Romans (Part 13) – The Advantage of Israel (2:25–3:8)
Our modern misunderstanding of how the Jews considered works of the Law has led to much further misunderstanding about Paul’s arguments in Romans. To follow the development of Paul’s argument against the Jews requires us to truly understand the mindset of the Jews. We will, therefore, again walk through the covenant emphasis of relationship with God to ensure we have this matter straight. When we do, we can follow Paul’s arguments much more easily.
God, remember, began with his Trinitarian Covenant of Operational Essence. The Godhead had covenanted together to operate according to their shared Essence of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. (Of course, they did not sit down one day, have a little discussion presenting pros and cons, and finally decide to operate this way. The covenant commitment is eternal. God has always operated in this manner.)
God also decided to create. Again, a Trinitarian covenant was established. We call this one God’s Covenant of Creative Purpose. This covenant called for the creation of image bearers with whom God would have everlasting love relationship. And so God created, and we read about the detail in Genesis 1 and 2.
When God created, he established a covenant with his image bearers. Notice this covenant is not a Trinitarian covenant (among only the Godhead). This covenant was between God and his image-bearing creatures. This Covenant of Life had the purpose of establishing how God and his image bearers would interact and be blessed by everlasting love relationship. In this covenant, God obligated himself to demonstrate to them his divine nature and his eternal power (the two attributes discussed by Paul as part of general revelation in Romans 1). We have talked about God’s divine nature (his essence) as being Truth, Goodness, and Beauty (TGB). Thus, in demonstrating his divine nature to his image bearers, he showed them he was the source of TGB. God (we discussed before) acts in love. One’s action is one’s power. Therefore, in acting in love, which is the providing of TGB, God showed his eternal power of loving care. The image bearers also had an obligation in this Covenant of Life relationship. They were to trust God for TGB (which they were made to desire). Note that trusting God for TGB carries the implied recognition that God is the source of TGB.
Now, how did God provide TGB? He provided his TGB to and through the physical essence of humankind—their materiality. Thus, we see God plant a Garden and provide through its growth and product all that was good and beautiful for Adam and Eve’s prospering. He even provided a material aspect of the promised knowledge he would teach them in the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. So God’s provision was shown in physical activity. As for Adam and Eve, their obligation of trust was also to be shown or demonstrated through physical activity. They were not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They were to physically obey God, which would demonstrate their trust in him. Those good works (God’s provision and the image bearers’ obedience in conduct) were what demonstrated their commitment in their covenant obligations. In other words, the sign of the Covenant of Life was good works. Realizing this, we find Paul’s insistence in Romans 2 much more meaningful regarding the final judgment being based on works. Of course, it should. Works were the covenant sign for our Covenant of Life. Performing the good works, then, is eternal life. Failing in good works is separation and death. And it is so because the works (the sign) revealed the heart, where the obligations of the covenant rested.
Of course, we know Adam and Eve removed trust from God as source and provider of TGB. We know they removed trust because their works (the sign) showed it: they ate of the tree God had forbidden to them. Their evil works revealed their broken covenant obligation of trust. Immediately God sentenced them to death (separation). He did so because of his Covenant of Operational Essence—God would always act in accordance with his essence of TGB. But this action created a problem regarding the other Trinitarian covenant—the Covenant of Creative Purpose. In that covenant, God had obligated himself to create image bearers for everlasting love relationship. It seemed then that God would have to be unfaithful to one of his Trinitarian covenants. Either he would condemn humankind based on his Covenant of Operational Essence and be unfaithful (unrighteous) in his Covenant of Creative Purpose or he would continue in relationship with humankind to be faithful to his Covenant of Creative purpose and overlook their sin, making him unrighteous in regard to his Covenant of Operational Essence. Of course, God had anticipated this failure of humankind and so was ready with a third option: enter into a Covenant of Redemption to satisfy his righteous commitment to both his Trinitarian Covenants.
