Romans 3:1–8 (ESV) — 1 Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? 2 Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. 3 What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? 4 By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.” 5 But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) 6 By no means! For then how could God judge the world? 7 But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? 8 And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.
The last few weeks Paul dismantled any hope of finding privilege/righteousness in the Law.
- The “Boast in” Law – 2:17-23
- The “Circumcision” Law – 2:24-29
In today’s text, Paul asks a fair question that any Jew would have at this point.
- What “advantage has the Jew” and his circumcision (vs. 1)?
1 Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? 2 Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.
What does he mean by advantage?
- T. Wright says Paul is simply asking what then is the “point of being Jewish”.
- Tom Schreiner says it means “saving advantage”, so Paul is asking does the Jew really lack a “saving advantage”.
- Paul will go into much more detail about this in Romans 9; we will deal with it then.
To his advantage question, Paul’s answer is “much” (vs. 2).
- He then spells out what he means by the “much”.
- He says, “to begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (vs. 2).
What are the oracles of God?
- This is the only time in all his letters Paul uses the word for “oracles”.
- It’s pretty clear that Paul is referring to the OT Scriptures and the truth and message they contain – Tom Schreiner.
- But many ask why did he use this word.
N.T. Wright takes a stab at a reason:
“…perhaps to recognize the fact that, whereas the Gentiles were not expecting anything like the Jewish law, they were often eager for ‘oracles’ from some divinity or other” – N.T. Wright.
- In other words, he used it as a way to relate to Gentile sensibilities.
And crucial to the understanding our text, Paul says the “much” is not just the “oracles”…
- It is also the fact that Israel was “entrusted” with the “oracles”.
What does it mean to be entrusted with the “oracles”?
- Again, the meaning here is crucial for our text!
“The point about being ‘entrusted’ is that the thing that’s been given to you isn’t actually for you; it’s for the person to whom you are supposed to deliver it” – N.T. Wright.
- This is a massive point to get!
God’s work in redemptive history (Creation, Scripture, Spirit, etc.) was channeled through Israel.
- It was given to them so that they might care for it and pass it on; spread it.
- This means that the “entrustee”, Israel, isn’t the most important part.
- The thing entrusted – God’s Work – is the important part.
- It is the message that is the thing, not the messenger – Israel.
BTW – it is interesting that though Paul seems to begin a list in verse 2 of the advantages…
- He says, “to begin with”…
- He never gets to the second thing on his list.
- Its as if he was distracted.
Most think, however, that the rest of Paul’s thought can be found in Romans 9.
- Romans 9:4–5 (ESV) — 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
3 What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? 4 By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.”
Paul cuts off his thought about the “much” with a rhetorical question concerning two facts.
- (1) God chose Israel from among all the nations and gave them “much” (vs. 2).
- (2) Yet, the Israelites were failures with the “much” – Paul calls it “their faithlessness” (vs. 3).
Given these two things, Paul raises a question.
- Does Israel’s unfaithfulness “nullify the faithfulness of God?” (vs. 3)
First we need to understand, in context, what Paul is saying.
- We saw earlier that Israel was entrusted with the oracles of God.
- It is here that the importance of the entrusting comes in to play.
- For now Paul is making it clear that in their capacity as “entrustees” they have failed.
- They became “entrustee” focused instead of message focused.
They failed to properly care for and deliver to the world the “oracles” of God.
- Remember, in 2:24, Paul stated that the name of God was “blasphemed among the Gentiles” because of Israel’s unfaithfulness.
- This is a description of this failure.
Paul continues his train of thought with his answer to the nullification of God’s faithfulness question…
- “By no means!” is God’s faithfulness nullified (vs. 4).
Israel’s failure does not mean God failed.
- Paul says God is “true” even if “every one were a liar” (vs. 4).
- Meaning, God will fulfill all of His promises made through Israel in spite of Israel’s unfaithfulness!
- God is covenant faithful!
- God is righteous!
Paul then quotes Psalm 51:4 (LXX) to show that history will bear out God’s faithfulness.
- “You may be justified in your words” and you will “prevail when you are judged” (vs. 4).
Paul is citing a Psalm of David.
- “Against you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, in order that you might be justified in your words and triumph when you judge” – Tom Schreiner.
