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. So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. 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 2:25-29 (NASB)
Pour yourself a big cup of coffee and relax. This one is long.
It may seem a little odd to start a commentary on Romans 3 by quoting from Romans 2, but remember that I previously stated that my “reflections” on Romans series was an attempt to describe my impressions of this epistle as a complete unit, that is, a letter intended to be read all at once, rather than slicing and dicing it up into little sound bytes. The context of what Paul writes in the third chapter of this book (and remember, for Paul, this wasn’t a “book” nor did he actually divide his letter into chapters) spills over from what has come before it.
As a refresher, here’s how I ended my commentary on Romans 2:
If a Jew fails to perform a mitzvah, does he stop being a Jew? Does he become “uncircumcised?” This used to puzzle me. The whole “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh” thing has been used to justify calling Christians “spiritual Jews” and to support the old, tired theology of supersessionism. But I don’t think that’s what Paul is saying.
Paul is trying to inspire zeal for the Torah and for faith in Messiah in his non-believing Jewish brothers in Rome. How would he do that by insulting them and rejecting them? Worse, how would he do that by denigrating the Torah? He couldn’t.
But he could be saying that a Jew is justified before God if he is outwardly a Jew, that is, if he is obedient to the commandments, and if he is inwardly a Jew, that is, if he has faith in God and that faith is the motivation for obedience. The two go together…faith and works.
Paul, in my opinion, is saying that a Jewish person devoted to Hashem must be a Jew in his or her inward faith and also outwardly a Jew in behavior, in performance of the mitzvot. The two are inseparable to a complete Jewish identity.
And, if the Jewish person is boasting based on ethnicity and being a recipient of the promises but not also living a life of faith and obedience to God, then…
So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law?
–Romans 2:26-27 (NASB)
So if a Gentile who is not circumcised, that is, who is not a Jew, nevertheless behaves as if he has a circumcised heart, that is, is obedient to God through faith in Messiah, then sees a Jewish person who is hypocritical, boasting in their ethnic identity but not “walking the walk,” so to speak, won’t that Gentile be justified in “pushing back” when the less-than-faithful Jew attempts to assert some sort of religious superiority over the Gentile based just on being ethnically Jewish?
And that’s where we start chapter 3:
Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God. What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? 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 3:1-4 quoting Psalm 51:4 (NASB)
So is Paul saying that being ethnically Jewish in and of itself meaningless? Are people who are ethnically Jewish but not obedient to the mitzvot or even imperfect in their attempts to be observant cut off from God? What advantage is there in being (just) ethnically Jewish, simply born into a covenant relationship with God?
“Great in every respect.”
In other words, being born into a covenant relationship with God all by itself still has great advantages and still orients the Jewish person, regardless of their behavior, to God, both as the focus of His love and, if they are disobedient, the focus of His discipline as outlined in the conditions (listed in the Torah) of the Sinai covenant.
Then Paul lists one of the advantages: “entrusted with the oracles of God.” That word “oracles” is also translated as “words,” “revelation,” “utterances,” and “truth”. This means (to me) that at a time when the entire world was worshiping idols of wood and stone and passing their infants through fire as some sort of fertility rite, only the Israelites were trusted to possess and commit themselves to the words of God, which we can interpret as the Torah, Prophets and the Writings, the Tanakh or the entire canonized Bible as it existed when Paul was writing to the Romans.
The Bible records many periods when Israel was faithful to God and many periods when she wasn’t. And yet, through it all, God was faithful and the Israelites remained His people, entrusted with his statues and ordinances.
Then Paul says, “So what if some Jewish people are unfaithful? Do you think that means God is going to stop being faithful to the Jews and abrogate his covenant promises? Absolutely not!”
So even if “every human being [is] a liar, God it true.” Then Paul quotes from Psalm 51:4, which is King David’s famous confession and plea to God after his sin with Batsheva. This is David’s admission of sinning against God alone and because he has sinned, David knows God is justified in judging him and God’s verdict against David is true.
