I had jury duty this week. The timing of it was awful; so many other things were happening, and Rabbi Loren was out of town. What transpires in a courtroom is both fascinating and tedious, and even at times troubling; particularly when witnesses take the stand, swear an oath to tell the truth, and then lie through their teeth. An attorney questions, the opposing counsel may object to a certain line of questioning, and the judge may sustain or overrule the objection, based on the law governing the kind of case being heard. Gratefully, the case to which I was empaneled as a juror was pretty cut-and-dried. It took less than an hour for us to return a verdict.
Last Shabbat as we studied chapter two, we saw that Rabbi Paul, the Great Emissary to the Gentiles, was addressing some of the Jewish members of the congregation at Rome; specifically, Jewish people who supposed they had a superior standing with God, and who prided themselves on their knowledge and Torah observance. Paul put them in their place on account of their unfounded pride and hypocrisy, since they themselves didn’t live up to the standards they espoused; they didn’t live up to the demands of the Law.
Now Paul anticipates and preempts a series of objections from the Gentile believers. The reasoning goes: “If the only circumcision that matters is the circumcision of the heart; if the only true Jew is the one who is one inwardly; if the Jewish person who fails to uphold the Torah is no better off than a heathen, is there actually any significance or advantage whatsoever in being Jewish?” And so he asks and answers the question (really an objection) himself. As I said, it will be the first of several objections.
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.
Note that he says “…they (not ‘we’) have been entrusted,” which clarifies the fact that he has turned to address the Gentile believers. If anyone thought Paul was going to say there was no value in being Jewish, they would have been seriously mistaken. While Jewish ancestry is certainly no guarantee of a person’s salvation, it is nevertheless of extraordinary significance. It was, after all, to Israel, this otherwise small and unlikely people, that God gave the words of the Torah, the Prophets and the Sacred Writings. Talk about value and advantage! What could be greater than having God’s very words entrusted to you?
But with privilege comes responsibility.
Have you ever been put in charge of storing or safeguarding something, even temporarily – something that was extremely important, and it was imperative that it be protected? Imagine, then, the significance of being the people put in charge of receiving, keeping and disseminating the oracles of God! Israel may not have consistently obeyed the Word of God, but by common agreement Israel did a stellar job of safeguarding and transmitting it with reverence and with precision.
The stories that are told about the lengths to which soferim – Jewish scribes – went to ensure accurate transmission of the Torah and the Prophets is legendary. When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947, which dated back to the 1st century BC, among them was a complete scroll of Isaiah – and it is in complete agreement with copies of it dated 1,000 years later, and in complete agreement with modern translations of it! Our people took great care in transmitting the Scriptures.
Now Paul anticipates their next two objections. The first one would go something like this: “So if Israel was given every advantage, and yet missed out on the salvation made possible through Messiah Yeshua, does that mean God failed? Was there some sense in which God did not follow through? Did He prove unfaithful?
What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness? Not at all! Let God be true, and every man a liar. As it is written: “SO THAT YOU MAY BE PROVED RIGHT WHEN YOU SPEAK AND PREVAIL WHEN YOU JUDGE.”
The question (objection) here is: what happened? What went wrong? Paul will return to this seeming paradox in chapter 9. How could everything have been set up so perfectly for Israel’s advantage, and yet Israel (for the most part) missed out? The problem was never with God, nor with the Word of God; the problem was with us. Human beings have a will, and on account of our rebellion in the Garden of Eden, that will frequently stands in defiance of God. In short, we are spiritually broken. We come into this world beset with original sin; a deadly spiritual virus to which there is only one solution, and that is the atonement provided by Messiah. And that solution is needed equally by Jews and Gentiles.
Paul employs hyperbole when he says, Let God be true, and every man a liar. But in fact, God is true; and human beings frequently are liars. God will be proven true on that Great Day, even if every human being is proven wrong.
