In these verses, Paul adds a new dimension to the ongoing tension between Gentile and Jew within the church and that new dimension is that being a “Jew” in the New Testament is something quite different that it was in the past. Before Christ, being a Jew was all about being a descendant of Abraham in the flesh, thus being circumcised if you are male, and being the possessors of the Law of Moses. Now however, all of that is different…
In 2:17-24, Paul lays out a scenario; quite a common one in fact, of a first century Jewish person who believes that he is superior to others because he is a Jew (17-20). Because they were in possession of the Law, Jews believed they were more enlightened than other peoples, who were living in the darkness of ignorance, hence Paul’s comments about teaching the foolish and so on. While being possessed of this attitude, all Jews knew that they were not always entirely perfect in their keeping of the law, whether they chose to admit it or not, thus Paul transitions to a series of possible examples of their own imperfection in 21-23. In verse 24, he references the writings of Isaiah and Ezekiel to conclude his point, reminding them that among the Gentiles, their very apparent hypocrisy has brought dishonor to the name of God: Outward righteousness is never an acceptable substitute for inner truth.
Verses 25-27 reinforce this thought by using circumcision as the very sign of “Jewish-ness” for it is indeed the covenant sign of being Abraham’s descendant. Simply bearing the outward sign does not matter if the entire Law is not kept. A person who keeps the Law but is not circumcised will be the one who condemns the circumcised lawbreaker.
With this set up, Paul drops the bombshell:
A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God. (2:28-29)
It isn’t easy for us in the 21st century to fully appreciate how revolutionary this was in the first century to the Jewish psyche. The entire Law is an exercise in outward forms representing an inward reality that was to come; the outward forms themselves did not save anyone. We should understand this, even though most modern Christians seem to miss it. We covered this in our study of Galatians, see Galatians 6:12-16, and note what Paul says is the “Israel of God” in verse 16. For Jewish Christians of Paul’s day, an understanding of this principle would have put an end to the practice of some who caused no end of problems by insisting that only Jews could receive Christ.
The Law could not save a person; it could only condemn a person. Ceremonies and rituals cannot save a person, only Jesus can save us. Observing traditions of whatever sort cannot save anyone, only the blood of Christ can do that, and being transformed into His likeness can only be hindered by such things, for only personal relationship between the Master and His disciple can transform a person.