Through the letter to the Romans – Part 4: The purpose of the Law.

Once his Jewish audience catches where Paul is going, all sorts of knee-jerk reactions can occur. After all, through centuries of oppression and exile, it has been Torah that has kept the Jewish people together. Putting the Gentiles on the same footing as the Jews, even to calling them true Jews, is the same as saying, Torah is irrelevant. Or is it?

Romans 3:1-3 What then [is] the superiority of the Jew? or what the profit of circumcision? Much every way: and first, indeed, that to them were entrusted the oracles of God. For what? if some have not believed, shall their unbelief make the faith of God of none effect?

Don’t you ever wish you had been there when Jesus made some particular statement? Jesus had a sense of humor. I would have loved to see the gleam in His eye when He told his audience, “If any member of your body offends you, cut it off!”

We know Paul had a sense of humor too, a dry wit. Like when the crowd in the temple complex is trying to maul him and the Roman soldiers pluck him out, and just as the soldiers are carrying him off thinking he is an Egyptian insurrectionist, he asks if he can say something. In the brief exchange with the Greek-born Chiliarch he quotes a line from a play by Euripides when he says “I am a citizen of no insignificant city.”

Here, Paul tells his Jewish audience (and from this point on we should assume that they are his target audience until told otherwise): “Being Jewish is great! God gave us his oracles in writing.” And then he sort of shrugs: “Just because we messed it up is not His fault.”

It’s funny but it’s sad. If you have read Romans before, you know how Paul felt about his fellow non-Christian Jews. He ached for them. He didn’t condemn them for rejecting Jesus as the Messiah. He will tell us later in the letter that if by letting himself be lost, their hearts would be opened to this salvation, he almost could choose that. If Paul felt that way, we can assume other Jewish believers felt the same way about their relatives.

But if any of them started nodding in agreement about how sad it was that those relatives had been disobedient – par for the course for the history of Israel – they would have had to catch themselves and realize Paul is telling his audience they too are guilty of disobedience.

Nose blindness

Paul has to drive the point home: “Yes, you are a Jew. But being a Jew doesn’t make you righteous.” This is a hard pill to swallow if you are stuck in that worldview that the promised salvation was all about the redemption of physical Israel, the faithful among the blood descendants of Abraham. Because, they would say, “Paul, if you tell us we are sinners and don’t deserve the promise that He gave us, then why did He give it to us? How is God going to fulfill His promise?”

The charge of antinomianism could then be levelled at Paul. And then his claim that we are somehow going to be saved nonetheless, can be derided: “Sure, Paul, you are going to tell us that God is then going to be magnified all the more because he forgives our sins. But if that is the case, why does He threaten us with wrath if we sin? The more we sin, the more glorious His forgiveness is!”

That this was a real argument raised against his preaching is attested by verse 8:

Romans 3:8 and not, according as we are injuriously charged, and according as some affirm that we say, Let us practise evil things, that good ones may come? whose judgment {condemnation} is just.

And Paul’s answer to that argument at this point is: ‘You know better. If you really believe this, you deserve God’s judgment.’ But, why would they believe this? If the argument was raised at all, it had to have some logic. There had to be some validity to that argument in the minds of those who raised it. What had they missed? Paul is about to tell them.

Their problem is a problem we all have. We all can go nose blind. We can get so used to looking at the world through the glasses of our current worldview, that we fail to notice its flaws. This is why I will always claim that a worldview is no good unless you test it regularly.

To prove to them that they have gone nose blind, Paul puts a logical predicament before them. It goes like this:

If the people given the Law were not just as liable to be as sinful as the rest of the world, how come the Law is full of warnings against our sin? If those passages were not written against us, who were they written against? Who else do you think was meant to read that law?

Doesn’t God mean it, when He says through the prophet: Romans 3:10-11,19 …There is not a righteous [man], not even one; there is not the [man] that understands, there is not one that seeks after God...Now we know that whatever the things the law says, it speaks to those under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world be under judgment to God.

And now Paul is going to fully unveil one of his key themes of the letter:

Romans 3:20 Wherefore by works of law no flesh shall be justified before him; for by law [is] knowledge of sin.

Paul is saying: Here is the real reason we were given the Law. It was to prove to all mankind (even to the whole universe) that everyone sins. That not even us who had a complete and unambiguous rule by rule manual, that told us explicitly what was right and what was wrong, not even then were we able to choose to do right.

The works of the Law, that is, the rituals of the Law were not intended to change that reality. The Law was given to us as legal proof that sin is the ultimate problem with humanity. And no amount of knowledge or privilege can make a difference to make us “righteous.”

Jesus, said exactly the same thing: Luke 5:30-32 And their scribes and the Pharisees murmured at his disciples, saying, Why do ye eat and drink with tax-gatherers and sinners? And Jesus answering said to them, They that are in sound health have not need of a physician, but those that are ill. I am not come to call righteous [persons], but sinful [ones] to repentance.

photo of one sheep near cliff

Human righteousness is a fantasy, is a conceit. We already saw Jesus allude to that in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax collector.

Hasn’t the way that Jesus explains the parable of the lost sheep ever struck you like an elbow jab to the ribs? Luke 15:7 I say unto you, that thus there shall be joy in heaven for one repenting sinner, [more] than for ninety and nine righteous who have no need of repentance. Haven’t you ever caught yourself thinking, “Really? Not even a little party for me, to thank me for all the trouble I go to, to do right?” (Shades of the brother of the prodigal son.) Maybe Jesus’ point is, “there is not one who is righteous, not even one.”

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