(This post is part of a series of short studies in Mark's Gospel)
Is there a relationship between Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree and his cleansing of the temple? What might the fig tree represent? What Old Testament Scriptures does Jesus draw from, and what is their significance to his actions in the temple?
It is no insignificant detail that immediately preceding Mark’s account of Jesus cursing the fig tree, he has him going into the temple and looking around at everything (11:11). Then the next day, Jesus goes looking for fruit on the fig tree, and finds only leaves, “for it was not the season for figs” (11:13). And then he pronounces the curse, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." The disciples hear it, and then [immediately after this] they enter Jerusalem, and Jesus enters the temple (11:14-15). This is Mark’s story telling at its best! The association between the fruitless fig tree and the temple the Jews had turned into a “den of thieves” was not lost even on the perpetually slow-to-understand disciples. For after they left the temple and the city, they passed by the now withered-to-the-roots fig tree, and “Peter remembered” (11:17-21).
The Old Testament Scriptures Jesus is drawing from in this scene of his “cleansing of the temple” indeed shed light on the theological significance of Jesus’ actions. Isaiah 56 looks forward to a time when the outcasts of Israel would be gathered back, into God’s “holy mountain” (i.e., “Mt. Zion,” or the church, cf. Hebrews 12:22-24). This then is likely a prophecy of the New Covenant and the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. By quoting it here, Jesus is signifying that the reality to which the temple pointed would be replacing the type or shadow that was the temple building, which was about to be destroyed. The second passage he is drawing from directly is Jeremiah 7, which contains within it a prophecy of the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem; and by using the words, “you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17), he is identifying those presently in power within that system with those against whom Jeremiah’s prophecy is spoken.
The temple and its system was “an oppressive structure which the priests ran to their own advantage” (cf. Isaiah 58; Zephaniah 3). And now Jesus is saying, “God is now doing something which is making this system redundant.” So as Wright points out, it isn’t the commercialism, or even the monetary “thievery” with which Jesus is primarily concerned. “By overturning the tables, he stops the animal sacrifices. By stopping the sacrificial system, he is symbolically saying, ‘This whole system is under judgment, and before too long it will stop completely, because the temple will be destroyed.’” This makes so much sense within the context and chronological sequence of Mark. Just before this Jesus “curses he fig tree” for not being “fruitful.” Then he drives those from the temple who had turned it into a “den of robbers,” by using the sacrificial system to oppress God’s people, and to exclude the very outcasts and outsiders that God was about to gather to himself, into His “house of prayer for all nations.” Then immediately after, Jesus passes by the withered fig tree, within which is a lesson that the “mountain” [of prideful, pharisaical Israel] is about to be cast into the “sea” (cf. Revelation 8:8). Shortly after this, Jesus speaks a parable against the Pharisees, the “builders” who had rejected the Lord’s “cornerstone,” who were about to be cut off completely (cf. Mark 12:1-12). All of this becomes the backdrop for Jesus’ foretelling of the destruction of the temple, and “the end of the age,” which are to be simultaneous events.
Because the Jews in the first century had rejected the reality to which the temple pointed, effectually “worshiping the creature rather than the Creator” (cf. Romans 1:25); they were guilty of turning the temple of God, and the law which was given to them as a tutor to lead them to Christ (cf. Galatians 3:24), into an idol. And for this reason they would were about to be destroyed along with it.
