Paul transitions from his discussion of the Gentiles who are under the Law though they were without the Law to the Jews who rely upon the Law and boast in God. The Jew has surely been the recipient of God’s honor and grace, for he has received the oracles of God in the written Scriptures, and he has been privileged to know God as clearly as can be known through the Scriptures.
Furthermore the Jews have been given to know the will of God through the Scriptures, and to discern what is essential from what is not because all that is necessary for faith and life is written in God’s Law. Whereas the Gentiles had only their conscience to prick their sense of guilt the Jews have God’s own testimony and revelation of how He is to be understood and worshipped.
In addition to knowledge, the Jews also considered themselves instructors of those who were without the Law, and of those who did not understand the Law. The city on a hill whose light shines forth the truth of God was presumably not an unfamiliar concept to the Jews, for here Paul expresses that they considered themselves to be bearers of light in the darkness, and to those in darkness.
Paul continues to heap up the advantages and benefits of the Jews, now being called correctors of foolish men, teachers to the immature, and possessing the embodiment of knowledge and truth by virtue of the Law itself. Is it vain speculation to suggest that Paul speaks as though from experience? As a Pharisee of the Pharisees it is not unlikely that all he expresses here describes how he thought of himself apart from Christ, as a Jew whose hope was in the Law, or more specifically, in his knowledge and obedience to the Law.
The immediate turnaround from these expressions of greatness comes here. The teachers have not taught themselves. The preachers have not heeded their own words, but have become thieves, not only of the people’s gifts from God, but of God’s own honor and glory. Rather than considering themselves subject to the Law, have they not become its masters? And if masters of the Law, a place reserved only for the Lawgiver, have they not then become the very blasphemers they accused Christ of being? In the very least their treatment of the Law profanes the name of God.
For they do not only steal, but commit adultery as they condemn it, they preach against idols and yet rob temples as idols do. The words of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount come to mind here, for it is there that Christ interprets the Law in its fullest measure, whereas the Jews had limited its application to outward behavior. Paul takes up Christ’s interpretation and applies it here to the teachers of the Law who have mistaken its meaning and purpose.
So in their boasting of the Law while yet breaking the Law, the Jews have brought dishonor upon God as their forefathers had done through their idolatry and wickedness. What righteousness could be had from such behavior? For in proving their ignorance of the Law through their breaking of it, the Jews no longer have claim to a knowledge of the Law that saves, for as Paul said before, the doer of the Law and not simply the knower is justified.
And further Paul heaps scorn upon the Jews, for though they considered themselves a light to those in darkness, it is because of their own darkness that the light of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles who walk in darkness. Paul confirms that the Jews are not unlike their forefathers, for he quotes from the Prophets to confirm what their disobedience has wrought amongst the Gentiles concerning the testimony of God.
Paul does not diminish the value of being a Jew, for it remains that value exists in being the chosen of God. Circumcision, the sign that testifies to being in Covenant with God, is a great benefit insofar as it confirms that God is in Covenant with the Jew, but it is worthless if the Law is broken, for transgression of the Law is Covenant breaking, and Covenant breakings puts one outside the Covenant as concerns the Law. This is a hard saying for anyone who would seek his standing in the Covenant by his own merits at keeping its Laws! For the Christian is no better at Covenant keeping than the Jew, and we might say by way of transfer, “baptism has become unbaptism under the penalties of the Law.” That is, if it rested upon our merits in Law-keeping to remain in Covenant with God, we would find ourselves outside the Covenant.
Paul inserts another great turnaround in this verse. If the Jews, who are circumcised do not keep the Law, but the Gentiles, who are not circumcised do keep the Law, then who is truly in Covenant with God? Paul recalls what has come before in his discussion of the Gentiles, who know the Law inwardly though they are without its outward form. Thus, if the one who keeps the Law who has not received it outwardly, does God not justify him according to the Law, which is valid for all men? In this proposition Paul sets up what follows.
But before proceeding to the conclusion Paul builds the argument’s force by further leading questions. If the physical sign is not what confirms Law keeping, but rather it is Law keeping that confirms the physical sign, is it not then the Law keeper who has the right to judge the Law breaker, even if the Law breaker has received the sign of the Covenant? For though the Jews has been given the words of the Law, they have transgressed it because they do not understand its true meaning and purpose, so that the true interpreters who are obedient to the Law stand in judgment over their Law breaking.
Thus Paul arrives at his conclusion in this verse and the following, both of which are all important in our understanding of the New Covenant in Christ. The true Jew, that is, the true people of the Covenant, are not those who have been born of Jewish decent or received the outward sign of the Covenant, but the true Jew is the one who is circumcised apart from the flesh.
If not the outward signs, then it must be the inward sign that testifies as to who is truly in Covenant with God. Circumcision that brings one into fellowship with God effectually is that which is accomplished in the hearts of men by the power of the Spirit, and not by the having or the keeping of the outward stipulations of the Law. For bare obedience does not reach into the motives of the heart, where one may outwardly follow the Law, but inwardly despise it. Nor is the Law open to the interpretations of men, such that Jews could rob parents of their children’s gifts in the name of God (i.e. corban), but its true intent is revealed by the Spirit of God, which testifies to the heart what is God’s will for man in the Law. This testimony does not occur in contradiction to the Law, nor does it invalidate the Law, but rather in accordance with the Law it confirms the Law. Thus Law keeping becomes a matter of praising God rather than seeking the praise of men.