Alfred Place Baptist Church

2:17-24 ‘If…’

Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law;  if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth – you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who brag about the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law? As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’
Romans 2:17-24

There is a popular poem of Rudyard Kipling entitled ‘If.’ It was chosen last week on Desert Island Discs on the radio as one of the 8 discs to be taken to a desert island by a famous figure. It is a stirring description of what the poet considers manhood to be all about. It exalts the human spirit, but it has nothing to say about the power and indwelling of God to make us new creations. ‘If’ is distilled and moving humanism, the exaltation of man without regeneration. The possibility of attaining a high morality without a heart love for God, without repentance for sin, without trust in Jesus Christ. The poem begins,

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

That is its opening and so on to the climax . . .

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

Paul in the verses before us begins a new section. It could be, maybe it should be the start of another chapter. He has begun his letter by dealing with immoral man, and Paul has condemned his depravity, and then he has gone on to deal with moral man who rejects God, and he has shown that this man is also in danger, that in spite of his protestations to be agnostic or atheist moral man knows God and he is suppressing that knowledge because of his heart’s ungodliness, and so moral man as much as immoral man is without excuse.

Now he turns to religious man, his own kith and kin, his brothers according to the flesh, Paul’s fellow Jews. When Paul addressed the typical moral person at the beginning of this chapter he stuck this label on him, “a mere man” (v.3) – “you’ll be a man my son” said Kipling, but still a mere man, not an adopted son of God. Now in this section he has another label, “if you call yourself a Jew” (v.17). Paul knows the Jewish mentality from the inside. He can hear their protests; “Paul you’re not putting us in the same category as the Gentiles, are you, even good living, moral Gentiles? We’ve got the law of God, but we have more than that, we are in covenant relationship with God. We are the children of Abraham. Jehovah has said to us, ‘You will be my people and I will be your God’, and you know full well that we bear the sign of this covenant in our bodies. We’ve been circumcised. God – the Lord God whom you say you’re serving – chose us, of all the people in the world, to be his people. How can you suggest that we are in the same state and condition in relation to the Lord as Gentiles? How can you disregard what we are in the sight of the God who has set us apart and freed us from his condemnation?” Paul is answering that question in the next eight verses, holding the mirror of the word of God up and showing every Jew why he is a sinner who needs Christ just as much as Gentile dogs need him. So Paul is going to begin by pricking the balloon of Jewish pride and presumption. “Let’s have a look at you,” he says, and eight times he is going to say “if” such and such is true about you . . . “if” these privileges belong to you, can any of them or all of them together guarantee your salvation? No.

  1. THE JEWS HAD GREAT PRIVILEGES.

i] “Now you, if you call yourself a Jew . . .” (v.17). Here is Jewish self-consciousness and self-confidence. “I am a Jew” they said, and they were very proud of that fact. What a history they had going back 2000 years to their father Abraham. Where does this word ‘Jew’ come from? Well, of course, it is an abbreviation of the word ‘Judah’ the dominant existing clan that was based on Jerusalem, the tribe of Judah. The Jews are a remarkable people in the Middle East aren’t they? They have virtually the only true democracy there, and they have also emigrated to many nations in the world and they have excelled everywhere. They have won more Nobel prizes than any other nation. They are scientists and musicians and authors and economists and politicians and military men. What a nation they are! Who can compare with them? Our Saviour Jesus Christ, you’ll remember, was a circumcised Jew according to the flesh, a descendant of Abraham, and of King David, and the son of Mary. All of them Jews.

