Paul here makes some very powerful claims against the Jews. Bearing in mind that the Jews were demanding that the Gentile believers be circumcised in accordance with the law, Paul challenges this outward showing of their faith, acknowledging that circumcision is only valuable inasmuch as it is accompanied by internal change and love of God. The Jews, who commanded that these external displays of faith, on the other hand, displayed none of the internal changes which would accompany true conversion to the Lord. Here, he begins this treatise against the power of the law, in general, and the power of circumcision, in particular, to effect salvation unto these adherents of the law.
“For circumcision is profitable if you keep the law…if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision.” Here, he condemns the Jews for demanding that the Gentiles be circumcised in accordance with the Law, whilst the Jews who themselves teach the Law are unable to keep it. The Jews were teaching that only through these displays of the Law could display that one was of the Lord, and yet Paul ventures forth here to condemn this blatant hypocrisy that the Jews were displaying.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the words of Jesus, “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees…you cleanse the outside of the cup…but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence….you are like whitewashed tombs, which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead man’s bones and uncleanness.” (Matthew 23:25,27). It is of the utmost importance that we read the words of Jesus here, this warning to the multitudes, when we read Paul’s admonition to the Jews. They demanded this circumcision; they taught to neither steal nor covet, to neither blaspheme, covet, nor murder, and yet sought after these very riches. They were taught the Law, and taught the same; yet because their faith was in the Law alone and not in our beloved Lord, they were never able to maintain that Law. the Lord, who looks beyond our physical actions and judges instead by the intentions of the heart, was never fooled by these outward shows.
And this broaches on the very question that Paul poses here; if you are circumcised, in accordance with the Law, and yet fail to keep the commandments of our Lord, and yet this man is uncircumcised, and yet keeps all of the commandments of the Lord; who is truly righteous? Is he truly righteous who keeps the letter of the Law, or he who keeps the spirit of the Law by their nature? Will not the man who, though uncircumcised, keeps keeps the nature of the Law judge he who is a student of the Law in letter only?
I think about this in terms of our generation, being as which it is the only experience that I have. See, it’s so easy to present this image of perfect piety in our generation. It’s so easy to post pious activity on social media, posting photos of your study chamber or your prayer corner, never forgetting this “selfie with Jesus” moment of the Holy Scripture open to a particular book with the ubiquitous photo of the Scripture and a cup of coffee. It’s so easy to open a Jonathan Edwards book and post a photo of your coffee table with that and the Scriptures next to it and hashtag it, “Holy moment.” Or, of course, to post about the latest musical release from your favorite Christian band and to be “interested” in their show nearby. It’s easy to present this image of perfect holiness and piety; and dangerously easy to become self-righteous when doing it. To buy only the latest shirts from the local Christian bookstore that presents itself as the “way of life” for Christians, to, of course, put the bumper stickers on your car. I have absolutely been there, and am not ashamed to admit it. I was the first one to wear whatever “not ashamed of the Gospel” T-shirt and consider that “witnessing” for the kingdom.
And yet, as I’ve grown, I’ve realized a very important fact. God wasn’t glorified by the 25$ T-shirts or the 70$ concert tickets that I’d spent. Posting those things on social media, wearing them in public, served one purpose and one purpose only. It fed my own pride. I reveled in it each time someone commented on the shirt I was wearing. Whenever someone asked me about the “Jerusalem cross” that I had on my car, I was about 80 percent vested in explaining it, and about 20% excited that they had to come to me for an explanation. What has become the hardest thing for me to do is to remove myself from me. To remove these outward displays of my faith, and instead focusing on the inward.
Paul closes this exhortation with a very powerful statement; “circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.”
You see, in Scripture, we find that many are the commands of the Lord, and obedience to these commandments is fully expected. However, and I believe that the rest of Paul’s statement is rooted here, we must evaluate our own motivation. It’s so easy to do things “for the glory of God,” while truly seeking our own glory in the stead. We must truly obey the commandments of the Lord, however doing so must be out of reverence to Him, not out of the desire for vain-glory in ourselves. I can only look to my own life, there are many who see what I attain from studies; there are, however, a select few who look to me for spiritual advice. Those few know my prayer time, my time spent with the word of God, my “quiet time” with God. When I fast, when I give alms, when I pray, those things are between God and I. While I am not ashamed of them, I would never trumpet them for all the world to see, lest I become overcome with the spirit of vainglory and those things become a source of sinful pride, rather than a source of what it should be, time alone with the Lord.
Jesus taught us that when we pray, it should be in secret, not displayed for all the world. Likewise, He taught us that when we give, it should be in secret. The biggest difference between the world and the Church when they help the hungry, the needy, the homeless, should be that the Church doesn’t use it for PR, they do it because they love their neighbor and wish to help. Nothing that we do should ever be motivated by pride or selfish ambition. I saw a meme on social media recently that said, “when you help the hungry, you help the hungry. The moment you post about it on social media, it is no longer the hungry you are feeding, but your own ego.” This is possibly the most Christian statement that I have ever heard. Glory to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; but never to we who are His mere instruments in those causes.
And that is what the beloved apostle is here warning the Jews against. They had made a public showing of their piety, an image of their faith, and they condemned everyone who wouldn’t share in that image. Yet, when you looked at their lives, it screamed of many things, but the “chosen people of God” wasn’t one of those things. All that they did was for image, and none of it was out of reverence, fear, love of the Lord. These Jews were still lechers, thieves, liars, gamblers, drunken, extortioners; thus, while this outward showing of piety may have impressed men, it offered them no favor with God.
May we never, my beloved family, fall victim to this spirit of hypocrisy. Yes, by all means, cease from sin. Yes, remove idols, remove temptation; but never let us assume that we are more righteous than anyone else because of these things. If the teachings of the Church fathers, or of Holy Scripture itself, is to be believed, then we must learn one valuable lesson. Our goal as believers is to attain to the righteousness of God, and the closer we draw to that very mark, the more we realize how far removed from it we are. Let us focus on our own personal walk while building up others, caring for them and loving them, that the grace and love of Jesus may be revealed by our own lives. Teresa of Calcutta taught us that “if you judge someone, you don’t have time to love them.” This statement has been resonating throughout my life. Did Jesus discern an action to be sinful? Certainly; but rather than judging someone for it, He chose to help them, to heal them, and then asked that they sin no more. The very ones who placed Him upon a cross, He asked for their forgiveness; who are we to do otherwise? The love of Christ knows no limits, it knows no boundaries; and thank God for that, else where would we be? And that is the very love that we are to display to others; not the love that says, “I will support you regardless of your iniquities,” but the love that says, “I will help you regardless of anything else, because I love you and would never want to see you suffer.”
May we never emulate the words of the Pharisee who said, “I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even this tax collector,” and instead may we always remember the words of the tax collector, who humbly prayed, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:11-14). May we always seek after the praises of our beloved Lord, not the praise of men, knowing that “if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10). Let us seek the praise of He who always was, and always shall be, from the beginning to the end. Our beloved Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. He who commands us, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (John 14:15), neglecting the opinions of other men, and instead, focusing on the will of God.
May the grace of the Lord be with you, my beloved family. Christ is risen!