We are still in the second section of Romans that runs from 1:18-3:20; the common reading of this passage is to say that all human beings are sinful, and they certainly are! But what we must see is that this passage is tied in to the revelation of the covenant faithfulness of God. The covenant was always the means of dealing with evil. So Romans 1:18-3:20 is all about God's righteousness.
As we begin Romans 3 we must remember what Paul has just arguing in Romans 2:
For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. Romans 2:25 NASB
He is saying that if a Jewish person "transgresses the Law," his circumcision becomes uncircumcision. Paul is not talking about picking up sticks on the sabbath, or eating a rabbit. The transgression that he is referring to is a rejection of Jesus the Messiah. The Law all pointed to the coming Messiah. Notice what Philip said:
Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote--Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." John 1:45 NASB
The Law and the Prophets were all about Jesus. To reject Him is to be a transgressor of the Law and to thus be uncircumcised according to New Covenant Torah. And to be uncircumcised is to not be a true Jew:
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. Romans 2:29 NASB
Paul says something here that is very provocative and that will not go unchallenged, namely, that some Jews are not really Jews, and some Gentiles can really be Jews, even if they are not circumcised. Paul is redefining what a Jew is.
In this context, Paul uses "Jew" as the people of God, those chosen by Him, those shown God's favor, and those in covenant with God. A true Jew is someone who trusts in Jesus the Messiah.
So Paul destroys all the securities that the Jews clung to. And immediately the question pops up in chapter 3 verse 1: If there is a true Jew, a true Israel, to which circumcision and possession of the Law are irrelevant, then what is the advantage of being ethnically Jewish? In 3:1-8 he poses questions that he will answer in chapter 9. In this letter Paul gives us hints of what he will further define as the letter goes on.
The difficulty of following the train of thought in Romans 3:1-8 is enormous. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, commenting on this text said, "This is one of the most difficult paragraphs not only in Romans, but also in the whole Bible". Schreiner writes, "Romans 3:1-8 is one of the most difficult texts in the whole letter." So hang on and let's jump into it.
Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Romans 3:1 NASB
This question arises out of the context. You can tell that by the "then." In other words, if what you are saying is true, "then" what advantage has the Jew?
Who is asking this question? Is it Paul, the Roman Christians? No, remember Paul is using the diatribe style of rhetoric. This is an imaginary Jewish opponent. The Jew objects to Paul's argument: "From what you have said in chapter two, Paul, there is no practical benefit to being a Jew at all."
Paul often debated the Gospel with Jewish rabbis in synagogues throughout the Roman world. The objections he brings forth here are no doubt actual objections he has heard and answered many times.
"Jew" is used here as it is in 2:17, of the national/physical/ethnic Jew, not of a true Jew/Christian. So the question is what is the advantage of being an ethnic Jew?
The objector goes back to Jewish nationalism and ethnicity. These were descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They received the covenant promises. They were delivered from Egypt by God's mighty hand. They inherited the Promised Land by God's mighty power. They were the people of King David and the Prophets. Surely, this would count for something!
If you answered this question from a historical perspective, you may say, "There is no advantage in being a Jew." They were slaves in Egypt for over 400 years under the bondage of Pharaoh. When they were freed from Egypt, but then they wandered in the desert for 40 years until an entire generation of them died off in the wilderness.
When they finally entered into the land of Canaan, they had to save themselves from the destruction of the surrounding peoples who constantly attacked them both religiously, morally, and in warfare. They were slaughtered and taken captive finally by the Assyrians first and then the Babylonians. From the Assyrian captivity they never returned, and from the Babylonian captivity it was 70 years before a remnant began to come back.
They were dominated by the Greek Antiochus Epiphanes when they were under Greek rule .and he took liberties to desecrate their religion, desecrate their priesthood, desecrate their holy place, and quell their rebellions by slaughtering many of them. Their babies were massacred by Herod. Their land was oppressed by Roman legions. They were utterly devastated under the power of Rome.
And then in A.D.70 the city of Jerusalem was destroyed by Titus Vespasian, the great general of the Roman army. One million, according to Josephus, were slaughtered. One hundred thousand bodies of the Jews were thrown over the wall in some kind of sport. There was devastation beyond description in the city of Jerusalem. One hundred thousand remaining fugitives from that sacking of the city were sold into slavery. Their temple was destroyed, and they were scattered. So historically, it didn't seem advantageous to be a Jew.
After what Paul said in 2:28-29 about Judaism and circumcision it is surprising to see what he says here:
Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God. Romans 3:2 NASB
Paul says there is great advantage in being a Jew. Really, what is it? Paul says, "First of all"--we would expect that Paul will add second, third, and fourth reason to this first one, but he doesn't; we have to wait until chapter 9:3-5 to get the balance of the list.