To me, this says a couple of things. The first is that, because God and Israel are in a covenant relationship with each other, and that covenant relationship lists consequences if Israel, or any individual Jew such as David is faithless, then God is justified in disciplining the nation or the individual based on that relationship. This is what happened to David and I believe Paul is saying that individual Jews in his time would also receive consequences from God for faithlessness and sin specifically because they are in a covenant relationship with God.
In other words, just because God disciplines individual Jews or the entire nation of Israel doesn’t mean God has abandoned them and ended His covenant with them. Quite the opposite. It means that God is fully engaged with national Israel right down to the lives and behavior of each individual Jewish person. We Gentiles (Christians) have no right at all to say that God abandoned Israel in favor of “the Church.” Too bad “the Church” hasn’t read this passage of Romans in that particular light over the past nearly two-thousand years.
Was Paul concerned that Jesus-believing Gentiles were somehow “lording it over” Jews who were less than faithful or less than observant? According to Mark Nanos in his book The Mystery of Romans, Paul was admonishing the Jesus-believing Gentiles for parading their “freedom” (being “grafted in” to the blessings of the New Covenant promises without the requirement of undergoing the proselyte rite and being obligated to the full yoke of the Torah mitzvot) in front of the non-believing Jews with whom they were associating (along with Jesus-believing Jews) in a common synagogue setting and/or a common Jewish community context.
It may be (and this is just my “reflection”) that the Gentiles were encountering some Jewish non-believers who, not at all happy that Gentiles were being afforded equal social status and inclusion in Jewish community without converting to Judaism, were being boastful that they were ethnically Jewish, possessors of the “oracles of God,” and thus were to be accorded a superior status. The Gentiles to whom Paul is addressing may have been rather vocally stating that these Jews were indeed Jews “in the flesh” but their behavior in Torah observance and obedience to God was (in the Gentiles’ opinion) coming up short.
Paul then is telling these Gentiles not to be “knuckleheads” and “so what” if these Jewish non-believers aren’t perfect. They still have many advantages. Don’t rub their noses in the fact that Gentiles in Messiah are considered (at least by Paul) as equal co-participants in the covenant blessings and in Jewish worship and communal space.
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.) May it never be! For otherwise, how will God judge the world? But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner? 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 3:5-8 (NASB)
I may not be getting everything Paul is trying to communicate here, but my sense is that Paul is saying, even though the Jews have many advantages just by being born Jewish, God is still justified in judging unrighteousness among them, even as He promised He would in the Torah. God “inflicting wrath” does not mean He’s unrighteous, that is, does not mean (as I said before) that God is abandoning His relationship with Israel. When any one in Israel is judged by God to have sinned, God is justified in inflicting discipline.
In verse 9, Paul says that relative to judgment for sin, the Jews do not have an advantage over the Gentiles due to their covenant relationship with God, because God is justified in condemning anyone who sins. No one is perfect. Everyone sins. Everyone can be under the “power of sin” (Romans 3:9 NIV).
In Romans 3:10-18, Paul weaves a number of different scriptures into his “none are righteous” part of the chapter, including Psalms 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Eccles. 7:20; Psalm 5:9; Psalm 140:3; Psalm 10:7 (see Septuagint); Isaiah 59:7,8 and Psalm 36:1.
Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.
–Romans 3:19-20 (NASB)
This continues Paul’s point that even if Jews are obedient to the mitzvot, obedience without faith does not justify one before God. Only faith and obedience. The whole world is accountable to God. Does that mean the whole world is obligated to the Torah mitzvot in the manner of the Jews? Some might conclude that we are based in this single verse. On the other hand, taking the larger Biblical narrative into account, we know that Israel was to be a light to the world, and up to the time of Messiah’s first advent, that light hadn’t been producing a lot of illumination.
But it’s by Israel’s light that the world was intended to be informed of God and His blessings, as well as be informed of what constituted both righteousness and sin. The Torah, among its many other purposes, defines what it is to disobey God and thus be condemned. But even an awareness of the Law and being behaviorally compliant is insufficient if there is no Kavanah or intension, sometimes expressed as “direction of the heart”.