It is important that we remember that the temple and its practices were part of the Old Covenant that was about to come to an end. The Old Covenant was never to be permanent, nor was the temple (cf. Hebrews 8:6-12). The destruction of the temple was a sign of the end of the Old Covenant age, and insured the ending forever of the temple practices—animal sacrifices and such—which were part of a law that was “added because of transgressions” (cf. Galatians 3:19), and functioned to give the “knowledge of sin” (cf. Romans 3:20). In fact, in those very sacrifices, was “a reminder of sins every year” (cf. Hebrews 10:3). Now, through Christ, “a new and living way” into the “sanctuary” or the “holy place” (i.e., the presence of God—this room in the temple was not the “true” but rather a “copy” of it) was being opened, “through the veil” (remember the symbolism of the veil being torn in two), that is, “through his flesh” (cf. Hebrews 9:6-24; 10:15-21). Now, there would be no more yearly reminder of sins, and no “consciousness of sins” (cf. Hebrews 10:1-7) as in the New Covenant, God “remembers our sins no more” (cf. Hebrews 8:12). God’s people would no longer come to Jerusalem to worship, but “true worshipers would worship in Spirit and in Truth" (cf. John 4:23-24). The judgment that was coming upon the Pharisees, and those Jews who did not receive Christ as Israel’s Messiah, and did not heed Christ’s words to his disciples to “flee to the mountains” when they saw Jerusalem surrounded by armies (cf. Luke 21:20), and “the desolating sacrilege” (cf. Mark 13:14; Daniel 9:26-27), was indeed coming upon them for their idolatry. In seeking righteousness by works, they rejected the righteousness of God in Christ, and as Paul says, they “exchanged the truth of God for a lie” (cf. Romans 1:25).
 Contrast this fig tree, which was fruitless, and “out of season,” with the Tree of Life in the center of the New Jerusalem (i.e. the church) which bears fruit every month (cf. Revelation 22:2).
 Compare this curse to Jesus’ statement to the chief priests and Pharisees, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (cf. Matthew 21:43).
 N.T. Wright, What Is the Significance of Jesus Cleansing the Temple? (2001), The John Ankerberg Show (johnanderberg.org), Video Clip file, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U1rTG9MMWN4 (accessed June 1, 2012).
(This post is part of a series of short studies in Mark's Gospel)
Why was Jesus so hard on the Pharisees? In what way were they hypocritical? Is it possible for us to portray the Pharisees “unfairly” or irresponsibly and in such a way that contributes to antisemitism?
In Mark 7:6-8, Jesus identifies the Pharisees as 1) hypocrites, 2) those about whom Isaiah had prophesied rightly, and 3) those who had abandoned the commandment of God and were holding to human tradition (and it is appropriate to infer here that the human tradition they were holding to is being contrasted to the commandment of God, and is therefore opposed to it). Specifically, Isaiah’s prophecy names the Pharisees as those “who honor [God] with their lips, but [whose] hearts are far from [Him],” and as those whose worship of God is in vain. The Pharisees are specifically named five other times in the gospel of Mark (2:16-24; 3:3; 8:11-15; 10:2; 12:13). They are never presented in a positive light. In every encounter they have with Jesus and his disciples, they accuse Him of unrighteousness while exalting in their own righteousness. The Pharisees were those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (cf. Luke 18:9). They claimed to obey the law, but if they had truly known what it meant to obey it, they “would not have condemned the guiltless” (cf. Matthew 12:7).
Jesus said to the Pharisees that the kingdom of God would be taken away from them, and given to a nation bearing its fruits. And there was no doubt in their minds that he was speaking of them (cf. Matthew 21:43-45). Jesus addressed the Pharisees as descendants of those who had murdered the prophets, judged them guilty of “all the righteous blood shed on the earth,” and prophesied that judgment was about to come on their first century generation. Though they looked righteous on the outside, on the inside they were full of “all kinds of filth...hypocrisy and lawlessness” (cf. Matthew 23:1-38). The Pharisees were the “violent who sought to take the kingdom by force” (cf. Matthew 11:12); and Jesus accused them of hiding knowledge from the people: “You don’t enter the kingdom yourselves, and you prevent others from entering” (cf. Luke 11:52).
While the Pharisees are sometimes presented by extra biblical sources as those who were concerned with returning Israel to a pure religion through a stricter observance of the law, this characterization does not line up with the words of Jesus as recorded in the gospels. I believe in fact that as Jesus often quoted Isaiah to expose the Pharisees’ hypocrisy and self-righteousness, they were those whom Isaiah accused of “trampling on the Sabbath, and pursuing their own interests on God’s holy day;” and who used the law to oppress God’s people (cf. Isaiah 58:1-5).