In the Covenant of Redemption, God purposed to provide a Means by which humankind could be rescued. But because the rescue was a rescue to loving relationship, humankind must also know of his plan to rescue so they could embrace the rescue in faith and love (the necessary basis for loving relationship). Therefore, God wanted to show or demonstrate that rescue—provide a Mirror of his plan—by which humankind could see God’s activity. So God’s method in providing both Means and Mirror was to choose a person/people for himself by which to demonstrate his loving care and redemption intent as well as to be the people through whom his Messiah Means of rescue would come.
God chose Abraham—a man of faith—with whom to covenant regarding the Means and Mirror for his redemptive plan. The covenant is quite involved providing facets in Genesis 12, 15, and 17. Primarily God intended three blessings of the covenant: land, offspring, and blessing to the world. Through these three blessings both Means and Mirror came. Of course, we can easily understand now that the blessing to come to the world was through Christ, the Means of redemption in which God came in the flesh through the line of Abraham. Land and offspring offer us a very similar picture (Mirror) to that of the Kinsman Redeemer ideas in Ruth and sprinkled throughout the Bible. The land symbolizes physical creation—our essence—our bodies. Offspring (individuals; persons) symbolize the individual spirits or persons of God’s image bearers who together hold the one essence of materiality. Therefore, here at the beginning, involved with the Abrahamic Covenant, we see the Means and Mirror God intended through his Covenant of Redemption.
The sign of the Abrahamic Covenant was circumcision. Again, even in this sign, we see indication of Means and Mirror. It is through offspring that the Messiah Means would come, and circumcision is performed on the reproductive organ signaling that Redeemer to be born through the Abrahamic line. The act of performing the sign on the newborn and cutting of the flesh of the reproductive organ also indicates the Mirror element of trust in God to provide that coming one.
The next major covenant is what we refer to as the Mosaic Covenant, although this covenant was not made only with Moses. In the Mosaic covenant, the selected offspring of Abraham become a nation, covenanting with God to be his priests. The fact that this group was not all Abraham’s offspring, but only a selected line (Isaac, not Ishmael, and Jacob, not Esau) emphasizes the Means aspect of Redemption again that it is God’s choice and God’s control that will bring about God’s appointed (chosen) one as Redeemer. But significant also is the obligation of the Mosaic Covenant in which Israel the nation promised obedience to God through the commands he imposed for only them as his people. That Law serves as the sign of this covenant, mirroring the works obligation of Adam and Eve’s Covenant of Life.
The purpose for again recounting this covenant series was to ensure we see what the Jews didn’t see: the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants, although involved in the process of the Covenant of Redemption, did not of themselves offer redemption. The Jews were right in that those covenants identified or marked those people regarding their purposes of Means and Mirror, but those covenant markers did not identify the Jews as the ultimate redeemed people of God. And that understanding is Paul’s focus in Romans 2 (and into chapter 3). Israel (the Jews) were physically the offspring of Abraham. But that position was to serve as a type—a mirror—to the true Israel or Jews, who were those of the whole world who would trust in God’s salvation.
And this reasoning, then, is why Paul is insisting that possessing circumcision and possessing the Law did not signify (as the Jews thought it did) a relationship of life with God. Paul said no. For everlasting relationship with God, all of you—Gentiles and Jews—will be judged based on your works, not based on the markers of those other covenants. So, Paul continued, when you Jews fail to keep the Law—fail to do what is good and right—you fail in those things required for life relationship with God. And when the Gentiles do things that are good and right, even though they do not possess those other markers of the other covenants—circumcision and the Law—they can have life relationship with God.
The point is that this new covenant of life relationship with God has its own sign or marker or badge or indicator. The sign of the Covenant of Redemption introducing the New Covenant of Life (everlasting love relationship with God in the community of his people) is good works. Good works (as a sign) shows the heart condition of faith and trust and desire for good. Those who have that—the heart condition of trust in God’s TGB—are the true Jews, the true circumcision, the true Israel, the true people of God.
