A sermon on Romans 3:1-8.
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.
A lot of people speculate here about what kind of advantage Paul is talking about, or what kind of value he sees in circumcision. Basically, most people read this passage as saying that the Jews had the opportunity to be saved, if they would believe those oracles or put their faith in God and not their own flesh, as circumcision called them to do.
It would be great if I thought that was Paul’s intention because then I could preach for all of you to do the same with your baptisms. Jews would stand here merely for members of the visible Church before Christ. We could all easily apply this to ourselves.
But it’s not so easy. Paul speaks of these oracles of God earlier and he speaks of circumcision later. Let’s look at what Paul singles out in those other passages and then see whether that helps us here.
When Paul later talks about circumcision as the covenant God made with Abraham, he singles out that it is a covenant that calls and promises Abraham that he will be the father of many nations.
Now, it would be helpful if I preached on all of Romans 4 to bring out how it all works together. I’m going to make do with 4.16-18 to substantiate my point, which is that Paul is not only concerned with the fact that Abraham believed, but he is concerned especially with the content of what Abraham believed. It isn’t just that Abraham believed God in general, or even for personal salvation. The point Paul emphasizes is that Abraham believed God for a worldwide people that encompassed many nations.
Romans 4.16-18: That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18 In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.”
Abraham received the covenant of circumcision as a calling and promise that he would be a blessing to all the families of the earth (as we read in Genesis 12.3). When he finally was given circumcision, God reiterates the promises of Genesis 12.1-3 and Genesis 15 by instituting circumcision, changing his name from Abram to Abraham, and saying “I have made you the father of a multitude of nations” (17.5). And as part of that, he says, “I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you” (17.6)
Even though Paul would say this promise is not fully fulfilled until Jesus, we can see a prophetic foretaste of the fulfillment of this promise in the last story of Genesis. Joseph, Abraham’s great-grandson, is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Egypt. There he becomes a great ruler who converts Pharaoh and who saves the world and his own people from starvation. And what does he tell his brothers to say to Jacob his father? “He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt” (Genesis 45.8). Already the promise that Abraham will become the father of many nations is coming true.
And this is exactly why Israel was given the oracles of God. Notice that earlier, when Paul criticizes Israel for relying on the law, he makes it clear that they think the law makes them teachers and even parents of the nations, but because of their negative example they are teaching blasphemy rather than godliness.
Romans 2.17-20: But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth”
That remark, “a teacher of children” reminds us of Abraham’s calling to be a father to the Gentiles. These Jews see themselves as being entrusted with the oracles of God, entrusted to disciple the Gentiles, but they are actually failing. As Paul says in Romans 2.24, the Gentiles are learning blasphemy from the Jews rather than godliness.
Though the Jews are failing in their calling; they aren’t failing to understand their calling. When God entrusted his oracles, his law, to Israel, he did so to aid them in the covenant of circumcision which called them to train and disciple all the other nations. Thus we read in Deuteronomy 4.5-8:
See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?
So the nations were supposed to be converted by Israel’s example. That is a reason why God entrusted them with His oracles.
But was Israel trustworthy with the mission that God had entrusted them to fulfill? No. But did that mean the mission would not be fulfilled through Israel. Again, No. Thus:
3 What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? 4 By no means! Let God be true though everyone were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.”
Now, if we miss the specific task or mission entrusted to Israel, we will trip up in understanding what Paul is dealing with. I hear sermons that are quite good as far as basic doctrine is concerned, saying that here we learn that God is faithful both when he forgives believers and when he has wrath on unbelievers. So if God shows wrath on unbelieving Jews that does not mean he is being unfaithful.
As much as we need to remind people of that fact in our own day, because people think God is never wrathful, that was not a situation that Paul had to worry about. Jews knew that circumcised people who rejected God’s covenant would be under God’s wrath. That is not Paul’s point when he talks about Israel’s unfaithfulness.
No, the point is, since God has called Israel to be a light to the nations and a blessing to all the families of the earth—since God called Abraham to be the father of many nations—will Israel’s sin prevent God from fulfilling that promise?
Paul’s answer is that God will use Israel to bring salvation to the world as he had promised even if Israel was untrustworthy or unfaithful. Their unfaithfulness could never nullify the faithfulness of God. God brought salvation to the world through Israel’s unfaithfulness and unrighteousness, thus demonstrating his own righteousness.