There are ways, however, in which irresponsible “Christian” portrayals of the Pharisees have contributed to anti-Jewish attitudes. It would never be responsible, or truthful, for example, to portray the self-righteousness of the Pharisees in the first century as attributable to their race. I am always perplexed when professing Christians do this, for it is completely antithetical to a theology of the cross, which understands Christ’s death as the atonement for the sins of “the whole world.” Indeed, those who crucified Christ did so because of “the definite plan and knowledge of God” (cf. Acts 2:23). “It was the will of the Lord to crush Him with pain.” “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (cf. Isaiah 53:1-12). Therefore, any portrayal of the Pharisees with an anti-Semitic tone would be wholly incompatible with the Gospel. Instead, we should responsibly remind ourselves of Paul’s piercing question, “What then, are we better than they?” (cf. Romans 3:9) whenever we find ourselves pointing an accusing finger at others, including the Pharisees. It is true that the Pharisees (those of them who didn’t become believers) remained condemned for their self-righteousness; but it is also true that that same spirit of self-righteousness is bound up in each of us until we have been broken by the judgment of the Gospel, and have responded with repentance and faith.
 Isaiah 29:13 The Lord said: Because these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote; 14 so I will again do amazing things with this people, shocking and amazing. The wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden. 15 Ha! You who hide a plan too deep for the Lord, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, "Who sees us? Who knows us?"
A while back someone posted on our forum some thoughts about our obedience to Old Testament law today, not suggesting that it is required we obey it in order to be justified, but that perhaps we should be motivated out of gratitude to obey those laws, and also for practical reasons as many of them are wise guides for living. And another question was raised: If we are not under obligation to obey the law--either Old Testament or New Testament--in order to be justified before God, then what is our motivation to live morally? Or for that matter, to abstain from immorality?
The reason I am so drawn to having this conversation is that it's right where we all live. And it involves that tension I think we all feel between the legalism we were brought up with and our understanding of liberty in Christ, and also the tension between the fact (yes, it is a fact) that our consciences have been cleansed and are now absolutely perfect and guilt free--no, we couldn't possibly be cleaner, purer, or more righteous in God's sight--and the feeling we sometimes have that we are guilty.
And how do we assuage that "guilty" feeling? I think it's often by trying to be more obedient. It's our nature to try to do that. But when we find ourselves seeking relief from the feeling of guilt in obedience to law--any law, OT, NT, some standard we set up in our mind derived from comparing ourselves to others, whatever--it should be a red flag to us that we have forgotten the cross. For however brief a moment, and to whatever degree, when we seek to relieve our guilty feeling through our own performance, we have forgotten His mercy. And that is a very dangerous thing. Because as soon as we forget His mercy to us, we diminish our capacity to show it to others.
Something else that needs to be pointed out whenever we start talking about obeying Old Testament law (even as a wise and practical guide for living), is that Scripture doesn't make any distinction within that code that allows any parceling. So you simply cannot separate a discussion about obedience to any Old Testament law without dealing with the dilemma presented by the fact that Jesus and the apostles never said anything along the lines of, "Ok, guys, here is a list of the ones we are doing away with, and here is a list of the ones that still apply." Christians have those lists in their heads but they are nowhere in Scripture. So if we speak of obedience to certain laws--or to even one of them--"out of gratitude," then how do we avoid advocating the obedience of the entire law out of gratitude?
But now back to motive. If our motive is not to assuage our guilty conscience, since we are truly guilt-free, then what motive do we have to obey--specifically, setting the Old Testament law aside, what motive do we have to abstain from immorality as defined by the New Testament? Certainly, the "law of Christ" can be summed up as 1. Love God and 2. Love others. And if that is all we ever thought about, if our motive was simply love for God and others in response to His love for us, out of thankfulness, then wouldn't "immorality" be a non-issue? When we think of New Testament admonitions toward how we should "walk" as God's people, love as the motive really does cover everything. "We love because He first loved us," and we prove He has loved us when we love one another (1 John).
But there is another "motive" we all tend toward. Or I know I am confronted with this every day. The best way I know to illustrate it is with this familiar passage:
1Co 6:9 Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, 1Co 6:10 Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. 1Co 6:11 And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.
Legalists loooooove this passage. The self-righteous simply adore it. Never mind that it condemns them all with the same standard by which they judge others. They can't be bothered with that. They just love to use it to prove that salvation is by works!
