Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Paul's Presser - Rom. 3:1-8

Have you ever met someone who is always looking to justify/acquit themselves, even when they are totally wrong? You know the type. They are caught in something or found responsible for a particular behavior or circumstance and they reason their way out of taking the brunt of any punishment. This type of person endorses phrases like “I was only trying to help” or “You should have told me…” or “Look on the bright side, had this not happened, this might have happened,…” etc. These appeals betray this very human tendency to reason our way out of culpability. The same was true for those in Rome. Paul has done a lot of convicting. The lost, the moral, and the Jew have all been called out as very much in need of the salvation that only Jesus can provide from sin. Everyone is a bit uncomfortable and bit challenged. Therefore, in anticipation of the attempts the Jews might make to justify their behavior or deflect the much-deserved scolding that has been dished out, Paul in Romans 3:1-8 asks and answers four questions that may have come up had he entertained a press conference at this juncture of his letter. These questions are the very kinds of questions clever/creative Jews may have come up with to justify their behavior or lessen the guilt. Let’s listen to how creative these questions get and how sharp Paul’s rebuke becomes.

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1) Question #1: Can the Jews claim an Advantage?-3:1-2

In chapter 2, Paul tore the Jews a new one for two reasons. First, they were all talk and no action (2:14-24). Second, they looked good but weren’t inwardly transformed (2:25-29). The result—God’s name was being disdained by the Gentiles (2:24) and many in the religious community were far from God (2:29). I imagine that at this point some of the Jews would have asked “Well then what is so great about being Jewish anyway? I thought we were better off and enjoyed exclusive covenant promises with God?”  This is what is meant when Paul asks “Then what advantage has the Jews? Or what is the benefit of circumcision?” in verse 1 of chapter 3. To be sure, God had called the Jews and had given them special blessings/promises. However, Paul has been suggesting that these gifts were not a guarantee of salvation. What was the point?

Recently I was flying on an airliner and heard the stewardess voice a special welcome to the “elite” and “star-elite” passengers who had either signed up for a credit card at some point or joined some kind of membership affiliated with the airline. Though, at times, I’ve been asked to sign up for such a program, I could never justify membership into these “clubs” as  I don’t get to fly very often—at least not often enough for these membership to really mean anything or benefit me in any meaningful way. The same was true of many of the Jews in Paul’s audience. They had a membership that was “in name only.” The best they were getting out of being a part of the “elite” club was superficial points with their peers (see 2:29) or special greetings at the synagogue—nothing substantive. Many were probably wondering at this point in Paul’s presentation—what is this association really worth anyway?

Though many were probably tempted to throw away their card and break affiliation altogether, Paul slams on the breaks and answers his own question in verse 2 by saying “Great in every respect….” What advantage did the Jews have—great advantage! First, Paul says, “they were entrusted with the oracles of God…” (3:3). Again, as iterated earlier in this study, the Jews were given something that the world was not given in the Old Testament era—a divine credo handed down miraculously through Moses. Such a law made explicit what was known implicitly, though incompletely because of the image of God in man. Imagine the leg up that this would have proven to be for the Jewish people. 
They did not have estimate what God’s standards were nor did they have to guess what they had to do. While the world did their best to pedal along in the darkness without falling off a moral cliff—the Jews were handed the best way to live, glorify God, and bless the nations. This granted them every opportunity to shine brightly for the Lord and live abundantly in the land that God had given them.
Unfortunately, when God gave them Moses and the Law, God receive back grief and complaints. When He gave them the Promised Land, He receive back fear and trepidation. When He gave them a king, He received back idolatry. When he gave them victory, He received back arrogance and pride. Although God provided the Jews with every means to impact the world (“the oracles of God”), they thwarted these gifts and were sent wandering in a wilderness and later were thrown into exile.

Perhaps for me, signing up for a rewards membership with an airline wouldn’t matter. It might even prove meaningless as I wouldn’t use it as it was designed. However, for those who do, it can yield incredible rewards—free trips, other perks, etc. The same was true for the Jews. They had received the oracles of God! What could be better? However, this great gift and exclusive potential membership in the family of the Almighty wouldn’t matter much if it wasn’t applied rightly. However, if endorsed, it would reap incredible rewards.

To the question: “Can the Jews claim advantage?” Paul answers “Yes, though it is really too bad that they didn’t make good use of it.”

2) Question #2: Can God’s Faithfulness be Thwarted by Sin? -3:3-4

The second question that Paul answers is “Can God’s faithfulness be thwarted by Sin?” Verse 3 says “What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it?” 
The tension in question is as follows: if God had made promises to the Jews and special provisions to this end, will the wickedness of the Jews render these null and void? In other words, can human error erase the promises of God?

Paul answers and says “May it never be!” (this is the strongest means available in the Greek language to answer negatively) “Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar…” (3:4a). God will remain true to his promise even though every person should turn out to be a liar.

Psalm 116:11-“I said in my alarm, ‘All men are liars.’

After all, it is not merely the Jews who have a problem with sin, it is everybody. God is faithful regardless of mankind’s ineptitude.

