Just because someone appears to be following God outwardly, through circumcision and other outward actions, does not mean that he or she is following God and pursuing righteous living.
Paul continues to address the competing Jewish “authorities” who are slandering his message (3:8) to the Roman believers whose faith is being proclaimed throughout the world (1:8). The competitors’ core claim of authority seems to be rooted in their Jewishness as well as their knowledge of the Bible, particularly the law. It will also become clear that a major part of the claim of these competing Jewish “authorities” is that these Roman believers are lacking because they aren’t circumcised and are not following the Jewish rules and ways (including being under the authority of the competing Jewish “authorities”).
Paul is, of course, also Jewish, a Pharisee, and a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5). Although Paul maintained his Jewishness throughout his ministry, Paul placed no basis for his calling or his authority in his being Jewish, but in his being called by Jesus (Romans 1:1).
Paul closes this segment of his argument against the competing Jewish “authorities” by contrasting the things the “authorities” emphasize with the things God actually cares about. The competing Jewish “authorities” emphasize outward “goodness” including religious ceremonial activities such as circumcision. God emphasizes inward things of the heart. The competing Jewish “authorities” elevate the letter of the law, while God cares about the spirit of the law.
Man’s motive to convey outward “religiosity” and obey the letter of the law is to gain praise from men. Keeping the spirit of the law and serving others from the heart is what pleases God.
One theme that Paul will weave throughout this letter to the believers in Rome (one of the themes of his entire ministry) is the importance of focusing on pleasing God rather than pleasing people. We saw this already in Paul’s comments on the subject in Romans 2:5-8, where Paul elevates “patient continuance in doing good” so that we can gain “glory, honor, and immortality” in the eyes of God.
28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. 29 But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.
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