The Jewish Advantage (I)Sermon passage: (Romans 3:1-8) Spoken on: May 31, 2015
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Romans
Speaker: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee
Date: 31st May 2015
Title: The Jewish Advantage (I)
Today, we are going to do something fun. You know it when I rub my hands in a devious manner like this, that you are in for a joy ride. Today, we are going to learn how to quarrel. Wives, try this at home. Husbands, if you think you can pull it off, you can try it too. First, look for something fairly different from your wardrobe. It could be a top that you haven’t worn in a while, or a pair of pants that you bought recently. Then you ask nonchalantly, “Dear, do I look younger in this?” If your spouse is anything like me, they may have been well-honed over the years to avoid these kinds of questions, so I suggest that you catch them off guard while they are busy on the computer or watching their favourite TV program. Then you ask nonchalantly, “Dear, do I look younger in this?” That’s when they will answer unsuspectingly, “Yes dear, you look great.” Then, unleash the killer one-liner, “What do you mean I look younger? Are you saying that I’m old now?” Remember, show no mercy until you receive your Prada bag, or concert tickets, or perhaps just the simple satisfaction that you have added more colour to your marriage life.
I’m just kidding. What I’m trying to do is highlight a very common phenomenon in quarrels and debates, in which an argument is extended towards a negative implication, so as to form a counterargument. “What do you mean I look younger? Are you saying that I’m old now?” That is obviously not the original statement. But it could also be implied in a very negative way to make the original argument appear false.  Normally, of course nobody talks like that. But in a quarrel, it is a fairly common way to score a cheap point. Unfortunately, Paul faced many such quarrels in his missionary work, especially with the Jewish leaders. His modus operandi in every new mission field was always to speak to the Jewish leaders of the local synagogue before evangelizing to the Gentiles. But unfortunately, it often ended in quarrels and disagreements. I mentioned an example from Acts 28 last month.  Maybe we can look at yet another incident found in Acts 17.
Acts 17: 10 The brothers sent Paul and Silas off to Berea at once, during the night. When they arrived, they went to the Jewish synagogue. 11 These Jews were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they eagerly received the message, examining the scriptures carefully every day to see if these things were so. 12 Therefore many of them believed, along with quite a few prominent Greek women and men. 13 But when the Jews from Thessalonica heard that Paul had also proclaimed the word of God in Berea, they came there too, inciting and disturbing the crowds.
Preceding this passage, Paul already had a quarrel with the Jews at Thessalonica. Fortunately, when he then travelled to Berea, he found a more receptive audience. Unfortunately, the Jews from Thessalonica wouldn’t let it go, and followed him to Berea to disturb his ministry. Out of the many incidents of clashes between Jews and Paul, I intentionally highlight this incident because of a key word in the passage: open-minded. “11 These Jews were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they eagerly received the message, examining the scriptures carefully every day to see if these things were so.” Sometimes, this open-mindedness is the key difference in the effects of our evangelism and ministry. Without open-mindedness, that’s when people would use all forms of word-twisting and slander to win the argument and get their way.
Today’s passage is very interesting because it stems from a quarrel. What we are going to do now is to go through the verses slowly to analyze the quarrel between Paul and the Jews, and in doing so, maybe we can appreciate the strength of Paul’s argument a little better. The basic topic we are addressing today is this: Romans 3:1 Therefore what advantage does the Jew have, or what is the value of circumcision? This is not an easy question to answer. Otherwise, Romans would have been a much shorter letter. But Paul perhaps wished to state his stand unequivocally. So he first gave his answer as plainly as possible: 2 Actually, there are many advantages. First of all, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. That means that the Jews have the Law, and their main advantage is that they can know God’s will in the actual written word and also through the divine revelations in their history. Now, if the Q and A session ended with this, then the Jews would have no further arguments with Paul. They would of course happily agree that it is advantageous to be a Jew. But Paul’s answer was a little more complicated than that. And so when Paul phrased the question a little differently in verse 9: Romans 3: 9 What then? Are we better off? This time the answer was the exact opposite: “Certainly not, for we have already charged that Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin.” The rationale for this seeming contradiction is that, even though it is wonderful to know God’s will, it is totally another matter to count it as your righteousness. Paul stated earlier in Romans 2: 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous before God, but those who do the law will be declared righteous.
Sometimes, when you have quarrelled with the same people very often over the same things, you can kind of anticipate the likely objections. In writing a letter, it is common to then state the likely response and then present the counter-arguments beforehand. It is like a pre-emptive strike to any likely challenges. After many of these arguments over the years, Paul’s opponents probably already knew his nuanced views about the Jewish advantage with the Law, and would challenge Paul’s appreciation of the law. There were those who might challenge and slander Paul as anti-Law, calling him an antinomian. You can already guess and speculate on their dismissive reply: “Aiyoh, please. Don’t believe Paul. You think he really appreciates the Law? Deep down inside, he thinks that we Jews don’t believe the Law and cannot really obey it, you know? You know what he is in fact saying? He is saying that God is being unfaithful to us, since God gives us a Law that we will fail to obey.” Paul of course did not say that. That was just an extended negative implication of his original words, just for argument’s sake.
This challenge is quite clever because it places the onus of obeying the Law with God. Since God is the one who gave the Law, he has to make sure that the Law works. Otherwise his faithfulness is called into question, like a bad parent who purposely gave his children a broken toy. And so Paul was cornered into a situation whereby he either had to admit that the Law worked just fine, and the Jews were right in claiming it as their righteousness; or he had to stick to his guns and insist that the Law didn’t work, and by extension, he was calling God unfaithful. Clever challenge right? This is why I have so many Prada bags. Thankfully, there are two ways to resolve this challenge. The first way is to state that the Law does work; it is not a broken toy. But it works in a way different from how the Jews think it should work. I’ll explain this at the end of the sermon.