Paul carries on this thought by referencing David’s great prayer of penitence in Psalm 51. Therein, David confessed his sin with Bathsheba and acknowledged that God was justified in his judgment.

Psalm 51:4-“Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You are justified when You speak and blameless when You judge.

God’s righteousness is not hurting when people, like David, do not hold up their end of things. Instead, God’s righteousness is proven even more as He enacts divine judgment. When the world goes on trial, God will always win the verdict as what He says is always proven right. In a way, human error is not an encumbrance for God, but an opportunity to demonstrate his righteousness differently—through His holy wrath.

To the question “can God’s righteousness be thwarted?” Paul says no. Every threat proves to be an opportunity for God to shine all the more gloriously.

3) Question #3: Is my unrighteousness really bad? -3:5-6

Whereas the first two questions are substantive and mature, the second two are a bit more ridiculous and juvenile. That said, Paul felt a need to ask and answer them. Question three is “Is my unrighteousness really bad?” Here is how Paul puts it: “But if our unrighteousness demonstrate the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He? (I am speaking in human terms)” (3:5). “It could be implied from verses 3-4 that the unrighteousness of unbelieving Jews serves to magnify the righteousness of God. In that case, would it not be unjust of God to punish the Jew?” (Mounce, 105). After all, God is jealous for His glory. If unrighteousness in this indirect way gives it to Him, it would seem counterproductive to punish it.

That would be like taxing something that you hope people would buy more of. Instead, if you want people to purchase a particular commodity, you lower a tax or remove it all together. Applied here, if God wanted to be glorified in this way—that is through responding to sin—he shouldn’t tax unrighteousness with punishment, after all, it might keep people from behaving badly. Sounds twisted, but it is something Paul believed needed addressing.

Paul answers this question with “May it never be! For otherwise, how will God judge the world?” (3:6). God cannot let sin go unpunished. He must judge unrighteousness. He is holy and in judging sin He is shown to be glorious. If sin provides the occasion for this glory so be it. God’s punishment against sin provides occasion for glory also.

4) Question #4: Can the Unrighteous Jew still be Judged? -3:7-8

The final question that Paul answers comes in two versions. The first reads, “But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judge as a sinner?” (3:7). Put another way “If my mistake gives God an occasion to show off his glory, why am I being punished?” If anything, these may have believed that they should be awarded. However, this is just as preposterous as the following scenario: If wrecking my car gives the car insurance people opportunity to do their thing, why not wreck the car to give them a chance to show their stuff? Or try this one on for size: Doctors wouldn’t have a job if there were not sick or broken people. Therefore, maybe I should take unnecessary risks and care very little for my health so that I can keep them in business.

Version 2 of this question reads like this: “And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), ‘Let us do evil that good may come’?...” (3:8a).

This past Christmas Audrey was able to put up a small pink Christmas tree in her room complete with ornaments and lights. She was so excited, and, as you can imagine, wanted to enjoy her tree well into the night while she slept. However, my wife and I told her that she would not be able to keep her Christmas tree lights on when she went to bed. Upon hearing this, my three-year-old said: “but Jesus says to let our light shine. You know, this little light of mine, I’m going to let is shine, remember mommy!” She’s three!! Boy, are we in for it when she is older L. The Jews were rationalizing in the much the same way saying here: “if our unrighteousness showcases the goodness of God (that He is a judge and judges righteously) shouldn’t we sin? If I disobey mom’s order to turn my tree off and keep it on, will not my disobedience allow my light to shine for Jesus?

This twisted logic, seen more recently in the carnality of my three-year-old daughter, was being 
framed on Paul and his fellow ministry leaders. Some were reporting that Paul was preaching this: if God is shown to be glorious even in sin, keep on sinning. However, Paul said nothing of the sort. Instead, just the opposite is true.

Paul says “their condemnation is just…” (3:8b). Those who believe God works this way will be condemned. Why? These do not have an accurate understanding of the grace of God nor do they appreciate the true nature of the salvation that Jesus offered. Those who believed that they can get away with sin on the coattails of God’s goodness are just as mistaken as my daughter who believed that disobeying mom will result in shining brightly for God’s glory. These are also just as in need of saving as my na├»ve little girl.

In answering the question “can the unrighteous Jew still be judged?” the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

So What?

Ultimately, according to the answers Paul provides to these four questions, people cannot weasel their way out of the full and complete culpability they have before God because of their sin. They should know better and God will prove faithful to judge them accordingly—that is, unless these confess their sin and embrace the Judge in faith. When I was young, I had a real problem with lying. Often times my motivation for lying was getting out of trouble. However, once a lie was exposed, my mother would often tell me, “Why couldn’t you just fess up? I wasn’t really made before, but now I really am!” If I had just confessed, it would have saved me a lot of trouble. Paul’s advice to the Jews and God’s advice to us is similar. God’s people are not the kind people that seek to reason their way out of their guilt. They are those who confess their sin openly and embrace the forgiveness that Jesus alone can provide.  “No more questions—just accept it,” Paul says. “You are a sinner in need of a Savior.”

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