For two years I worked in Philadelphia for eight hours each day as a night desk clerk in the Benson apartment house in Jenkintown. I studied at Westminster Seminary by day and worked as clerk by night. The Benson was owned by Jews and lived in by Jews and I got to know them. In fact one day a man living there asked me, “Are you a Jew?” “No,” I said, “I’m not.” Then he said something to me that really stopped me short. He said, “You look Jewish!” I didn’t know what to think of that. I don’t think I have any Jewish blood, but wouldn’t mind if I had. Stephen Turner and I were talking together last week and he said to me that his wife is a quarter Jewish and is so thrilled about that, and their seven children are all delighted to be an eighth Jewish. Every thoughtful person has an admiration for the enormous achievements of the Jewish race. There is no place for anti-Semitism in the gospel church. But you think of the vast majority of the kingly line of David, Jews to a man, then what a bunch of wicked men those kings were, doing evil in the eyes of the Lord, just a few of them god-fearing leaders. Think of the treatment meted out to all the prophets by the Jews. Many of them were killed by their fellow countrymen. Jesus himself lamented how the Jews stoned the prophets that were sent to them. It seemed almost impossible to find a prophet who hadn’t been killed outside Jerusalem. Jews killed Jews. There’s no salvation in merely being a Jew. In no way did that automatically open the door of heaven and let you in. Salvation is not by race. It is by the grace of God to all and upon all who then believe.

ii] “If you rely on the lawbut what is such reliance? It must be that the Jews relied on their possession of the law, that it was given to them by God, and it was theirs. The two tables of the law were written by the finger of God and given to Moses and placed in the Ark. So that when they heard of people worshipping Molech and sacrificing their babies to that idol, then they could say, “Horrors! We’ve got the law of God. We don’t do hideous things like that.” But it was not enough to know that you had the law and know what it taught. Relying on that is like resting on a white hot mattress and pulling the sheets of the flames of Sinai around you. That is the most uncomfortable place on which to lie. That law says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength. Love your neighbour as yourself.” That was the law. That was the holy demand of the law. You had that law hanging over you, that law judging you, that law condemning you. If you were hoping to enter heaven by relying on that law you were a lost man. Couldn’t the Jews see it? Don’t you remember that it was with the stuff of the law of God that Jesus began his ministry, preaching to Jews and telling Jews about the inward searching nature of the law of God, that it condemned thoughts and imaginations and plans and greed and covetousness, that the desire for sin was itself sin. Not one Jew had ever existed who had loved God with all his heart and loved his neighbour as himself. The law they boasted they were relying on actually condemned them. Jesus of Nazareth alone had loved God and man with a pure heart fervently, while all the rest were judged to be law-breakers of the law they imagined they relied on.

iii] “If you brag about your relationship with God.” You can and may and must glory in God; you can take pride in the facticity and life of Jesus Christ himself; you can make your boast that God is great and good. Men will brag about their relationship with a distant cousin who played rugby for Wales or another who plays the drums in a famous rock band and you are proud of your relationship with him, that somehow you are a more important person because this relation has done well in his vocation. Don’t we meet such pathetic boasting all the time in the professing church, men bragging about ‘the wise decision they made to choose Jesus.’ When they get to heaven they will be throwing their chests out and claiming that they were there because they were smart enough to get together with Christ. The Jews as a nation were proud of their supposed monopoly of God. They had him, and they wanted everyone to know it. Has everyone here learned that we are what we are by the grace of God? He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. He sent his Son to purchase our redemption on Golgotha. He accomplished this all by himself without any assistance from us at all. He arranged, as the King of providence, that we should meet Christians and hear the gospel, and he opened our hearts to receive it. He did it all; it was sovereign grace that saved us in its conception, its continuance and its consummation and we have nothing whatsoever to boast of.

iv] “If you know his will . . .” Where does anyone know the will of God for his life? How then should I live? What sort of life would please God? What is God’s purpose for my life? How can I know? It is not a mystery. The Creator who lives has spoken. God who at sundry times and divers manners spoke in times past to our fathers by the prophets has in these last times spoken unto us by his Son. God then met with his prophets and told them about the plight of man as he judged it, and of the Messiah who would come in order to redeem his people from their guilt. Then he told them what his will was for husbands and fathers, for wives and mothers, for children, for neighbours, for our relationship with our enemies. He told us about the church he would institute, that it would comprise of his disciples, that they would be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and they would not neglect meeting together each Sunday, that they would hear preaching and be led in prayer and sing God’s praises. They would break bread. The congregation would be governed by pastors, elders and deacons. Then they would reach out to people around them and take them the gospel. They would present to God their bodies as living sacrifices and prepare by holy living for the holy heaven where they were going. That’s God’s will. We know about it because it is found clearly in every book of the Bible.

