I want to begin this morning with a caution. Anti-Semitism has been a great sin in the world, acted out by Christians and non-Christians throughout the centuries. By this I mean that there has been terrible mistreatment of Jewish people for no reason other than their Jewishness. Just one horrible glimpse from 1919, during the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia:
There were bands of Ukrainian bandits. The most fearsome was under the command of an anarchist and anti-Semite called Makhno. Makhno’s men delighted in “drying the herrings,” as they called the process of hanging Jews. They would suspend several between posts on a loose rope; as the rope tightened the victims tried to cling on to each other in their death-agonies, the Makhnovtsi sitting around laughing, drinking, and betting on who would survive the longest. (Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life, 31)
And in Christian England, the Jews were expelled from the island in 1290 and not allowed to enter England again for 365 years, until Oliver Cromwell gave freedom of religion to the Puritans and other non-conformists in 1655. The story of anti-Semitism is a terrible story and I mention it as a warning.
“All of us are sinners and need salvation that comes through the gospel of Christ alone.”
It is true that God reigns over such terrible things, and even uses them at times to bring about his own judgments (as the prophets make very clear, Deuteronomy 28:20–68; Jeremiah 9:16; 24:10; 25:16; Ezekiel 5:17), but never does that make the hatred or the persecution less sinful. Remember the word of Jesus in Matthew 18:7: “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes!” In other words, even if there are judgments in the world on Jew and Gentile, woe to Christians (or any others) who presume to usurp the Lord’s vengeance (Romans 12:19–20).
I mention the danger of anti-Semitism because Paul is now, in this text, continuing his indictment of the Jewish world as sinners. Verse 17: “But if you bear the name ‘Jew’ . . .” and so on. How easy it would be to turn this passage into an ethnic slur. It is not that. Paul himself was a Jew, all the apostles were Jews, and Jesus was a Jew. And in Romans 9:3, Paul was ready to be accursed for his unbelieving Jewish kinsmen. In Romans 10:1 he said, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation.” Paul loved his Jewish kinsmen who were not Christians, and he risked his life over and over for their salvation.
Both Jews and Gentiles Need the Gospel
The point of these verses is not an ethnic slur, but an argument that Jews — along with the entire Gentile world — are sinners like us, and are in need of the gospel, in spite of having so many advantages in the Law. Remember where Paul is coming from and where he is going in this book. He is coming from the great gospel statement of Romans 1:16–17, “The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.” In other words, the righteousness that God demands from us, but that we do not have and cannot produce in our depravity, he now makes available to us through faith in Christ (see Romans 3:21–24).
Then in Romans 1:18, Paul begins the explanation why this gospel is so desperately needed by both Jew and non-Jew. First, he treats the morally corrupt world of the Gentiles in Romans 1:19–32; and then he treats the more moral world of people with higher standards to show that they too are sinners, and Jews are among those with the highest standards of all in the ancient pagan world. So he must show that even they are in need of the gospel of Christ for salvation. He is aiming toward Romans 3:9, “What then? Are we [Jews] better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin.”
So the point here is not to isolate the Jews as uniquely defective. The point is that even their higher standards of morality — even their possession of God’s Law — does not exclude them from the need to hear and believe the gospel of Christ. They are under the power of sin, just as the rest of the world is. Paul aims to show that all of us — us, not just them — are sinners and in need of salvation that comes through the gospel of Christ alone. This is an act of love toward Jews and Gentiles, even when it is interpreted as arrogant or demeaning.
“Do You Dishonor God?”
What, then, is the specific point of today’s text, Romans 2:17–24? The main point is found in verse 23: “You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God?” The answer to that question is, Yes. We know this because verse 24 assumes a “yes” answer. Paul puts it in a question to help his readers be honest with themselves: You ask and answer this question. You search your own heart. Is this not so?
So verse 23 really means: “You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, you do dishonor God.” The main point of this passage is that the Jewish people, along with all the world, dishonor God. I say, “with all the world,” because of what we saw back in Romans 1:21 that all the Gentile world was guilty of the same thing: “For even though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks.”
Jewish people and Gentile God-fearers might have heard that and said, “That’s right, those godless, irreligious pagans dishonor God. But Paul has been at pains now, since Romans 2:1, to say, “It isn’t any better among the people with high moral standards, even the Jews. They, too, dishonor God.”
So the great issue in these chapters is the honor — or the glory — of God. This is crucial to see. If we want to think biblically — think the way the apostles thought and the way God thinks, we do not merely talk about everybody being a sinner; we get more specific than that and ask, “What is sin?” What is at the heart of our corruption and our depravity as human beings? What is wrong with us? Why is there so much evil in the world and what is the essence of this?
The Essence of Evil — Dishonoring God
Given what we have seen in Romans 1:21 (pagans dishonor God) and Romans 2:23 (Jews dishonor God), we get the message that the essence of evil is dishonoring God. Evil is the feeling and thinking and acting that treats God as less than infinitely valuable and satisfying. So when we get to Romans 3:23 and Paul gives his own definition of sin, this is what he says: “There is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The essence of sin is falling short of the glory of God, that is, not treating the glory of God for what it really is — the most valuable reality and the most satisfying treasure in the universe.