Let's face the facts, if it were true that by doing something on that list, you are disinherited from the kingdom, then we are all dead. The cross did nothing for us, and we have no hope. We've all done things on that list since becoming Christians. But the power of the cross and the glory of mercy is stated right there in that passage: even though we still do those things, those things are not who we are.
"And such were some of you. But you are washed." In other words, in God's eyes that is not who you are, anymore. And it has nothing to do with your ability to avoid doing those things. And thank God it doesn't!
What then is my motive for abstaining from those things which I know to be immoral as the Bible defines immorality, and both harmful to myself and others? It certainly is not to assuage my guilt over having done them, or even my guilt for continuing to fall into them. I am free of that guilt because of Christ's righteousness. And because of His mercies new every morning. But when I do those things I still may feel guilty. And such a feeling of guilt or shame , when it doesn't drive me to my knees in thankfulness at the foot of the cross, may instead drive me back to legalism, which always leads to projecting judgment onto someone else. Self-righteousness is the twin brother of guilt, they are truly two sides of the same coin. And both are an affront to the finished work of Christ.
So just as falling into self-righteous law keeping should be a red flag reminding me to not forget the cross; falling into immorality should be a red flag reminding me to not forget the cross. And when I do fall and feel guilty, I need to run to the cross and be reminded that I am forgiven and cleansed. And be restored once again to the joy of that forgiveness so that I can share it with others. And love them. My motive? "The love of Christ compels me." That's the communion we are invited to experience with Him and with one another in Him, whereby we "fulfill the law of Christ."
I was recently asked this question. I hope some of you may be encouraged by the response below.
In Revelation, John writes about the "works you did at first" to the Ephesians, and to those in Sardis he writes, "I know your works;...you are dead." What kind of works could John be referring to?
Regarding the admonition to the church at Ephesus to "do the works you did at first," there is a parallel structure that is significant:
"You have abandoned the love you had first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first."
"The love you had" and "the works you did" are clearly paralleled, and cannot be separated.
In Paul's letter to the Ephesians, he praised them for their faith and "love for all the saints" (Ephesians 1). They had obeyed the gospel by believing, and the resulting fruit of that belief was love for God and His people. Many of the believers in all of these churches were Jews. In order to believe the gospel they had to repent of their former "dead works" (ie, self-righteousness under the law, cf. Hebrews 6:1). When some law-abiding Jews asked Jesus, "what must we do, to be doing the works of God?" He answered, "this is the work of God, that you believe on Him who He has sent" (John 6:28,29). A common theme throughout the New Testament is the temptation that Jewish believers, who were being persecuted by the self-proclaimed "Jews" who were of the "synagogue of Satan," had to return to the law after believing the gospel of grace. When John writes here, "repent from where you have fallen," we might consider the connection to Paul's statement to the Galatians that if they returned to self-righteousness and trusting in the "flesh" (ie, their own efforts to keep the law) after having begun by the "spirit," they had "fallen from grace" (Galatians 5).
Regarding the "soiled garments" of those in Sardis (Revelation 3:1f), I believe this also is a reference to self-righteous works. Isaiah says, "all our righteousness are as filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6). It is only in Christ that we are clothed with "robes of righteousness," and the beautiful "garments of salvation" (Isaiah 61:10).
Notice that the church at Sardis also is admonished to return to what they had "received and heard." Of course what they had received and heard was the same gospel that the Ephesians had received and heard, which had resulted in "the love they had at first." Again, the dichotomy between self-righteousness and faith in the righteousness of Christ by the gospel is emphasized.
This same contrast is evident in the message to the Laodiceans (Revelation 3:14f), who believed themselves to be "rich" but were in reality "poor, blind and naked." And what was the solution for their nakedness? In this clear allusion to the garden scene, the only remedy for the shame of nakedness is the righteousness of Christ. In the garden Adam and Eve tried to cover themselves with garments of their own making, but their shame remained. For as Isaiah says, "their webs shall not become garments, neither shall they cover themselves with their works" (Isaiah 59:6). Shame is always the result of our attempts to "buy" (work for) our own righteousness. But to the church at Laodicea, and to us today, Jesus says, "buy of me ("without money and without price"—Isaiah 55) gold tried in the fire, so you will be rich, and white raiment ("garments of salvation"—Isaiah 61) so you will be clothed, and so that the shame of your nakedness does not appear."
