In 1787 Russia was at war. It was a costly war for Russia and they needed allies. So, the Russians invited ambassadors from France, Austria, and England to come on a tour, led by Catherine the Great, to see some of their newly conquered territories in hopes of swaying them to join the cause. The ambassadors came and began the tour and one of their first stops was a region overseen by the Russian military leader and statesmen Gregory Alexandrovich Potemkin. Now, as the story goes Gregory really wanted to impress Catherine. So, he took his ruined and war beaten town, painted one side of all the buildings (the side facing the road), erected fake buildings and fake homes, dressed all his men in nice village clothing, and did whatever he needed to do so that his village looked like the epitome of wealth and prosperity. The ambassadors came and went and made camp outside his village for the evening. During the night, Gregory and his men tore down the fake village, went on ahead of the ambassadors, and built it all again in the next town to give it the same impression.
Historians aren’t sure if this story is fact or fiction, but the phrase ‘potemkin village’ came from it. And many nations have used this method ever since. For example, modern day Russia, Japan, North Korea, and Venezuela have used this trick to dupe visitors. Hollywood does this all the time, creating fake little towns to shoot a scene or two in a movie. And the city of Detroit did it in 2006 in some of the poorer parts of downtown to give the city a nicer look during Super Bowl XL.
Now, we laugh at this idea of a fake village intended to impress others with a phony outward appearance, but would you be surprised if I told you many religious people do the exact same thing? Some make sure they do everything they can to look entirely respectable and godly on the outside while hiding a truckload of sin within. Paul, in our passage this morning – Romans 2:17-29, addresses this very thing as he continues on in his task with the Jews, or ‘the religious people’, for their hypocrisy. But in these verses Paul doesn’t just call out hypocrisy and misplaced confidence, he clearly tells us where our confidence ought to be placed. That is what’s ahead of us today, so let’s get to it.
But first, remember where we are in Romans. Paul began the letter introducing us to the gospel in 1:1-17. He then began descending to describe how the Gentiles (or the lost) need the gospel in 1:18-32. Then he moved on to describe how the Jews (or the religious people) need the gospel in all of chapter 2. That’s where we are now. As Paul sets his sights on the Jews he aims at the two things Jews hold most dear, the two most distinguishing marks Jewishness, the two things Jews are most proud of…the Law (v17-24) and circumcision (v25-29).
Pride in the Law (v17-24)
v17-20, “But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know His will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth…”
The words Paul begins v17 with are explosive. “…if you call yourself a Jew…” Can you imagine what a Jew reading this would’ve thought at this phrase alone? ‘If I’m a Jew?? Paul, I am a Jew! What in the world are you saying? Who are you to say I’m not what I clearly am!’ Seems Paul is pushing quite strongly against the Jews, to see if they truly possess what they profess. He begins a list in v17, of the many things the Jews boast in.
-They were boasting in being called Jews.
-They were boasting in the Law and their reliance on it.
-They were boasting in their relationship to God.
-They were boasting in knowing God’s will.
-They were boasting in approving what is excellent.
-They were boasting in not only being instructed by the Law, but in being the instructors of others.
In summary, the Jews viewed themselves, in all ways, as ‘better than.’ They viewed themselves as the one people in the world God had chosen, the one people who truly knew God, who had His very Law, which they relied on, which they could quote at will, easily cross-reference, and deeply explain its complexities. They viewed themselves as the altogether superior, high and exalted, God-appointed, religious instructors of the world. And from such a lofty position it’s not difficult to imagine Jews looking down on everyone else. Question: is such boasting wrong? In one sense it’s not at all. Jeremiah 9:23-24 encourages such boasting saying, “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.” In this sense the boasting of the Jews isn’t wrong, God encourages it, and more so, all of these things Paul lists are legitimately very good things God had blessed the people of Israel with. So the problem is not that the Jews are boasting. The problem is not their ignorance of the truth, it’s not their knowledge of God’s will or their approval of it, and it’s not being taught by the Law and teaching others the Law. These things are not the problem. The problem is that they’re not living in line with what they boast of. The problem is not their doctrine, it’s their practice.