“Evil is the feeling and acting that treats God as less than infinitely valuable and satisfying.”
This is why we all need to be saved. This is why we need a gift of righteousness that is not our own. We have fallen short of God’s glory. Or as Romans 1:21 says, we have “not glorified him or thanked him as God.” Or as Romans 2:23 says, “Through your breaking the Law, you dishonor God.”
Oh, how we need to hear this today because almost all the forces around us urge us to think of sin — if at all — as an offense against man, not God. Evil is when man is hurt, not when God is dishonored. Evil is when I am abused, not when God is dishonored. Evil is when I am threatened, not when God is dishonored. We need to hear Paul’s unrelenting witness to the God-centered understanding of sin and righteousness. Only this will prepare us to understand and receive the gospel of the gift of God’s righteousness. And that is Paul’s goal in these chapters — to prepare Jew and Gentile to understand and receive the gospel.
Now we ask, how was God dishonored among the Jewish people? Next week we will answer that question from verses 17–22. We will ask: How can Paul really claim that the Jewish people were thieves and adulterers and temple-plunderers when this was not their main reputation? We will come back to that.
Ruining God’s Reputation
But today we ask: How was God dishonored according to Romans 2:24? Here Paul quotes an Old Testament prophet to explain and support his statement in verse 23 that the Jews “dishonor God.” He says, “You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God? For [and here he quotes Isaiah 52:5] ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,’ just as it is written.”
In other words, the dishonor Paul has in mind is that the reputation of God among the nations is contaminated. The nations look at God’s people and think little of their God. The quote from Isaiah referred to the derision that the nations gave Israel when Israel went into captivity. We know it was Israel’s sin that brought the captivity on them. So in their breaking the law, as verse 23 says, they dishonored God. They brought contempt on the name of God.
This was exactly the opposite of why God had chosen Israel. “‘I made the whole household of Israel . . . cling to me,’ declares the Lord, ‘that they might be for me a people, for renown, for praise and for glory.’” They were created (Isaiah 43:7) and chosen for the honor of God — to display his worth and value and beauty and greatness and trustworthiness and all-satisfying excellence. But instead, they lived as if their God were worthless and the world was valuable instead. And God handed them over to their enemies. The result was that God was ridiculed and his reputation was belittled.
The point of all this is that sin is “falling short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and that Jews, as well as Gentiles, are under the power of sin (Romans 3:9). Both of them — all of us — dishonor God. That is our situation. That is our danger and liability. That is our curse and our guilt and our bondage. We don’t love the glory of God. Or, as Romans 1:23 says, we “exchange the glory of the incorruptible God for images.”
The Good News
The gospel is the good news that God has sent his Son, Jesus, into the world to set this condition right in three ways.
Jesus came to vindicate the worth of God’s glory by living for it with all his might (John 17:4) and by dying to show that it is worth the greatest possible sacrifice (John 12:27–28; Romans 3:25–26).
Jesus came to rescue us from the wrath of God against all that dishonors his glory. He did this by dying in our place and by becoming for us a righteousness that we could never achieve on our own (Romans 3:24; Philippians 3:9; 2 Corinthians 5:21) — the righteousness that we have in union with Christ by trusting him (Romans 3:21).
Jesus came to change us into the kind of people who value the glory of God above all things and who live to show his worth (Matthew 5:16; 1 Corinthians 10:31; 1 Peter 4:11).
For example, turn with me to Romans 15:8–9. Why did Christ come? Why is there a Christian gospel? Why a book of Romans? Why a Bethlehem Baptist Church? Why a saving of your soul? Here’s Paul’s answer, and it is in direct response to the problem of God’s dishonor in the world and in our lives: “I say that Christ has become a servant to the circumcision [the Jews] on behalf of the truth of God to confirm the promises given to the fathers, and for the Gentiles to glorify God for his mercy.”
“Jesus came to rescue us from the wrath of God against all that dishonors his glory.”
So he mentions a purpose of Christ’s coming in relation to the Jews and a purpose for Christ’s coming in relation to the Gentiles. For the Jews, it is to confirm God’s trustworthiness. To vindicate his truthfulness. In other words, to confirm and restore God’s honor and integrity. And for the Gentiles, verse 9 says, Christ came so that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. In other words, Christ came to reestablish God’s honor — God’s glory — for Jews and Gentiles, that is, to repair what Romans 1:19–3:20 says was ruined.
All Have Fallen Short
That is where we are this morning. No one in this room loves the glory of God the way he should. We have all fallen short. We have dishonored God. We have exchanged his glory for images. He is not cherished and treasured and admired and loved with a fraction of the fervor that he deserves. So we have fallen short. We are under the power of sin. And we are guilty before God.
Our only hope is that Christ came to change that. To vindicate the God we have belittled. To clothe us with a righteousness that we cannot provide on our own. And to change us into the kind of people who delight in the glory of God and the honor of God above all things.
So I want us to end with a time of prayer that God would come and save us from the unbelief that makes other things look more attractive than God.