Reading: Romans 3
How does Paul answer the question, “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value [profit] is there in circumcision?”
Advantage or No Difference?
One might rightly, retort, “That's easy! He says there is much advantage in every way.” To which I obviously would agree. Paul does say that. The quandary for me comes when I realize that he lists only one reason, which turns out not to be so much of an advantage, and then, he states quite emphatically in 3:9 “there is no difference.” So much for an advantage. Which is it?
This question and answer fall into Paul's larger discussion. For our purposes let's jump into the discussion at Romans 2:8-10 where Paul declares that there will be wrath, anger, trouble, and distress “for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. But glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” Then He explains,
All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Romans 2:12-13)
The problem for everyone is sin for all sin—whether under the law or apart from the law—and therefore all perish. It is here that Paul begins the discussion of whether there is an advantage to being a Jew and having a relationship to God through the law. (I have highlighted words which correspond to the question of advantage or profit in our original question from Romans 3:1.)
17Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag [boast] about your relationship to God; 18if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— 21you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23You who brag [boast] about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24As it is written: "God's name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you." (Romans 2:17-24)
Here Paul, speaking from personal experience, presents a common notion amongst Jews about their advantages and the profit of being Jews. They would, at least in their thoughts, boast about their superior knowledge which led to superior positions: guide, light, instructor, teacher. Why? Because they had the law, which is the embodiment of knowledge and truth. So Paul strikes right at the core of their advantages by saying, “You who brag about the law (i.e. all the superiority you have because of the law), do you dishonor God by breaking the law?” (Romans 2:23)
Then in Romans 2:25-29, Paul informs us that the advantage of circumcision only applies to those who observe the law (obey it!), for those who break it become as though they had not been circumcised to begin with. Real Jewishness is not about outward circumcision, but heart circumcision which is done not by the law, but by the Spirit.
All of this precedes the question and seeming answer of Romans 3:1-2.
What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God.
The problem with stopping there is 1) it seems to contradict what precedes it, and 2) he seems to dismantle that answer in verses 3-8 as he sets out to show that apart from faith, the law (the very words of God) actually judges them. And then in Romans 3:9, Paul's conclusion is stated:
What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.
Then in Romans 3:10-18, Paul lays out what I believe is the most scathing report on the human condition ever penned. It is only rivaled by Genesis 6:5-6, which led to the destruction of mankind by the flood, and the sparing of a remnant by grace in Noah. Paul uses emphatically declares there is “no one righteous, not even one,” “no one who seeks God,” “All have turned away,” “become worthless,” there is “no one who does good, not even one,” and “there is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Then we are told that this is said about those Jews who had the “advantage” of receiving the law (Romans 3:19). So much for their advantage and profit. In context this does not mean they are worse off than Gentiles, but on a equal playing field. Now that he has said this, the “whole world” is held accountable to God.
Advantage Excluded in the Gospel
Then Paul presents the Gospel (Romans 3:21-26) in what is one of the most glorious synopses of the Gospel in Scripture. He speaks of a righteousness which is “through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” Why? Because “there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God...” (Romans 3:22-23).
In verse 27, Paul picks the theme of boasting or advantages back up, having now been adjusted by the Gospel.
27Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. 28For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. 29Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, 30since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. 31Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law. (Romans 3:27-31)
The whole issue of advantages seems to have disappeared. Why? Because it is by faith. God was never only a local God. God has always been the God of both the Jews and Gentiles. The purpose of the Law was to lead to Christ to save the world. It was never just to save the Jews or the circumcised.
This raises the question of whether or not this faith nullifies the law. Paul's answer is, “absolutely not!” for as Romans 4:1-25 will demonstrate, the whole point of the covenant with Abraham and all that followed was faith. It is fairly obvious in reading the law that it was really all about faith in God's provision of mercy all along. All the sacrifices clearly indicated that God was providing for the sin of His people. Clearly they would be lawbreakers in need of sacrifice, and they would need to trust God for the provision for their sin. So faith was the whole purpose of the law to begin with.
An Advantage After All
Is there no advantage to being a Jew? Was there no advantage to being part of God's people and included by circumcision under the Old Covenant? There is indeed an advantage in having received the very words of God. Faith cannot come apart from hearing. And having received the very words of God, they could have faith, and through faith be saved. The fact that so many didn't have faith doesn't nullify the advantage that having heard, they were extended an advantage. (Romans 10:14-18).
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,