Although Jews and the Gentiles in Messiah had different (overlapping) behavioral obligations, they were all judged based, not necessarily on the perfection of their performance, but on the presence or absence of faith, devotion, and motivation. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s expectations, but if a man like King David who sinned greatly with the affair and impregnation of the married woman Batsheva, the murder of her husband Uriah, and attempting to cover it all up by quickly marrying Batsheva after the mourning period for her husband’s death had passed, could still repent and be considered “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14) specifically because of the quality of David’s kavanah, then so could the less than perfect Jews Paul was referencing in his letter.
But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
–Romans 3:21-26 (NASB)
We might condense the above-quoted statement to say something like, “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested through faith in Jesus Christ.” That makes it seem as if faith in Christ has replaced the Law (Torah observance) as a means of being considered righteousness. Except that Torah observance was never considered a means of righteousness. Only faith.
Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.
–Genesis 15:6 (NASB)
Abraham was considered righteous by God because of his faith, long before the Torah was given at Sinai and even before the commandment of circumcision as a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham. Thus it is faith that is the common denominator across all populations, Jewish and Gentile, that reckons anyone as righteous before a Holy God.
That seems to explain part of what Paul is saying in Romans 3:21-26, but what about faith in Jesus Christ, in Yeshua HaMashiach? Up until now, faith in Hashem, God of the Heavens was required. What changed?
The second elementary teaching of the Messiah in Hebrews 6:12 is called “faith toward God,” but how is this distinct from other first-century sects of Judaism? Even the Sadducees believed in God. Find out how Yeshua transformed the faith of his followers, and get a fresh handle on what it means to “believe in Jesus” and to be “born again.”
That is exactly the question D.T. Lancaster answers in the above-quoted sermon in his “Hebrews” series, which I reviewed a number of weeks ago. I also mentioned this topic in a related blog post called Why No One Comes To The Father Except Through The Son.
What changed? Why was devotion solely to Hashem no longer the target to be aimed at for a devout Jew? Actually, that’s not what changed. As mentioned in both of my commentaries on Lancaster, the Jesus-believing Jews of “the Way” and the Pharisees had almost exactly the same set of beliefs about God. There was only a slight variance between them and you could almost call Paul and the other Jesus-believing Jews “Pharisees with a Messianic twist.”
You might say that God’s plan for the ultimate redemption of Israel had been progressing forward in time since Abraham. If you look at the pattern of the covenants, you’ll see God building, step by step, on His plan, establishing the promises with Abraham, carrying them out through Isaac, and Jacob, the exile of Jacob’s family to Egypt where they grew into a great multitude, the raising up of Moses and Aaron, leading them out of Egyptian slavery and on their many journeys, and culminating at Sinai with the establishing of the Mosaic covenant and the giving of the Torah, forming the nation of Israel as the light to the world.
But it didn’t end there. Even after possessing the Land, national Israel struggled. Their history is clear. Did God’s plan fail? Did Israel fail? No. The plan was incomplete. It was never meant to encompass just Israel, but the whole world through Israel.
That’s why the New Covenant was prophesied through Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and many other prophets. The New Covenant would be written, not on scrolls or tablets, but on the Jewish heart, so that Israel could finally perfectly observe the mitzvot with absolute kavanah and without sin.
Messiah, among other things, was the herald of the New Covenant. He brought the beginning of the inauguration of that Covenant with his birth into the world, receiving the Holy Spirit, his ability to heal, his correct teachings, his death and resurrection, and his promise to return.
He was the messenger of the next logical, Biblical, evolutionary step in God’s redemptive plan, his Good News to the nation of Israel, and through Israel’s redemption, the salvation of the world as well.
At each step in the plan, the Jewish people could continue to have faith in God or not. Many did. Some didn’t. The Bible records their fate. Messiah came not to say “believe in me instead of God” but “believe in me because of God for I am His messenger and through my message you can come fully and completely, in a way never before realized by any living Jew, to God the Father, Master of Legions, Author of Life.”
