Romans 2:17-21 meaning

Verses covered in this passage:

  • Romans 2:17
  • Romans 2:18
  • Romans 2:19
  • Romans 2:20
  • Romans 2:21

Paul is pointing out the hypocrisy of those who teach the law but do not obey it.

This passage began in 2:1 with Paul switching audiences. Instead of directly addressing the Roman believers whose faith was being spoken of throughout the entire world (1:8), Paul shifted to directly addressing anyone who judges others while practicing the same or similar things. He has made clear that God knows what is really occurring and will cause the secret or hidden things (such as the intent of the heart) to be revealed in the Day of Judgment. So, these judges (“whoever you are” from verse 1) will not get away with their hypocrisy.

Now, Paul reveals some specific people he has in mind who are engaging in this hypocritical practice of judging others while they do the same things themselves: a group of Jews who claim to be faithfully carrying out the laws of God. The audience Paul addresses as the believers in Rome whose “faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world” (1:8) is predominantly Gentile, as we saw in 1:13 where Paul says he wants to come visit these believers and have fruit among them, just as he has had “among the other Gentiles.” This does not preclude there being some Jews in the Roman church (in fact, in Acts 2:10 there were Jewish visitors from Rome present). But, the clear indication here and in chapter 3 is that the particular Jews in mind are a group claiming authority superior to Paul who are attacking his gospel, his good news.
Paul now recites claims these Jews have made about themselves, that they “rely upon the law, and boast in God.” We will soon see the hollowness of these claims.

Paul continues citing the Jews’ claims of having superior authority to Paul. In Romans 2:17 they claim to rely upon the law. Here they claim to be instructed by the law to approve good things, essential things. The core claim these Jews will make is that they stand for and are justified by the law, and that Paul is trying to overthrow the law and therefore is wrong and unrighteous. But Paul is setting up their argument so he can dismantle it.

It is clear in this sentence, which spans Romans 2:17-21, that Paul’s detractors are Jewish (verse 17) and they hold themselves out to be authorities on matters of the Bible, specifically about biblical law (verses 18-20).

It will also become clear that Paul’s detractors are hypocrites, and that they are in opposition to Paul and his gospel message of righteousness by grace through faith. These Jewish leaders are competing with Paul for biblical authority, and this letter from Paul to the Romans is a legal wrestling match over what the Bible actually says about how people become righteous or just, and how they live justly.

Paul continues to cite claims being made by the Jews claiming authority superior to himself. Because these Jews are instructed out of the law, they claim to see truth, to have the light. The competing Jewish “authorities” consider all those who do not see things the way they do, to be in “darkness. They claim to guide people into the light through their knowledge and teaching of the law. Paul will soon knock this claim down.

It is important to note that nowhere does Paul contest that the competing Jewish “authorities” have great knowledge of the Bible. What Paul will contend is that these competing Jewish “authorities” do not have a biblical understanding. Knowledge can create pride rather than understanding (1 Corinthians 8:1). True biblical understanding brings humility rather than pridefulness. We will also see humility like this in Paul. While demolishing the arguments of the competing Jewish “authorities” Paul will make clear he is no better than they – he relies on the grace of God every day.

Paul does not contest the notion that the law actually embodies knowledge and truth. As he systematically dismantles the various allegations and slanders of these competing Jewish “authorities,” Paul will dispel the lie that he opposes the law outright. In Romans 3:31 Paul answers the allegation that faith sets the law aside. “By no means!” Paul answers. Faith establishes the law.

In Romans 7:7 Paul answers the allegation that his teaching leads to the conclusion that the law is sin. Again, Paul answers “By no means!” It is not the fault of the law that it brings knowledge of sin; the law is our friend by demonstrating what is sinful, and everything about that is good and helpful.

In Romans 2:1,3 Paul shifted immediate audiences and began addressing “O man” “everyone of you who judges” (verse 3). Then, in Romans 2:17-20, we saw that the particular group of people passing judgment was a group of Jews who fancied themselves teachers of wisdom and sterling examples of keeping the law. Paul now begins to publicly challenge these competing Jewish “authorities” by accusing them of breaking the very law they claim to represent, the very law they are using to judge others. He will culminate his critique in Romans 2:24 when he states that their law-breaking is giving God a bad reputation.

It is common today for people to cite hypocrisy of Christians as the reason they do not want to follow God. Since this is precisely what Paul is confronting, it is clear that there is truly nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Paul asks these competing Jewish “authorities” whether they teach themselves, clearly expecting the answer is no. They tell others to do things they themselves refuse to do.

Paul then begins his accusations regarding specific rules that the competing Jewish “authorities” break the law against stealing. Clearly, Paul accuses the competing Jewish “authorities” of breaking the law against stealing, one of the Ten Commandments. Paul does not say in what way these competing Jewish “authorities” are stealing, but clearly expects the Roman Gentile believers (whose faith is world-renowned 1:8) to recognize it is so.

Jesus addressed the religious leaders in a similar way, and in Matthew 23:14 says the Pharisees are devouring widow’s houses. Perhaps this is what Paul has in mind when he asks, “Do you steal?” Religious authorities using their position to bilk a poor person into supporting their own luxurious lifestyles is certainly a form of stealing. An abuse of authority is a form of coercive taking. Also in Matthew 23:25, Jesus says the Pharisees are full of “extortion and excess.”

Biblical Text

17 But if you bear the name “Jew” and rely upon the Law and boast in God, 18 and know His will and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law, 19 and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth, 21 you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal?

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