ROMANS 3:1—20

Paul has just finished berating the Jews, and one can image how they must have felt after hearing his stinging indictment of the lostness of the Jews and the relative impotence of their religion. This is why he asks the question:

What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? (verse 1)

It’s a rhetorical question, of course, and by now the reader, ancient and modern, might expect Paul to say, “None!” But the opposite is true:

Much in every way! (verse 2a)

Whenever we try to make our point in a discussion, there is always the temptation to do so emphasizing one aspect of the truth at the expense of others. Politicians are experts at this. But Paul was sensitive about this, so after clearly delineating the problems of the Jewish people’s unbalanced approach to their spiritual privilege, as if to not throw the baby out with the bathwater, the apostle kind of backtracks a little. Whatever their faults and failings, the Jews were God’s special people, created by God and they remain precious to Him to this day.

The problem with the Jews of the New Testament era was not a problem of privilege but rather a problem of handling that privilege properly. It’s not just the Jews who have had this problem. Even Christians struggle with the possibility that they may misunderstand or abuse their privileges, or we might call them “blessings,” either by neglecting the One from whom these blessings come or by exaggerating their own importance.

Paul’s answer to the question, Do the Jews have any advantage?, is Yes, the Jew does have advantages. However, the advantages the Jews have created certain responsibilities.

1. The Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God. (verse 2b)

We might expect Paul to list a bunch of Jewish advantages to back up what he had just written, but in spite of the “first of all,” Paul lists only one advantage, albeit the most important one: they were the custodians of the God’s Word. Or to put it another way, God chose to give the Jews His teachings; He did not give them to anybody else. Later on in Romans (chapter 9), Paul will get around to listing other advantages, but clearly this was the big one.

The word translated “word” is the Greek logia, usually meaning “oracles” in classical Greek literature, referring to divine utterances. The Jews used this word to describe the teachings of the pagans, which they rightfully viewed as false teachings, but also for revelations from Yahweh, the God of Israel. When they used logia of words proceeding from Yahweh, two elements were stressed: what God proposed to do (like a prophetic word) or a declaration of man’s duty to God. The Jews had been entrusted with the knowledge of God’s will for the future of the world and God’s will for man.

To be “entrusted” with God’s Word means more than merely being the caretakers of that Word, which is what the Jews had become. Faith and obedience were expected from those who had been given God’s Word.

After making such a declaration, as if he’s having a conversation with someone, Paul poses a series of questions, which are objections, really, to Paul’s argument that Jews really do have an advantage over others.

a. The Jews have disbelieved the Word of God, verses 3, 4

Essentially, the objection is this: The Jews were unfaithful to God and God’s Word, therefore God is now unfaithful to the Jews.

At first, that sounds like a silly statement, but when we think about it, it makes a certain amount of sense. The Jews continually turned their backs on God, so it just makes sense that God would then turn His back on them. Tit for tat, so to speak.

Paul was emphatic in his response:

Not at all! Let God be true, and every human being a liar. As it is written: “So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge.” (verse 4)

Paul knew that God would never fail in His faithfulness to His people! God is absolutely true to His people and He is true to Himself! If one had to choose between the reliability of God and that of man, we would have to be agree that human beings lie, but God is always reliable. That’s an indirect quote from Psalm 116:11. Paul also references Psalm 51, where David, one of Israel’s heroes and a man after God’s own heart, proved to be such a disappointment. He was chastened because of sin and because of his refusal to own up to it for so long. Finally, David had to admit that God was in the right and He was in the wrong; that God was faithful and he was not.

b. The unrighteousness of Jews brings out the righteousness of God, verses 5, 6

This is a strange argument to make no matter how you look at it. It goes like this: how can God be just in condemning the sinner when his sin really brings out the righteousness of God? This is a strange sophistry indeed, to suggest God ought to be grateful that man’s sin makes Him look God.

Paul knew this was a ridiculous line of thought, so he adds,

I am using a human argument. (verse 5b)

The thought that God could be unjust was absolutely abhorrent to Paul, so he appeals to God’s moral government of the world:

If that were so, how could God judge the world? (verse 6)

So, the reasoning is sound: God is just because He is the governor of this world now and will judge it in the eschatological future, both things the Jews believed. If He were unjust, He couldn’t do that if He allowed sin to prevail to make Himself look good, how could He serve as the great Judge of the future?

c. The falsehood of the Jews enhanced the truthfulness of God, verses 7, 8

If God is somehow glorified through sin, isn’t it better just to sin more? To this, the Jew might add:

...why am I still condemned as a sinner? (verse 7b)

In other words, “I am doing God a favor by sinning, so why does He condemn me?” Paul’s response is like a whack on the head:

Why not say—as some slanderously claim that we say—“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is just! (verse 8)

We get the sense that this rhetorical give and take were real conversations and arguments Paul had with Jewish troublemakers. He calls people like this “slanderous,” because they teach untruths about God.

Paul’s teaching so far is pretty clear. The person with the knowledge of God from His Word, the Jew, stands equally under God’s wrath as the pagan. There is no advantage for either. The Jew, advantaged as he was with the possession of God’s Word had no excuse and the pagan, ignorant of God’s Word, had no excuse before God. But it was important for Paul that his readers understand that in spite of their negligence of God’s Word, God’s Word still stood; His promises remain true regardless of human rejection.

2. The true guilt of the world, verses 9—20

This final section of chapter 3 is admittedly difficult to interpret. The easiest way to look at this paragraph is as a conclusion to Paul’s argument that both the sinner without the Word of God (1:18—32) and the sinner with the Word of God (2:1—3:8) are equally “under sin.”

What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. (verse 9)

To support his thesis, Paul strung together a bunch of Old Testament passages (verses 10—18). All those verses, when added up, come out to the undeniable truth:

There is no fear of God before their eyes.

Paul’s teaching style is powerful. The very texts which God had committed to the Jews for the very purpose of being a light to the Gentiles have now been turned on them. Paul did not write in anger or frustration; he simply quoted the Word God and let it stand on its own.

“Righteous” Jews or otherwise, they’ve all turned away from God and they do no good. The whole human person (throats, tongues, lips, mouths, feet, eyes) is guilty before God and goes its own way. Both Jew and Gentile, by the testimony of their lives, have validated the Word of God and proved Paul’s argument.

3. The conclusion, verse 19, 20

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.

In these closing statements of his indictment against the religious Jews, he again heads off one more argument from his imaginary opponent. Maybe, thought Paul, the Jews think all the verses he quoted were talking about Gentiles, not about Jews. Even though a look at the context of each quote shows otherwise, Paul says, “whatever the law says, it says to those under the law.”  What is he getting at here?

First, Paul wants his Jewish friends to pay heed to their law, not the laws of other religions. In other words, if the Jews claim to possess the Word of God, then the Word of God must possess them.

The phrase, “so that every mouth may be silenced” means that everything the Jew did (and everything we do) is measured against what God requires and, since no human being can measure up to what God requires by keeping any law, every human being is guilty before God.

Second, Paul makes it clear what the law’s purpose was, as opposed to what the Jews thought it was.

Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.

In other words, when the Law says “Do this” it is really saying, “Don’t do that.” The Law was given to let you know that you are guilty of not being able to keep it and that your efforts in that regard cannot save you. The Law shows your unrighteousness in all the times you broke it. The purpose of the Law is to guide conduct, not provide salvation.

(c)  2011 WitzEnd


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