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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible

Romans 2



Other Authors
Verses 1-29

Chapter 2


2:1-11 So, then, O man, everyone of you who judges others, you yourself have no defence. While you judge others, you condemn yourself, for you who set yourself up as a judge do exactly the same things. We know that God's judgment is directed against all who do such things, and that it is based on reality. Are you counting on this, O man, you who set yourself up as a judge upon people who do such things and who do them yourself--that you will escape the condemnation of God? Or, are you treating with contempt the wealth of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? In your obtuseness, and in your impenitent heart, you are storing up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath, the day when there will be revealed the righteous judgment of God, who will settle accounts with each man according to his deeds. To those who sought glory and honour and immortality in steadfast good work, he will assign eternal life. To those who were dominated by ambition, who were disobedient to truth and obedient to evil, there will be wrath and anger, tribulation and affliction. These things will come upon every soul of man who does the bad thing, upon the soul of the Jew first and then of the Greek. But glory and honour and peace will come to everyone who does the good thing, to the Jew first and then to the Greek, for there is no favouritism with God.

In this passage Paul is directly addressing the Jews. The connection of thought is this. In the foregoing passage Paul had painted a grim and terrible picture of the heathen world, a world which was under the condemnation of God. With every word of that condemnation the Jew thoroughly agreed. But he never for a moment dreamed that he was under a like condemnation. He thought that he occupied a privileged position. God might be the judge of the heathen, but he was the special protector of the Jews. Here Paul is pointing out forcibly to the Jew that he is just as much a sinner as the Gentile is and that when he is condemning the Gentile he is condemning himself. He will be judged, not on his racial heritage, but by the kind of life that he lives.

The Jews always considered themselves in a specially privileged position with God. "God," they said, "loves Israel alone of all the nations of the earth." "God will judge the Gentiles with one measure and the Jews with another." "All Israelites will have part in the world to come." "Abraham sits beside the gates of hell and does not permit any wicked Israelite to go through." When Justin Martyr was arguing with the Jew about the position of the Jews in the Dialogue with Trypho, the Jew said, "They who are the seed of Abraham according to the flesh shall in any case, even if they be sinners and unbelieving and disobedient towards God, share in the eternal Kingdom." The writer of the Book of Wisdom comparing God's attitude to Jews and Gentiles said: "These as a father, admonishing them, thou didst prove; but those as a stern king, condemning them, thou didst search out" (Wisdom of Solomon 11:9). "While therefore thou dost chasten us, thou scourgest our enemies a thousand times more" (Wisdom of Solomon 12:22). The Jew believed that everyone was destined for judgment except himself. It would not be any special goodness which kept him immune from the wrath of God, but simply the fact that he was a Jew.

To meet this situation Paul reminded the Jews of four things.

(i) He told them bluntly that they were trading on the mercy of God. In Romans 2:4 he uses three great words. He asks them: "Are you treating with contempt the wealth of his kindness, and forbearance and patience?" Let us look at these three great words.

(a) Kindness (chrestotes, Greek #5544). Of this Trench says: "It is a beautiful word, as it is the expression of a beautiful idea." There are two words for good in Greek; there is agathos (Greek #18) and there is chrestos (Greek #5543). The difference between them is this. The goodness of a man who is agathos (Greek #18) may well issue in rebuke and discipline and punishment; but the goodness of a man who is chrestos (Greek #5543) is always essentially kind. Jesus was agathos (Greek #18) when he drove the moneychangers and the sellers of doves from the Temple in the white heat of his anger. He was chrestos (Greek #5543) when he treated with loving gentleness the sinning woman who anointed his feet and the woman taken in adultery. So Paul says, in effect, "You Jews are simply trying to take advantage of the great kindness of God."

(b) Forbearance (anoche, Greek #463). Anoche is the word for a truce. True, it means a cessation of hostility, but it is a cessation that has a limit. Paul, in effect, is saying to the Jews, "You think that you are safe because God's judgment has not yet descended upon you. But what God is giving you is not carte blanche to sin; he is giving you the opportunity to repent and to amend your ways." A man cannot sin forever with impunity.

(c) Patience (makrothumia, Greek #3115). Makrothumia is characteristically a word which expresses patience with people. Chrysostom defined it as the characteristic of the man who has it in his power to avenge himself and deliberately does not use it. Paul is, in effect, saying to the Jews: "Do not think that the fact that God does not punish you is a sign that he cannot punish you. The fact that his punishment does not immediately follow sin is not a proof of his powerlessness; it is a proof of his patience. You owe your lives to the patience of God."