Specifically, Paul says, “For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, and true circumcision is not something visible in the flesh. On the contrary, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart—by the Spirit, not the letter. That man’s praise is not from men but from God.” (Romans 2:28–29)
Paul has just knocked out the support that the confident Jews had stood on for so long. And although Paul asks the question in 3:1, you can easily imagine the Jews in shaken bewilderment asking it: “Well, if we can’t claim relationship with God based on our markers of the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants, what good, then, is it being a Jew? Was there any point to having circumcision, if that is not what shows I have relationship with God?” Paul answers this hypothetical question of the Jews with a robust, “Yes! There was considerable advantage for the Jews. The advantage is just not as you had thought.”
Paul tells the Jews that the major advantage was that they were entrusted with the oracles of God. The NIV and HCSB do not translate this phrase as oracles of God but rather as “very words” or “spoken words” of God. Doing so leaves out what I think is an important element—not necessarily important for us to understand the thrust of Paul’s argument, but it does provide support for Paul’s overall thought pattern that I’m suggesting here. The Greek word translated oracles is logion. That Greek word looks very similar to logos, which we all are more familiar with as meaning word. Logion, however, has a diminutive suffix (like ette in English making cigarette a little cigar). The idea with logion is a brief word or utterance used often in divine oracles. For example, the Oracles of Delphi were called that because they gave brief, cryptic utterances pronouncing the gods’ prophecies usually of some battle or course of action. Paul uses this word here (and nowhere else in his writings) and not the more common logos form, I think, because he wants to stress the connection with the idea, not of the brevity of God’s words, but of the prophetic implication of the plan of redemption. Although God gave the Jews his Law for them to live by at the time, the whole point was for its part in the greater picture of presenting what God would do in the plan of redemption—a forward, predictive, prophetic divine pronouncement similar to the Greek world’s familiarity with oracles.
Being the first to receive that plan of redemption from God gave the Jews advantage according to the very reason God was giving the Mirror image at all: to rescue for love relationship meant the ones rescued had to understand the rescue was happening and that the rescue happening was for love relationship. The Jews received that first. And so, we also see Paul’s insistence in Acts and his writings that the gospel is to the Jew first so that those who first received the oracles of redemption’s plan would have the surety presented of its accomplishment in Jesus.
Now Paul must address any befuddling objection to his declaration of chapter 2 that may linger in the Jews’ minds. Paul presumes in verse 3 of chapter 3 that the Jews may reason that if their covenants (Abrahamic and Mosaic) were to serve in God’s plan as a mirror for the redemption plan, and Israel failed to follow God’s direction (as Paul proved), wouldn’t that ruin everything? Wouldn’t that result in the Messiah not coming through this unfaithful Israel, thus making God unfaithful in providing a redeemer?
No, Paul says. God will accomplish redemption despite the Jews’ failures. In fact, even if every Jew lied (was unfaithful) regarding the message, God would and must still be true to his word.
Well, the Jews (in Paul’s thought in verse 5) then proposed that if the Jews’ failure—so that God’s loving kindness could still be shown in bringing them back to their lland—was necessary imagery of God’s plan for the world, wouldn’t God be unjust to judge against Israel for accomplishing what he intended to show?
No, Paul says. If God let the Jews off for breaking the law, how could God still be just in condemning Gentiles for breaking the law. Anyone who breaks the law must be judged a lawbreaker.
Finally, Paul (in verse 7) anticipates the same argument again but from another perspective. The Jew asks that if the point of this all is to show God faithful (in other words to bring glory to God) and by the failures of the Jews, God is shown faithful and receives glory, how can the Jew be judged guilty? All his actions did were to bring glory to God! How can he be judged a sinner for bringing glory to God?
Paul mentions that some people accused Paul of promoting this idea of doing evil so good would come. (We can see how some Greeks, who strove in their philosophy to act in virtue, who heard Paul saying that your evil works don’t matter if you believe in Jesus, could have come to this false conclusion that Paul promoted evil works.) Paul declares, “Their condemnation is deserved.” He, by this, is not condemning those who accuse him of the false idea. He is answering the argument of verse 7, saying, “No, they are wrong. No matter how God works events to highlight his glory, those who sin are, as sinners, justly condemned.”