NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER THREE (Lesson I)
Verses 1-2: So, do Jews have anything that others don’t have? Do they get any benefit from being circumcised? Yes, the Jews have many benefits. The most important one is this: God trusted the Jews with His teachings.
Paul now summarizes his discussion on the difference between Jews and Gentiles in their need for salvation by faith. It is evident to him that since Moses had received the Ten Commandments before they were applied to any other nation, and in light of the fact that Christ came first to the Jews before His Gospel of salvation by faith was made available to all nations, that the Jews had a distinct advantage. In Paul’s mind, they certainly were privileged. This caused early church preacher Chrysostom to pose these questions: “If Paul means that there is no use in being a Jew or in circumcision, why was that nation called, and why was circumcision given? How does Paul solve this problem? By the same means as he did before: he speaks not of their praises but of the benefits of God.”1
After all, didn’t Moses tell the Jews’ ancestors: “The Lord our God is near when we ask Him to help us. No other nation has a god like that! And no other nation is great enough to have laws and rules as good as the teachings I give you today.”2 This exceptionalism is recalled during a feast of the exiles who had returned from Babylonian captivity. Ezra, the first scribe, read from the Torah and then many Levites stood up and called out to God in prayer, telling Him why they should praise Him. In their worship, with uplifted hands, they exclaimed: “You came down on the mountain in Sinai. You spoke to them from heaven. You gave them good laws. You gave them true teachings. You gave them laws and commands that were very good. You told them about Your special day of rest – the Sabbath. Through Your servant Moses, you gave them commands, laws, and teachings.”3 Today, we can liken this same benefit to those who grow up in a strong Christian home environment in a Christian nation. Just like the Jews, they have no excuse for not accepting God as their Father and Christ as their Redeemer and the Holy Spirit as their Comforter.
One member of Psalmist Asaph’s family mentioned this in one of their teaching Psalms: “He made an agreement with Jacob. He gave the law to Israel. He gave the commands to our ancestors. He told them to teach the law to their children. Then the next generation, even the children not yet born, would learn the law. And they would be able to teach it to their own children.”4 This is something that every Christian family should feel obligated to do for their children and their children’s children. The Apostle Paul certainly recognized how beneficial this was to his young protégé, Timothy. He wrote him saying; “You have known the Holy Scriptures since you were a child.5 These Scriptures are able to make you wise. And that wisdom leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”6
But having the Word was not enough. For it to be active in a person’s life, they must be as committed to following the Word as God was committed to giving it to them. Perhaps Paul had the words of the young Psalmist on his mind who said: “Your word is designed to refine until purity is attained, that’s why your servant loves it.”7 Yet, even though these Jewish leaders in the Messianic congregation in Rome had been infused with the Word of God since they were young, Paul found himself confronting the same problem we find addressed in the letter to the Hebrews: “You have had enough time that by now you should be teachers. But you need someone to teach you again the first lessons of God’s teaching. You still need the teaching that is like milk.”8
Another early church scholar sees things this way: “Although Paul says that there are many things which pertain to the honor and merit of the seed of Abraham, he records only one of them openly, because it is their greatest boast: They were judged worthy to receive the law, by which they learned to distinguish right from wrong. Only after that was it possible for the value of other things to be understood. But as far as the Jews, according to the flesh, are concerned (that is, the unbelievers among them), Paul shows that the witness of their race is of no advantage to them. But so as not to appear to be treating them all, including the believers among them, badly, he teaches that the law is very useful to Jewish believers, because they are children of Abraham. For it was to them that the oracles of God were entrusted. It is by the merits of their ancestors that they received the law and were called God’s people.… Egypt was hit by different plagues because of the wrongs which it did to them.9 They dined on heavenly manna;10 they were a terror to all nations, as Rahab the harlot bore witness.11 Moreover, it was to them that Christ the Savior was promised for their sanctification. Therefore Paul says that in many ways it was useful to the Jews because they were the children of Abraham and came before the Gentiles.”12
Reformer John Calvin raises and then answers, this question: “What is the benefit of circumcision? For this separated the Jews from the common class of men; it was a partition-wall,13 as Paul calls ceremonies, which kept parties apart.”14 As Calvin explains: Paul proved beyond doubt that just being circumcised to fulfill a requirement of the law brought nothing to the Jews that had any bearing on their salvation. Yet, he did acknowledge that it served as a symbol that made a distinction between Jews and Gentiles. But what upset the Apostle was that the Jews gloried and bragged in the status given to them by circumcision. So he wanted to tear down this wall so that both Jewish and Gentile believers could see that they were united as one in Christ.
