NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER THREE (Lesson II)
Albert Barnes has several points to make here about what makes a Jew better than a Gentile: “The design of the first part of this chapter is to answer some of the objections which might be offered by a Jew to the statements in the last chapter. The first objection is stated in this verse. A Jew would naturally ask if the view which the apostle had given were correct, what special benefit could the Jew derive from his religion? The objection would arise particularly from the position advanced in 2:25-26, that if a pagan should do the things required by the Law, he would be treated as ‘if’ he had been circumcised. Hence, the question, ‘what profit is there in circumcision?’”1
Barnes then goes on to account for why not only was circumcision to be taken as a plus for the Jews, but also that God had entrusted them with His revelation and Word. Barnes focuses on the use of the term “oracles.” “The word ‘oracle’ among the pagans properly meant: The answer or response of a god, or of some priest supposed to be inspired, to an inquiry of importance, usually expressed in a brief pretentious way, and often with great ambiguity. The place from which such a response was usually obtained was also called an oracle, as the oracle at Delphi, etc. These oracles were frequent among the pagans, as affairs of great importance were usually submitted to them. The word rendered ‘oracles’ occurs in the New Testament but four other times, Acts 7:38; Hebrews 5:12; 1 Peter 4:11. It is evidently used here to denote the Scriptures, as being what was spoken by God, and particularly perhaps the divine promises. To possess these was, of course, an eminent privilege, and included all others, as they instructed them in their duty, and were their guide in everything that pertained to them in this life and the life to come. They contained, besides, many precious promises respecting the future dignity of the nation in reference to the Messiah. No higher favor can be conferred on a people than to be put in possession of sacred Scriptures. And this fact should excite us to gratitude, and lead us to endeavor to extend them also to other nations.”2 Makes you wonder if Christians today value and celebrate the Bible as a wonderful gift from God?
Swiss theologian Godet proposes two questions related to circumcision. The first question about circumcision relates to the spiritual symbol of Israel’s election, and the second question relates to the physical symbol of Israel’s election. Godet says: “Will the people whom God has elected and marked with the seal of this election be treated exactly like the rest of the world? This objection is of the same nature as that which would be made in our day by a nominal Christian, if, when put face to face with God’s sentence, he were to ask what advantage there accrues to him from his creed and baptism, if they are not [designed] to save him from condemnation?”3 These are good questions that every believer should ask themselves. Am I saved because I was baptized as an infant or even as an adult, or was I baptized because I am saved by God’s grace, love, and forgiveness?
Charles Ellicott gives us his commentary: “One real and solid advantage on the part of the Jew was that he was made the direct recipient of divine revelation. This privilege of his is not annulled by the defection of a part of the people. It rests not upon the precarious fidelity of men, but upon the infallible promise of God. Yet is not the ultimate triumph of that promise any excuse for those who have see it as nothing. They will be punished just the same, and rightly. Otherwise, there could be no judgment at all. The chance objection that sin loses its guilt if it reflects God’s glory, or, in other words, that the end justifies the means, carries with it its own condemnation.”4
Bible scholar F. F. Bruce sees the following in what Paul says here: “Here Paul imagines someone breaking into his argument and saying, ‘Well then, if it is being a Jew inwardly that counts, if it is the “circumcision” of the heart that matters, is there any advantage in belonging to the Jewish nation, or in being physically circumcised?’ We might have expected Paul to answer this supposed question quite categorically: ‘None at all!’ But, rather to our surprise, he replies, ‘Much in every way.’ Of course, it is an advantage to belong to the circumcised nation. Think of all the privileges granted by God to that nation—privileges in which other nations had no part. It would be asking too much of Paul to expect him to deny his true ancestral heritage, especially as now he had found, in the gospel to which his life was devoted, the fulfillment of the age-old hope of his people. Among the ancestral privileges of Israel, Paul reckons as of first importance the fact that they were the custodians of ‘the oracles of God’. To have the revelation of God’s will and purpose committed to them was a high honor indeed. But if it was a high honor, it carried with it a great responsibility. If they proved unfaithful to their trust, their case was worse than that of the nations to which God had not revealed Himself.”5
Jewish theologian David Stern also speaks about the supposed advantage that Jews had, and what did being physically circumcised add to it? After what Paul said in 2:17-19, one might expect the answer to be “none.” But says Stern: “Paul’s answer is: Much in every way, not just in one way or some ways, but every way, of which in the first place is the fact that the Jews were entrusted with the very words of God, His logia, his divine communications (not limited to His promises or prophecies, as the word “oracles” in KJV implies). This is of first importance because any other advantage of being Jewish stems from God’s having chosen and spoken to the Jewish people. To imagine that the Jews are special because they have a finer ethical sense than others, or a land, or some sort of ‘racial genius’ is to put the cart before the horse. The Jews were ‘the fewest of all peoples’ (Deuteronomy 7:7), yet Adonai loved them, chose them and separated them for Himself. ‘He declares His Word to Jacob, His statutes and His judgments to Israel. He has not done so with any other nation, and as for His judgments they have not known them” (Psalm 147:19–20). In sum, having the very words of God is no cause for Jewish pride, since the initiative was entirely God’s; yet it is ‘in every way’ a great advantage.”6
Verse 3: It is true that some Jews were not faithful to God. But will that stop God from doing what He promised?
