Messianic Apologetics

Addressing the Theological and Spiritual Issues of the Broad Messianic Movement

Michael Brown on “Are Gentile Christians Spiritual Jews?”

You can technically affirm a non-Jewish Believer in Israel’s Messiah as a “spiritual Jew,” without holding to replacement theology. Yet, given some of the complexities of Paul’s letter to the Romans, does Romans 2:28-29 speak to non-Jewish Believers being “spiritual Jews”—or does it instead speak to how a Jewish Believer in Yeshua, may truly be regarded as Jewish, precisely because of a circumcised heart resultant of Messiah faith? Many people in today’s Messianic Jewish movement would regard Jewish Believers in Yeshua as Completed Jews.

With some interest, I recently watched the short clip from Michael Brown about, “Are Gentile Christians Spiritual Jews?” Far too frequently in theological discussion, the statements of Romans 2:28-29 are read from a supersessionist vantage point—where non-Jewish, Christian people, as “spiritual Jews,” are considered part of “the Church” construed as the “New Israel.” Yet at the same time, even among those in our Messianic movement, are those who would conclude that non-Jewish Believers in Israel Messiah are to be regarded as not just “are fellow citizens with the holy ones, and of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19, PME) within the Commonwealth of Israel (Ephesians 2:11-13), but should be regarded as spiritual Jews.

You can technically affirm a non-Jewish Believer in Israel’s Messiah as a “spiritual Jew,” without holding to replacement theology. Yet, given some of the complexities of Paul’s letter to the Romans, does Romans 2:28-29 speak to non-Jewish Believers being “spiritual Jews”—or does it instead speak to how a Jewish Believer in Yeshua, may truly be regarded as Jewish, precisely because of a circumcised heart resultant of Messiah faith? Many people in today’s Messianic Jewish movement would regard Jewish Believers in Yeshua as Completed Jews.

There are parts of Paul’s letter to the Romans, addressed to the Jewish Believers in Rome, and other parts addressed to the Greek and Roman Believers, and yet other parts addressed to all of the Believers. This is where I think that Romans 2:28-29 is addressed to the Jewish Believers in Rome. Brown is correct to conclude that Romans 2:28-29, especially when read without chapter breaks through the opening of Romans 3, is limited to ethnic Jewish people.

The excerpt below is taken from my publication Are Non-Jewish Believers Really a Part of Israel? (2013), exploring some of today’s debates over ecclesiology in the Messianic movement. It does affirm that non-Jewish Believers are grafted-in (Romans 11:16-17) to Israel’s olive tree, and are co-members with Jewish Believers in the Commonwealth of Israel. But it also affirms that this needs to be approached very carefully, particularly with the need for non-Jewish Believers to be ever mindful of being vessels of God’s grace and mercy to their Jewish neighbors (Romans 11:31)!

Romans 2:28-29

“For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God” (NASU).

Romans 2:28-29 is a place where it is commonly asserted that non-Jewish Believers can possibly be viewed as some sort of “spiritual Jews.” Even though not born Jewish in the flesh, or perhaps even physically circumcised, such people may be perceived as having a “Jewish heart” via their faith in the Jewish Messiah.

It is difficult to avoid how there is obviously a connection made in the text, where the Greek Ioudaios serves to represent the Hebrew Yehudah, which on the basis of Genesis 29:35[1] and 49:8,[2] is widely regarded to mean “to give thanks, laud, praise” (TWOT).[3] The true “Jew,” is one who can have praises issued from the God of Israel, the Creator, and not other mortals:

“For one is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision something visible in the flesh. Rather, the Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart—in Spirit not in letter. His praise is not from men, but from God” (Romans 2:28-29, TLV).

Interpreters, whether lay readers or even some professional expositors, tend to be divided, as to whether or not the person who is Ioudaios in view in Romans 2:28-29, is simply among the many Jewish people who constituted the community of Messiah followers in Rome, or how any person regardless of ethnicity who trusts in the Jewish Messiah may be regarded as “Jewish,” likely in some sort of connection to Him. Not surprisingly, both views of Romans 2:29-29, are detectable within our contemporary Messianic movement.

One who is reflective of the view that non-Jewish Believers may actually be regarded as “spiritual Jews” to some degree, is D. Thomas Lancaster, in his book Grafted In (2009):

Paul implies a difference between legal Israel and Kingdom Israel in Romans 2 when he distinguishes between one who is only Jewish “outwardly,” according to the flesh, and one who is Jewish inwardly:

For he is not a Jew who is so outwardly, neither is circumcision that which is outward in flesh; but a Jew is he who is so inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart, in spirit, not in letter, of which the praise is not of men, but of God. (Romans 2:28-29 YLT)

Paul concedes that a Gentile who is a Jew “inwardly” and therefore part of Kingdom Israel (but not legal Israel) has no legal standing in Israel in the eyes of men. Therefore, his “praise is not of men, but of God.”[4]

In his Jewish New Testament Commentary, David H. Stern actually devotes several pages to Romans 2:28-29 (pp 336-340), which in his JNT/CJB are rendered as:

“For the real Jew is not merely Jewish outwardly: true circumcision is not only external and physical. On the contrary, the real Jew is one inwardly; and true circumcision is of the heart, spiritual not literal; so that his praise comes not from other people but from God.”

