Quick recap. The epistle to the Romans is threaded with an undertone (or perhaps not that subtle) that shows there was some level of disharmony between the two groups that made up the church - Jews and Gentiles. As pointed out previously, the dynamics of the church had changed over the recent years before Paul wrote this letter. The church was born out of the Christian Jews, however after the Jews were expelled from Rome, the Gentiles became the majority of Christians in the Roman church. Although the Jews had returned, the 'power' shift had caused issues that were now front and centre for Paul, filled with the Spirit.
Read Romans 2:17-29
After being introduced to the topic of the Law (which now seems to be focused towards the Gentiles - who although apart from the Law, still knew the Law as it has been written on their hearts), Paul now follows up and specifically speaks to the other group in the church - the Jews.
The verses in focus here have been historically misused to support hatred of the Jews. These are, (when taken out of context), some of the most anti-semitic verses in scripture. They have caused hostility and discrimination against the nation of Israel, their culture and their race.
Verse 17, "Now you" signifies a change in the target audience of the message. Moving away from putting the Gentiles and Jews in the same situation in relation to the Law and in particular the judgement to come in light of the Law, Paul now talks to those under the Law - the Jews.
We read a few "if you" statements that highlight 9 privileges that the Jews enjoy by being God's chosen people.
They are about to call themselves "Jew". This is a foundational and fairly simple point, but one that all others flow from. Jew, a descendant of Judah. Judah is often referred to as the Southern Kingdom to distinguish it from the Northern Kingdom (the Kingdom of Israel) after the two entities divided after the reign of King Soloman. Being called a Jew means belonging to the nation of Isreal, to be recognised as God's chosen people. Those that He calls His own. A special place.
Those that rely on the Law. The Law of Moses. The Law that was given to the Israelites through the prophet Moses. The Torah, the Jewish Bible, the first 5 books of the bible. The Jews were entrusted with the Law and relied on the Law for deliverance from God's wrath and judgement.
Those that boast in God. To brag about their relationship with the Almighty God. What a wonderful thing to have a relationship with God. This boasting is not an improper action, but rather one that they are able to do because they are called Jew. Jeremiah 9:23-24. What do we boast in? Ourselves or God?
To know His will. A flow on from being in a relationship with Him is then to know His will for your life. Again, a wonderful thing and one to be treasured.
The NIV translation isn't great here. To "approve of what is superior" should really read to distinguish the things that really matter, or put another way... able to distinguish between right and wrong. Why? Because they have and have been instructed by the Law.
The next four are perhaps where superiority swells from leading to this passage of scripture being so misused in history. Guide for the blind, and
The light for those who are in the dark speak to the role of the Jews. Because they have been given the Law and they know the Law they are to guide others (Gentiles) and to be the light. We see our role as Christians now like that - to be the light on the hill - to be the salt and the light, to guide others to Christ. The Jews were to do that - to bring every nation to know God. It echos the Old Testament mission given to the Jews (Isaiah 42:6-7).
Following on from those two, The Jews were to be the instructors of the foolish. A fool being a person who rebels against God, that goes their own way.
And finally, a teacher of little children. Children equal immature. Those that need teaching because they don't have the truth or the knowledge of God.
These last four show the role God gave to the Jews as His chosen people. He showed them the model they were to hold across the nations. The 12 tribes of Israel show this model. 1 tribe, the Levites, held the role of Pastor, conducted the religious duties and held a special religious status among the 12 tribes. However, we now see the charge against them.
Verse 21, "you, then" - they have not done their role. They have not fulfilled their covenant with God. They were to teach, but instead, they could not teach themselves. Instead, they stole and committed adultery and they robbed. They boasted in the Law, but dishonoured God. They not only haven't been doing their role, but actually moved against God.
The reference to stealing, adultery and robbing from the temple seem too specific to be general. A few commentators have highlighted that Jews were stealing idols from the pagan temples and melting them for the metal. Probably using the idol metal and therefore profiting from idol worship. Adultery was interchangeable in the Old Testament for Idolatry. Going outside of marriage is a great metaphor for what we do when we replace God with anything else. When our worship is not to the one true living God. So the Jews, blessed in 9 ways, haven't been fulfilling their role under the covenant with God.
Verse 25-29 speaks of circumcision. This is to highlight the point. Circumcision is for the Jews the outward symbol of their righteousness (being clean). However, what's it worth if they are inwardly unrighteous? Paul is brainstorming or even walking through an idea he has... What happens if a Gentile (someone not circumcised) upholds the Law? Are they saved under the Law?
As a result, what value is circumcision to the Jews? What value does it have against God's wrath? The answer is, it has no value in rescuing the Jews from God's wrath because their obedience to the Law never reaches the level required for salvation. Rather, he concludes, it is more important to be inwardly circumcised by the spirit. For our hearts to be circumcised (be made clean) by the spirit.