What a responsibility to know the will of God from Scripture! I was reading last week the life of James Fairclough a very great preacher in Lancashire in the 19th century. He was not from a Christian home, and so he behaved like many teenagers in their folly and drinking. One day he went to his uncle’s funeral and immediately after mixed with his friends untouched by thoughts of death. He was walking home for two miles and there half way he was conscious of God dealing with him, and his mind went off in a totally new direction, all his singing of the pop songs of the day and their other talk of real ale and games and women were all washed out of his mind. He said, “I appeared to be turned inside out, and from that moment on I loved the things I once hated and I hated the things I once loved. Though I have been used to swearing in my passion, my swearing was taken away. New feelings of myself and of God arose in my inward thoughts. The Bible became a new book to me, yet I knew little of its blessed contents, but I felt a love for it as the Word of God as it lay before me. A conviction of sin and the holiness and justice of God was laid on my mind.” That is what happens in regeneration; it’s a beginning felt, even though it can be more gentle and gradual than that when others have come to know the will of God. He soon heard that William Gadsby was visiting the area and he went to hear him preach and the first words that remarkable preacher said as he looked at the congregation were these, “It would have been a great blessing for the church of God if no one had ever begun with religion before religion began with them.” Do you understand? What wrong notions and vague Christian beliefs and attitudes are erected by people who get involved in some kind of religion when they are still strangers to knowing the will of God! What a lot of unlearning needs to be done. What a blessing when God begins with us first, convicting, illuminating, revealing Christ to us as the first steps on the road of faith, and then we go on along that path, knowing and doing the will of God.

v] “If you . . . approve of what is superior.”  Not all religions are the same. There’s the religion of the cannibals, and the religion of the suicide bombers, and the religion of those who command the widows of their husbands to be burnt alive on the funeral pyres of their husband’s remains. There are bad religions and there are superior religions. You remember the famous words of Joshua to the people as they were about to enter the land of the Amorites full of idolatry. He said to them, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15). Joshua approved of what was superior, but his approval showed itself in more than mere intellectual assent. What did he say? “We are going to serve the Lord. What he says we will do. If he says stop, then we will stop. If he says do, then we go. We serve him.” When you approve of the truths that the Lord has made known to you, that they are superior truths, high and holy and divine truths, then you serve the Lord by doing them.

vi] “If  . . . you are instructed by the law.”  The believer wants to grow in the knowledge of the Messiah. He doesn’t want to go on as a child but to become a man of God. He wants to hear it preached; he will search out meetings, Bible-centred services, conferences, youth meetings, Christian Union meetings, sites on the web where he can both hear and read sermons. He wants to be instructed by the law of God. When James Fairclough was converted he describes his early Christian life like this; “The gospel was very precious to me in those days. I longed often for a return of the Lord’s day before the time, and often, when I heard the word preached, I wished the same words might be spoken the next Sabbath.” He hungered for instruction in the ways of God. You remember how the book of Psalms begins? It describes for us the blessed man and it tells us that, “his delight is in the law of the Lord and in that law he meditates day and night.”

You are thinking that I am concentrating just on true theology and doctrine, that that can be known only by the Scriptures. That fact is true, but my thinking is much broader than that. I am considering now the life of true devotion and love for God and prayer, and that our entire life of communion with God can develop and mature only by the Bible. There was a quaint old Methodist named Daniel Quorn and he once said, “Prayer is very good, and there’s no getting’ on without that, but I don’t believe prayer is prayer without the word. Prayer is no good without faith, and faith cometh by the word of God. I know ‘tis so with me. I can’t pray right till I get hold of a promise; then I can go so bold as a lion. Prayer without the word is a heartless kind o’ thing. There isn’t any grip about it.” Real communion with God is by the ministry of the Spirit of truth. Iain Murray came here and spoke about Amy Carmichael the missionary to Dohnavur in India. We were told that she listed three things on which the life and ministry of the family in Dohnavur depended and the first was ‘the verbal inspiration of Scripture.’

