“Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.” 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.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.” (Romans 3:1–8, ESV)
In the previous passage, Paul has said some pretty tough things about the Jews. True “Jewishness” is a matter of the heart and the Spirit, not simply a matter of race and physical circumcision. Paul, himself a Jew, is in some way redefining what it means to be Jewish. Abraham’s conversion from paganism was about heart transformation expressed through faith. Circumcision and the beginning of a new physical and racial family (later called Israel) was an outward expression of that inward reality.
From the beginning, the genesis of Israel as God’s people was all about bringing God’s blessing to all the peoples of the earth. God’s method of making that heart transformation available to those from every nation was to bring Messiah to earth through the Jewish people. Some of those Jewish people have rejected this Messiah, and in doing so, have missed out on the very purpose for their Jewishness. Circumcision loses its meaning if it is not an outward sign of the inward transformation for which Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment. Uncircumcised Gentiles, who have received the Jewish Messiah by faith, are a clearer fulfillment of God’s call to the Jewish people than a Jew who does not receive Jesus. In this very spiritual and covenant sense, they are themselves Jewish.
Paul’s question at in 3:1 makes sense within this context. He has made such a strong argument regarding the Jewish people that the obvious question is whether or not there is any advantage to being racially Jewish, a physical descendent of Abraham? The message of Grace and how the gospel includes Gentiles in the New Covenant always leaves room for some to leap to the wrong conclusion and adopt replacement theology. Just because God’s people are now made up of both Jews and Gentiles who together believe in Jesus, does it then follow that God is now finished with ethnic and/or national Israel? Does the Church replace Israel in God’s plan? Paul’s answer is a resounding NO!
Is there still any advantage to being a Jew Paul’s answer: “Much in every way.”
His argument hinges upon the faithfulness of God. Just because “some”, and I emphasize the word “some” Jews, don’t believe, their faithlessness does not nullify God’s faithfulness. More will be said about this in Rom 9-11, but at this point in Paul’s letter, it is important to note that though Paul is being very strong in declaring that faith in Jesus as Messiah is the fulfillment of all that it means to be Jewish, and that the inclusion of the Gentiles by this same faith within God’s covenant family is the intended aim of that fulfillment, we cannot simply set aside or in any way minimize the significance of the Jews as a race of people.
This passage also makes sure that we do not misunderstand God’s judgment of Israel as his final rejection of Israel. Though judgment was near (Jerusalem was destroyed a few years later in 70AD), Paul makes it clear that we are to hold fast in believing that 1) this judgment is just and 2) this judgment is not a final rejection of the Jewish people. God will ultimately display his faithfulness to Israel.
As a final, almost parenthetical, portion of this letter, Paul addresses the misconception that the strong message of grace encourages sin. We will see Paul come at this question from various angles in this letter. Here the argument Paul exposes goes something like this: 1) Unbelieving Israel will experience judgment but will ultimately serve as a demonstration of God’s grace for God’s glory; 2) If Israel’s unbelief is to result in God’s glory, then how can God justly judge Israel, since their disobedience and unbelief end up being a tool in his hand for his own purposes? In this passage Paul doesn’t give a clear answer, but he is setting the stage for later in the letter where he will give his own argument against this line of thinking. In this section, he simply rejects that argument with a clever play on words. Those who say that it is unjust for God to judge are themselves justly condemned for this argument.
The tension in this passage is clear and strong. The gospel is the declaration regarding how God has been faithful to his covenant through Messiah Jesus. The great expression of the Gospel is that both Jews and Gentiles who believe are now included together as the covenant people of God. But those Jews who have rejected Jesus and are currently under judgment are themselves still the seed of Abraham and the beneficiaries of God’s covenant promises. How will God demonstrate his faithfulness to all of Abraham’s seed? Paul’s answers are still to come, but in no way will Paul allow us to forget about the importance of ethnic/national Israel, the promises God has made to them, and the faithfulness of our God to fulfill all he has promised them.
God’s character as a covenant keeping God is on the line. God’s faithfulness is sure and we can depend upon it. If (and I speak now as a Gentile) we can’t trust in God’s covenant faithfulness toward the Jewish people then we can’t trust God’s faithfulness at all. It’s a big deal.