the sole copy of the Law in each town, and it was handled with the greatest of care. Great ceremony and ritual accompanied bringing it out or putting it into the place where it was kept hidden away behind a veil or curtain.
The religious leaders of the day would even strap over-sized cases which contained fragments of Scriptures to their foreheads or arms in response to God’s instructions in Deuteronomy 6:8. The emphasis, however, was on the wearing of the case itself. They did this, not because of their love for God or their desire to keep His Word close to them, but to impress others with their supposed religious devotion. They did this as an exhibition to try to convince others of their high regard for the Word of God and their approval of what it said.
What About Today?
There are parallels with this type of behavior in our own day. We mentioned in our second item, Knowledge of God’s Will, that to simply know God’s will and what His Word says is not enough, neither is our approval of it.
We can agree with what the Bible says, we can talk about how good the Ten Commandments are, we can go on and on about how Jesus was a great spiritual leader Who taught some wonderful truths or the impact on morality that the Word of God has had on the world. We can attend church week after week and shout, “Amen!” to everything the preacher says. But do we know Jesus and is He our Savior? Or are we just going through the motions, hoping that will be enough?
We will look at number 4 next time, Lord willing.