I just began to do an in depth study of Romans, and I’ve already noticed things that I haven’t noticed before. For example, chapters 1 and 2, I believe are an inseparable unit. Chapter 1 is all about the depravity of humanity. Paul goes on an on about human sin and depravity, in famous and often-quoted verses. He teaches that people don’t have an excuse for sin because God has made himself plain (v19), how people are foolish idolaters (v23), sexually depraved (v26), God-haters, slanderers, rebellious, and envious (v30). He sets up a lot of cannons pointed at human sin, and fires them all! At this point I think a large segment of the original hearers of the Roman epistle would be cheering. A large segment of his audience were Jews living in the diaspora, a righteous remnant living in a culture of idolaters. I think many of them actually saw themselves as the only righteous ones, and had a sense of moral superiority and a sense of having spiritually arrived.
THEN, what happens in chapter two is that Paul takes all of those cannons that he set up in chapter one and turns them all on the religious folks! He starts blasting all of those people who would have been cheering in chapter 1, who were saying “Amen” with Paul’s detailed description about how wrong everyone around them was living. He goes after them with a vengeance and starts deconstructing their self-righteousness. He starts taking a hammer to their self-confidence. After ranting on an on about what the pagans do, Paul says “you who pass judgment do the same things.” (2:1). Say WHAT?!? Paul says to those who see themselves as superior “So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?” (2:3).
The key to understanding these two chapters is knowing that there was a serious tension between Jew vs. Gentile among his Roman audience. To his audience, Jew meant the privileged remnant who was morally superior, favored of God, wise from learning, mature in their faith, more spiritual, more ethical, and more blessed, circumcised and with the sign of the Covenant. On the contrary, the gentile pagans were considered idolaters, immoral, sexually depraved, ignorant of God’s truth, and generally inferior, uncircumcised and without the sign of the Covenant. Incidentally, it’s this reputation that new Gentile converts to Christianity had to live down. More established Jews viewed them as morally guilty until proven innocent. In that context of suspicion and uneasiness, groups demanding that they be circumcised and observer Torah makes more sense. More on that later).
It’s to the excessively self-confident religious people that Paul says “tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek.” (2:9). They were cheerleaders of a message of judgment to their pagan neighbors, but “of the Jew first” was a new concept. This would come as a shock to them because they had previously believed that being a part of God’s holy nation meant privileged status and a moral leg up. God’s formation of a holy/set apart/blessed group of people never intended the self-righteousness that was to come. It was an unfortunate side effect.
After that in chapter two Paul proceeds to deconstruct the elements of their confidence:
-They were bragging about their personal relationship with God. (2:17)
-They said they knew His will. v18
-They were a beacon of light. v19
-They were a guide to the ethically blind. v19
-They had correct theology and had a correct worldview. v20
All of this should sound really familiar to modern Christians because our cultural situation is similar to that of Jews in Rome. Many of us embody the exact came mindset about ourselves and our abilities. Many Christians have a similar attitude of superiority in contrast to non-Christians, though they won’t admit it. The most frightening phrase that Paul writes in this chapter is not directed at Gentiles, or general human sin at all, but directed at religious folks. Paul says “The world blasphemes the name of God because of you.” (v24). This needs to be taken as a stern warning for modern Christians, because we often embody the same exact mindset as those early religious Jews in Rome.
We have to ask ourselves the same question that Paul asked. Do we think we are right with God, i.e., are we overly confident in our own sense of spiritual accomplishment? Do we think that we know His will? Do we presume to know His will not just for ourselves but for others? Do we think we are a beacon of light? Do we look down on the beliefs of those who don’t hold a Christian worldview or dismiss them as ‘silly’? Do we think we’re a model example to lesser people around us? Do we have supreme confidence in our understanding of the Bible? For all of these things, we should at least hesitate before giving a “yes”. Otherwise we’re in deep trouble.
I heard an interesting quote recently. “Jesus came to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” To those Romans who are exploring Christianity, Paul is inviting them to be full member of the community of God. God doesn’t show favoritism. (2:9-12). Paul is abolishing the man-made artificial wall between Jew and Gentile, to the horror and shock of those religious folks who built it, maintain it, and benefit from it. Paul is leveling the playing field, proclaiming loudly to the Gentiles, “I have REALLY good news for you.”
This is all directly applicable to modern Christianity because we are the ones who have been building man-made walls. We’re the ones who see ourselves as having spiritually arrived, who think we’re wise, who think we know God’s will. To us, Paul would turn around the cannons and point them at us. We’re comfortable in a lot of different ways, and one of them is confidence in our own righteousness and the correctness of our beliefs. God wants to afflict that part of us.