Again, "This is the work of God (i.e., the works you did at first): that you believe on Him Whom He has sent" (John 6:28,29).
I received this question from a friend in my small group the other day:
I am struggling with Romans 2: 1-16. It seems to go a bit against what I have more recently been understanding about God's Grace and Mercy and that works alone will not save us. That I understand, but what about 2:6-8?
Romans 2:6 "God will give to each person according to what he has done. 7 To those by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.
I understand that if we are truly following God, then there shouldn't be a disparity in our lives between what we say and believe and what we do. I understand that we are not saved by works, but the integrity of our faith can be revealed through works? Help me put the wrath and judgment piece together with Grace and Mercy.
This is an important discussion, thanks for bringing it forward. I’d like to offer a few thoughts regarding the passage you have quoted—first considering the specific statement you are asking about in verses 6f regarding wrath and judgment and secondly considering the larger context of Romans.
Notice there are two groups of people being contrasted:
1. Those “who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality”
2. Those “who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness”
Those who do “good” and seek “glory, honor, and immortality” are those who are not destined for judgment and wrath. Therefore we know these to be believers. The “good” that we “do” which results in glory and immortality is to believe the gospel. In fact, Scripture is clear that belief in the gospel is the only way to glory and immortality. Consider the following:
John 6:28,29 Then they said to Him, "What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?" Jesus answered and said to them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent."
2 Timothy 1:9,10 who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,
So we know that those who are “doing good” in Romans 2 are believers in Christ. And no believer in Christ will ever, EVER experience judgment or wrath from God. To suggest otherwise really amounts to despising the work of Christ on the cross. There are many things we could talk about regarding what these believers were experiencing in the first century which required the “patience” of which Paul speaks. They were enduring intense persecution from not only the Romans, but also from the self-righteous Pharisees and Jews who were enemies of the gospel, and who were about to have God’s wrath poured out on them--which brings us to the identity of the second group: those “who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness.” Again, what is the “truth?” The truth is the gospel. To obey the truth is to believe the gospel. To disobey the truth is to reject the gospel. And it’s helpful to back up a couple of verses for the clearest confirmation of who these “disobedient” ones are:
Romans 2:5 But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God,
Now back up even farther to chapter 1, which sets the context for this whole discussion. The wrath of God (the same wrath which is the subject of your question in chapter 2) was being or about to be revealed at the time of this writing against those “suppressed the truth.” Again, the truth is the gospel. And yes, we can prove this:
Rom 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.
Rom 1:17 For in it [the gospel of Christ] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, "THE JUST SHALL LIVE BY FAITH."
Now watch this:
Rom 1:18 For the wrath of God is [present tense--it was happening or about to happen then] revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth [the truth is a synonym in this very context for the gospel in verse 16] in unrighteousness.
So, to sum up the difference between these two groups Paul is contrasting: those who “do good” believe the gospel, and those who are “self-seeking” (ie, they instead trust in themselves, or in their own righteousness) do not believe the gospel.
And some additional thoughts, considering again the larger context. If we keep reading in chapter 2 we will find continued confirmation that it is the self-righteous, unrepentant, Christ-rejecting Jews who were about to receive God’s judgment and wrath. Watch this:
Rom 2:17 Indeed you are called a Jew, and rest on the law [ie, you trust in self-righteousness], and make your boast in God [you claim to be serving God],
Rom 2:18 and know His will, and approve the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law,
Rom 2:19 and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness,
Rom 2:20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having the form of knowledge and truth in the law.
Rom 2:21 You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal?
Rom 2:22 You who say, "Do not commit adultery," do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?