One great commentator has said that almost everyone has "a vague and undefined hope of impunity," a kind of feeling that "this cannot happen to me." The Jews went further than that; "they openly claimed exemption from the judgment of God." They traded on his mercy, and there are many who to this day seek to do the same.

(ii) Paul told the Jews that they were taking the mercy of God as an invitation to sin rather than as an incentive to repentance. it was Heine who made the famous, cynical statement. He was obviously not worrying about the world to come. He was asked why he was so confident, and his answer was, "God will forgive." He was asked why he was so sure of that, and his reply was, "C'est son metier" "It is his trade." Let us think of it in human terms. There are two attitudes to human forgiveness. Suppose a young person does something which is a shame, a sorrow and a heartbreak to his parents, and suppose that in love he is freely forgiven, and the thing is never held against him. He can do one of two things. He can either go and do the same thing again, trading on the fact that he will be forgiven once more; or he can be so moved to wondering gratitude by the free forgiveness that he has received, that he spends his whole life in trying to be worthy of it. It is one of the most shameful things in the world to use love's forgiveness as an excuse to go on sinning. That is what the Jews were doing. That is what so many people still do. The mercy and love of God are not meant to make us feel that we can sin and get away with it; they are meant so to break our hearts that we will seek never to sin again.

(iii) Paul insists that in God's economy there is no most favoured nation clause. There may be nations which are picked out for a special task and for a special responsibility, but none which is picked out for special privilege and special consideration. It may be true, as Milton said, that "When God has some great work he gives it to his Englishmen," but it is a great work that is in question, not a great privilege. The whole of Jewish religion was based on the conviction that the Jews held a special position of privilege and favour in the eyes of God. We may feel that that is a position which nowadays we are far past. But is it? Is there no such thing nowadays as a colour bar? Is there no such thing as a conscious feeling of superiority to what Kipling called "lesser breeds without the law"? This is not to say that all nations are the same in talent. But it is to say that those nations who have advanced further ought not to look with contempt on the others, but are, rather, under the responsibility to help them move forward.

(iv) Of all passages of Paul this deserves to be studied most carefully in order to arrive at a correct idea of Paulinism. It is often argued that his position was that all that matters is faith. A religion which stresses the importance of works is often contemptuously waved aside as being quite out of touch with the New Testament. Nothing could be further from the truth. "God," said Paul, "will settle with each man according to his deeds." To Paul a faith which did not issue in deeds was a travesty of faith; in fact it was not faith at all. He would have said that the only way in which you can see a man's faith at all is by his deeds. One of the most dangerous of all religious tendencies is to talk as if faith and works were entirely different and separate things. There can be no such thing as faith which does not issue in works, nor can there be works which are not the product of faith. Works and faith are inextricably bound up together. How, in the last analysis, can God judge a man other than by his deeds? We cannot comfortably say, "I have faith," and leave it at that. Our faith must issue in deeds, for it is by our deeds we are accepted or condemned.

THE UNWRITTEN LAW (Romans 2:12-16)

2:12-16 As many as sinned without the law shall also perish without the law; and as many as sinned in the law shall be judged by the law; for it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in the sight of God, but it is the doers of the law who will be accounted righteous, in that day when God judges the hidden things of men according to my gospel through Jesus Christ. For whenever the Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do by nature the deeds of the law, they, although they do not possess the law, are a law to them selves. They show the work of the law written on their hearts, while their consciences bear them witness, and while their thoughts within accuse or excuse them.

In the translation we have slightly changed the order of the verses. In the sense of the passage Romans 2:16 follows Romans 2:13, and Romans 2:14-15 are a long parenthesis. It is to be remembered that Paul was not writing this letter sitting at a desk and thinking out every word and every construction. He was striding up and down the room dictating it to his secretary, Tertius (Romans 16:22), who struggled to get it down. That explains the long parenthesis, but it is easier to get the correct meaning in English if we go straight from Romans 2:13 to Romans 2:16, and add Romans 2:14-15 afterwards.

In this passage Paul turns to the Gentiles. He has dealt with the Jews and with their claims to special privilege. But one advantage the Jew did have, and that was the Law. A Gentile might well retaliate by saying, "It is only right that God should condemn the Jews, who had the Law and who ought to have known better; but we will surely escape judgment because we had no opportunity to know the Law and did not know any better." In answer Paul lays down two great principles.

(i) A man will be judged by what he had the opportunity to know. If he knew the Law, he will be judged as one who knew the Law. If he did not know the Law, he will be judged as one who did not know the Law. God is fair. And here is the answer to those who ask what is to happen to the people who lived in the world before Jesus came and who had no opportunity to hear the Christian message. A man will be judged by his fidelity to the highest that it was possible for him to know.