This is where Paul goes next in v21-24, “…you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
Do you see how great a contrast Paul is making? The lofty and superior boasts of v17-20 set against the black and vile sins of v21-24. It’s as if the Jews preach one thing while their lives preach another. Or it’s as if the Jews build up great impressive structures with all these boasts while their lives tear them down brick by brick. Paul points this out. He says they preach against stealing yet they steal. They preach against adultery yet they commit adultery. They preach against and hate idols yet they profane the name of God by committing all kinds of subtle religious idolatries of their own. Do you sense the irony here? Remember at the end of chapter 1 the Jew reading or listening to this being read would’ve been clapping in wholehearted agreement that the lost Gentiles are indeed the idolaters Paul said they were. But now we see, the very sins the Jews detested the heathen nations for, are the very sins they themselves commit.
Let’s pause at this point and ask, ‘These are some weighty charges Paul is bringing against the Jews here. How does he know these things?’ We should remember here that Paul knew the heart of the Jew well, because he once was one. He remembers his own boasting before being saved by Christ. Born into the tribe of Benjamin, circumcised on the eighth day, a Hebrew of Hebrews, blameless and righteous in his own eyes before the Law of God. Paul knew firsthand how great a boasting existed in the heart of the Jews and here he confronts it head on.
In v24 Paul drives this home by quoting Isaiah 52:5. In that context within Isaiah God is grieving how His holy name is being mocked and blasphemed because of how poorly the heathen nations treat His people Israel. Curious how Paul uses that verse here isn’t it? Once again we see irony as Paul uses Isaiah 52 to show how it’s not the nations who are oppressing God’s people and mocking God’s name, no. Now it’s God’s very people who are the cause of the heathen nations blaspheming and mocking God’s name. How so? The Gentile nations of the world hear the Jews high and mighty claims as well as seeing their sinful lives and from seeing such a contradiction they conclude that the God of Israel must be as phony as His people are.
I think we know what v17-24 is all about. It’s one of those things we are very quick to notice in others and even call out in others while we’re very slow to see it in ourselves. Religious hypocrisy. Let’s ask a very important question: how does this apply to us as Christians? The Jews thought they would be fine on the day of judgment because they had the Law, because they knew its truth, taught it well, and approved of it wholeheartedly. Church, do you think you’ll be ok on that day simply because you have the Word, know its truth, and approve of it? Church, do you believe you’re the altogether superior, high and exalted, God-appointed, religious instructors of the world? Be warned, whenever a Christian feels ‘better than’ it’s not a sign of health. Rather it’s a sign of self-righteous arrogance. On one hand I am thrilled at the fact that we’ve become a theologically aware people, that we read big books, and love big-God doctrine! But on the other hand I know this opens us up to the danger being described here. What would you do if a new Christian came up to you and said, ‘Guess what? I found the greatest Bible verse in the world!’ Perhaps for a moment you wonder which verse it is. Maybe think it’s Ephesians 1, or John 6, maybe Romans 9. Would you be disappointed and look down on this new Christian if they said John 3:16? If so, you’ve become more infatuated with knowing about God than truly knowing God. Do you know this kind of religious arrogance is a large reason many non-Christians hate Christianity? In a true sense, you cannot blame them for that.
Guys, these Jews had the very Law of God and boasted in it, but they didn’t seem too concerned that their lives were totally out of bounds. Do you shudder at that? Or do you sit back smugly and think, ‘That’ll never happen to me?’ If you’re thinking that, it’s a sign your soul is in great danger. Hear it Church, God never saved anyone for merely knowing the right things.
This is a danger for the Jews and for us, but it’s not the only danger Paul brings up. Yes the Jews were proud of the Law, but Paul now transitions to speak of the Jews…
Pride in Circumcision (v25-29)
When Paul brought up the Law he takes us back to Moses. But when Paul brings up circumcision he takes us back further, all the way back to Abraham, the Father of the family that would eventually be called Israel. Remember God made a covenant with Abraham and every time God makes a covenant He also gives signs for the covenant to visibly show the invisible promises He’s making. Now, the sign of the Abrahamic covenant is circumcision, and this sign signified a larger reality, that God had in a true sense separated or marked off His people from the rest of the nations. Overtime, the sign of circumcision became so ingrained with Jewish identity that to be circumcised was to be a Jew. In this sense the sign itself was mistaken for the thing being signified. This was such a strong belief that by the time of the New Testament many Jews identified themselves with the label ‘the circumcision.’ Because the Jews called themselves the ‘circumcision’ they believed there was no greater insult than to be grouped with those who were uncircumcised. Knowing this background, look at the devastating words Paul says about circumcision in v25-27, “For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law.”