Rom 2:23 You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law? [he is exposing their hypocrisy]
Rom 2:24 For "THE NAME OF GOD IS BLASPHEMED AMONG THE GENTILES BECAUSE OF YOU," as it is written. [quoting Isaiah 52, ie, God’s name is being blasphemed because of your self-righteousness]
Rom 2:25 For circumcision [the “Jewishness” and legalism you are trusting in] is indeed profitable if you keep the law [but NO ONE CAN]; but if you are a breaker of the law [which all of you are], your circumcision has become uncircumcision [ie, your law-keeping is worthless, and gets you nothing].
Now this is the clincher, right here:
Rom 2:26 Therefore, if an uncircumcised man [a Gentile, one you despise as unclean and a law-breaker] keeps the righteous requirements of the law [WHAT?!], will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision?
Wait a minute. As we studied in Galatians, no one is justified by keeping the law, because no one CAN keep the law. As we read in James, to break one tiny part of it is to break the whole thing. So how can an “uncircumcised man” (a Gentile, and the fact that he is uncircumcised means he’s already broken the law, since the law requires circumcision! This is some riddle!) keep the “righteous requirements of the law” so that it turns him into a Jew? (That is essentially what is meant by “his uncircumcision will be counted as circumcision.") Paul explains it later in Romans (we HAVE to read Romans as a whole, because of course that is the way it was delivered). Remember the phrase from 2:26 above, “the righteous requirements of the law…” and watch this (remember, it is part of the same discussion by Paul):
Rom 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh [ie, do not seek justification in the law], but according to the Spirit.
Rom 8:2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.
Rom 8:3 For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh,
Rom 8:4 that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh [seeking justification/righteousness by keeping the law] but according to the Spirit [trusting in and receiving Christ’s righteousness].
Remember that Paul says in chapter 2 that anyone who keeps “the righteous requirements of the law” is counted as a Jew. In contrast to the ones who prided themselves in being Jews (keepers of the law, righteous in their own eyes, and superior in their own eyes because of their national/racial "Jewish" heritage). And here Paul continues by saying that those “righteous requirements of the law” ARE FULFILLED by Christ, IN us.
Finally, look at the last verses of chapter 2, which again clarify the contrast Paul was making at the beginning of the chapter:
Rom 2:28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly [ie, you self-righteous ones who think you are better than others because you are “Jews” are not “Jews” in any way that matters to God] or is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh;
Rom 2:29 but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God. [ie, true “Jews,” true keepers of God’s law, are believers in Jesus Christ, who have been forgiven and cleansed by the cross, and who are now perfectly righteous in the sight of God.]
So to bring this full circle back to your question, how do we reconcile the statement in Romans 2 that God gives to each person “according to what he has done,” with His mercy and grace to believers? His mercy and grace is indeed lavished upon ANYONE who does “good”—or “the work of God,” which is to BELIEVE in Jesus. And when we abandon self-effort/self-righteousness, and trust in Christ’s righteousness, “the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled in us. Christ fulfilled it, because we could not. And for us who have believed, for you and me, ”it has been fulfilled. Once and for all. “Therefore there is no condemnation.”
“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, SO THAT we would be made the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
“The Lord has brought forth our righteousness, come let us declare in Zion (Zion = the church, the assembly or congregation of believers) the work of our God.” (Jeremiah 51:10)
For further study, we also discuss this section of Romans 2 in this podcast, if you are interested in spanning out even farther to include a larger Scriptural context for Paul's comments.
This past summer on our family vacation, which included three extra teenagers, as each of ours brought a friend, I watched an Ellen DeGeneres DVD with the girls. I have always enjoyed her comedy and we laughed a lot. At the end of one of the segments, however, it got a little more serious, when she took comments and questions from the audience. A young woman came to the mic who would be recognized on the street immediately by any of us as being a lesbian. She immediately choked up to the point of having difficulty speaking, and expressed to Ellen what a difference she had made in her life by "coming out" and how it gave her hope for her future, and brought her comfort in the midst of all the pain she had experienced at the treatment she had received by those in her community, and some in her own family.
Ellen was visibly moved (sure, there may be some who would say it was all staged and contrived, but I am not speaking here to those people) and motioned for the woman to come forward. She bent down over the front of the stage and embraced her, at which point the woman sobbed uncontrollably in her arms.