(ii) Paul goes on to say that even those who did not know the written Law had an unwritten law within their hearts. We would call it the instinctive knowledge of right and wrong. The Stoics said that in the universe there were certain laws operative which a man broke at his peril--the laws of health, the moral laws which govern life and living. The Stoics called these laws phusis (Greek #5449), which means nature, and urged men to live kata (Greek #2596) phusin (Greek #5449), according to nature. It is Paul's argument that in the very nature of man there is an instinctive knowledge of what he ought to do. The Greeks would have agreed with that. Aristotle said: "The cultivated and free-minded man will so behave as being a law to himself" Plutarch asks: "Who shall govern the governor?" And he answers: "Law, the king of all mortals and immortals, as Pindar calls it, which is not written on papyrus rolls or wooden tablets, but is his own reason within the soul, which perpetually dwells with him and guards him and never leaves his soul bereft of leadership."

Paul saw the world divided into two classes of people. He saw the Jews with their Law given to them direct from God and written down so that all could read it. He saw the other nations, without this written law, but nonetheless with a God-implanted knowledge of right and wrong within their hearts. Neither could claim exemption from the judgment of God. The Jew could not claim exemption on the ground that he had a special place in God's plan. The Gentile could not claim exemption on the ground that he had never received the written Law. The Jew would be judged as one who had known the Law; the Gentile as one who had a God-given conscience. God will judge a man according to what he knows and has the chance to know.

THE REAL JEW (Romans 2:17-29)

2:17-29 If you are called by the name of Jew, if you take your rest in the Law, if you boast in God and know his will, if you give your approval to the excellent things, if you are instructed in the Law, if you believe yourself to be a leader of the blind, a light in darkness, and educator of the foolish, a teacher of the simple, if you believe yourself to have the very shape of knowledge and of truth in the Law--do you, then, who instruct another, not instruct yourself? Do you, who proclaim to others that stealing is forbidden, steal yourself? Do you, who forbid others to commit adultery, commit adultery yourself? Do you, who shudder at idols, rob temples? Do you, who boast in the Law, dishonour others by transgressing the Law? As it stands written, "Because of your conduct, God's name is ill-spoken of among the Gentiles." Circumcision is indeed an advantage if you do the Law. But if you are a transgressor of the Law your circumcision has become the equivalent of uncircumcision. For if uncircumcision observes the moral requirements of the Law, shall not uncircumcision be reckoned as the equivalent of circumcision, and will natural uncircumcision which keeps the Law, not become the judge of you who are a transgressor of the Law, although you have the letter and the circumcision? For he is not a real Jew who is externally a Jew; nor is the real circumcision the external circumcision in the flesh; but he is a real Jew who is a Jew in inward things; and real circumcision is the circumcision of the heart, in spirit, and not in letter. The praise of such a man comes not from men but from God.

To a Jew a passage like this must have come as a shattering experience. He was certain that God regarded him with special favour, simply and solely because of his national descent from Abraham and because he bore the badge of circumcision in his flesh. But Paul introduces an idea to which he will return again and again. Jewishness, he insists, is not a matter of race at all; it has nothing to do with circumcision. It is a matter of conduct. If that is so, many a so-called Jew who is a pure descendant of Abraham and who bears the mark of circumcision in his body, is no Jew at all; and equally many a Gentile who never heard of Abraham and who would never dream of being circumcised, is a Jew in the real sense of the term. To a Jew this would sound the wildest heresy and leave him angry and aghast.

The last verse of this passage, (Romans 2:29), contains a pun which is completely untranslatable. "The praise of such a man comes not from men but from God." The Greek word for praise is epainos (Greek #1868). When we turn back to the Old Testament (Genesis 29:35; Genesis 49:8), we find that the original and traditional meaning of the word Judah is praise (epainos, Greek #1868). Therefore this phrase means two things. (a) It means the praise of such a man comes not from men but from God. (b) It means the Jewishness of such a man comes not from men but from God. The sense of the passage is that God's promises are not to people of a certain race and to people who bear a certain mark on their bodies. They are to people who live a certain kind of life irrespective of their race. To be a real Jew is not a matter of pedigree but of character; and often the man who is not racially a Jew may be a better Jew than the man who is.

In this passage Paul says that there are Jews whose conduct makes the name of God ill-spoken of among the Gentiles. It is a simple fact of history that the Jews were, and often still are, the most unpopular people in the world. Let us see just how the Gentiles did regard the Jews in New Testament times.