In reviewing some of Stern’s remarks, it is not quite clear where he stands on the audience being addressed in these verses. He first makes the attestation that these statements by Paul should be read with people who are actually Jewish in mind, but then wavers a bit:

“It is obvious that in v. 28 the people spoken of as not real Jews are in fact born Jews, for no one needs to be told that Gentiles are not Jews. But in this passage, exactly who is a real Jew? Is Sha’ul talking about born Jews who are also born again (Yn [John] 3:3), that is, about Messianic Jews? Or is he making a radical and dramatic assertion that some Gentiles (as well as some born Jews) are actually Jews in God’s sight by virtue of being Jews inwardly, having circumcised hearts that offer praise to God? In other words, is he saying that both Messianic Jews and Gentile Christians are Jews?”[5]

As he deliberates on the various options presented to the interpreter, Stern bears a reliance on the Medieval Jewish PaRDeS hermeneutic, thinking that while literally it is impossible for non-Jewish Believers in Israel’s Messiah to be regarded as “Jewish,” spiritually it is something possible to consider:

“Carrying many new ideas in his head, Sha’ul could produce a sentence that had both a simple sense (p’shat) and a hint (remez) of something more profound; furthermore he would not be averse to making an allegorical or homiletical application (drash) of his own words or looking in them for a secret meaning (sod); because these four ways of interpreting texts were well known among educated Jews…

“Thus a born-again Gentile, one who has come to faith in the God of Israel through trusting Yeshua the Messiah, is indeed a Jew inwardly; his heart is circumcised even though his flesh is not; he is a true God-praiser, whose praise comes from God and not from other people—in many senses a real Jew…”[6]

Stern takes some serious liberties, such as assuming that the PaRDeS hermeneutic was even in usage in the First Century C.E., when by all accounts while midrash was, PaRDeS was not.[7] Furthermore, this part of the Epistle to the Romans is plainly, by the text of the letter itself, directed to a sub-audience: “if you bear the name ‘Jew’ and rely upon the Law and boast in God” (Romans 2:17, NASU). Or as Stern himself has rendered it in his JNT/CJB: “if you call yourself a Jew and rest on Torah and boast about God.” The Apostle Paul communicated to a broad and mixed Jewish and non-Jewish audience in Rome, and there should be no doubt that certain parts of his message concerned more Jewish concerns, and other parts concerned more localized Roman issues.[8]

While there are those who think that non-Jewish Believers in Yeshua, as some sort of “spiritual Jews,” are in view for Romans 2:28-29—there are others, commenting specifically from a Messianic perspective, and recognizing the mixed audience of Jewish, Greek and Roman Messiah followers among the assemblies in Rome—who think that the Jewish Believers in Rome are specifically being addressed here. This is a sub-group in Paul’s letter which Paul specifically admonished, as he emphasized that personal “Jewishness,” including the distinction of being physically circumcised from the time of birth, is not enough for them to be regarded highly by God. This is especially true when the tenor of Romans 2:14-16 is considered, and how various people from the nations—and some think even pagans who have sought God only via His natural revelation in Creation at large (cf. Romans 1:19-20)[9]—are shown to be more obedient to His Instruction than various Jewish people:

“For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Messiah Yeshua” (NASU).

Jewish people must possess a stellar personal character—one which is embodied by the proper name Yehudah/Ioudaios—and receive accolades not from any of their fellow human beings because they are Jewish and circumcised, but from God Himself. In his commentary on Romans (2005), Tim Hegg is reflective of this position:

“What is Paul saying…? First, let’s remember that he is addressing the Jewish constituents within the Roman synagoague [sic] at this point in the chapter. His reference to the Gentile who keeps the Torah [Romans 2:27] is simply a way to rebuke and shame the Jews who were insincere in their pursuit of God. Secondly, he is speaking within the sphere of Jewishness, and asserts the same axiom which he speaks plainly in 9:6, namely, that not all physical (outward) descendants of Jacob are actually (inward) Israel. For Paul, it cannot merely be physical lineage which makes a person Jewish—there must be more. If ‘not every descendant from Israel is Israel’ (9:6), who is a descendant of Israel? Paul’s answer is that there must be circumcision of the heart to match the physical circumcision, or there is no value whatsoever in the physical circumcision. Physical lineage has value, even apart from faith, for the descendants of Jacob still comprise the chosen nation of God. What is more, the temporal blessings of the covenant (and these should not be minimalized) remain the possession of the nation of Israel, even in their unbelief. But Paul is emphasizing the eternal promises of the covenant (‘whose praise is not from men, but from God’), which are the possession only of those who believe and are therefore righteous. These are those who are circumcised both in flesh and in heart (cf. Ezek 44:7-9).

