I shouldn’t be surprised by this anymore. I should expect it. But, still, this afternoon I was once again stricken by the depths of God’s Word. The more I dig, the more I find. And not because I’m inventing new meanings or reading symbolic, allegorical interpretations into the text. I am seeing things that were always there for the seeing, but that I missed on the first (or one hundredth) pass.
On Sunday mornings we’ve been steadily walking through the book of Romans for the past three-plus months. Today I sat at my desk to begin preparing to preach on the final verses of chapter 2 for this Sunday’s sermon. As is to be expected, the text for this week is closely connected to the previous sentences and paragraphs (who would expect anything else!). Since 1:18 the Apostle Paul has been laboring to prove that all human beings – both Gentile and Jewish – stand under God’s just condemnation. He demonstrates the Gentiles’ guilt in 1:18-32, and then begins to present his case against his own kinsmen, the people of Israel, in chapter 2.
Thus far, Paul’s primary point in 2:1-16 has been that God is impartial – that he judges all people by the same standards and will render a just judgment on the Day of Judgment. The Gentile will be judged because he has violated the Law of God written on his heart (v. 12), and the Jew will be judged because he has violated the Law of God given through Moses to the people of Israel. At the end of the day, eternal life belongs to the one who fully obeys the Law (and such a person doesn’t exist, save for Jesus Christ!) and the one who disobeys (all of us) will receive wrath.
The text for yesterday’s sermon consisted of verses 17-24, in which Paul continues to show that the Jewish people are guilty, because even though they have the Law of Moses, they do not obey it. Though they teach others not to steal, or commit adultery, or worship idols, they themselves often stand guilty of such sins. At root, Paul’s fellow Jews stand condemned as hypocrites, because they do not practice what they preach. So far, so good. All of that (and much more) made it into the sermon.
What I didn’t see was the symmetry between this short list of sins, and the sins of which the Gentile world stands condemned in chapter 1. The order is reversed, and the exact infractions committed are not the same, but I believe Paul intends for us to see a connection.
In chapter 1, the Gentiles are first found guilty of idolatry: ““Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things,” (vv. 22-23). Then, they are accused of committing sexual immorality: “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves,” (v. 24). Finally, Paul names twenty-one sins that he says, “ought not to be done,” (v. 28). These twenty-one transgressions are such that they are universally recognized as wrong.
Now in 2:17-24, during his indictment of Jewish hypocrisy, he first accuses his kinsmen of stealing, which corresponds to the list of universally recognized moral failings. Next, he accuses them of adultery, which is a form of sexual immorality. Finally, he accuses them of being temple robbers, even though they say they hate idolatry, the great sin of the Gentile nations. The symmetry between these two lists is unmistakable.
What’s the point of all of this? Does it matter if we recognize these sorts of connections? Not in the big picture. I didn’t see this after hours of study last week, and I don’t feel that I missed this connection because I was lazy in my preparation. I still feel that my sermon got the main points of the text right. No, I don’t feel guilty for having missed this connection at all. On the contrary, I’m excited that I’m able to see more today than I could last week. I am encouraged to know that I will never stop learning from the Scriptures, even if I get to spend the bulk of my work-week, for most of my life, studying the Word. That’s exciting!
And what is gained by seeing this correspondence? We have more evidence that Paul sees both Jew and Gentile as fundamentally guilty of the same crimes against God. All of us, no matter our ethnicity, or cultural or sociological background, will have to answer for the same basic sin: a failure to glorify and honor God through obedience to his commands.
I thank God that there is One who has rendered that obedience in our place, though! I thank God that we can stand clothed in his righteousness by faith – whatever color, or ethnicity, or nationality, or social group we happened to be a part of. All are guilty, and all can be saved only by faith in Jesus, the Righteous One.
And I thank God that his Word is always fresh, always teaching, and always left with depths to be explored.