There is a second way, and this was Paul’s pre-emptive strike: 3 What then? If some did not believe, does their unbelief nullify the faithfulness of God? 4 Absolutely not! Let God be proven true, and every human being shown up as a liar, just as it is written: “so that you will be justified in your words and will prevail when you are judged.”
Paul stuck on to his point that the Law doesn’t work in bringing about righteousness. The reason it doesn’t work in that way because everybody is under sin. However, despite that, God still retains his faithfulness by judging. This is why Man’s sinfulness and disobedience don’t nullify God’s faithfulness: because every ensuing act of judgment will then demonstrate God’s righteousness. Righteousness means more than just justice or morality. It also means God’s act of restoring a broken relationship, in keeping to his covenantal promise. Therefore, his righteousness is tied to his faithfulness to his people. Paul quoted from Psalm 51 to support his point.  “In Psalm 51, David confesses his sin and acknowledges that God is right in what he says and justified in his judgment of his servant before asking to be cleansed from his sin. No faithlessness on the part of human beings (even his anointed servant, David), will cause him to be anything but blameless in his judgments.” 
However, Paul’s counter-argument about God’s righteousness in judgment can again be extended and interpreted negatively. This is how the Jews did it.
5 But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is he? (I am speaking in human terms.) 7 For if by my lie the truth of God enhances his glory, why am I still actually being judged as a sinner? 8 And why not say, “Let us do evil so that good may come of it”?—as some who slander us allege that we say.
Paul wanted to preserve God’s faithfulness to the Jews, despite their failure with the Law, by arguing that God demonstrates righteousness through judging every failure. However, his opponents then twisted this around, to insinuate that Paul was saying two blasphemous things. One, Paul was accused of saying that God was unrighteous, for being wrathful against something that helped demonstrates his righteousness. Maybe God should be thankful instead that any sin would allow him to judge even more, and hence show how righteous he was. And this led on to the second insinuation: Two, Paul was promoting evil and sin, since every sinful act enabled and encouraged God to demonstrate righteousness by judging.
I call this line of attack: to double down on stupid. This is based on a poker metaphor, which means that even though you know you are already on a losing bet, you continue to double down the bet, with a delusional hope that your opponent would be frightened off by the foolhardy posturing and give up the fight. But I call it stupid because if you think about it, which of Paul’s arguments do these negative extensions really aim to refute? Even the Jews cannot deny Paul’s point that God’s righteousness is revealed in his judgment. That is a fundamental theology of the Psalms and Prophets. So in the end, it served not so much as a counter-argument, but rather a desperate form of slander upon Paul.
There are 2 ways to respond to this. The first way is to continue to refute their accusations. Paul could clarify that doing evil to promote God’s grace or righteousness was not an option at all. This is because a Christian is bound to Christ, and hence his life and deeds must be Christlikeness. We shall elaborate on this when we eventually come to chapter 6. The other way to respond to such crazy attacks is like this: first, a face palm gesture to show utter disappointment. You can add an eye-roll before the face palm for maximum impact. Then, simply look at them in disgust and then ignore them. The Chinese have a saying: “Gossips stop at the discerning person.” (流言止于智者) When these quarrels devolve to such levels whereby they are just being argumentative for its own sake, then perhaps it’s best to just let them self-destruct in their own ludicrosity. But Paul was much nicer than I am. So he still responded, first by restating his point that God remains righteous: 6 Absolutely not! For otherwise how could God judge the world? And then, stating that such slanderers would receive their own just desserts from God. 8 (Their condemnation was deserved!)
Now that we have fully run through the entire quarrel, allow me to return to the original topic: Do the Jews have an advantage? Paul said yes, because they have the law. Paul said no, because they also sin like the Gentiles despite the law. Is it a yes or a no? Even though we are not Jews, this topic is also very important to us. Do we Christians have an advantage over non-Christians? Some might say yes, because we have come to know Jesus Christ. But some might say no, because we continue to sin just like any other non-Christian. Is it a yes or a no? I believe the answer lies in a proper understanding of the purpose of the Law. If you want to use the Law for self-righteousness, then it is futile. Just like how if you think the title of a Christian will save you, I think that is futile too. Even though Jesus and the Jewish Law are not entirely the same thing, I believe in terms of purpose, there are many similarities. What is this purpose?
Romans 3: 19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.
The purpose of Jesus and the purpose of the Law are to bring us back to God. Only when our relationship with God is restored through repentance and obedience, then there is righteousness. If we attempt to use the Law like an immunity badge like the Jews, that’s the exact opposite of returning to God. Instead, when God’s divine oracles are revealed, we should humble ourselves and be silenced about our self-righteousness. We recognize our sinfulness, whether individually or as a people. The Law brings us back to God. It is the display of God’s grace to call us back to him. Let us heed its call, both individually and as a people, to let God be the God of our lives once again.
 See also this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appeal_to_consequences
 http://www.jubilee.org.sg/sermons/?sermon_id=610. For another example in Acts 9, see http://www.jubilee.org.sg/sermons/?sermon_id=607
 We covered this psalm on the pulpit when we were going through the penitential psalms during the Lent period. See http://www.jubilee.org.sg/sermons/?sermon_id=602
 Colin G. Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, The Pillar NT Commentary, p 161