Ultimately, after relaying what he hopes is a useful allegory concerning slavery and freedom, contrasting the works of the law and belief in Jesus, he brazenly declares “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery. Listen! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you at all” (5:1-2). Here, Paul echoes verse twenty-one of chapter two, where he wrote “I do not set aside God’s grace, because if righteousness,” or right standing in regards to the covenant (justification, salvation, etc…), “could come through the law, then Christ died for nothing!” These words are not to be heard apart from the Jew and Gentile divide and the issue of justification, and Paul’s assertion that “every man who lets himself be circumcised… is obligated to obey the whole law” (5:3), gains its import by being heard in correspondence with that issue.
At the same time, Paul is not going to let anybody get away with any half measures. If somebody wants to be identified as a covenant participant through the old covenant markers, thus rejecting the new covenant marker of belief in Jesus, then they must go all the way, observing Sabbaths and food laws (and perhaps even all of Torah). It feels as if Paul is reaching for the most persuasive terms possible, indicating the grave importance of Jesus alone (faith alone) as the covenant marker to be borne by the people of God as they continue their march of responsibility through history, representing a kingdom and a King. This attempt at persuasion at all costs has him uttering things like “You who are trying to be declared righteous by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace!” (5:4) The demand is clear: the kingdom of God and its covenant will be realized through God’s gracious demonstration of Himself through Jesus the Christ. Though it used to be the case that those that did not live in accordance with the covenant markers of Israel were the ones that were aliens to the covenant, now it is the case that those who live according to those covenant markers are, in fact, the ones who are aliens to the promise. There is no going back. “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision carries any weight---the only thing that matters is faith working through love” (5:6).
By way of placing ourselves within our context as we read these words, and though there is certainly a different tone to his words and no evidence of grave disappointment, let it be said that, because these words have to do with justification, Paul could just as easily be communicating these things to the church of Rome. However, before returning to Romans, let’s advance a few pages forward in the New Testament, to make some quick, related observations, regarding Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
Though it is rarely the case that one makes reference to Philippians when considering the issue of justification, once the proper basis for the subject is understood, its presence in the letter to Philippi becomes apparent. Thus, turning to the third chapter, we see Paul alluding to justification, to Judaizers, and to the freedom by which Gentiles enter into and remain under the covenant through their belief in Jesus as Lord rather than through outward markers, as he writes “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” (3:2) Having offered that rhetorical volley, Paul then identifies himself with the Gentile congregants of Philippi, with “For we are the circumcision,” a term normally reserved for circumcised Israel, “the ones who worship by the Spirit of God, exult in Christ Jesus, and do not rely on human credentials---though mine too are significant” (3:3-4a). It is not difficult to hear Paul saying “We, the ones who, by the movement of the Spirit of God and as evidence of the new creation begun in Christ, worship Jesus as Lord and Messiah, are the covenant people of God, rather than those that rely on the old marks of the covenant that used to convey that status.”
Paul moves along, writing “If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials,” that being the traditional badges of covenant, “I have more. I was circumcised on the eighth day, from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin” (3:4b-5a). In the original allocation of the promised land, Jerusalem, thence the place where the Temple was located, was within the tribal allotment of Benjamin. Thus, being of Benjamin, for this and other reasons, could be a special source of honor. This is important, as we consider that all public interactions, in those days, took the form of an honor competition. Here, Paul is referencing his own credentials, which takes the form of competing for honor, but it becomes a paradoxical assertion, as we shall soon see. Continuing, Paul claims to be “a Hebrew of Hebrews,” adding, “I lived according to the law as a Pharisee. In my zeal for God I persecuted the church” (3:5b-6a). Significantly, “According to the righteousness stipulated in the law I was blameless” (3:6b). Paul, he of the un-tortured conscience in this matter of right standing before God, upheld every bit of the law concerning righteousness, solidly ensconced, in terms of Israel’s understanding of these things prior to Christ, within the covenant. Paul was fully expecting to participate in the resurrection at the eschaton and in all of the blessings that were understood to be coming to Israel because of its special privilege.