The one reason that he gives here is, "They were entrusted with the oracles of God"--the expression "the oracles of God," has been given several different interpretations. Some take it simply as meaning the "Word of God."
God gave the Jews His Word! No other nation received the revelation of God. The Lord overlooked the educated Egyptians and Greeks, the cultured Babylonians and Phoenicians. On the mountain, God revealed Himself to Israel, not only on tablets of stone, but also by the divine voice coming from the mountain that burned with fire while covered in smoke (Exodus 19). The Assyrians, Amorites, and Amalekites had no such advantage. None of the other nations had the Word of God.
And all the people gathered as one man at the square which was in front of the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the LORD had given to Israel. Nehemiah 8:1 NASB
Notice that it is the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel.
The Scriptures were entrusted to the Jews. You would have thought that they would have absolutely cherished that, but as you read the First Testament you find there were times in their history when they couldn't even find the Scripture, they didn't even know where it was. And when somebody would discover it and bring it out, it would be something that was a marvel, because that which was lost for so long had finally been found.
When they were bringing out the money which had been brought into the house of the LORD, Hilkiah the priest found the book of the law of the LORD given by Moses. 2 Chronicles 34:14 NASB
They found the book of the law and read it to the King Josiah:
When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes. 2 Kings 22:11 NASB
Then the king says to the priest:
"Go, inquire of the LORD for me and the people and all Judah concerning the words of this book that has been found, for great is the wrath of the LORD that burns against us, because our fathers have not listened to the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us." 2 Kings 22:13 NASB
So the Jews had the great advantage of having the Law. But they greatly neglected it.
We could ask the question, "What spiritual advantage is there in being an American?" And the response could be much the same in every way: We have unlimited access to the Word of God. We have every available translation, we have the Bible in text, electronic form, audio and video format. We have thousands of study tools within easy grasp. We have multiplied houses of worship, Bible studies, discipleship groups, and every thing imaginable to help one understand the Bible. You can even sit in your living room, in your pajamas, on Sunday morning while watching someone teach the Bible on your computer, ipad, or phone, while drinking a cup of coffee. But many stop with admiring the privileges and not seeing the intent of them all--to point us to the only righteousness that will stand before GodChrist's.
Do we realize what a privilege it is that we have the Scriptures? Do you realize the advantage of having a Bible? This is the Word of God. I think the sad truth of our society is that most Christians would rather be entertained by men then instructed by God.
Back to our text: As I said, the expression, "the oracles of God," has been given several different interpretations. Shedd, one of the commentators on the Epistle to the Romans has said that the reference is to special disclosures of God. That is, not simply the Bible as a whole, but to certain special revelations contained within the Bible. Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, maybe the greatest theologian of the 20th century, said that the reference here to oracular is utterances. And that's true to the meaning of the Greek word logion, which is used here. That is, they are messages given by the Lord God. What is referred to here is what we would call the Messianic promises. They are the oracles of God. In pre-Christian usage, this term is usually used of short sayings traceable to a deity.
In the First Testament Greek translation of the Hebrew it is used of particular sayings of the deity, primarily. In the New Testament if you will look at all of the places in which this word occurs, you will come to the conclusion, I think, that what is referred to are certain specific statements of the deity. So what is referred to here, I think most likely (and many contemporary as well as ancient commentators have agreed) is the First Testament Messianic promises:
For I say that Christ has become a servant to the circumcision on behalf of the truth of God to confirm the promises given to the fathers, Romans 15:8 NASB
Christ confirms these promises given to the fathers. The oracles of God refers to the Messianic promises.
"They were entrusted with"--this is an important word, it means: "More than Israel was given the Law for herself." Israel was intrusted with God's Word that they were to take to the world. They were to be the light to the world:
He says, "It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth." Isaiah 49:6 NASB
The nation was uniquely chosen by God to be blessed and to be a source of blessing to the whole world. This remarkable advantage and responsibility meant that the Jew was to do something with "the oracles of God." He was to learn from the promise that God would raise up a Prophet greater than Moses; that God would write the Laws on his heart and not on stone; that God would dwell among them, not in temples of stone, but the temple of the heart. And he would share that light with the nations.
Commenting on Romans 3:2 a Dispensational writer says, "The advantage of being a Jew is that God still has promises, yet unfulfilled, for the nation Israel, and they will be literally consummated."
Another Dispensational writer says, "In the theology of the Old Testament promises were given to the Nation Israel unconditionally."
John MacArthur writes, "I believe that's the error of contemporary reformed covenant theology; they don't see any place for Israel. Listen, if there's no place for Israel, then this argument is right, God did cancel all His promises."
