25 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law.28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
This brief passage is a continuance and prelude to an important theme in Romans and Christianity as a whole. Who are the Jews? The Jews were descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The sons of Jacob originated the eponymous tribes of Israel (Jacob was renamed this after wrestling with God’s angel). One of those tribes was Judah from whom came the second king of Israel David, from whom came Jesus Christ. The very first paragraph of Romans makes it clear that Jesus is first of all a Jew. The very first paragraph of Romans can inspire a well-reasoned skeptical response. In a thought diversion that will receive its own post in the future – – how on earth can a Christ follower be anti-semitic?
Circumcision of males was an outward sign of the Jewish faith and culture and an early manifestation of historical hygiene laws. For the culture in which Paul writes, it is private, but indisputable evidence of being Jewish. Throughout the New Testament, Paul will use circumcision to be the literal proof of Jewish heritage and the Abrahamic covenant. My understanding of the Jews is this: God chose to bless the world through them. Romans does not displace the Jews. God will always love them and keep his promise of faithfulness. But the Jews, like all people, stray from him. Over and again God refers to himself as a shepherd, and us as sheep. The metaphor is most clear in David’s twenty-third Psalm.
Paul is setting the stage here for an understanding of the new covenant. Through Jesus both Jews and non-Jews (referred to variously as gentiles or Greeks) can be followers of God. Not just an external sign. Not just tradition. Rather circumcision of the heart and repair of a fallen nature. Please realize – – before God, Jew and non-Jew are the same. The covenant of Abraham began by establishing and blessing the Jewish nation. It continues in blessing the world through Jesus Christ. God does not forget Jews when they leave him and retain the riches of cultural heritage and shake the remnants of robust theism. He does not forget non-Jews when they do the same. He patiently sends a shepherd.