“The circumcision of the heart is a Torah concept (cf. Lev 26:41; Dt 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4, 9:26), and apart from it the Jewish person fares no better than the pagan before the bar of God’s justice. The circumcision of the flesh, which marks him as a covenant member and therefore the recipient of God’s blessing, apart from the corresponding circumcision of the heart is considered as though he were no covenant member at all (his circumcision has become uncircumcision) in terms of the eternal promises of the covenant.”[10]

Another voice to be considered, who looks at Romans 2:28-29 not from the perspective of a non-Jewish Greek or Roman Messiah follower actually being a “spiritual Jew”—but instead that Paul’s words are directed to admonish the Jewish Messiah followers in Rome—is seen in Mark D. Nanos’ statements in The Jewish Annotated New Testament. He first comments on Romans 2:28, “For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical” (NRSV),[11]

“Paul refers to the ideals to which circumcised flesh for Jewish males bears witness: For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, lit., ‘for the Jew is not (ultimately) the one conspicuously known to be (a Jew)’; nor is true (Gk. lacks ‘true’) circumcision something external and physical, lit. ‘nor is the one known to be circumcised in the flesh thereby necessarily the ideal Jew.’”[12]

Nanos goes on, in commenting on Romans 2:29, “Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God” (NRSV),[13] how true Jewish character is expressed from the heart:

“Paul’s point is not that Gentiles are the true Jews, or that the foreskinned are the true or real circumcision; quite the opposite: the terms ‘Jew’ and ‘circumcision’ are reserved for Israelites. Real circumcision (Gk lacks ‘real’); it is spiritual and not literal, lit., ‘by spirit (made manifest in the way one lives), not by inscription (i.e., not [merely] by a cut into the flesh).’ Thus this verse could be translated: Rather, the deepest character of the Jew, even the purpose of circumcision, is about the spirit, the intentions of the heart (at work through the way one lives who is so marked), not (merely) inscribed (in flesh) (as if a mark alone fully defined who one is).”[14]

While the circumcision of the heart (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; cf. Ezekiel 36:26), is surely something which is universal—not only to Jewish, Greek, and Roman males, but also to females—to assert from Romans 2:28-29 that non-Jewish people can be “spiritual Jews,” is to misapply the text. The purpose of Paul, here in his letter, was to actually issue some admonitions to various Jewish Messiah followers in Rome, who may have looked at their circumcision status as one of superiority and pride. To the Apostle Paul, a true Jewish person was one who could receive praise from God, and should rightly not take any accolades from mortals—who may be prone to fawn over them for being Jewish and circumcised from birth—because Paul himself certainly did not (Philippians 3:5), as his status was based firmly in what the Messiah had accomplished for him.[15]

Romans 2:28-29 is not a text which directly concerns the question Are non-Jewish Believers really a part of Israel?, given the ancient audience of the Epistle to the Romans. This is a question that more concerns the salvation-historical narrative provided by the Apostle Paul in Romans chs. 9-11, the great agony that he had for his fellow First Century Jews who rejected Yeshua, and the place that the redeemed from the nations were to play in helping to see salvation brought to the Jewish people. However, Romans 2:28-29, when examined properly, does speak to a negative spiritual dynamic present where various Jewish people will seek recognition via their heritage—and will not always represent the foundational ethics that their heritage should convey to the world at large.


[1] “And she conceived again and bore a son and said, ‘This time I will praise the LORD.’ Therefore she named him Judah. Then she stopped bearing” (Genesis 29:35, NASU).

[2] “Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down to you” (Genesis 49:8, NASU).

[3] Paul R. Gilchrist, “Yehudah,” in R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 1:369.

[4] D. Thomas Lancaster, Grafted In: Israel, Gentiles, and the Mystery of the Gospel (Marshfield, MO: First Fruits of Zion, 2009), 6.

[5] Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, 338.

[6] Ibid., 339.

[7] Consult the FAQ, “PaRDeS.”

[8] Consult the author’s entry for the Epistle to the Romans in A Survey of the Apostolic Scriptures for the Practical Messianic.

[9] This controversial issue is explored in the author’s exegesis paper on Romans 1:18-25, “Is Salvation Only Available for those who Profess Faith in Yeshua?”

[10] Tim Hegg, Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: Chapters 1-8 (Tacoma, WA: TorahResource, 2005), pp 57-58.

[11] Grk. ou gar ho en tō phanerō Ioudaios estin oude hē en tō phanerō en sarki peritomē; “for~not the outwardly Jew he is nor the outwardly in flesh circumcision” (Robert K. Brown and Philip W. Comfort, trans., The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament [Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1990], 537).

[12] Mark D. Nanos, “The Letter of Paul to the Romans,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 259.

[13] Grk. all’ ho en tō kruptō Ioudaios, kai peritomē kardias en pneumati ou grammati, ou ho epainos ouk ex anthrōpōn all’ ek tou Theou; “but the inwardly Jew [is], and circumcision [is] of heart in spirit not letter, whose – praise [is] not from men but from – God” (Brown and Comfort, 537).

[14] Nanos, in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 259.

[15] Consult the author’s article “The Faithfulness of Yeshua the Messiah,” appearing in The New Testament Validates Torah.