Another step and a really big one in God’s plan. Accept or reject. Faith or faithlessness. You choose.
The choice was given to Gentiles for the first time since the establishment of the Israelite nation. No longer would a non-Jew have to undergo the proselyte ritual and convert to Judaism. No longer would a Gentile be required to affiliate with a tribe or clan of Israel (as they did in the days of Moses). Now, because of the New Covenant promises and how they include the Abrahamic blessings to the nations, all people of every nation, tribe, and tongue can, through Messiah, come alongside Israel, just as it was prophesied, and take part in the covenant blessings of God by being grafted into the root.
Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one.
–Romans 3:27-30 (NASB)
Paul might be saying, so, having said all that, do Jews get to brag that they are justified and made righteous by being born Jews or even by observance of the mitzvot? No. Yes, being born Jewish and having the Torah has terrific advantages as I said, but ultimately, no one is justified by being born a Jew or by being physically circumcised. Justification, for a Jew or Gentile, comes only through a faith like Abraham’s.
I can see Paul really needing to make this point to the Gentile Jesus-believers reading the letter. I can see how they could be really confused in the face of non-believing Jews telling them that justification and righteousness comes only through being Jewish. Paul needed to set them straight and orient them and their Jewish counterparts, to the reality of the “law of faith”. God is a God of the Jews and a God to the Gentiles so both the Jews and Gentiles have their hope in Him through Messiah’s Good News.
But Paul has to be particularly careful. In emphasizing faith, he can’t be seen to diminish the reality and the vital importance of the Torah or of Jewish identity. Remember, the Jews still have many great advantages over the Gentiles (sorry, but it’s true) as possessors of the words of God. Israel was the original recipient of Torah, and is the total and complete object of the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and New Covenants. It’s only through Israel that the rest of us have any hope of salvation at all, so let’s not get cocky.
That explains the last verse in the chapter:
Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.
–Romans 3:31 (NASB)
Especially according to the entire context of the letter as it has been presented so far, Paul’s statement couldn’t be plainer. Faith does not nullify, do away with, fulfill (in the sense of abolish), abolish, replace, or complete (in the sense of abolish) the Law. Faith establishes the Law!
That is, through a completeness of Jewish faith, in this context, in God through Messiah, the Law is established, fully founded in a way never conceived or before or if conceived of, never accomplished before in Jewish lives.
Remember, we have to view all of this through the New Covenant. Jesus was bringing the New Covenant into our world. The evidence was the fact that even the Gentiles were receiving the Holy Spirit (see Acts 10) just as the Jews had (Acts 2). The New Covenant was going to radically change the relationship between the Jewish people, the Holy Spirit, and observance of the mitzvot:
“But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”
–Jeremiah 31:33-34 (NASB)
Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.
–Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NASB)
When the New Covenant reaches fruition, God will write the Torah on the heart, and each Jewish person (and ultimately the rest of us) will have an apprehension of God that is so complete, that they/we will know God, as the prophets knew Him, as Moses knew Him, with complete intimacy, and all Israel’s sins (and the Gentiles’ attached to Israel through Messiah) will be forgiven.
This is what it means when Paul says, Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.
The Torah will be established in the New Covenant era in a way that it never could have been at any other time in history, for the conditions of God’s covenant with Israel will no longer be limited to being recorded on scrolls but will, in some mysterious manner, be written on the Jewish heart and soul, and Israel will be enabled by the Holy Spirit to finally, perfectly be in obedience to God as God requires through the Torah.
And we Gentiles who come to faith in the God of Israel through Messiah will be grafted in and be sharers of the covenant blessings, living in the resurrection under the reign of King Messiah in perfect peace and knowledge of Israel’s God.
“Run to pursue even a minor mitzvah and flee from a transgression.”
-Ben Azzai, Pirkei Avot 5:2
Next up: Reflections on Romans 4.