I’ve mentioned Joseph. Remember that Joseph only got to Egypt and was put in a position to save the world because of the wickedness of his brothers. They sold him into slavery. And so Joseph told them:
Genesis 45.7-8: And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.
Genesis 50.20: As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
Paul quotes from David’s confession of sin but he changes the text slightly so that it speaks of God being justified when he is judged, rather than when he judges. People could have questioned God’s righteousness in David’s sin because God had chosen David to be king. Would David’s unfaithfulness in his behavior toward Uriah and Bathsheba nullify God’s faithfulness? No, God dealt with that sin, publicly vindicated himself, but also used it to bring about Solomon. It was King Solomon by whom the many of the promises made to Abraham about the greatness of Israel came true.
Paul is not talking here about Israel’s sin or unfaithfulness in general. He is talking about the sin that led them to reject and hand over Jesus to be crucified. That time of judgment, when Israel and the whole world should have been destroyed. But instead, Jesus took the judgment on himself. At that point in time—“at the right time, according to Romans 5.6—God put forward Jesus as a propitiation, as satisfaction of God’s wrath, according to Romans 3.25. He “condemned sin in the flesh” of Jesus, according to Romans 8.3.
This all came about through the world’s climactic sin in Israel rejecting Jesus, just as the sons of Jacob saved their family and fed the world by betraying Joseph. Thus, we see here in Romans 3 what Paul says over and over at the climax of his argument in Romans 11.
11.11: … through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles…
11.12: … their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles…
11.15: … their rejection means the reconciliation of the world…
But obviously, showing how God uses sin to accomplish salvation could be seen as morally problematic. So Paul takes on the issue head on.
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.
I have no idea if any Israelites, when hearing the story of Joseph and his brothers, found it shameful. To confess that God used the unfaithfulness of Israel to bring about the salvation of the world sounds like a story to which someone might object, “This is teaching, ‘Let us do evil that good may come’” (compare Romans 3.8). Or they might mock it: “Should we continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Compare Romans 6.1). What if some did not want to repent of their crimes against Joseph? Perhaps they could have objected, “But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, then God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us” (compare Romans 3.5). And if they knew their sin was essential to God’s plan to save the world, then they could object, “Why does God still find fault with us, for who resists his will?”
The story of Joseph and his brothers is a reassuring story showing that Israel’s faithfulness could not nullify the faithfulness of God to his covenant promise to bring salvation to the nations and to Israel (Romans 3.3)
Paul basically replies that, because we know God is the Righteous Judge of the world, we know he must treat sin seriously. As the one who makes promises to bring salvation, he will use human sin rather than allow it to defeat his purpose. But that doesn’t make it any less sinful. Somehow God can make sin work out for good without becoming sinful Himself. Just because Judas is important to the story of how Jesus died, does not mean we are allowed to consider Judas a righteous example. He is the opposite.
Paul asks the hypothetical question in verse 7: “If through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory…” This is a metaphor that Paul already started in v. 4—“Let God be true though every man a liar.” In this case being “true” means keeping his promise to save the world through Israel. And being a liar refers to Israel’s unbelief culminating in the rejection of Jesus. Jesus, of course, as the one faithful Israelite, represented God’s truth accurately. Thus, near the end of Romans, in chapter 15, Paul revisits this language from here in chapter 3:
vv. 8-10: For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.” And again it is said, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”
Israel’s sin was part of the story that provided the right time and place for Jesus to receive and satisfy God’s wrath on sin. But now, says Paul repeatedly, due to Jesus faithfulness, it is time for both Jew and Gentile to believe.
And that is God’s fundamental purpose that he is still working out in history: the spread of His Gospel to every nation so that all people everywhere are loyal and grateful to King Jesus the faithful one.
11.29-33: For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all. Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
That’s why Paul could confidently declare that he was called as an Apostle to bring about the obedience of faith among the nations (1.5).
We live in an era of open apostasy and a return to sin. We might be tempted to despair. That wouldn’t be the proper lesson to learn from Joseph’s brothers or from Israel’s treatment of Jesus. God’s promise to Abraham still stands! Genesis 12.3: In you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
God’s revealed will is being disobeyed, but his plan has not been thwarted. God’s plan cannot be thwarted. He has some glorious purpose for the earth’s current crisis. He will bring about a new order that far surpasses and overthrows the dreams of humanism or any other religion or ideology.
Remember, not only does Romans teach us about how God saved us through Christ, in his rejection by Israel. It teaches us a very practical lesson about the future:
8.28: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.