The Jew, then, is in the same basic situation as the Gentile so far as the gospel is concerned. There is no fundamental difference between them. In all essentials, God looks upon them as the same. Paul has asserted that point plainly and firmly. This is an essential part of his main focus in the book, the laying out of the universal nature of the gospel message.
And yet, having brought the Jew to an equal footing with the Gentile before God, there is yet still something to be said on the other side. What about all that God has done among the Jewish nation throughout their whole history? Is it of no meaning at all, then? What about all that we read in the Old Testament of God’s dealings with the seed of Abraham? Is that all largely irrelevant? Paul wants to convince the Jew of his equal neediness with the Gentile in the gospel, but he also wants to be entirely fair to the reality of all that God has done among them.
Striking this correct balance of position is one of the real concerns of Romans. As concerned as Paul is to demonstrate the universality of the gospel, he obviously must do so honestly. He cannot simply ignore the fact that God has for many generations been very concerned with the Jews in a special way. There are both sides of the picture to be seen. The Jew is no different than the Gentile, and yet, he does indeed have the special favor of God in some way. Properly understanding how the Jewish nation stands in special favor before God while at the same time God shows no partiality and is concerned equally with the salvation of all men universally is a great burden of this epistle. We will see more of this issue as we go.
For now, it is time to treat (at least in part) of the advantage that the Jew has, but to do so in light of the reality of what it actually is and means. That advantage, true as it is, will not be found to result in exactly the same benefit for the Jew as he might have hoped. Let us examine Paul’s first step in discussing the advantage of the Jew.
Having brought the Jew and Greek to the same level position in the gospel, Paul now asks the transitional question,
What, then, is the advantage of the Jew? Or what is the profit of circumcision? (3:1)
Despite the strong inherent truth value of the arguments Paul has already laid down in chapter 2, some might still have a difficult time accepting the fact that all God has given to the Jew is of no value. And they would be right indeed to have difficulty with such an idea! But this is not what Paul has said. He does not mean to say that the Jew has not been given some very precious privileges and special gifts from God. He would not say such a thing and so despise the great blessings that God has given to his own people.
Rather than deny that the Jews have special blessings, Paul here answers his own questions with a strong affirmative:
Much according to every way! (3:2)
There is indeed a great amount of blessing and privilege to be had in being a Jew. Paul always maintained much gratitude and respect for the Jewish ways and the gifts that God had given to his people, but they also must be seen in their proper light, and that is what we will find in this chapter. How should we understand the true nature of these blessings and advantages that come to the Jew “according to every way”? And, to begin with, what are those particular blessings?
First, Paul names for us the chief blessing of all that the Jew has been given:
First, indeed, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God. (3:2)
Paul has already torn down the Jew’s false confidence in his special standing with God on the mere basis of having received the law. Now, though, he reasserts the tremendous value of the word of God that has come to the Jew throughout the history of his people. It would be an irreverent and sacrilegious thing to despise the Old Testament Scriptures which are the very oracles of the true and living God. The Lord has spoken to His people, and such utterances as come from the mouth of Jehovah are not to be disdained.
To have the oracles of God given to them is the chief advantage of the Jew. Again, it must be understood in its proper significance, for it is not as if the Jews alone have received revelation of the knowledge of God. Paul has already laid down the fact that all men have received knowledge of God. Nonetheless, it is certainly the case that the Jew has been given much more opportunity to gain knowledge of God than the Gentile who does not have the sacred writings. This is obvious, and it is to be treasured as a tremendous gift from God, for the knowledge of the things of the Holy God is the greatest treasure of all.
We as Christians today, I think, should be able well to understand the true position of the Jew by considering our own position relative to theirs. Can we appreciate rightly the difference in blessing given to us in the New Covenant age as compared with a Jew of the Old Testament era? How much would you feel that you would lose if you had none of the words of Jesus Christ that you read in the gospels of your Bible? Or if the letters of Paul and Peter and John and all the others that we possess in the New Testament were not yours to read? What would you feel that you had if you were left with only the Old Testament, as the Jew of that day had before the coming of Christ and the writings of the apostles?
Again, what if you had not yet been enlightened to see the fulfillment of the types of the Old Testament as found in Jesus Christ and the New Covenant? Rather than seeing clearly and understanding the one true sacrifice of all, that of Jesus Christ the Son of God upon the cruel cross of Golgotha, what if you were left only to contemplate the yearly slaying of the Passover lambs and the often repeated sacrifices of bulls and goats in the temple rituals? What if you had not yet been given to understand the wonderful truths of the Christian’s being united and reconciled to God through the death of Christ, the Christian’s salvation to new life through the resurrection with Christ, the nature and power of the person of the Holy Spirit and His indwelling presence in the believer, filling him with power and holiness and redeemed life? How much would you lose if you had not these wonderful oracles of the New Testament?