They regarded Judaism as a "barbarous superstition" and the Jews as "the most disgusting of races," and as "a most contemptible company of slaves." The origins of Jewish religion were twisted with a malicious ignorance. It was said that Jews had originally been a company of lepers who had been sent by the king of Egypt to work in the sand quarries; and that Moses had rallied this band of leprous slaves and led them through the desert to Palestine. It was said that they worshipped an ass' head, because in the wilderness a herd of wild asses had led them to water when they were perishing with thirst. It was said that they abstained from swine's flesh because the pig is specially liable to a skin disease called the itch, and it was that skin disease that the Jews had suffered from in Egypt.

Certain of the Jewish customs were mocked at by the Gentiles. Their abstinence from swine's flesh provided many a jest. Plutarch thought that the reason for it might well be that the Jews worshipped the pig as a god. Juvenal declares that Jewish clemency has accorded to the pig the privilege of living to a good old age, and that swine's flesh is more valuable to them than the flesh of man. The custom of observing the Sabbath was regarded as pure laziness.

Certain things which the Jews enjoyed infuriated the Gentiles. It was the odd fact that, unpopular as they were, the Jews had nonetheless received extraordinary privileges from the Roman government.

(a) They were allowed to transmit the temple tax every year to Jerusalem. This became so serious in Asia about the year 60 B.C. that the export of currency was forbidden and, according to the historians, no less than twenty tons of contraband gold was seized which the Jews had been about to despatch to Jerusalem.

(b) They were allowed, at least to some extent, to have their own courts and live according to their own laws. There is a decree issued by a governor called Lucius Antonius in Asia about the year 50 B.C. in which he wrote: "Our Jewish citizens came to me and informed me that they had their own private gathering, carried out according to their ancestral laws, and their own private place, where they settle their own affairs and deal with cases between each other. When they asked that this custom should be continued, I gave judgment that they should be allowed to retain this privilege." The Gentiles detested the spectacle of a race of people living as a kind of separate and specially privileged group.

(c) The Roman government respected the Jewish observance of the Sabbath. It was laid down that the Jew could not be called to give evidence in a law court on the Sabbath. It was laid down that if special doles were being distributed to the populace and the distribution fell on the Sabbath, the Jews could claim their share on the following day. And--a specially sore point with the Gentiles--the Jews enjoyed astrateia, that is, exemption from conscription to the Roman army. This exemption was directly due to the fact that the Jewish strict observance of the Sabbath obviously made it impossible for him to carry out military duties on the Sabbath. It can easily be imagined with what resentment the rest of the world would look on this special exemption from a burdensome duty.

There were two special things of which the Jews were accused.

(a) They were accused of atheism (atheotes, compare Greek #112). The ancient world had great difficulty in conceiving of the possibility of a religion without any visible images of worship. Pliny called them, "a race distinguished by their contempt for all deities." Tacitus said, "The Jews conceive of their deity as one, by the mind alone.... Hence no images are erected in their cities or even in their temples. This reverence is not paid to kings, nor this honour to the Caesars." Juvenal said, "They venerate nothing but the clouds and the deity of the sky." But the truth is that what really moved the Gentile to such dislike, was not so much the imageless worship of the Jews, as the cold contempt in which they held all other religions. No man whose main attitude to his fellows is contempt can ever be a missionary. This contempt for others was one of the things which Paul was thinking of when he said that the Jews brought the name of God into disrepute.

(b) They were accused of hatred of their fellow-men (misanthropia, compare Greek #3404 and Greek #444) and complete unsociability (amixia). Tacitus said of them: "Among themselves their honesty is inflexible, their compassion quick to move, but to all other persons they show the hatred of antagonism." In Alexandria the story was that the Jews had taken an oath never to show kindness to a Gentile, and that they even offered a Greek in sacrifice to their God every year. Tacitus said that the first thing Gentiles converted to Judaism were taught to do was "to despise the gods, to repudiate their nationality, and to disparage parents, children and brothers." Juvenal declared that if a Jew was asked the way to any place, he refused to give any information except to another Jew, and that if anyone was looking for a well from which to drink, he would not lead him to it unless he was circumcised. Here we have the same thing again. The basic Jewish attitude to other men was contempt and this must ever invite hatred in answer.

It was all too true that the Jews did bring the name of God into disrepute, because they shut themselves into a rigid little community from which all others were shut out and because they showed to the heathen an attitude of contempt for their worship and complete lack of charity for their needs. Real religion is a thing of the open heart and the open door; Judaism was a thing of the shut heart and the shut door.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Romans 2:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.

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