1 Paul here gives a great warning to all men: do not judge others. How eager we are to judge others! We suppose that we ourselves are righteous, and that we are therefore qualified to judge. We see the sins and errors of others, but we do not see our own. All a man’s ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart (Proverbs 21:2). We ought to be so busy concentrating on our own sins that we have no time left over to look at other people’s sins!
12 The LAW mentioned here is the Jewish law, that is, the law God gave to the Jews. This law is found in the first five books of the Old Testament, particularly in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. When Paul talks here about those who sin apart from the law, he is referring to the Gentiles.
Both Jews and Gentiles will receive punishment for their sins. Gentiles, who sin apart from the law, will be punished according to the righteous judgment of God; the Jews, who sin under the law, will be punished according to the Jewish law. Indeed, the law will give the Jews no advantage. Rather, it will give them a disadvantage, because it is impossible to obey the law in every detail. Therefore, instead of protecting them, the law will actually condemn them (see Galatians 3:10; James 2:10 and comments).
Here a question arises: if the Gentiles have no law, how can they be punished? The answer is: They do have a law. It’s not the Jewish law—it’s a natural law. This goes back to Paul’s discussion in Chapter 1, where he says that all men can see God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature (Romans 1:20). All men naturally know the difference between right and wrong. All men naturally can recognize sin. All men have a conscience. Therefore, we can say that for all men there is a natural law, which is written on their hearts (verse 15). It is according to this law that the Gentiles will be punished.
13 Paul tells the Jews that it is no advantage to only hear the law if they don’t follow it (James 1:22). Only by following the law completely will one be declared RIGHTEOUS—that is, obtain salvation.
14-15 Many Gentiles, even though they don’t know the Jewish law, do by nature what the law says (verse 14). They obey a “natural” law. For example, the Jewish law says: You shall not murder (Exodus 20:13). You shall not steal (Exodus 20:15). But the Gentiles also know that to murder and steal is wrong, even though they have never read the book of Exodus! The Jewish law says that a man must show mercy to his neighbor, he must respect his elders, he must help the sick. But the Gentiles also do all these things. Gentiles know the difference between right and wrong, because their consciences (verse 15) show them the difference. When they do evil, their consciences start accusing them; and when they do good, their consciences start defending them.
In fact, in important matters there is not much difference between the Jewish law and the natural law of the Gentiles.14 The main difference is this: The Jewish law was written by God on two tablets of stone (Exodus 24:12), but the natural law of the Gentiles was written on their hearts (verse 15).
16 The day when God will judge is the day of the last judgment (see verse 5). God will judge men not only according to their outward works; He will also judge them according to their secrets, that is, their inner thoughts and motives. God knows every one of our “secrets.” He sees everything.
God will judge through Jesus Christ. That is, all those who accept Christ will be saved, and all those who reject Christ will perish. In effect, Christ will be our judge (see John 5:22; Romans 14:10; 1 Corinthians 4:4; 2 Corinthians 5:10 and comments).
17-20 Here in this section, Paul sarcastically rebukes the Jews for their spiritual pride. His method is to ask a series of rhetorical questions.
The typical Jew would brag about [his] relationship to God (verse 17). He relied on himself. The Jew considered himself a guide, a light, an instructor. He considered others to be blind, to be foolish, to be infants (verses 19-20). The Jews had in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth (verse 20), and this should have made them godly. But they had only the outward form of godliness (righteousness); they did not have true godliness. Paul described such people to Timothy as having a form of godliness but denying its power (2 Timothy 3:5).
21-23 Here Paul points out the faults of the Jews. Paul calls them hypocrites. What they teach others to do, they do not do themselves. On one side, they brag about the law; but on the other side, they keep breaking the law (verse 23). In Matthew Chapter 23, Jesus also called such Jews hypocrites (Matthew 23:13,25,27).
You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? Paul asks (verse 22). Yes, is the answer. Some Jews did break into Gentile temples and steal the idols (in order to sell them).
24 Paul here quotes from Isaiah 52:5. Just as a son’s bad behavior brings dishonor upon his father, so did the Jews’ bad behavior bring dishonor upon God. We Christians also must remember that whenever we sin we bring dishonor on God’s name.
25 CIRCUMCISION is the cutting away of the excess skin at the tip of the penis. God had commanded that all Jewish male infants be circumcised on the eighth day of life. Circumcision was an outward bodily sign that a man was a Jew, a member of God’s chosen nation (Genesis 17:9-14).
In actuality, there was no advantage to circumcision in itself. It was only an outward sign identif ying a person as a Jew. If a Jew broke the law, he lost his special relationship with God, of which circumcision was the sign. Then, for that Jew, it would be as if he had never been circumcised. He would be, in effect, “uncircumcised” (1 Corinthians 7:19).
God does not look at the outer man; rather, He looks at the inner man, man’s heart. The most important thing to God is that we obey Him from our heart. If our heart is right, our outward actions will be right also (Jeremiah 17:10).
26 Paul here asks another rhetorical question. If those who are not circumcised (that is, the Gentiles) were to follow the Jewish law, wouldn’t they be regarded as though they were circumcised? The answer is yes. Paul’s point is that a Gentile who follows the law will have the same standing with God as a Jew has.
27 Not only that, the one who is not circumcised physically (the Gentile) who obeys God’s law will condemn the circumcised Jew who breaks the law.
28-29 Therefore, to be a Jew only outwardly is of no advantage; it has no meaning. A man is a true Jew only when he is a Jew inwardly in his heart.
By the same reasoning, true circumcision is not just a physical or outward thing; rather, true circumcision is an inward thing. True circumcision is a circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit (verse 29). True circumcision is a cutting away of the sin and evil in our hearts.15
Just as a man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly (verse 28), so a man is not a Christian if he is only one outwardly. The Jews sought praise from men, who see only outward things (Matthew 23:5-7). It is much better to seek the praise that comes from God, who sees everything. That is the praise that counts!