Exposition of Romans 2:21-23, Talk the talk; walk the walk

Whether true or not, one common charge made by non-Christians is that Christians are hypocrites those who say one thing and do another. While this charge is often a flimsy excuse for not dealing with God, there is, sad to say, some truth in it. How does our failure to match faith and practice reflect on God?

(ESV) Romans 2:21-23

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.

The previous lesson (on Romans 2:17-20) looked at the positive advantages the Jews had received due to their possession of the Law of Moses and the covenants. In the Scripture for today, Paul shows how these advantages transform into a profound problem when the Jews are judged against the standards they so proudly proclaim.

In relation to the four questions posed by 2:21-22, Douglas Moo observes: “They expose the Jew who has made the lofty claims of vv. 17-20 as inconsistent and hypocritical, as failing to practice what he preaches. . . . All the privileges, distinctions, and gifts that the Jew may claim are meaningless if they are not responded to with a sincere and consistent obedience.”[1] This is exactly what Jesus said as well: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you — but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice.” (Matt. 23:2-3).

Those who consider themselves teachers of the law must first learn from the law themselves (2:21a). But Paul alleges they fail in three areas, of which the first is stealing (2:21b). These sentences are constructed in a jarring Greek word order: “preach not to steal [you-singular] steal.” The two verbs meaning steal are placed side-by-side in Greek for rhetorical punch.

In effect, Paul says there should be a difference between those who possess the law of God and those who do not. Yet when he looks among the Jews he sees the same types of sins he sees among the Gentiles. These same accusations against the Jews were also being made by Jewish teachers in Paul’s time.

Paul wraps up his point in 2:23 by saying that those Jews who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking it. The italicized word is the same one Paul used in 1:24 for those who dishonored their bodies when driven by various lusts.

Humility is warranted!

For every Christian who shielded a Jew from the Nazis, there was another who handed a Jew over for death. We who claim to love the living God through Jesus Christ must remember to do so humbly in light of our failings. While Paul is dealing with the Jews in this lesson’s Bible passage, he could just as well have spoken about us!

1. In speaking of the failings of others, we must always show grace and mercy in light of our own failings (Matt. 7:15). Can you recall recent examples when you did not show mercy in this way? What might you do to better honor the Lord? Personal judgments are regularly required (e.g. discipline of children, choosing a babysitter or doctor), and Jesus did not forbid those (Matt. 7:6 includes some). What experience do you have at getting it right?

2. If you took a searching look at yourself  similar to what Paul did with the Jews  what would you find about how your behavior honors God?

Making judgments is never easy, but the only way we can make sure that our lives honor Jesus Christ is to examine ourselves in relation to biblical teaching and listen to counsel from mature believers. Then we can walk the walk and talk the talk — all for Jesus!

Copyright 2012 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996) 163.