18 and know his will and approve what is excellent,
because you are instructed from the law;
19 and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind,
a light to those who are in darkness,
20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children,
having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—
21 you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself?
While you preach against stealing, do you steal?
22 You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?
You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?
23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law.
24 For, as it is written,
“The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
Extending his indictment of the Jews, Paul accuses them of misusing their privileged status. With irony (and grief for his unbelieving countrymen—see 9:1–3), Paul charges that their sense of superiority from possession of the law has actually led to their breaking of the law. They have consequently dishonored the lawgiver and violated the covenant with God they thought would protect them from his judgment.
In style, Paul circles back to the way he began this chapter. Again he engages in dialogue with an imaginary partner, this time explicitly designating the person as a Jew. Dialogue also signifies a return to diatribe (for a description of that style, see verses 1–3). Douglas Moo points out that the substance of this passage also fits diatribe, which was often used to criticize opponents for not practicing what they preach.
Thankfully, for the first time in these opening chapters we have a paragraph relatively free of interpretive challenges.Paul’s acknowledgment of Jewish privileges (verses 17–20)
In these verses Paul alludes to OT Scriptures as he concedes several benefits Jews enjoy through their covenant with God. Jews could rightfully rely on the law (as Psalm 119 and Psalm 19:7–10 exemplify) and boast in God (as Jeremiah 9:23–24 affirms). Also from the law Jews gain knowledge of God’s will and an understanding of what is excellent.
As further examples, Isaiah 42:6–7 speaks of Israel’s being a light to people in darkness and a guide to the blind, and Psalm 119:137 lauds God’s word for granting understanding to the simple. For a similar list of Jewish privileges, see 9:4–5.
R. C. Sproul affirms that what the Jews had “was a possession so rich, so magnificent, that it transcended the greatest insights and wisdom of even the highest period of classical Greek culture. Moses had more wisdom than Plato. Jeremiah knew more truth than Aristotle. Amos understood righteousness far better than Socrates.” Sproul further states that Jews enjoyed such consummate wisdom not because they had better minds or were by nature better thinkers, but because God revealed his mind to them on tablets of stone.
How is it possible, Sproul asks, that the Jews could possess these riches of transcendent wisdom, yet fail to teach themselves?Jewish disobedience and pride
Everett Harrison and other scholars note that some of the Jewish leaders in Paul’s time were using wording similar to Paul’s in verses 18–20 to make extravagant claims about the law. Moo states that every item is paralleled in Jewish literature of the time. These Jews’ purpose, however, was not to exalt God but to justify themselves and condemn Gentiles.
Paul’s intent in making these concessions soon becomes clear. He is setting up his conversation partner for sharp rebuke, because Jews’ possession of truth does not accompany obedience to that truth. Also, in the context of this chapter, it is right away evident that Paul is dropping the hammer on Jews’ sense of superiority over Gentiles. Their derogation of Gentiles had reached an extreme, and the law was their weapon. Everett Harrison highlights this in his paraphrase of these verses:
Paul exposes Jewish hypocrisy (verses 21–23)
With the logic of an experienced prosecutor, Paul turns the Jew’s attention back on himself. “Abruptly the shadow-boxing turns aggressive and the blows become lethal as the Jew is confronted by the disparity between what he teaches others as the will of God and his own manner of life” (Harrison).
Jewish sin hiding behind a smokescreen of religious pretense is the target of Paul’s interrogation, as his questions zero in on the fact God judges what people actually do. Two sin patterns draw particular attention. First, boasting in God is no substitute for obedience to God’s law, and such boasting is only legitimate if it is not a showy way of boasting in oneself.
Second, reliance on the law is proper as a guide to righteous behavior, but not as a way to escape God’s judgment. Micah likewise rebuked the leaders of Israel for their sin and for relying on the Lord at the same time to avoid sin’s consequences (Micah 3:10–11).
As for why Paul chose to highlight stealing, adultery, and (the most difficult to identify) temple robbery with his questions, Moo thinks it may be to show the equivalence between the sins of Jews and of Gentiles. We should note once again that Paul indicts not all Jews, but Jews in general, perhaps targeting mainly their leaders. As in the case of moral Gentiles (see my earlier comment), many Jews did honor God in both word and practice.Jews dishonor God (verses 23 and 24)
To trumpet their honoring of God’s law while in violation of the law was to dishonor God’s name. In verse 24 Paul quotes the last part of Isaiah 52:5 (Septuagint version), which speaks of Jews’ Babylonian captivity. Israel’s disobedience led her oppressors to despise and profane God’s name (see also Ezekiel 36:20–23). Peter alludes to this same truth: “And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed” (2 Peter 2:2).
Jews fail on the judgment side of the ledger, and they also fail on the salvation side. The end goal of Paul’s prosecution of both Jews and Gentiles is that they might heed the gospel. His present task is to undercut Jews’ reliance on their privileged position. Says Moo, “Whereas Jews tended to rely on their election and works of the law, Paul insists that it is faith—only and always—that is the basis for a righteous standing with God.”
Perhaps Jews, and indeed all people, will see that they have no place to hide and will cry out to the Savior for mercy.