vii] “If you are convinced that you are” . . . competent to teach . . . “a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants” (vv.19&20). What a privilege to share our faith with others. Recently Sinclair Ferguson returned to Scotland and he went back to worship in the church in which he had been converted.  To his delight he sat two seats away from an older man, a friend whom he had not seen for many years, who had gone through a horrific car accident that had left him in permanent weakness. At the end of the service Sinclair came onto him and sat next to him saying, “I want to thank you because when I was fifteen years old, you took me under your wing and gave me books to read, you showed an interest in me. Whatever it is that God has made me, I don’t think I would have become a fraction of that without the way your poured yourself into my life.” That is part of the blessings the gospel brings into our lives, that we have friendships unlike any relationships that the ungodly have. In the newspaper recently there was a report which said the average Englishman has no more than three friends he can trust. There is noise in the pubs, music and laughter and loud conversations, but there is clearly little trust. An honest pub-goer will say “I can just trust a couple of people.” But think back to your Christian life and how God maneuvered people into your life who nurtured you and cared for you. They were guides to the blind and for those who were in the dark, instructors of the foolish and teachers of infants, just as Paul declares them here.

I trust that many of the members of this congregation have known something of that. Thank God you have here people who are interested in pouring themselves and their love into you. God gives such encouragements throughout our Christian lives. Sinclair Ferguson says, “I had such a privilege as a young man, because the man who was my minister when I was a teenager poured himself into me. He once gave me a gift, something concrete and physical, and he had not done that before. I had a good enough relationship with him to give it back and ask him to write his autograph on it. But he pushed it back into my hands saying, ‘That’s not where I want to write my autograph (pointing to the gift), but that is where I want to write my autograph (pointing to my heart).’” If you had known him and knew Sinclair, then you’d know that his autograph is truly written throughout Sinclair’s life.

viii] “If . . . you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth.” Now if you heard just those six words, “the embodiment of knowledge and truth” then to what or to whom would you think they were referring? Most of you would say, “to Jesus Christ. He is the embodiment of knowledge and truth. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found in him.” Yet here in Romans 2 the reference is not to our Lord at all but to the Old Testament Scriptures. There is a verse of a hymn of Joseph Hart in which he writes the following;

“The Scriptures and the Lord
Bear one tremendous name;
The written and the incarnate Word
In all things are the same.”

Here is the Bible, a body of 66 separate books that come from the hands of at least 30 distinct writers, scattered over a period of some fifteen hundred years. Yet the same God is found in all 66 books, a God of power and grace, majesty and meekness. Not all the books are equally easy to understand. The book of Leviticus, for example, is one of the more difficult books, and yet on 56 occasions in the book we read the words, “The Lord called unto Moses . . . The Lord spoke unto Moses.” That means that either for 56 times God did speak to Moses in the writing of the book, or on 56 occasions Moses lied. The latter is utterly unacceptable but the former is true, that here in Leviticus is the embodiment of knowledge and truth. Little wonder that the New Testament directly quotes the Old Testament on 263 occasions and less directly on 376 occasions, 639 occasions in all. Now you know why it does, because the Old Testament is the embodiment of knowledge and truth. Bless the Lord for his word! When I hold the Bible in my hand I am holding a body of knowledge and truth. God grant that we may always cherish, love, venerate, obey it and increasingly understand it.

So IF all those things are true about you – these privileges that these religious people had – if all this were so then what? “You’ll be a man of God, my son”? Remember what Paul has said – they were a nation chosen by God; they had the Ten Commandments; they knew God’s will for their lives; they could compare their religion to that of the Romans and the Greeks and the Assyrians and the Egyptians and they knew that theirs was superior; they had teachers who taught and explained the law to them; they had guides and light; they had in Scripture THE embodiment of knowledge and truth. What privileges, but all of those together could not make them a man, my sons. They wee helpless to wash their consciences from their guilt. All of these together could not change their hearts and give them power to love God and love their neighbours. Privilege alone cannot save us. We need the Son of God; we need the blood of Jesus Christ to wash away our sins; we need regeneration by the Holy Spirit, a new heart – you must be born again. You are not persuaded? Then see what Paul does next; he points this out…

  1. THE JEWS HAD GREAT GUILT.

“What have you done with all your privileges?” asks Paul. He focuses on five things.