Let me ask you something: Were God's promises to Israel unconditional? Look at what God says to the nation Israel through Moses:
and do not turn aside from any of the words which I command you today, to the right or to the left, to go after other gods to serve them. "But it shall come about, if you do not obey the LORD your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes with which I charge you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you: Deuteronomy 28:14-15 NASB
Then God goes on for 53 verses telling Israel what will happen to them if they disobey Him. And it is far from pretty:
"It shall come about that as the LORD delighted over you to prosper you, and multiply you, so the LORD will delight over you to make you perish and destroy you; and you will be torn from the land where you are entering to possess it. Deuteronomy 28:63 NASB
Israel's blessings were conditional upon their obedience; on their not being covenant breakers. Under the Old Covenant, obedience was the only ground of receiving the blessing promised.
The Old Covenant was a two party covenant, God had His part to play and His conditions to fulfill, and the Israelite had theirs. God's judgment on Israel, rather than representing a going back on His promises, was a fulfilling of His own publicly stated covenantal threat.
Notice what Jesus says to national Israel In Matthew 21:33-45: He tells the parable of the vineyard. All Jews knew from Isaiah 5 that Israel was God's vineyard. In this parable He gives the history of Israel's rejection of the prophets of God and of God's Son. Jesus says to the Jewish leaders, "Did you never read in the Scriptures"-- that would have really stung those Jews, they prided themselves on knowing God's Word. Then He quotes Psalm 118 about the Cornerstone. Then He says this:
"Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it. Matthew 21:43 NASB
And they knew He was talking about them:
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them. Matthew 21:45 NASB
The promises given to the Nation Israel were not unconditional. MacArthur is wrong, God did not cancel all His promises. The problem is that we have misunderstood the promises. The only unconditional promises were in the Abrahamic Covenant, which Paul tells us in Galations were to Abraham and his seed--Christ:
Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, "And to seeds," as referring to many, but rather to one, "And to your seed," that is, Christ. Galatians 3:16 NASB
Paul is saying that the primary recipients of the Abrahamic Covenant were Abraham and Christ. This, of course, would include all who are in Christ--believers. This promise is not realized in the ethnic Jews, but in Jew and Gentile Christians.
God had given Israel His word, and in that Word He told them what He was going to do in the latter days. The Apostles pointed to the Oracles of God to back up what was happening in the Church in Acts 15. The context of this chapter is that the Church at Antioch, which was primarily Gentile, and the Church at Jerusalem, which was Jewish, had come together to debate the doctrine of soteriology. The Gentiles were being saved by grace through faith and becoming part of the Church. The Jews weren't crazy about this.
Then James, the half-brother of Jesus, stands up in the council and says:
Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. Acts 15:14 NASB
James then refers to Peter's description of his evangelization of Cornelius and his fellow-Gentiles. Everyone knew about this, and how through it God had undoubtedly taken from among the Gentiles "a people for His name."
"And with this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, Acts 15:15 NASB
What is it that the Prophets agree with? "With this" refers back to what he just said in verse 14--the calling of the Gentiles. Then James quotes from Amos:
'AFTER THESE THINGS I will return, AND I WILL REBUILD THE TABERNACLE OF DAVID WHICH HAS FALLEN, AND I WILL REBUILD ITS RUINS, AND I WILL RESTORE IT, Acts 15:16 NASB
Amos said that the Tabernacle of David would be restored "in order that" the Gentiles may seek after God. To whom was made the promise of Amos 9:11 "In that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David"? Amos was writing to Israel, the 10 Northern tribes. And yet James is saying that this prophecy is being fulfilled in the Church. I believe that the Bible teaches the essential continuity of Israel and the Church. The elect of all the ages are seen as one people--true Israel, with one Savior, one destiny.
This view has been called "replacement theology"--it is said that the Church replaced Israel. But a much better term would be "fulfillment theology"--the promises of God made to Old Covenant Israel are "fulfilled" in the Church of Jesus Christ, which is true Israel. Christianity is the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel, because we are true Israel.
What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? Romans 3:3 NASB
Let me just say here that this whole problem of whether God is being faithful to his covenant with Israel in the work of Christ is taken up in Romans 9-11, so that Romans 3:1-8 is just a brief glimpse of what Paul will fully develop when he gets to Romans 9.
Israel's lack of faith on the part of some does not mean, then, that God's promises that were entrusted to them are destroyed. God fulfilled His promises to the nation in the coming of Christ. Those promises NEVER pertained to all Israelites:
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; Romans 9:6 NASB
God's promises have not gone off course or failed, they were misunderstood! WOW! Can you imagine someone misunderstanding God's promises? I'm sure you can think of a few promises that Jesus made that are misunderstood today. Many of His promises have been misunderstood by His people. Paul is going to show us when we get to Romans 9, that God is working, and has always worked, according to the principle of sovereign election.