John Bengel believes that Paul attempts to address the supposed advantages the Jews had over the Gentiles because of their special status with God and the Law. Bengel writes: “There are innumerable exceptions taken by the contrariness of the Jews, and of mankind, against the doctrine set for in this epistle, and Paul removes them all.” Bengel continues: “To whom a treasure is entrusted, many manage it with fidelity and skill, or they may not; and the Jews treated the Old Testament Scriptures variously. But Paul says that the Oracles of God were entrusted to the Jews in such wise that the good to come described in them, should belong to the Jews if they would receive it by faith… By the Oracles of God Paul means especially the prophecies of Messiah’s glory and kingdom.” Out of this, says Bengel, there come several suggestive thoughts: God is true, faithful, entrusts His revelation to men, and is righteous; man is false, faithless, distrustful, and unrighteous.15
Revivalist theologian Adam Clarke has a similar view. He has the Jews asking: “What advantage does the Jew have? Or what profit is there in being circumcised?”16 Earlier Paul had said: “If you follow the law, then your circumcision has meaning.”17 Then the Jews say: “However, if by circumcision, or our being in covenant with God, raises us no higher in the Divine favor than the Gentiles; if the virtuous among them are as acceptable as any of us; pray tell me, wherein lies the superior honor of the Jew; and what benefit can arise to him from his circumcision, and being vested in the privileges of God‘s peculiar people?”18
Then, Clarke paraphrases Paul’s answer: “Much every way – The Jews, in reference to the means and motives of obedience, enjoy many advantages beyond the Gentiles; and, principally because to them were committed the oracles of God – that revelation of His will to Moses and the prophets, containing a treasure of excellencies, with which no other part of the world has been favored; though they have most grievously abused these privileges.”19 In other words, Paul was not putting down the value and endorsement circumcision brought to the Jews which identified them as God’s chosen people. But clearly, they had thrown all of that away by the fashion in which they kept the Law and their rejection of the Messiah who was the fulfillment of the Law.
H. A. Ironside offers his thoughts: “That the Jew has certain advantages over the Gentile is acknowledged as self-evident, and of these, the chief is the possession of the Holy Scriptures, the Oracles of God. But these very Scriptures only made his guilt the more evident. Even if they did not really have faith in these sacred writings yet their unfaithfulness cannot make void the faithfulness of God. He will fulfill His Word even if it is in the setting aside of the people He chose for Himself. He must be true though all others prove untrue. In judgment, He will maintain His righteousness, as David confesses in the 51:1-4.”20
British theologian Charles Hodge sees two important questions in verse one: What is the advantage of circumcision to the Jew? And what is the benefit of circumcision to the Jew? The Jews didn’t like Paul’s conclusion at the end of the preceding chapter. In Paul’s mind, the Jews, no less than the Gentiles, are to be judged according to their works, and by their knowledge of the divine will; and that being judged in that manner they are exposed to condemnation, notwithstanding their circumcision and all their other advantages. Hodge then goes on to point out that Paul was actually referring to what a mess the Jews made out of circumcision and that is why they stand no taller before God than the Gentiles.21
Then, the great British preacher Spurgeon shares his thoughts: “The Jews were God’s chronicle-keepers. They had to guard the Holy Books, ‘the oracles of God.’ They also had to preserve the knowledge of the truth by those various rites and ceremonies by which God was pleased to reveal Himself in olden times. It is no small blessing to have a revelation from Yahweh, and to have the means of knowing what that revelation really is.”22 That’s why Paul saw how the Jews had assumed a special place in the kingdom but without paying the price of obedience and loyalty to God’s commandments.
1 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 6
2 Deuteronomy 4:7-8
3 Nehemiah 9:13-14
4 Psalm 78:5-6
5 The Holy Scriptures Paul references here were Torah, the Prophets, and the Wisdom writings. The NT had not yet been compiled and distributed.
6 2 Timothy 3:15
7 Psalm 119:140
8 Hebrews 5:12
9 Exodus 7-12
10 See Exodus 16:14-16
11 Joshua 2:9
12 Ambrosiaster: On Romans Epistles, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 See Ephesians 2:14
14 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
15 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 233
16 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
17 Romans 2:25
18 Clarke, ibid.
19 Clarke, ibid.
20 Harry A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
21 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
22 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.