The Human Condition (Part 2) – Romans 2:1-3:20

YouTube video sermon

Romans 2:1-3:20

Commissioned in 1936, the R.M.S. Queen Mary was the most awe-inspiring ocean-going vessel in the world.  She was 1,019 feet long.  She weighed in at 81,237 tons (nearly twice the gross weight of the Titanic).  She had 12 decks and carried 1,957 passengers, attended by a crew of 1,174.

At the outbreak of WWII she was transformed from a luxury liner to a troop transport, carrying 765,429 members of the military to/from the European theatre of war.  After the war, she was re-converted into a passenger liner and served alongside her sister ship the R.M.S. Queen Elizabeth until her retirement in 1967.

In all, she completed over 1,000 Atlantic Ocean crossings and is, today, harbored in the port of Long Beach, California.  Even today, her magnificent and gleaming exterior cuts a beautiful profile against the blue waters of the Long Beach harbor.  But when she was retired, it was discovered that part of her gleaming exterior was hiding something far less attractive and substantial.

The Queen Mary’s three elliptical smokestacks – 36 feet long, 23 feet wide, and ranging from 70 feet tall down to 62 feet tall – were made of sheets of steel over an inch thick.  During her decades of service, at least 30 coats of paint had been applied, forming a shell around the steel interior.  But when the smokestacks were removed for maintenance after her decommissioning, it was discovered that they were nothing but shells.  When they were lifted off and placed on the docks, they crumbled.

Over the years, the thick steel had turned to rust from the long exposure to heat and moisture.  The beautiful exteriors of the smokestacks revealed a rusty, crumbly interior that spoke not of beauty and elegance but of deterioration and decay.

Today, as we continue in our sermon series in Paul’s letter to the Romans we’re going to see that this is the same indictment that’s leveled against the Jews.  So, if you have your copy of God’s Word, let me invite you to turn with me to Romans 2.  For the past three weeks we’ve been in chapter 1 and today we’re going to continue what Paul began last week when he spoke about God’s wrath.

As a quick review, last week we heard and saw Paul speak about the:

  • Revelation of God’s Wrath (against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men)
  • Reasons for God’s Wrath (primarily for suppressing the truth, which then leads to idolatry)
  • Results of God’s Wrath (ending chapter 1 with a long list of behaviors and lifestyles subject to God’s wrath)

Now, all of the verses that we looked at last week were directed primarily against the Gentiles.  Paul was making the argument that God has given enough evidence and proof of His existence in His created world that not even the Gentiles, the pagans, people that haven’t heard of Jesus and the gospel, are still guilty of sin and God’s wrath.

And, if you remember back to our first week, one of the purposes for Paul’s writing this epistle was to connect the church in Rome.  It had started out as primarily a Jewish congregation and then they were expelled from Rome, and the church became more Gentile-based.  After some time, the Jews were allowed to return to Rome and when they did they found their church was not the same as before.

So, as Paul is making this case about the wrath of God against ungodliness and unrighteousness, there’s probably some Jews in the congregation that are thinking, “Look at what you guys have done.  If you (Gentiles) would just stop worshipping other gods, then everything would be fine.”  Others are probably sitting in their pews saying, “Amen!  Go get ‘em, Paul!”  Because the problem is always them, right?  The problem is always somebody else, right?  The problem is never with us – it’s always somebody else’s fault, right?  So, Paul begins chapter 2 by saying, “Not so fast.”

Now, our text range this morning is really long (chapter 2:1-3:20) and I’m not going to read it, as I typically do, although we will break it down into sections.  And the first section is chapter 2:1-16.  In this opening section here’s Paul’s position:

Judge Lightly Because God Will Judge Fairly

Slow down with the finger-pointing, because God is an impartial judge.  Sticking with the nautical introduction, I’m reminded of a sermon illustration that pastor and theologian Harry Ironside offered in his little book, Illustrations of Bible Truth.  He related an incident in the life of a man called Bishop Potter.

He was sailing for Europe on one of the great transatlantic ocean liners.  When he went on board, he found that another passenger was to share the cabin with him.  After going to see the accommodations, he came up to the purser’s desk and inquired if he could leave his gold watch and other valuables in the ship’s safe.  Bishop Potter explained that ordinarily he never availed himself of that privilege, but he had been to his cabin and had met the man who was to occupy the other berth.  Judging from his appearance, he was afraid that he might not be a very trustworthy person.  The purser accepted the responsibility for the valuables and remarked, “It’s all right, bishop, I’ll be very glad to take care of them for you.  The other man has been up here and left his valuables for the same reason!”

Paul says, “Slow down.  Judge lightly because God will judge fairly.”  Look with me at verses 1-3, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges.  For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.  We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things.  Do you suppose, O man – you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself – that you will escape the judgment of God?”

Now you may say, “I don’t do those things.  I don’t celebrate evil like most of the other people in the world.  I’ve not done any of the things on the list (chapter 1:29-32).  I don’t invent ways of doing bad things to other people.  In fact, pastor, when I read that list I come out pretty clean.”  What you and I have to understand is that nobody comes out clean.  No individual has kept all of the law.  No person has been able to keep from breaking at least one of the rules – even if you only broke one rule, then you’re guilty.  And no group is free from any of the sins.

So, no person is free from all sin.  No group is free from any of the sins.  You could look at different ethnic groups, parts of this country or that country, different denominations, different faiths, different sports groups.  I don’t care how you slice it, none of us can say, “We’ve figured it out.  If you look at us, we’re perfect.”  And so, Paul starts out by saying judge lightly.