"For they are not all Israel who are of Israel"--what does that mean? God never promised unconditionally to each offspring of Abraham covenantal blessings. God never intended that all of the Nation Israel would be redeemed. Within national Israel is "true Israel," or "spiritual Israel." The nation was chosen to be a vehicle of blessing to the world, but not all within the nation were chosen to salvation. The nation was elected to privilege, but only individuals are elected to salvation. Most Jews believed that all who are born of Jewish blood are saved by birth. They felt secure because they were children of Abraham and therefore in the covenant of promise.
God will fulfill His promise to Abraham by saving those who are of the same faith as the patriarch Abraham:
What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? Romans 3:3 NASB
The Greek word apistia translated here as "unbelief" can also be translated: "unfaithfulness." Their unfaithfulness will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? To which Paul answers:
May it never be! Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written, "THAT YOU MAY BE JUSTIFIED IN YOUR WORDS, AND PREVAIL WHEN YOU ARE JUDGED." Romans 3:4 NASB
"May it never be" is from the Greek me genoito, which is the strongest negative the Greek language knows. So he rejects the question as abhorrent, the idea that unbelief would cancel the promises of God. Further he says that if all men are liars, God will be true. Paul has in mind here:
I said in my alarm, "All men are liars." Psalms 116:11 NASB
That's the condition of the human heart--not the divine nature.
Then to support this statement that God is not false or unfaithful, even if he judges the Jews as well as all other sinners, Paul quotes Psalm 51:4. This is the Psalm of King David's confession after his adultery with Bathsheba. Here is what David said in the context of the Psalm. He says to God:
Against You, You only, I have sinned And done what is evil in Your sight, So that You are justified when You speak And blameless when You judge. Psalms 51:4 NASB
In other words, David says that the reason God would be just to judge him is that his sin was against God. David's sin makes God's judgment of David righteous--it is true to God's nature, it is true to His glory, and so this righteousness is faithfulness to His covenant. He did not claim that his Jewishness would spare him.
Even David, the chosen of the Lord, and the one with whom the everlasting covenant was made, had come under Yahweh's judgment. If David did not escape the righteous judgment of God, what hope of deliverance did the people of Israel have?
The Psalm goes on to speak of the new heart that God will create within the repentant, and of the gift of the Holy Spirit--these are New Covenant themes.
In spite of David's sin, God will fulfill the Davidic Covenant. In spite of Israel's sin, God will fulfill the Abrahamic Covenant:
Even so Abraham BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. Galatians 3:6-7 NASB
And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's descendants, heirs according to promise. Galatians 3:29 NASB
Believer, please get this: Only those who belong to Christ are Abraham's descendants. Abraham's only descendants are those of faith:
For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. Romans 4:13 NASB
If you are an heir, you have a legal right to an inheritance. Since we are now members of God's family, we have a right to all that God has promised to His children.
Paul goes on to say:
But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He? (I am speaking in human terms.) Romans 3:5 NASB
I think what is being said here is that if our sin (like David's sin), our unrighteousness, shows or magnifies God's righteousness when He judges us, then really, we are not the instruments of sin, we're the instruments of God's glory to magnify His righteousness. So He would be unrighteous to condemn us. He would be condemning us for the very thing that magnifies the glory of His righteousness in judgment.
May it never be! For otherwise, how will God judge the world? Romans 3:6 NASB
Now there's one thing a Jew knew. If he didn't know anything else he knew this. God would judge the world. (Genesis 18:25) "God is the judge of all the earth." (Psalm 94:2) "God is the judge of all the earth." (Psalm 50 verse 6) "God is judge Himself." (Psalm 58 verse 11) "Surely there is a God who judges on earth!" and on and on and on, all over the place in the First Testament. They knew one thing, God would be the judge.
The Jews were unanimous in their commitment to the fact that God should judge the sins of the Gentiles. Paul simply takes his opponent to the illogical conclusion of his self-defense by pointing out that if God were to follow this principle, He would judge no one, even the Gentiles. And no Jew was willing to go this far. If all sin glorified God, then there would be nothing for God to judge.
But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner? Romans 3:7 NASB
Paul here uses the first person singular, "my" lie, and the rhetorical "I" representing the Jews. God is glorified even in the judgment of my sin. Some would object, thinking that since He is glorified then there's no reason to refrain from sin.
A parallel to Rom 3:7 would be a convicted criminal claiming that he should be compensated for giving the police an opportunity to practice the technique of arrest:
And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), "Let us do evil that good may come"? Their condemnation is just. Romans 3:8 NASB
In other words, the evil of Israel's failure has brought the "good" of the Gospel. Paul doesn't even give this a response. He simple says, "Their condemnation is just."
The faithfulness of God is one of the fundamental realities of Scripture teaching us that God is ever true to His Word, both as to promises and to threatenings. Men may break their covenants, but God never will.
Whenever we think that God hasn't kept one of His promises, we can be sure that we have misunderstood the promise!
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