Such was the position of the Jew compared to the amount of knowledge of God available to the Gentile world without the Old Testament writings. And yet, with all those advantages that the Jew had and we as Christians have today, this is not a basis to despise the lesser revelation that others have been given. If we as Christians were to despise what the Jews had, we would be despising great treasures of knowledge and truth that were given to them. Though we, having tasted of the better cup, could never be content now to return to the old, yet those Old Testament Scriptures were sources of immeasurable joy and blessing to those who had only them. Have you ever read the joy of the psalmist as he meditates upon the law of God? Try telling him that the law is not a treasure. So likewise was the case of the Jew. He would have lost so very much not to have had the oracles of God that had been entrusted to him, but he ought not to have despised that knowledge of God that was available to all men and was manifested to all men by God Himself. That, too, was an infinite treasure in its place, though the Jew had been given much more to be thankful for.
So then, Paul is glad to recognize the advantage that the Jew truly did have over and above the Gentile. However, having acknowledged it and asserted it and shown that he himself values that advantage tremendously, he again returns to his desired point of considering what that advantage really amounts to. We see that Paul is now dealing with what advantage the Jew has, namely, the law, and he spends two verses celebrating that advantage before turning again to bring the Jew under condemnation for the rest of the 18 verses of the section. This time, however, Paul is going to bring the Jew under condemnation not only by taking away his advantage, but actually on the very basis of that advantage.
When speaking of the advantage of the Jew in verse 2, Paul used a word that has great meaning, though we in English cannot see quite the full impact of it because of how we must translate it. The word in English is “entrust.” Paul stated that the Jews were “entrusted” with the oracles of God. This certainly has much meaning indeed in English, plenty enough to see much of the force of Paul’s argument here. By entrusting the oracles to the Jews, God certainly expected something from them as the object of the trust placed in them. This word implies the fact that there was something important for them to do with the oracles that were given into their hands.
The word takes on just a special bit of further importance in the flow of the argument of Romans, though, when we read it in the original language and see that it is actually a form of the verb “I believe, have faith.” With all the focus of the gospel upon belief and faith as so central to the message of salvation found in Jesus Christ, we here read that the Jews “had faith placed in them” by God. God placed His faith in the Jews by putting in their hands a very important and special trust of His word. What then did the Jews do with the faith put into their hands? What was the outcome of this faith on God’s part? Let us read:
They were shown faith with the oracles of God. What then? If some were faithless, their faithlessness does not nullify the faithfulness of God, does it? May it never be! But let God be true, but every man a liar. (3:2-4)
God placed His faith in the Jews. What did they do? They proved faithless to that trust. God’s faith had been misplaced and His trust proven to be unfounded. This is the sad story of the Jewish people. God gave them so much blessing, so much privilege. He put into their hands His very words. He made His special covenant with them through circumcision and other significant seals. He entrusted His very own self to them, even dwelling in their midst. And what did they do? They immediately proved faithless to all that God had given them as a people. What good did all these blessings and privileges do for them, one might wonder? They proved to be yet more guilty and condemned on account of them, we see. God in various places in the Old Testament, from the start of the history of His people to the latter history and prophets, expresses His great frustration with this stubborn people who will not be faithful to Him. Isaiah expresses the frustration of God in one place in this way:
Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold;
My chosen one in whom My soul delights…
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I will also hold You by the hand and watch over You,
And I will appoint you as a covenant to the people,
As a light to the nations,
To open blind eyes,
To bring out prisoners from the dungeon
And those who dwell in darkness from the prison…
Hear you deaf!
And look, you blind, that you may see.
Who is blind but My servant,
Or so deaf as My messenger whom I send?
Who is so blind as he that is at peace with Me,
Or so blind as the servant of the Lord?
You have seen many things, but you do not observe them;
Your ears are open, but none hears. (Isaiah 42:1, 6-7, 18-20, NASB)
How this exclamation from God expresses the great tragedy of the Jewish people! God had called them and chosen them to be His servant in the midst of the world of heathen idolatry. He gave them so many blessings and promises. But what was the outcome? They proved to be the most blind and deaf people out there. They who were intended to be a light to all the world were the most blind themselves. They who were supposed to proclaim this message as God’s messenger to the nations were so deaf themselves that they could not even hear His words to begin with.
So what was the outcome of the blessings given to the Jews? They had blessings and advantages manifold, indeed, but the result was that they were simply unfaithful to that faith placed in them. They quickly turned aside from the way. They soon followed after the idolatry of the nations. They themselves became blind and deaf and vain in the imaginations of their heart. Their advantage simply became more condemnation for them. How ironically arrogant of the Jew to place his trust in the fact that he had been given God’s word, thinking that this would save him when he had so faithlessly dealt with that which was entrusted to him.