But then he moves into the next part of verses 1-16 and says, “Oh, yeah, don’t forget, God will judge fairly.”  Look at verses 11-12, “For God shows no partiality.  For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who  have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.”

The Gentiles in the room are saying to the Jews, “Listen, you guys had the Law of God, if we would’ve had the Law of God we’d be fine.”  And Paul says no you wouldn’t, because you have your conscience and you break it.  And the Jews in the room are saying to the Gentiles, “You guys do all kinds of bad things.  At least we had the Law.”  And Paul says not so fast, because you have the Law but you don’t keep it.

So, in this first section, Paul says “Slow down!” to anyone that wants to point fingers.  Judge lightly because God will judge fairly.  But that’s not all that he says.  Sometimes we assume that’s his whole point in chapter 2 – the Jews are just as bad as the Gentiles – but he actually puts a finer point on his argument that becomes clear in the next section.  And here’s Paul’s next position:

The Solution Has Become Part Of The Problem

Do you know that old phrase “someone poisoned the well?”  That’s kind of what Paul is talking about in chapter 2:17-29.  Why is it a big problem if the well is poisoned?  Because the well is where we’re supposed to go for clean water.  So, if our source for clean water has become polluted, then we’re in double trouble.  And double trouble is what Paul is talking about next.

God set apart one particular group in order to solve what was going on with the whole, but that particular group has not done such a good job.  Look at verse 17-24, “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 – 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.’”

The Jews were supposed to be the Light to the world, and yet, if you know the Old Testament story the light got contaminated by darkness.  God called Abraham and said that through him He would bless the entire world.  And God finds Abraham’s descendants in bondage in Egypt and so He liberates them from their slavery and gives them the Law and says, “Here’s the Law.  Follow this so that the rest of the world will look at you and see Me, see how they are to live their lives in obedience and worship Me.”

But, if you know the Old Testament, this chosen people didn’t always like the fact that they were chosen and they wanted to be like everybody else.  They wanted a king.  They wanted to live without the Law.  They wanted to do their own thing, and so God led them into captivity.  And the Old Testament story kind of ends badly.

I like to think about the story of Jonah as a microcosm of the larger Old Testament story.  Sometimes the macro story of Israel and all of the journeys and trials and events and people can get a bit confusing.  Well, if you know the story of Jonah, God calls this one guy – Jonah – to be His prophet and take a message of repentance to the city of Ninevah.  So, Jonah is kind of a representation of the nation of Israel.  Both were chosen by God to be used for His purposes.  Ninevah – this evil city – was kind of a representative of the pagan nations (all the nations surrounding Israel).  And yet Jonah runs the other way.  Now we have a double problem.

The problem was bad enough to begin with, but now, the one guy that God calls to be the Light, to be the preacher, to be the solution, became part of the very problem that God sent him to correct.  That’s the Old Testament story.  And I sometimes wonder if it’s not also our story.

The Romans in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day didn’t take God seriously because they didn’t see anything in God’s people to take seriously.  Do the “Romans” of our day, do the people in your neighborhood and my neighborhood, do the people at the office, do the people at the Club, do the people at school look at us the same way?  “There’s nothing to see there.  There’s no light there.  Why should I consider being a Christian when you’re part of the problem?”

Is there any way out of this?  Should we give up?  Should we give in to despair?  Not when God is the major player in the story.  And that leads us to the final section (chapter 3:1-20) and Paul’s position is:

God Has An Answer But It’s Not The Law

Now listen to me.  You’re going to have to follow me closely here.  If you try to understand this out of its context, then you’re going to get frustrated and it’s going to be weird.  But if you keep the flow of Paul’s argument intact, then it makes sense.

Look at chapter 3:1-4, “Then what advantage has the Jew?  Or what is the value of circumcision?  Much in every way.  To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.  What if some were unfaithful?  Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?  By no means!  Let God be true though every one were a liar.”  And then Paul quotes Psalm 51:4.

Here’s what Paul is saying.  God’s going to keep His promise.  God can’t just throw out the Law, because then God is inconsistent.  But at the same time, the solution isn’t going to be the Law.  In fact, that’s why Paul quotes a whole bunch of texts from the Old Testament.  He wants to kind of imagine the Law as giving testimony of itself: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

It’s like the Law is looking left and right trying to find somebody that will obey, but there’s nobody around.  And then the Law stops and looks everybody up and down: “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.  The venom of asps is under their lips.  Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.  Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.  There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

This is where having an active imagination helps.  If you’ve watched cartoons with your children or grandchildren, then you can almost see the Law, the Torah, the 10 Commandments, becoming an animated thing and looking to the left and the right and up and down and being unable to find someone that can obey it.  It’s clear that people need help and the Law isn’t the solution.

Our spouse, our friends, our loved ones know we have sinned.  We see it in their faces.  And we would see it in the face of God if we would look into His Word – that mirror that reflects not only who we are but who He is, and who we can become in Him.  And it all starts with agreeing with Paul, agreeing with the Old Testament, agreeing with the Law of God that we’ve all sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  That’s all that we need to do in order to become a partner with Paul in the power of the gospel.

Helen Lemmel wrote a hymn in 1922 where she reflected upon the reality of sin, and of a face that we can look at and find glory and grace, a face in which our sin fades away – not because we deny our sin, but because we accept the reality of it and the reality of the grace that forgives it.  The refrain of that hymn goes like this:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus

Look full in His wonderful face

And the things of earth with grow strangely dim

In the light of His glory and grace.

God has an answer, but it’s not the Law.  It’s a good thing that Romans keeps going.  We’ll do the same next week.