Today, when meeting those who choose not to believe and follow Jesus, instead of showing them mercy and compassion, as one would offer to a blind person trying to find their way to the exit gate in a maze, we attempt to isolate their views with long discourses of theological reasoning. But the apostle Paul states very emphatically, their unbelief does not eternally exclude them from one day coming to Jesus in order to be saved, nor does it make void God’s plan of salvation offered to whosoever will may come. If we read John 3:3 to unbelievers, and they still do not see the need of being born-again, it does not mean they will never see it or that we should cancel the process of trying to win them to Christ. The constant and certain offer of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ does not depend on people’s personal acceptance or rejection, but on His faithfulness in keeping the door open for their entry at the moment the Holy Spirit brings them and He invites them to enter.
I think we can all vouch for the fact that in many cases believers have given up much sooner than God has on those who have been misled or fallen way behind due to disobedience. After all, it took forty years for the children of Israel to get out of the desert into the promised land. Yet, God led them all the way with His cloud by day and fire by night. The writer of Hebrews puts it bluntly: “The message they heard did not help them. They heard it but did not accept it with faith.”7 How often have we seen someone suffer setbacks and disappointments because they did not take instructions seriously? But it does not mean they will forever deny what is wrong and not seek help to get it fixed. Paul no doubt knew from experience that no matter how long it may take, once a person accepts the truth and begins to walk in that truth, the same joy and excitement is still there had they done it, to begin with. In fact, the joy may be even greater.
The key factor for Paul here is this: A person’s unbelief in God will not make God’s belief in them any less effective when they do believe. The reason for this is the fact that although mankind’s commitment to God may change, God’s commitment to mankind remains constant. We find this clearly stated in Scripture where it says: “God is not a man; He will not lie. God is not a human being; His decisions will not change. If He says He will do something, then He will do it. If He makes a promise, then He will do what He promised.”8 This led God to tell Israel the following: “The mountains may disappear, and the hills may become dust, but my faithful love will never leave you. I will make peace with you, and it will never end.”9 So the question now for the Jews was this: Do I trust myself to get through or should I trust God to get me through?
But beyond that, Paul was speaking on the authority of the Gospel of Christ. Jesus Himself made this declaration: “The whole world, earth, and sky, may be destroyed, but my words will last forever.”10 This gave Paul the courage to tell young Timothy: “If we are not faithful, He will remain faithful because He cannot be untrue to who He is.”11 To put this another way, we could say that no matter which way you are going or regardless of which direction you are facing, the morning sun will always appear first on the eastern horizon. By the same token, no matter which direction you may turn the compass, the needle will always be pointing north. In the same way, no matter what path we take or what destiny we are attempting to reach without God’s help, when we need Him most urgently He is always available when we look for Him, and He is always close by when we call out His name.12
After examining this verse, early church scholar Origen makes this comment: “The oracles of God were entrusted to the Jews, but some of them did not believe either God or His oracles. Those who did not believe were carnal, as Paul says elsewhere: ‘The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him.’13 But their faithlessness does not nullify the faithfulness of God. By God’s faithfulness, we understand either the faith which God had when He entrusted His oracles to them or the faith by which those who received the oracles from God believed in Him. We are therefore reminded that their faithlessness has not nullified the faithfulness of God, which He has shown to us.”14
1 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 Cf. Deuteronomy 4:7-8; Psalm 147:19-20
3 Frédéric Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Charles Ellicott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, pp. 100–101
6 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Hebrews 4:2
8 Numbers 23:19; Cf. 1 Samuel 15:29
9 Isaiah 54:10
10 Matthew 24:35
11 2 Timothy 2:13
12 See Isaiah 55:6
13 1 Corinthians 2:14
14 Origen; On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.