And now he paraphrases Psalm 51:4, David’s great prayer of confession, contrition and repentance, acknowledging that whatever judgment Adonai metes out to him is perfectly just: So that You may be proved right when You speak and prevail when You judge.” How ironic that we spiritually-depraved, selfish human beings call God’s goodness into question; supposing we have a higher standard of justice, a more refined ethical sensibility than the One who summoned the universe into existence; as if He owed us an explanation.
“If anything,” Paul says, “the darkness of our sin shows the light of God’s righteousness in all the more contrast.” And now he anticipates and goes on to preempt the next objection.
But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” Why not say – as we are being slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say – “Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is deserved.
The early believers were being slandered in just this way. They were being lied about, falsely accused and ridiculed – to a degree that most of us have never experienced. We modern Messianic Jews are not alone, nor the first, to be demonized for our faith in Yeshua.
Paul uses what he calls a ‘human argument’ – a predictably self-serving but flawed rationale: “Hey, if my evildoing highlights God’s righteousness to an even greater degree, then isn’t it unjust for Him to punish me for it?” It has a certain logic to it, but imagine the outcome!
This is the second time Paul employs the emphatic negative mh genoito! You could translate it, may such a thing never be! If that rationale held true, and God could not mete out His wrath, then every act of evil ever perpetrated on planet Earth would go unpunished. There would never be a reckoning. Every rapist and abuser, every murderer, every ruthless dictator, every thief and betrayer – they all would get off scott-free, since God would be prohibited from judging the world on that Great Day… IF that rationale were true. But it isn’t.
And now, lest there be any suspicion that somehow deep down Paul regards Jewish people as better off than Gentiles, he makes a clear, unambiguous declaration:
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.
Where did he previously make that charge? In chapter two, verses 9-11. Let’s have a look at that again: There will be 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. For God does not show favoritism.
Now it might appear that there is tension between verse 9 and verse 2. Whereas in verse 2 Paul affirmed that there is great honor and advantage in being custodians of the Word of God as Jews, here he is making it abundantly clear that where salvation is concerned and where judgment is concerned, there will be no double-standards with God.
Not long ago, in a Q&A session at a church I spoke at, a lady asked, “Why are the Jewish people God’s favorite and why is Jerusalem His favorite city?” Before I could answer her, I had to correct her, because the premise of her question was flawed. To be chosen doesn’t mean to be the favorite. God chose Israel, not because He liked us better, but rather to accomplish His will and purposes. And why Israel? Arguably, because we were a small people, and least likely to succeed under the circumstances. His choosing Israel was to demonstrate His power and purpose. Scripture is clear that God doesn’t show favoritism. There is no partiality with Him.
As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
What Paul does here is an ancient rabbinical method of making a point. He is borrowing from Psalm 14, Psalm 5:9 and 10:7, Isaiah 59 and Psalm 36. Rabbis were known to do this very thing; to knit together, like a strand of pearls, several different passages of Scripture in order to demonstrate biblical authority for their assertions. Therefore, it was referred to as ‘pearling’. Whenever Paul does this in his letters, you are seeing his rabbinical background at work. His letters are Jewish, through and through.
So, according to this inspired writer of Scripture, exactly how many righteous human beings are there? How many understand? How many have taken the initiative to seek after God? Zero, zip, zilch, nada.
This is the true condition of mankind. It isn’t pretty. There is nothing in us innately by which we can lay claim to being just before God. Were it not for the fact that He demonstrated His mercy to us by sending His Son, Messiah Yeshua, to take upon Himself the punishment for sin that you and I rightly deserved, we couldn’t call this “Good News”. It would be all bad. The all-good, all-wise, infinitely holy and just Creator would be completely within His rights to condemn all of mankind to an eternal judgment.
And so we come to the close of this thought unit with the clear affirmation of God’s just judgment, and every objection of man is overruled.
But there is good news… if you have eyes to see and ears to hear what God, through His Word and through His Spirit is saying to you. Will you turn away from your rebellion, ask His forgiveness, and be welcomed into the New Covenant? You are invited to do just that.