i] You have taught other people (v.21). You have crossed land and sea to evangelize. You have built synagogues in every town. You have been busy teaching your law to the whole world. We’ve observed such activity don’t we, mosques, and Kingdom Halls, and temples have sprung up all over the land in the last fifty years. Sincerity is no guarantee of truth. Sincerity is the accelerator; truth is the steering wheel. If you are lost you don’t step down hard on the accelerator. You get an atlas or a Satellite Navigaor screen to show you the way. Their zeal to teach didn’t mean they had it. Paul asks them, “Do you teach yourself?” Do you go to the word of God – which is the embodiment of knowledge and truth – and read there, “Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Isa. 1:18)? Have your reasoned with God in prayer, telling him of your scarlet sins and pleading with him that he make them whiter than snow? Teach yourself first of all!

ii] You have preached against stealing (v.21). You have stood erect before a congregation and said to them “The eighth commandment says, ‘You shall not steal.’” True, but what of you? Doesn’t that law condemn you? Aren’t you a thief? When you were a child didn’t you steal something if you saw it lying around? You took it. Now you are a man have you never been guilty of fraud or of inflated expense accounts? Many members of parliament have. What of stealing from your spouse marital duties? That debt of due love and care and attention and encouragement and support? Have you stolen those things from your spouse? Have you stolen your children’s inheritance by luxurious holidays and possessions? Instead of supporting your aged parents you say that you have taken that from them and given it to your religion? You are a thief, and no thieves inherit the kingdom of heaven

iii] You have said that people should not commit adultery (v.22). True, but what of that magazine you ogled? What of the page 3 girls your eyes caressed? What of the websites you visit regularly? What of that over familiarity with your girl-friend? What of the lust in your heart and those imaginations? Do you commit adultery?

iv] You abhor idols. You declare the second commandment is, “You shall not make for yourself an idol” (Ex. 20:4). You mock them: “Look, they have eyes, but they can’t see, and ears, but they can’t hear, and mouths, but they can’t speak, and legs, but they can’t walk! Those who make them are just like them!” You pity the man who carves his little idols and put them on a shelf near the front door and never leaves the house without touching them all and saying a few words asking them to protect him. But, wait a minute, “Do you rob temples?” (v.22). Haven’t you looked around some temple or other and noticed that there was no one watching and you took something you fancied saying, “Ah, the whole thing is trash and wicked and so that justifies me stealing it”? Isn’t there a selective honesty that we all know, never stealing from our families but taking things that belong to organizations or individuals we despise? Paul needed the support of the town-clerk of Ephesus to defend him when he was unjustly accused of stealing from the shrine of Artemis. It wasn’t unheard of, religious people robbing pagan temples.

v] You brag about the law (v.23). You mock pagans, “Look at your elaborate law codes! Hundreds of rules and regulations. We have ten simple laws, so lucid and convicting, so sensible. What a wonderful world it would be if people kept the law of Jehovah” and you really lay the law on them. Don’t you dishonour the law yourselves, knowing it so well, keeping it so inconsistently? Think of Jesus’ words, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matt. 5:21&22).

People notice you are inconsistent! They think of you a Rabbi Hypocrisy, preaching all the old virtues and practicing the old vices. There was a Rabbi living at the time of Paul, his contemporary, they probably had met on a number of occasion while Paul was a Pharisee, and this rabbi, whose name was Jochanan ben Zakkai, grieved over what he saw in the Jewish world all around him, “the increase of murder, adultery, sexual vice, commercial and judicial corruption, bitter sectarian strife, and other evils.” So people said, “They just become Jewish preachers for the money! There is no such being as this ‘Jehovah,’ the god they say they serve,’ and so what both Isaiah and Jeremiah wrote so many centuries earlier, “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.

Religious people too need a Saviour, Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists they all need a Saviour. Moral and immoral people, righteous and the unrighteous need Jesus Christ. He only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in. Our sins are many and our activities can’t save us. We need to cry mightily to God to forgive us our sins, and give us new hearts, and a new sense of pardon, and new strength to overcome temptation, and a new relationship with he God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and cry to him for these blessings and never cease asking God to grant these mercies to us until we have an inward testimony that he has heard and that we have become the children of God.

30th March 2014          GEOFF THOMAS