"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit" (Romans 15:13).
In 1:22-29 Paul has shown how the Greek attempt to attain perfection by the pursuit of wisdom had ended so badly. He now shows why the attempt to be perfect by legalism has equally failed among the Jews.
In chapter 9 we will suggest that for Paul there is both an individual response and a national response to the power of God. If our model is correct, we will suspect the chronic attempts to perfect our own nation by the advice of experts and religious moralising. And we might add that it is churches that offer transformation by the power of the Spirit which are the salt and light of any country.
2:1 At their worst, obviously with some wonderful exceptions, the Jewish people of Jesus' day were characterized by judgmentalism and despising of their Greek and Barbarian neighbours. We should admit that this is also the besetting sin of many Christians.
2:2-3 Here the judgement of God is not the sending of individuals to hell, but the wrath consequences which would occur very soon (2:5). When Paul wrote to the Romans Matthew's Gospel was probably not yet written, but Paul may have heard from other Christians the explanation that the Jewish nation had failed in their attempt to attain perfection by the legalism of their tradition (Matthew 23). The result was that their function as a nation would be handed over to others who would produce the fruits of the kingdom (Matthew 21:43). What these fruits should have been, and what their source should have been will be defined later by Paul as "The kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17).
2:4 In this verse we have the first reference in the epistle to repentance. In the Old Testament there was a place for deep contrition (Psalm 51:1-5; Isaiah 6:5; Jeremiah 14:7-9). But the characteristic word was a call to shubh. This Hebrew verb is used 670 times. It means "to return, go back, come back, be brought back." That means that repentance is a turning to God to be changed by the Holy Spirit of God (see John 7:37-39).
2:5 The alternative to turning to God to be changed by the Spirit is living by the ordinary bad consequences of our world (see wrath in 1:18-20). Here Paul's expression "day of wrath" is typical day of the Lord" language from the Old Testament prophets (Isaiah 3:18; 7:18-23; 10:20, etc.; Jeremiah 30:7, 8; 31:27, 31, 38; 46:10; Lamentations 2:21-22; Ezekiel 7:7, 10, 12; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1-2, 11; 3:14, 18, etc.).
The day of the Lord toppling of a great city such as Babylon or Jerusalem was pictured metaphorically as the sun, moon, and stars being darkened (Isaiah 13:6; Joel 3:15-16), and exactly the same language is used for the end of Jerusalem and its religious establishment in AD 70 (Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:24-26). Jesus had said that this day of the Lord was to occur in the lifetime of that generation (Matthew 23:36; 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32).
Paul (see 13:11-14) and others (13:11-14; Hebrews 8:13; 10:25, 37; 1 Peter 2:11; 4:7, 17) expected just such an imminent day of the Lord, which came as prophesied in AD 70 with the destruction by the Roman legions of the Jewish religious establishment in Jerusalem. The signs were already evident as Paul was writing. And when the end came the early Christians recognized this as the sign that the Lord of this coming was Jesus, the Son of God (Matthew 24:27-31). Paul said in an earlier epistle that his reign would continue throughout later history "until he has put all his enemies under his feet" (1 Corinthians 15:25).
2:6-8 Wrath is therefore not a consignment to eternal hell but the working out of bad consequences by the direct and indirect hand of God in a nation. As we will see in chapter 3, sin is our enmeshment in all the evil of the culture we live in.
2:9-11 An Old Testament day of the Lord such as the Exodus, or the fall of Babylon or Jerusalem, involved bad wrath consequences for some and new beginnings for others. The fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 was a disastrous day for the Jewish religious establishment, but it also freed the new churches of the Spirit for their world ministry. Matthew's Gospel seems to distinguish the extensive goodnewsing before the fall of Jerusalem (Matthew 24:14) from the vast in-gathering that would follow (Matthew 24:31).
2:12-16 The conclusion is that the outworking of wrath is the same for those who have the torah and those who don't. God's judgment, and eventual assignment of wrath consequences in this life, is not based on whether or not the nation has the best laws. What counts is a heart that results in instinctively (v. 14) doing what is right. And Paul will go on to show that it is our heart and secret thoughts that need to be corrected by the Spirit.
2:17-24 Jewish reliance on the law, instead of a heart turning to God, had resulted in their notorious failure to live by even the minimal moral categories of the ten commandments. And this resulted in the Creator God being misrepresented and slandered among other nations.
In addition to relating his teaching to religious law and God's wrath, any Jewish rabbi must give his explanation of the meaning of circumcision. The explanation could be in terms of national identity, commitment to the torah, or a covenant relationship. In this section Paul refers to Gentiles who live their lives without the Jewish rite (see 2:14-15), and suggests that at their best their heart attitude relates to the inner heart experience of which circumcision is the sign.
We could not prove from this section alone that Paul has the Holy Spirit in mind. But he must be thinking of the verse in the Torah "Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer" (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; see Jeremiah 4:4).
The idea of heart circumcision, and its opposite was picked up in Stephen's speech, "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit" (Acts 7:51). It is almost certain that the still unconverted rabbi Saul was in the Sanhedrin when Stephen said this. We wonder whether Paul's Epistle of the Spirit could be his testimony to the man "of good standing (quite possibly a friend of Paul), full of the Spirit and wisdom," whom he eventually had stoned for blasphemy (Acts 7:58-8:1).
2:25 Heart faith should have been clear from the Jewish rite of circumcision. This is why a heart turning (shubh) to God should have resulted in the moral change suggested by the commandments listed in the previous verses (2:21-23; see 10:6-8).
2:26-27 This means that people of other nations who turn to God and have their heart changed will inevitably condemn the hypocrisy of those who are circumcised and fail to be open to the inner reality.
Paul then gives an astonishing definition of a true Jew. It is not a matter of external and physical behavior, but of inner heart circumcision. What counts is a circumcision of the heart in the Spirit (here the NRSV translation 'spiritual' misses Paul's characteristic use of 'in the Spirit').
We could transpose Paul's words to say "A person is not a Christian who is one outwardly, nor is true baptism something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Christian who is one inwardly, and real baptism is a matter of the heart - it is in the Spirit."
It was when Paul was in Antioch that the term Christian was first applied to disciples of Jesus (Acts 11:26). A "disciple" means someone who has begun to learn with a teacher (rabbi, guru). And an essential part of teaching after baptism was faith in the power of God, or Spirit of God, who had raised Jesus from the death. We will see how Paul makes this connection in 6:1-11 (see Colossians 2:11-12).