My girls all teared up as most anyone with even a basic sense of compassion would. I was moved to tears as well, but perhaps for more specific reasons. I immediately wondered if she came from a "fundamentalist" background. It is a story I am sure you all have heard over and over again from homosexuals who speak out: they come out from "fundamentalism" and break free of its oppression. Invariably, anyone who comes out as a homosexual, and is a member of a church even remotely resembling the church in which I grew up, has only one option available to them, and that is to leave that church...or be expelled.
You know what's perplexing? You don't see gossips being compelled to leave the church. On the contrary, it's often a "the more the merrier" mentality. You don't see those who perpetuate strife among brothers being kicked out, as they often manage to present themselves as acting in the interest of "truth". But there is no such thing as truth void of mercy; that "truth" is a lie.
As I watched Ellen embrace this young woman, and comfort her in her pain, letting her know she was not alone, I thought about Christ, and how He would have responded to her. We don't have to wonder whether He would have responded like Ellen who embraced her, or like the "fundamentalists" who had turned their backs. We already know.
I thought about my girls and what I am teaching them about Christianity, and who Christ is. And who we are in Him. What made me weep was the fact that an unbeliever was demonstrating to them them a level of compassion that they were not likely to see in a "church" any time soon.
My 17-yr-old daughter asked me a few months ago, "If I got pregnant, would you kick me out of the house? Because [so-and-so's] mom would kick her out." I was immediately grieved that the question had to be asked, but what I realized after a very tender conversation with her, was that she knew the answer, she just needed to hear it from me again. And so I resolved that day that she would continue to hear it again, and often.
The moralist will dismiss this as sentimentalism, or "emotionalism", or as somehow excusing immorality. I even heard one say recently that to admit to our moral weaknesses, and confess them to one another, was to take pride in them, or to be without remorse. That somehow owning up to our human frailty and reveling in the mercy of God is the height of debauchery. (Nothing like entirely missing the point!) But "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ."
As Christians, who have experienced God's mercy and forgiveness and are commanded to love one another as Christ has loved us, we should respond to a fellow believer who struggles with homosexuality the same way we respond to a fellow believer who struggles with any other area of weakness. And yet for whatever reason, this one "sin", and even one who commits it, has been separated as untouchable by the church. This is especially perplexing since the afore-mentioned sin of gossip arguably does much more damage to God's people and the reputation of His Kingdom in the world. It should sadden all of us, and convict our conscience, to see an unbeliever show more compassion to a stranger than we as members of God's household would show to a hurting brother or sister.
Why does James write, "Confess your faults one to another?" He tells us why, in that very context:
James 5: 16 Confess your faults one to another, <em>and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.
It goes hand in hand with this passage:
Galatians 6: 1 Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, <em>restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. 2 <em>Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
We confess our faults, or our struggles and weaknesses, with one another <em>so that</em> we may be restored and healed. But where there is fear of judgment and condemnation, not to mention excommunication, this restoration cannot be accomplished. Christ's law cannot be fulfilled through our communion if we are fearing one another. That is why the apostle writes, "There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18).
So many times I have heard Christian parents speak about the ultimate shame of finding out their child struggles with homosexuality. But would these same parents hang their heads and be afraid to show their faces in church if their child struggled with being unkind, unloving, self-righteous or judgmental? It is no wonder that hurting people desperate for mercy often run as far from "church" as they can get.
As parents, we should consider fervently how we are portraying Christianity to our children. I want my children to encounter Christ in my loving arms. I want all who enter my home to be embraced by His mercy. And someday, maybe those expelled from "church" will be drawn to the Kingdom of our Savior.
I have been married to my loving husband Keith for 26 years. We have three beautiful and brilliant children, ages 24, 22 and 20. Nothing cheers my heart more than having them all at home, yet nothing is more satisfying to my mind than watching them grow from afar. My personal passion is theology: the knowledge and experience of the Truth and Mercy found only in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and displayed in the lives and communion of His people. My husband and I love to travel, and because our children are often out and about in the world, we get lots of opportunities to see it! And we also love to fill our home with friends who love us, and love our wine collection.