See what he’s saying here? A kind of reversal is in view. He does not say circumcision is worthless, not at all, it’s a covenant sign! But for the Jew that is circumcised, he says their circumcision can become uncircumcision if they break the Law. So the sign of circumcision meant to be a sign of blessing can be turned into a sign of curse if one isn’t faithful to the Law. That’s for the Jew. For the Gentile who isn’t circumcised, if he does keep the Law their uncircumcision will be counted as circumcision. And then that obedient Gentile will stand in judgment over the disobedient Jew. Again, this is explosive! Now be sure to not forget chapter 1. Gentiles are not able keep the Law, they suppress the truth. So Paul here in v25-27 is not saying Gentiles can be saved by Law-keeping, no. Paul is using a hypothetical example to prove that Jews cannot rely on circumcision for salvation. Or we can put it like this: being a circumcised Jew does not guarantee salvation, and being an uncircumcised Gentile does not guarantee condemnation. So as we saw it in v17-24 and now we it see again in v25-27. Before it was the Law. Because the Jews had the Law they viewed themselves as the altogether superior, high and exalted, God-appointed, religious instructors of the world. They boasted of the Law, they rested in the Law,, and they relied on the Law, but they didn’t seem to eager to actually obey the Law. Now circumcision’s in view. And circumcision was a sign given by God intending to mark off or separate Israel from the rest of the nations. But they boasted in the sign of the covenant while not living in line with the actual covenant. Or maybe we could say it like this, circumcision was literally was a cutting away in the flesh, and because they have this sign in themselves, the Jews believed themselves to be a ‘cut above’ the rest of humanity.
Let’s ask our very important question once again: how does this apply to us as Christians? The Jews thought they would be fine on the day of judgment because they were circumcised, because they belonged to God’s people. Church, do you think you’ll be fine because you belong to a church? Because you’re a member of SonRise? Because you’re within the great Reformation tradition? Did you hear Paul? It’s possible to have the sign of the covenant on you and not live in the realities of that covenant! For the Jews it was circumcision, for us it’s baptism, it’s church membership, it’s the traditions we align with. We truly could repeat nearly everything we said before from v17-24, so I’ll just say this. These Jews had and were very proud of the label ‘the circumcised.’ They were the ones marked off from the lost nations…but they didn’t seem too concerned that their lives weren’t marked off by holiness.
Church, Paul has said that having the Law and being circumcised do not make a person a true Jew, or member of God’s true people. Question: what does? What is a true Jew? Or, what does a true member of God’s people look like?
Paul tells us next in v28-29, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.”
A true Jew, a true descendant of Abraham, a true member of God’s people is not one who merely has the right and proper outward appearance of religion. A true Jew is one inwardly, one who is circumcised not just in the flesh by man but in the heart by the Spirit. This one, how unexpected, receives praise from God Himself. And would be surprised if I told you this was the reality always in view, even back in the Law? In Deuteronomy 30:6 God tells the Israel through Moses, “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” This verse shows even way back in the Old Testament, that true religion is firstly, an inward reality. Yes outward things do matter and do have value, but if the inward realities aren’t present any outward observance is just a show.
So a true Jew is one inwardly. This is why in Philippians 3:3 Paul says this of Christians, “…for we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh…”
Are you a ‘potemkin village’? Is your religion merely an outward façade for others to see and be impressed by? If so, the word hypocrite might fit better than you once thought. Church, let us examine ourselves. Let us answer these searching questions Paul asks of the Jews of old, knowing how close to home they hit to us today.
Yes Romans 1 is true – the lost need the gospel. But do not miss it, Romans 2 is also true – the religious need the gospel too!
 Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), 73.
 Douglas Moo, Romans, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2000), 91.
 Moo, 93.
 Douglas Moo, Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2018), 170.
 John Murray, Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1968), 83.
 Kent R. Hughes, Romans: Righteousness From Heaven, Preaching the Word Commentary (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1991), 61.
 Murray, Romans, 83–84.
 J. V. Fesko, Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018), 54.
 Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans, vol. 2 (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, 1985), 149.
 Robert W. Yarbrough et al., ESV Expository Commentary: Romans-Galatians, ed. Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2020), 58.
 Hughes, Romans: Righteousness From Heaven, 62.
 Fesko, Romans, 57.
 Moo, Romans, 2000, 95.
 Yarbrough et al., ESV Expository Commentary: Romans-Galatians, 59.
 Lloyd-Jones, Romans, 158.
 Timothy Keller, Romans 1-7 For You, God’s Word For You (The Good Book Company, 2014), 53–64. This is a very helpful chapter in applying this passage to the Church today.