- In other words, King David is saying that God’s faithfulness isn’t in jeopardy because of David’s failure.
- In fact, God is justified and triumphs in King David’s failure.
So what is Paul saying here?
- How is God justified and how does He triumph when Israel is unfaithful?
- How does this show that God’s faithfulness isn’t nullified?
- Paul unpacks this in verses 5-6.
5 But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) 6 By no means! For then how could God judge the world?
Paul alludes again to King David’s words from Psalm 51 (LXX).
- “…our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God” (vs. 5).
- Israel’s failure, like David’s, magnifies God’s righteousness!
- And then Paul goes on to answer all the questions we just raised.
- Paul rhetorically says that God is certainly not unrighteous to “inflict wrath on us” (vs. 5).
- If God were unrighteous, “how could God judge the world?” (vs. 6)
- The implication here is that God’s judgment is righteous and no Jew would deny that God will judge the world.
- God is creator and He rightly judges His creatures.
To dig into the “how” more, we need to remember what Paul has been teaching thus far in his letter about God’s righteousness.
- As we learned some weeks ago, God’s righteousness is expressed as both a saving righteousness and a judging righteousness.
Therefore God’s covenant faithfulness – His righteous divine activity – can take two forms.
- (1) Redemption in His saving righteousness.
- (2) Condemnation, judgment and wrath in His judging righteousness.
So therefore for the unfaithful Jew to come under God’s judging righteousness is an expression of God’s faithfulness and righteousness.
- Faithfulness both to His promises (which included judgment) and Himself – His holiness.
- In the words of King David, God’s judging righteousness justifies God and shows that He prevails.
Paul affirms this in verse 6.
- He asks rhetorically – does God’s judging righteousness on the unfaithful Jew with his “boast in” and “circumcision” law make God out to be unrighteous?
- His answer, “by no means!” (vs. 6) for the reasons we have just seen.
So, God shows His faithfulness both in His wrath (judging righteousness) and in his promise and covenant fulfillment (saving righteousness) in the work of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
- In fact, “The only explanation for any Jews being included in the covenant is God remaining true to his promises despite the sin that plagues the Jews” – Tom Schreiner.
- Paul can affirm “that Israel is still guilty for its sin, while affirming that the promises of their salvation will still be fulfilled” – Schreiner.
Importantly, Paul speaks from personal experience.
- He was an unfaithful Jew.
- And now he is a faithful “entrustee” of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the new covenant.
- Paul is participating in God’s promise and covenant fulfillment.
- Paul is extolling the name of God to the world!
7 But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? 8 And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.
Paul then tells us that all of this – Israel’s failure and God’s condemnation of it – also means that “God’s truth abounds to his glory” (vs. 7).
- Again, in agreement with King David’s take on God’s judging righteousness.
Paul then indicates that some have apparently sought to twist this truth to justify their unfaithfulness.
- The twisters of truth ask, if God is shown to be faithful then why condemn us “as a sinner” (vs. 7)?
- In fact, “why not do evil that good may come?” (vs. 8)
- Wright paraphrases it this way, “why not simply do what is wrong, so that God, in putting it right, can be seen to be all the greater?” – N.T. Wright.
Paul tells us this is not the truth he has been teaching; it is slander.
- And those that have twisted the truth this way deserve judgment – “Their condemnation is just” (vs. 8).
This is directly related to the grace in which we stand from Romans 5:2 and the freedom it gives us.
- Does grace mean obedience is nullified?
- Absolutely not!
As we read Romans, we need to understand that Paul has layering important truths upon one another.
- I love how Wright puts it:
“Romans is like a great symphony. The present passage is a little flash of music which looks ahead to a much fuller statement for which the themes that come in between will have prepared the way” – N.T. Wright.
Finally, we also need to understand what Paul is not doing as he plays us his great symphony.
- Paul is not throwing Judaism under the bus!
“The whole point, as we shall see later on in this chapter, is that in the Messiah, Jesus, God has found the way to be true to his original promises. Jesus, as Israel’s representative, has offered the faithful obedience which Israel should have offered but did not. The Messiah is the messenger who finally delivers the message” – N.T. Wright.