Paul was a Pharisee.
The word "Pharisee" comes from an Aramaic term that means "separated." It was not the name they called themselves. They called themselves "Häberim," which comes from an Aramaic term that means "associate." The idea was that they were associated with the law. The Pharisees taught a strict adherence to the law. In order to define what the law meant, the Pharisees multiplied rules that tried to regulate life down to the finest details. In their concern for keeping the rules, the Pharisees lost sight of the purpose of the law. Therefore, Jesus chastised them, saying:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. ()
According to Jesus, the Pharisees were hypocrites because they neglected the "weightier" matters of the law. By calling the matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness "weightier," Jesus is saying that these things are more important. In short, while adhering to the smallest detail of the law, the Pharisees ignored the intent or purpose of the law. They neglected the weightier matters.
Paul said of himself:
"...as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. ()
Paul is speaking of his past, the things he left behind, and he is saying he was a Pharisee and as such had been confident of his righteousness under the law.
Paul understood religion from the inside. In writing to the Romans, Paul was writing to people he had never met. However, in chapters one and two, he has shown that he understands the human heart. (Actually, it is the Holy Spirit, speaking through Paul that understands the human heart.) Romans chapter one, verses 18 through 32, deals with the human rejection of God. Then chapter two, verses 1 through 16, deals with the moral person. Now, in chapter two, verses 17 through 29, he turns to deal with the religious person. However, this is not just any religious person. This is the religious person who is serious about his or her religion. This person is part of the true religion, worships the true God and knows the truth.
This is what Paul would say to his pre-Christian self, the Pharisee. In Romans 2:17-20 he says:
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— ()
In this passage, we have the definition of a religious person.
First, Paul points out the identity adopted by the religious person. Having a strong identity is common to all religions. Paul is speaking specifically to those who called themselves Jews, but the principles he addresses apply the same to religion in general. The identity is important because, like the Jew addressed in this passage, the religious person knows he or she is right. Religions call themselves after the name of their leader or founder, such as a Christian or Buddhist. Or, they will call themselves after a concept, such as Islam, which means "submission," or Jehovah's Witnesses, which is a definition of how they see themselves. Within a larger classification such as Christian or Jew or Muslim, are many smaller classifications that make up the identity. Therefore, here in Clearwater, we have Christians of different identities. We have Baptists, Methodists, Nazarenes, Catholics, Evangelicals and others. Religious identities have histories and heritages that go along with them. Often, cultural, family and community ties run very deep and strong within a religious identity. To break with one's religious identity is often to run afoul of one's family, community and in many places even the government. Usually, this religious identity is closely tied to a person's identity, how people see themselves.
Along with the religious identity, comes a body of belief. In the case of the Jew, Paul says they "rely on the law." Muslims have the Koran. Mormons have the Book of Mormon. When it comes to Buddhists, there is not a single book, but there is a body of belief or thought that is shared or held in common and a number of books that are held as sacred. Part of the body of belief of every religion is teaching about God, His nature, existence and relationship to humanity. Therefore, verses 17 and 18 say of the Jew, "[you] boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law." This body of belief is the paradigm through which a religious person views the world. Is there one God, or many gods? Are there evil spirits? demons? angels?
As you consider these things, do you not say to yourself, "I am glad I know the truth!"?
The Jew did. Paul says of them, "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—"
Whatever other religions taught, the Jews knew they had the truth. We have inherited that mantle. The New Testament is the completion or fulfillment of the Jewish law and prophets. More than half of our Bible is the Jewish Scriptures from which they were instructed. Whatever other religions teach or claim, Christianity is unique in its historical verifiability, reliability and in keeping with the facts of reality. Christianity stands alone as the world's one true religion. Therefore, we send out missionaries. We work as a light to those who are in darkness. We seek to teach children, and through our teaching, change the world.
However, Paul closes in on the religious person and says:
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." ()
This then is the problem with religion. Not one of us is able to live up to the standard of our religion. Any person, like the Pharisees, who focuses on keeping the rules, will fail. Look at the rules Paul lists. No stealing and no adultery are rules that we can agree with. However, we violate these rules. Jesus said:
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart." ()
If you are the second person in all of history to not violate this one, let me be the first to congratulate you. For all of the rest of us, we must consider our dilemma. We know that the rules (law) are good and right, but we cannot and will not ever keep all of the rules.
But that is okay, I have been baptized.
Paul addresses this in verses 25 through 29. The issue I have just brought up is that of rituals. All religions have rituals that help them get right with their god. Mediation, prayer, penance, baptism, sacrifices, giving, confession and the list goes on depending on which religion one wants to look at.
For the Jew, the ritual was circumcision. This ritual tied the person to their religious identity and was a physical reminder of that tie. God made a covenant with Abraham to bless him and his descendants, and circumcision was to be the sign of that covenant. To the Jew, this was tied to salvation. In other words, an uncircumcised person was not saved, as in, they could not have a relationship with God nor could their sins be forgiven.
The closest equivalent in Christianity is baptism. By this one act, we identify ourselves to the world as "Christian." Some Christians believe that one cannot be saved without being baptized. With Islam, the ritual by which they identify themselves with the religion is by reciting the "shahada," which states, "There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger."
Paul, the ex-Pharisee, addresses these religious rituals by saying:
For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. ... For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. ()
In the words "by the Spirit," Paul points out a problem with religion. True religion is a matter of the heart, or the inner person, something that cannot be touched or changed by ritual or association.
True religion is a point of utmost importance. Not all religions are the same. A Muslim believes that Jesus was a prophet but not the Son of God, and the Christian teaching of the Triunity of God is to the Muslim blasphemy. The person who believes that all religions are just different ways of looking at the same problem is claiming to have the broader perspective and is therefore saying that the exclusivity of the various religions is wrong. So, even in their inclusiveness they try to point out the errors of others. There is no escaping the claims of truth on our lives. From our earliest days, we all know instinctively that some things are true and others are false.
Paul says of the Jews that they have in the law "the embodiment of knowledge and truth." History and reason bear this out. History bears it out in many ways, but in the interest of brevity I will limit myself to one historical fact. It is a well- established historical fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then as the Apostle Paul said:
However, it is not enough just to have the truth. The Jews had the truth and failed to grasp it because in practicing religion they missed the matter of the heart. In the book of Hebrews, Paul warns us as Christians not to make the same mistake when he says:
Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. ()
Religion is powerful because as Romans 1 has already pointed out:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. ()
Since God has made His divine power plain to us, we know instinctively that we need to be right with Him, and religion is the way we try to do this. In speaking of how we try to get right with God by way of religion the Apostle Paul says:
These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. ()
Here again, we see the problem of religion is that it cannot transform the heart. This is why Jesus gave His famous words when He said, "Ye must be born again." In Romans 1 and 2, the Scriptures make it clear that human wisdom, morality and religion are not the way to be made right with God. This is all done to show the necessity of the gospel. The gospel is for all people. Jew, Gentile, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Christian all must be saved in the same way. Acts 4:11-12 says:
This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. ()
The circumcision of the heart that Paul speaks of in Romans 2 is a work of the Spirit of God that we receive by believing in Jesus. It is nothing we can do for ourselves. This is what Jesus was pointing to when He said, "Ye must be born again." This is a matter of the heart that is too personal and real to be termed religion. Rather it is us receiving life. This is what the eternal life referred to in John 3:16:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. ()