Paul again approaches the matter of the Jew’s position with God in light of their having the law, this time from a slightly different angle. We momentarily pass over an important section in 3:4-8 (we will return to it shortly) to see, starting in verse 9, Paul’s second argument here. He introduces this new argument once again with the familiar question, “What, then?”, one mark of a new thrust to his argument.
He then once more reframes the basic question about the Jew’s advantage, though this time in slightly different terms that lead to a completely different answer:
What then? Are we at an advantage? Certainly not. For we before accused both Jews and Greeks all to be under sin. (3:9)
In 3:1, he asked about the value of being a Jew and the profit of circumcision, and he answered that they were of great value in every way. Here, though, he asks about what advantage the Jew has over the Gentile in the end and concludes that all the inherent value of the privileges of the law and covenant given to the Jew have not actually resulted in the Jew’s being at all ahead of the Gentile in the end. Rather, they are all under sin.
Paul then demonstrates the sinfulness of the Jew specifically by quoting from the Jewish Scriptures themselves how there is not one who is righteous:
Just as it has been written,
“There is not a righteous man, not even one.
There is not one who understands,
There is not one who seeks after God.
All have turned away. Together they have been made worthless.” (3:10-12)
Now, there is some work to be done in understanding this passage; there are some questions to be asked and answered about its interpretation and application, especially in terms of to whom it is applicable. We can’t take the time in this study to explore all of these questions, but we will here focus on the one key and clear point that Paul makes from this passage and how he applies it to this discussion. That key point is this:
But we know that what things the law says, it speaks to those who are in the law. (3:19)
What is the point? The point is that these things spoken here cannot be taken simply as a Jew complaining about the wicked Gentile world and how corrupt it is. Rather, Paul claims, this is spoken to the Jewish people, as must be understood by the very fact that it is the Jewish Scripture that speaks to Jewish readers. The law speaks to those who have the law, and that means the Jews. Thus, the law itself testifies against the Jews themselves that they are guilty of turning away from God’s paths and not seeking after God. The law testifies that there is not a single one who seeks after God. The Jew who puts his trust in the receiving of the law as his source of righteousness is now left without ground upon which to stand, for his very basis of trust has become his accuser: There is no righteous man, the law asserts. Thus, the conclusion that Paul draws at the end of all this section:
Therefore, from the works of the law, there will not be justified any flesh before Him, for through the law is knowledge of sin. (3:20)
Is the law of great value? In every way, Paul says. Will this inherent value of the law that the Jew boasts in result in his justification before God? Not at all. The law does not justify a single man, for all have turned aside from it and been given over to sin.
The picture here is perfectly parallel to what we saw in chapter 1 concerning the general condition of mankind. That opening scene was one of the corruption of mankind upon the earth as a result of the rejection of God. Just as we saw the conclusion in chapter 1 to be that man was given over to their sin, so also we see here and now that the law says the same specifically about the Jews themselves: They have been made worthless by their sin. They have turned aside from the path shown to them in God’s word, and the result has been the same for them as for all other peoples. They too are left only seeing their guilt and depravity as a result of the law that they use as a pretext for boasting. They are as guilty as the Gentile. They are as depraved as the Gentile.
And so a great crisis arises. From where will salvation come, then? If God has chosen to use the family of Abraham as the vehicle of salvation to all the world and that family is now just as corrupt as the rest of the body of mankind, what hope is left? Is mankind simply doomed, then? Is God’s plan completely ruined? Must He simply give up and accept the failure of the project? How can He possible have a holy race of men upon this earth now, a people who live in the glory of His righteous image?
I remind you now of the section that we momentarily passed by in 3:4-8. That section anticipated the next step of the argument before Paul made one final concluding argument in 3:9-20. Back in 3:4-8, having seen the unfaithfulness of Israel when entrusted with so much by God, the question arose concerning God’s faithfulness and God’s righteousness. Now that Israel has been proven unfaithful, what will the answer be from God? Will He, now, remain faithful to a people that are so unfaithful to Him? Will He fulfill His word and promises? He would have every right to cast aside this people and be done with them. They have no claim left on His sticking to the promises that He has made. But what will God do? Remember the glorious answer:
Let God be true, but every man a liar. (3:4)
There will never be unfaithfulness from God or unrighteousness from Him. It does not matter even if every man alive proves an unfaithful liar, God will remain true. This is the great advantage of the Jew, then, in one sense, that God has made promises to them and He will most certainly fulfill them. And this is the hope of all mankind, as well. God’s plan for His world will never fail. What He determined to accomplish will most certainly be achieved. He cannot prove unfaithful in the end.
However, the righteousness of God will appear and be vindicated in a way that is not foreseen by many, especially by the Jew. And so runs the rest of the chapter, where Paul will demonstrate the righteousness of God even to a faithless race of mankind, both Jew and Gentile. God will demonstrate His righteousness apart from the law, and so will we see more of the glory of the gospel. This awaits in the following section of our study.