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.” – Romans 2:17-24 ESV
As a Jew, Paul had no qualms addressing his attention to his Jewish brothers and sisters. He was a former Pharisee and a passionate student of the Hebrew Scriptures. On one occasion, having been arrested in Jerusalem and accused of speaking out against the Jewish people and the temple, Paul addressed the crowd and said, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, and I was brought up and educated here in Jerusalem under Gamaliel. As his student, I was carefully trained in our Jewish laws and customs. I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just like all of you today” (Acts 22:3 NLT). In his letter to the Philippian believers, Paul had given his Hebrew credentials by stating, “I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin — a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault” (Philippians 3:5-6 NLT). So Paul knew what he was talking about when he addressed the attitudes and spiritual status of the Jewish people. Which is why he was able to say, “[you] rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law.” There was a certain degree of pride in their hearts related to their special designation as God’s chosen people. But this pride led to an arrogance and boastful certainty that they were above the fray, free from judgment and immune to God’s wrath. But Paul had already warned them that, “according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Romans 2:16 ESV)
Yes, they were God’s chosen people. Yes, they had a unique relationship with Him and had been given His law, provided with the sacrificial system, and could brag about having the temple, where God’s presence dwelt. But Paul makes it clear that all of that is not enough. They relied on God. They boasted about their relationship with Him. They knew His will as revealed in the law and even taught others to obey it. They say themselves as guides to the blind, lights to those in darkness, instructors of the foolish and teachers of children. But the problem was that they were hypocrites. They failed to live up to their own standards. They demanded from others a strict adherence to the law that they themselves were incapable of keeping. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, Isaiah 52:5 reads, “On account of you my name is continually blasphemed among the Gentiles.” Over the centuries, the actions of the Jews revealed a blatant disregard for God and His law. They were guilty of rebellion and unfaithfulness to His will and His ways. They boasted in the law, but dishonored God by breaking the law. They were without excuse. They had a knowledge of God, but what they knew about Him failed to turn into obedience to Him. Hundreds of years earlier, God had accused the people of Israel of their blatant hypocrisy. “These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote” (Isaiah 29:13 NLT). Even Jesus had quoted this same passage when addressing the Pharisees of His day. “So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (Matthew 15:6-9 ESV).
Knowledge can be a wonderful thing. The knowledge of God can be life-transformative. Knowing God’s Word can be beneficial to life. But there is a huge difference between knowing and doing. It was James who wrote, “But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves” (James 1:25 NLT). Knowing the law of God is useless if you fail to keep it. Having a encyclopedic understanding of God is worthless if you choose to ignore His will. The Jews were putting their hope and trust in their pedigree. They were counting on the fact that they were Jews. But Paul wanted them to know that their knowledge of God and their awareness of His law only made them more responsible and culpable. There were going to have to let go of all of that and place their trust in Christ. Back in his letter the Philippians, Paul follows up his impressive list of accomplishments as a Jew with the following words: “I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ” (Philippians 3:7-8 NLT). There is only one thing worth knowing: Jesus Christ as your Savior. It is an awareness of our own sin and our desperate need for a Savior that really counts. Every other form of knowledge is useless and worthless.